Two days after Carol broke up with me, our division was shut down. I don't think this was coincidence; she was much better connected to things going on above us in the company than I ever was. I think she didn't want to have to deal with a boyfriend who'd just been laid off, especially this close to the holidays when there's basically nothing you can do about it besides mope around.
But there was something I had to do about it; I had to find work, some kind of work, fast, because with my daughters in college, I was about one year and eleven months short of the two years' savings the financial magazines always say you should have. I didn't have time to try to sweet-talk my way into another support technician job for a big corporation at age 45; I needed a paycheck in the next two weeks. While colleagues of mine fretted about what they should do and could do and would be willing to do, I sucked it up and went and did what I had to do.
And within a day, I had the blue shirt and the name tag. I was Duane, welcome to Big Buy, why yes I do know something about installing a home network, I've been wiring office buildings for twenty years, yes ma'am I probably can get your laptop to talk to the internet while you're on the pot.
Frankly, it was kind of fun. For one thing, instead of being surrounded by people my own age with all the cares of my station in life, I was mostly surrounded by young people. Some smart and funny, some dumber than a box of rocks, slack jaws and vacant stares, living public service announcements for the dangers of a life spent playing video games. But even the dimmest bulbs seemed energetic next to the cube dwellers I'd been among for the past few years. And my immediate co-worker, a flamboyantly gay black kid named Reggie ("Because I like it when you chomp on my veggie"), was a hoot and, needless to say, not the sort of person I'd ever have met in my previous life. I think the first couple of days he kept saying outrageous things to see if he could shock me, but I just laughed or occasionally rolled my eyes, and he soon decided I was all right.
I started the week of Thanksgiving; Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday were steady but not overwhelming, although they warned me that the Friday after Thanksgiving would be busy. They didn't tell the half of it; it was like I should have tied myself to a post on Wednesday, to withstand the tsunami that was about to hit.
First thing 10 am they were coming through the doors, grabbing everything from big screen TVs to box sets of "Lost" to iPods, cell phones, Flip cameras and who knows what. Nobody was particularly interested in routers and Ethernet cables, so our department was one of the few slow ones, but that just meant we had to run around helping out wherever else they needed us, which was everywhere.
I mostly stuck to the cameras and cell phones department, and by the shift's end I felt like I knew my way around there and was more help than hindrance to the two women who were mainly running it. They must have felt so too, because when the shift ended at 6, they invited me, Reggie and some other folks over to the Pancho O'Hara's at one corner of the mall's parking lot for drinks.
They were a mismatched pair, for sure. One of them, Vicki, was somewhere around my age, very much the no-nonsense mom type; I thought she might have been part Puerto Rican or something because she had kind of dusky skin, but then light green eyes and curly red hair which she had cropped so short it was almost shaven. She had a don't-mess-with-me manner which suggested teenagers at home, but there was something appealingly open about her face, too, with those bright eyes and her wide, slightly toothy smile. I had the feeling that she had probably looked pretty gawky as a skinny teenager, but having filled out over the years, she was pretty attractive in middle age.
I doubted most of the kids who came into Big Buy even noticed, though, because the other woman who worked that department was such a spectacle. Serena was six foot five and statuesque bordering on chunky, a combination which put an enormous chest right at eye level for most of the Latino guys who came in here looking for a new cell phone every couple of weeks. Add in her general Goth look, pale skin and teased black hair and purplish-grey lipstick and fingernails, which gave her a sultry, use-me-and-abuse-me air despite the incongruity of being dressed in blue polo shirt and chinos, and it was easy to imagine that Serena was responsible for an unusually rapid turnover in cell phones among the young male segment.
Anyway, so we headed for Pancho O'Hara's like survivors of a shipwreck giddy at having made it to dry land, and the first couple of beers went down real fast. Besides Reggie, Vicki and Serena, there was Sarhad, a middle-eastern guy who seemed like he had the hots for Serena and was more than little uncomfortable with Reggie's constant gay patter; Chris, a young, lanky stereo speaker expert who had the hots for Serena; and Marty, an older appliance salesman who had the hots for basketball on Pancho O'Hara's impressive array of flat screens and not much else.
"So what brought you to Big Buy, Duane?" Vicki asked me, after the beer had had a chance to unwind us all a bit from our shopping nerves.
"I got laid off and I have two girls in college I have to help pay for," I said. "What about you, you have any kids?"
"One daughter. She's eight. The light of my life," she said, then quickly adding as if anticipating my next question (it wouldn't have been), "She's with her dad. He has an office job and gets the day after Thanksgiving off. Unlike me," she added ruefully.
"Eight's a great age for the holidays," I said. "Does she still believe in Santa?" I asked. Reggie immediately replied by singing "I saw Daddy blowing Santa Claus..."
