Lenny clenched his jaw for a moment, wanting to come down and show the boy how much good that was in the real world. Then he saw how the kid wasn’t being cocky. “Just hand me a nipple, kid.” He took the short pipe from Alexander and screwed it into the coupling. After replacing the ceiling tile, he treated the sprinkler head with sealant and screwed it on.
Lenny hefted the ladder to the next sprinkler. “What I was tryin’ to tell you, dummy, was that I’m going to be faking it. I know I’m going to be sick tomorrow even though I look okay is because I am going on a big ole drunk tonight.”
“Oh,” Alexander said. “I get it now. You are being duplicitous.”
“No, not at all. It’s not a real illness. Sometimes people take a day off by calling in sick. Everyone does it.” He set the ladder square. “Do you know what you will do tomorrow?”
“I will go to my morning classes and then lunch-”
“Fuck around. Because I’m not going to be here. And not tell the boss that I’m not really sick.” As he climbed up, he added, “That last part’s really important.”
Alexander looked up at Lenny and caught the ceiling tile as Lenny tossed it to him. “Can I sweep the shop and organize your tools?”
“If that floats your boat.”
He handed the bucket to Lenny so he could drain the water out of the nipple. “I don’t like going on water, Lenny.”
Alexander liked setting the table for dinner. Every piece of dinnerware had its logical place and created a symmetry that he enjoyed. Even if they were having pizza, he did two complete place settings. Then he would sit down and let the sounds of his mother in the kitchen come to him one at a time as she finished making dinner. The sounds were logical and sequential. Depending on the meal his mom made, he predicted whether the next sound would be the opening of the silverware drawer, the springy scratch of the oven door, or the jangle of the refrigerator being opened.
It was the first quiet time he was able to get during the weekdays. Tonight was extra nice because the meal was not a crunchy one. That meant less chewing noises from his mother.
She ruined his calm as soon as they began eating. His mother asked him her favorite question. “How was school today?”
“Terrible,” he answered. “Did you know that a sprinkler system can get so plugged up with gunk that you have to replace everything? The system gets flushed periodically, but not the nipples.”
“Terrible? What happened at school?”
“Nothing. It was just boring and I can not handle all the shuffling of papers and sneezing people do. We replaced the old sprinkler heads with updated ones with better RTI. RTI is the Response Time Index-”
She chewed and swallowed quickly. “Its time to give up your job. You can’t be overdoing it. Experiencing college life is too important.”
Alexander looked up at the ceiling. “Mom. I will do great at college and go on to get a lame job like the one you got. But I want to do some real work, too.”
His mother sighed and massaged her fingers through her long blonde hair. “You know better than I do that your Asperger’s means you have to approach things carefully. Trying to do both is ridiculous.”
“Ridiculous does not mean impossible,” Alexander said, more to himself than his mother.
“Don’t play word games with-”
He squinted his eyes tightly to shut out the sight of his mother and then looked down “Shit.”
“What did you say?”
“Well I guess that one's my fault for asking.”
“Some gravy is touching my corn.” He pushed his plate away.
“We don’t use that language in our house.”
“You did when Dad lived with us. Lenny says that sometimes it’s the right word for the job.”
“That language is not appropriate. Whether that Lenny uses them or not. Especially if Lenny uses them. Do you understand me?”
He didn’t. What he did know was his mother expected him to say he did. So he said yes. Then he asked her why she had ruined his excitement about working with Lenny and why she would do such a mean thing. After that she didn’t talk about quitting the job anymore.
Alexander looked around the large lecture hall during his first class and counted seventy-three students. He sat in the front row so that his classmates’ fidgets didn’t distract him, but still the loud chatter made him rub his hands together. He didn’t do well with noise. He also didn’t do well with the fact that everyone seemed to have someone to talk to except him.
The professor came in and clipped his microphone onto his shirt. “How many space dimensions are there?”
He called on a student who had her hand up. Alexander couldn’t make out what she said.
“No,” the professor said. “Because time isn’t really a dimension. It’s simply a concept. Don’t get me wrong. If it helps you understand something by saying that time is a dimension then you should call it a dimension. Scientists use as many dimensions as they need to study a problem. Superstring theory, for example, has 10 dimensions.
