By Tom Fillion
It was Bootleg who trained me for the parking booth. To sit there on a four-legged stool for hours behind smoky gray Plexiglas while an old air conditioner drooled on the hot asphalt and recycled exhaust fumes and body sweat.
He was an old guy, the kind you see around the Salvation Army or Goodwill stores. Part rummy, part soothsayer. Bootleg was short and skinny with an archaic, chiseled and hollowed-out Appalachian face. He had long legs for his short stature, but not long enough to outrun the Revenue agents who caught him when he was young, running moonshine in the Tennessee hills. He spent most of the Depression in Atlanta Federal prison, and, according to him, he was darn glad to do it too. Three meals a day and a place to sleep was his take on it. He didn't want to leave when his time came, and they gave him just enough bus money to clear out. Things were tough, he said. He bought a one way ticket to Florida where he had people he could stay with.
Mostly, he worked odd jobs from then until this time of his life. Truth be told, working the ticket booth was the culmination of his career of odd jobs and probation officers that he still had to visit for various reasons he hinted at with a toothless smile but would never explain or elaborate. I assumed he was still doing pissant stuff to get himself arrested. Traffic offenses, drunkenness, maybe some stealing and burglary. He was small enough to get in and out of places easy so burglary and losing his teeth were part and parcel of his being. Deep down, I think, being in trouble was his connection to the only place he had ever felt safe and secure in his life and that was Atlanta Federal Prison. It was his rock of Gibraltar. Three meals a day and place to sleep.
We didn't hit it off right away. Like I was saying, the parking lot booth was Bootleg's highest achievement in the outside world, the world beyond his backwoods upbringing and radiator coil drippings that left such a heavy imprint on him. For me the ticket booth was not exactly a low point, but maybe a starting point. I figured if I worked my cards right, kept my nose clean, I could become a building engineer or the building manager there at the Barnett Bank building someday. The building engineer changed light bulbs. The building manager told the engineer which bulbs to change. I could do that.
Not so for Bootleg. The parking booth in the middle of all those white-striped parking slots was his Buckingham Palace. The parking lot was his fiefdom and, despite the sour, recycled air in the booth it was a sanctuary for him. When he was in the booth he controlled who came in and who went out of the lot, bigshots and pissants included. Everyone that nosed their cars up to the gates knew that he was a force to contend with despite his small stature and pink gums that he exposed when he told them how much they owed for trespassing in his kingdom. That leaked over into our relationship too. He was dead serious about the comings and goings of cars, parking tickets, and cash, and I didn't meet his expectations because it didn't seem all that important to me, a young guy that didn't give a shit about much. He lit into me a few times because I didn't respect the ticket booth enough, and therefore him, to sort the tickets into different piles, those that had stamps from those that didn't, and then separate those further by the all the different companies including the bank, financial and insurance firms, doctors' offices etc. in the twelve story building. I would always find him writing arcane scribbles in pencil on the stacks of tickets he rubber-banded together. I didn't have the foggiest idea what he was writing, or if he could write, but by his intensity, it was something important to him, as important as three square meals a day and a place to sleep.
After I've been there for a while, and hadn't done my Johnny Paycheck "Take This Job and Shove It" routine and taken off like I had done on the last few jobs, because Brenda the slinky blonde gypsy with a slightly hooked nose I married, who wore these big hoola hoop earrings, well Brenda lost her slinky when she/we got pregnant.
That's when I decided it was high time to put my guitar down that I brought to the ticket booth early in the morning to strum after I picked up the trash the bums that congregated by the fountain early in the morning had left, that's when I decided to put my name into the hat for building manager. The old manager got transferred to another building downtown. With a baby coming I decided I had to grow up real fast, and I didn't want a baby of mine having to say their Daddy sat on his ass in a parking booth all day long plucking tickets, and was second in command to an old jailbird who gummed his food. I filled out the application and gave it to Missy, the secretary on the fifth floor, who must have passed it on to the big boys on the twelfth floor. That's where the tenth largest insurance company in the U.S. had their offices, and where they quietly used all that premium money they gouged out of people to buy buildings all over God and creation because they owned the Barnett Bank building, lock, stock, barrel, and parking lot ticket booth.
A couple weeks after I turned in the application, my big break came. The new sedan eased up to the booth, and I recognized the driver as a monthly customer so I pressed the button to raise the wooden gate that impatient customers sometimes snapped off. Bootleg had trained me to be efficient and courteous to these high rollers because when Christmas came around they gave us some tremendous tips. Hundreds of dollars like they were passing out lollipops. That would go a long way with a baby coming and Brenda having all her cravings. Instead of speeding off to God's knows where on some big deal, he stopped and rolled down the window.
He was an older man dressed in a white shirt with a blue tie. That's all I usually saw of people when they drove through, the top part, and then not for very long, but that's the way I liked it with the hard-headed life and the one-way streets I've been on. The only one, beside Brenda and the little baby on the sonogram she stopped drinking for, that I talked much to was old Bootleg. Like I said before, he was small enough to crawl into places that other people couldn't, and one of the places he crawled into after a while was my broken toy of a life.
"I've got something I need to discuss with you," the man said after rolling down the window of the late model Buick.
I could see the heavy creases in his long-sleeve white shirt that matched the creases and wrinkles in his square jawed face. I could tell from the folds in the shirt it had more starch in it than a bag of Idaho potatoes. His blue tie with white sprinkles was pinned to the shirt with a shiny gold clasp that went with the cufflinks.
