Irwin

10 April 1994

Copyright 1994 Dianne Skoll. All Rights Reserved.

Irwin was running. He'd been late for work for the last three days, and swore he'd make it in on time today. Since he lived only 5 blocks from the drug store where he worked, and since the Saturday traffic was light, chances were he'd make it. But then, he saw her.

She was in a wheelchair---the battery-operated kind---in the road, trying to negotiate her way onto the sidewalk. Some sloppy construction worker had left a precipitous edge instead of a smooth gradient, and her wheelchair was stuck. Irwin approached her.

"Would you like some help?" he asked.

"Sure. Thanks," she said, with relief.

Irwin lifted the front wheels onto the sidewalk without too much difficulty. Then, he tried lifting the rear wheels. They wouldn't budge. The woman weighed about 130 pounds, but Irwin swore that the battery and motor weighed another 300. He pushed, he pulled, he grappled, all to no avail. By this time, the woman was becoming embarrassed, and Irwin was feeling foolish.

"You don't have a crowbar, do you?"

"Sorry, I'm all out," she replied.

"Hmm. Let's think for a second. If I had a piece of wood, maybe I could build a ramp. No, I'd need two---one for each wheel. Hmm. Perhaps you could lean forward to try to redistribute the weight..."

While Irwin was pondering the problem, a suave (and very large) man walked by. He sized up the situation in an instant, and effortlessly helped the woman on to the sidewalk. Irwin looked up belatedly to see the retreating wheelchair.

"Hmph!" he hmphed. He was about to cross the road when he noticed a steel retaining nut. It must be from the wheelchair, he thought. Even now, the woman was trundling along, oblivious to the danger. The wheel could come loose any second, pitching her into the street! Irwin picked up the nut, and galloped after her.

"Ma'am! Ma'am! Wait!"

The woman glanced back, saw Irwin, muttered something, and accelerated. "Your nut! Your nut! I have your nut!" he shouted, waving the nut frantically.

The wheelchair slowed, and Irwin panted alongside it. "This retaining nut fell off. Let me fix it for you..."

"That's not from my wheelchair! It must have just been lying in the street."

Irwin had come to that conclusion himself, after peering desperately at the wheels, looking for an uncovered bolt. "Oh. Geez. Sorry about that, Ma'am. Uh... bye."

Irwin retreated as gracefully as he could. "Boy, oh, boy. You try to help people, and what do you get? Hmph!"

Irwin jogged into the drugstore. "Late again, eh Irwin? Can't get yourself up at the crack of nine?" said Mr. Kvetchnik, Irwin's boss. "Ah, well. At least you're here. You can help lower our productivity to the national average."

Kyle Logan, the pharmacist, paused to smirk at Irwin.

"Sorry, Mr. Kvetchnik. I had problems getting here. It won't happen again---honest!"

"Yeah, yeah. You're on cash today. Let's get going."

Irwin punched his code into the cash register, counted the money, and removed the "Please use other checkout" sign. Instantly, the long line at Tina's register split, as customers vied for a good spot in Irwin's line.

His first customer was an elderly woman with two enormous purses. She bought $4.93 worth of merchandise.

"Hang on, " she quavered, "I think I have the 93 cents."

She put the smaller of her purses on the counter, opened the larger, and removed from it an eraser, two tubes of lipstick, a pile of crumpled tissues, half a cookie, seven paper clips, a set of keys, a nickel and a dime. After replacing all but the change, she began rummaging in the other purse. A few minutes later, she had accumulated a pile of 73 pennies and enough lint to stuff a tiger.

"Oh, dear," she said. "I'm five cents short."

A man in his mid-forties had been drumming his fingers, rolling his eyes, sighing and huffing from two positions back in the line. "Here, lady. Here's five cents. Take it, OK?"

"Why, thank you, young man. But I couldn't take charity. No, I have another five pennies somewhere."

"Look, lady, take it as a personal favour to me, OK?"

"Well, if you put it that way..."

With a flourish, she placed her newly-acquired nickel on the counter. Irwin carefully counted the money, and swept it into the cash register.

The next customer, a rather nervous-looking teenager, sidled up to the counter, hiding a box of condoms under two chocolate bars and a bottle of shampoo. Irwin punched in the chocolate and the shampoo, but the cash register refused to accept the product code for the condoms.

