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arnie maddox: not an easy thing to do
august 24, 2002
This is the fifth in a series of six "guest columns" by Arnie Maddox, while I tend to other business. In this episode, Arnie asks his next door neighbor Helen over for dinner, Cindy asks a boy at school to go to a dance with her, and Arnie visits the apartment of an ex-employee.
For information on Arnie, please see the notes at the end of this column.
I'll be back with the regular Lately entries September 7.
Not An Easy Thing To Do
Cindy, my fourteen year old daughter, sailed into the kitchen, swinging her school books. "Hi, Dad!"
I had been standing by the phone, clearing my throat, getting ready to pick up the receiver.
After seeing her down in the dumps so much lately, it gave me a lift to hear her whistling while she opened the refrigerator door, looking for a snack. I hadn't heard that in a long time, not since the two of us used to do whistle serenades to our dog Rudo.
I was depressed because of some news I heard at work that day, but I smiled at her, shrugged my shoulders. "You seem real cheerful."
"Yeah. I am." She put a pot on the stove, lit it, dumped in the rest of last night's beef stew. Cindy's a little on the heavy side, which the kids at school tease her about-- some of the kids, I should say-- but I didn't feel this was the right time, while she was in such an unusually good mood, to suggest she eat a lighter snack.
She planted herself a foot from the stove like a little sentry, wooden spoon in hand, ready for the first stirring.
I sat down at the kitchen table. "So, how was school today?"
"Great! Really good!"
Parents learn to wait.
Once the stew was reheated, she carefully carried a bowl of it over to the table, joining me, then getting back up for some bread and butter. You know, you really have to admire her. Only fourteen, and already she can bustle all around the kitchen, cooking and thawing and using the microwave and opening cans.
When she was reseated, she ate about half the stew, then put her spoon down for a breather. "There's a dance this weekend? At the school? And it's a 'girls ask the boys' dance".
"Oh!" Cindy hasn't had a lot of luck with past dances.
She took a deep breath. "I'm going to ask Jay-Jay Cummings to go to the dance with me. Yeah. I'm going to ask him tomorrow. He's in my Moral Conscience class on Tuesdays and Thursdays."
"Great! Who…I haven't heard you mention his name before."
She politely wiped a paper towel across her mouth before she answered. "He's a dork. He doesn't talk to any of the other kids, he just walks down the hallways along the walls with his head down. When you try to speak to him-- I never tried to speak to him, but Margaret did once, he was in her Chemistry Club for a couple of months until he dropped out, and he never said a word there either, he didn't even sit at the tables with the rest of the kids."
"He sounds lonely."
"Yeah. He doesn't have any friends. He never raises his hand in Moral Conscience."
I cleared my throat. "Cindy, maybe I'm missing something, but if he's such a 'dork', and you don't appear to really like him, why are you asking him to the dance?"
She studied me a moment, assessing whether I was ready for the truth, then tilted her head to one side, lidding her eyes, watching her fingers push the salt shaker. "See, the thing is I really want to go with Scott Planner, who's not a really cool kid, but he's pretty smart, and he opened my milk carton for me once when I stubbed my thumb. Do you remember that time I stubbed my thumb?"
"But I figure if I ask Scott, and Scott says no, then I'm going to be, you know. But if I ask Jay-Jay, it's like, I'm almost hoping he does say no, so if he does, it's not a problem for me."
I rubbed my forehead, feeling a headache hatch. "Okay, but. That's not really fair to this Jay-Jay, is it? I mean, if you ask him to the dance, he's going to reasonably assume you like him."
Cindy made a startled, 'grossed-out' face.
"If the person you really want to go out with is Scott, you should ask him."
Her voice got smaller, and she somehow managed to lower her head on her shoulders. "That would be a date."
She stared at the tip of her nose, talking to herself. "I'd be afraid to ask him out on a date."
I fixed a bowl of stew for myself, brought it back to the table. She passed over a couple of floppy slices of bread.