He reached out and passed me something that I thought was a parking ticket which was unusual because he was a monthly customer. I didn't look at it directly because I was trying to make eye contact like Bootleg got on to me about and which he liked doing because he enjoyed what he was doing, letting people in and out and laughing with no teeth. It didn't feel like a cheap parking ticket. It had rises, fissures, and monograms all over it like a cloth napkin at a fancy restaurant.
"I've made time for you tomorrow afternoon at 3 P.M. to come up to my office on the twelfth floor and discuss your future with our company," he said.
My heart started pounding when I heard that. Whatever I had put on my job application for building manager must have turned some heads upstairs, maybe they liked to hire standouts from within the company, and this was the result.
"I'll be there," I said.
I showed the fancy, embossed card to Bootleg later that day when he took over for me while I went up to the hank lobby to push the oiled dust mop across the tiled floor and run the vacuum cleaner near the elevators. I wasn't exactly gloating about it, but that was kick-ass, if you ask me, moving from the parking lot to the building manager's office in such a short time with the company.
There was something new about Bootleg too. I noticed it when I showed him the man's business card. Reading glasses, his Abraham Lincoln chinstrap beard and his hair had all been darkened, his new thick-soled shoes elevated him a couple inches, and when he went to laugh there was no longer a gaping hole in his mouth because he had a new set of teeth.
"I've got to see this hauncho tomorrow," I said, "so it looks like you might be breaking in someone new out here before too long."
I felt a pang of guilt leaving him there, but Bootleg took it all in stride like everything he did.
"I'll hate to see you go," he said without gumming it like he used to, "but you gotta do what you gotta do with a baby coming."
That's the truth too. I couldn't wait to tell Brenda about our good fortune and me moving up in the company to the fifth floor building manager's office. When I did, she got on her slinky enough to celebrate that night as best she could being about six months pregnant. We went at it pretty good too.
The next day I had a change of new clothes in my car that was parked in one of the far off spots. I didn't want to go up to the twelfth floor in my sweaty work uniform because I was trying not to be a caterpillar anymore, all slow, clumsy, getting in my own way as I wobbled around, and really didn't go very far. For the baby's sake, I wanted to be a caterpillar that turned into a butterfly and saw the wonder and beauty in life. Being a building manager would sure help do that as far as I could tell.
I didn't have a fancy white cotton dress shirt like Bentley Smith, Vice President of North American Insurance Company, had. Brenda and I weren't into ironing clothes, and we couldn't afford a dry cleaner with me working in a ticket booth, but I did have a slick, permanent pressed blue dress shirt that I wore up to the twelfth floor for the 3pm meeting.
I had never been that high in the building until then and had never seen two doors as solid and heavy as the ones leading into North American Insurance Company, not to mention the intricate overlay work and the gold door handles. A receptionist sat at a desk in front of a back-lit wall. I handed her the business card.
"I have an appointment with Mr. Smith about the building management position," I said.
"I'll see if he's in," she replied, looking me over like I was in the wrong place, then motioned to a waiting area with chairs that had carved, wooden backs.
A few minutes later Bentley Smith walked out of another set of interior doors. It was the first time I had seen both the top and bottom of one of the parking lot customers and from his build and stride he looked like he had been a high school football player, maybe a half back, or maybe played linebacker, and was one of the guys who dated cheerleaders. I was one of the students who took a year to make a wooden bowl in shop class.
He had some papers in his hand, most likely the job application I had filled out and given to Missy.
"Eddie. Thanks for coming up to discuss this with me," he said extending a warm handshake in my direction. "Come on back to my office."
I followed him down a hallway, ready to get into the nitty-gritty of the building manager's job. He had a great view from his window and down below I could see a faint outline of Bootleg, who had done his best in his life to turn himself from a caterpillar into a butterfly. The afternoon sun sparkled off the side of the ticket booth.
"Eddie, you can call me Ben," Mr. Smith said.
I figured right then I'd be reporting to him about the building and the tenants so being on a first name basis was crucial.
"Eddie, I hear you and your wife are going to have a baby," Ben said.
I didn't remember putting that on my job application because the baby hadn't been born yet, and I was trying to be truthful. I did have a name for the baby if it was a boy. Even Brenda agreed with me on the name. One thing's for sure, we weren't going to call the baby, Bootleg, but we were going to call him Albert after Albert McDougal from Tennessee who everyone called Bootleg after he'd been in Atlanta Federal Prison for a bunch of years.
"Yeah, the baby's due in a couple months, Ben."
"Eddie, that's why I called you up here," he said.
"The baby? It’s not about the building manager's job?"
"We filled that position weeks ago. The new guy should be on board in the next couple of days."
"Eddie, with the baby due, now's a good time to think about getting life insurance for yourself, your wife, and the new arrival."
After telling Ben I'd think about his offer, yeah, about as much time as it took me to walk from his office to the elevator where I pounded the L for Lobby. My life as a butterfly was short-lived. I was back to being a caterpillar. When I got outside, there was the ticket booth shiny and hard like a chrysalis. Bootleg had a smile on his face like he already knew what happened.
"You git the job?" he asked, his bright white teeth gleaming.
"Wasn't for me," I said. "I told him to take that job and shove it."
He laughed like everything was right with his world again. Three meals a day and a place to sleep.
Tom Fillion has been published in many online publications. For a complete list please visit: www.dreammechanic.blogspot.com
Chrysalis was originally published at Writers Bloc magazine and nominated for StorySouth’s Million Writers award by Kevin Dickinson of Writers Bloc.