Giraffes Do Bite

Creative Nonfiction
Mary Wuerth


Giraffe
Photo Credit: David Groth

I sometimes thought of going to him in the night. I could visualize myself knocking softly at the door to his basement apartment, making him search the nightstand for his glasses, six inches of bare wrist slipping from his pajama cuff as he undid the latch, and the little dog going all white-eyed. “Hush, Puppy,” I would say. Hush Puppy.

Ron was the lead proofreader at the typesetting house that hired me away from a miserable job at an insurance company. Better pay, less-strict working conditions and no dress code made me feel sure that my life would get back on track. And I would finally put behind me the divorce that had left me in the doldrums for so long.

From the very beginning I was in awe of Ron. Being the lead proofreader merely meant he had the most seniority, yet that seniority granted him certain privileges the other four proofreaders didn’t have. He was the only one with an actual desk and the only one who got to go home at five o’clock. The rest of us worked at folding tables and stayed until the day’s work was done. I remember how, on that first day, as he patiently explained the duties of the job to me, I felt like a chimpanzee taking instruction from a sad and oddly vulnerable giraffe. He showed me how to use a pica pole, measure point size and check for proper kerning. He concluded by telling me I must always, always, initial my proofs in case an error needed to be traced. His calm, unruffled air made me think of the mastodon skeletons at the natural history museum.

Ron was seven-foot-two. His head was, I don’t want to say pumpkin-shaped, but the word “melon” does come to mind, and it sat atop the classic stickman’s frame. He bought his clothes at the Big & Tall Men’s Shoppe, and while the pants were long enough, his slender white wrists frequently freed themselves from the confines of his cuffs. His cheeks were pink and hairless, the comb marks were fresh in his hair, and his trademark Hush Puppies showed meticulous care. He also collected stamps and had a wire-haired terrier.

Ron had a couple of odd habits besides brushing his Hush Puppies every day after lunch. One was putting his used Kleenexes in the bottom drawer of his desk. The other was using a wooden knitting needle as a proofreading tool. While the forefinger of his left hand followed the copy, the knitting needle, held like a pencil, made a thin, harsh score beneath the lines of type on the galley proof. It seemed an awkward way to proofread because the knitting needle had to be exchanged for a red pen when an error was found.

One day as I was looking out the window I saw Ron unfold himself from his sub-compact car. I’d seen the same scene played for laughs by a clown at the Shrine Circus, but this scene wasn’t funny. I continued to watch as he scissored his way across the parking lot, and the lump in my throat told me that I felt something for the man. It wasn’t exactly a crush that I had, but curiously, it fell somewhere in the same family of emotions.

In the days that followed, I began bringing chocolate chip cookies to work, making a point of offering the first cookie to Ron. Carrying coffee from the break room was another thing I did for him, and I fixed the coffee just the way he liked it with two sugars and a heaping teaspoon of artificial creamer. I also became protective of Ron and glowered when the camaraderie of the guys from the back room grew too boisterous during the times when work was slack. Ron was a willing butt to their practical jokes, once wearing a sign that said “P_OOF READER” on his back for an entire afternoon. In the rubber band wars he generally gave as good as he got, and I was often caught in the crossfire.

Ron talked freely with me about his hometown in Iowa, the elderly mother he visited on weekends, the antics of his little dog, and the urgent matters dealt with in the most recent episode of 60 Minutes. Yet only once did Ron ever mention how he happened to be so tall. He said he had been of slightly below normal height until early adolescence when a pituitary tumor caused him to shoot up abruptly. At fifteen, when he was seven feet tall, the tumor was removed. Afterward he grew only two more inches, but the rapid growth left a legacy of physical ailments: a weakened heart, shortness of breath, and habitual leg cramps. His voice remained that of an adolescent.

I sometimes thought of going to him in the night. I could see myself lying in his long, cool crypt of a bed, my back to his chest. Embraced by his long arms, I would be the beetle clutched by the praying mantis. I, in turn, would clutch the little dog’s scratchy hide to my own chest, and the three of us would find our dreams flowing together seamlessly.

