Monday, September 22, 2008

Chapter 7: Derrel's World

Its 10:30 pm on Tuesday and Derrel can hear the crashing of glass as he strides up the gravel driveway. He strides purposefully onto a worn path in the overgrown grass of the front yard, past a broken down 1987 Yamaha motorcycle engine, past a kiddie pool filled with a culture of green algae, and towards the frayed Astroturf covered steps leading to the aluminum door of his family’s double wide trailer outside of Roy, Washington.

He’s not scared. He’s pissed. He had the perfect night up till this point. Out deep in the woods on the outskirts of town his girlfriend Nadene held him close as they lay on the hood of her red F-150 pick smoking a joint and staring at the stars through the limbs of cascade evergreens. Underneath an afghan blanket Nadene, a sophomore twirled Derrel’s chest hair underneath his Carhart hooded sweatshirt and they talked about the teachers they hated, and the car he wanted to buy if he could only save the money from his after school job at the mill. Derrel loves the way Nadene’s sandy blonde hair smells like Suave raspberry conditioner. Derrel wants to marry Nadene just to prove to himself that life isn’t just another sad disappointment.
But now as he slams open the flimsy door to his home all that serenity rips itself from his mind and his fists tighten. Tonight Derrel, only seventeen, has had enough. Tonight Derrel will make a stand.

Even in this moment of pure anger, as he steps up into the hall, he still recognizes the smell of Winston cigarettes and TV dinner, the smell of his home. He walks into the living room to see his mother weeping in the corner, hair matted to her face from tears, a large smear of blood across her cheek. Derrel’s father, Karl, is pacing back and forth in kitchen with a can Schlitz frantically smoking a cigarette.

“Oh GREAT! Derrel the perfect son is home.” Karl spats through his graying mustache and hollow sunken eye sockets.

“Fuck you tweaker mother fucker.” Derrel quickly fires back, as he walks directly toward his father.

Up to this point in his life he had taken lickings from his father. Fathers possess the kind of strength that would lose in any fight except against their sons. A father’s strength comes from years of mental maturity and knowledge held over their sons. And, inevitably, the point comes in every father son relationship where a passing of the guard takes place. It could be physical, it could be mental, it could be financial, but in every father son relationship the moment comes where the son becomes the alpha male. Tonight Derrel has reached his limit.

Karl has been on crystal meth for about six months. Before that it was whiskey and speedballs, before that it beer and crank. Before that it was just straight beer, and lots of it. Karl lost his job driving a cement truck the year before and the family had been making ends meet on welfare and not much else. Karl has always been an asshole and a loser in every sense of the white trash cliché. And he is about to become a dead asshole.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Chapter 6: The Commute

Leonard drives like a bat out of hell in his work truck. He’s been driving it for so long it has almost become an extension of his physical body. Most people know their cars but Leonard spend eight hours a day getting in and out of his work truck. Highways, freeways, county roads, country roads, gravel roads, driveways, gated communities, logging roads, forest service roads, you name it Leonard’s driven it. He’s not a flashy driver though. He’s considerate but effective and efficient. After years of reading meters he’s realized that the reading is only part of the job, the other part transporting oneself two and from the reading area.

Leonard weaves in and out of traffic going north on I-5 calmly and smoothly popping sunflower seeds into his mouth, drinking a Mountain Dew at nine thirty in the morning and listening to his one guilty pleasure of life, Howard Stern. Leonard doesn’t listen to The Stern Show because of the dirty talk, naked women or fart and poop humor, he listens because its routine. He’s been listening to Howard, Robin, Arty, Fred and Gary for three years and now knows all the inside jokes between them. Most people think Howard Stern is disgusting but Leonard realizes that it really is just an on air reality show, disgusting but real. Howard and the cast reveal their quirky embarrassing lives on the air everyday and he knows more about them than any real person in his life. In a way they are his only friends.

