Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Cary Johnson: The Absolute Worst Luck

Before the last couple of weeks, I'd gotten out of the habit of saying I had the worst luck.  I hadn't exactly seem things turn around on a regular basis, but when you and the people around you get to a certain age you find your stories of breaking your leg right before the recruiters could see you play football in high school or how your new boss is your ex-wife's new boyfriend being met with "that sucks, but I just found out I have cancer".  Doesn't make you feel more fortunate, just like a jerk.

A friend falling ill plays a role in how I got sucked into all of this mess, but I should probably introduce myself first.  My name is Cary Johnson, I'm in my mid-fifties, and I've lived in southern Maine pretty much all my life.  I've been married and divorced twice, somehow escaped winding up with any kids (that I know of), worked on boats and on land, and mostly kept my head above water through all of it.  I've been living in Old Orchard for the past five years or so, working with my buddy Red.

Red, who spent most of his life wiring for a paper somewhere out west, gets one of those early-retirement buyout packages as they tried to cut costs and get younger, and he decides to take it and move back here to open a restaurant.  It doesn't do that well as a sit-down place, but it's along the beach and folks really like the fancy hotdogs that he added to the menu almost as a lark.  A smart guy, he soon has them taking up most of the menu, with toppings from mac-and-cheese to avocado, and chili to mushrooms, topped with apricot relishes and spicy ketchups.  It gets semi-famous and popular enough that he decides to add a food truck, and that's where I come in.  He didn't have to make me a partner in that venture, but he did.  I don't offer the full menu, but I do okay, and being in a new spot every day suits me.

Then Red's wife Becky gets cancer, and their plans change.  Hell, I don't know, I'd probably have gone for the "travel the world" plan as well, but funding that means selling the diner and getting me to buy him out of the truck.  I knew things were going to be lean for a while, but was kind of caught flat-footed when the place's new owners showed that all they really wanted was Red's liquor license, and when they shut down to convert to their microbrewery, people just thought the truck was done too.

I hadn't actually fallen behind on rent yet, but because it never rains but it pours, we wind up with an insect problem at the building where I live a couple weeks ago - some jackass decided to stock the cellar with wasps' nests as a final middle finger to the landlord upon moving out, leaving the place to be fumigated.  You begin to understand why they wanted to go out like that when the landlord refuses to pay for hotel rooms.

All of this is a long way of explaining why, after a day of selling franks on the boardwalk, I'm cruising around OOB at eleven o'clock, looking for vacancy signs, and, not finding any, just looking for a place I could park the truck, roll out a sleeping bag in the back, and hopefully not be awakened by someone banging on the side and demanding wieners at 6am, and eventually deciding on the parking lot by the Trading Post Inn.

I guess I park close enough to the building to be lucky thirteen, because when I wake up in the morning, I'm somehow not myself.  I'm in a sleeping bag in the back, so I can't really see the changes to my body, except for an arm that was outside it and seemed really thin and dark.  I lift it up and wiggle the fingers like I'm in a dream.  I can't see it too clearly - it's early, 6am or so, and there isn't much light coming through the windshield - but it's enough to see something is off.  I sit up, pushing myself up with my arms because that's what I usually do, not being as young as I once was, and that's when I feel my chest shift.  I don't recognize the sensation for what it is, but know something isn't right, and that's when I grab at my chest, feel what was there, and turn around so I can look at myself in the rear-view mirror.

It just isn't me.  It's a black woman with long-ish, straight hair.  I looked younger, though I really couldn't guess by how much.  I'd pulled my legs out of the bag to turn around and could see that they were long and smooth, and while I didn't actually stick my hand into my boxers, I sort of confirmed there was nothing there by flexing and twisting and not feeling my equipment in the way.  I  don't really strike myself as pretty at first, although I guess that's because I never really thought of black girls in terms of being attractive.  Growing up in Maine in the Sixties and Seventies, you don't really get much chance to develop a taste for dark meat, as my dad put it on a couple of occasions.

I'm sure some of the younger people are reading that with a sort of horror at what kind of racist the old fart is, but it's not like that.  Truth be told, I kind of felt the same way the second after realizing I'd recoiled from my reflection, kind of trying to make sure my reaction was to something changing me, not to what I'd become.  Maybe trying to convince myself that it's just not being me that had me shaken.

