Living among the ones and zeros of California's Silicon Valley—the coders and big-bucks brainiacs—the group of lower middle-class friends in this tale are trying to fashion futures out of whatever opportunities they can find. The group includes a would-be chef, a flirtatious (and unfaithful) waitress, a single mother with a tattoo of Bart Simpson on her shoulder, and an easy-going young man who must make some hard choices. Their story is about fortune cookies, class warfare, disease-fighting neuropeptides, strawberry rhubarb pie, and what it will take to be happy.
|Publisher:||Luminis Books, Inc.|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.00(h) x (d)|
About the Author
Al Riske is a former newspaper reporter, magazine editor, and ghostwriter. His short stories have appeared in 34th Parallel magazine, the Beloit Fiction Journal, the Blue Mesa Review, Hobart, Pindeldyboz, Switchback magazine, and Word Riot. He is the author of The Possibility of Snow, Precarious, and Sabrina’s Window. He lives in Sunnyvale, California.
Read an Excerpt
We're in this Denny's on El Camino somewhere. We're ravenous and loud. Wired but also tired.
Spencer says: "Women need to understand the difference between being friendly and flirting, because most men take it as being into them, and then they want to punch a baby."
The hostess who seats us gives him a sad-eyed look as she passes out the menus.
Marty says: "Fuck, yeah, brother!"
"Had to be said."
We watch the hostess walk away. She's older but kind of hot.
"Already have a boyfriend? Let me know that up front, before I get my hopes up," Spencer says to no one in particular — to womankind at large.
Nita, who hangs with us sometimes, gives Spencer the same sad- eyed look the hostess did.
"Awww," she says.
We like Nita because she wears skin-tight tank tops and has a tattoo of Bart Simpson on her left shoulder. Some of us like her bright pink hair, some don't.
Spencer says: "Going to walk outside right now, find the nearest stroller, and punch the baby in it."
He starts to stand but he's hemmed in and nobody makes any effort to let him out of our horseshoe booth.
Marty says: "I'm going to kick a puppy."
I say: "I'm going to strangle an endangered species."
I say it for solidarity, even though, for the past two weeks, I've been flirting with a hot redhead from the plant who has no idea I'm already in a serious relationship. (I live with a beautiful young woman named Tanya Alvarez, who isn't here because she's in night school.)
The waitress comes and we order eggs, bacon, hash browns, toast, pancakes, extra butter, extra syrup, orange juice, coffee — a feast — because we're famished and because it's morning, technically. Saturday morning.
Nita says: "I wouldn't condone punching a baby."
"What if it's ugly?" Spencer asks.
"Maybe a baboon," she says. "I might punch a baboon."
"You're a terrible person."
"I have a baby," she says, "so I'm obligated to steer you in a different direction."
We know her mom looks after the kid (not really a baby anymore) so Nita can hold down a job and have a little fun once in a while. Like tonight. Nita is not in a hurry tonight. Everyone is asleep at this hour anyway, and we all need to come down from the pulse of Goo Goo Doll guitars still echoing through our brains.
"I never said YOUR baby."
"Fine, then. Whatever."
Nita clearly doesn't have the energy for this anymore.
"Line them up," Marty says. "I'm knocking them down."
Where We Live
This is where we live.
El Camino Real, a.k.a. The Royal Road, a.k.a. The King's Highway.
Could be San Jose, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Palo Alto, Menlo Park ... El Camino connects them all.
Drive this road and you'll pass from one town to the next without even knowing it.
You'll see McDonald's, Taco Bell, TOGO'S, Pizza Hut, KFC and pretty soon you'll see them again.
You'll see dealers selling Fords, Toyotas, Jeeps, and BMWs.
You'll see Pet Smart, Toys R Us, Jiffy Lube, Walgreens, and BevMo.
You can rent a truck from U-HAUL, a car from Hertz, Avis, or Enterprise. You can stay in a Hilton or a Motel 6. You can get your hair cut, your car washed, your teeth fixed, your nails done, your laptop repaired.