He only has to deal with I-5 for a short time before exiting the Portland Avenue offramp in the armpit of the armpit valley that Tacoma, Washington sits in. Fife, Port of Tacoma and Puyallup are connected by a long vein running next to the muddy, coffee colored Puyallup River. The speed limit drops to fifty miles an hour and Leonard rotates his view back and forth between dilapidated Indian Reservation smoke shops, used car lots, and the rusting iron bridges that cross the toxic river perpendicular to Puyallup River Road. Fisherman line up in the morning to fish for salmon. Leonard always wonders who would fish for salmon that swim up through an industrial port into the grease stain of city that is Puyallup.

Soon Leonard is crossing the river on the last iron bridge past a roller rink and other strip mall establishment and gas stations. He is stuck behind a semi truck again, but the diesel exhaust doesn’t usually bother him as much as the slow speed. He accelerates past it on the two lane on ramp and pretty soon he’s shooting up the Puyallup river valley past Auburn towards the Buckley Hill. The September sun is rising through the cascade trees in the hills and a low fog sits across the fertile agricultural valley. He leans to the right and lets out a wet greasy fart and repositions himself in the seat.

“Pepperoni Pizza Pocket and blueberry Pop-Tarts uh humph!” He mutters to himself confirming the flatulent scent with his dinner menu the night before. He steps on the gas to put the automatic transmission into fourth gear and speeds up the hill out of the valley.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Chapter: 5 Meter Reader Equipment

All the meter readers at PSE get work trucks, either a Chevy S10 or a Ford Ranger. Both, ridiculously, are rear wheel drive. The work truck is one of the most important pieces of meter reading equipment. It can offer sanctuary from rain, snow, dogs, and the summer heat. It can serve as a dining room, napping space and routing center. Leonard has a S10 and prefers it to the Ranger because it has a lower center of gravity and is faster. It has a trusty air conditioning that comes in handy often. His rig recently got fitted with a canopy in preparation for a future project. Unlike his poor Red Tercel, Leonard’s work truck is kept fairly clean. The reason for this, much to Leonard’s chagrin, is that the readers have bimonthly cleanliness inspections. Leonard waits till the last possible moment to clean the floor of his work truck from the sunflower seeds that have accumulated there over a two-week period.

The next piece of essential meter reading equipment is the two-way radio and cell phone. The entire PSE staff is tied together by free two-way radio. Every meter reader can contact every other by push of a few buttons. The meter readers in Leonard’s department are constantly squawking at each other through out the day. Every reader has a playful call sign. When Leonard calls a fellow reader he announces, “LEONERD ALERT, LEONERD ALERT,” and then follows by asking if the reader is available for chat. Readers often use the vast wealth of knowledge that they have to help each other locate stubborn meters, ask about past experiences with dogs and home owners (often owners are worse), and to call for assistance when trucks get stuck in a ditch, mud or snow. Leonard keeps his clipped to the passenger side sun visor and may clip it to his hip depending on circumstances of peril.

The route list is an often-unutilized part of the meter readers lives. Rookies like Brandon still cross out every meter they read, a cumbersome rookie practice to ensure completing a route. Seasoned veterans like Leonard, Roni, Jesse and Mike can navigate an entire day of routs and meter locations through reading the information displayed on the LCD screen of their ‘bumper’ devices.

Each meter reader wears specific attire. Many veteran readers adorn PSE fleeces and black denim work jackets showing the insignia. But most importantly all readers wear the florescent green reflector vests to designate to all who look upon them that they are a certified utilities worker. Many times these vests save readers lives from possible misidentification as a criminal, thief, or evil intruder. Leonard’s vest has various stains, rips and fading, and no longer carries much of a reflective flair what so ever. It is also constantly coming unbuttoned because it is a size too small.

The last, and possibly most important, pieces of equipment are the map books. Each meter reader has Pierce, King, Thurston, Lewis, and Kitsap County map books showing every possible back road that could be located in that years edition. Leonard’s are snuggly tucked behind the cab bench, dog-eared and torn in various worn out locations. A meter reader’s efficiency essentially lies in their ability to understand, remember, utilize and navigate their map books. Leonard uses his on only the most stubborn of addresses and new housing developments because, after 6 years, he has most of the Puget Sound memorized.

