The Fester Area Transit number 17 bus wheezed to a halt by the cracked sidewalk. There was a loud pop and the brittle tinkle of glass as it ran over an empty malt liquor bottle. The doors accordioned open with a groan. Steven Nancy climbed out, paper lunch sack in hand. The doors slammed shut and the bus pulled away with a tired roar. Steven trudged down the street towards his connecting bus stop.
He worked in an electronics plant on the far side of the city – almost out in the country. In order to make it to work for his 6 a.m.-to-6 p.m. shift, Steven had to get up shortly after 4 a.m., get the first bus of the day down to the industrial district, then pick up the number 47 bus that carried him the rest of the way to the Skyron Electronics plant.\
Skyron made battery packs that were used in sex toys and surface-to-air missiles. The plant was located just outside of the city limits in order to avoid paying municipal taxes. It made for a long commute, especially by the FAT bus.
He had a three-block walk down Slocum Avenue to pick up the connecting number 47. The neighborhood around Slocum was a hodgepodge of poorly-maintained warehouses, upholstery shops, and light manufacturing facilities. They were all in various states of disrepair. The neighborhood was a symphony of neglect and decay: broken glass and graffiti, rust and burned-out lights. It was ten pounds of ugly in a five-pound bag.
There were only two bright spots in the neighborhood. The first was a well-lit billboard touting a popular talk-radio program called “Us and Them.” It featured a ten-foot-high image of the well-fed face of Walt Drecksack, the program’s host. Underneath in large red letters was Drecksack’s catchphrase: “It’s Not Your Fault!”
As well-illuminated as Drecksack’s fat mug was, it paled in comparison to the Bounce. The Bounce was a drive-up coffee kiosk located on the corner of a shabby used-car lot. It was painted a screaming Day-Glo pink and lit with high-powered flood lights that made it stand out in the decrepit neighborhood like a ruby ring on a trash heap. The Bounce offered two things that made it immensely popular: extremely strong coffee and attractive bikini-clad baristas.
Steven had a terrible crush on the barista who worked there most mornings. She was tall, with straight blond hair that cascaded nearly to the small of her back. She was slender but curvy, with a rack that was large without being ridiculous and an ass that looked like an inverted valentine. She could easily compete with the girls in the nudie magazines that he kept stashed underneath his bed.
Steven didn’t know her name, had never talked to her, hadn’t even seen her up close. He only had about five minutes to make it to his connecting bus, and he didn’t have time to patronize the place. His boss, Mr. Capone, was a real asshole when it came to clocking in on time. Steven couldn’t afford to get his pay docked or lose his job. His existence was hand-to-mouth enough as it was.
Steven wished he had a better job, or a girlfriend, or a life, or a future. Once, it seemed like he had a future. His family had a decent house in a nice neighborhood, and his dad had a good-paying job at the Schmidt Pretzel Bakery. They took summer vacations to Ocean City, and Steven got nice toys for Christmas. He enjoyed school and had many friends.
Then, one day when he was ten, his dad was just – gone. No note, no missing clothes, no clue. His dad had just disappeared. It didn’t take long for the rumors to start flying around Fester: Mr. Nancy had run off with a floozy from the Pine Room; he’d fled to Florida to escape a gambling debt; he’d been carried off by a herd of sasquatches and forced to impregnate their women.
Steven’s life became a grind. His mom, forced to take low-paying jobs to make ends meet, became bitter and distant. Steven white-knuckled it through Fester High and barely made it into Prosser College across town. He finished his first (and only) year with a 0.9 GPA, left, and never thought of going back. College was just too damn expensive, anyway.
That had been three years ago. Eventually, Steven landed the job at Skyron and moved into a shabby shared house with four other guys. Skyron paid okay, but Steven owed a huge chunk of money for his disastrous year in college. Between the loan payments and rent, he barely had enough dough left for anything else.
Every day, Steven scurried down Slocum Avenue from one bus stop to the other, casting desirous glances towards the Bounce, and the girl of his dreams who literally had no idea that he even existed. He wished he could just roll up and ask her out with a James Bond-level smoothness. He knew it would never happen.
Steven hadn’t been on a date in over a year, and even that had been a disaster. He had asked out a chick from the Shipping department to go see a Ben Stiller movie. The date had started badly and quickly gotten worse. About halfway through the show, Steven had laughed so hard at a joke that he farted – a real stinker, too. His date stood up and left the theater on the spot. Steven had avoided the Shipping department ever since then.
