During college I had a summer job at a large Chicago area department store. I worked in the hardware and paint departments and sometimes helped Mel over in lawn and garden.

“I’m a sad clown, with my pants down.”

That’s Mel. He would actually say that. Mel was just a fleshy, pathetic cigarette. A middle-aged, smoking machine, that Mel. Short-sleeved polyester shirts over a beer gut with a coffee-stained tie was his uniform.

Mel hated his job and it hated him. The only time Mel seemed jubilant was when he would do a little dance and snap his fingers after being berated by a customer or a recent college graduate boss.

“Burn, baby, burn,” he’d sing. He meant for the store to burn. And with him in it.

I would come into work and see Mel outside on the employee patio, smoking and staring at nothing.

On the other extreme, I’d see Angela. The store princess. Something so lovely can exist in the same place as something so ugly. So Mel.

Angela also worked in hardware during her summer off from college. She has half Mexican, half Polish. And all beautiful. Slender and 5 feet something, Angela.  Not real tall but long legs.

“I have a short torso,” she would say.

One of her eyes would get crooked cute when she was drunk. She liked to wear construction boots. She looked great in flannel. I asked her out in a little office in the stock room. We were both kicking back and she put her construction shoes-wearing feet on my lap. I started to caress her calves.

“They’re smooth,” she said.

Angela would come over after work, do her homework and then snuggle with me. I’d scratch her head and she’d fall asleep. But not until she gave me a few strawberry-tasting kisses. She had this way of laughing where her mouth would open but no sound would come out. It was the best laugh I never heard.

I wasn’t much for cologne, but Angela bought me some Fahrenheit by Christian Dior. She liked the smell and it made her hug me harder and longer.

I’d take really long breaks with Angela, and Mel would get mad and say I was “spending too much time with that young puss.”

I found love at the store, with Angela at the store. And I think Mel did too (not with Angela). He was spending a lot of time with one of the GLOP – glamorous ladies of the paint department. Her name was Gertie, and she was one of four stocky, 50-something gals mixing paint and stocking bulbs in hardware.

Often you’d turn a corner in an aisle and come across a GLOP’s giant ass in polyester pants on a ladder.

One time Gerti was up there, shaking her ass to an early Cranberries song playing on the store sound system. Mel would be below, watching, smiling. It was one of the few times he looked happy.

Once I caught Gerti giving Mel an over-the-pants hand job near the checkout.  They looked happy.

Once Mel had a pink comb sticking out of his back pocket. I told my nerdy co-worker and college classmate Randy Gene to make fun of it.

“Hey Mel, I like your pink comb,” he said.

“I like your pink pussy,” Mel said.

One day at summer’s end, before Angela returned to the East Coast and Vassar, we went to Reckless Records where she brought a Hooverphonic LP and a couple of used DVDs. We held hands and I kissed her head. I barely saw her after that. We stopped keeping in touch.

Some time ago I heard Mel had a heart attack, at the store, and died.

I went to his wake. There weren’t a lot of people, but someone placed a pack of cigarettes in his coffin. You know when people at wakes say the dead person looked at peace? Not Mel, even in death he looked pissed off. Angela wasn’t there, but that night she contacted me. She was coming home for Christmas.

I went out and bought some Fahrenheit.