Leonard runs through his daily checklist of necessary items, plots his course out to the Orting Valley, packs his face full of sunflower seeds, warms the truck up and bullshit’s out the window to Roni in the next parking space. Roni prepares for lift off herself. Leonard chokes on a sunflower seed and washes it down with the last of his Coca Cola. Leonard doesn’t swallow the shells.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Chapter 4: Assignments

“Alright, Alright folks, lets hop to now, look lively,” a red-faced tornado of a woman says as she speedily floats around the workroom table. The woman is named Miranda. She is the utilities meter reader area lead. She only has one speed in life, full. She is a sixty five year old reformed hippie half out of the closet lesbian and no one in the office can tell if she’s on speed or not. Balancing magically in her arms are stacks of papers and the electrical devices. The papers are the meter routes for each of the readers for the day. The electrical devices are big gray calculator looking mothers with rubber bumpers on the corners. They hold all of the information the readers will need that day to find, locate and record their meter assessments. Because they are heavy, hard and sometimes serve as canine defense weapons, lovingly they are referred to by the readers as “Thumpers.” Leonard and Roni have both had to knock dogs unconscious with a Thumper to save their Carhart double knees from getting a few holes and their asses from getting a tetanus shot.

Crazy speedfreak Miranda is passing out the routes and Thumpers to the readers. Routes are like slot machines mixed with seniority. A reader never knows what they’re going to get, but the longer they’ve been there the better chances they have of getting a good route. Everyone has their niches, specialties, unfair duties and special routes. Brandon is the bitch of the group, and he’s hungover. He pulls the worst routes. Today he got a CellNet route in industrial Port of Tacoma Factory and Warehouse district. Everyone hates CellNet routes.

In the not to distant meter reading past, all meters were read by sight contact. But with the advent of cellular communication in the early nineties, electrical, gas, and water meters have been slowly gotten replaced by cellular signal and read emitting reading units. Inevitably, ten percent of these transmitters are faulty because of clouds, batteries or cover, which basically means that partly drunk, young, and pissed of spiky haired Brandon has to go out into the industrial alleyways and underbellies of the shipyards of an armpit of a town and search out the last remaining non functioning little suckers and read them by sight. To Brandon, its like an eight hour hell-like wild goose chase treasure hunt. These days all readers dispise.

“Bullshit! Port of Tacoma again?” Brandon moans, “Why do you hate me Miranda? Why do you insist on ruining my life?”
“Brandon, quite your bitchin’ we all were rookies once, deal with it!” Miranda says back in a surly voice as she frantically waddles by.

“A crap, Puyallup again, I hate that city,” Jesse says upon receiving here Thumper.
“But you’re so good at it Jesse!” Miranda pipes up sarcastically.

“Old town Tacoma, that’s what seniority is all about my friends,” Mike softly beams. Old town Tacoma is a nice route because readers get to be near the water in a nice neighborhood. Mike fantasizes about living there someday when his kid gets on his feet.

“Oh Boy! The town of Roy,” Roni cackles.
“East or West?” Leonard asks.
“West today, probably east tomorrow,” Roni returns.
“And for you my boy, my darling Leonard, you get River Road Orting,” Miranda says proudly.
“OOOH” the crowd of meter readers says in unison.
“I don’t care what you say, I like it out there,” Leonard states aloud.

“Whatever Lenny! You say hi to Miss Wernickie for me wontcha?” Brandon snickers. Everyone busts up laughing. Miss Wernickie pulled has pulled a shotgun on multiple readers over the years. Her female Rottweiller Abigail is nothing to screw around with either.

“Sorry I’m late Miranda,” a blond, meager, timid boy says as he rounds the corner of the nearest cubicle. The boy is actually a man in some ways. His name is Phil and he’s an asexual feminine drummer in a Radiohead rip off band. He’s a flake, and always late, and he’s wrecked his truck three times on the job. One wreck involved a lawn jockey. He’s been on the verge of termination for three years. Phil also gets laughed at for drinking Yerba Mate from a Peruvian mug.

“Well karma’s a bitch Phil, McChord Air Force Base for you today,” Miranda replies.
“That’s what I get for being late, I’ll be her on time more often,” but it is just as meager of a retort as Phil’s sweater is to the Puget morning chill.

