Fiction: The Pop Lady Comes on Wednesdays
Posted on July 16, 2011, 3:39 pm by Paul A. Toth
Life, history and daily banalities, politics and terror. Stylistically technical yet accessible; far from being yet another conspiracy theorist’s paranoiac rage, Airplane Novel provides a unique examination of humankind through a non-human narrator: 9/11 as told through the South Tower of the World Trade Center.
In his fourth novel, Paul A. Toth mixes documentary with its bi-polar opposite and crafts a wonderful cubist and surreal tale of truth through fiction. The story, at times intense, sometimes engaging the reader into disturbing pathos, manages to shock despite the well-known reality of events, and, as always from Toth, it’s an hilariously stark reminder of how absurd it is to be human.
A true wordsmith and a voice that refuses to compromise, Toth’s first three novels–Fizz, Fishnet, and Finale–form a nonlinear trilogy often referred to as the “F” novels. In these, Toth examines the many aspects of self and identity, offering a fresh and pertinent commentary on the loss of individuality in modern industrialized societies.
His writing expertly depicts that struggle to make sense of self and one’s genuine worth in a society that barely allows any emergence of personal identity; Airplane Novel is no different. As well as novels, he has written numerous short stories. His works are unusually clever, farcical dramas laced with undertones of violence, cruelty, and filled with a wild, rhythmical exuberance of their very own.
The Pop Lady Comes on Wednesdays
They called me Sneaky Stevens and I was in love with the Pop Lady. I drank nothing but the pop from her machine, never touching the water cooler. When I drank Sprite, I felt her blond haystack hair on my shoulders. When I drank Minute Maid Orange, I smelled fruit trees in Venezuela, where we would spend our winters cozy as unpeeled plantains. When I drank Coke, I saw apple-red lust. One day by chance we’d leave the parking lot at the same time. We’d park in a cornfield. The cops would come but leave us alone, wistful in their uniforms.
The Pop Lady filled the office soda machine every Wednesday afternoon.
She replenished Canadian Dry Ginger Ale by bending over at a 75 degree angle, Surge at 60, Minute Maid at 55, Diet Coke at 50 and Coke at 45. Each movement revealed specific creases and cleaves, depending on the elasticity of jean and other factors like bra thickness, etc. After emptying the change and dollar bills, the Pop Lady closed and locked the machine door with a train-like clack-clack. Then, another 604,800 seconds of misery.
But not this time.
I’d been in love with the Pop Lady since her arrival in October of 1997, one year after I started my job as a Michigan United Casualty claims adjustor. I knew my coworkers suspected I spent Friday nights watching pornography.
It’s true I was shameless in my imagining. What cunning feats of cunnilingus I would render should the Pop Lady appear on my coffee table, ripe with oohs and ahhs and ohs, like scenes from the scrambled cable station appearing and disappearing in ribbons of static.
It took months, but by the summer of 1999 I had finally decided to weld daydream to reality. I would couple in hyperventilation with the Pop Lady. From now on, sheets for two. No more cheating nature and the producers of birth control devices.
Shortly thereafter my reports began to suffer. I failed to discover necessary details, the tidbits that win personal injury lawsuits. I lacked the killer instinct, the eagle eye, the hawk’s demeanor.
So one day Ken Himmerton invited me into his manager’s office. I sat in the dwarfing visitor’s chair. He sat in his extra-special leather manager’s chair, which had formed a shadow of comfort around the contours of his every curve and bulge. Ken was rather large and has a wobbling limp. He looked at me for some time, then away and out the window. He knew — I knew – that my sex life was masturbatory. At least once a year Ken ”bagged a
blond with a killer smoking bod.” To Ken, life was all about “going for it.” My adventures were day — and night-dreamed. I am not one for windsailing, skydiving, bungee jumping.
Finally he cracked his knuckles and said, “What’s the problem, Steve?”
“Having marital trouble? Be frank.”
“I’m not married.”
“These reports,” he said, rifling through a stack of paperwork. ”I sent Tom out on a couple, just to follow up. The Gale wreck? He found several liquor bottle caps under the seat. That’s pretty shoddy, Steve, missing that kind of thing.”
