The BOOKPRESS October 1998

Must Get Wing Lee


Sam Laybourne

 

During graveyard shift, a scared motorist lingers by the Slurpee machine. Afraid that someone has been following her, she makes conversation with the clerk. Kids roll joints in the bathroom and a man tears up lotto tickets near the dumpsters outside. On graveyard, a woman fills apple juice jugs with beer in the bathrooms.

Late at night when Sandy is working the register, Hubert Ward goes back to the cooler and lies on the beer cans. After most of the weirdoes have come and gone and before the morning push, he takes his shirt off and spreads out over the Budweiser section. Ninety six frozen circles dig into his back.

Through the glass doors, Hubert can see the store ceiling. The fake stucco looks like a lunar landscape. Pits and pocks make it difficult for a hatch of moths to land, so they slam silently into each other, circling the middle row of fluorescent lights. The ventilation fans are covered with years of accumulated grime—black from hot dog steam, burnt chili smoke and microwave accidents.

From inside the cooler, Hubert can see almost everything in the store. Through the shelves of beer and Gatorade, he watches Sandy stare out the front window. She sits on the counter next to the lottery, pulling Pick Six cards from the storage box with her toes.

Hubert’s co-worker returned to graveyard shift last week, finally off traction and weaning herself from painkillers. Seven months ago, during a snowstorm that dumped three feet on the beach, a Ford smashed through the storefront and blind-sided Sandy. Hubert heard the crash from the bathroom, above the labored whirl of a broken ceiling fan. It sounded like nothing more than a bag of potato chips bursting.

When Hubert came out, the counter was ten feet closer to the donut case. A draft of snowflakes cycled through the store, melting under the heat lamps, sticking to the sides of the soda machine. Sandy lay underneath the cigarette racks, pushing Winstons off her face with her tongue and crying. The woman in the car was unconscious under the register. Light shining through the shattered windshield made spider webs on her face. Her tape player clicked at the end of a side.

After a month in intensive care and six months at her mother’s house, Sandy has finally come back to work, mostly the same but with a new preoccupation with the traffic outside. She stares and stares and stares, stealing lotto tickets as some kind of reward. Hubert doesn’t mind. He sorts through the microwaveable chimichangas until he finds one that’s past its expiration date.

By seven, Hubert has stocked the creamers and straws. Sandy makes extra coffee for the morning push. Beyond the foggy glass in the cooler, Hubert watches a little girl run in ahead of her father. The outside door handle is already hot and she cools her fingers in the ice lumps under the Slurpee nozzles. She waits for her dad to buy beef jerky, sun tan lotion, beer and cigarettes. Tangled in loose bathing suit straps and a wedgie, the little girl hops on the Styrofoam boogie board stack near the register. Her legs dangle like hanging plants. A gorgeous creation, thinks Hubert—a sand castle builder and way-back station wagon napper. Proportionately, her head is too big. Two cords in the front of her neck tighten under the weight, creating perfect mouth-sized ledges. Little girls slow Hubert down.

Now that the register line has gotten too long for Sandy, Hubert leaves the cooler to help. Like an astronaut coming out of deep freeze, cold steam rises from his half-buttoned smock. The latter part of the line moves over to the second register and waits for him. He smiles and pats the girl’s head for a wonderful second. She shoves pieces of candy across the beige Formica. The clerk shakes his head and says they’re on the house.
 


*****


 


On its route from RFK to Giants Stadium, a blimp passes over Wildwood. As the sky camera floats up from the vast Delaware Bay, the island doesn’t look much larger than a sandbar. The cameraman squints. A spit of land glides through his lens like a paramecium across a microscope slide.

As the cameraman zooms in, he sees another picture. The island isn’t a sandbar at all. It’s made of asphalt. Oil-spotted pavement runs underneath and around the rows of dilapidated rentals and remodeled Victorians. At the ends of the island, the black surface breaks off into three or four-foot cliffs that overlook the ocean. On one side, Wildwood is anchored to the Garden State and its Parkway by a concrete bridge. On the other, the overdeveloped boardwalk makes the island lopsided. Sand spreads out into the ocean under the collective weight of roller coasters, arcades, 99 cent stores, five dollar T-shirt emporiums and pizza joints.