"How much are these?" Irwin asked the teenager, brandishing the condoms.

"Uhh... I dunno... I think $3.99?"

"No, that sounds a bit low. I'll have to get a price check."

Irwin noticed the teenager's discomfort. "Hey, don't worry. No-one cares about this sort of thing. Must be your first time, eh?"

The drumming, huffing, sighing and eyeball-rolling continued behind the teenager. Finally, the price check arrived, and Irwin punched in the condoms. The teenager paid, accepted the bag, and scuttled off.

"Sir! Sir! Your receipt!" shouted Irwin.

"It's OK! He doesn't need it!" hissed Eyeball-roller.

"Well, I don't know," said Irwin doubtfully. "We're always supposed to give out receipts."

"Look, it's academic, OK? He's left already. Let it go!"

"OK. How can I help you?"

"A box of Du Maurier king-size."

"Do you have any ID, sir?"

Eyeball-roller's jaw dropped. "Fer chrissake, I'm forty-six years old!"

"Well, we can't sell tobacco products to people under 18. My boss said I have to ask everyone for ID, no exceptions."

Eyeball-roller glared at Irwin. He pulled his driver's license out from his wallet. Irwin peered at it thoughtfully. "I don't know..." he began.

"What?" whispered Eyeball-roller dangerously.

"It's just that the person on this photo has a beard, and you don't."

"I shaved, OK? You gonna sell me the cigarettes?"

Irwin considered this. "Well, OK, I guess I can see some resemblance."

Eyeball-roller's purchase came to $5.25. Irwin punched open the cash register drawer, and noticed he was out of quarters. He fished around for a new roll, but couldn't find one. "Tina," he yelled, "can I have some change?"

Tina, the other cashier, said, "Sure. Just hang on while I punch these in."

Eyeball-roller humphed, sighed, and groaned through $34.22 worth of purchases. Finally, Tina's drawer popped open, and Irwin handed her a five-dollar bill. "Quarters, please."

Tina counted out the change, and reached over to give it to Irwin. He grabbed the money, but over-estimated his reach, and dropped about half of it on the floor.

"Oh, geez! Sorry sir! Let me just pick this up..."

"AAAAUGHHH!" cried Eyeball-roller in frustration. This last comment brought Mr. Kvetchnik to the front. He placated Eyeball-roller, glared at Irwin, and told him to see him at the back.

Mr. Kvetchnik fired Irwin.

Irwin trudged out of the store, feeling the heat of Logan's perpetual smirk. He reddened as he passed Tina's station, and tried to ignore the sympathetic expression on her face. He wanted to wallow in misery for a while.

Irwin walked aimlessly around the mall for a while, and then to the Byward Market, not wanting to go home. Always job trouble, he thought. He tried his best, but somehow he didn't fit in. He felt like a square peg in a round society. He'd scraped through school, dropped out of university, and hadn't held a job for more than eight months. He felt like an outsider, an outcast.

Wow. That was some good wallowing, he thought. Time to cheer himself up. He walked past the trendy Market craft and fruit stores to the beavertail stand, and bought one of the hot, sticky, sweet pastries. He made his way to the outdoor tables, but was so entranced by his beavertail that he didn't notice the street musician's guitar case. He pitched forward, hitting the ground on top of his beavertail. The girl behind the counter watched in horrified fascination as he tripped.

"Hey, Mac! Watch out!" yelled the musician, too late. The audience whistled and cheered Irwin as he picked himself up. "You trying to upstage me?" glared the musician. "What the hell is wrong with you?"

The beavertail girl rushed outside. "Lay off him, Ron!" To Irwin, she asked, "Are you OK?"

"Yeah. Oww! Yeah, I'm OK. Geez!"

"Here, let me get you a beavertail. On the house."

"Thanks, that'd be great."

"Don't worry about Ron. He's just pissed off because he doesn't have a real job."

That was not what Irwin needed to hear. His face must have betrayed his feelings because the beavertail girl asked, "Hey. Are you sure you're OK?"

"Yeah, I'm fine. I just lost my job, that's all, and I'm upset."