Everyone but Leonard and Roni got CellNet routes. But, out in the woods, the boonies, banjo country, the sticks, the bum frick of Egypt, this technology hasn’t reached yet. The Puget Sound runs down the water way of the indent of northwest Washington. The further east you go from this corridor, from Seattle to Olympia, on your way into the Cascade Mountains, the further you are stepping into some of the creepiest communities of back woods whacko’s in Washington. This is the realm of Leonard K. Humple. Leonard is widely accepted by the crew as the backwoods specialist. Roni used to be, but Leonard, for he is at home amongst his own kind, emerged only recently as the go to specialist for this area. Leonard and Roni typically work as a team to split this diverse and vast sprawl of trailers, meth labs, and forgotten husks of towns all along the wooded valleys pouring out of the wild Cascades into the I-5 corridor. Leonard, Roni, Mike, Brandon, Jesse, Phil, Miranda, Eleanor, and Miss Wernickie head out for the day.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Chapter 3: The Gang

Leonard works at Puget Sound Energy. Leonard is an electric and gas meter reader. The home office is located in the extended commercial sprawl behind the Tacoma Mall. The building that PSE operates its south Puget Sound branch from is located along 38th Avenue which is lined with a smattering of contemporary American chain businesses. Leonard knows them by heart, Big 5 sporting goods, Taco Bell, Goodwill, Guitar Center, Costco, Jared’s Galleria of Jewelry, Starbucks, AMPM, a Chevron Station, Guitar Center, the Great Wall of China Casino, the Tacoma Police Department, US Healthworks, and Marlene’s Health Food Co-Op line the street like barnacles sifting the commercial tides for debris and business.

He pulls into the back parking lot of the large windowless industrial monolith building at 7:30 am every day. This gives him precisely fifteen minutes to put a dip of Grizzly chew in, add his empty orange soda cup to the piling mosaic of fast food refuse in the back seat, grab his backpack, steal a newspaper from a workroom table, and take massive dump in the second to the end men’s locker room bathroom while he reads the comics. After leaving the locker room area in a cloud of nuclear stench, Leonard walks down the isles of grey chest high cubicles to the back where his Meter Reading group area meets at 7:50 am every morning. Leonard likes to be the first meter reader there.

Today Roni beat him to the punch. She is a fifty three year old married mother of two. She is short and portly but carries her weight well. She’s got a sarcastic look to her and an unmistakable cackle when she laughs. Roni is probably Leonard’s best friend. A box of pastries is laying open on the large circular table in the center of the cubicles and Leonard B lines straight toward it.

“Good morning Roni, good morning Evelyn, I see were starting the day off on a sweet note er uh huh,” Leonard announces as he approaches the table.
“Mornin’ Lenny my boy, save me a apple fritter this time will ya?” Roni says slyly and retorts into a cackle. She laughs like a smoker but never has.
“Your welcome Leonard, I got you a maple bar,” an elderly voice pops over a cubicle wall.”
“That’s why you’re my angel from above Eleanor,” Leonard replies lovingly.

Eleanor is the meter assessment department secretary. Leonard and Roni often joke that they do not know exactly what her job is. But she writes the checks, buys the donuts, makes birthday cakes and gets everyone to sign cards for anniversaries, birthdays, retirements and sick employees and is generally well loved by everyone. Eleanor is also losing what is left of her died burgundy hair.

Leonard pulls a one-liter Coca Cola bottle out of his backpack and sits down to his maple bar with the paper. He’s awake enough now for the front-page. Mornings are pretty quiet except for the sound of the coffee maker perking away, Leonard’s mumblings about current affairs and Roni’s complaints about her husband. Mike usually shows up next. He is a sixty-four year old father nearing retirement. He is the veteran meter reader of the department and is the go to guy for advice on locating fabled meters and the best tactics for defending oneself against a Doberman pincer attack. Roni has been reading for eight years herself and trained Leonard when he joined the company six years earlier.

Mike is an aloof sort of guy. He rarely says anything. For a salty veteran of the utilities industry he still maintains a soft and gentle demeanor. Mike is one of those men that say “Ahh” and “Oh, okay” a lot and Leonard often wonders what he’s thinking about.

