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PLANET OF THE DATES A novel
By Paul McComas The Permanent Press Copyright © 2008 Paul McComas
All right reserved.
Chapter One Gainful Employment on the Planet of the Dates
I'd spent much of the summer of '79 constructing tinfoil-and-Tupperware UFOs for my 16 minute sequel to Close Encounters of the Third Kind. A year later, though, I had close encounters of another kind in mind-but precious little capital with which to fund my quest. This was at a time when the male half of the couple was expected to pick up the dinner check, purchase the movie tickets, buy the popcorn and pop, pay for the bowling alley and the shoe rental and, in general shoulder any expenses that came up in the course of a date. It was the girl's option, though not her obligation, to offer assistance-which the boy was to decline. If the girl repeated the offer, then the boy was permitted, grudgingly, to accept. How I'd come into possession of these precepts is a mystery to me; still, I never saw fit to question them.
I needed money, which meant I needed a summer job. So on the June afternoon following my late-night action-figure attack, I drove my Mom's AMC Pacer all over the North Shore, filling out applications for the usual suspects-pharmacies and supermarkets, Baskin-Robbins and IHOP though I skipped the fast-food joints. I was concerned about the impact on my complexion of daily proximity to a deep fryer, for the volcanic eruptions on the Planet of the Dates took place, all too often, on one's face.
That night after dinner, my father, who was unaware of my day's activities, called me into his study for "a little chat." I always associated these chats with the smell of tobacco. A prominent cardiologist, my father had read the writing on the wall (or, more accurately, in the New England Journal of Medicine) and given up pipe smoking a year before, yet the smoke by then had so saturated his study's carpeting, book shelves and walls that its scent would end up lingering late into the Reagan Administration. He'd thrown away every pipe but one-his favorite-which now sat, oddly enough, atop his desk in a Lucite box like some exhibit in the Museum of Upper-Middle-Class Vices.
In days past, he would gesture with his pipe when he spoke, my eyes automatically following the sweeping trail of smoke. Sitting down opposite him now, I found myself staring, by force of habit, at the stationary pipe in its display case. "I realize," my father began, his tone a bit grave, "that you've put a great deal of time and effort over the past few years into producing your little ... movies. And there's nothing wrong with that. But you're older now, you only have the one year of high school left, and it seems to me that this summer, your time might be better invested.... Son, are you listening to me?"
I looked up. "Sorry."
He glanced down at the pipe-in-the-box, and his eyes darkened. "Awful habit. Don't ever start."
"I won't. You were saying ...?"
"Phil, I think it's time you got a job."
"I think you're right."
My father said nothing; I listened to the ticking of the wall clock. "Oh," he finally managed.
"I applied at a bunch of places today," I told him, then listed a few.
"I see." He folded his hands on the dark, polished wood of his desk, and I had the distinct impression that, though pleased with where this chat had led, he'd rather have steered it there himself. The wall clock chimed; my father emerged from his reverie. "That's fine, son. That's just fine. In addition, there is an opening at the building where I work."
"The position is, well, custodial in nature. But it's a start. And as a union job, I imagine it would pay quite a bit better than bagging groceries or...."
"I'll take it!" I all but shouted, fearful that someone else might slip in and claim the job-my job-before he'd finished describing it. "When do I start?"
* * *
Milwaukee back then was much as it is today: a mid-sized Midwestern city with a lush lakefront, a small but thriving arts scene, and a food- and beverage heavy industrial base that included Usinger Sausages, Ambrosia Chocolate and a bevy of breweries. (Throw in one of the cheese factories just north of town, and presto: the Wisconsin Diet!) In addition, Milwaukee long has boasted more bars and taverns per block than anywhere else in the USA. As if in atonement, the city also houses a multitude of churches: old European-style near-cathedrals with huge, working clocks mounted on all four sides of their multiple steeples. These ubiquitous steeple clocks date back to the time before wristwatches and were installed, I once theorized, to help the citizenry keep track of how much time remained till the taverns opened.
The Meigs-Childress Professional Building was located downtown, just west of the lake. A block and a half away loomed the 40-story First Wisconsin Bank Building, the closest thing to a sky-scraper our fair city has ever had. Meigs-Childress stood, literally, in the First Wisconsin's shadow and, at 12 stories, seemed rather small ... until you'd been told to empty its 490 wastebaskets or mop its 26 bathroom floors.
My father had pulled some strings to land me this job; that was clear from the day I donned sport coat and tie and went in to apply. Bud Puckett, the manager of building services-a stocky black man of about 50-read perhaps one line of my completed application form before dropping it onto a pile of desktop paperwork. He eased back into his chair, a canny smile playing below his salt-and-pepper mustache, and spoke as if sharing with himself a droll joke: "Welcome aboard ... Dr, Corcoran's son."
