As I broke into the Messerschmidt Hardware & Lumber Supply for the third time in a week, all I could think about was the futility of the whole situation and whether or not Wendy's took credit cards. A burger would really hit the spot.

I don't remember when I became such a sucker for legs.

It must've been in high school, those anatomically well-adjusted cheerleaders scrambling into formation or rah rahing the hell out of our team. It was no small surprise that us benchwarmers took much pleasure out of our lot in life: all of entertainment, none of the permanent scars.

When I had first french kissed a girl, she had had legs from here to Houston. O Chloe, ye of the blonde hair and lib arts major, where have you gone? I hope the temp agency has kept your lovely limbs lean and mean.

There had been others - not many, but plural - and the ritual was growing on me a la the Formica that lined my underutilized kitchen countertops.

  1. The girl. Pleasant and assertive (but didn't complain about spy movie first dates), she would invariably be introduced to me by some do-good friend hoping for some sort of karmic commission for finding The One for me. They came in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors (though my half-brother Jimmy's matchmaking sensibilities leaned uncomfortably Aryan) and often were just as cynical about our chances as I was. The latter became "the keepers."
  2. The woo. Pleasant and assertive, we would enjoy fine casual dining and a weekend romp to Chicago or, if we felt splurgy, Aurora to see some new garage band or disco inferno. Once I spent $6.50 on ferris wheel rides at a one-stop fair near Decatur. It wasn't until after that I learned she had "intimacy issues" i.e. no heavy petting until there was one less address between the two of us. Ever since then I find I get incensed just watching the dryers at the laundromat.
  3. The eruption. Call it Seinfeld syndrome (Jimmy), call it a fear of commitment (overpaid shrink), call it an innate desire to disappoint everyone in my life whoever cared about me (Dear Old Mom), but eventually they would all cease to amuse me, and so I would release a little blood into the water, and wait for the sharks to finish us off. It was never pretty, but then - neither were our matching coozies.

But the one special bond that connected them all to me in a deep and personal way? Legs. As far as the eye can see. So, you know when Barbra came into the picture, the dance of the drone took on a life of its own, and I was merely its corporeal messenger of obsession. She smiled from across the room, and I swore I felt a shock on the back of my neck as "The woo" sailed right out the window. I should've checked for taser clamps.

I slipped inside the supply store and headed for the Torches & Lighters section. I lugged the empty jars behind me, trying to minimize the noise but really not caring, as Mr. Messerschmidt had left the alarm off in the store without fail for nearly eight years. The ritual had stung him, too, and convenience was the name of the game for old Herr M. Why else would he keep me around as store supervisor?

I think it's safe to say that Barbra was better than advertised.

She was insatiable in bed and flirty everywhere else. Later I realized that this fit her M.O. to a tee, but at the time I just thought she was looking for love in all the wrong places, and I was reaping the benefits of her shortsightedness.

After a week, she became curious in my line of work (a thing most uncurious to the general public.) She was fascinated with the details of the job, from restocking tools to creating in-store ads. Everything interested her, and she interested me. The vibe was ecstatic.

When she popped the question in bed one night, I hardly thought twice about it. "Well, propane generally runs about $3 to the gallon, and we have 20, 40, 50, and 100 gallon tanks. You do the math."

Apparently she did, commenting idly, "$150 for a 50 shebang, huh? What about empty ones?"

"1/2 the price of a full one."

"Do you guys buy tanks?"

"Well, sure. We buy back our empty tanks for 1/3 the selling price, and we buy back full tanks at 2/3 the selling price. 'Administrative costs.' Means I gotta throw them in the back and let Leslie fill them up in the morning before we open," I replied.

For those long legs, Barbra looked awfully thoughtful for the next minute or two. I almost - ALMOST - thought an eruption might be imminent. I checked my watch (still a few days early) and then gave her my best hound dog smile. She smiled back just as sweetly.

"I have an idea."

It was so simple, I wonder why I hadn't thought of it before: the classic bait and switch.

Barbra would come in and buy an empty tank. Then that night I would come in, fill it up, and she would sell it back full the next day. A 100 gallon tank was $50, but it was essentially free money for almost no effort. Of course, I had talked big and we ended up doing two tanks a night, but still - $100 of easy money.

At first we agreed to only do it once a week. We'd use the money to go shopping at Dillard's or have a four-courser at Rich's Steakhouse down on Market Road. Nothing was too good for us. For Jimmy's 30th we all went over to Six Flags Kentucky Kingdom and I rode the Ferris wheel till I nearly puked. It was good to be alive.

When the buzzer first started whirring, the confusion on my face must've been painfully comical to watch. My only conclusion was that there was a bug in the system, but I looked over and saw the red flashing light: alarm in section 3.

Torches & Lighters.

Rituals are a funny thing. After a while they ingrain themselves in you, like breathing and riding a bike and gaydars. So when they break down, it's beyond shocking. I fully expected gravity to cease working any moment. Herr Messerschmidt had set the alarm for the first time in eight years. I would've strangled the man if he were within hand-squeezing range. I dropped the jars and sprinted for my car, parked conspicuously near the front doors.

Soon once a week had become twice a week, and then thrice. Barbra, it turned out, was only slightly less insatiable at the mall than she was in the sack. Credit card bills stormed in with lightning efficiency, and the "only obvious solution" (her words) was to up the ante. Now it was three bottles, four times a week. $600. It was almost upsetting, how ludicrous that number seemed to me.

As fate would have it, my mother called that afternoon, and she and Barbra chatted for nearly half an hour. It couldn't've been more clear if God himself had slapped a 4F sticker on her ass: Barbra had to go.

As the deputy led me away to the squad car, all he could do was look up into the heavens and ask rhetorically, "What the hell were you thinking?"

"I was just returning them tonight. I wasn't going to do it anymore. It was over."

"Right. Messerschmidt called us last week, said the books were all wrong, too many withdrawals on the petty cash account - you know, for refunds and buybacks. So we told him to set the alarm. Looks like the old man wasn't kidding. Almost $7,000, Craig!"

"I know, I know. I'll pay it all back, I promise. Look, have you gotten to Barbra yet?"

"I got a patrolman headed that way now. Look, just relax. I'll see what I can do for you down at the courthouse."

"Thanks. Oh yeah, and by the way, Jimmy, Mom says hello and wants to know if you and that Christina girl are serious."

So I got off kinda easy: 90 days suspended and 500 hours of community service. Had to keep my word about paying back Mr. Messerschmidt. Let me warn you now, ambitious ones: embezzlement is the king of all buzzkills on a resume.

And Barbra? She was long gone by the time that patrol car arrived at our place. Gone to Kalamazoo, or Toronto, or Timbuktu. Looking for another sucker in the market for long legs and a good idea.

Send her my love with a bag of doorknobs, would ya?

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