If not for the Pop Lady, I would have quit. I had looked into real estate classes. As a real estate agent, I could freely roam the hills and dales of Michigan in pursuit of blond Venezuelan apple-red cornfield lust.
“How about Irene Cronen?” he continued. ”Did you realize she complains of a lumbosacral strain, yet continues to golf? She even bowls. I called the golf club and the alley myself. Took all of five minutes. Is drinking the problem?”
“I told you I don’t drink at the Christmas party. Remember? You asked if the old lady won’t let me drink and I told you I’m single.”
“Oh yeah, I was with that smoking hot blond. Well, if you need a detox program, the company understands. Tell your wife you’re out of town on a meeting. Otherwise, you need to pull it together. Not next week, but today, Wednesday. You’re going out to that VW accident site today, right? The guy walking down the middle of the street smoking? See if you can find a patch of elbow skin. The cops said they looked but it was night, so–”
“I know. I’ll look hard.”
I looked at my watch: 2:45.
“I’ll leave at 3:13.”
“Are you kidding me? I’m not trying to bust your balls, Steve. I just want that elbow skin.”
This time she arrived at 2:57, slightly earlier than last week’s 2:58.
The week before she came at 3:01, an intolerable wait after a week’s time
I always washed my hands when she filled the machine. Then I sat at the break table, reading People. I could catalogue the intersection of People covers with the Pop Lady’s appearances, from the first time I saw her (Madonna’s New Found Maturity) to the last (Christopher Reeve Vows: I Will Walk Again).
This time, when I glanced over top of the magazine, she was looking back at me, or at least my eyeballs. Had she finally solved The Case of the Man Consistently in the Breakroom?
“No, there’s nothing in my pocket,” I’d say. ”I’m just happy to see you.”
Oh, that’s witty, Steve, witty as a beakless woodpecker.
I knew the van she drove, having followed her as far as the double doors, where the Smoking Secretaries huddled outside. Sometimes they caught me standing there staring. Then they flocked together and shared secrets.
“Did you know he lives with a parrot that squawks the most sexual noises and says horrible, filthy things? It must copy him. It’s not the bird’s fault; it’s Steve Stevens fault. Poor bird. That’s what I heard anyway. Remember that woman, from the regional office? Oh, sometimes I don’t know what to believe.”
Suddenly Himmerton said, “Three-fifteen, Stevens. Patch of elbow skin, remember?”
To time it perfectly, I had one minute left to kill, but Himmerton was filling his cup with water, looking at me through the sheen of a windsail on a clear Colorado day. What’s the matter — he was probably thinking — never seen a man drink pure plain water the way real men do?
“Go on, Stevens,” Himmerton said. ”Nothing happens in breakrooms.”
Would she grab my face, scratch my cheek, my nose?
“Get away from me. I’ve seen you staring at me. Get away! Over a picture
Christopher Reeve –how dare you.” Shrieking rabbit screams. Slashing me
with aluminum lids. ”What’d you think, I was gonna marry you? Don’t make
me laugh, insurance man.”
No. That wouldn’t happen. She would bring me forth.
We pulled out of the parking lot onto Oak Avenue at 3:25. She drove with
a pencil atop her ear and a clipboard against the steering wheel. I
watched her driver’s side and rearview mirrors, looking for signs of a rebound
glance, a throwback glare. I let the car behind me pass. She was driving at
47 miles per hour, safely above the speed limit, and not letting the car
behind her pass.
“Stevens probably takes Viagra to jack off,” one of the smokers, I suspected, once said.
They’d miss me when I was gone. I was the office scapegoat. After all, Shelly had once missed nearly legible signs of alcohol abuse on a doctor’s report. And Carl had sexually harassed Caroline, the ex-regional manager, right out of state, though not before the rumors started. And Himmerton himself had caused the biggest settlement in company history by recommending rejection of a quite reasonable mediation evaluation. Yet their jobs
Who was I kidding? I lacked swagger, that’s all. If I ran into a hallway traffic jam with somebody (Carl) and that somebody sarcastically said, “Wanna dance?” I’d shake my head and say, “No,” smiling.
That was all going to change. No one like me would follow the Pop Lady to another building and then approach her like Christopher Reeve unbound, with Madonna-like advocation of female sexuality. No, I had to summon the ugly spirit of Joe Himmerton and bungee jump across fields of panic, windsail across the Sea of Rejection, and skydive into the harrowing hello.