Jesse and Brandon show up simultaneously most days. Jesse is a three hundred pound thirty one year old woman with a smiling pleasant face. She is not over weight, rather, looks like a giant Viking warrior. Fittingly, in her free time she likes to partake in medieval sword fights. That is, she is part of a renaissance group that reenacts knightly battles on the weekends. He weapon of choice is the long sword and she is proud of her hobby.
“Hi y’all, ooh donuts,” she greets everyone in a fading Georgia drawl. The group returns with various mumbles and remarks.

Brandon slumps down in one of the chairs and puts his head down on the table. From out of his black hooded sweatshirt a muffled “I’m so freaking hung over right now,” dribbles out. He follows this semi usual greeting with a groan and then buries his head further in his arm sleeve. Brandon is the baby of the group. He is also the green horn and has only been reading for two months. He’s fresh out of high school and the L.A. Looks Spike Gel level 5 is still wet and shiny on his short hairdo.

“Burning the midnight oil there Marlon Brandon?” Leonard teases Brandon with his version of a clever nick name.
“I’m never drinking Jagermeister again,” he whines as he lifts his head. Brandon hates his nickname but tolerates it because he feels sorry for Leonard most of the time.

Chapter 2: Breakfast Burritos

Leonard truly has no one to impress in life. The only confidant and friend he ever had died the year before. His mother Marjory died quietly in her sleep, in her hairnet, in her love seat, in her townhouse. Leonard didn’t cry outwardly. He simply buried her alone on a sunny day in a cemetery off Highway 16 overlooking Gig Harbor. She was sixty-eight. He inherited the townhouse and a 1983 red Toyota Tercel that he still drives today although he hasn’t washed it once. The shocks on the front driver side are shot from the stress of his weight and the car tilts to the side slightly. He always jokes in his nasally voice, “It makes sharp left hand turns though, uh humph.” The people at the Jiffy Lube where he gets his oil changed every five thousand miles are usually unimpressed.

Leonard sits in his Tercel every morning and does pay attention to one personal detail. He parts what remains of his sandy blonde and graying hair and combs the rest across his balding head. Because of the grease, the hair will stay there, perfectly, throughout the day. This makes him smile sometimes, which he often does. His face, although round, scraggled, and squinty is warm. His expressions are often boyish and forlorn despite the unfortunate shell with which they have to work.

“Uh humph,” he mumbles as he struggles to stretch the seatbelt across his gut. He turns on the radio to National Public Radio. The BBC World News scratches on. He puts the transmission into drive and pulls out into the world. Its mid September and the sun is shooting through the hemlock branches. Leonard is annoyed that the defroster hasn’t completed its one and only job of removing the frost from the inside of the windshield. The frost wouldn’t be there if he removed all the fast food soft drink cups from the floor of the back seat. The car smells like onions.

The first big decision of the day is his toughest. He stops every day at one of two places, McDonalds or Burger King. He never knows which one he will choose until he comes around the corner and sees the morning sun shining off one of the illuminated plastic signs. Without fail he is always in the wrong lane for his choice and must frantically change lanes to make the drive through entrance.

“Good Morning, welcome to McDonald’s can I help you?” a familiar voice squawked at him in unenthusiastic monotone.
“Good Morning to you to Lydia, I’ll have my usual uh humph,” Leonard replies happily.
“Thanks Leonard, see you at the next window,” she perks up in a brighter tone. Leonard pulls his tilted Tercel forward where a pear shaped girl leans out to take his money. She has a pale round face, small mousy mouth, a collection of pimples on her forehead and her hair is pulled back and up into a black faded McDonalds visor.

“Hidey Ho Lydio!” Leonard giggles out the window as he grabs his large orange soda, no ice.
“Well howdy yourself there Lenny, starting your day off right today?” She asks sincerely.
“Only way to do it right? It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood a lovely day for a breakfast burrito!” He says trying to imitate Mr. Rogers. Lydia takes his five-dollar bill. She often enjoys these little exchanges in the morning. In her mind, Leonard is one of the only creatures on earth that knows she exists.