This took me aback. "I ... uh, you ... can call me Phil."
"You start Monday. It's a five-hour shift: 5 to 10 PM. Get here early the first day-a quarter till. And you'll want to dress down. Jeans and a T-shirt. No shorts. Wear shoes with some traction; sneakers are fine." Mr. Puckett reached into a drawer and pulled out a thick pamphlet: "Here." He handed it across his desk. "About the union."
I took it, looked at it. "OK...."
"You'll pay a one-time membership fee-I think it's 90 bucks-plus monthly dues. Of course, at $6.10 an hour, you'll make all that back in your first week, and the rest is cake."
I reached for my wallet, knowing that it contained, oh, maybe $6.10. "Do I pay the membership fee now?"
Mr. Puckett regarded me for a moment, then said a bit sharply, "It'll be deducted from your first check." He scooped my application off the pile. "This your first job?"
I considered alluding to Snow Kong and Son of Spock and the 20 odd films in between, then thought the better of it. "Yes, sir."
Perusing the form, he squinted. "Hold up. Says here you're ... 16?"
"I ... yeah. But only for the next two months. Is that a problem?"
"Is for the union: you're one year too young."
I saw my dream job dematerialize like an Enterprise crewman beaming down to a distant world-or beaming, rather, into the cold void of space. It suddenly appeared I was to spend the first summer of this bold new decade not on the Planet of the Dates but far outside its atmosphere, penniless, horny and alone.
Yet in the next moment, Mr. Puckett commandeered Transporter Control-specifically, by picking up a ballpoint and altering my date of birth. My boss-to-be then leaned back in his chair and smiled to himself as before. "Happy birthday ... Dr. Corcoran's son."
I left his office awash in mixed emotions: grateful for Mr. Puckett's intervention, resentful of his attitude, relieved to have secured the position-and very much hoping I wouldn't have to face a third stern authority figure from across an imposing desk any time soon.
Driving home, 1 found myself reflecting on my father's motives. He'd gone out of his way to find me a position that paid twice as much as the ones I'd pursued on my own but which was, at the same time, the antithesis of a "glamour job." It was as if he wanted me to gain some real-life, blue-collar experience down in the city-but to earn, for my efforts, North Shore bucks. I turned into our driveway with a new appreciation for being "Dr. Corcoran's son."
And, perhaps, for Dr. Corcoran.
* * *
That evening after dinner, I rode my Schwinn Suburban over to the high school to shoot some hoops on the outdoor court; a decent pick-up game or 30 could be found there more nights than not. I was a player of middling ability, having come somewhat late to basketball and later still to height. By age 16, though, I was finally starting to feel good about my body; all I needed now was some girl to feel good about it with me.
Though the court was unlit-the village never saw fit to accommodate us in that department-the June sun took its sweet time setting; what's more, we tended to linger long after dark, playing past the point of safety. In fact, nobody ever seemed to so much as think about heading home until one of us had sustained a darkness-related injury.
"Shit!" the casualty would gripe, hobbling off the court. "Too goddamn dark out's the problem. We shoulda quit an hour ago."
The rest of us would mumble our assent ... then come back the next evening and take it from the top.
On the night in question, there were only two players on the court when I arrived-older guys I'd played with maybe twice-and they were in the midst of a heated game of one-on-one, so I opted to circumnavigate the school in hopes of returning to a bigger crowd. I only made it halfway around, though, because seated there on the concrete stairs, leaning back against the building's locked Door 3 with a Marlboro in hand, was Cheryl Jantz.
Cheryl Jantz smoked; Cheryl Jantz drank; Cheryl Jantz had toked her way through uncounted acres of weed and was reputed to have sampled myriad other substances as well. She was, in the parlance of the day, a burnout. During the school year, she and her burnout buddies-"the Door 3 Crowd"-congregated daily in this same spot, first over lunch hour and then at day's end, to hang out and smoke and listen to WQFM Less Talk More Rock and discuss how much they'd had to drink and where they might be able to get some drugs.
Cheryl Jantz was, I'd always thought, the cutest of the burnout girls, with her elfin features, jet-black hair, smallish breasts and too-big army jacket, and the way she looked not so much at you as toward you through glazed gray eyes, asking questions that didn't sound like questions at all: "Hey. How goes it." "Hey. What's up." Bringing my bike to a stop in front of her, I couldn't help but marvel to find her stationed outside Door 3 even now, a week into Summer Break, like some pot-addled homing pigeon. "Hey, Cheryl."
She took a drag. "What's the good word."
She was wearing torn denim shorts, cut off to two different lengths, and a black Cheap Trick concert T. "Like your shirt," I said.
