The Gift of the Gum

(Excerpts from the Personal Diary of Janna Peruda, Independent Computer Consultant and Single Woman)

 Monday, March 24

 As I sat in the lavatory at the Devane Co. plant having a quick pick-me-up from the bottle of applejack in my briefcase today, a strange and wonderful thing happened to me—but I’ll get to that part later on.

Yesterday—(Sunday)—I spent the entire afternoon at the airport bar. I mean, of course, in the lounge at the Holiday Inn next to the airport where I was waiting to catch the 6 P.M. flight to Baltimore. Though applejack is my drink of choice, I ordered a Bronx cocktail (these airport places seldom carry applejack and you have to order something, right?) after which I sat on in the corner and pretended to nurse my cocktail while l surreptitiously guzzled from the bottle of applejack in my purse and what with one thing and another, I managed to miss my flight by three hours.

When I finally left the bar around 9 P.M. I nearly forgot my cane. I nearly left it behind, because l was in such a hurry. Forgetting my cane would have spelled “d-i-s-a-s-t-e-r” because when you drink a lot of applejack the way I do and are a single woman trying to earn a living by flying around doing independent computer consulting all over the country, it means, more often than not, that you show up at a new job frankly staggering, and with your hair plastered in your eyes like a common “bar hag,” so you need a trusty prop, something you can rely on to help create the illusion that you’re a cripple and not just frightfully boiled. For me, carrying a cane is the answer—it s my magic recipe for job success, so to speak. I also find it works best if I have the cab driver help me into the plant or building once I arrive: a five dollar tip usually does it. Otherwise, I would fall flat on my face.

By the time l made it to Baltimore today, I was ten hours late, and I phoned the Devane Co. plant from the airport and gave them a confused song-and-dance about bad weather in Denver, etc. Ever since I had climbed on the plane in Denver I had been nipping at the applejack—so perhaps there lies the true explanation of why memories grow dimmer with the years. The fact was, my head felt so fuzzy and balled up when I came off the plane that it took me over four hours just to locate my luggage and check into a hotel. l opened another pint of applejack in my room and did my best to “freshen up” before catching a cab to the plant. I try to be punctual for these appointments, but the time gets away from me. Partly it’s the big black shape that follows me everywhere. And already it was twenty past two. Like a child absorbed by the muscles that support the arm in the air, I brought up my arm, and reached toward the intervening emptiness. And here, in front of the mirror, I have just realized that my blouse has a big applejack stain down the front. I am going to have to try to sponge it off because all the other blouses in my bag have stains on them, too. Where’s my sponge?

Dread. Dread of what? Doesn’t it all come down to dread of being found out? I believe it does. Nearly all my skill at computer consulting is pretense—acting. Can I walk? Barely. Can I make sense with my voice and presentation? Hardly any. I should have taken my father’s advice and become a topless dancer.

Ah, but I feel a little calmer already, drinking this fresh pint of applejack! I begin to have hope that I can leave my room, go out into the hall, perhaps even find the elevator. . . Finally—it takes a long time—but I manage to get myself and my cane and my briefcase downstairs and into a cab. I hear my voice like something spectral issuing from the bottom of a jar telling the driver “Vedane  Co., please.” The driver says “Huh? Where’s that? Never heard of it.” I say “Oh, I mean the Devane Co,—sorry. . .” If that is a portent of impending calamity—it probably is. But I’ve been worse in other places before this. Remember Detroit: “You seem to have lost your shoes.” Therefore, Janna, if you’ve managed to remember your shoes this time, how can Baltimore be any worse? Thus I spend the cab ride to the Devane plant sprawled in the back seat (about 30 minutes) staring distractedly out the window, thinking about why anybody should want to be given an older man’s identity, and fortifying myself with applejack.

. . . Odd how the applejack at once brings the whole universe to order. You need only down two or three pints of applejack to make the events of your life smooth out and make sense. When you truly possess the sweet goodness of the jack, which may take some time, something warm and salty and viscid spurts against your tonsils and you become fierce with reality. When at last the applejack has assembled you together, isn’t it wonderful that you don’t have to arrive at these dismal asshole computer jobs stone, cold sober?

I wonder why applejack devotion is so often equated with besottedness, when it is everything else as well? Joy, balm, obsession, luck, forgetting, granting and receiving excessive value, and humming a favorite tune in the back of some cab. It is so often a helper enabling one to do the impossible. It is so often a glimpse of transcendence. I suffer from my lacks, and I do daily (it’s not easy working as an independent computer consultant when you possess at best only a sketchy secondhand knowledge of the field and all your credentials and references are bogus) I also feel elation at what the applejack helps me to become . . .

      Oh applejack! Accept me—make me worthy—teach me.

Thursday, March 27

I wrote last Monday that l wanted to record a remarkable experience I had on my first day at the Devane plant. But perhaps I better take that back. For when I try to think straight about the matter I doubt that my memory is to be trusted. But what little I do remember is so wonderful, though it may only be the applejack playing tricks on my mind, that just the thought of it makes me want to start laughing out loud. But now when I suspect it wasn’t real, why bother to write about it at all? Still, l guess it won’t do any harm to relate it, if at the same time I open a fresh bottle of applejack here in the privacy of my hotel room to help stimulate my memory, be it true or false.

On Monday after the cab driver helped me up the walk to the Devane plant and I was in the foyer, gripping my cane and bracing myself to approach the receptionist, I realized I was never going to make it unless l found the women’s lavatory where I could sit down and collect myself and have another shot of applejack.

