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Apr/May 2003 fiction

The Right Touch

by Stuart Plesser


 

One hundred and twenty-three hours later, there were only two hands left on a brand new 2002 red Ford Explorer. "Both men's knees appear to be wobbly," the DJ from the local radio station said, keeping the listeners tuned in to the struggle. "It won't be long until this car has got a new owner."

Brian Boot, a tall Virginian with small tufts of dark hair running the length of lanky fingers, owned one of those sets of hands. He felt that his opponent was shaky and that although he was aching too, if he could just stand extra tall right this second and show no sign of wearying, his opponent would soon be down for the count. And Brian Boot should know when an opponent was ready to go down. He was a professional and had been touching cars for the last ten years, ever since the day he found out he could earn half his yearly paycheck for only six days of standing. Right out of the chute he won his first contest. He rolled away with a twenty thousand dollar vehicle, sold it at a discount and pocketed a large chunk of change. For all these years he did pretty well, so well that there was no need to hold a long-term job.

 

Along the way he had picked up a thing or two. Rather than leaving it to chance, he started studying the technical aspects of the trade. He learned that keeping his entire hand pressed down on a hood added stress to the bone structure. So he experimented. He discovered that if he lightly lifted his fingers while still keeping the illusion that his palm was on the hood, he could gain a serious advantage over his opponents. But his real key was a certain regimen he liked to follow. About two weeks before an event, he'd start setting his alarm clock at random. He'd just spin the dial and go to sleep. And whenever the alarm clock would go off, he would jump out of bed and stand until the light of dawn. By the time a contest rolled around, Brian Boot would be so harassed by his own training schedule that he'd welcome six days of standing on his feet because at least the rhythm was steadier than the up and downs of his own routine.

As more and more hand-on-hood contests popped up around the country, Brian needed someone to help him track the events. So he hired an assistant. There he was now, short with dark skin and darting black eyes, sitting a few feet away and offering encouragement. Manny Schlee was his name. They knew each other from the days they used to work at a local supermarket. Brian was a packer—Manny, his boss. Manny was an organized man who knew his way around a calendar. Back then, he would instruct Brian how to rearrange the produce section so that whatever was about to expire would get placed in the front row.

"It's human nature," Manny would explain, "to grab a carton of milk from the front of the shelf. I don't know why, that's just the way it is. Now granted, some customers will try to outsmart you and pick a carton from the back thinking that that's where it will be the freshest. That's why I want you to put the most recent milk deliveries in the middle so they can't be found."

But now Manny was in a different racket. And he was sensible enough to know that he didn't have what it took to hold a hood for days on end.

"What I can't figure," Manny once asked Brian while unpacking their suitcases in yet another musty motel room, "is how is it possible to stand with your hand glued to a hood of a car for so many hours?"

"For starters," Brian said as if he were responding to a TV reporter, "I've never really liked working, doing the 8-to-5."

"If memory serves me correct," Manny interrupted, "you never really made it into the supermarket much until after nine."

"Big deal," Brian said. "So some stupid produce didn't get packed. So what? That's not the point. The point is that now I'm free to do whatever I am in the mood for." He reached for a bag of Romaine lettuce, opened it and nibbled on a leaf. He was a strict vegetarian. It was his belief that this diet gave him an advantage over all meat-eating contestants. "Besides," he continued, chewing the greens, "these long stands are nothing more than a spiritual adventure. Your mind goes to places its never gone before..." He paused there giving Manny time to wonder where it was that Brian's mind went off to.

"Moreover," Brian added, sticking another leaf into his mouth, "you get to see a part of yourself you would never see otherwise."

"And what part may that be?" Manny asked.

"Ahh, never mind. You'll never understand."

So Manny stuck to what he knew best: scheduling. He took his knack for the calendar and used it to prepare Brian's travel itinerary. Manny would pack up the van and tell Brian when and where the next contest was. He also kept Brian out of mundane chores like booking motels or other extravaganzas.

With business thriving—cars coming out of the woodwork—Manny had become a needed member of the team, and so Brian just had to concentrate on the hood of the car and relaxing before the big event.

And now Brian Boot smelled blood. He looked over at his opponent, a young man named Roy McCalister. Nothing to worry about. The kid was a total wreck. A couple of minutes more, and it would be over.