At eight in the morning, the blimp films Hubert coming home from work. The sky camera tracks his brown Datsun from the 7-11 on Rio Grande. It swivels as he makes a right onto New Jersey, a left on Garfield, a right on Arctic, and a final left on Lincoln. Hubert parks in a half-full lot and steps out of the driver’s side. Hunched over, he hustles down the path to the front gate of Anglesea Pavilion with a shopping bag precariously tucked under each arm. Struggling with a rusty front latch, he loses grip of one of the bags and sends chimichangas and donut holes tumbling across the pavement.

From 2000 feet above, Hubert looks like a used match stick. His lumpy black hair is burnt sulfur against his scrawny white frame. In too-small tennis shorts and a tank top, his angular body looks comic. He yanks the latch with one foot propped against the gate, leaning his 158 pounds in the other direction. Hubert is top heavy and clumsy. He is burnt out.

Back on ground level, Hubert finally jerks the gate open and collects his employee spoils. Clusters of kids watch him from the courtyard, tossing their book bags and wearing free breakfast cards around their necks. A mother smears lotion on her son’s elbows with one hand while she fixes her daughter’s hair with the other. Her husband scoots by on his way to work or elsewhere. The woman yells one word reminders as he sneaks across the courtyard. Milk! Huggies! Bread! Money! The words ring flat against the surrounding buildings like claps in a handball court.

Anglesea Pavilion is an eyesore. HUD’s answer to ramshackle beach houses in the seventies, the apartments are functional, sturdy and ugly. The tan, barrack-like structures seem arbitrarily placed—scattered like dice around a muddy courtyard. Each second floor apartment has a stairway with a clumsy sun deck. Every first floor apartment is in smelling distance of one of the two dumpsters, which have become default hangouts for neighborhood men. People living in Anglesea Pavilion see their homes as transitions. To think of them as permanent is to give in.

Hubert is an stranger here. Flying in on his Datsun spacecraft, he feels like an alien among a community of dark-skinned beings. The last time he remembers spending any time with blacks was rifling through Playboys in the middle school machine shop with Marcus and Antoine Smith. In his three years at Anglesea, Hubert has never had a single conversation with his neighbors. He forgets tenant association meetings and skips courtyard kickball. As seen through his wife’s drapes and the frosted bathroom windows, the neighbors exist as silent and foggy gestures.

Hubert’s mother called Anglesea Pavilion "Black Town" when she made her first and final visit two Aprils ago. Up from Houston on a discount ticket, Gladys Ward stayed in the apartment for a week, spying on children playing freeze tag and men trading stories by the dumpsters.

"You can do a lot better than this Hube," she said, creating a since permanent dip in the right side of his fold-out couch. "Don’t you just see it as, well, depressing?"

Out of the corner of his eye, Hubert watched a hornet climb underneath a storm window and rattle against the glass. As he searched around for a boot, he answered. "I’m not depressed or anything."

Hubert’s mother had become fat, tearfully conceding three jeans sizes since he last saw her. She spoke in heavy gasps as if she hadn’t lived her whole life in one of the hottest, most humid places in the country. "This is the only ghetto in the whole damn town, Hube, and you live here."

"This isn’t a ghetto, mom. It’s just an apartment complex." Hubert opened the window and flattened the hornet against the glass, its abdomen hanging by a strand of green blood.

Frowning at the underside of her son’s Red Wing, Gladys Ward quietly stamped the end of the conversation. "This here, Hubert, is Black Town."

The truth, as Hubert remembered it, was that his mother liked black people a lot. In addition to the dog-eared collection of Sammy Davis Jr. album covers she proudly displayed in the Houston apartment, she spent afternoons watching black men roof houses across the street. Through the keyhole on her bedroom door, Hubert saw his mother sitting in front of the window with a glass of apple juice and a Mandingo novel.

Hubert Ward climbs a flight of rickety stairs and opens the door of apartment B7. Once inside, he empties the bags into the freezer and stands in front of the AC. On max., the air conditioning drowns out the noise from the courtyard. He looks over the apartment. Wing Lee had cleaned the place just fifteen minutes before he arrived. Although Hubert seldom sees his wife in the daytime, her tidiness reminds him of her. She was just here, wiping lipstick from her coffee cup with her thumb, standing in the center of the TV room. He feels her presence in the silk flower arrangements and neatly tucked plastic couch covers.

