Sunday, July 26, 2009

Fitting in

puzzle  I didn't fit in there. I knew it. The owners of the distributing company knew it, all the other workers knew it and in the end, I became proud of that fact. I had promised my big shot brother, who had- in his own words- "pulled a lot of strings" and "called in a lot of favors" to get me this job, that I would work there for at least a year. The only person I could relate to at that place was George and all the other workers only pretended to like him. All in all, it was a dirty exhausting job with lots of heavy-lifting and absolutely no possibility for promotion. And, despite this, it was still a rather tedious job.

So much for the background. Now comes the bit about Crypto-quotes. A simple substitution cipher is one in which each letter of the original text is replaced by a different letter, which altogether makes a quote by a famous person.

For example, Mark Twain's quote would be written:


These would appear every day in The Oklahoman, and, being impatient with crossword puzzles, I would wile away my free time, trying to figure them out. Later, one of my co-workers, Richard, had taken the time to instruct me carefully on the details for solving these puzzles. Common letters-patterns for both consonants and vowels, single-letter words, two-letter words. After awhile, I became quite good at it and within, say, 5 minutes, I could usually work out the solution. (Now I couldn't complete one to save my life, for some reason.)

After about a month, I came up with a prank that I thought- at that time, anyway- was genius. My plan was to solve the puzzle first thing in the morning, before Richard had had a chance to look at the newspaper. And, then, I would drop the secret message (that is, the solved cipher) into the middle of a normal conversation, as if, it were some kind of sudden insight. Later, I imagined, he would begin to work on the problem and realize what I had done. If he had already solved the puzzle, then the joke would come off immediately. Ok. I admit, it isn't a knee-slapper by any stretch but it seemed clever at the time.

That particular day the secret message was: The beauty of true friendship is to understand and to be understood. Noble sentiments, to be sure, but I was not especially interested in any deeper meaning.

The front office, where customers were met and served, was to be the scene of my “escapade.” I was not officially welcome there and, staying past a 10- minute limit would provoke sharp remarks and spiteful looks by the overeager management. Kyle, the owner's younger brother, was the mildly incompetent  service manager-or whatever they decided to call it- in charge, at least in theory of a crew of service representatives. In the crew, there was Matt, a kind of young but rather heavy person with a very narrow sense of humor. In fact, his view of everything was pretty narrow. Melvin, the only black guy there, who tended to push the limits because he understood his racial advantage.  To put it more precisely, Melvin was completely aware that the company needed him slightly more than he needed the company. And finally there was steely Louisa with  the short reddish hair that naturally spiked. Wallet and chain and the perennial cowboy boots.

I forget what the conversation was about; certainly it had nothing to do with beauty or friendship or understanding. Probably something work related or some off-duty exploit. I let them chat awhile and then I said, with an impressive air of astuteness. "You know something, the beauty of friendship. You know what I think? The beauty of friendship is to understand. And.. to be understood." There was this strange moment of hesitancy and blankness. This was something I hadn't counted on. I casually looked around. Matt squinted at me, trying not to look cock-eyed.  I suppose he didn’t know how to respond. Louisa's eyebrows were knitted and stared at me in bewilderment. Rich was paying no attention at all and began reading an article in the paper. I decided, at that moment to make my exit. I waited and waited, but the plan fizzled. On this particular day, Richard had been called out of the office and had not had time to work on the crypto-quote. Hadn't had the time or inclination. And that was that. Well. actually, no.

Later that afternoon, Louisa came to the warehouse. "Say, um. What are you doing after work?" She asked me. This certainly took me aback. I was strictly an outsider, as far as the service department was concerned. They would openly discuss Sunday picnics and Saturday beer parties without even thinking about whether to ask me. I am sure, if in the unlikely possibility that I had been invited, I would have graciously declined. If I was an outsider, they belonged to a club I had no desire to be a member of. Still, for Louisa to make a special effort intrigued me.

"Nothing. Why?"
"I was thinking about going out for a beer after work. Want to come along?"

I didn't really know much about Louisa. A few details about a troubled relationship with a drunken father. My first thought was, therefore, that she needed somebody to talk with, somebody that had a certain amount of perspective and distance.

So after work, she drove us across town in her monstrous 4 by 4 to a little hole-in-wall bar named something like "Pearls." Small reflective windows, discreet signage,  a wraparound gravel parking lot. Flat roofed and a minimum of exterior decoration. I must have driven past this place a hundred times but, instinctively, I sensed it was not my kind of place.

Going from the hard Oklahoma sun to the cavernous dimness of the bar felt like somebody had thrown a burlap bag over my head. As my eyesight returned, I noticed that every other person in the bar was a woman. Women dancing with women and rough looking women with arms around cheerleader types. Frowning women behind the bar looking at me skeptically. Louisa was a regular and made sure to introduce me to her friends there. "A man I work with." Then, it dawned on me, that Louisa had heard me  chirp my little quote about friendship and concluded that I was passing on some kind of "secret handshake."

A few of the women feigned hospitality and half-hearted introductions were made. Louisa got caught up in the bar social circles while I tried not to become a victim of some ass-whooping by an angry lesbian out settle some scores on my chin. As I downed the last of my beer and, with a jaunty smile, made my way to the door, I realized that, once again, the joke was on me. At least here,  at Pearls, I didn’t have to try to fit in.

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