tagNovels and NovellasThe Outsider Ch. 18

The Outsider Ch. 18


Chapter 18 - Christmas Vacation

Mike had expected to pursue "pay-dirt", as he always put it, by ticketing students who felt that finals week provided a justification to violate parking regulations around campus. However, he had forgotten that his boss wanted to assign him as an alternate for maintaining and collecting money from parking meters, which was a promotion from being a student ticket officer. During the final week of the semester, Mike's intended victims got a break and his ticketing machine sat unused in the dispatcher's office while he went out with the department's oldest employee, Sam Rayburn. Mike knew enough of US history to know there was a famous Speaker of the House of Representatives with that name during World War II and the 1950's. His co-worker admitted that yes...he was named after "that" Sam Rayburn. He congratulated Mike on his knowledge, telling him that he was only the second student he had ever met who knew about House Speaker Sam Rayburn.

Sam had the outward appearance of a southern redneck, but his personality was totally the opposite. He was a hippie at heart, who lived in a small house up in the mountains that overlooked Davenport. He had a degree in philosophy, wrote poetry, and had lived with the same woman for 35 years without ever getting married. He was a strange guy with a dreamy personality and one of the few people Mike ever met who was totally satisfied with his place in life. He had no desire to move on: he was content to spend his existence fiddling with parking meters. A few weeks later Mike would figure out why Sam had no intention of ever giving up his meter job, and why he had refused several offers of promotion.

Sam and Mike went out in Sam's pickup truck. There was a large steel box mounted on the back. The box had a lock and a circular opening in the top that was about the width of a liter soda bottle. Sam handed Mike a key and told him to open up the back of a meter. Sam extracted a metal cylinder the size of a soda can and handed it to Mike, and instructed him to put it into the opening of the box and turn it. As soon as Mike twisted the can, he heard the coins clattering into the bottom of the steel box. Sam told him that typically a canister held around $ 50 worth of coins. That surprised Mike, because he had not realized how much money each meter was making for the university. When he returned the cylinder to its place in the meter casing, Sam commented:

"We get to do the same thing 492 times today, and 483 times tomorrow. That's how many meters we have on campus."

Sam taught Mike a few tricks about twisting canisters and meter keys to avoid repetitive motion injury, such as switching hands after servicing 25 meters. Every so often the two parking officers came across a meter that was jammed, where the coins had not fallen into the canister but instead were piled on top. Sam dumped the loose coins into a separate box that was stored in the truck's tool-box.

Sam spent the next several days showing the student other responsibilities of the job, such as checking for low batteries and examining and replacing defective meters. Mike learned that the meter device could easily be taken out of the casing and the working part actually was very small. The devices had warning signals to let the parking officer know if the battery was low and on a typical day about 20 batteries had to be replaced. If a meter was not working for any reason other than an expired battery, Sam took out the device and replaced it. He explained that upon getting back to the parking office they would ship the defective meters to a contractor that would repair them.

Once the day's round of collecting coins and servicing meters was finished, Sam and Mike unloaded the heavy change box from the pickup and rolled it into the main office. They unlocked the top and poured the contents into a change counting machine. The take for Mike's first day was over $ 6,500. Mike was surprised at the amount. $ 6,500 in just one day?

"It's more during the semester. Of course, when you started ticketing Econ-A it became a lot more...400 meters-worth more."

"So what are they doing with all the money?"

"Ain't giving it to us, that's for sure. I 'spose maybe some of it's going to buy new office equipment...paint for the parking garage...shit like that. The rest...?" Sam shrugged he shoulders: "...your guess is as good as mine."

As Mike's training period continued, he got to know Sam and his many quirks a lot better. One thing Sam always did was collect soda cans. If he saw a discarded soda can from across a parking lot, he'd drive over to pick it up. A quick stomp of his boot flattened the can and then he'd toss it into a huge smelly trash bag filled with other cans. If Sam thought Mike wasn't looking, he'd even go through trash containers looking for soda cans. On days after football games Sam spent as much time cruising the stadium area in search of cans as he did attending to meters.

