Million Dollar Girl
Version Date: October 11, 2008
Their usual work during their hours at the store was to sit on a cold concrete floor and put together the furniture designed for assembly at home: the kind that is completely precut and predrilled. All that is needed is to drive in the screws or tighten the bolts. The pair quickly got into the routine of trading off tasks. First, one would hold the parts while the other used the drill driver or wrench, and then they would switch. Even though they put together many of the very same units (“Not another 407? Who likes this stuff?”), the hours passed quickly because each made the task fun for the other.
Matt liked Amy because she was a good, cheerful helper who seldom complained and who did not blame him for any mishaps, such as a misdriven screw or a pinched finger. How pleasantly surprised he was the first time he accidentally pushed two pieces together before her fingers could quite let go of the end. As she shook her hand in pain, she had responded to his apology by saying, “Hey, no problem. It was an accident. I’ll live. Relax.”
Not only was she not fussy about getting dirty, working in a dusty warehouse-like environment with sometimes oily fasteners, but she once showed her creativity by offering her hand as scratch paper for Matt to write a phone number on when he had called directory assistance. Cupping her yielded hand in his like a pad of paper, writing on it, smudging out a couple of erroneous digits, and rewriting the correct ones made quite an impression on him. Matt also liked the fact that Amy laughed at his jokes. Shy people are often forced into some kind of performance to get beyond their own enclosed personalities, and Matt’s method was humor. Finding someone who laughed at his attempts was a treasure. And I will not even mention how Matt felt those times when, after he had figured out how to fit a particularly troublesome piece or showed her a shortcut to lining up some parts, Amy told him, “You’re so smart.”
Amy liked Matt because he was a funny guy. As their relationship developed and they began to tease each other (said to be the test or proof of a growing relationship), Matt’s teasing was always gentle and kind. Amy also appreciated Matt’s allowing her to her help with all of the assembly tasks. Even though her main motivation for moving to assembly was to flee customer service and the hysterically angry people who demanded refunds and apologies for the furniture they themselves had clumsily broken, she still wanted to participate meaningfully. Her initial fear when she first started was that she would be little more than a ten-fingered vise, holding the parts while Matt drove in the fasteners. She found instead a full partner, who let her do at least half of the fitting, driving and tightening, and even the occasional drilling. When the instructions for a new item were too terrible to figure out easily, they both puzzled through the assembly steps and agreed on the best method. And, although Matt was shy, he was not insecure as a man, so he never needed to make deprecating or qualifying comments related to Amy’s gender: “You do a good job, for a girl,” or “You hold a wrench just like a girl.” It was a small thing for Amy, but she liked it.
Their relationship would have developed a lot more rapidly had they not both been introverted and cautious people. Nevertheless, by the end of their freshman year, they were relaxed and talkative enough and had been dating (though Amy would probably not have used the term) for quite some time. Amy enjoyed getting off campus and eating dinner at an inexpensive coffee shop with Matt. Just getting away from campus was a psychological relief. Getting away from the dining commons was a digestive relief, and an aid in combating the “freshman ten”—the tendency for women freshmen to gain ten pounds during the year because of the starchy, fatty cuisine. And, of course, the companionship was the principal joy in the outings. For a girl who had never thought of herself as being special in any way, and whose four years before college might be summed up as “not popular in high school,” being treated special by Matt was highly flattering. No doubt there were thoughts trying to get into her mind that she would not allow herself to think.
They had summered apart, but between email, the phone, and snail mail, they had kept in good communication and maintained their relationship. When they saw each other again for the first time at the beginning of the new year, they immediately felt like old hands in familiar gloves.
By this point in the term, it was as if they had never been apart.
Those who do not believe in serendipity have never been students on an enormous university campus, where probability seems to be regularly defied by the frequent chance meeting of friends. Thus it was that Matt and Amy crossed paths one afternoon in the middle of campus, along a pathway through the grass and eucalyptus trees.
“Hi, Matt. What’s happening?”
“I was just thinking about you.”
“Oh, right. Are you sure you weren’t thinking about a new wrench set or a floor jack?”
“No. I think about you all the time.”
“Uh huh.” Matt knew that her tone of dismissive skepticism was fake.