I waited until she looked back up at me, then smiled. "Asking someone out on a date is not an easy thing to do. Everybody's shy about it. You're afraid they're going to say no, or laugh at you, or call all their friends over and ask you to repeat the invitation in front of them."
She laughed, just like her mother used to. "That'd be me. Scott'd call the entire Junior Geologists over."
"Right. Except, that rarely happens in real life. When you actually do ask someone for a date, if they don't want to, or can't, or whatever, usually they just say something like, 'Thanks, but I have other plans.' And who knows? If you ask Scott out on a date, even if he does turn you down, now at least he knows you like him, and maybe he'll start looking at you in a new way."
"Yeah, like not just a loser, but a pathetic loser who can't get a date."
I laughed. It's odd, or maybe it isn't, but the part of Cindy's slow maturation into an adult that has come to fascinate and please me the most is seeing the development of her sense of humor.
"I don't want to sound like a broken record--"
"Too late for that," she said, flirting with my tolerance.
"Okay. But as I keep telling you, life is taking chances. Life is confronting your fears, and overcoming them. If a person constantly fails to work up the courage to face his fears, he's not really going to be living his life. He's only going to be occupying it. And that's the saddest thing you can do with the greatest gift there is. Naturally, of course--"
"This the part where you say something like," she lowered her voice in a fourteen year old girl's imitation of a forty year old man. "'Naturally, little one, I'm not talking about reasonable fears, like fear of heights.'"
"Well, I mean it never hurts to make that point."
She glanced at the wall phone. "Who were you going to call when I came in?"
"Hmmm? Oh, I was just going to make a call."
She got a glimmer in her eye, sensing possible parental embarrassment on the horizon. "Oh? Who was it?"
"I…actually, I was going to call our next door neighbor, Helen. She's been nice enough to cook a couple of meals for me lately, which is very considerate of her, and I thought I might repay her kindness by inviting her over here. For dinner."
I could see the wheels turning. The rightness of aim of her next remark startled me. "I could do the cooking while you and her talk." She sat back, proud of herself, still not old enough yet to know how to hide that part.
I spread my hands apart. "I was thinking of having her over Friday night."
"Perfect. I'll fry some fish."
"Fridays you go to Margaret's."
"I don't have to. You're blushing, Dad."
"I was…I'm going to ask her out. Over here, to cook for her."
"You looked real nervous, standing by the phone."
"Well, it is a little--"
"You kept clearing your throat." She did an eerily good imitation of me clearing my throat. She was enjoying herself. I was glad about that. I hadn't seen her enjoy herself much lately.
"Tell you what. I'll ask Helen out on a date if you ask Scott out on a date."
She bit her lip, thinking, turning away from me for privacy, scandalized and who knows what else at the possibility of being backed into asking out Scott.
She tried acting casual, shrugging one shoulder. "Sure. Why not?"
We shook on it.
I marched over to the phone, picked up the receiver, feeling my face get red, punched in Helen's number, and put the receiver to my ear, turning slightly away from Cindy.
"This is Helen. I appreciate your call, I really do--"
I hung up. "Answering machine. But I'll try again tomorrow. You tell me what time you plan to ask Scott out on a date, and at that same time I'll call Helen from work."
We re-shook on it.
I had been depressed because of some news I heard at work earlier in the day.
The department I head up at Metal Climax Solutions consists of eighteen different chemists, all of them working on one commercial project or another. I've hired nearly all of them myself, in the several years I've been here, except for a few I inherited.
One of those "long-timers" was John (I'm not going to use his last name. Anyone reading this who works in my department will recognize who I'm talking about).
John was probably a few years younger than me, maybe mid to late thirties. Bald on top, like me, with a brown moustache. He had the sort of build some men get, where their limbs are skinny, but they've got a small pot belly. Every time I'd see him, he'd be wearing black pants and one vertically-striped short sleeve shirt or another, all of them the type that don't look good with anything. White undershirt underneath, which you don't see much of in Texas.