There I stood in the parking lot of State Farm Insurance, her first stop. If the boss saw me here, oh boy, oh Nelly. What would he think on the way to Taco Bell, that I was shuffling resumes en route to elbow skin? And, as a matter of fact, he just zoomed past, groundsailing to another late lunch (what sacrifices he made between killer hot bods and testosterone recharges in the super-chair). But I was almost sure he didn’t look. A man like Himmerton never took notice of the competition. And if Carl asked Ken to
dance, he’d get a kick in the sashay.
Climbing out of the car, I watched her open the rear doors of the van. We could empty the cans by popping lids and spraying rainbow soda. That’d make room in the back for you-know-what, and leave plenty of returnables for a romantic dinner afterwards.
Sure, think cheap, that’s the way to go. You think the guy who wrote How to Pick Up Women buys dinner with empty cans?
Leave me alone; I’m mustering. I am a semi-colon kind of man.
The Ken Himmertons of the world have no commas, they’re all periods. No dot, dot, dots for them. It’s a straight_to_the_point and don’t_waste_my_time philosophy. Ken Himmerton does not quote authorities, nor read self_help books. He does not go to therapy and he has never climbed 12 steps. He masters situations. He exudes. He does not buy books entitled, ”Everything I Ever Needed to Know…” (there I go again: dot, dot, dot). He buys books entitled, “Don’t bug me, I’m inside a killer hot bod.” That’s the way
you do it.
Okay, hotshot. There. Look. She is staring right at you. Unfreeze, defreeze, do something.
Oh boy, oh Nelly, her mouth makes a funny expression.
You’re no Ken Himmerton, you parrot corrupter.
What, I thought, remembering, if she wants to come back to my place?
But she’s just staring at you, stupid.
“May I help you?” the Pop Lady said.
She has talked to me. And she knows that I am the guy from the breakroom of 536 Oak Avenue. Wait. Actually, no, she doesn’t know, since I had carefully maintained the face of People magazine all this time. One week I was Andie McDowell and the next Michael Jordan. Presto, change_o.
“Funny how they build these insurance companies so close together,” I said.
Are you kidding? This fails the banter test.
“Ken Himmerton,” I suddenly said, chest expanding Superman_style.
“Samantha,” she said, holding her hand out.
Take it. Take the hand and pirouette. Ah, what pale, pale hands.
“So pleased,” I said, as if I kept French beneath my hat.
You’re not wearing a hat.
“I work down the street,” I said. ”I’ve admired you for some time.”
“Do you really? At Michigan United? That’s funny. I used to have a
crush on a man there, a rather large man with a funny limp.”
“Him? Lucky you escaped. That’s Sneaky Stevens. Rumors are he has an
obscene parrot and a porn habit.”
“You’re funny,” she said, giggling.
“Just this morning I chastised him for not — how should I put it — having
the balls to close the deal. To KO his opponent.”
“Well, gosh, I guess it’s good I did steer clear. I’m a businesswoman.
I’m not attracted to that kind of guy. I’m a tom girl deep down.”
“Men these days, they’re not even men anymore.”
“Oh, you’re French.”
“And you’re silly,” she said, grabbing my arm and then watching her own hand linger.
“Have you ever wanted to play hooky and do something naughty?” I asked.
“Oh, I don’t know.”
That night I arrived home and realized it was once again time to quit my job. Already Caroline had quit, confused when she met Carl “again” the day after we had sex. Because she smoked, I knew she had left behind rumors of false identity and a certain parrot with the Smoking Secretaries.
But the Pop Lady would return, week in and week out, so to speak. Sooner or later she would sit in the chair of chairs and ask, “But if you’re Ken Himmerton, then who was–”
Now my parrot stared across the living room, just as it had that night Caroline lay in my arms whispering, “Oh, Carl.”
“Sneaky Stevens quit again, quit again,” the parakeet squawked. ”Oh, well. Cunnilingus. Oooooohhhhh. Ahhhhhhhhh. Sheets for two.”
This story was originally published by Flesh & Blood Magazine and was nominated for the 17th edition of the Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror.
© 2011, Paul A. Toth