Wonder Boy

by Elizabeth Gotthelf

Lisa’s mind wandered as she drank her morning coffee. She wondered what the guy who lived in the upstairs apartment was doing at that moment. Was he drinking coffee as well, or was he drinking tea? Did he prefer a can of Pepsi or maybe a tall glass of cold orange juice? She imagined him in his Wonderbread factory uniform, the blue shirt with the red and yellow logo on the name tag baring his name, Jeff. His collar-length hair freshly washed and pulled back in a ponytail. His tattooed arms peaking out of his shirt to expose callused hands wrapped around a cup of coffee, probably instant. Yeah, she thought, he probably was a coffee drinker. Maybe the coffee was washing down breakfast: eggs and bacon, and a cinnamon roll or a greasy piece of toasted Wonderbread. A simple American breakfast representing all four food groups: caffeine, sugar, salt, and grease.

Lisa imagined herself in his kitchen right now, drinking brewed coffee (not instant) and eating multigrain cereal. She’d look at his tanned weathered face and into his piercing blue eyes.

"Lisa, you’ve got to get going or you’ll be late to work." Jeff, her husband, called out from the bathroom. "The shower’s free."

Damn it, thought Lisa. Why are all my fantasies G-rated? Why don’t I ever have enough time for an X-rated, or at least R-rated, fantasy?

Lisa took a shower and ran around the apartment with her hairbrush in one hand, then later a toothbrush. Zoom, zoom to the closet, to the bureau, to the bathroom, the kitchen, the bedroom, then the closet again, like a pinball being bounced around. In a plain shirt and khakis, teeth brushed, hair dried, she was ready to start the day.

Lisa went to a very ordinary office to work a very ordinary job. After graduating college, she sent her resume to all the companies requesting recent liberal arts graduates. Five years later, she was still at the same job. Her duties had not expanded, the company had not diversified, and her efficiency rate had not increased much over the years. She still sat caged in the same cubicle and no new or interesting projects were ever sent her way. The only real changes were the switch to office casual two years ago, and the addition of flavored coffee creamers in the break-room.

Lisa had a typical day at work and got home around 5:15. She checked her mail on her way inside the building and noticed an envelope that didn’t belong. It was addressed to Jeff Johnson, Apt. 3. Lisa’s hand trembled as she read the address. Her throat was dry and she could hear her heart. Thunk! Thunk! Thunk! She could place the envelope above the mailboxes with the hope that he’d find it later, or she could hand the envelope to him in person. She thought it over as she walked up to her apartment, unlocked the door, threw her bag and mail on the floor, and slumped on the couch.

She tried to imagine what it would be like to go upstairs. She’d ring the door bell, they’d exchange hellos and—Ok, Lisa thought. This could be an important piece of mail. Besides, it’s good to talk to your neighbors.

She walked up the stairs to the third floor, envelope in hand. She cleared her throat, breathed deeply, and knocked on the door.

The door opened. "Hello?" Jeff asked when he saw Lisa.

"Um, hi. Do you remember me? I’m Lisa. I live in the apartment downstairs."

"Oh, yeah," Jeff nodded, "Come on in."

Lisa followed him into the living room. "A piece of your mail was in my mailbox. I didn’t know if it was important or not, so I thought I’d bring it up to you."

"Thanks." Jeff took the envelope from her. "I was just making myself a cup of mint tea. Would you like some?"

"Sure." She sat on the couch, which was beige with flowers. The chair next to it was blue plaid and the one across the room was green and white striped. The coffee table was an old board over a couple of crates. For bookshelves, he had pieces of scrap wood alternating with cement blocks. The apartment looked like it was furnished from leftovers on the sidewalk.

He came back from the kitchen and handed Lisa a cup that read "Life is what you make it."

"You’ve got quite a number of books," Lisa commented, wrapping her hand around the warm mug.

"Yeah, a lot of them are leftover from college."

"You went to college?" Lisa was shocked. This did not fit her image of Jeff. "Why are you working at the Wonderbread factory?"

"Well, I was getting a master’s degree in philosophy," Jeff laughed at Lisa’s shocked face, "And I was teaching Freshman Philosophy 101 when it dawned on me how much I hated my job. The students didn’t want to be there. They didn’t take me seriously. Hell, I didn’t take myself seriously. I didn’t want to be in that prison any more than they did. It wasn’t real life, being locked up in that room and discussing things about stuff you’ve never experienced. Throwing out jargon-soaked rhetoric and pretending to be so much better than other people."

Jeff took a sip of his tea.

"I realized I knew nothing about the real world, yet I was training people to enter the real world. It all seemed like a sad, sick joke."

Lisa was entranced. Jeff was nothing like anyone she’d ever met. The most daring thing she had done was wear jeans to work.

Jeff stared out the window and asked, "What is philosophy anyway?"

Lisa shrugged.

"I’ve learned more about life, and more about real down-to-earth people working in a bread factory than I did during six years in the learning factory of college, where I was being squished into their mold." He shook his head and drank his tea.

Lisa nodded in agreement, entranced by her neighbor. She felt herself slipping into another fantasy, except this one wasn’t G-rated.

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