i worked with tanya at a convenience store when i was alone and sad living in a basement in winter. she had several missing and false teeth stained the color of old newspapers. amphetamine skinny. former stripper. long, thinning hair an inexpensive shade of auburn from a bottle. she drove a ford maverick made out of rust and running-out luck. flat broke supporting several kids and a boyfriend or husband on the lowest dollars per hour the state would allow. she’d taken enough fists to the head that it it changed her in small ways. loud voices and sudden movements made her wince.
i liked tanya, even though she wasn’t particularly bright or good at her job. she always had fantastic stories about why she was late to work all the time, or had to leave early. never met anyone for whom power outages, car trouble, or freak isolated snowstorms followed so closely overhead. she couldn’t lift anything, or remember the correct order in which to push the register buttons. do basic math. but tanya tried really hard to make the best of it. her kids were around a lot, somehow always looking like they’d just been eating wood chips. they eyed the cheap knockoff toys hung on the shelf back by the epsom salts and dust-furred jars of pickled pig’s feet like they were made out of platinum. imitation barbies and soldier toys, plastic sheriff badges, cap guns.
tanya bought the kids chocolate bars and bubble gum and bottles of soda every time they showed up. the way it worked at the store was that you could buy stuff for yourself out of your paycheck, before the dollar amount of your earnings was calculated for the pay period. you wrote the items and their Price Lookup Number on a slip, and put the slip into the register. whatever your total from the slips came out to was deducted from your paycheck, and you took the rest home.
because tanya was kind, and she tried her best bailing out the bottom of a sinking life, i helped her out as much as i could. moved the heavy gray rubbermaid tubs of inventory, stocked the milk cooler, stayed late or came in early, covered her shifts. during the month of december i was far away from family and without friends. all of the happy people holiday thoughts of fancy dinner, wrapping paper, eggnog felt like someone else’s tv life, not related to mine. that year christmas wasn’t canceled, it never existed. tanya got sick and i covered for her a lot, working doubles through much of the month. toward the end of december, she worked as much as she could to make up her lost hours, and the dollars for all the little mouths that opened hungry at her house.
on the 20th, she came in late at night and filled up a hand basket with 2 for a dollar candies and almost all the toys in the sad little display. bags of green army men and zoo animals. black and brown and sickly yellow girldolls. plastic race cars. being so far from home and miserable and detached from holiday cheer altogether, i couldn’t figure out what in the world a person would possibly want with all of that. the doll’s arms and heads came off in the package if they got knocked off the shelf. it was like someone had packed up their trash and re-sealed it in blister packs for resale at convenience stores and gas stations all over the world.
when payday came, the store manager handed out the checks. because i was being groomed to make assistant manager, he let me in on certain things sometimes. like how after tanya’s strange shopping spree that she’d paid for entirely with slips, her paycheck was less than five dollars. the payroll person at the corporate office had called him about this and chewed him out for letting his employees spend so much with the slips. not because they actually cared about someone rotting their teeth and brains with empty calories and lead-painted chinese garbage. but because it cost them almost as much as her paycheck was to print the check and mail it. this information got relayed to me in a stage whisper, which was was followed by a long, high, honest-to-christ knee-slapping fit of laughter. i wanted to slug that guy in his dopey, slack-skinned face.
when the 25th came around, i worked the day shift and called my mom to thank her for the card and box of stuff she’d sent me, and apologized for not sending anything to her. she told me it was okay, and when i made assistant manager i’d be able to take her out for a late christmas dinner. i told her about my screwball manager, and tanya’s paycheck and her basket full of junk. it didn’t occur to me until my mom pointed out with a long, sad sigh, that the candy and toys were probably christmas presents. in that sigh i heard the story of a single mother who’d probably done something equally thrifty for holidays and birthdays. that was the best present i ever got, to know that in my whole life that i never ever felt poor until that moment.
then thursday night i went to a community hot tub. this is a bit of a luxury for me. especially this time of year, when business is slow, and i start wrapping mixtapes and drawings with newspaper to put on a coffee table instead of under a tree. at this point in my life, i have given up trying to call newspaper a choice. a statement against hallmark and coca cola and macy’s. it’s just what i’ve got. the hot tub is pretty cheap for what it is, 15 bucks a person for an hour. it’s a co-ed, clothing-optional wellness center. there’s a hot tub. sauna. you can get massage there. there’s a message board where you can find out about organic gardening co-ops, a handbill for various reiki and crystal healing practicioners around town. or borrow a book on chakras from the little lending library by the organic juice and kambucha cooler.
even though i make a little more now than when i worked at the convenience store, spending 30 bucks is still a big deal for me at the moment. unlike me, my special lady friend is super insane with busy at work, which gives her a condition of mind and body she calls “the christmas crazies.” it’s like texas. when you pass through it, it’s huge. and you don’t mess with it. add the mass hysteria of apocalyptica in the air, holiday dinner and party plans. a splash of bus ride with waits in the rain. that hot tub and floaty water afterglow was going to be worth every cent. owing to some incredibly fortunate work circumstances this week, i had the 30 dollars. plunking them down made me feel like frank sinatra buying a private limousine full of kentucky bourbon for nancy sinatra’s baptismal water.
right in front of us in line waiting to check in were two ladies. 30something. dressed nice. clones of every HR lady that had hired and fired me. each insisting they pay for both of them. for a loooong time. trying to out-nice each other. voices shrill enough to peel paint off of a mail truck. this isn’t a completely isolated occurrence. lots of people are wound up tight before they get in the tub. that’s the whole point. a stressed person comes in, sits in the water, science happens, and they calm the hell down. usually. microwave-radiation of tinnitus earagony trying to shoot out of my eyeball like a cutting torch. this will be over soon. inventing a little mantra. i will be submerged. scrubbed clean of armpit sweat and backache and another holiday season. i will be as calm as a bag of clams.