Right around then was when Steven had first noticed the blond at the Bounce. He longed to stroll up and get her number, and ask her out on the spot. However, the idea of actually trying to initiate a conversation – even to just buy a cuppa – made him feel a little dizzy and scared. Why would she even give a damn about some sorry-ass, broke-ass, drag-ass schmuck who worked in a crappy factory on the edge of nowhere. Hell, he didn’t even have the wherewithal to cross the street for a fuckin’ cup of coffee. How could he even think about asking her on a date?
“I just don’t know how to talk to women,” Steven told his roommate, Hiram. “It’s not my fault.”
“Jesus,” said Hiram. “You sound like that Drecksack scumbag. Please tell me you’re not a fan.”
“Well, no, not really,” said Steven. “It’s alright, sometimes.”
Steven had started listening to Drecksack’s show involuntarily: there was always someone in the Skyron breakroom playing the show during the day. Drecksack initially came off as a loud-mouthed nutjob, although he occasionally came up with some funny skits. More and more lately, the humor had been replaced with mean-spirited snark. For some reason, Steven found this to be even more appealing. It had a soothing effect whenever he felt angry or confused – something that seemed to happen with increasing frequency ever since his disastrous date with the girl from Shipping.
Drecksack’s basic thesis was that all of the personal problems of his listeners were due solely to the malfeasance of: liberals, feminists, brown people, Freemasons, and extraterrestrials. Drecksack has some very definite ideas about how to deal with most of these troublemakers, although he was a little unclear about the extraterrestrials.
“You should give it a listen sometime,” said Steven.
“Aw, hell no,” said Hiram. “That guy only appeals to losers.” He rolled his eyes and took a hit from his bong.
“Hey, he knows the score,” Steven said defensively. “You should hear what he says about…”
“Ah, ah, ah,” said Hiram, holding up his hand. “I don’t wanna hear it. All politics is just a perpetual clown-fight anyway. Besides, that crap ain’t gonna help you hook up with this coffee chick.”
Steven scowled but kept silent. Of his four roommates, Hiram was the only one that he really got along with – and vice versa. He was a total Deadhead-style hippie who continually sported a ratty Baja pullover, lumpy blond dreadlocks and regular applications of patchouli oil that just missed covering up the fact that he rarely bathed.
“Dude, ya gotta just go for it,” Hiram said. “Don’t overthink it – just walk up and talk to her.”
“Shit, that’s easy for you to say,” said Steven. “You know how to talk to women. You grew up with, what, like four sisters?”
“Whatever. The point is that you’re used to talking to women. You know how to handle the situation. You know what they respond to. I was an only child, and my mom’s a total bitch. I never learned how to talk to women.”
“Wow, man, you are way overthinking this,” said Hiram. “You act like they’re aliens or something. You don’t need to, like, learn another language. They all speak English, man.”
“You coulda fooled me,” said Steven.
“Dude, you really gotta relax,” said Hiram. He slid the glass bong across the coffee table towards Steven. “Try a hit of this.”
“Are you kidding? They piss-test at work all the time. That’s the last thing I need right now, losing my job.”
“Your loss, man.” Hiram took a huge hit from the bong and wafted a cloud of fragrant smoke towards the water-stained ceiling. “Shit, there’s worse things that could happen to you than losing that soul-crushing job, man. That fuckin’ Skyron plant is just a tool of the military-industrial complex. You shouldn’t be wasting your life furthering their agenda.”
“Easy for you to say,” said Steven. “You’ve got a job that you can’t get fired from.”
Hiram was the assistant manager of his uncle’s Dairy Ferret, a fast-food joint that specialized in soft-serve ice cream that was mostly air. He spent most of his workday smoking joints behind the dumpster and spooning up chocolate ice cream when the manager wasn’t looking.
“Look, Steve-O,” said Hiram. “With this chick at the coffee place, you gotta just relax. Just talk to her like you would anyone else. Chicks are into that. Hell, this girl probably hears lame-ass pick-up lines all day long. Just fuckin’ talk to her, okay?”
“Yeah, yeah, sure,” muttered Steven. This was easier said than done, in his opinion. If he was any good at talking with women, he wouldn’t be seeking dating advice from wasted hippies.
On the other hand, Hiram never seemed to have any difficulty hooking up. He frequently brought home a variety of hippie chicks, and from the sounds that came from his room, he had no trouble getting them to come across. Most of them were kinda scruffy, but there were plenty who looked pretty cute once you got past the ratty hair, ridiculous clothes and goofy jewelry. Steven figured that he was in no position to criticize; better a scruffy hippie chick than no chick at all.
“Yeah, well, maybe you’re right,” Steven allowed.