“Hey, nice shoes,” he said, changing the subject and trying to sound sincere.
“Oh, that’s great. Well delivered, too. Now tell me I have nice hair and ask me if I’ve lost weight.”
“Aren’t those the next lines in the book?” She was smiling at him archly.
“What book? Amy, sometimes I just don’t understand you.” Matt wrinkled his brow.
“It’s because women are mysterious and complicated.” Amy closed her eyes and tilted her head upwards, as if revealing an aura of sophistication.
“Yeah, and some of them are sane, too.”
“Be careful, buster,” she said, pointing a finger at him and making a face. “You’re treading on very thin ice.”
“So where you off to?”
“Back to my room. What about you?” In an instant, they had fallen into their familiar tones.
“Got to go to town to get a part for my car.”
“Need any help?” Amy brightened suddenly. Matt knew from the action of her eyebrows that she wanted to go, too.
“No, no, I think I can do it by myself.”
“Well, do you know anybody who might want to go with you, just for the companionship?”
“Hmm. Well, maybe, but she’s not here right now.”
Amy growled and tried to look angry. “Might there be just a speck of kindness and politeness in your otherwise evil heart that would make you look around and see that there might be someone who needs to go into town to get some popcorn of the type she always shares with you and who you could offer a ride to?”
“That’s what I like about you, Amy. You’re so subtle. So, then, would you like to go to town with me to buy a vacuum booster for my car?”
“Oh.” Amy acted as if she had been caught off guard. “Um, well, I’m pretty busy right now. But I guess I could go, if you really insist.”
“Don’t change your major to theater,” Matt said. He was paid for his generous advice by a punch in the arm. He let his arm hang limp and swung it back and forth as if Amy had broken the bone.
“Ooh,” he moaned. “At least I still have one good arm.”
“You’re supposed to be encouraging the hesitant lady,” Amy said.
“Well,” Matt said, “I might encourage you, but every journey has an uncertain ending. Traveling to a strange city is always risky. And, since, as you say, you’re so busy, I really don’t want to put you out. I can just go by myself.”
“Maybe I’m the type of person who secretly likes to take risks and go on dangerous journeys. I’ve always thought riding in your car involved both of those.”
Now Amy was cutting close to home. Matt’s tone became half serious. “If you insult Bertha, she may not run.”
“If I breathe too hard, she may not run. On the other hand, if I blow on the windshield, we may get there faster.”
“For a nice girl, you sure have a big streak of wickedness and cruelty in you.”
“Thanks,” Amy said, as if he had complimented her.
“I want to change shoes first. And do you mind if I ask Markayla if she wants to go?”
“Naw. Beautiful women are always welcome in the Bertmobile. And do change those shoes,” he added, holding his hand to his cheek as if making a fashion comment.
“But you just told me they were nice. Hypocrite. Where’s your car?”
“Southeast corner of R6.”
“Matt, you know I don’t know directions.”
“Near the big, crooked tree near the monument sign at the entrance of Campbell Way. I’m in about the third row. Just walk into R6 and head toward the monument sign at the end of the street.”
“Okay.” It was a warm and happy “okay” with a warmer look. The bounce in her walk told Matt that she was happy.
When Amy returned to her room, Shelley was there talking to Markayla. Tina was reading at her desk.
“Matt and I are going into town to get some stuff. Anybody want to go?” Amy plopped herself on the bed and began to change her “school shoes” for a pair of athletic shoes.
“I’ll chaperone you two,” Shelley said.
“I’d like to go,” Tina said, standing up and walking toward them. “If it’s safe.”
“Well, good,” said Amy. “And it is safe. Matt won’t lead us astray.”
“Good,” said Shelley. “I’ve been to Astray and it wasn’t all that great. Oh, sure, big town, bright lights, lots of noise, but the food wasn’t what I expected and it was way too expensive.” She seemed almost serious.
“You children go,” said Markayla. “And I shall take advantage of some peace and quiet to do some work. Forget that you are at the university to learn something, in hopes of passing your courses and gaining a degree. Go, indulge yourselves in conspicuous consumption and forget the burdens of scholarship. I realize that the true purpose of America is to convert finite natural resources into disposable items of passing indulgence. Landfills must not remain empty.” Amy wondered if Markayla was being serious. It was difficult to tell. Perhaps she had just been around Shelley too much, or maybe she was echoing something she had read for one of her business courses.