"You're going to hell for that one," Vicki said to him, laughing. "A little," she answered me. "Probably not, but she doesn't want to not believe, either."
"Okay, I'm ready to dance," Serena announced, a bit sulkily. "Anybody want to dance?"
Sarhad looked like he was trying to get a strangled reply out but before he could, Serena looked at me. "Duane. Want to dance with me?"
Startled, I looked at Vicki for some guidance. She shrugged and said, "Never turn down a pretty girl who asks you to dance, Duane."
And so I ended the night dancing with a 23-year-old girl. Definitely different from my old job.
After that the holiday season went pretty smoothly. We were always busy, but barring the occasional promotional item which didn't get shipped to our store in time, we didn't want to tear our hair out or burn the place down, at least not too often.
I got to be pretty close with Vicki and Serena, in fact sometimes a little too close for comfort. There was the day Serena couldn't sit down because it was that time of the month and so her boyfriend had wanted to do her in the ass, which was fine until an hour later he wanted to do it again. "Don't get fucked in the ass twice in the same night, that's my advice," Serena said.
"Civilians," Reggie sniffed.
Then there was another day that she kept answering her cell phone every five minutes. I asked Vicki what the deal was and she just rolled her eyes. Fortunately (or not) Serena, with her complete lack of discretion, was soon spilling her story to me for sympathy ... which I tried to muster despite the fact that my dad-of-similar-aged-daughters instincts made me think about strangling her.
"Okay, so my boyfriend wanted us to have a threesome, he kept pestering me about it, and so we did it, and it was okay, I'm not going to say it wasn't fun getting it from both directions, but then he's asking me, what did I think of Ramon's cock, that's his friend, Ramon, and I said it was okay, and he said no, what did you really think, you had it in your fucking mouth bitch you must have some opinion on the subject, and I said what's with you you're the one who wanted me to suck it, so back off, and he wouldn't stop, and I said if you want to know how his fucking cock was why don't you suck it for yourself, and now he's all pissed that I like Ramon's cock better than his which is totally not true, and that I said he's a faggot which is also not true although now I'm starting to wonder, and he doesn't want me to come to his sister Gloria's baby's baptism on Sunday because he says they don't allow whores in church, so I said they're not big on faggots either unless they're called Father, and he said I'm insulting his faith, these fucking Mexicans, I swear, don't talk God or Mama with them, you ever have a problem like this Duane?"
No, I allowed, I've never had a problem like that, curiously enough. Yes ma'am, can I show you something in a cell phone with built-in camcorder?
Serena's love life-- no, scratch that-- sex life just became something like a reality show that I tuned into, whether I wanted to or not, every time I walked by their department. I thanked God that my girls weren't like that-- or if they were, they were much better at keeping it from me. And hopefully always would be.
Meanwhile, however, my own lack of a sex life was starting to drag me down a little, or at least add an extra dimension of melancholy to my already lonely holiday season. And I decided it was time to do something about it. Vicki was single, friendly, and over time I'd found her more and more attractive, not in the blatantly sexual way that Serena was, of course. But more and more I found her-- her womanly, rounded body, her bright and open face, the bordering-on-punk touch of her almost-shaved head ("Ch-ch-ch-chia Vicki!" Reggie sang to her one morning), subtly carnal in a down to earth, earthy, earth-mama way. (I didn't think I was just being desperate.)
So I asked her out.
She looked at me with concern, tenderness, pity, fear and loathing-- hell, could have been any of those. "Um, Duane, that's sweet, but I'm not really in a position to go out on a date," she said. "When I get off work, I have to get Danni right away from her grandma. I can't be going out all night. No, sir, printer cartridges would be in computers, over there."
"Why don't you bring her along?" I said, trying to salvage the embarassment of my evidently pathetically miscalculated attempt.
"Sure. It doesn't have to be a big date. We could go get some pizza and beer, the three of us. Just have a good time, that's all." I kicked myself for having said "that's all" so soon.
She thought for a minute. "Why not."
We had a fun night and Danni was a charming 8-year-old, cheerful and innocent and funny, reminded me of my own girls at that sweet age. Which left me all that much more bummed when Vicki brought the evening to an end with a finality that left no room for, uh, why don't I stick around while you put her to bed and then we can have a nightcap.
Back to work and we were all chummy as we could be, so it wasn't that I had turned her off in some way ... I didn't think. But I guess it was kind of obvious that I was chasing her a little, because eventually Reggie stopped me over by the microwaves and asked me, "So, Duane my man, are you putting your big white thunderstick to our Vicki?"
"Uh, that's not really anybody's business, Reggie--"
"I thought so," he said, then started singing "Blue-oooo balls on a green Christmas tree--"
"Jesus Christ, Reggie," I said. "Could you just stay out of my business, or at least not sing about it like you're in Dreamgirls?" I walked away and headed back to our department.
