Monday, September 3, 2012

Combustible Chapter 4- Donny

The Grande Iced Americano sat in the middle of the too small table. The chair, comfy in some other circumstance perhaps, leaned too far back. So far back that its occupant, after pulling it up as close as its clunky legs would allow, still had to sit forward with the back of his thighs digging into the unpadded portion of the frame. The coffee, the table, the chair, and its scruffy occupant were positioned in the middle of the cafe surrounded by fitness freaks rewarding themselves, after their morning runs, with a frozen Venti Mocha something or other, aspiring writers with earbuds in place and laptops open and humming, the odd mother who gratefully dropped off their brats at school, and the middle aged empty nester suffering from their hot flashes, cramps, and headaches. They all settled down to their own too-small tables and uncomfortable chairs for a little Me Time.

But in the middle of the room, in the middle of keys typing, music-listeners humming, housewives talking, and hot-flashers flashing, there in the middle of his table, piled high next to his coffee is a mountain of straw wrappers and bent, unused straws. Donny attempts to unsheath yet another straw to finally jab through the criss-cross slits in the lid, to finally take his first long suctioned bolus of chilled espresso and water. He taps the end of the straw on the tiny table, lightly holding the straw in his right hand in an attempt to cause the straw to break through the end of the wrapper prior to his sliding it down its length with his left hand. The straw however, bends sharply about three inches up from the table without breaking through the wrapper. Frustrated, Donny, tears at the end of the paper and pulls strips of it off until enough of the straw is visible that he can grasp it and set it free. He discards the wrapper, the last of dozens, drops the straw onto another pile that has started to look like a game of clear plastic pick-up-sticks, and in true despair, struggles to get up out of the chair to retrieve another straw.

"Can I help you sir?" asked the barrista, who in the middle of the chaos of an early morning coffee shop, has noticed Donny's piles of straws and wrappers, and his untouched iced coffee.

"Sure," Donny replies, "how about making straws that are sturdier than their wrappers; straws that pop out of the end of the paper when you tap them on the table like they used to do. How about providing your customers straws that do not bend three inches from the end when this is attempted? Do you know what happens when the flimsy straws you provide bend in the middle? Do you young lady?" Donny does not give the startled young girl an opportunity to answer. "Well, I'll tell you what happens. The straw gets a little pin hole in the side. You know what they call a straw with a pin hole in the side? Do you? Well, I don't know what they call it. I call it useless. Ever try to suck fluid through a straw with a pin hole in the side? Straws are supposed to have two holes - one at either end, this allows suction to build up within the walls of the straw as it is immersed in the fluid one is trying to slurp. Your straws, due to their poor design frequently end up with three holes in them. It's physics! But I guess you don't know anything about physics do you? I should think not. A hole, even the smallest hole, in a location on the straw that is not at either end, eliminates the principle of vacuum from the entire equation. Suction is impossible, slurping is impossible, drinking my iced coffee is rendered utterly and completely impossible!"

Donny stopped, his tirade over. He stared at her, for what she did not know. Perhaps, maybe, he needed another straw. She had come to that place that we all do from time to time where one just needs to take a stab in the dark. She took the leap of faith.

"I'm sorry sir. The straws are located at the cream and sugar station over there," she pointed, "by the bulletin board.

"Young lady, the reason I am here at the register, shouting over the sound of the steam creating your cappucinos in this wonderful creation of modern science, the cappucino machine, which, by the way, operates on much the same principles of physics with which your inadequate straws are supposed to operate, is because I have exhausted the supply of straws that were formerly located at the cream and sugar station located over there," Donny pointed, "by the bulletin board. I was hoping you would deduce the problems I am having with your poorly constructed instruments of suction, and produce another from your supply behind the counter. And, if you would be so kind, tenderly remove the top half, half mind you, of the wrapper, and without touching the straw itself, hand it to me, so that I may finish, no, start to finish the iced coffee for which I just paid you $3.25."

The barrista did as Donny asked with a smile on her face, a forced smile, lips trembling in her effort to hold back the tear that had formed in her left eye.

"Thank you." said Donny, simply and as it seemed, completely out of context, as he slumpily walked back to the center of the room. He did not notice his fellow customers, typing, hot-flashing, humming, and talking because they had all stopped what they were doing to observe the drama that had just played out before them. Donny also did not notice the silence and the stares. He sat down in the overstuffed arm chair which, by design, threw him back into a reclining position. He sighed and with a sequence of wiggles and jostles, resumed his forward leaning position perched on the very front of the cushion, elbows firmly planted on the table to provide the traction he would need to stay there and finally reach for his coffee. He did so, dragging it forward, completing the slalom of wrapper mountain and straw pick-up-sticks. Confidently, he jabbed the exposed end of the straw into the cross-hair hole manufactured in the lid. And just as he expected it to plunge deep into the caffeinated concoction, just as he hoped to finally get his day started, in what he called, "The Right Way", the straw collided with a large clump of ice cubes that had melted together into an ice berg floating just beneath the surface of the coffee. The straw bent where it entered the cup, producing another pin hole and ruining his suction.