“Goodbye, mother,” said Shelley, picking up on the reference to children. “If the snow isn’t too deep, we’ll make it through the pass. We promise to write, if we don’t end up eating each other.” As they walked down the landing, Shelley turned and yelled back at Markayla, “Or if there’s an Internet connection in the New Country, we’ll email!”
Matt was surprised but secretly glad to have the three girls join him. Those who might be hesitant to seek the company of others are often glad when it is brought to them.
“I hope you don’t mind driving all of us to the store,” Amy said.
“Well,” Matt said, “I did have to cancel the babes to make room for you guys.”
“You wish,” Amy said.
“We’re your reality,” said Shelley. “And you can’t escape it. However, an automobile filled with attractive women can’t be all bad for a guy like you.”
“What do you mean, a guy like me?” Matt asked.
“Don’t ask her,” said Amy.
“I need a radio,” Tina said, to no one in particular.
“She thinks she’s come to school to study. We left her with her nose in a book.” Amy said.
“What is she thinking?” Shelley asked rhetorically.
“Why would she put her nose in a book?” Matt asked. “It seemed okay where it was on her face.” One of Matt’s methods of humor was to pretend to misunderstand English, whether a metaphor or a literal expression. He especially liked to do this with road signs. A sign reading, “Speed Checked by Radar,” would be commented on with “Boy, Officer Radar seems to be everywhere. And why do they have to tell you that he’s the one checking your speed?” Or he might say, “Slow Children Ahead? Do they have to advertise the fact that their kids aren’t very bright? That seems cruel.” It was a simple kind of humor, which often received groans. Shelley was a little more direct.
“Wow,” she said. “With some butter and salt, we could have corn on the cob.”
“Just drive,” Amy told him.
The fifteen-year-old car was in reasonable shape from the now almost constant attention of Matt, who had become quite adept at problem solving the car’s geriatric issues. However, as with most things so old, there remained a considerable amount of deferred maintenance, as it is sometimes called, including the suspension, which is expensive to repair. As a result, the car wiggled and bounded over the speed bumps in the parking lot, leaving its passengers rather unconfident that this squishy vehicle would continue to hold together. A few visible rust spots showing through the paint lent support to any negative conclusions the girls wanted to form.
When the car came to a stop at the edge of the parking lot, a hissing sound followed by a klunk came from under the hood when Matt applied the brakes. He had to press hard on the pedal to stop the car.
“What’s wrong? Don’t the brakes work?” Shelley asked.
“They sort of work. That’s why I need to get to town, to get a part for the brakes. The power booster has gone out. I told you that.”
“We’re not going to get stalled on a railroad track and be hit by a train, are we?”
“Don’t be paranoid. When the booster fails, you don’t usually lose the brakes.”
“Don’t use the word usually.”
At the next stop sign, Shelley, who was sitting in the back seat directly behind Matt, grabbed his shoulders. “We’re going over the cliff! Drop the oxygen masks. Inflate the boats, get the parachutes ready, not to mention a pillow.”
“Shelley,” said Matt, “has anyone ever told you you’re crazy?”
“Matthew,” said Amy, “don’t.” She was thinking of Tina and of Shelley’s comment earlier about crazy people living in her room. Tina did not seem to be crazy, but Amy was afraid that such comments might be offensive. Matt knew that whenever Amy called him Matthew, she was being serious and he should restrain himself, even if he did not know why. So he let the subject drop.
Soon they stopped at the store. Matt announced that he was going to the hardware department to look at tools, so Amy said she would look at munchies and meet back at the checkout. Shelley headed for cosmetics. Tina attached herself to Amy and they went over to the snack department and looked at potato chips, peanuts, double-fudge cookies, marshmallow center oatmeal cookies, and candy bars. Amy looked at the nutrition label on a few of the items, sighed, and put them back.
“Look at this,” she said. “Forty-three grams of fat per serving. And this tiny box has six servings.”
She finally chose a package of microwave popcorn, the one with the label, “Half the fat. All the taste.” Amy picked up a few other necessary items like cotton balls and a bottle of nail polish remover. Tina wanted to go to the electronics department, so they went on over.