“But we need to be aware that there are constants in our world, and our own perception gets in the way of laying them bare. We may get closer to understanding reality; we make progress on our theories, but we will never attain full understanding of the big questions of existence.” The professor stood on his heels and took in his Friday group.
“Who can tell me why we need to have at least three dimensions instead of two?”
Alexander knew from high school that he shouldn’t try to answer every question. He had to give others a chance. But when no one else responded, he let his hand shoot up.
“Because,” he shouted so that everyone could hear him. Some of the students laughed, so he spoke louder to be heard clearly. “Life wouldn’t exist. Any creature would be cut in half by its digestive tract.”
The professor nodded. “That’s the answer I was looking for. It’s a postulation by-”
“Stephen Hawking,” Alexander interjected, judging that it was still his turn.
“Right again. A man smarter than Einstein. But I, along with many other scientists, disagree with him. Perhaps in a two-dimensional world, the beings do not need intestines. You have to consider alternate forms of life. My point is that you may think you have a grasp on the facts, but if a genius has it wrong, then probably so do you.”
Alexander wrote this in his notes.
Lenny was leaning on his workbench smoking a cigarette when Alexander came in and set his backpack on a stool. “I told you to fuck around on Friday. That meant waste time.”
“I know. But for employment, you work unless you are on break. So I cleaned up the floor and organized the tools. I organized the pipe cutters from smallest to biggest.”
“And now I can’t find nothin’. Besides cleaning is women’s work.”
“But there are not any women that work in the shop area.”
“No shit. That’s why it’s messy. Cleaning is just a woman’s way of avoiding doing important shit. Like planning for retirement or forgiving her mother.”
“Damn straight, Skippy.” He flicked an ash onto the floor. “Women do anything to avoid making a decision. That’s why they talk so much.” He slung his bucket of tools into the back of the van and shut the doors. “You got a girlfriend, dummy?”
Alexander laughed. “That's funny. You calling me a dummy.”
“Yeah, I'm a regular Woody Allen. Answer the question.”
“A good-looking kid like you will get one sooner or later.” They walked on opposite sides of the van and climbed in. “My advice to you is to show her who’s boss from day one. She’ll still hand you your nuts back on a plate immediately, but at least you sent her some sort of message. You understand that?”
Alexander nodded. “She might have a peanut allergy.”
Back in the same office complex they worked Thursday, they displaced a woman in a tight skirt and a low cut blouse out of her office. Alexander watched her gather up some files and her coffee cup before he draped her desk with a sheet of plastic. Lenny climbed the ladder and peeled off the cover to the first sprinkler. “I saw you checkin’ that skirt out.”
Alexander lifted the five-gallon pail up to Lenny. “I checked out the entire woman. She’s dressed like Mary Hart on Entertainment Tonight.”
“When they dress like that you can tell they’re wild. Lots of guys go for their kind. But I’ll tell you they’re wild because they went through some sort of abuse. Hook up with someone like that and sooner than later, she’s going to relive her shit on you. She’ll be yelling ‘Daddy don’t’ after calling 911. They aint worth it.”
Alexander nodded because asking Lenny what he meant made him angry. Lenny tossed the old sprinkler head to him and let the excess water drain into the bucket. As Lenny let the excess water drain into the bucket, a chemical smell filled the room like somebody was melting a milk jug. “Ew.”
“That’s their stagnant water. But everyone thinks it’s us making that smell. Our little wild friend is going to go find her boss and throw a hissy fit.” Lenny imitated a woman’s voice. “Those men are spilling chemicals in my office.”
Alexander looked up the ladder at Lenny’s scuffed boots and the wet spot on his jeans from urinating. In Lenny’s little characterization, the woman was wrong about what was going on and Alexander knew the feeling. Lenny, though, always knew what he was doing and Alexander wanted a life like that. “Why would she go berserk?”
“Because women have calm. They have hysterical. They don’t have a medium. Mine will be screaming ‘Oh, my God! Oh my God!’ and I’ll think my deadbeat kid got his hand cut off in the garbage disposal, but it’s that she dropped the butter on the floor.” He handed the bucket down and then worked the new nipple into place.
