The last time it happened was the fourth of July. I had just left T.J. Maxx, where my thick-soled sandals squeaked every time I moved across the tiled floor. I was looking for a green glass turtle I’d seen at a sister location and regretted not buying. It was a day when mostly the peculiar were shopping. There was a mother with her college-aged son who hadn’t seemed to learn to moderate his voice, or his excitement. “Mom! Mom! I found these!” he shouted, brandishing a pair of shoes. “Can you believe it, Mom? I can’t believe it!” I didn’t know if he was learning disabled in some way, since his Mom, when she answered, was loud and a little off as well. Her voice had less expression than his (though no less volume) when she said: “That’s great, Donny. I’m really glad, Donny. Shoes are good.” Maybe the family was just like that, I thought. Goofy families exist. Growing up, there were quite a few in my town.
Outside in the hot sunshine, amid all the closed small businesses and an open Aldi (where I watched a man fight with the change disburser in the shopping cart caddy), he suddenly appeared:
a dark little beast who followed me into my little low-roofed car, filling the air with humid discontent.
“Oh God, you again?” I said. I hated hating him because I could see how he was part of me, and I generally refused to hate myself, even the parts that could get me in trouble, and sometimes did.
He didn’t have much to say this time. Sometimes when he appeared he talked non-stop, alerting me to any personal failures I might have missed (not that I had). He compared my life to the imaginary lives of those who lived within the tidy, pretty homes we passed on the way home to my “shabby-chic on a good day” little cottage. “They have 401k’s,” he observed. “They care for their yards better —obviously.” He was hateful, but I couldn’t hate him, even when he stabbed at all my sore spots.
It was because I knew him so well that I loved him regardless. Mostly he wore a loose white sweatshirt advertising the “Cedarwood Raquet Club” which my second stepmother’s ex-husband had owned. He preferred corduroy pants and white Jack Purcell sneakers, though later he switched to Adidas under the influence of a boyfriend. The one thing he always carried was a book; a book about pretty girls going blind, or what happened to a pregnant teenage girl when her more popular and wealthy boyfriend went bonkers, or even Prince Caspian. Sometimes it was about some imaginary Finnish creatures who were somehow emotionally perceptive. The book was his escape, his open door, his promise of another life. He never went without it.
He fit well in the passenger seat, and he didn’t mind not wearing his seatbelt (which one of the dogs had eaten). He smelled alternately of mud and “Gee, Your Hair Smells Terrific.” He never appeared when one or more dogs were with me.
On this occasion, we sat together in my car for a few minutes. I was waiting for the air conditioner to kick in. I remembered that I had half a peanut butter sandwich in my purse, and I took it out and ate it while he watched me. He said he wasn’t hungry.
“Well,” I finally said. “What’s the plan?”
“You tell me,” he answered. He had an odd raspy little voice, which was oddly charming though not everyone heard the sadness behind it. “We can do this any way you want.”
I rested my head on the steering wheel. There were tears nearby. “I think I want to go home and walk the dogs and watch Catdog and leave myself alone,” I told him. “I want to get the hell out of here.”
He looked a little hurt, though he stuck around as we made our way down the winding roads toward home. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m sorry,” I told him, as he gradually began to vanish. The radio was playing the story of an Ethiopian man who desperately wanted to emigrate to the U.S. Somehow it came out that the man’s favorite song was “Careless Whisper,” at which we both laughed. Finally, with the help of an English journalist, he was able to leave the no man’s land of emigre detention, after which he moved to Vermont and was very happy. The story revealed that the man could not believe how mail came right to a box either in or very near his new home. “I don’t even mind the cold because it reminds me that I’m here,” he noted at the end of his tale.
The story took us almost all the way home, to where I knew I could make it regardless. People knew me here, for good or for ill, and my dogs weren’t far away. Orange lilies bloomed at the road’s edge, and I felt less scalded by the sun as it shone in my windows.
Still, when I pulled into my cozy, junky garage, I told what was left of him, which by now was just the smell of an old paperback, “I love you. I’m always going to love you. I can’t go with you willingly, but I can try to bring you with me when I don’t.” I knew he wouldn’t or couldn’t answer. So I put my arms around where I thought he was and carried him inside and let him roam around the house, silently and invisibly. I hope we can be happy.