"Aww. Too bad. Listen, I go on break in fifteen minutes. Lemme buy you a Coke, OK?"

"Sure, uh..." Irwin peered at her lapel. "Sharon. That'd be great."

"No problem, uh... Irwin, Merchandiser." She giggled. Irwin took off his drugstore name tag, and put it in his pocket. He sat down at a table, and ate the beavertail. The musician had resumed his performance, playing old Beatles songs.

About fifteen minutes later, Sharon arrived with two Cokes. "So, Irwin, why did you lose your job?"

"Oh, I dunno, one of those things. I didn't get along with my boss."

"Too bad. Hey, maybe you could apply here! The beavertail franchise is looking for a part-time worker."

Irwin envisioned himself working with boiling oil. "I don't think so," he said.

"I bet you're a student. You look the intellectual type. Probably just looking for something part-time, eh?"

"No, I'm not a student. It's just not for me. I don't want to be pressed out by a cookie-cutter. In school, you're just a number. Nobody cares about anything except turning out loyal workers."

"Wow. A regular misfit. It's OK, I'm sure you'll find something soon."

"Yeah. Maybe." Irwin stared morosely into his Coke.

"Anyway, I have to go back to work. Maybe I'll see you around some time?"

"Probably. Thanks for the Coke. It was great."

Irwin returned home, and had macaroni and cheese for supper. Hell, he thought, if you're going to wallow, do it all out. He even considered digging out one of his two dog-eared girlie magazines and entertaining himself, but decided that even wallowing had its limits.

The next day, Sunday, Irwin had arrangements to go to his brother Dan's for lunch. Irwin despised these Sunday lunches. Dan was boorish, conservative, and -- worst of all -- successful. Irwin didn't resent this; he just resented his own failure, magnified in the mirror of his brother's success.

"Hey, Irwin! How're ya doin'!" shouted Dan heartily. Irwin hated heartiness. "How's life? How's work? How's it goin'?"

"Hi, Dan. OK, I guess."

"Irwin, check this out," said Dan eagerly, sweeping Irwin into the living room. He reached into his pocket and pulled out what looked like a pocket calculator.

"It's the world's smallest cellular phone! Cool, eh?"

Dan's love of gadgets was unmatched.

"Check it out." Dan dialed seven digits. Irwin knew he'd be calling the weather service. As the announcer read the forecast, Dan repeated bits and pieces for Irwin's benefit.

"Tomorrow... mostly cloudy... high of 17... Tuesday... sunny and warmer... high of 22... cool, or what?"

"No, not that cool. Pretty warm, actually."

"What?" Dan was nonplussed. "Oh, hang on. I get it! The weather. Pretty warm, actually. Haw, haw, haw! You're a real card, Irwin!" Irwin sighed inwardly. Lunch was going to be a long meal.

"So, what are ya doin' tonight, Irwin?" asked Dan.

"Not much. Why?"

"Well, Lynn's coming over with a bunch of friends, and we're going to Smokin' Rocky's tonight. Wanna come?"

Smokin' Rocky's was the last place Irwin wanted to go. It was a loud, brash dance bar, perpetually over-filled with drunk university students.

"She's bringing a friend, a real babe!" said Dan.

On the other hand, what did Irwin have to lose? Dan had tried fixing him up many times before, always with mediocre to disastrous results. However, Irwin remained optimistic, or at least not as pessimistic as he usually was about other things.

"OK, sure. See you tonight."

That night, Irwin waited for Dan and his friends outside Smokin' Rocky's. He watched as dozens of laughing university-types went through the door into the blue haze and deafening music. Finally, Dan arrived with his group. When he saw them, Irwin's heart sank. He should have known. They were typical "Dan friends" - young, energetic, good-looking, and probably totally brainless.

"Irwin! Hiya. So, this is Jim, Jim, Irwin. Then here's Marcie, Robert, Lynn you know, Sue, and finally Kathy."

"Hi, Irwin." said Lynn.

"Hi."

"Hey, Ir," said Jim and Robert, with nauseating heartiness.

Ir??? What the hell was Ir? A mis-spelled Babylonian city, thought Irwin.

"So alright!" yelled Dan. "Time to boogie!"

"Yes. Me Ir. Me boogie." muttered Irwin dejectedly.