“What do you need here?” Amy asked.
“I need a new radio.”
“Doesn’t your clock radio still work?” Amy asked.
“It doesn’t get the right frequencies,” Tina said.
Tina glanced over the display of radios and then began to pick up each of the boxes, turning each one over. She appeared to be looking at the barcode of each item.
“The price isn’t on the barcode,” Amy said. “It’s on the shelf.”
“How much is this one?”
“Nineteen ninety five.”
Tina continued to pick up the boxes and look at the barcode of each radio. Finally she selected one to her liking. “This is a good one,” she said.
After just a few minutes Shelley found Matt in the automotive department next to hardware. She had a bottle of shampoo and some pain pills and was finished with her shopping. Rather than browse the clothing, she decided to see what Matt was up to. He was looking at the spray lubricants.
Matt had a can of something in his hand.
“Hi there, Matt. Whatcha doing?” Shelley had lively eyes and an engaging smile that made her instantly likeable. She seemed to like others the minute she met them, which encouraged them to liker her, too.
Matt turned and nodded a greeting to Shelley and then said, motioning with the can, “Now this is serious stuff. ‘Ultra Tech, Super Penetrant, Xtreme Duty Spray Lubricant.’ Now we’re talking heavy hitting. No more kiddie lube for us. We’re bringing out the big guns now. I mean, this is probably the stuff used by sweaty men with veins popping out of their arms. This baby will make fly paper slide across a bed of nails.” Then he turned to Shelley, who was reading him, checking her boloney gauge to determine how serious he was. “Think I should get it?” he asked. All he needed was permission.
“Definitely,” Shelley said.
“Amy would say I have enough oil.”
“But do you have a can of this fabulous product?”
“No. And it does sound so good.”
“It does sound so good.” Shelley wanted to grab Matt’s arms and make a comment about his strength, but her hands were full, so she just leaned her head up against his shoulder, looked up at him and batted her eyelashes playfully. “And you know how women like big, strong men who use macho tools,” she said in a soft, alluring voice. Then, with a bit of a frown and a tone of mild displeasure, she added, “Though we can do without the sweaty part.”
“So, then, you think I should get this?” Matt asked, staying focused. “After all, it’s only a couple of dollars.”
“Well, then you absolutely must get it.” Shelley now realized that she could pile her purchases into her arm and hold them against her chest, freeing the other hand. She did this and took the can of lubricant from Matt, examining the label as if she were critically evaluating the product. “Yes,” she said, handing the can back to him, “that looks like great stuff.”
“Done,” Matt said, putting his arm around Shelley and giving her a little sideways hug with the arm whose hand still held the can. “Thanks.” She smiled up at him, then winked.
In the store’s security booth, a man in a khaki uniform with the sewn nametag Morty on the pocket sat behind a bank of video monitors. He was watching Section C, Aisle 6, where he had just seen a smiling young woman come up to a young man and, after a few moments, lean her head against him and then receive a hug. “I wish I knew girls like that,” he said aloud, though he was alone in the room. “I wonder what that is he’s buying.”
Shelley liked Matt because he seemed to be a lot like Ron, her boyfriend. Friendly, respectful, someone you could trust and be friends with. And with only minor flaws. While with some guys the tendency to overindulge a weakness can be either self-destructive or harmful to others, Matt and Ron’s self-indulgence tended to be in the areas of too many tools, too many books, and too many music CD’s. Ron’s (and, she would discover, Matt’s) lack of housekeeping skills she did not consider a flaw because, first, she had low expectations of the ability of males to keep rooms clean, and second, she herself was no neat freak.
Matt did have one weakness he did not have in common with Ron. Matt was a snacker. On the way back to the checkout, Matt and Shelley stopped by the snack food aisle, where Matt picked up an almost shocking number of bags of potato chips, corn chips, tortilla chips, and popcorn, together with a few cans of peanuts and almonds and shelled sunflower seeds. Shelley shook her head, thinking, “Why can guys eat like horses, and eat all the worst food, and not gain an ounce, and girls can eat one tasteless cracker and gain five pounds?” She quietly gritted her teeth and scowled in a direction seen only by the security cameras. Fortunately for the endurance of his fantasies, Morty was not watching that particular monitor at the time.