Another thing Mike noticed was that Sam was very generous with small things. Every time they stopped for a break Sam bought him something to drink: coffee or Coke, or whatever else his trainee wanted. It wasn't just with Mike that Sam was so generous. During football games he always passed out Coke and donuts to anyone working a shift under him. Whenever he trained a new student ticketing officer he always offered free drinks, which was one reason he was popular within the department.

In spite of their difference of ages and Sam's strange character, he and Mike quickly established rapport with each other. Sam talked a lot about his days as a hippie, enough to make Mike somewhat envious that he was not a college student in 1968. Sam's stories made Mike more sympathetic to the hippie movement, but at the same time Mike could see how many of the factors that led to the current decline of the US, such as drug use and instant gratification, got started during the 1960's. Mike pointed that out to Sam, who shrugged his shoulders and responded: "Yeah, I can see that."

Through Sam, Mike learned a lot about Davenport State University in general and the history of the Parking Department in particular. He talked about different directors, how much money the department took in, and how parking had become more restricted for students over the years. He talked about regional conventions held for parking lot owners and how lucrative parking and its byproduct, towing, were for those who owned or managed lots.

"It's 'money for nothin' and your chicks for free.' You don't have to build anything, make anything, feed anyone, do nothing useful...just pave over some Mother Nature and start taking money."

Money for nothing...a good way to describe owning a parking lot. As though it was responding to Mike's thought and Sam's comment, the campus radio station played the old Dire Straits hit. The two employees started singing along:

Now look at them yo-yo's, that's the way you do it You play the guitar on the M.T.V. That ain't working, that's the way you do it Money for nothing and your chicks for free...

Now that ain't working, that's the way you do it Let me tell you them guys ain't dumb Maybe get a blister on your little finger Baby get a blister on your thumb...

We got to install microwave ovens Custom kitchen deliveries We got to move these refrigerators We got to move these color T.V.'s...

In spite of the fun banter, Sam's conversations planted a seed of doubt in Mike's thoughts. Up until his promotion, he had been content with his job. However, now that he knew how much money the administrators of the Parking Department were making and how little of that money the employees were receiving, resentment started building up in his mind. Sam sensed his changing view of their employer, shrugged his shoulders, and pointed out:

"This job's what you make out of it. Just like any other job. It's what you make out of it."

Mike wondered if his co-worker was hinting at anything with that comment.


Finals came and went uneventfully. Mike and Ruthie both got straight "A's" for the semester and in doing so made the Dean's list. In that past that would have helped their financial situation, but during these indifferent times of globalization, good grades no longer mattered. Still, it was a point of personal pride to have good grades because Mike and Ruthie had high academic expectations of each other.

During the days leading up to Christmas, Mike dedicated as much time as he could to his relationship with Ruthie. He took her hiking and for drives towards Big Sur. They stopped to look at cliffs and beaches, and also to look for fossils in areas where Ruthie knew there were deposits. One day they had a real treat: they noticed that a group of elephant seals had lumbered onto a small beach near the coastal road. Ruthie was absorbed looking at and photographing the animals, because she had never seen them in real life before.

Ruthie's desire to ride around nude intensified during the December outings, now that she knew Mike approved of that part of her personality. She loved to sit naked in the passenger seat and challenge herself to see how long she could go without putting on her dress. Sometimes she liked to make him nervous by taking risks, such as jumping out of the car near a park or street corner, even if there were other people around, wearing nothing but her shoes. Very early on the Sunday morning before Christmas, she actually walked a block in the nude through the deserted downtown in one of the small towns they were passing through.

He learned to have spare batteries ready for his camera, because his girlfriend continuously jumped out of the car and wanted to have her picture taken in every imaginable setting possible. Ruthie wanted to collect pictures of herself standing naked along the entire coastline of California. Every time the couple came across a lookout where no one else was parked, she asked Mike to stop. If she already was naked, she'd run out to where she wanted to pose, strike her pose, and waited for Mike to get the picture. Mike learned to be quick, but also to be careful to get a good image because Ruthie was very picky about the quality of her pictures. After he took the shot she always checked it, and if a picture did not meet her satisfaction, she insisted it be re-taken.