In the thirteen months that Wing Lee has been married to Hubert, she has transformed the one-bedroom apartment. A lavender toilet seat cover and a Canada goose coat rack have replaced his stash of Hustlers and his cottage cheese drinking containers. Potpourri in every corner, a huge lace doily over the bed, clowns holding toothbrushes, discount knick-knacks from work—Wing’s aesthetic judgment had taken over. Hubert hums softly with the AC, pondering for a moment his amazing luck. Going to the chapel and we’re going to get married. Going to the chapel of love.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell where memories come from. Like forgotten roach traps, they sit in unswept corners until our search for something else reveals them. Johnny Cash records spun fast by accident sound like Randy Travis records and Randy Travis records remind Hubert of growing up in Houston. So when he carelessly bumps Wing’s turntable into 45 after breakfast, he pictures his mother wearing out Randy Travis records with Du-Wayne Rue.

They always danced after Margarita Wednesdays. With half a cheese casserole still sweating on the kitchen table and five Budweisers crumpled next to Du-Wayne’s plate, they left Hubert at the table and headed to the TV room. Their slow dancing soon turned to grinding as Du-Wayne’s heavy hands clamped down on Gladys’s bottom like a vise grip. Hubert kneeled on his telephone book booster seat and watched the spectacle. Du-Wayne crooned along with Randy Travis—singing Randy and getting randy.

After stopping the Johnny Cash record altogether, Hubert carefully peels the lace doily off his bed and lies on top of the covers. Even with the shades drawn, light fills the room. A dull amber glow makes the laundry hamper fade into the walls. The air conditioner drones softly. The leak in the bathroom has miraculously stopped. With his eyes closed, Hubert sees warm red. For a second, he wonders if he can actually stop thinking. Or, if he tries, does he end up thinking about the very act of not thinking. Hubert’s arm twitches in a half dream, his lips and eyes loosen and he falls asleep.
 


*****


 


Hubert Ward sits in his Datsun, waiting for the air conditioning to take hold. Although it’s the beginning of June, Beach Weather 105.5 says the temperature will be climbing to 90. Last week, during a scorcher, a woman fainted in a Wildwood T-shirt Emporium dressing room, strangled by a stubborn tank top.

This is almost Houston hot, thinks Hubert. He remembers the cold baths he used to take every night so he could sleep. Completely under water except for his eyes, Hubert pretended that he was a Navy SEAL. He surveyed the compound, on a covert mission to spy on his mother’s boyfriend as he peed. The little boy wondered if he needed his silencer or just a swift blow to the back of Du-Wayne Rue’s ruby-colored neck.

In this heat, it is better not to move unless forced. Hubert imagines that he is an android at rest, unable to function until someone stimulates his sensors. The smallest impulse will send his milk-white blood through a system of processes and reactions. Becoming rigid in his seat, he flexes his pitched forehead and tightens his lips. He releases his breath in mathematical portions. In the middle of his head a weighty microchip pulses into the surrounding brain tissue. Must get Wife. Must get Wing Lee. MustgetWingLee. Must...get...Wing...Lee . She gets off in 663 seconds, calculates Android 355XJT.

Amused, Hubert breaks android mode and lets his seat back five clicks. The disappearing sun reflects off his rear-view mirror, casting a bright sting into his eyes. He closes them and dozes.

Hubert’s penis is suspended in bath water like a little pink buoy. Du-Wayne gurgles through a mouthful of toothpaste, "Hey small dick." A pinch upon Hubert’s neck, joint smoke lipping against the mirror. Gladys is crying, punting at the mildewed center of a bath mat. Grandma showers on a lawn chair, stretching the pink straps so suds run through. Mom’s bedroom keyhole shines directly into his pupil. Du-Wayne’s silhouette barking, pulling, chewing at his mother’s feet.

Three kids bang on the Morey’s Pier employee entrance, interrupting something of a dream. One kid bounces a tennis ball while the other two trade fucks and shits, hitting the door with their fists. Hubert guesses that they’re trying to get free passes from an older sister or someone. They eventually tire and shuffle across the parking lot. Dressed in sagging jeans and extra extra large T-shirts, they look like strange monks.

"Shitty-ass no name car," one kid says as they pass Hubert’s Datsun.

Hubert shakes his head and realizes that the kids weren’t even around before Datsun became Nissan. It seems crazy to him. Nonetheless, shitty-ass is a fitting description. Hubert’s car looks like an injured bison—collapsed under the only working light in the parking lot, catching its breath through a bug-covered radiator grill.

Long shadows have dissolved into the greater darkness of the parking lot. The blinking face of Hubert’s digital watch reads 8:00. Boardwalk attractions are beginning to cast light into the clouds overhead. In the year-and-a-half that Hubert has been picking up Wing, she has never been late. Now she is three minutes late and counting.

