Before Downtown went to shit, a bunch of us used to work maintenance over at the Eastern Columbia building. There was no one there loved his job more than this one fella, Ralph McLean. Ralphie Mac, we used to call him. He was in charge of the Telechron, up on the top floor. The way Ralphie acted, you’d think that big clock actually pushed time forward with its golden hands, right there above South Broadway.
Ralphie was just one twist short of a slinky, if you know what I mean. Don’t get me wrong, he was a real nice guy, he just could be a little much sometimes. You had to steer clear of certain topics of conversation, or else you’d be there all day. The Dodgers’ 1955 starting lineup, for example, could get him going all afternoon. Or that one time he was an extra on the set of The Student Prince, with Ann Blyth. But what could really set Ralphie on a tear was that TV show Bonanza. He could recite every line from every episode of that program. His favorite was the one where no one would help Hoss fight Carl Morgan’s gang, except the town drunk. “Mr. Pryor,” Ralphie’d act out the whole thing, thumbs locked in his belt loops, “as far as I’m concerned, you’re the only man in the whole room.” He did it real good, you had to admit. I used to clap every time, but after a while I didn’t want to encourage him.
I probably spent more time with Ralphie than any of the other guys did. “He flaps his gums more than my old lady,” they’d say. The boss used to rib me, “Hey Del, why don’t you take Dotty off my hands this weekend, the two of you girls can go down to May’s.” Some said I had the patience of a saint, the way I could sit and listen to Ralphie for long periods. But the thing was, I genuinely liked the guy. Once I told him about those little wax bottle candies I used to love as a kid. Wouldn’t you know, he starts buying me one every time he goes to the corner store. Told me I reminded him of his old man, which was odd when you figure Ralphie had about fifteen years on me.
So this one day I’m in the break room with some of the guys, making fun of Ralphie before he gets there. Just a few laughs to break up the monotony. I was doing his Hoss impression—the belt loops, the squinty eyes, the whole routine.
“Do the walk!” the boss hollered, and I stomped around in circles, duck-footed, just the way Ralphie did.
I don’t know how long he was in the doorway, but when I finally noticed Ralphie standing there, the hairs on my neck went full salute. I swear to you; his eyes were different—just for a second it was like was another person in there. As if Ralphie broke character for a moment, and the dim bulb thing had been an act the whole time. Then, a moment later—poof—he was back, shade pulled down over his eyes again.
“Ready when you are, Hoss.” He picked the scene up right where I’d left off, carrying on like usual.
“It’s a pretty sad thing, the smell of fear in the room,” he said.
Then he smiled real big, his eyes waiting, as he tipped his imaginary cowboy hat.
Robin Bacigalupo is a writer and high school English teacher in Brooklyn. Her book reviews have appeared in the journal Death Studies. Robin’s current work in progress is a novel about a dysfunctional community of teachers and students at a failing NYC high school.
Photo courtesy of Global Pillage