Jan/Feb 2013  •   Fiction

Exciting Times, Jim

by g c cunningham

What happened to the summer? We met up every day in that giant sandbox your daddy built, sitting there chatting about nothing really, before I got the call to move on.

That first week, Jim, I was a tad lonely at lunch, not realizing until I sat down in a crowded cafeteria. I had my new 3-hole notebook for company, the one emblazoned with "1970" on the cover. Rather clever since this is the new decade as often cited by the know-it-alls. I brown-bag the midday meal, you know. Some call it picky, but I prefer the economy of a peanut butter sandwich without the tasteless edges.

All at once, there came a crash of utensils echoing up to the cavernous ceiling. Of course, it startled the heck out of me, and just about the time I realized some fool dropped his tray, an equally thunderous applause roared to life. In a matter of seconds, what appeared to be the whole of the building was clapping like baboons. Jim, I didn't know what to think. Chalk it up to being over-worked and paying small attention to the societal fabric, but some poor fellow drops his tray, and they roar like he hit a home run? My heart went out to the chap.

A couple weeks go by, and wouldn't you know it, the same thing happened again. I discover, Jim, it's actually little to do with the bumbler. It's more about the crowd—a chance for them to have a laugh on the system's dime, as it were. We put in long hours and need a "war whoop" to restore dignity. You follow? So when a personal drinking glass brought from home (illegal, I'm told) shattered to a million pieces that next Friday, guess who put his hands together? Over the weeks, I picked up a few of the finer points, such as giving a slight underplay to the proceedings. You know, indicate a little boredom. But I never go in for the cheering bit. That strikes me as cocky. A studied wry grin to the neighboring tables, and I consider the job done.

Attendant to this ritual, I nearly overlooked a young lady giving me the eye. I must say, Jim, although you haven't yet become enamored of these creatures, this lass was nothing short of sunny. Her sweater was a wonderful foreign affair with a gay, red collar buttoned tight to her neck, and her hair was long, black silk tied up in a peach bow. She had me in a dead stare. I considered raising an eyebrow toward the pulverized glass but thought she might not get the connection, five minutes having elapsed. That's when the female winked, by stars. I could hardly believe my transit in this academy—oblivious recruitment to naked flirtation in a span of weeks. I returned to my sandwich (all good without the crust), enjoying renewed gusto, and proceeded to peel the top off a tin of diced fruit in syrup. Every so often I glanced up at the temptress and was rewarded with another of her patented winks. It threw me, Jimbo.

For purpose of argument, let's say I acknowledged her in some way—perhaps by winking back. Well, that seemed a nerve-racking affair. I could just end the whole episode and walk up to her and lay it on the line: "I don't know you, miss, but something about your face and hairstyle rattles me. Where we go from here is anybody's guess."

At that point, you can surely see we'd be rather betrothed. I know a "wedding" is involved at some stage. Then I'd be in a predicament since I get the impression there's a proletariat horror of romance in these parts—demonstrated by my very comrades who seem to either turn blank-faced when the subject is raised, or blurt out some obscene slang (whose pronunciation, let alone meaning, bewilders me.) All signs point to bachelorhood, friend.

Oh Hell, I've thought it through, Jim. As this siren lacerates my guts with every sodden wink, who wouldn't desire to communicate with her? Let's break it down: It might be thrilling to hold her hand and walk some distance, although it would be impossible to explain motives to a watchful authority. If only a relationship existed already, I could simply stroll across the cafeteria and sit down at her table. How delightful to rendezvous without all the expository fluff we'd have to negotiate.

There is a private dreamscape, Jim. I'll give you a taste, and if I'm breaking decorum, so be it. I know you'll give me the word (or sand in the face) if I get mushy. It's only the biggest cliché of all I desire: shipwrecked with the girl—on an island! There'd be food, of course, island fare, natural fruity stuff. In my thoughts, Jim, she has a pleasant voice. She needs me. I somehow fabricate a hut against harsh breezes. She seeks my advice, my calm—she worries about food. I tell her the island is plentiful. It's a lot like Gilligan's Island, Jim.