In his literature class, Alexander was partnered up with Shelly, the girl next to him. He noticed her painted toes, the pimple on her left cheek and the way her hair was a dark chestnut. Rationally, he knew Lenny had been using hyperbole, yet a little scenario kept running through his head where she became hysterical.
Really, he had bigger worries and it made him rub his hands up and down his thighs. He wasn’t even sure how he was supposed to act in a lecture and now he had to work with someone he didn’t know one on one. After discreetly covering his ears as people moved their desks, he saw how she was slouching, so he slouched.
She sighed. “This is so dumb.”
Alexander mimicked her irritated tone. “It sure is.”
He was so nervous at first he had trouble hearing what she said. She was just flashes of big eyelashes and white teeth. But eventually, he realized that she was talking about having a difficult time keeping up with her studies and even taking notes in the class.
He handed her his notebook so that she could read the directions of what they were supposed to be doing as partners, but she copied abbreviated versions of his answers about the life of Shakespeare. In return, she explained how the blood in Macbeth stands for honor and guilt. He had stayed up until four in the morning working on the symbolism questions in the study guide.
He wondered what Lenny would think of Shakespeare.
Alexander paced the workshop flapping his fingers against his thumbs. He wanted to clean the workshop. He was almost desperate to do so, but he remembered what Lenny said about it. He also knew that they had a lot of jobs to do that afternoon. By the time Lenny appeared, he could hardly contain himself. Working with Shelly and all the commotion of the campus had frazzled him.
“Where have you been, Lenny? I’ve been waiting for twenty-two minutes.”
“Hold on, Hoss. I was getting a talking to by Stanfield.”
Alexander turned and turned again while slapping his fists against his legs. “My name isn’t hoss.”
Lenny raised an eyebrow at him.
Alexander closed his eyes and took some deep breaths. “You weren’t name- calling. Just using a nickname. Hoss means friend, right?” His eyes lit up and he took a few steps on his toes. A move that made Lenny give him the eyebrow again.
“I was in there getting my ass handed….getting yelled at by the boss for last Friday.” Lenny strapped on his tool belt that had been lying on the bumper of the van.
“Aren’t you afraid that you’ll get fired? I couldn’t handle getting fired. It would be so terrible.”
“Relax, kid. At your age, jobs are made to get fired from. And I aint worried. The miserable shrew just wanted to get a few free licks in on me. She doesn’t want to fire me because she has to go through the union and then find someone new and train them.”
“Mrs. Stanfield licked you?”
“Give it a rest, wiseass.” Lenny walked up to the front of the van, got in, and started the van. It took a little bit, but Alexander snapped to it. He opened the overhead door and shut it once Lenny drove out.
“Are we going to the job on Lexington?” Alexander asked as he got in.
“Naw, Stanfield’s little tirade put us behind. We won’t be able to get nothing done today.”
Alexander held onto the clipboard with a strong desire to slide it in front of Lenny. Lenny hadn’t filled out the log sheet or sorted through any work orders. When they parked in front of a small house with asphalt shingle siding and the steps to the front porch missing, Alexander couldn’t keep quiet any longer. “We didn’t do the paperwork. Just drove around in circles. I could tell. We have to always record our destinations, but I don’t know where we are, Lenny.”
“My house.” They walked up the sidewalk. “The wife tripped the circuit breaker.”
Alexander debated with himself how he should record that on the travel log, but then just followed Lenny into the kitchen where Lenny’s wife sat at the table. “Tag-a-long, this is the battleaxe. Battleaxe, this is Tag-a-long.”
“Welcome to our beautiful home,” Lenny’s wife said without looking up from her magazine.
Alexander looked around while Lenny trudged down the basement steps. He toed a worn spot in the linoleum. “The walls are nicked up and it smells like burnt hashbrowns.” He took a few steps and glanced into the living room. “Your house is not beautiful.”
“Lenny,” she yelled. “Is this guy some so sort of retard?”
Lenny was at the top of the steps. “You know, any dolt can reset a breaker.”
“All that electricity scares me. You know that. I don’t think it’s a hardship for you to come and do one little thing for me. You’ve had lamer excuses for stopping at the bar.”