“You want me to toss the change in the Ronald McDonald House box again there Leonard?” She asks knowing the answer.
“You betcha, or keep it for yourself someday okily dokily?” Leonard says joyfully as he snatches the white bag from her hands. A glimmer of sunlight glints off his glasses, arms stretching and silhouetted against the rising sun.

“Toodles!” That’s right, Leonard is a toodler. It is one of the many catch phrases that makes up his comedic and old fashioned personality. He varooms off, exhaust putting away the morning chill. Leonard opens the bag with one hand, opens the breakfast burrito with the same hand and uses the hand like a surgical tool operating on stuffing his face. He usually can get a breakfast burrito down in three bites, there are two of them, and the hash brown patty in one. Leonard doesn’t care for condiments this early in the morning. He drives with his left hand resting on the molding of the door. He savors his orange soda as he slows to a stop approaching the last straight away before the narrows bridge. By this time its 7:15 and morning rush hour traffic is in full swing. School has just started up for the year and the traffic is thickening lately. Leonard pays no mind, he’ll make it to work on time, like always.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Chapter 1: In the Beginning There Was Humple

10:19 pm Tuesday, in Apartment 307D in Bremerton, Washington. Leonard K. Humple sleeps peacefully on his recliner, extender foot rest erect and sagging from the weight of his massive calves. The big toe of his left foot pokes out of the yellow banded tube sock, the sock, however, does not match the navy blue banded sock on the other foot. Regardless of band color, they both smell like mildewed boot leather. His white fake leather Velcro shoes sit in disarray at the foot of the recliner. His belly spills out of his unbuttoned, pleated knock off Dockers slacks.
The muted television flickers images of Ron Popeil’s infomercial for his famous Ronco Showtime Rotisserie Grill.

“Not one, not two, not three but four easy payments of thirty-four ninety-nine.” He mouths over the screen into the yellow light of the room. Leonard farts and shifts in his recliner.
“That’s right folks, all you have to do is SET IT AND FORGET IT.” Ron says with a silent plastic smile. Sadly, that is what life has done to Leonard, set him and forgotten him, turning him in the hot steamy rotisserie of the Puget Sound lower class of life.

Tonight is like every other work night. He falls asleep with his tinted industrial bifocals snuggly resting on his pudgy Santa Clause nose. After his nightly delicacy of TV dinners, or frozen burritos, or ham and cheese flavored Pizza Pockets and one liter of Mountain Dew, he likes to sit down and read the paper, again, and always falls asleep watching Star Trek reruns. He has a bed, but rarely sleeps in it because he has been falling asleep in that recliner his whole life. When, at the age of nine, he became to overweight for his mother to carry him to bed and simply stopped sleeping there. With the sounds of cars passing by on Highway 16 and Pop Tart crumbs in his blonde and gray mustache he sleeps through the night.

Leonard gets up around 6:30 am every morning. He hardly showers at this time of day. That uncomfortable ritual is usually reserved for Sunday evenings or weeknights in the summer when even he can’t stand his own sour smell. Some mornings he changes his socks, or at least one of them. Other mornings he changes his white Stafford orange and green striped tighty whitey underwear, especially if he had a small accident that day. He has three pairs of pants that he rotates depending on the amount of stains they obtain. He always struggles over his gut while sitting on his high twin sized bed to put his HiTek bargain store hiking boots. He ties them with a single knot. If he overslept, or snoozed the alarm to many times, he might even skip brushing his teeth. Leonard chews Wintergreen Grizzly Chew anyways, an acceptable breath freshener in his mind.

He also has five shirts on constant rotation. He wears the Friday shirt through the weekend. The Friday shirt is yellow and has the most ketchup stains out of all the other colors because Friday nights he stops at Dairy Queen on his way home from work. He likes to watch the pretty high school girls dance and giggle while they wait for their Blizzards and milkshakes. He appreciates their simple happiness and is not perverse in his internal affections for them. He is still a virgin at the age of forty-three and has never even kissed a girl, the prospect of intimacy is so lost on Leonard that sexual thoughts rarely enter his mind at all. The royal condiment stains on his shirt never see the light of day either because his work coat is always buttoned to the second to last snap.