There's no polite way to say this, and he didn't have a whole bunch of pens clipped to his breast pocket, but he was what I guess you'd call a nerd (most people think of me as a nerd too, so I'm not trying to be cruel characterizing him that way).
He was not a direct report to me-- he reported to one of the managers under me-- so I didn't have any contact with him. A little over a year ago though it happened that I passed by him in the hall. I nodded to him, said "Hi" or something like that, and gave him a smile. I expected some kind of smile in return, or at least a nod, but what he did instead was just stare at me without saying anything.
I'm a pretty easy going guy, and I've told Cindy about 'walk a mile in my shoes' more than once, but to honest, his attitude annoyed me. I started noticing him more, and the more I observed him, the more it seemed to me this was someone who not only ignored virtually everyone he came into contact with, but was downright rude to them. One day I saw him deliver some reports to Jada Jackson, who's in charge of system protocols, and when she started asking him a question about one of the reports, he just turned on his heel and walked away from her while she was in mid-sentence.
I asked her about him.
"He's a jerk. You know? Somebody tries to be nice and starts a conversation with him in the break room, about the weather, or what was on TV last night, he gets up and leaves. You ever see him in a meeting? He sits by himself, too good for the rest of us, just stares straight ahead like we're boring him. Never once contributes nothing."
Six months ago we had a slight downturn in business because some trial runs had to be delayed. Each department had to scale back its budget, which usually means reducing staff. Paul Shannon, one of my Managers, John's boss, made a recommendation we let John go. His production was good, but nobody liked him. Paul told me the nickname the office had for him, which I won't repeat here, but it was an unflattering term. Apparently some of the staff had gotten less and less shy about using it in his proximity.
I was in meetings most of the Friday Paul had chosen to fire John, so I didn't really catch up with Paul until near the end of the day.
"There's a problem with John," Paul told me after closing the door to my office.
"Let me guess. He wants the company to pay his COBRA premiums."
"Arnie, he's terrified. He's worked here fifteen years, he's middle-aged, he thinks this is the end of his life."
I have to admit, it gave me a small satisfaction to see this tough guy, who didn't give a hoot for anyone else's feelings, turn out to be not so tough after all.
As often happens these days, between the time we were told to cut back on costs because of a downturn in business, and now, when we actually were cutting back, the company had had an upturn. Which meant it was no longer necessary after all to reduce staff.
Paul and I talked it over. Despite John's apparent disdain for everyone here, there were some tasks he was better at than anyone else on staff, and since we seemed to be getting close to receiving an orphan status on one of our new drugs, his contribution would be helpful. Finally, we decided to keep him on after all, but I wanted to have a 'dutch uncle' talk with him. If he was going to stay, his attitude would have to change.
I asked Paul to tell John to come over to my office right away. I wanted to get this over with. I had had to skip lunch because of all the meetings, and now it was four o'clock and I was starving, my stomach rumbling. All I could think about was food.
John showed up at my door, not bothering to look at me.
I gestured at the empty chairs in front of my desk. "Have a seat."
He slunk over to the one farthest from the front of my desk, sitting in it sideways, sneaking glances at me. I explained to him, in effect, that we had decided not to let him go, but he and I needed to have a frank discussion about a few things.
His eyes, which looked uneasy already, filled with alarm. "What's a 'dutch oven' talk?"
"I meant to say 'dutch uncle'. It doesn't matter. John, your work is within an acceptable range of performance, but I pick up a lot of bad attitude from you." I looked directly at him, waiting to see what he'd say.
Well, he mumbled some, and gave a few monosyllabic answers, and looked everywhere but at me. It wasn't a real conversation. It was me saying things while he stared off into the distance, or stared down at the carpet, or stared at his hands.
Finally, I told him to think about what I had said, and let him leave. He didn't bother to thank me for letting him keep his job.