“They’ll actually make me a dinner I like.”
“Yeah, a whiskey sour.” She went and turned on the TV sitting on the counter. “So is he some sort of simpleton?”
“The boy’s like a genius. He’s only a moron when it comes to dealing with people.”
“You’re a perfect pair then.”
Lenny studied his swollen knuckles. “Anyway. Don’t call him a retard.”
“Hello, I’m Ashley Fuller,” the tall blonde in slacks told Lenny as he strode into the lobby area. She stood like a policeman, taking everything in, but her blue eyes and freckles reminded him of the kind of girl he hung out with in high school.
Just as I feared, was Lenny’s next thought. He had been told that there was a high-class-looking broad waiting to talk to him. The kid’s mom. “Let’s go in back,” he offered for no other reason than he wanted to be where he was more comfortable.
She followed him through the door. Before she spoke, she let a silence settle in while she scanned the shop like a fundamentalist at a dirty book store. “Alexander really enjoys the experience of working with you.”
“He works for me.”
“You and this job are all he talks about.”
“But. You wouldn’t come tell me this if there wasn’t a but.”
“Mr. Bonerz, you want me to get straight to the point so that I can get out of your hair. He should be concentrating on school. And then there is the language he learns from being around you. He called me a dolt this morning. And he told me you took him to your house while you were on the clock. I will not permit you to take my son to your house. He’s too trusting.”
“What the hell do you think is goin’ on at my house?” He exhaled a laugh. “Tell him to quit if I aint a good influence. It’d make my job easier not having to show him how to do everything and having the guys give me grief ‘cause he seems light in the loafers.”
“I want you to fire him, Mr. Bonerz.” Her voice wasn’t soft before, but now there was nothing harder. “Especially if he is so difficult to be around. He’ll be resentful if I make him quit. But what do you care if he hates you?”
Lenny didn’t want to look her in the eye, so he lowered his head. He found himself staring at her chest. It was a nice chest and all, but he didn’t want her thinking he was a low-brow, so he turned and selected a screwdriver from the workbench and placed it on his tool belt next to the screwdriver he already had. He felt as awkward as the kid. “Listen, a job like this is good for him. Shows him what real life is like.”
“I can appreciate that, Mr. Bonerz. But the truth is menial tasks are beyond him.”
Lenny felt the torque of his jaw in his teeth.
“I didn’t mean that the way it sounded. I know you think I’m a witch.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“It’s okay. People think that all the time. They think I caused his Asperger’s by being a cold mother. It’s easier to think that than for them to confront the fact that life isn’t as simple as they want to make it. So I’ve had to fight “the experts” all through his childhood so that he can have a good life. I was hated at his schools.”
“Like I said, I don’t got an opinion on you.”
“So, I am a witch when I need to be. But the truth is that as much as I want to protect him, I can’t bring myself to make him quit because he likes this job so much. You know this isn’t the right path for him. You can see that. With his disability, he’s wiped out each day trying to work and go to school.”
“What if being a super genius is not what he wants to do?” Lenny saw the high-school girl she used to be in her face clearly now. High-strung, but spirited.
“Because he loves fire sprinklers? He’ll move on to his next obsession. College, though, is a once in a lifetime experience. I don’t want him to miss out on meeting up with his classmates at the library and going to homecoming. Because what he wants, Mr. Bonerz, is to have friends.”
Lenny was sitting on a stool at the closest bar from work when he looked over to see Alexander walk in. He saw the boy look around the near empty bar several times before lighting up when he recognized him and came over.
Lenny faced the bar. The sight of the boy made him clench his glass. “This aint no place for you. Why would you follow me in here?”
“Well, the problem is my mom is making me angry,” Alexander said. “Can I stay here with you for a while so I do not have to go home?”
Lenny was about to tell the boy to get his ass home before his mom went crazy on the both of them, but the bartender was giving them the stink eye. Out of spite he just gave the bartender a nod. Lenny told himself a joke about knowing what it was like to hide from the woman at home. But he was also thinking about why the kid’s mom wanted to watch over him.
“What will your friend have, Rummy?”
Lenny outstretched a hand toward Alexander. Alexander looked back at him.
