MY MOST UNFORGETTABLE CHARACTER
No, I’m not turning Cheese Magnet into READER’S DIGEST, but in honor of the Kindle and Nook release of A CAREER GUIDE TO YOUR JOB IN HELL, I thought I would post an excerpt of my mostly true story “The Day of the Gerbils,” which is about the trials of working at the rat farm. The part excerpted concerns crazy guy Mike, one of my co-workers, and someone who, I’m pretty sure, would never have appeared in READER’S DIGEST. Enjoy. I hope.
Crazy guy Mike was in his early twenties and kind of good looking with neat, strong features. He had prominent cheekbones, a square jaw, and wavy brownish-blondish hair slicked back with a dab of Brylcreem or some similar grooming aid. He wore polished black work shoes, nicely pressed and creased clean khaki work pants, and, despite the heat, a spotless unwrinkled long-sleeved khaki work shirt buttoned up to his neck. It was only when you looked in his light blue eyes and saw teh crazy that you realized this dude had something serious going on in his head. He was a patient at the Middletown State Hospital. They let him out on work release. Usually he was under control. Sometimes he wasn’t.
First time I’d met him he’d asked me, “Say, you ever have shock treatments?”
When I replied in the negative, he came up to me until his penetrating blue eyes a were couple of inches from mine (one aspect of teh crazy was that he had no sense of personal space) and grabbed my forehead with both hands and squeezed. “First, they put clamps around your head RIGHT HERE.”
Crazy guy Mike wasn’t big, but he was strong as a son of a bitch. You wouldn’t know it to look at him in his work clothes, but he was built like a rock. He always wore those long-sleeved shirts, but sometimes without warning and for no apparent reason he’d just rip them off, like he was Superman and he had to get into his uniform, Now, goddamnit!, and he couldn’t be bothered with buttons. Underneath his shirt he always wore a white, very neat and clean wife-beater’s tee-shirt, and either he spent all his spare time at the State Hospital pumping iron or God had given him some serious guns in recompense for certain rather obvious shortcomings.
Today he seemed in control, though as he commonly did he had a question for me.
“Say, you think I look like Gary Puckett?”
At that time, Gary Puckett and the Union Gap was a popular pop group (For some reason, they wore Civil War era style uniform jackets in the primitive videos that were common in the day even if there was no specific teevee channel to watch them on).
I considered the question. Crazy guy Mike looked nothing at all like Gary Puckett.
“Sure, Mike,” I told him around a mouthful of baloney and rye.
He nodded, satisfied, and took a big bite of the apple he’d produced from his own bag, looked at it, then tossed it aside over his shoulder. “Say, you working in Building Three today?”
“That’s right Mike.”
“Day like this,” he confided in me, “you’ve got to watch those gerbils.”
Crazy guy Mike nodded. “Those little sons of bitches are tricky. And on a day like today.”
“What’s so special about today?”
Crazy guy Mike frowned at me. His gaze narrowed, his forehead furrowed, and I expected buttons to pop at any second. “Can’t you smell it?” He took a deep breath for emphasis, nostrils flaring.
“It always smells like this, Mike. It’s all that rat shit.”
He shook his head. When he got worked up his eyes didn’t go unfocused, they constricted until it looked like laser beams would shoot from the space-black pinpricks of his nearly vanished pupils.
“Of course. But beneath it. There’s no wind. The air isn’t moving. See the heat waves? Something bad is going to happen. I can taste it.”
“Donut?” I asked, holding out a jelly-injected treat from my lunch bag.
The laser focus of his eyes shifted to the pastry and he took it. Crazy guy Mike, I’d discovered, could be easily distracted, and he had a sweet tooth that was worse than my grandfather’s.
“Well,” I said, chewing my own donut thoughtfully, “Hank is planning to retire Wolf. If you know what I mean.”
Crazy guy Mike polished off his donut in two bites, and nodded. He might have been insane, but he wasn’t stupid.
“That’s kind of mean.” I finished my donut, and looked in the bag. One left. “The gerbils will save him,” he said confidently, still focused on donuts as I took the last one out of the bag. I sighed, and handed it over.
Who is Wolf?, you ask. And why is he being retired? And just what can the gerbils do to save him?
Well, you’ll just have to buy the book to find out.