If she was wearing a dress, Mike usually took two pictures; one with her dress on, and one without. After the first photo, she looked both ways and if there were not cops in sight and no one nearby, pulled the dress over her head, handed it to Mike, and resumed her posing position. She wanted to make sure her clothes were completely out of the picture. If an article of dropped or bunched up clothing appeared in a photo, the image was not acceptable.

On any day they were going to be in an area they thought would be tolerant of a person in daring clothing, Ruthie wore her infamous dress. They visited several beach communities where her dress was allowed and she was able to enjoy the feeling of the cool air on her exposed back and hips. An obvious place for her to wear the dress would be San Francisco, but a trip there promised to be more complicated due to the drive and parking. That would have to wait until the spring semester. Also, San Francisco had become too cold to run around in skimpy clothing, too cold even for Ruthie.


Ruthie and Mike spent Christmas apart. The holiday meant more to their respective families than it did to the couple, so for both students the vacation was nothing more than "putting in time" with their relatives. On the day before Christmas Eve they ate a last lunch together and gave each other simple gifts. Mike gave Ruthie a dress that was just like the red one he bought for her in October, except that the new one was green. Ruthie spent the tiny amount of money remaining from her salary to print several large pictures from the collection of figure studies Mike had taken of her and have them framed. They laughed about how fortunate it was that they had the foresight to open their gifts ahead of time and not put them under their families' trees, because neither wanted to imagine the reaction of their relatives had they seen what Mike and Ruthie gave each other.

Christmas was a day of apprehension for Ruthie, because the two events that she was dreading would happen the following day. On the 26th Rosa would travel to San Jose and from there leave for Boot Camp. She would be gone from Ruthie's life, the one member of her family Ruthie could talk to and who seemed to her at least somewhat sane. Ruthie knew that she would miss Rosa tremendously and badly wanted to hug her. That was not to be, however, because Rosa was keeping her impending military service a secret. Essentially, by joining the Army she was running away from home. She would leave, and she would not be coming back. The last time Ruthie saw Rosa was in the evening after Christmas dinner. Rosa was drinking tequila, trying to build up the nerve to tell her parents what she was planning to do the next morning. When she left with her mother, she cast one last look at her cousin, convinced they would never see each other again.

Rosa would have been reason enough for Ruthie to be distressed over Christmas, but the much bigger worry of having to travel to Nebraska to meet her father loomed over her. She desperately hoped that a snow-storm would delay or cancel flights, or that some other problem would arise that would prevent her from traveling. Had she still been religious she would have prayed to Jesus to mess up the weather, but she knew from experience God had given Ruthie Burns a rock-solid guarantee that any prayers from her would go unanswered.

She also knew that her mother would be totally stressed about her and would be praying non-stop. There would be justification for concern, given how badly Jake had treated Lisette 15 years before, and how badly he had treated Ruthie nine years later. However, in Ruthie's situation money spoke louder than anything else. Jake knew that. Regardless how his daughter felt about him or what he had done to her, he could purchase some of her time by paying her tuition.

Mike took Ruthie to the airport and went with her as far as the security checkpoint. From there she was on her own. She was totally stressed. Not only was she worried about what awaited her at the end of her journey, but also she was nervous about flying. The last time she had been in an airplane was six years ago, when that Meg-Air jet took her away from Nebraska and from everything that she had ever known. Now she would be making the same trip in reverse.