The four students joined up at the checkout line. The line was not long, only half a dozen people, but every transaction seemed to take forever. First a price check on an item with no price tag, then some sort of confusion over a maxed-out credit card. Another customer waited to pull out her checkbook until the checker was completely finished. Everyone waited while she filled in all the information, asking for the date and the name of the store. The customer just in front of them objected to the scanned price of an item, claiming that the posted price was much less. Another wait for a price check. Then an argument when the price came back as scanned. Finally a huffy, “Then I don’t want it,” and an end to the transaction.
While Tina was paying for her radio, Shelley looked over the items on the impulse rack. She chose a pack of gum and then picked up a box of bandages.
“You know,” she said, holding up the box, “I do need a new bathing suit.”
“Just pretend you don’t hear her,” Amy said to Matt.
While Shelley watched Matt’s many bags of chips and cans of nuts go across the scanner, Amy thought that Matt was paying a little too much attention to the checker, an attractive enough college-age girl with a ponytail. When they all got outside, Amy stopped him. Pulling out a tissue, she said, “Just a minute, Matt. Let me wipe the drool off your collar.”
“I saw how you eyed that girl,” Amy said, wiping his collar with the tissue, just as if there really had been drool on it.
“Oh, and here’s some on your mouth. It’s making your tongue slip,” she said, wiping his mouth lovingly. “There we go, all better.”
Matt just shook his head.
“Did you see all the security cameras in there?” Matt asked, to change the subject.
“Where?” Shelley asked.
“The dark brown domes. I counted thirty-six of them from the checkout line. The whole store must have fifty or a hundred.”
“Wow,” Shelley said. “They really are watching us.”
“Yeah, there are cameras everywhere now,” Matt added. “They say that eventually we’ll all end up being shown naked on the Internet.”
“Oh, Matt,” Amy protested. “Don’t say that.”
“What’s that?” Tina asked, not very clearly. She looked troubled, worried.
“Matt is just kidding,” Amy said to Tina. Then she looked at Matt before he could reply.
“That settles it,” Shelley said. “I’m never taking my makeup off.”
As they approached the car, Shelley eyed it with mock derision and then said, “Do you really expect me to enter this rolling death trap, risking life and limb in a creaking junk heap driven by a careless and immature college student?” The reference to the immature college student bounced off Matt without a crease, but he was almost hurt by the insult to his car.
“It’s not a junk heap,” he said, just a little defensively. “These are my wheels. They work fine.” A particularly astute interpreter might have detected a tone of affection in his voice. Then he added, in a lower tone, perhaps so that his car could not hear, “Someday I’ll have a much cooler car.” He would never say, “Someday I’ll have a cool car,” because that would imply that his current car was not cool. How we are too often blinded by love, even for our possessions, even for our modest and creaking possessions. They are familiar, and they are ours, and we love them.
“So it’s either ride in this thing or hitch a ride with a parolee on a motorcycle,” Shelley said, acting as if she were weighing the decision.
“No,” Matt said, knowing that Ron rode a motorcycle, “your boyfriend is nowhere near here.”
“Well, then, I guess you’ve forced my hand.”
Amy and Tina thought the drama was over, so they began to move toward the car, when Shelley threw herself against the side, stretching out her arms as far as possible toward the front and rear and shouted, “It’s too late for me, but you can still save yourselves.”
“You know, Shelley,” Amy said, “there are lots of sugar-free soft drinks on the market.”
“So you don’t think it’s the quadruple espresso mocha, after all?” Shelley asked. Then, turning to Tina, she said, “What do you think, Tina?”
“I like juice,” Tina said.
The girls climbed into the car while Matt put his four plastic T-shirt bags full of chips and nuts into the trunk. Then he got in and started the engine.
“By the way, Matt,” Amy said, “don’t think I didn’t see that can of spray oil you bought.”
“Shelley made me buy it.”
“It’s true,” Shelley said, chivalrously taking the blame.
“Do you know how many cans of spray oil Matt owns?”
“I’m sure he needs them all.” Shelley’s tone was not sarcastic.
“He must have ten cans,” Amy said with emphasis. Matt smiled to himself because she had guessed low.
“Must be farmer DNA,” Shelley said.