Brian's instincts were right. Roy McCalister's knees were really wobbly but he somehow managed to keep his hand stuck to the hood. He scanned the crowd back and forth as if searching for something. His eyes finally reverted back to the ground beneath him. He looked weaker, like a boxer who was about to go down.

 

Roy McCalister was known in town as the man who had won the heart of Lonnie Lobe, a girl that all the local men desired. She was tall and graceful. She could make something as drab as an oversized T-shirt look stylish, wrapping it with a scarf, making her slender waist seem even thinner. At night, in the summertime, Roy would meet Lonnie down by Johnson's farm where he worked by day loading bales onto the back of a pickup truck.

He liked the farm at night; everything was peaceful and silent there. No whirr coming from the engine of the tractors, no grate coming from Old man Johnson's sturdy commands. At night all that was gone, and what was left was the sway of the wheat and the soft sound of the whistle coming from the warm breeze as it sailed through the fields.

Roy liked soft sounds. He liked the sound of hoofbeats on sand; he liked the sound of gushing water. And he could swear that sometimes he could hear the sound that a flower petal makes as it trundles to the ground. But there was only one sound that made his heart skip a beat: the soft patter of Lonnie's footsteps. Out of the brush, at their designated spot (ten paces from the third row of wheat on the east side) Lonnie would appear, tall and lean, her hair—no different than the color of wheat come harvest time—flowing to and fro at the mercy of the breeze. She would step closer to him, close enough so that he could feel her scent, which was lavender, tinged with the smell of freshly cut grass. He would gaze at her and she at him. Neither would speak a word. Roy would finally take his calloused hands and wrap them around Lonnie's waist.

"Is it you?" he would ask.

"Who else would it be?" she would reply.

But one day Lonnie looked up at him with deep concern.

"Roy, I've been thinking," she said, wrapping some strands of hair around her index finger. "We've got to do something with our lives. We can't stand in this field forever. I'm twenty and you're already twenty-one and we're not getting any younger. You can do more than load trucks, Roy. Look at you. You are healthy and smart. You can do something."

Roy listened, looked up at the moon, then stared into the freckles of Lonnie's face and with his fingertips caressed her cheeks. "One day," he whispered," when I get me some money, I'm going to buy my own small farm and we are going to have a house and a porch and I'm going to grow my own wheat— none of this picking up and heaving the stuff—and when I'm done with the fields I'm going to sit you on my lap. Just you and me and our pile of golden wheat growing as high as a mountain."

He kissed her but Lonnie grew sad and distant. She had heard him say these words a thousand times before.

"No," she said, shaking her head, "it's not going to happen. It's never going to happen." Then she grabbed her long skirt, pulled it up from her ankles and scurried from the field.

"Wait, wait," Roy shouted, running after her in the field. "I promise, I'll do anything for you."

She stopped and let him catch her. He took her into his strong arms. "I promise, I'll do anything for you," he said, whispering into her ear, hiding his face in her long hair, breathing in that lavender scent and feeling the heat of her body.

"Do you really mean it?" Lonnie asked as if she had never doubted him.

"You'll see," he whispered again. "One day you'll see."

Soon after the harvest season, Roy heard about a contest on a local radio station. Grayson's Ford motor was giving away a new Ford to the person who could keep his hands on the hood of the car the longest. The first ten to call would be admitted. Roy at that moment was driving through Napsville on his way to Johnson's farm to pickup his paycheck. He pulled over at the first sight of a phone booth. His heart was racing the way it raced when Lonnie stood nearby. He dug some change from his pocket and nervously punched in the numbers he had been repeating to himself ever since he had heard them on the commercial. First try the line was busy. Busy again. Busy, busy, busy. One last try and the clerk at WKPT radio answered: "Congratulations. You are the number ten caller."

 

Brian's entrée into the contest was less nerve racking. Getting Brian in fell under Manny's domain. Brian trusted Manny with this sort of thing. This time around Manny relied on a tip from the summer intern as to the timing of the contest announcement.

"She had been working for free for the station," Manny said, explaining his latest ruse, "until..." he giggled for a few seconds, "until I corrupted her."

"What this time?" Brian asked, lounging on the motel bed, sipping the remains of a protein shake.