The boss called the proofreaders into his office one day. I fleetingly wondered if we were going to get a raise, but the boss’s voice was stern as he gave Ron a proof to pass around. I recognized it as part of an important job we had recently done. In 36-point type the top line read, “Let’s Get Aquainted.” I swallowed uncomfortably as I beheld the proofreader’s nightmare, a major typo that had slipped through. Acquainted was missing the “c.”

The error, the boss informed us, was caught by a pressman just as 500,000 copies were ready to be printed for a regional marketing campaign. “Now, pressmen don’t get paid to proofread,” he lectured. “You guys get paid to proofread.” The proof was uninitialed, so there was no way to be certain who had let the error pass, yet when I looked carefully I saw the fine indentations left by Ron’s knitting needle. I said nothing at the time, but later told one of the other proofreaders. That’s how word of what I had seen got back to Ron. He gave me the cold shoulder all that week.

Gradually, as the weeks passed, I began to find more things about Ron that were irritating. They went beyond the dirty Kleenexes stashed in his bottom drawer and the freshly-brushed Hush Puppies. The precise way he aligned everything on the top of his desk got on my nerves. And I couldn’t stand the lecherous, throaty chuckle he used when the back room guys told a raunchy joke, or the way he sucked his teeth after lunch. Our conversations dwindled and I let him fetch his own coffee.

Christmas was coming and Ron was scribbling furiously during his breaks. Every year his sharp eye picked up on the vulnerabilities and shortcomings of his coworkers and he used this material to weave the poem he traditionally read at the Christmas party. Whenever anyone approached, he slid a blank sheet over the top to cover what he was writing. I wondered what he would say about me.

The Christmas party was a blast. The lower echelon proofreaders worked up a skit with main characters called Deleta Comma and Dash Ampersand, pardonable names only someone in the typesetting business could find amusing. After dinner we presented the boss with a gaudy green polyester jacket from Goodwill. He loved gags and was modeling the jacket to the accompaniment of our hoots and whistles when we gave him his real gift, an expensive navy blue blazer we’d each coughed up twenty bucks for.

And then it was time for the poem. As I watched Ron struggle to the podium, crippled by a leg cramp, I felt that tug of affection for him again. And when his voice broke during the first few words of the poem and he had to start over, tears pricked my eyes. But then he got rolling and before long Ron had eviscerated each and every one of us with his searing observations. In the way of all roasts, it was intended to be humorous, yet a slight air of maliciousness lingered in the air afterwards. Even the boss was not exempt because there was a reference to his three-martini lunches and afternoon naps on the sofa in his office.

I laughed right along with everyone else when Ron referred to me an “old-age, wino hippie,” rhyming hippie with his description of the cameraman’s accent being “right out of Mississippi” in the next verse. Obviously I didn’t expect a discreetly-worded little love note hidden within the lines of the Christmas poem, yet I felt my cheeks burn as I heard those words spoken by a man with whom I had been so gentle, a man with whom I had contemplated… well, (blush!) greater intimacy.

After the party I went home with the cameraman, whose accent sounded kind of cute to me. As we shared a beer on the sofa in his apartment, he told me he thought I got off light. He was a cameraman, not a proofreader, so he did not say “lightly,” and under the circumstances, I did not correct him. After all, he reminded me, I had often mentioned a fondness for zinfandel and my wardrobe did tend toward the Bohemian. His eyes panned downward to take in the gypsy-like outfit I was wearing. I had to agree. But “old-age”? That cut to the quick; I was only 31 at the time. Ron was 27.

I sometimes thought of going to him in the night. But after that, I never did.

pencil

Last year Mary Wuerth won first place in Toasted Cheese‘s A Midsummer Tale Contest, and in 2007 she won second place in the same contest. The Oregon coast is presently her home. Email: Geraniumgirl[at]aol.com

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