Self Storage and Other Stories
From the title story:
The Bag Lady and the Country Band
The country western band was the beginning of the end for me and Nutty Squirrel. I should have known it the first time their van pulled into the parking lot with all its windows broken and the ghost of the words "Forever Green Landscapes" bleeding through brown paint on all sides. We've had runaway teenagers out here, migrant workers, illegal immigrants, bag ladies and gentlemen, a battered wife, a farmless farm family from out near Mechanicsville, and a gang of sneak thieves who used 44E to stash their loot. We had a punk rock group back in 1984--their van said "Presto Pest Control," which turned out to be the name of the group--but we never had a country western band before. Lola said I should have seen it coming.
Knucklehead they call themselves. It fits. Four big guys, and it took them more than an hour to move their stuff into 9W, a twelve-by-twelve-foot unit they jam-packed with at least ten speaker cabinets--all big enough to blow your eardrums out--not to mention keyboards, mike stands, amplifiers, drums, a soundboard studded with knobs and switches, and lights. Thousands and thousands of watts' worth. If they ever figured out a way to plug in all those lights at once, we'd have a blackout up and down the frontage road this side of the interstate, from Randy's RVs to the standardized testing company. They also have a smoke machine. I couldn't tell it was a smoke machine from across the parking lot when they were moving in, but Lola spotted it right away.
"Look at that," she said to me. "They have a smoke machine."
I worried about the alarms going off, but Lola said it wasn't that kind of smoke. What's a country band doing with a smoke machine, anyway? I asked her. Why all the electronics? Whatever happened to Hank Williams, Sr., and Patsy Cline?
"They're dead," said Lola.
"What about Willie Nelson, for God's sake?" You couldn't picture Willie Nelson with a smoke machine. I couldn't, anyway.
Lola said, "Times change."
Lola stores a whole household's worth of furniture in 27E. She was in graduate school studying the Philosophical Origins of Contemporary Thought when she discovered the first lump in her breast three years ago. She was thirty-three then. She specialized in guys like Kneecha and Highdigger, whose names she misspells more or less phonetically. A small act of rebellion, she calls it. In the flurry of medical procedures that followed her discovery, her dissertation languished, and philosophy began to seem like a cruel joke anyway, so she stopped paying tuition and got herself a job at the standardized testing company up the road. She started out as a test editor, using her obscure knowledge to find sample reading passages guaranteed to confound the average high school junior, but in the next year and a half she had too many rounds of radiation and chemotherapy to hold down more than a temporary job. They moved her to the Test Registration Department in the basement. She opens envelopes there. She takes the registration forms full of endless dots out of the envelopes to see if each dot has been darkened completely with a Number Two pencil. Lola's not the only former Ph.D. candidate opening envelopes down there.
But here's the interesting part. Do you know what happens if you screw up when you fill out the standardized test registration form? If you make stray marks? If you don't erase completely or use a Number Two pencil to make your marks heavy and black? You know what happens? They fix it for you. That's right. After all those warnings in boldface all-capital letters, if the computer can't read your dots they give your registration form to Lola--or any one of the dozens of actual human beings sitting at long tables in a big, windowless room with piles of official envelopes to the left of them and computer terminals glowing to their right--and then one of them, after ensuring that your check is made out for the proper amount, personally enters your data into the great Central Processing Apparatus. Do as you're told and you get computer processed. Screw up and they turn you over to the human beings. It's something to think about.
The country band makes a terrific amount of noise. I suppose they figure they've got no neighbors out here to call the police on them. (The standardized testing company doesn't count. Lola says it's so hermetically sealed and secure in there that a cruise missile could land in the parking lot and nobody in Test Registration would know it until quitting time.) So the Knuckleheads feel free to practice as loud as they please on Tuesdays and alternate Thursdays, and with their loading up the truck on Friday afternoons and bringing everything back on Sunday, it seems as though they're always around, we never have a moment's peace. The Tuesday/Thursday noise drove out the Bag Lady in 26W, who pretended to the end that we didn't know she was there and vice versa. Lola, who likes the country band, said, well, if the Bag Lady preferred the Muzak in the bus station to live country tunes, then let her go. I pointed out that an aversion to hearing "Take Me Back to Tulsa" taken from the top over and over again said nothing about the Bag Lady's taste, or lack of it, in music. Lola countered by reminding me that it was dehumanizing to call the Bag Lady a bag lady anyway.
"Her name is Emily," Lola said.
"How do you know?" I asked her.
"I saw it on her luggage tag," she said.
"How do you know she didn't pick that suitcase out of a dumpster?"
"It's on her Bible, too."
Now who's violating Bag Lady Emily's human dignity here, I wanted to know: me, because I have to call her something, or Lola, who feels free to dig around in her things?
"I wasn't digging around," Lola said. "The Bible and the suitcase were both right out in the open."
"Out in the open behind closed doors," I said, which wasn't really fair of me since I, too, go around to all the officially unoccupied storage units now and again to make sure nobody's dead in any of them or doing anything seriously illegal.
Lola, whose perfect eyebrows had grown back in, raised the left one with disdain and said, "If you'd quit complaining long enough, I could show you how to two-step to that music. 'Light feet,'" she added, quoting Kneecha, "'are the first attribute of divinity.'"
With that, she left for work, leaving me to ponder a sobering question: If I couldn't find peace (never mind quiet or solitude) out here at Nutty Squirrel's Self-Storage Mini-Warehouse, among the orphaned things, the homeless goods, the forgotten objects of America, where the heck was I going to find it?