“What do you want to drink?” Lenny wondered what his response would be if the kid ordered a beer. He outstretched his hand again. “That’s what this means.”
“I would like to have caffeine free Diet Coke.”
“Put it on my tab and I’ll have another.” Lenny watched the bartender open a can of Coke and pour it into a glass.
“Why did he call you rummy, Lenny? Is that your last name?”
“No, Spaz. He called me rummy because I like rum. A lot.”
Alexander looked around the bar and took a sip from his soda. “Lenny, those men over there are smoking. Don’t they know that it is a stupid thing to do?”
Lenny glanced over to catch the hard stares of the guys from the auto shop. He tried to stir something up in him to smooth the situation over. But then he just focused on his drink. “Some people like to poison their bodies.”
Alexander shook his head and set his soda on a coaster. “This place does not seem enjoyable. There is not much going on and nobody is watching that baseball on the TV. What do you do here, Lenny?”
“96, 97, 98, 99, 100.” He took a large gulp from his glass. “I drink here. In the peace and quiet.”
“Why were you counting to one hundred?”
“To pace my drinking.”
“But why would you drink so fast? Are you really thirsty?”
“I drink therefore I am,” Lenny said with a chuckle. “I drink to forget the old hag at home and the day I spent at my worthless job.”
“Oh, Lenny. You got an important job.”
“I used to be a plumber making good money. But then the guy I worked for hired a bunch of them Mexicans who work for pennies. I understand them trying to feed their families, but they should stay in their own butthole of a country and make it better. Leave the jobs to real Americans. Now, I replace pipes.”
“You make sure that fire suppression systems work. They put out fires and save people’s lives. You save people’s lives.”
“Well, maybe.” He watched the kid drink his soda with the short stir-straw. He wasn’t that happy to begin with, but the sight of Alexander coming into the bar had felt like falling face first on a concrete floor to him. “But I’m worthless at it.”
“No way, Lenny. Yes, you do activities that are grounds for termination. But you know a lot of information on how to fix systems that keep people from dying.”
They sat for a while. Alexander was the first to speak. “96, 97, 98, 99, 100. You can take another drink now, Lenny.”
Lenny turned his glass a half a turn. Then he picked Alexander’s up and dumped it into the sink behind the bar. He was on the floor and his head was throbbing, but the object in his hand didn’t break. “Go on home, boy. Rest up for tomorrow.”
Alexander had a map open on his lap. “If we take Jones Bridge Road instead of the beltway, we’ll get back to the shop eight minutes faster.”
Lenny leaned over from driver’s seat and watched Alexander trace the route with his finger. “You know how to work that map. But while you were draining the main vein, we got a call about fixing a sprinkler than got damaged in one of the dorms.” He looked in his mirrors and got into the right lane.
“You ever think about living in the dorms, Brainiac? Embrace the whole college experience? There are serious parties that go on there.”
“Mom says as long as I avoided kids that drank or participated in drug activity that it would be good for me.”
“But what do you think?”
“My mom says I could not have the car if I lived in the dorms. I could not get to the shop in time for work if I had to take the bus.”
Lenny drove up onto the sidewalk and put his flashers on. “Here we are.”
The Resident Hall Director showed them to broken sprinkler. “There’s been total drama. One roommate came back from home Sunday night and found her roommate insanely high and trashing the room. Somehow the sprinkler thingy got bent. The crazy girl is even in the psych ward. She would not stop yelling that life not being worth living with Michael Jackson dead.” When they got to the room, the door was open. “The uptight roommate must be around here somewhere. Go on in.”
Opening up the ladder, Lenny started in. “Now that we don't have religion so much in this country, people got too much time on their hands. Instead of worshipping God, they follow that Tom Cruise’s every mood. Instead of the Mother Mary, they got Oprah and people are worshipping trees and icebergs. I aint a church goer. I only go when the wife drags me for the holidays. Not much sense in sittin' on your ass when you can be sitting in the woods enjoying nature and maybe getting a chance to turn one of God's creatures into food. But at least religion kept people busy. They didn’t fuck things up as much because they was too busy on their knees.”
Alexander had just lifted the drain bucket up to Lenny when someone came to the door. The pungent water from the nipple poured into the bucket and Lenny lowered the bent sprinkler head to him. Holding on to it, Alexander turned and saw the girl holding a clothesbasket.