"He's funny!" shrieked Kathy.

They made their way inside, and claimed a table. Irwin went to order drinks for them, and came back to find Jim and Robert engaged in hilarious reminiscing.

"So, anyways," said Jim, "it was, like, my birthday, eh? So Robert here comes over with a forty-ouncer. Just for the two of us, hoo-hoo-hoo." Dan, Sue, Lynn, Marcie and Kathy waited eagerly, barely able to contain their enthusiasm.

"So, we start drinkin', eh? And we're just shootin' them down. Whoo-ee. So like two hours later, we're totally smashed. I mean totally smashed. We were, like, completely sizzled. Hoo-hoo-hoo!"

Robert couldn't restrain himself, and took over the story. "So I says to Jim, 'Hey, Jim! Got a bucket? I'm gonna puke!' So Jim gives me the Kentucky Fried Chicken bucket, oh yeah, we'd ordered chicken, eh? So he gives me the bucket, and I puke chunks, man! I just spew."

Sue, Lynn, Marcie and Kathy responded with a harmony of "Ewwwwww!"

"Hoo-hoo-hoo. So afterwards, eh, I says to Jim, 'Jim,' I says, 'Jim! Let's take this back to KFC to complain about the chicken. Hoo-hoo-hoo!"

"Ewwwwwww!"

"So we start walkin', eh, and I dunno what happens, but we end up in someone's yard, eh, and Jim's head is in the dog kennel, and the dog is barkin' at us like crazy, and the next thing we know, the cops are there. So they pick us up, eh, but just drop us off at Jim's place. And then Jim -- hoo-hoo-hoo -- Jim says, 'Officer, thanks for the lift. Want a piece of chicken?' Hoo-hoo-hoo!"

"Ewwwwww!"

"So let me get this straight," shouted Irwin. "Which part did you enjoy? The puking, the humiliation or the utter idiocy?"

Although Irwin had intended to shout above the music, the timing was such that his voice resonated throughout Smokin' Rocky's during a break between songs.

Jim and Robert stared at Irwin. "Hey, man. You got a problem?" asked Jim. "Haven't you got a damn sense of humour, fer chrissake?"

"I have to go, Dan," said Irwin. "I need some fresh air. Nice meeting you all."

"But Irwin, hang on..."

"See ya."

Irwin stood up and bolted for the door. He was utterly depressed, once again. He watched all the people walking by, laughing, talking, smiling and enjoying themselves, and felt like breaking a window. Did you have to be boorish to get anywhere? Why did he have to force himself to laugh, to act like he enjoyed himself, when everyone else seemed to have fun effortlessly?

Oops. Starting to wallow again, thought Irwin. Maybe he had been a hog in a former life. He wandered around the market, looking at closed craft stores and shuttered flower stands.

"Irwin! Hi!"

Irwin turned around. He realized he'd just passed the beavertail stand.

"Sharon! Hi. How are you?"

"Great, great. You?"

"Oh, I dunno. Alright, I guess."

"Well, don't be so damn effusive! I hate that in a guy."

Irwin's mind kicked into overdrive. She hates that in a guy, he thought. Did that mean he was a guy to her? Well, of course he was a guy, but was he a potential boyfriend? Why would she mention what she likes in guys? No, probably just making conversation. But how could he know for sure? Maybe he should ask her if she's considering asking him out on a date. No, no! He'd sound like an idiot. Damn! What should he do? Should he play it cool? Should he come on strong? Damn! Women were so hard to figure out.

"Irwin! Wake up. You OK?"

"Uh? Oh, sorry. Umm... I guess I'll have a beavertail, then. The usual."

"Forget the beavertail. I finish in half an hour; we'll go for a coffee and dessert."

Irwin marvelled at the way she did that. If he'd said that to a customer, Mr. Kvetchnik would have drawn and quartered him.

After Sharon finished work, she came out of the booth, and said, "OK. Where to?"

They chose a small cafe renowned for dessert. Sharon hopped excitedly in front of the dessert case. "Oh, look at that! Chocolate cheesecake. With Amaretto and chopped walnuts! Mmmm. Oh! Banana cream pie! Pecan pie! Apple crumble! What should I have? The cheesecake -- yesss!"