What would we talk about? That's foggy. We'd exchange names certainly, but, my friend, I admit I'm not any more keen on the sex stuff than you are. It's not what drives me at this phase. I envision a nudge of my lips against her pale cheek now and again, yes, but to actually touch a girl's mouth would be messy, Jim.

Eventually, I did rise from my seat. I'm part of "Red Section," and we were called back to business. I strolled toward the refuse container to deposit my trash, but her eyes didn't follow. The peach-bowed girl continued looking at my table even while it was empty. And her left eye, Jim, continued winking at the nothingness. Apparently it was afflicted with a twitch that had nothing to do with my singular looks. That, or she's a "retardo." I lay before you, sir, the brand of madness evoked by these fictive match ups.

More satisfying is my comradeship with dependable Chuck—an energetic brother of Red Section, with an abnormally perfect "Moe" haircut. We've shared the same book on occasion (can we turn the page now? I often ask) and some mornings enjoy a meal before the day begins in earnest.

They do a nice breakfast here, Jim. Corn flakes, milk, a pleasant slice of toast soaked in institutional margarine. As is custom, we spread a few sugar packets over the flakes. Chuck possesses a restless imagination, and our morning talks have been stimulating and edifying. It's shocking how relevant is the new television series, UFO. Have you seen it, Jim? A fabulous British thing. How is it we lucked into this transmission way over here in the Americas?

The "good guys," as I'll refer to them, pilot around in attack spacecraft whose nose cone is literally a detachable missile. It's quite extraordinary. When they encounter one of these UFOs (an acronym, slips me at the moment), a good third of their ship breaks off and rockets toward the intruder. No one in my extended family is even faintly aware this program exists (perhaps because they're still at work), and honest-to-God, it's never even mentioned by the higher-ups in Red Section. The administration here has their plans, their schedules, and they do a crack job of it, but great stars, man, how can they appear so untutored in the astounding cultural happenings? The great question on everyone's mind should be: who are the aliens? And from where? Can they be brought to terms? You can imagine the whirlwind brainstorming Chuck and I had after that episode where a downed alien is glimpsed. We were unpardonably late.

If there's a theme to all this, I'd say it's, "where's the fun part?" That seems to be the elephant in the room, Jim. We mine it. We seek it out in all our duties. There's usually some angle or spin generating it. Sometimes I laugh at virtually anything. Others share the malady. In fact, a lot of us burst out laughing in unison with hardly any real cognizance of what started it.

Our mothers spoke across the fence Saturday. Something about advanced studies a decade from now. College, Jim. Will there be enough funds, was the topic. Or will the war in Southeast Asia be waiting. I can't trouble myself—shanghaied to patrol boy service, standing in the rain waving a giant mustard-colored flag is what haunts my unconscious hours.

I'm running full bore now, right in the thick of that exotic PE game I've mentioned, where all the ones who become "it" proceed to tag their nearest neighbor, quickly multiplying in a sort of algorithm, spreading like a cold till there's one man standing and it looks like I'm the last, Jim, with everybody I know trying to touch me—that tall girl, Renita Thompson, right behind. She's a long one, I tell you. Attended my birthday soirée, you recall. You vomited on the occasion.

It's ludicrous, but I almost want her to catch me. The closer she gets, the more the fun part. My legs are pistons. I'm barely catching breath, and all this is somehow turning into sentences too elaborate for me to compose, typed out on pages for your reading pleasure even though you're illiterate. It's true ol' boy, you can barely spell your name, and it's only three letters.

I see you all too well, Jim, blond-haired and destined to turn brown like your siblings, hunkered down in your sandbox, digging away, shaded by a Mimosa tree. You're waiting for me to walk by after the two-thirty school bells roll into the backyard. One more year and your daddy will get his transfer and whisk your family to a distant time and place where I'm confident, sir, you'll locate the fun part without any further guidance.

Be good, Jim. I'll send you a prayer in the next century.