If you don't see what you want, keep driving.
Monday comes too soon.
We punch in at 6 a.m. Twenty-minute break at 9:30. Forty-five minutes for lunch at noon. Off at 2:30, unless there's overtime, in which case we take a ten-minute break and work until 4:30.
We wear E*A*R plugs, spongy yellow cylinders we roll between our fingers. Once they compress, we jam them in our ears where they expand to block out the noise of all the panel saws, table saws, drill presses, and pin routers in the machine shop. The boards we cut and drill are used to make cabinets for kitchens and bathrooms, lockers for health spas, and other storage units for whatever the customer wants.
In addition to E*A*R plugs, we wear non-toxic particle masks, white bubbles that are held over the nose and mouth by a blue rubber band. They're custom-fitted by pinching the thin metal strip across the bridge of the nose. They keep most of the sawdust out of our lungs but sneezing is awkward.
Finally we wear a sort of welder's mask made of clear plastic. Often they're scratched up and hard to see through, but everyone wears one because it's no fun getting sawdust or a flying wood chip in your eye.
The main difference between a panel saw and a table saw is this: In the first the saw moves through the board. In the second the board moves through the saw. The panel saw has a huge table area and is used mainly for cutting huge sheets of plywood or pressboard. It's especially good, I guess, for making square corners, because the square corner is always marked with a pencil and stacked in a certain direction so that corner can be fed carefully into the table saw. You simply line the board up against the fence, as the guide is called, and feed it under the three red rubber wheels that pull it across the table and through the spinning blade.
We work in pairs, one person cutting, the other stacking, until a pallet is done and we trade places. But you have to be at least eighteen to operate a saw, so if you're paired with a seventeen-year-old you'll be sawing all day, which is more interesting but also more taxing. Most days now I work with Spencer, so it's not an issue for us.
There are air hoses by every saw and we use them frequently to blow away excess sawdust. There are also big vacuum pipes that suck up most of what falls under the saw. Water sometimes condenses in the air lines and you wind up spraying water on your table. That makes a sticky mess with the sawdust and you have to clean and wax the table. I never would have thought to put wax on a metal surface, but it works wonders.
A sign in one of the office windows says: "Measure twice, cut once."
Measurements are done with a floppy metal ruler called a scale. The scale divides each inch into tenths, hundredths, and thousands — and it's not unusual for specs to go three digits to the right of the decimal point. Tolerances — the allowable margin of error — are equally fine. That doesn't mean a board can be either a little small or a little large. Sometimes the tolerance goes only one way, and not too far at that.
The hard part for me is telling the difference between 12.67 and 12.68 or some such measurement. I stare at the scale and I try to focus and I'm never quite sure. Then I turn the two black knobs that tighten the fence and it moves a fraction. So I loosen them, bump the fence, tighten the knobs ... loosen, bump, tighten ... I'm finally learning to gauge how much the fence will move when I tighten it.
The foreman, Bob, makes his rounds, measuring twice, cutting once, and leaving us a sample to periodically compare our work to. If you bump the fence too hard you can knock it out of adjustment, or if you let too much sawdust accumulate next to it, you're width will be off.
I don't tell people I have a college degree but Bob knows because it says so on my application. He shows me things, like how to set the blades to cut a dado or a rabbit. (A rabbit, in case you're wondering, is a lip cut into the side of a board and a dado is a groove cut further in.)
"Okay, college boy," he'll say, "let's see how smart you are."
I always listen carefully and usually get it right.
"Atta boy," he'll say, and pat me on the back.
Bob is alright. He just likes to tease people. He can't keep a straight face, though, so you know right away he's just messing with you.
In the break area are six picnic tables, three on either side of the ping-pong table. There are pop and candy machines against the wall, and a drinking fountain with cold water. Coffee is free.
Most of the workers wear blue jeans, T-shirts, flannel shirts, and sweatshirts. High top Converse basketball shoes are popular. Ninety percent of the guys have some kind of facial hair and would look better if they shaved it off.