On the other hand, though, I'm trying to figure out if I had said something insulting the day before, or maybe sometime before that, which would lead to someone trying to teach me a lesson.  I can be politically incorrect at times, so I may have said something that someone took wrong.  But what, and to who, and was this revenge taken by someone else?

I don't even think that it might just be the place I parked.  You may think that as a local I'd heard stories or something, and maybe sometime in the years I lived in OOB, I have heard someone say they are someone else or looked at a photo of someone missing after their trip to the Trading Post, but it never formed a pattern in my head or anything. Maybe the whole thing where the brain rejects the idea of the place changing people is more effective here because we get used to it.  I dunno. Anyway, instead of sticking around to see if this had happened to anyone else, my instinct is to go find help, so I get into the driver's seat, have a moment of brain-lock at having to adjust it, and then pull out.  I have some trouble deciding where to go at first - if Red were still around, he would have been my first choice, but he wasn't.  I run through other friends, but as I felt myself moving around in clothes that didn't quite fit so well, I'm not sure it would be a good idea, since most of them are like me - guys, older, single, generally for good reason.  So I keep driving for the better part of an hour until I arrived at my ex-wife's house.

It doesn't go well.  Our divorce was civil enough, but that goes out the window when a strange younger woman shows up at your house knowing intimate details of your marriage.  Knowing stuff and driving the ex's food truck does not do much to convince someone, it just scares them and makes them angry enough for the new husband to come out and really drive home how much smaller you are.

By the time I get back in the truck I at least am alert and starting to figure out what I need to do practically.  My shoes are falling off every time I take a step, buckling up to the last notch on my belt still has me feeling like my pants are falling off, and I smell and feel as greasy as you might expect for sleeping in a kitchen that basically just makes hot dogs and fries.  I drive back to my apartment, switch to my beat-up mid-1990s Volvo, and then dr8ve out to the nearest Wal-Mart.

It seems too practical, like I should have spent the whole first day curled up in a ball crying or something, but you try getting your ex-wife to understand all this whole holding your pants up, and see if you don't want some clothes that fit.  I was glad I got there fairly early, because I had to do a lot of trying stuff on and just plain guessing with the underwear.  I think it's in the changing room that it really hits me that I have not only changed race and sex, but I look younger - nothing saggy like I'd expect of a woman my age, no grey in my hair, and my skin is pretty smooth.  I take a moment or two to flex and bend while looking in the mirror, my new found flexibility confusing me - it doesn't fit right in my head.  Eventually I get out of there with a pair of jeans, a t-shirt, some panties, socks, sneakers, and a bra.  The lady at the checkout counter comments about that being a weird way for a woman to spell "Carrie" when she sees my card, but she doesn't press too much about why I'm wearing a bunch of oversized male clothing.

Next stop is the Portland YMCA to grab a shower.  It makes me a little nervous, because of the "M" part, but there's no YWCA in the area.  I'm really scared in the shower stall, like I'm going to change back, naked, just as a whole bunch of women walk in, but that didn't happen.  I got most of the grease smell off, although I shied away from scrubbing the new bits all that much.  Didn't dry my hair enough, either; I would spend much of the day with a big wet spot on the back of my shirt.  But there's was a bit of relief in it - as strange as it wis to see a woman who looked half-normal in the mirror, I feel like I've met a challenge, shown whatever witch had cast a spell on me that I could handle what she was dishing out.

The walk back out to the car is a little disconcerting - not only had I come in looking like a homeless person to leave looking something like average, but I think I chose the wrong size bra, because I'm bouncing a little more than I would like and attracting attention that way.  I get in and just sit there for a second, looking down at my body and thinking "now what?",  then looking up, seeing the time-and-temperature sign, and remembering that the truck is supposed to be in York in a couple of hours.  At first, I thought I couldn't just act like nothing happened and go about my life, but I also have to admit that the new clothes have put more of a ding in my checking account than I'd like, simple as they are.  I'm going to have to sell some hot dogs.