my two twenties went into the register, a ten went back in my wallet before my lady friend could get her credit card out. holstered that hamilton like a rat pack gunfighter. then i unloaded my personal daily-carry armory into a little plastic envelope at the front desk. keys, spoon, phone, multi-tool, 99 cents in change, probably-legal sized folding knife, flashlight, cigarettes, zippo, and emergency bic lighter. my rubber duck and extra pack of smokes and double-secret emergency lighter and stash of paper napkins stayed in my coat, which i would hang in the changing room. off with the shoes in the shoe cubby, then into the changing room.
the changing room is small, tiled and has high ceilings. two gabbing giggling ladies with little to no sense of personal space makes it seem very loud and more crowded to the power of n squared. the n in this case representing the approximate aerosol cans of aquanet used at a motley crue concert. in los angeles. in their heyday. i said my stress submersion mantra again getting naked, dodging panty-clad posteriors, hanging my jacket and pants in the storage cupboard. and again in the shower, where the noise of chatter magnified over four showerheads all going at once. and once more for good luck when we got in the tub in the last open seats, right next to the giggledygabmachines.
the hot tub is good. it takes stress out of me instantly. i’ve lost my train of thought and let a sentence hang indefintely stepping into that salty hot water. the sensation of being right on the verge of a lucid dream, weightless and ego-less, is amazing. transformative. sacrosact. i recommend it. it didn’t work out that way for the two chatty ladies though. i eyed a pair of unusually creepy men performing some slow motion interpretive dance ablution, on the steps leading out of the tub. they performed a theatrical disembarkation. even when the two creepy guys split and we took their places away from the speeding ladymouths, their constant airing of personal gripes was like a mockingbird trying to break its neck on the window of my inner calm.
sometimes people talk on the phone about their personal lives on the bus. unemployment. schizophrenia. irritable bowel syndrome. that’s often uncomfortable to overhear. this was worse. i got both sides of the conversation. everyone there was naked like that dream where you have to give the speech in french about your summer vacation to a grass hut full of howler monkeys and fairuza balk. and i was in there for an hour trying to shut down. mostly it was one lady kind of unloading on the other. bad sex life. job politics. who said what at the office party. how she didn’t get the really good present at the company gift exchange. how her phony friends bought her a sweater–a pink sweater. even though if they really knew her, they wouldn’t have got her pink, like some annoying afterthought.
with a little distance and some thoughtfully-placed plants in between us and the sadquacking, i still managed to get a good soak in, and turn my thoughts to good things. being naked in public with my incredibly hot ladyfriend, which always makes me feel like i am getting away with a bank job. going for ice cream after. going home to a comfortable house with no children. when it’s cold out, sleeping indoors is a gift i am immensely grateful for. dry feet in dry socks. phone bill paid on time. when our hour was up, the ladies followed us out. into the shower. into the changing room, ignoring the need for anyone else to move around or hear themselves think. i didn’t even notice my ex-girlfriend’s boyfriend and his wife walking nude and smiling crooked past me on their way to the shower until i saw her tattoo in the mirror. my head was still woozy with steam, trying to unhear about that coworker who wouldn’t share the bottle of wine because he just loves pinot grigio.
i want to shout at and shake people when they carry on like that in public places. especially small and naked places. something like, “you know what i get at my job for christmas? several unpaid days off and no health insurance ever. blow it out your hair.” i love my job, and to be fair, this year i also got a benchmade knife with my nickname etched on it. i want to tell them that some people get a paycheck with less than five dollars on it and a house full of grubbyfingered kids smashing their convenience store toys. or served with divorce papers, eviction notices, drug-resistant tuberculosis. or set on fire while sleeping drunk in an alley apartment made of cardboard. or civil war, starvation, or… christ. you have a job. lovers. a sweater. be thankful that the worst you have to worry about is a little unhappiness over someone hogging the white wine.
my gal and i dressed fast and cut out of the little room into the shoe cubby. the two loud ladies came sirening imperiously around the corner, where i knotted red paracord strings laced into a pair of hiking shoes i had bought used for ten dollars. thankfully they’d put their shoes on already in the changing room and didn’t stand over us as we worked our shoes onto feet on the little bench. but they said of my girlfriend as they passed by, i love her boots. i have a pair just like them. SOOOOOO KEE-YOOOOOOOOOT.
as they were checking out, i heard i heard them say they LOOOOOOVED going to the tub on thursdays, and that the tub was SOOOOOOO RELAAAAAAAAAAAAAAXING. putting all of my cargo back into my various pockets, i asked the super awesome lady behind the counter to confirm that the two had said they liked it there on thursdays, and said i might give wednesday night a try next time. wasn’t there something medically probable with constant exhaling that led to passing out? heaven help the world if one of them hyperventilated, conked out and died in 3.5 feet of water, because the last thing i wanted to do was soak in a haunted hot tub. “try it again on us,” said the counter lady, and handed us two free passes to the tubs. 30 dollars in coupons. it felt like a million dollars worth of christmas.
i had a million dollars in my pocket, and a beautiful lady on my arm. the night air whipped my wet hair and ears, but the hot water still heated my guts. we ducked into the gourmet ice cream shop. it was crowded with designer clothing kids and moms and waiting by the dressing room dads. eating blue cheese and pear ice cream. mulled wine sorbet. almond brittle with salted ganache. the ice cream was packed so full into the little eco-friendly cups, that the compostable cornplastic spoons kept breaking off lifting out scoops of frozen decadance. i pulled out the metal spoon in my pocket with my house keys attached to it. and ate a millionaire’s dessert, jingling all the way.