“Yes.” He couldn’t figure out how this person knew who he was. He looked at her. She had greasy hair flat against her head, puffy eyes, and a red nose.
“It’s me. Shelly. From English Lit.”
Alexander peered at her. “Oh, hi. Normally you look much prettier.”
“Nice job, Lunk-head,” Lenny called from up on the ladder.
Shelly squeezed past Alexander and set her basket on her bed.
“Spaz, hand me the new head,” Lenny said. “Shelly from Lit class. You must be the pretty girl the kid is always talking about.”
“Lenny, I have never mention-”
“Let’s go turn the water on,” he said loudly. He torqued the head tight and snapped the new chrome ring for the sprinkler head in place. But once they were in the hallway, Lenny put a hand on Alexander’s chest. Alexander flinched. “I’m not going to hit you.”
“I don’t do well with people touching me. If I am not prepared for it.”
“Yeah okay. But do you see that girl’s been crying? Don’t be a moron. Go find out why.”
Alexander shuffled back into the room. “I didn’t mean to make you cry.”
“It’s not that.” She was still standing in front of her basket. “Things are just really messed up.”
“No, we got it all fixed up. Even the broken sprinkler would have worked. Each sprinkler has either fusible alloy or a heat-sensitive bulb in it. Even bent, once the ambient temperature was reached, that plug would break and project the water. The deflector plate might not diffuse the water as much-”
“Alexander. I wasn’t talking about the sprinkler.” She sniffled. “This is my first time away from home and it isn’t going too well.”
“Tell me about it.” He sat down on her bed and looked at her hands on her pile of clothes. “Starting college makes me feel like the time I went to summer camp in high school and spent the full two weeks hiding under a desk. Something I hadn’t done since second grade. It was not fun.”
Shelly laughed. “You did not.”
Alexander was hurt that she would laugh at his story. But he was glad, too, that she looked happier. “I have some issues,” he said and then he laughed too.
Lenny was at the door. He picked up the tools. “I guess there’s an emergency across the street that I’ll go take care of.”
Alexander stood up. “At one of the bars? I’ll get the ladder.”
Lenny put a slow hand on his shoulder. “No, spaz. You stay here.”
“Put the map away, Brainiac. I aint in no hurry to get home. You got a date tonight or something?”
“I am going to a movie with Shelly. But it is not a date.”
“I got news for you, kid. That’s a date. Pay for her so that she knows it.”
“But she asked me.”
“Then let her buy you a coffee afterward.”
“But I don’t drink coffee.”
“Christ, would you look at this traffic. There wouldn’t be all this traffic if people lived where they worked instead of living in those fucking suburbs.” He stepped on the gas to keep someone from coming over into his lane. “Listen, Alexander.”
Alexander laughed. “I am so used to you calling me nicknames; it sounded strange for you to call me the right name.”
“Yeah. I’m a barrel of monkeys. We have to talk about your job.” Lenny surprised himself by finding it hard to lie to the kid. “The thing is...we’re unionized and…”
“I know you hate unions. You say if the Japs want to build you a car for ten thousand, you say let ‘em.”
“Yeah, you got a good memory, kid. Not that you care because you’re a college kid, but the union has rules against long term employees not being in the union.”
“I don’t care about not making the union wage. I just want to work with you, Lenny. When it comes to people, I don’t know what’s going on. Not even when people tell me. Except when you tell me because you are direct. I never knew what a friend was. I mean I knew a friendship is when people demonstrate reciprocating and reflective behaviors. But I think you are my best friend, Lenny.” He slapped his free hand against his hip and flapped his fingers for a moment. “Is there a problem with me working? Or are they trying to burst my chops?”
Lenny slowed the van down and lit a cigarette. For all her snobbery, the boy’s mom had made sense to him. It was why he had decided to go ahead and fire him. But the kid felt that they were friends and it felt that way to him too. It wasn’t the friendship his mom was expecting Alexander to form, but as a friend, he was going to let Alexander leave when he wanted to. He wouldn’t mind keeping the kid around.
“To hell with everything. I’ll take care of it.”