During lunch, Marty generally joins a group of card sharps for few hands of Spades. Spencer and I sit together and shoot the shit with anyone who cares to join us.
He wants to be a chef and is taking classes at some sort of culinary academy; I want to be something, too, but I don't know what.
Nita works in the front office, where she doesn't really fit in with the others who are ten to twenty years older, so she generally has lunch with me and Spencer. (I think she has a crush on him.)
I must admit I find one of Nita's office mates, Ariel Donatello, attractive enough to imagine myself boning her. She's the hot redhead I've flirted with a few times. Nita calls her a cougar and says all I'd have to do is say the word and she'd do me like there's no tomorrow.
Nita could be right.
But she also laughs when she sees me think about it. Like she can read my perverted mind. Not that I would actually cheat on Tanya.
We're all sitting at the Lakeside Cafe in Shoreline Park, drinking coffee, and watching a lone windsurfer. This whole area used to be a garbage dump. Now it's a golf course and a man-made lake.
Marty tilts his head toward Spencer, and we all see that he's down in the dumps, as usual. We close our eyes and shake our heads, then return our attention to the struggling windsurfer.
Marty claps Spencer on the shoulder.
"Cheer up, Dude," he says.
Spencer ignores him.
I look over at Tanya and she's not listening either. I wonder what she's thinking.
"Hey, I know," Marty says. "You want us to fix you up with a blind date?"
The windsurfer mounts his board, positions his sail, starts to move, loses his balance, falls back into the water.
"Nita, you've got a sister, don't you?"
For better or worse, there's not much wind on this sunny April morning. We sip our coffee and watch as our would-be surfer gets up, falls down, begins again.
Marty still thinks he could be on to something.
"Happily married?" he asks.
That gets her. She laughs so hard she starts to snort, which always embarrasses her. The kid likes it, though. She's got little Kayla with her today. The girl is so shy she will bury her face in her mother's side if you so much as look at her, but right now she's perched on a bright pink booster seat — same pink as Nita's bob — with nowhere to hide. We all do our best not to let her catch us looking at her.
"I'm sure Spencer could do a lot better," Nita says.
"Him? Are you kidding? He needs our help."
Spencer finally glances at us, clearly annoyed.
"Thanks a lot," he says.
Then he looks out at the lake again and so do we.
No doubt we're all thinking the same thing: More wind, please.
Tanya and I are at the Starbucks next to our apartment building. It's one of the last ones with overstuffed armchairs, and we're sitting in them, drinking tall mochas, while everyone else shifts uncomfortably in their hardwood counterparts. Tanya is wearing a black leather biker's jacket and a pretty polka dot dress — a look that I love — and I'm happy to have some time with her away from her business books.
She says, "I'm sorry, Luke, but I want you to move out."
Tanya shakes her head, then hooks her long black hair back behind her ears.
"A lot of reasons," she says. "Too many to name."
"Just give me one, then."
She sighs. A big heavy sigh, too.
"You don't take me seriously," she says.
"That's not true."
"It is, Luke. It is true. You don't take anything seriously."
"So you shouldn't feel bad," I say.
She stares at me.
"I mean, if that's true, you shouldn't take it personally, right?"
She continues to stare at me. It does not feel good.
"This is really bad timing," I say.
"What would be a good time to break up?"
"I don't know," I say, "maybe when I was gainfully employed. You know, not ..."
"Not the day I get laid off."
She looks me in the eyes.
"I'm not joking!" I say. "Me, Spencer, Marty ... We're all goners."
Tanya pries the plastic lid off her mocha, which I now realize is black coffee because, unlike me, she hates mocha. She takes a sip.
"I'm sorry," she says. "I had no idea."
"So I can stay?"
She shakes her head.
At first I think this is one of her semi-exasperated, what-am-I-going-to-do-with-you? head shakes. It isn't.
My parents seem genuinely glad to see me when I turn up at their door, a little less glad when I ask if I can stay.