Her head tilted down so that she could refresh her memory; she nodded in recognition. "Dream Police, man. Dream fuckin' Police."
I nodded back. "I think they're on tour this summer. Probably coming here."
"Right on." She took another drag. "So, what's new in Philsville."
"Just landed a job."
"Some office building downtown."
"Building services and property management."
Cheryl looked toward me and blinked twice; I might as well have been speaking Sanskrit. "What's it pay."
"'Bout six an hour."
She closed her eyes and nodded. "Right on."
I spun one pedal idly with my foot, then took a breath and went for it. "So, Cheryl ya wanna maybe catch a movie some time, or somethin'." (Though not a burnout myself, I was fluent in the idiom.)
The question surprised her. I suspect it never had occurred to her to go out with a straight arrow like me. Cheryl pursed her lips, blew one quavering smoke ring-"Likely"- then another. "Sure, what the fuck."
"How's this weekend?"
She shook her head. "Goin' to Madison, man, gonna score some primo shit." She motioned me toward her and, as I leaned closer, grabbed my wrist; I nearly fell off my bike, and for one electric instant I thought she might be blowing her next ring around my tongue. Instead, she took a scuzzy black Magic Marker out of her hip pocket, uncapped it with her teeth and scrawled her phone number-long with a frowny face-on my forearm. She spoke through the narrow space between pen cap and cigarette: "Caw me neksh week."
Retracting my arm, I nodded-"Right on"-then turned my bike and, heart racing, rode away.
Back at the court, three more guys had arrived, so the six of us split up for three on three. Inspired by my recent rendezvous and impending date, I played the most aggressive hoops of my young life. Then, just after 10, while diving to keep the ball in bounds, I plowed head-first into an unseen post and sustained a cut that, an hour later, would require eight stitches at the Columbia Hospital E.R.
"Shit!" I hollered, palm pressed to my sticky, swimming head, trying to stanch the flow. "Too goddamn dark out's the problem."
* * *
The handful of times 1 had visited my father at work, I'd headed straight for his suite on the 11th floor, paying little attention to any of the other presumably clinical offices below. Yet Meigs-Childress was, I now discovered, a veritable jack-of-all-buildings. In addition to the expected medical and dental practices, it housed several CPAs, a counseling center, two design firms, an ad agency, the administrative offices of a nearby City College, a photo lab, a hair salon and even a dance studio, plus a cafeteria in the basement. There were 51 separate business concerns in all, and by summer's end I knew the precise location of each.
Every afternoon at 5, as the rest of the building's work force departed, my colleagues and I checked in with Mr. Puckett to get our assignments for the night. These ran the gamut from the mundane (vacuuming the hallways; polishing the baseboards; mopping the front lobby's vast, marble floor) to the loathsome (scrubbing grease-spatter off the cafeteria ovens; scrubbing other spatter off the urinals and johns). Everyone dreaded restroom duty, but when it came to favorite tasks, we each had our own. For my part, I had two preferred duties-both of which involved taking out the trash.
We were given special instructions for discarding medical and dental waste, a process that fueled my imagination. I pretended that l was the heroic safety specialist from The Andromeda Strain, and that if I didn't dispose of a certain pouch or vial in time, all humanity would pay the price. Donning the compulsory gloves, I'd count down from 20 and follow the protocol with grim determination, the pace of my work quickening as "zero" neared. It's a minor miracle that I never sustained a needle-stick-or spilt a single specimen.
My favorite chore, though, was emptying the wastebaskets in the second-floor photo lab. That may not sound enthralling, but again, I brought to the task a cinematic sensibility ... and a predilection for suspense. You see, the lab handled the processing needs of many of the building's own businesses, among other commercial clients, and each night, the darkroom wastebasket was rife with slightly under- and overexposed 8x10s ripe for the taking. Sadly. the subject matter never even skimmed the surface of erotica; we're talking ribbon cuttings, ground breakings, awards ceremony grip-and-grins and other p.r. pap, as well as a plethora of middle-aged white guy head shots. But the way I saw them, these photos revealed shocking state secrets ... and called for espionage of the highest order.
While overturning the basket into the trash cart, I slipped the photos out. Then I closed the door with my foot and, by the glow of the room's single red bulb, eyeballed the goods. Satisfied, I hitched up one leg of my jeans, wrapped the prints around my calf, stretched my tube sock up over them and pulled the pants leg back into position. There the photos remained till my 7:30 break, when I was able to secure them inside my state-of-the-art safe box (to all appearances a common lunch box, right down to the sandwiches). Once the evidence was transferred to my bedroom, my mission would be complete-at least, for that night.
Excerpted from PLANET OF THE DATES by Paul McComas Copyright © 2008 by Paul McComas. Excerpted by permission.
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