Several hours later Ruthie looked over the snowy drylands of her former home state as her plane began its descent. She marveled at how flat that land was; how from the air it looked like a vast brown and white ocean. She knew from her geology major that's exactly what Nebraska was; part of a dried up inlet of the Gulf of Mexico. She thought about all of the strange creatures that had once lived there: toothed birds and giant sea-lizards, pterodactyls and sea turtles far bigger than anything on the planet today. Her imagination wandered through the fossil record and her mind filled with regret that all those fascinating creatures had long since vanished, replaced by boring things such as prairie dogs and coyotes. As her mind filled with visions of huge pterosaurs gracefully circling over the calm Cretaceous waters, she thought about the futility of life on the planet. All the effort those animals went though to pick up fish for their young...but in the end they shouldn't have bothered. They went extinct anyway. Ruthie's mind drifted to the present and to the near future, when humans would join pterosaurs in the realm of oblivion. She vaguely wondered if she would live to see the end.

The plane shook as it was buffeted by cross-winds. She panicked and grabbed the handles of her seat as the aircraft shook from turbulence. A few minutes later the shaking stopped, giving her a chance to calm down. As the plane got closer to the ground she noticed dust rising from the fields below, swirls of old sediments laid down during a bygone era. All those fantastic creatures...now just a bunch of farmers' dust.

That'll be us in a few years. Dust in the wind...thought Ruthie...all we are is dust in the wind...


Jake had previously instructed Ruthie to call him upon getting off the plane so he could be watching for her when she left the secure area of the terminal. That phone call was the first time she heard her father's voice in six years. The call was to-the-point, just an exchange of information of what each was wearing.

It turned out to be fortunate that Jake had made that suggestion, because otherwise she would not have recognized him. The first detail about her father's appearance that she had not expected was how much smaller he was than she remembered him. She thought he had shrunk, but in reality what had changed was Ruthie's perspective: instead of seeing him from the perspective of a young adolescent she was seeing him as an adult. Instead of a hulking figure, in front of her was a man who was not much taller than she was. Apart from his size was his over-all appearance. He had put on weight, grown a beard, and was starting to go bald. Not much was left of the handsome blond sailor that had captivated Lisette nineteen years before. Not that the years had been any kinder to Lisette than they had been to Jake: both of Ruthie's parents had aged badly.

Ruthie was fidgeting and looking down when her father hugged her. She found it very difficult to look him in the eye. She was extremely uncomfortable; it was only through exerting all of her self-control that she forced herself not to run away. She did not have a clue what she should say or how she react to what was going on. Jake asked her a bunch of questions about her life in college, to which she responded with nods and one-syllable answers.

Jake was irritated by his daughter's uncommunicative behavior, but he did not say anything that would spoil what he was trying to do: make up with her. Unfortunately that part of her personality: her sideways glances, fidgeting, and short answers grated on his patience every bit as much as they had six years before. Neither Jake nor Ruthie realized it at the time, but her difficulty communicating with people not familiar to her was the main reason Debra disliked her so much. Jake's fiancée had interpreted her behavior as rudeness. She was rude back, which made Ruthie even less willing to talk to her. The situation quickly deteriorated into mutual hatred.

When they left the terminal building to find Jake's pickup truck, Ruthie was shocked by the vicious cold in the parking garage. She was wearing the warmest clothing she had, but during her six years in California she had not once been in a place where the temperature was below freezing. She was tremendously relieved to get out of the cold and into her father's pickup truck. The cold gave her and her father a chance to talk about something neutral, the Nebraska weather, the climate in California, and how Ruthie had forgotten all about the winters in Lincoln. Jake commented:

"We need to get you a coat. What you have on ain't gonna cut it around here."

So, the very first thing they did was go to a mall so Ruthie could get a coat. After the mall they stopped at a kindergarten. There was a tremendous surprise waiting there: it turned out Ruthie had a half-brother called Jake Junior. Jake explained that the boy was from his relationship with Debra. When they split up they got joint custody of him, but now that Debra was going out with another guy, Jake Junior was spending most of his time living with his father. Ruthie had no idea what to say. More than anything else she was stressed that Debra was not completely out of her father's life after-all, although it was nice to know she was with another guy. The shock of having a half-brother registered slowly: a relative that she hadn't known about at all.

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