Finally bringing his seat to a full upright position, Hubert shifts back and forth. The boardwalk swells with weekenders. Over the AC, he can hear the five dollar store advertisement repeating over and over: "Everything in the store is five dollars. Five dollars for everything. Come in and check it out. Any T-shirt, Five dollars. You sir, five dollars." There’s an occasional zoom of roller coasters and the screams of its passengers. The voices of carnival game operators rise and trail off. "Two to race." "Flip the froggy win a doggy." "Somebody wins every time, toss that dime. Toss that dime!"

Hubert thinks about the first time he met Wing, at a Filene’s Basement Supersale. He noticed her as he stepped out of the dressing room wearing a pair of red spandex bike shorts. Wing sat on a display cabinet in the wedding dress department, peacefully arranging piles of clothing and ignoring the mad rush for bargains. Surrounded by short-tempered women hurrying about in brassieres and unbuttoned dungarees, she seemed unnaturally peaceful and small—like a half-human sage. As two ladies wrestled for a yellow satin dress, Wing Lee watched—cupping an elbow and concealing a half-smirk—quietly above it all.

On purple nights like this, when the sky above Wildwood absorbs the Ferris wheel light, Hubert imagines Wing swimming from one side to the other—paddling through gray water, surviving on brine and seaweed, crossing a sea to be with him. Naked and wet in their bed at night, sweating under the sometimes faulty air conditioner, she looks like the same tired swimmer.

Although they’ve been married for a year, Wing never mentions China. Hubert wonders if he can remain happy without knowing her story. He pictures her as a screaming village girl, draped over her tortured father, or as a disheartened Geisha, fleeing a world of drunken Karaoke and opium-crazed businessmen. Stupidly, Hubert can’t think of anything but POW movies. Mosquitoes bump their faces against his windshield and he looks into the purple sky.

At 8:07, Hubert begins to worry. Bucking the driver’s side door open, he paces around the Datsun a few times before sitting on the front hood. He bounces his legs and rubs his thighs—something his mother used to hate. During Sunday services in Houston, she used to grab both his legs and look sternly in his eyes. Her hair fell over her eyes like a passionate conductor. Hubert would crack a mischievous smile and transfer the shake into his torso. Now the legs had become a habit. At thirty- three, he’s becoming a collection of anxieties. Wing’s immigration papers, the green beach house for sale in North Wildwood, Du-Wayne dreams—all this rattling his balsa wood legs.

The hood of the Datsun makes a buckling sound when Hubert slides onto his feet. Now she’s twelve minutes late. Running a clammy hand through his hair, he locks his car and walks towards Wing’s store. Hubert shimmies past some kids beat-boxing on the stairs and cuts into the boardwalk traffic.

Crammed with weekenders, the boardwalk snakes towards Morey’s Pier. A tramcar drives through the thick crowd, repeating its electronic "Watch the tramcar!" warning. The five-foot tall train has yellow booths and a blue plastic roof. Stuffed with tourists, traveling four miles an hour, it looks small and useless. As Hubert scouts a path towards Knick Knacks and Tic Tacs, he notices other husbands. One man seems happy enough, talking over his wife, pulling his children by the shoulders. Another dad walks apart from the rest, knotting his tank top, feeling the scrawny billfold in his front pocket.

Hubert begins to jog the few hundred yards that separate Wing’s store from the parking lot. At six three, he looks over blonde perms, Harley Davidson bandannas, crew cuts and baseball caps. An Irish girl working at the ring toss calls attention to him by shouting, "Hey there mister. What’s your hurry? Be a king and toss the ring." Hubert looks over and smiles apologetically. He spins around a mustached girl in a wheelchair, lopes under the Kohr’s Custard awning and hurdles the back tire of a teenager rocking between his girlfriend’s legs.

His anxiety turns to panic. For a moment, he imagines the worst case scenarios—the Psycho shower scene, murder beneath the boardwalk, her photo on the side of a milk carton. Running in place until he finds a way under the linked arms of two amazon volleyball players, Hubert sees the Knick Knacks and Tic Tacs sign. He notices a break in traffic to his left and dashes past the two women.

In a cartoon second—a slowed, comic gesture—Hubert hears the tramcar. Jerking his head under his left armpit, he feels the plastic roof knock into his shoulder. A rubber grill careens into his calf, smacks against his seat and sends him tumbling across the concrete tramway. He winks in the puddle of spittle beneath his chin. Hubert blacks out.