Donny finally left the coffee house, much to the delight of the staff and their customers, after using his physicist's brain to deduce that if he really wanted the coffee inside of him some time in the foreseeable future, that he may need to remove the lid from the plastic cup, and drink his now lukewarm coffee, like millions of people have drunk their drinks for centuries, by bringing the rim of the cup to his lips, and using the principles of vacuum in a closed container, allowed by the anatomy of the lower jaw.

The barrista, who did successfully hold back her tears, left work at the end of her shift, with more compliments from those she served than she had ever gotten in one day and $37.12 in tips. Just because aspiring writers, hot-flashing cougars, yuppie larvae moms, and fitness freaks can be annoying, it doesn't mean they aren't human and lack compassion.

Donny is human too. Just an odd one. He wore suspenders to hold up his khaki's and much to the chagrin of his once living wife, a belt for good measure. His light blue, long sleeved shirt was pressed and starched on the front and topped off with a bow-tie that he never quite learned to tie himself so he just loosened it enough to slide it off over his head every evening when he got home. The rest of his shirt was wrinkled at the elbows and in horizontal creases down the length of its back because he could never figure out how to iron the sleeves and that little rectangular bump the manufacturers sewed into the shirt just between the shoulders. His shoes were sharply pointed and shined to a high gloss on the toes, but dust had collected around the edges of the soles and under the laces, which had long since lost the plastic coating on the ends to keep them from fraying. Donny preferred lace-ups eventhough he never untied them to take them off. Instead, he grabbed, in order, the left heel with the toe of his right shoe and pried it off his foot, and then the same with the right, grabbing the heel and prying it off with his exposed left big toe. To put them on in the morning he would work each foot, in order, left first into the shoe, bending the back of the shoe down and then wiggling his foot forwards and back to raise the back of the shoe into its original position. Then the same with his right.

It has been said you can tell alot about a man by looking at his shoes. If that is true, then it is clear to those endowed with the gift of shoe-divination, to see, from the outside, that Donny's life is a mess, though Donny does not give his life enough serious thought to discover this himself. He doesn't drive. Living in Boston, a car is superfluous. He walks where ever he needs to go. He leaves his apartment and hoofs it along the same route across the Charlestown Bridge north past all the Italian, French, Irish, and other restaurants, past Bunker Hill to his office, adjacent to the main hub of town, Copely Square. The walking has worn down his heels and soles. The heels, because of the camber of his tired and neglected feet are worn at severe angles and the nails are exposed much like the threads securing his soles. He can feel every irregularity, every stone, and can detect the grit of every sidewalke as he lopes, slumped over from too many hours behind his desk and from the excessive weight of the world which, he believes, has invaded his life and taken what is most dear from him.

Donny, and his toe-shined glossy black shoes, wrinkled shirt, and catawampus bowtie, burdened down by a runner's back pack, are heading home. He had spent the night in his office south of the river doing research for which he was not getting paid, research for himself, because no one since 2002 has asked. The books, newspapers, most yellowed with age and constant reading, and notepads, written upon with the thin flowing script of a former student who struggled through penmanship, weighed him down even more now than his life had done, but these contents of his pack, most likely, have kept him alive these past 17 years since his wife passed. Now as he passes the Bunker Hill monument, climbing the steep grade to his long time residence, Donny doesn't remember much. He doesn't remember Clara distinctly, just pictures, snapshots. He doesn't remember getting his coffee just minutes ago. He doesn't remember. He pulls the keyring from his pocket, which is secured by a string tied to his belt loop. He looks at the color coded keys, both of them. "Red door, red key" he recites to himself. "Grey door. Grey key". He selects the red key because he is standing in front of a red door. He slides it in the lock and with a turn it pops open. He enters. He does not realize, until he closes the door behind him and surveys his new surroundings for more than a few moments that he is finally back home.

The pack is dropped to the right of the door as he made his way across the dark, aged hardwood floors of his north Boston flat. Once in the bedroom he performed his "coming home" ritual. Left shoe, right shoe. Suspenders shrugged from shoulders, belt unclasped, bow tie loosened, shirt unbuttoned. He hung the trousers with belt and suspenders attached on a hook in his closet, his shirt, bow tie still hanging loose around the collar is hung the same way. He looked at both, the trousers and the shirt, and made his decision, "These still have a couple of more days in them" he thinks to himself. He pulled back the comforter on the immaculately made bed, laid down, snuggled his scraggy reddish beared streaked with grey into his overstuffed fluffy pillow, flopped over to face the empty space where Clara used to lie, and instantly fell to sleep.