“Course I’m right, dude,” said Hiram. He took a monstrous hit from the bong and launched another thick column of smoke at the ceiling.
“Still, I dunno, man,” said Steven. “The thing is that…”
“Shhh, shhh, shhh,” said Hiram, holding up his hand. “Silence, now. ‘Boscoville’ is coming on.”
They sat in silence and watched a rerun of the wildly popular syndicated cartoon. Steven has seen this episode before, and wandered off to bed after the first commercial.
Hiram was a stoned doofus, but maybe he was on to something. Steven wouldn’t smoke any weed, but he had no problem putting away the booze. He also had a little vacation time saved up. He could afford to take a day off. He’d get up an hour early, have a drink or two, and head down to the Bounce to talk to her. Nothing major – he wouldn’t get wasted, just have enough to be able to relax and maybe have a decent conversation. One where he wouldn’t feel stupid or ugly or desperate.
The next day at work, he put in to take the following Friday off. Not surprisingly, Mr. Capone was a total dick about it. Steven made up a bullshit story about a sick aunt in Harrisburg, and Capone grudgingly caved in. Steven had no doubt that Capone would ride his ass about if for a while, but he didn’t care. It would totally be worth it if he could score a date with her.
Thursday night, he went to bed early. He figured he’d get up about around 3:30, get cleaned up, have a drink, and head down to the Bounce. Of course, he had a hell of a time getting to sleep. It seemed like he had just dozed off when the alarm started screeching at him.
That was okay, though, since he figured his morning pick-me-up would help blow away the cobwebs. Steven knew that he couldn’t pound a bunch of Rolling Rocks and show up at the Bounce reeking of beer. Vodka would be better. He decided to go with a potent cocktail called an icepick. The ingredients were simple: half vodka and half sweet iced tea. He mixed up a pitcher and downed about a quart before he even got dressed.
He had put a lot of thought into his wardrobe. He wasn’t going to wear his normal grimy work duds, but he didn’t want to look like he was going to a funeral or anything like that, either. In the end, he picked out a pair of reasonably-clean jeans and a button-down shirt that his aunt had given him for Christmas. His sneakers were pretty scruffy, but he figured that she wouldn’t be able to see them from the kiosk window anyway.
The only hangup was his jacket. He really only had the beat-up Steelers jacket, and to be honest it looked like shit. There were also some political implications – what if she was an Eagles fan? In the end, he decided to just ditch the jacket. In order to ward off the early spring chill, he mixed up another batch of icepicks in a Thermos and brought it along with him.
He climbed on the bus, beaming. He felt great. He was sharp, cool, and ready to impress the hell out of the girl of his dreams. Suddenly, it occurred to him that she might not be working this morning. All of his carefully-laid plans would be shot to hell. Well, so be it. He was in it to win it. He took a long slug from the Thermos and immediately felt better. Things were going to work out great, he just knew it.
He got off the bus at his normal stop and gazed down the street at the Bounce, brightly lit like a beacon of hope in the gloom of Slocum Avenue. She was there, he could feel it. He was going to win her over.
He polished off the last of the icepick and sprinted across the street, even though there was no traffic. On the other side, he misjudged the curb and went down hard on one knee. He heard the denim rip and felt the sting as the concrete abraded his kneecap. He looked down and saw that there was a large tear on his good jeans and that blood was seeping from the wound. Well, at least it didn’t hurt too badly – the vodka had numbed it pretty well. He brushed it off and shrugged. He didn’t mind bleeding a little to meet the love of his life. It was romantic.
He felt his heart hammering in his chest as he approached the Bounce. He was pleased to see that there were no other customers lined up. Things were breaking his way this morning.
He was now a few paces from the window. No chickening out now. He stepped up and took his first close-up look at his beloved.
She was gorgeous. Absolutely stunning.
For a moment, Steven could only stare, open-mouthed. Fortunately, she was turned away, fiddling with the espresso machine, and couldn’t see him gaping.
She was wearing the tiniest of bikinis, colored bright red. The thing had about as much material as a cocktail napkin. The expanse of skin it revealed was flawless, smooth and evenly tanned. Her butt was like a ripe peach and her melons were like two perfect, well, melons. Her blond hair framed an angelic face, with two crystal blue eyes that were slightly inclined, making her look even more exotic and stunning.
She turned and eyed him. “Help ya?”
For a split-second, Steven froze. This was the do-or-die moment. He couldn’t choke now! Fortunately, the icepicks came to the rescue and he plunged ahead.
“Hey,” he said, with what he hoped was a smooth inflection. “Working hard or hardly working?”