Irwin watched in fascination.

"Dessert is a religious experience, Irwin. It is one of the few truly sensual pleasures that we can enjoy in public. The taste of a good dessert is like a symphony. It's an amalgam of flavour and aroma lovingly and delicately blended by a true artisan. It's decadence and luxury, finer than silk and gold. It's the ultimate consummation of a meal, the final surrender to the food."

"I never thought of it like that before," admitted Irwin.

"Oh, come on! I've seen your face when you eat a beavertail. You look like you're having an out-of-body experience. Admit it, Irwin, you're a secret dessert-worshipper."

"OK, you've got me! Now, O Goddess of the confectionery, which sugary delight do you recommend? I await your dulcet tones with the earnest desire to receive revelation; yea, verily, to be saved from my sugarless existence!"

"Not bad!" clapped Sharon. "You're a fast learner."

"Are you ready yet?" asked the waitress behind the dessert case, with pointed emphasis on the word "yet."

Irwin and Sharon ordered, and carried their desserts to a table. "So, Irwin, what brings you down here tonight?

"Oh, I went out with my brother and some friends. I don't get along with his crowd much, though."

"No? How come?"

"Oh, I dunno. You ever get the feeling that everyone around you only knows how to make small-talk, and no-one ever talks about anything real? That's the feeling I get constantly around Dan and his friends."

"I guess they talk about drinking, sports, and other safe topics?"

"Yeah, and they bore me silly. The frustrating part is they always seem to enjoy themselves, and I always feel uneasy and out of place."

Sharon smiled. "You're a misfit, a true-blue misfit, just like I said."

"Thanks. You have a way with words."

"It's a compliment, Irwin."

"And what about you? You seem to fit in fine whenever I see you."

"Yeah, I guess. I don't let things get to me, and I do what I feel like doing. The hell with convention, I say."

"Yes, but the conventional people have all the success," complained Irwin. "My brother and his friends are shallow and colourless, but they have cars, cellular phones, girlfriends, money, jobs. Jesus! It's not fair! Shit! Sorry, I'm wallowing again. I tend to do that."

"Cars and cellular phones don't make you happy, Irwin. Neither does money, and a job is no guarantee either."

Irwin noted that she didn't mention "girlfriend."

"I know, I know. It just galls me."

"Don't be galled. It won't help."

"I'm galled! I like being galled. It makes me feel better!" said Irwin. "Being galled is one of the few things I'm good at. Ugh. Sorry."

"Don't worry. Listen, Irwin, you're not so different. Almost everyone has the feeling at some time that he or she is an outsider -- it's one of the commonest traits people identify with. So who's really the outsider? We all are."

"So do you ever feel like an outsider?"

Sharon thought for a second. "No, I guess I don't. Darn! There must be something wrong with me!" She smiled at Irwin.

They sat and ate for a while, enjoying their cakes.

"You were right, Sharon," said Irwin.

"About what?"

"Dessert being a religious experience. I'll have to go through hell to work this off!"

"Let's start now. You want to go for a walk?"

Sharon rose from the table, and took Irwin by the hand. He felt her touch on his hand and his heart stopped for about a minute. So, was this a date? Should he ask her? He hated not knowing where he stood.

"Uhh, Sharon, uhh... is this a date?" he blurted, instantly knowing he'd made a fool of himself.

Sharon stopped, stared at Irwin, then burst out laughing. "You're funny!"

What did that mean? "You're funny?" He already knew that from Kathy. Did it mean, "You're funny... to have such a ridiculously elevated view of yourself. As if to think I'd date YOU!" Or did it mean, "You're funny to even ask. Of course it's a date!" Or did it mean, "You have a good sense of humour to pretend you're so nerdish." Damn!

"So, er, what do you do?" asked Irwin, looking for a way to restore conversation, as they left the cafe.

"That's a very interesting phrase," said Sharon. "Whenever people want to know what your job or area of study is, they ask 'What do you do.' Is what we do the rest of the time unimportant?"

"Hmmm. Never thought of it that way."

"I'm a psychology student. But I do lots of things, including picking up misfits at beavertail stands."

"A true psychologist, then." Irwin began to feel like a specimen on a microscope slide.