These odds against me are really piling up, I thought.

It was a desperate juncture. I was already almost blind from what I had tippled in the cab on the way over and not at all sure I could make my legs carry me far enough to search out the lavatory, wherever the lavatory might be in this awful heartless sprawl of concrete and Lucite and rubber tile with the afternoon sun diffused through the thick glass bricks of one wall in a faintly greenish light and the low hum of computer hardware or whatever it is behind closed doors that always seems to fill these places.

All the same, I set off down the hall, creeping along, squinting at the lettering on each door in the hope of encountering the one that said Women. Although the air trembled with raw menace and each turning threatened to bring me face to face with the vast figure of she-that-wears-white-and-has-a- sow’s-head, l pressed on. Luck was with me: after about ten minutes of weaving and peering I found a lavatory at the far end of the building. Once I had gone in, and could manage to lock myself inside a stall so as to enjoy a few swigs out of the bottle in my briefcase, I immediately felt better and began to experience the overwhelming urge to use my nails and teeth to tear apart the metal dispenser of toilet tissue that was bolted to the inside of the stall door. It did my spirit good to think about savaging this ridiculous dispenser after all the frantic and doleful thoughts I’d been having at the hotel. Unspoken was: Why not? Life should be like a long drink of applejack—not like a ridiculous metal dispenser of toilet paper! 

Haven’t I been saying, all along, that the fault of this country lies in trying to repress the sweetest desires of the heart while paying no heed whatever to our own deepest, most instinctive needs? Fred (a lush I met in the airport lounge in Denver who could strike matches on his teeth) claims to do anything that comes into his head, no matter how trivial-seeming or illogical.

“O.K.,” I challenged him. “Let’s see you chew five packs of gum all at the same time!”

It took quite a while because we fell to arguing over who should pay for the gum but after reaching a satisfactory compromise (we would split the cost of the five packs) Fred agreed. He chose to chew Juicy Fruit gum because he said that was his favorite brand. It took him about an hour and in the end I became totally fascinated watching him try to masticate that enormous mass which gradually, stick by stick, filled his mouth to overflowing so that I wound up missing my plane. (I nearly forgot my cane, too.) I was having a little trouble focusing because of the applejack, but I can remember exactly what that wad of gum looked like once he had it all chewed. An enormous thing, dead gray in color, and about the size of a softball . . . so large in fact that Fred had difficulty afterwards when it came to jacking his jaws open wide enough to extract it. Of course I offered to buy him a drink in celebration of his feat, but he was having so much discomfort in his neck glands because of the sugar overload that he could only gulp water. As for the wad of gum itself—l was already feeling so fond and sentimental about it that I asked Fred if I could keep it as a souvenir. Fred, who was gingerly waggling his lower jaw with his fingers, and grimacing, said, “Whatever gets you off, Brighteyes,” so I wrapped the monster wad tenderly in some paper napkins and stowed it away in my briefcase. It felt like it weighed five pounds; easily five pounds.

Now, a day later in Baltimore, as I sat there in the stall of the Devane plant l felt myself overcome with sudden blinding illumination. It was—how shall I say? It was as though I had been visited by the gift of pure inspiration.

Very well, Janna, what do you mean by inspiration? And can you explain yourself clearly enough to be understood?

Answer: By inspiration I mean the full, complete, crystal-clear realization that I was too far gone on applejack to make any sort of creditable presentation of myself before the Devane computer staff. Too far gone even to work the normal bluff with my cane. If I expected to make any money out of this trip, it would have to be by some other means and—this was where the wonderfulness of sudden illumination aided me—I now had the perfect idea of what these other means should be. Swiftly, I made a series of mental notes that clarified the situation: the enormous, gray, baseball-sized wad of gum from the night before, was it not still wrapped in napkins and sitting at the bottom of my briefcase? Yes it was, and (here I could see the whole event transpiring in my mind’s eye like a strip of film unrolling) all I needed to do now was take it out, affix it in all its gray enormity to the bottom of my shoe, and stage an accident on the stairs! In this way I would be able to charge the Devane Co. with criminal negligence, and—we live in hope—collect a tidy bundle in damages. So let it be that. A gift of the gum.

All this sounds very cut and dried. And yet—now that I come to look back on it, it is no longer so. I have trouble remembering—did I carry through on my plan? The trouble is, l stayed in the stall for another hour, celebrating my inspiration with more and more applejack, and after that . . . a blank. So it’s impossible to remember the details of what followed. My next quasi-lucid memory is of waking up in my hotel room late Monday evening. Had I really thrown myself down the stairs at the Devane plant with the gum wad affixed to the bottom of my shoe? Or had I simply passed out cold on the toilet seat? Search me . . . It does seem to me that I woke up here at the hotel covered with more bruises than usual, which bodes well for a tumble down the stairs. But, again, when one is intimate on a regular basis with the applejack, as I am, bruises are not that uncommon . . . I’m going to put in another appearance at Devane Co. on Wednesday and maybe I’ll be able to find out exactly what I did or did not do. Keep your fingers crossed, Dear Diary.

In the meantime—Lantz and Rudi, two bellhops here who do a sort of Mutt and Jeff act, came up to see me awhile ago and told me about the applejack they say they can procure downstairs at absolutely amazing cut-rate prices. It sounds wonderfully good and refreshing and what one needs . . .

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