From what I heard from the others in the department from time to time after that, John didn't take any of my advice. If anything, it seems like he became even more aloof, not even acknowledging his fellow workers anymore, eating by himself in his car, refusing to join in on any of the office conversations. I started regretting letting him stay on.
Paul showed up at my office this past Monday morning, reaching in and tapping lightly on my open door. "It's about John."
I took my glasses off. "Now what?" John hadn't bothered showing up for work the last three days of last week, or even calling in to explain his absence.
Paul sat down. "His landlady called me. They found his body in his apartment last night."
I stopped rubbing my eyes. "What?"
Evidently, he died last Tuesday night, nearly a week ago. No one realized he was dead until yesterday, Sunday, when some of the other tenants in his apartment building were having a barbecue out back, and noticed what seemed to be long streamers of videotape hanging out of John's back window.
The streamers turned out to be ants. The landlady was at the party. She and one of the other party-goers knocked on John's back door several times, didn't get an answer, called out his name, no response, then finally let themselves in, following the trail of ants, which led across the kitchen floor, through the hallway into the living room, up the living room wall, halfway across the living room's high ceiling, down the chandelier, down a rope.
Paul looked down at his fingernails. "They need someone to go out to his apartment, to go through his things and see what should be done with them. The police wanted to know if I would do it, but Arnie, I don't know…."
I called the Richardson police, and made arrangements to go out there Friday, after work.
Cindy told me she was going to ask Scott out at nine fifty-five Tuesday morning, right after the bell ending Moral Conscience class. She wanted to do it after class rather than before in case he turned her down, so at least she wouldn't have to sit next to him for fifty-five minutes knowing he didn't want to go out with her. Plus apparently Margaret, Cindy's friend, would be hurrying over from her own class right after the bell to provide moral support or a high five, depending.
True to my word, when that time came I picked up the phone and dialed Helen's number.
This time she picked up.
"Helen? This is Arnie. Your next door neighbor." God help me if I didn't feel my face get red, and my heart start beating faster. I hadn't really dated since Lucy left ten years ago.
"Well, hello there, mister. Hmm!"
"I was wondering if, because you've been so nice to cook all those meals for me lately, I was wondering if this coming Friday if maybe I could return the favor to you and could cook a meal for you, at my house."
"Hey, great!" She seemed really pleased. Her voice dropped almost immediately, conspiratorial. "And you know what? I've got the perfect video we can watch after dinner. It's called 'Masseuse'. Did you ever see it?"
"I don't think I have. 'Masseuse', like a person who massages?"
"It's a highly respected art film. I saw it on Showtime or Cinemax late one night. It has that guy from FX in it? The movie? Bryan someone, I think he's from Australia?"
"I think I know who you mean."
"His nose looks exactly like your nose, Arnie. I mean it! And it also has that girl, she has long dark hair, she used to go out with Tom Cruise I think, years ago? People always tell me I look just like her. Isn't that weird?"
I sat at the kitchen table that night, doing a food list for what I was going to cook for Helen Friday night, feeling pretty pleased with myself, but with my dad's antennae still up waiting for Cindy to come home, to see how her attempt to get a date for the dance went.
I heard the back door open behind me. She breezed past, tossing her book sack on the kitchen counter, opening the refrigerator door.
"So how'd it go?"
Still holding onto the opened refrigerator door, she swung her face around at me, grinning.
"Scott said yes?"
She nodded, overjoyed.
Friday I left work at four in order to go over to John's apartment and take a look at what was there. I didn't plan on staying long. I had groceries in my car: two Angus rib eye steaks in a cooler in my car trunk, as well as some frozen Fettuccini Alfredo, and lettuce, tomato, dressing, and a bottle of red wine.
I stopped off first at the landlady's, a small, slight woman probably in her mid-sixties. She had short white hair, with a part on the left. She looked like she laughed a lot.
"I'll tell you, you wouldn't believe the shock I felt when Andy and me went in there. I never saw anything like it before in my life."