So, I do.  I drive to Jordan's to pick up a day's worth of dogs, get my other supplies, drive home to switch to the truck and make sure I have everything in working order, and then head south.  It's a little more challenging physically to get all the certain things done, but I manage, and I'm selling snacks by 11am.

It was a tough day.  Things on a top shelf were a bit harder to reach, bins and other containers were heavier, and while there's not much room in the kitchen, three steps rather than two adds up after a while, even if you've got a little more stamina.  And that's just the physical; there are guys with an endless succession of wiener-related jokes.  There may be a little more in the tip jar at the end of the day, although not as much as first appeared when you take the slips of paper with phone numbers out.

Not really enough tips to justify a motel stay, but it was 9:30pm by the time I had closed everything up and I kind of didn't want to sleep in my truck again looking like this.  I was hoping that this was some sort of 24-hour bug, where you deal with what a young black woman does for a day and have a better perspective later, especially since I certainly felt like I had been underestimating the amount of crap women and minorities take.

I wake up still "Carrie", though, and there are no gloating notes in my email, on the truck, or at my home when I drive back theree.  So I go back to work. 

It's surprisingly easy to stay in the routine.  After my apartment was declared fit for human habitation on the fourth morning,  I didn't need to worry about needing a photo ID for motels (or how the place's that didn't check them were not ones where I wanted to stay like this).  A few regular customers ask where "Cary" is, and I tried to tell them, to either regular or magical disbelief, mostly winding up saying that "he" had hired "Carrie" to fill in in partly because he was amused "our" names were similar.  I stayed hopeful that this would be the night I turned back, buying no more than the next couple days' worth of clothes, keeping my eye out for anyone who seems to be paying too much attention to how I'm handling things.  No such luck.  After a week, I've amassed enough panties, bras, small tees, and jeans that didn't quite fit right to do a load of laundry, and I was starting to wonder just what the hell I was supposed to do to get my life back.

It was almost two weeks before I'm closing up and see something that freaks me out:  Myself, with a gorgeous young blonde, running toward the truck.  The guy who looks like me is panting and slows down for the last few steps, saying "whew, looks like you traded up."  The blonde pats his back and says "trust me, I'm sure he's having a hard time too."  Freaked out, I look at them and what they're up to, and why they did this to me.  The guy who looks at me starts to ask why they would be responsible for doing this to themselves, but the girl's pretty smart for looking like a dumb, busty blonde, figuring out that I must not know, right down to maybe just being parked outside when "it" happened.

That's when they start to explain about the Trading Post Inn, and despite what's happened to me and what's right in front of me, I don't believe it at first.  But they offer to show me, so I drive them to the Inn, feeling a little bit of tightness in my gut as I realize that, yes, this probably was where I parked that night.  They lead me to the room closest to where I parked, and show me a suitcase full of women's clothing my new size that didn't come from Wal-Mart.  And there's a purse, with a wallet, and that's when I learn that I wasn't just turned into a woman, but a specific one.

Her name is Elaine Preston, she's 29, lives in Chicago, and supervises computer programmers on a freelance basis for a living.  She's still a woman, and sounds a bit younger than 29 on the phone, but, man, is she not happy that I have not showed up at her apartment yet. 

I'm not really sure that's what I want to do, but she gives me a whole rant on how she's got rent and a student loan to pay off, and if I screw get life up for her w when she gets it back, her new mission will be making me suffer.  She doesn't exactly sound fun, but this talk of getting lives back eventually does get my attention, and I say I'll fly out in a couple of days, after I show "new Cary" the ropes.

He picks it up easy enough - despite the ingredients sometimes being crazy, it's just making hot dogs, and he's probably got more ideas for new ones than I do (coming up with the crazy variations was always Red's thing; I'm okay with mustard and relish, maybe chilli on occasion).  He's really sad that his girlfriend has to leave the same day I do, although for a different destination.

She and I didn't talk much on the way to the airport, and wound up in different terminals right away.  I'm really not interested in the book Elaine was reading, which is why I opened this thing up and started spilling my guts.  I I'm not sure what she'll be like, but I don't really get the impression of laid-back from her voice or her stuff.

--Cary Johnson

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