“Ha, that’s a good one,” she said. “I’ve never heard that one before. Ha ha.”
Was she being sarcastic? The icepicks had disabled his bullshit filter. He’d just play the optimist and assumed he’d scored with his little bon mot.
“My name’s Steven,” he said, and thrust his hand through the window. She jumped back a little, gave his extended mitt a wary look, then reached out and gave him a perfunctory shake.
She touched him! An angel had touched him! Her hand was warm and damp and wonderful. His head spun. He wasn’t sure if it was love or just the icepicks.
She continued to look at him.
“Uh, what’s your name?” he asked.
Carol! It as beautiful as she was! It was as if a chorus of angels were singing her name. Continuing with this ecclesiastical theme, he said. “I bet you really like Christmas.”
“Because your name’s Carol. Like Christmas carols.”
“Oh. Yeah. Ha ha. You’re a regular comedian.”
Woozily, he decided that this, too, was another check in the win column. It was true: women really liked a good sense of humor.
“Look,” said Carol. “Do you want something or not?”
“Oh, hell yeah!” said Steven.
“Well waddaya want then?”
This was a loaded question, and it made him start to stiffen again. He leaned up against the counter to conceal his ardor. He considered telling the truth, but then said, “Uh, a coffee?”
“What kind?” She waved at the chalkboard behind her, which listed at least two dozen different types of coffee drinks. Steven had no idea what they were. He really didn’t drink coffee. The only kind he was familiar with was the toxic brew that came out of a vending machine in the Skyron break room. It came in cups with four playing cards on the side, with the hole card printed on the bottom.
“I dunno,” said Steven. “Just, like, a regular coffee, I guess. Unless you can think of something special I’d like.” He thought this was particularly clever.
“One Americano, then” Carol said. She turned to the espresso machine. Steven stared raptly at her ass.
“Would you stop staring like that?” she asked without turning around.
“Oh, yeah, sure.” She hadn’t even seen him, but she had known what he was doing. It was like they shared an unspoken bond. They must be soul mates!
Steven scanned the interior of the kiosk, trying to think of something else to say and pointedly avoiding staring at Carol’s body. He knew he was going to have to seal the deal soon. He said, “Uh, I really like your bikini.”
“Yeah, I can tell.”
“Don’t you get cold wearing a bikini here in the wintertime?” He figured he might as well show his sensitive side, to let her know that he was a thoughtful and caring guy.
“No,” she said. “There’s a heater.”
She turned and dropped a paper cup of coffee onto the counter, sloshing some over the rim. The smell of it hit him, and his stomach took a sudden lurch. The last thing he needed was black coffee, but he picked it up and took a huge swig. It burned his tongue and sizzled his gullet going down. It hit his gut and made it do a barrel roll. “Urkk,” he said. “Ucchh.”
“Two bucks,” she said. Still fighting to keep control, he fished a five-dollar bill out of his pocket and slapped it on the counter. “Keep – uungh – the change.”
“Thanks,” she said, and put the fiver in the tip jar.
Steven stood there, debating whether to hazard another sip. Carol just continued to squint at him. Finally, she said, “Hey, what are you doing running around with no jacket, anyway? You some kinda weirdo? It’s gotta be, like, forty degrees out.”
His heart soared. She really cared – he knew it! Suddenly, the inspiration for his deal-closer came to him, like all true genius, completely out of the blue. “I don’t need a jacket to keep warm when I’m looking at someone as hot as you.”
“Oh, my God,” she said.
Touchdown! Home run! Goal! He’d nailed it – she was as good as his. Now, to wrap it all up.
“So, howzabout we get together some time?” Not exactly James Bond material, but it would do.
“Oh, yeah, right,” she said.
He opened his mouth to square away the details, but then his gut took a mighty lurch. He knew from long experience that he had about ten seconds, tops.
“Awesometalktoyalater,” he blurted, then turned and sprinted away.
He’d made it about three-quarters of a block before a half gallon of icepicks and black coffee came rocketing out of his pie-hole. A significant portion of it splashed on his shirt. He glanced over his shoulder, praying that Carol hadn’t seen it. A van had pulled up to the window, and the driver was animatedly chatting away with his angel. Tough luck, sucker, he thought. She’s mine.
Puking made him feel a little better, but not much. From over his shoulder, he could see the bus he needed to go home heading his way. He’d go to the house, clean up, then come back down to the Bounce and make definite plans to take Carol out. Dinner and a movie. The traditional date deal. Chicks loved that sort of stuff.