"Tanya and I broke up," I say by way of explanation.
We're in the kitchen and Mom is pouring me a glass of lemonade, with ice, because it's ninety-seven in the shade. She sets it on the counter and hugs me.
"Good," she says.
"She doesn't deserve you."
"Also, I lost my job."
Dad says, "Laid off?"
"You'll find something better."
"For sure," I say.
Almost anything would be better.
Dad picks up the lemonade, takes a big gulp. I look at Mom.
"You want one, too?" she asks.
My old room is the new study, but my parents let me stay in the guest room, which is great.
I don't have a lot of stuff, just some clothes I bring over in two Hefty bags. All the stuff in the apartment — the bed, sofa, table and chairs, TV, books, and stereo — belong to Tanya.
Tanya is a serious person who has been busy collecting the essentials, the basics, and the nice-to-have items I tend to take for granted or simply do without.
I own some books — I'm not a cretin — but they're already (still) here, in boxes in the garage.
Spencer answers an ad offering training in European-style cooking and gets himself hired at this fancy eatery, Bistro 227, on Santana Row, home to a collection of upscale shops and restaurants in San Jose. He introduces me to Patrick, the sous-chef, who tells me they have an opening in pantry.
"Where's that?" I ask.
He points over his shoulder and goes on talking.
I'm thinking "Pantry" is a sister restaurant or maybe a small town I've never heard of. Finally I catch on. It's the part of the kitchen where salads, appetizers and desserts are assembled.
I agree to take the job and he puts me to work right away.
I change into the white uniform and hat the restaurant provides (in the closest approximation of my size I can find). The cooks all bring their own knives, and Patrick suggests I do the same, but there are a couple of beat up ten-inch chef's knives that belong to the bistro. He finds one and shows me how to sharpen it on a well-oiled sandstone block, then sets me to dicing onions.
Later, he shows me how to peel and devein prawns, skin and gut calamari, clean and crack crab ...
I like knowing how to do these things.
The kitchen is small and hot — up to 110 degrees on the line where Spencer works, grilling snapper, shark, sea bass, and sand dabs, but it's not so bad in pantry.
Almost Half Human
Spencer's car is in the shop, again, and he's trying to save enough money to buy something more dependable. I've never owned a car — I've always gotten around on my bike or the bus — but I figure it's time to get myself motorized. I've got my eye on a sweet Suzuki but haven't put enough aside yet.
In the meantime, Valley Transit gets us to our new jobs.
We get on the bus this one time and at first it's quiet, which is great because I, for one, feel like Jose Cuervo kicked me in the head with his blue agave boots. Then we hear this fat chick across the aisle talking to her skinny friend:
"She started sayin' a bunch a shit about Sherry, so I told her she'd better watch her fuckin' mouth 'cuz Sherry's my friend, but she kept on. So I told Sherry what she said. That bitch is gonna get her ass kicked if she don't shut up."
They get off at the next stop and it's quiet again for about half a block. Then there's this voice from clear in the back:
"I said, 'What, you gonna hit me again? Does it make you feel like a man?'"
It's a woman on a flip phone.
"Ya see, I broke up with him," she says, "but he come beggin', come crawlin'. So I took him back. Then he hit me again. I said, 'That's the last time, boy, and I left.'"
The woman pulls the cord, the bus stops, and she gets off, still talking.
I close my eyes, rub my face, and try to hold my skull together. I'm pretty sure it has a crack somehow and I don't want my brain to ooze out. It's quiet for about thirty seconds, until we get to the next stop.
Two guys get on, one younger, one older. They sit across the aisle from each other, silent as monks, but then ...
"I don't go to school anymore," the kid says. "I'm too smart for school."
The older guy isn't sure he heard right.
"What's that?" he asks.
"I said I'm too smart."
"Too smart to go or too smart not to?"
"Too smart to go. They can't teach me anything."
Excerpted from "Then We'd Be Happy"
Copyright © 2017 Al Riske.
Excerpted by permission of Luminis Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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