"A crisp one hundred dollar bill in exchange for needed information."

"Nice," Brian said swirling the straw around looking for the last sip.

"And the second one hundred dollar bill went to a telephone repairman to jack the lines so they would stay busy."

"So am I in?"

"You, and the nine callers that followed yours."

 

The contest was held under a big white tent at Grayson's parking lot. A crowd, mostly consisting of local farmers, wanderers and hitchhikers, had milled about, abuzz with anticipation. Ten contestants paced the premises, readying themselves for the struggle ahead. The sound of tubas and horns started to fill the air and promotional models soon appeared in the tent carrying signage of Grayson Motors. Loud whistles ensued until finally the DJ from WKPT gave the countdown. Three, two, one... and the competitors froze with one of their hands glued to the hoods of their respective vehicles.

One hour later the dynamics remained the same—ten hands lightly touching a hood with little motion. The crowd grew restless; some moved to the outskirts of the tent where a concession stand sold ribs, wings, burgers and beers. Others stared on at the contestants with a bewildered look, afraid that if they moved they might miss something.

For five days the contest continued in a monotonous drawl. Still most of the crowd persisted. Some probably stayed for the beer, some to see the moment when hands were lifted from the hoods and the faded participants were carried away from the premises, others for the promotional models who strutted before the contestants marking the hour count.

By the 120-hour mark, one of the three remaining contestants lifted his hand from the hood of the car, scratched himself, said something delusional and got ushered away by his concerned family.

Brian and Roy were now the only ones left standing... and Roy just barely. He didn't look good. His eyes were glassy, and a dazed expression had overtaken his face. He couldn't feel his hand anymore; it was as if it wasn't part of him, just a fixture like an iron left on the hood while the rest of him could go wander. Roy looked again into the crowd. And there stood Lonnie: tall and beautiful. He could clearly see her freckles. Although his hand was on the hood, in his mind he went over to her. His eyelids fluttered against her cheek. They went off to the fields, to the wheat fields at night. The moon was out and the wind was blowing and the wheat rustled and the two of them went high-stepping through the fields and soon they were floating about the fields. And Roy's knees grew strong, and he stood up straight with the strength of a thousand men freshly showered. "Lonnie," he screamed. "I love you." And Lonnie blew him a kiss—their code for I love you more.

Brian suddenly felt uncomfortable. He looked over at his opponent. Instead of going down, the kid seemed to be getting stronger. A feeling of unease blew over Brian. He turned to Manny for support. But instead of encouragement, Manny shot Brian a suspicious look, the kind he used to give when the shelves in the supermarket were improperly stacked. Brian suddenly felt as if he were back in the produce section and heard the voice of a customer who was complaining of spoilage.

A feeling of intense worry spread over him. He no longer felt whole; it was as if his body had sprung a thousand leaks. He breathed in deeply trying to get his focus back. He exhaled, he inhaled. Deeper, deeper yet. But the more he breathed the more the leaks kept coming. Somehow, that disgruntled customer's voice kept getting louder and louder in his ear. "Don't you date things properly here, young man?" she said, pointing at a wilted milk carton. "Not only is the milk curled, but the carton's curled as well."

"Speak to my boss about it," Brian said out loud, his first words all week "He's standing over there," and with that, he lifted his hand off the hood and pointed at Manny.

The crowd hushed; the DJ from the radio station woke up. A truck was to be given away. Roy McCalister, a local boy who worked at Johnson's farm, was the winner. Brian couldn't believe he had been beaten. He put his palm back on the car and cried foul. He refused to leave.

"You'll have to pry me off the car!" he screamed.

The police had to be called. Several officers carried Brian out. Manny followed them in tow.

 

Nobody heard about them until recently. Some rumors surfaced telling the success story of two friends, B&Schlee, who were not only making a killing on the lecture circuit but had a new self-help book coming out called: Understanding Standing.

And as usual, Roy and Lonnie stood in the wheat fields at night. Roy had his hand in Lonnie's.

"This is where we are going to put the house," he said. "That's where we are going to put the porch."

It was no longer a dream. This was not Johnson's wheat field. This was their field they were standing on. Two more hands on hoods contests and they would own the house and the porch too.

 

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