He lurched onto the bus and plopped himself down in an empty seat. Nobody seemed to take any special notice of a blood-stained, puke-covered drunk guy boarding the FAT at six in the morning. It was just another bus ride in Fester.
Steven staggered into the house and flopped onto the bed. He’d just rest his eyes for a few minutes…
When he opened them again, it was nearly noon. He rushed back to the Bounce, but it was now staffed by a blank-eyed Puerto Rican girl in a negligee. She didn’t know when Carol would be working next. He went back on Saturday, but still no luck. The Bounce was closed on Sunday.
Steven spent the rest of the weekend in an ecstasy of fantasizing. He imagined their first date: a fine dinner at Hutchison’s followed by a movie at the Grand. He imagined them walking hand-in-hand on a tropical beach. He imagined a majestic wedding ceremony on a Pocono mountaintop.
All of these fantasies devolved quickly to hot monkey sex with his centerfold-worthy sweetie. By Sunday afternoon he had yanked his crank so many times that he thought he may have sprained his wrist.
On Monday, he was faced with a quandary: how to get to talk to Carol and set up their date. After having taken Friday off on short notice, Mr. Capone would flay him alive if he called in. Screw it, he thought. He’d just show up late. He could make up a story about the number 47 breaking down. The FAT fleet was notoriously unreliable. Sure, Capone would have a fit, but Steven figured that he wouldn’t do much more than yell if he was just a few minutes late.
On the way to the east side, he was nervous as hell – no icepicks to take the edge off this morning. He got off at his appointed stop, scurried across Slocum Avenue and began walking towards the Bounce. It seemed more brightly-lit this morning; it almost hurt his eyes.
The closer he got, however, the slower he went. His feet seemed to have gotten incredibly heavy. What was the holdup? Again, he knew – just knew – that Carol was working this morning. They had that special bond.
Steven was chagrinned to see that there were already three pickups lined up alongside the Bounce. No matter – he’d just slide up, work out the details of their date, and be on his merry way. The number 47 bus ran fairly frequently on weekday mornings; he probably wouldn’t be more than fifteen minutes late.
He walked up to the window. Carol was there, wearing a red-white-and-blue bikini that was even skimpier than the one she’d has on last Friday. After she had served the customers in the pickup trucks, she finally turned to Steven.
“Help ya?” she said.
“Hi, uh, yeah,” said Steven. The blank look in her eye threw him off. The silence drew out like a strand of razor wire. On the other side of the kiosk, a jacked-up Chevy Blazer pulled up with a roar.
“So, uh,” said Steven, grasping. “Remember me?”
The bright pink wooden walls of the Bounce drained to a lifeless gray.
“Look,” she said. “I see a lot of people every day. Can’t remember ‘em all. Now you want something or not?”
“Well, um, we were going to go out. On a date.”
She laughed, and Steven felt his heart crumple like a piece of old newspaper. “No, sorry,” she said. “I don’t date customers. Ever.”
The guy in the Blazer laid on his horn. “C’mon, move it, sugarbuns!” he hollered. “Some of us have to work this morning!”
“Just a minute, Duane, honey!” she called back. She turned back to Steven. “Look if you’re not going to buy anything then I gotta go. I got real customers.”
Without a word, Steven turned from the Bounce and wandered across Slocum Avenue. Crush, he thought. He understood the word now. That’s exactly how he felt. Like his mind, his soul, his very being had been crushed.
From across the street, he heard the musical tinkle of Carol’s voice as she laughed at something the guy in the Blazer said.
Barely seeing where he was going, Steven wandered down Slocum toward the stop for the 47. He saw it all now, how it must have really been: staggering up to the Bounce on Friday, drunk, besotted and painfully stupid. How could he have thought for even a second that she was interested in him, or even knew that he was a real person?
Two blocks behind, he heard the number 47 bus stop at the light, then pull away again. He heard the motor rev as it picked up speed, grinding its tired gears. The headlights illuminated the garbage-strewn street as it rushed up behind him.
Steven closed his eyes and thought about just stepping off the curb. A moment of pain, then nothing. It would make this crush complete, and absolutely literal. His left foot actually moved forward, beginning to propel him to oblivion.
Then he stepped back. It wasn’t worth it. It wasn’t his fault; he was just a victim. He thought he’d try to call in to Walt Drecksack’s show during his break. Tell him how yet another honest working guy had been brought down by the Liberal Feminazi Conspiracy. Walt would understand.
The number 47 bus wheezed to a halt by the cracked sidewalk. The doors accordioned open with a groan. Steven Nancy climbed on, sat down, and rode off to another day at his shitty job.