"Ooh, Miss Thing has claws," he said. "Listen, my man, I know how it is. Our Miss Vicki ought to take a liking to you, you're pretty trim for your age and you're straight, there aren't that many of you left at her age."
"Can you tell me which of these vacuum cleaners cleans up cat hair?" a guy tried to ask us. We ignored him.
"Go restock something, Reggie," I said.
"You are straight, aren't you Duane?" I rolled my eyes. "Because if that little problem gets to be too much for you, Reggie could take care of it for you and you'd still be straight ... technically."
"Enough, Reggie. I'm not interested. In listening to you any more."
"It's okay, man," he said. "Just keep in mind what I said. The Reg-o-matic can relieve the pressure and make a new man out of you."
"Which one is the Reg-o-matic?" I heard the guy ask another salesperson as I walked back to my area.
I asked her out again the weekend before Christmas, but she said things were just too hectic to even think about it. Maybe seeing that I looked disappointed, she patted my hand, which was the first physical touch we'd had, really. But I could tell it was the brush-off kind, it was lucky I didn't get the speech about how I would always be like a brother to her.
Firmly in desperate-loser mode as I was, I used my lunch break to run over to the Toys 'R' Us and pick up something for Danni-- she liked horses, so I got her a model horse and steeplechase set. I gift-bagged it and stuck it in my trunk, waiting for the right moment to present it to Vicki. Like that would work.
My girls were staying with my ex for the first week of Christmas break, so it was shaping up to be Charlie Brown's Most Depressing Christmas Special Ever. I used my discount to buy myself a box set of the first season of Deadwood, just to have something to do all day on Christmas that wouldn't remotely remind me of what day it was.
The 24th was a hectic day, almost as bad as the day after Thanksgiving, but we finally closed the doors at 4-- too late! If you haven't gotten it by now, you're not getting it!-- and a group of us headed over to Pancho O'Hara's for a drink. I figured Vicki would need to get home for Danni but actually she was going to be at her dad's till at least 8:30, so Vicki was happy to come along for a bit.
The place was packed and loud as hell, it did a huge office Christmas party business and I guess tonight it was one of the few places open and offering you one last chance to have a drunken good time before a night and day of enforced family time. At first we squeezed ourselves into one corner on the first floor, but within a fairly short time we'd all gone our separate ways into the crowd. I tried to stick near Vicki but she didn't seem to be having anything to do with me and in a short time she was gone.
I wandered around the place, which was enormous. The main floor was full of things like hoops games and dartboards and the like, and the second floor just had a bar and a lot of TVs. I'd never been to the third floor, it usually wasn't open, but hearing the disco music booming from it and seeing the flash of blue lights and strobes, I decided to check it out.
When I saw it, I understood why they did so much Christmas party business. It was a vast cartoon winter wonderland, decorated to within an inch of its life with trees and snowscenes, strobes and projected snowflake patterns and thudding disco for the well-lubricated crowd of office workers already there ... and full of nooks and crannies where two people could make out in semi-privacy. And if that didn't suffice, it seemed to have an unusually high number of restrooms, with lockable doors. It too was packed, part of the room marked off with signs for a local realty company's party, but literally a couple of hundred people milling and dancing in the middle of the room. Each time the strobes flashed, it froze a picture of office workers dancing, writhing, kissing, feeling each other up, leading each other to another, more private place.
I was just turning to head back downstairs when I found myself face-to-chest with Serena. She was drunk off her ass, I could tell. "Duane!" she screamed, though fortunately the hall was so loud that I'm sure they couldn't have heard her ten feet away.
"Hey Serena, I was just heading--"
Drink in hand, she cornered me against a wall, pushing her huge chest into my face. "Duane, for an older guy ... you're really HOT." She chugged the rest of her drink and set it on a table, then wrapped her arms around me and started kissing me.
"Jesus Christ, Serena, I think you need to get home--"
"Oh come on," she said, and reached for the nearest restroom. It was locked. "Fuck!" she yelled. She tried the next one. It was locked too. "Oh just come on," she said, dragging my arm along as she staggered toward one of the private party rooms.
"Serena, these are reserved-- oh."
I expected a little hanky panky to be going on in the rooms but I really had no idea that it would be so ... open. There's really only one word for what was happening in there, and that's "orgy." The room was plainly set up with that in mind, with various couches and love seats and piles of throw pillows, and I could see half a dozen couples writhing and humping each time the strobes lit the room up for an instant. Without prying too hard I looked around at all the action around me and ... well how about that. Reggie had Sarhad up against the wall and was on his knees, pumping Sarhad's cock. He saw me and Serena and gave me a thumbs-up-- way to go, dude!