—Tornado days-off from school. Mossy-green skies in fast-mo. The tinfoil boat spins into a sidewalk whirlpool. Holding Mr. Rue’s calves, slipping on the gutter drain, jabbing an arm through the metal grating, catching the USS Ward before it hits the Maelstrom. A crappy tinfoil craft—

A fattish woman in a teal sweat suit pulls on Hubert’s waistband. With a hand pressed firmly against the inward slope of his chest, she yanks his hips and tells him to breathe.

"I’m okay," Hubert says, burping to the side and noticing the crowd of people.

The teenage tramcar operator chews his watchband and stutters, "I-I hit the warning button like a million times, but he didn’t hear." He sets his hands on the roof of the tram and frowns.

Running a finger over his teeth, Hubert lifts his head off the pavement. "I’m okay, really. Sorry."

"People got to watch where they're going if they—"

The woman in the teal sweat suit makes a shushing movement with her finger and announces, "I’m a trainer at Temple University ladies and gentlemen, I’ll take care of this from here."

The crowd slowly dissipates, mumbling "fucken A’s" and "holy shits." Some kids pretend to hit the tramcar and sprawl out in laughter. An old man fans his hands in the air and shouts like an auctioneer. "Watch the tramcar, watch the tramcar." People chuckle and walk away. The man dances a Charleston and shakes his finger at Hubert.

Collecting his limbs and standing, Hubert feels remarkably good. He shakes out his legs and arms. Blacking-out feels like a good nap—the stream of images lasts for hours. Hubert heard somewhere that heart attack victims smell burnt toast right before going under. A salty breeze separates a black curl from his wet forehead.

As the tramcar chugs back into motion and the trainer chatters about different stretches for muscular discomfort, Hubert sees Wing nudging her way through the crowd. She’s carrying a gigantic teddy bear, tripping over its hind legs as she walks. The small woman heaves the animal under her arm and struts in an uncomfortable counterbalance. She waves at her husband, loses grip and regains balance by leaning against the bear’s soft sternum.

"Honey, why were you so late? You scared me!" Hubert asks, testing his bicuspids.

Out of breath, Wing sets the animal at Hubert’s feet and massages her forearms. "I won this adorable prize for Hubert Junior."

After a few seconds of frowning—imagining fatherhood and what it might feel like—Hubert pets the three foot bear and clicks a fingernail against its plastic eyeball. With a smile, he says, "Hell, Wing, it is adorable."

Wing grabs Hubert’s hand. Still out of breath, she notices the trainer and asks, "Who’s the lady in the green sweat suit?"
 


*****


 


The flickering exit sign casts a red strobe over Hubert’s torso. He lies fragile like a man on a bed of nails. The clerk hears the sucking sound of a woman opening the Gatorade section. A row of Citrus Cooler slides down one space and thumps against the glass door.

Hubert pulls a few black hairs from his shoulder. Blowing them off the tip of his forefinger, he wishes for a healthy baby—something he can burp, feed and toss into the air. In a memory not-yet-had—a sweaty lobe of wishful thinking—he pictures himself stretched across a hammock on the porch of the green house in North Wildwood. Burrs and berries bump over the roof, hop over the storm drain and fall into the grubby hands of a child. A gust of air conditioning follows his bride’s dress as she steps through the doorway. Sweet cold air—dry and clear.
 


*****


 


Hubert Ward sits in his living room and stares at an old black and white television thirty yards across the courtyard in someone else’s apartment. There, two kids watch a professional wrestling match. Head-locking each other and climbing to the top ropes of a couch, they obstruct Hubert’s view. Barely making out the action, he bangs his fist against his thigh and sends them ESP messages to sit down.

In the bedroom, with her hips elevated by a stuffed cheetah, Wing Lee breathes in short bursts. "Hee, hee, hee, wha, wha." She places her hands around each thigh and flexes her seat.

Hubert imitates his wife from the other room and laughs. "That sounds weird."

"It’s the natural method, Hubert," she says between puffs of air, pushing with her abdominals.

On the television across the courtyard, one wrestler has the other by the throat, slamming his head into the turnbuckle over and over. Hubert feels the muscles in his neck contracting. He rubs a hand across his shoulders and hopes that the two boys change the channel.

Sam Laybourne teaches at Beacon High School, an alternative public school in Manhattan. Must Get Wing Lee is from Wildwood, a collection of Mr. Laybourne's stories about Wildwood, NJ.

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