* * *

It is probably time for us to take a break from describing the current Donald Mackey, PhD in Physics and offer some insight to my reader, concerning the path he took to get this way. I found the story interesting when this was relayed to me by those who knew him and his wife Clara. More importantly, it plays a large part, as our past does in most all our lives, into where he is going...

"Tell me this. What is the answer to 2+2=4?"

Clara sighed. "Here he goes again. I told you not to go there!" Then she giggled. Clara liked to argue. It was a pastime for her. She enjoyed it. Donny, on the other hand, detested the conflict and would, when possible, concede the argument just to maintain the peace. This time, however, was one of those times when the passion boiled up in him so fiercely, that holding his tongue was a physical impossibility.

The group of Donny's students and assorted friends did their best.

"The answer is four!"

"No" Donny replied.

"There is no answer!" a Philosophy major shouted.

Their professor, a newly crowned PhD in Physics, rolled his eyes and explained.

"2+2=4 is just a formula. It is not the answer. You might as well say THIS +THAT = SOMETHING, and we've all just agreed that SOMETHING equals four. The formula is not the answer; its simply an observation. Now if any of you can tell me why 2+2=4 then please don't keep it to yourself. I've been trying to figure that out myself."

The group had been meeting regularly since the beginning of the semester to play games, watch a movie, have dinner, and just to talk. Donny had a passion for teaching and the group offered him one more opportunity to do just that. They had just finished a wonderful dinner prepared by Clara, a roasted duck breast with asparagus and purple new potatoes, and moved into the sunken family room of their St. Charles Street home in New Orleans. A professor now at Tulane University, Donny had realized all of his dreams at the relatively young age of 34; he married a beautiful wife, lived in a city he loved, mixed in circles of the intelligentsia, and excelled at a job, teaching, he felt he was built for. New Orleans of 1995 was an awesome spectacle. When Donny left his boyhood home of St. Louis Missouri, newly wed, he boarded a plane for his final interview with Tulane University Physics department. Upon disembarking at the New Orleans International Airport, he breathe in a deep draught of the thick June humidified air. It seemed to him that he had left the United States and entered a different country, a different world really. He immediately fell in love with the Crescent City. He had toured the city after his interview, which went "very well" he told Clara by a pay phone from the corner of Jackson Square amid the street performers and crowds of tourists.

They looked all over town for a place to live. They dreamed big. St. Charles Street was the center of their attention. However, affording a house in this area of New Orleans on Donny's starting salary as an associate professor was, in the words of the physicist, "a physical improbability." They widened their search within the Crescent City until one Saturday afternoon they decided to take drive across Lake Ponchartrain into St. Tammany Parish. The Highway 11 bridge, potholed, and rusty was a marvel to Donny, though Clara, a Baton-Rouge native, three-quarter cajun queen, had seen it all before. She laughed at the wide-eyed wonder in her new husband's eyes and the excitement in his voice. They crossed into Slidell and wound their way through town and found themselves on Bayou Liberty road. They came to a stop in the middle of traffic on this small winding two lane throroughfare and after about 10 minutes of sitting still in the humid air of south Louisiana they began to wonder what was causing the delay. Once traffic started moving again they came to an inlet from the lake - Bayou Liberty, they later found out. The delay in traffic was caused by a swinging bridge the spanned the bayou. From time to time, from the gate house perched atop the small tower on one corner of the bridge, the operator would pull a lever and the large motor would lurch into motion swinging the floating bridge out on its large iron hinge into the bayou to allow boats to pass. Donny and Clara loved it. They eventually found  a rental house on Pelican Street, not the upscale mansion they dreamed about , like the ones on St. Charles, but it would do for a start. 

Donny soon made his mark on Tulane University and with it payraises, government research grants and finally a tenured professorship. They left Bayou Liberty and that small green house which was owned by the crazy old lady at the end of the street. No longer would they be the recipients of her left-over government food - powdered milk, powdered eggs, cheese, and milk. Donny and Clara had made it to the big time and if either had stopped to think, they would have realized that it was their ambition that made them oblivious to the discomfort they would feel in the coming years. The discomfort that comes from not being accepted by the class below you and being shunned by that which is above.

In their living room, after the games and the excellent dinner, after all the students and friends had left for the evening, though, the young couple felt content. Donny sat sprawled on the sofa reading under low light. Before the turntable, Clara drew the needle to the first groove and adjusted the volume of Beethoven's Moonlight Serenade. She slinked across the room and snuggled into the sofa up close to her husband. She giggled.

"What's wrong?" Donny asked, looking up from his book.

"2+2=4, I don't care what you say." She sighed, and drifted off to sleep.

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