I looked down at the key she had handed me. "It was a shock when we heard at work." Out of curiosity, I had to ask, "Was he…did he get along with the other tenants?"
"John? No, he didn't get along with anyone."
I nodded. "That's what I thought."
"He was incredibly shy. I never saw a shyer man in my life."
I looked up. "Shy?"
She shook her head, shutting her eyes. "He would not say one word to me unless he absolutely had to. I used to watch him out the window. Whenever someone happened to be leaving at the same time in the morning as he was, and it didn't matter if the other person was male or female, he'd hide right over there until they were in their car and gone. And if they were gone and he'd start to walk out and someone else would appear, he'd twirl right around like he just remembered he forgot something, and go back to his little hidey hole and wait for them to leave, standing behind that corner, staring down at his shoes." She laughed, shaking her head. "Some mornings, I thought he'd never get to leave for work."
I went in through the back door, like the landlady had earlier in the week. The ants were gone by now, of course. I could smell an aerosol insecticide in the kitchen air.
I started looking there, since a lot of people keep phone numbers and address books in their kitchen, pulling out drawers, opening cabinets, but there was very little. A knife, a fork, a spoon, a plate, a bowl, a coffee cup. Some warranty cards.
It hadn't occurred to me he was shy.
Everything was neat and clean in the bathroom. There was a copy of a computer game magazine on the edge of the bathtub, next to the toilet.
Pretty quickly, I realized there was nothing of value that needed to be kept, instead of thrown out. A toothbrush, some extra pairs of socks, an almost-full box of garbage can liners.
I couldn't stay long, so I poked my head in the few closets, then walked through to the front hall to see if there were any pictures hanging in there (there weren't).
But which is where I got my surprise.
By the front door, dropped down from the mail slot, was a wide pile of envelopes. They must have built up over the days since his death.
That made me feel better. We all have to find some way to share our lives. And even if he was too shy to share on a face to face level, he apparently got a chance to share secondhand, through correspondence. It would have been horrible if his life had existed of nothing more than going to work, and sitting alone here in his apartment, waiting to go back to work.
I knelt down, picking up the envelopes. Maybe there was something to be saved here, after all. Some of the mail turned out to be bills. Everything else was addressed to occupant.
Effective July 27, I'm taking six weeks off from writing Lately, to work on other projects.
While I'm gone, there'll be a guest columnist here, Arnie Maddox.
Some of you may remember I used to maintain a second website in addition to SENTENCE, called Jump Down the Hole. The site was dedicated to writing fiction in forms specific to the Web. For example, I had an informational site there on Antarctica, but an Antarctica re-imagined as a nation that has existed for forty thousand years (which I'm currently revising for SENTENCE), and an e-serial novel (which later evolved into my fourth novel, As Dead As Me).
Another feature on the site was The Maddox Family Home Page, in which I told the story of a fictional family through the conventions of a typical "We're the Smiths!" homepage, complete with family news, recipes, a guestbook (which I loaded with fictional entries), poetic efforts by the father, etc. The site linked to other family sites on the Internet, some of them real sites, some of them fake sites created by me, to further blur the distinction between reality and fiction.
The feature was popular. In fact, I'd get e-mails from people who'd write to Arnie thinking he was a real person, instead of me in stomach padding with a digitally receded hairline.
I dropped Jump Down the Hole in 2000 simply because it was too much work to maintain both sites. However, I still sometimes receive requests from people who want to know where they can read the Musings columns Arnie would write on his day-to-day life. Each Musing was meant to be a self-contained story which also advanced the larger story of Arnie and his fourteen year old daughter, Cindy. I structured each entry along the lines of a TV sitcom episode, a problem introduced at the beginning, which is sometimes mirrored by a subordinate story, then resolved at the end.
Think of the six entries reprinted here, one a week, as an e-serial.
I myself will be back with a new Lately column September 7.
Of all the characters I've created over the years, Arnie is probably the most decent, albeit sometimes a bit slow on the uptake. I hope you enjoy his adventures.