"It's a living. Actually, it isn't, which is why I work at the beavertail stand. Eventually, I'll go into psychiatry. I can imagine my practise now: I'll ask people to sit down, and if they're very depressed, I'll whip up a quick beavertail."

Irwin laughed. "Maybe you could institute it as a psych course. 'Beavertail Therapy 112'"

"Or 'Delinquency of Beavertails 210'?"

"Or 'Clinical Beaverology 311'?"

After exhausting the possibilities of psychiatric beavertailology, they walked past Zunder's Fruitland, where a French musician was playing an accordion. The musician swayed back and forth, moving his hands up and down. As he played, he manipulated strings which made a wooden marionette dance to the Quebecois folk music. Irwin and Sharon watched for a few minutes, and contributed fifty cents to the musician's hat.

"Hey, buddy, got some change?" asked a panhandler, slyly waiting until they had thrown the money into the hat. Irwin had fleeting memories of Change Lady and Eyeball-roller.

"Ummm... don't think so... are you hungry?" asked Irwin.

"Sure," said the panhandler. His large eyes glistened pathetically. "Haven't eaten in days."

"Well... you want me to buy you a dessert?"

"Dessert?" The panhandler was taken aback. "I don't eat dessert. Bad for the waistline. I'd rather have some money."

"How about a burger? You want me to buy a burger?"

"No, thanks. Too much cholesterol. Money would be fine."

"Err... so what do you feel like, then?" asked Irwin.

"I dunno... you know how it is, eh? You feel like something, but just can't figure out what it is. Tell you what -- you give me some change, and when I figure out what I want, I'll buy it. I don't want to take up too much of your time."

"Well, OK," said Irwin doubtfully. He hated seeing panhandlers spend money on alcohol. "Here's a buck."

"Thanks, buddy," said the rapidly-retreating panhandler, "a Molson will sure go down good now."

Irwin sighed. Sharon had watched the proceedings with amusement. "Don't worry, Irwin. You helped him out. What he does with the help you gave him reflects on him, not you."

They walked through the market, and crossed the Rideau Canal at Wellington Street. They continued on to Parliament Hill, walking around the building until they were behind the parliamentary library.

"So what personality type am I, then?" asked Irwin. "How about some free psychoanalysis?"

"Why do you assume that there are personality types?"

"Huh? Well... I just thought... I figured most people could be categorized to some extent."

"What purpose does that serve?" asked Sharon.

"Gee. I don't know. Never thought about it before. It makes things easier, doesn't it?"

"Easier for whom?"

"Hey, Sharon, can't you answer a question without another question?"

"Why do you ask?" Sharon looked at Irwin for a couple of seconds, then burst out laughing.

"You are the Type Q personality," she said. "You're not happy unless you're convinced you can be categorized. Happy?"

"I'm not convinced," he said.

"OK, let's suspend this enlightening conversation. Let's take a look at the scenery for a while."

They looked over the river at Hull, Ottawa's smaller neighbour. There was a steady hum of traffic across the bridges as Ontarians fled to Quebec to escape Ontario's short pub hours. They looked across the river in silence for a while.

"Irwin, look!" cried Sharon excitedly. "The northern lights!"

Irwin looked up, and after a while, he could make out the ghostly flickering filaments of the northern lights. They waxed and waned in ripples across the sky, at times forming a pale sheet from horizon to horizon. "Beautiful!" he whispered. Sharon squeezed his hand as she gazed, enthralled.

They watched the lights for half an hour. Then Sharon sighed, and said, "I really should get to the bus stop. I have an early class tomorrow, and don't want to be a wreck."

"Sure. I'll walk you there." They retraced their steps around the Parliament buildings, and made their way to the bus stop at the Rideau Centre. They sat on a low stone wall, waiting for the bus.

"Sharon, can I have your phone number?" asked Irwin. "I'd like to call you some time."

Sharon smiled. "So you finally got around to it." They exchanged phone numbers. Sharon's bus arrived a few minutes later.

"Bye, Irwin." She put her arms around him, hugged him, and kissed him. Irwin was so surprised that all he could do was mumble "Glurgh."

He watched her bus pull away, and saw her waving at him through the window. He started to walk home, and for the first time eagerly anticipated what tomorrow would bring.