“Give me a can of oil, a roll of duct tape, a few feet of bailing wire, and a pair of water pump pliers and I can fix anything,” Matt said, almost seriously.
“Don’t forget the chewing gum,” Amy said.
Amy remembered the day Matt first came over to her room, not long after they had met at the furniture store and warehouse. He had scarcely said hello before he commented on the poor condition of her door lock and the hinges. He had asked if she had any oil in her room. She did not. Next time he came, he had a can of spray lubricant with him. He disassembled the door lock, cleaned out some dirt and grease, oiled it and put it back together. He mumbled something about ideally removing the hinge pins as he sprayed the hinges and wiped off the excess before it could drip onto the carpet.
Amy was amazed at how easily the door swung and the lock opened and closed. Not just the ease of turning the deadbolt, but the latch itself now closed so easily that the door could be pushed gently and it would close completely on its own. Before, it had always been necessary to turn the door knob to retract the latch and then hold the door while closing it. Otherwise, the latch would bang against the striker plate and the door would just sit there, still cracked open.
Matt oiled the bathroom door latch and hinges also, and now the door swung halfway closed on its own, being just a little off level. It was no longer stiff enough to stay all the way open when it was pushed. That was a mixed blessing, but at least it no longer creaked at night when someone entered the bathroom.
When Matt offered to let Amy keep the can of lubricant, she had refused at first, not wanting to deprive him of his own. However, she soon learned that he owned several—no, many—other cans, of every brand and kind. Machine oil, penetrating lubricant, moisture repellant, aerosol grease, liquid graphite, spray Teflon. Many cans used words like miracle, super, ultra, tech, and, of course, multi-purpose. He already had a lifetime supply of these cans, but whenever he visited an auto parts, hardware, or discount department store, he always checked to see if there was a type or brand he did not yet own. If so, it was almost imperative to obtain, possess, and use it.
The next stop was the auto parts store, where Matt assured the girls he would not spend a lot of time browsing. Had he been alone, the visit to the store would have taken perhaps an hour. However, with his cargo of young women waiting for him, he knew he should be brief. He did take the time to walk down the aisle with the specialty wheels—some chrome, some aluminum, some magnesium—where, if the truth were known, he was even more likely to drool. He even asked the price of a new radiator, knowing that it was only a matter of time (and possibly not very much time) before his was called to the great radiator home in the sky. Or, rather, the dump. He was soon back with the new vacuum booster in a box, together with a piece of connecting hose.
Shelley looked at the box as Matt carried it past the car on his way to put it in the trunk. She put her head out the window, both hands on the door, as if she might be ready to climb out. “This car needs a part that big?” she asked, with a wild look. The box was about a foot square. “Tina, do you think we’ll make it home alive?”
Tina appeared to be lost in thought. After a few seconds she said, “What? Oh, oh, yes, let’s go home now.”
“So, when are you going to fix your car?” Amy asked, as they headed toward the university.
“Ron and I are going to get together Friday afternoon, I think.”
Amy gave a little pout, but kept it hidden by turning her face toward the window.
“Ah, Ron, that dreamy man,” Shelley said. “But it seems like I hardly ever see him. There’s always something keeping us apart. You and Matt, on the other hand, are lucky that you are always able to get together. Nothing ever seems to keep you and Matt apart.”
“Actually, there are several things,” Amy said.
“Oh, a buffet, a bag of potato chips, a car show, a basketball or football game on TV, any lock, hinge, or motor that hasn’t been oiled—or a car that needs to be repaired. Need more?”
“You’re cutting pretty deep into a guy driving you and your nutty friends around,” Matt said, without taking his eyes off the road. Amy reached over and gave Matt’s arm a caress. They looked at each other. She was smiling.
After the quartet returned to campus and got out of the car, Matt held Amy back for a moment.
“Amy, you know, all that talk in the car about potato chips and buffets makes me real hungry. Want to get a bite to eat?”
“You going to take me to a fancy restaurant?”
“Anywhere you like.”
“In your pre-repaired car?”
“I’ll drive carefully. You’ve already survived one trip.”
“Sounds great,” Amy said, dropping her teasing tone. “I’d like that.”
“Just tell me where you’d like to go.”
Go on to Chapter 6
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