Last Saturday night, for reasons I won’t enumerate simply because they’d be too powerfully and personally condemning, I went to bed a little drunk and terribly mad. When I woke up Sunday morning, I was no longer drunk. It was early but the two older boys were heading off for camp in a couple hours and there were still a few items they needed to round out their supplies, so I took my anger and my youngest son, the infant, and we headed out to catch the early service at the First Church of Glorious Commerce, which opened its doors at 7 am.
I wandered the aisles, pushing my cart, the baby seat perched atop it, the young one looking back at me while I looked ahead for insect repellant, travel sized toothpaste, a deck of cards and so forth. On my way into the electronics section, I had to squeeze past this old gent who was engaged in friendly, one-sided conversation with the sales associate. He had one of those little microphone kind of devices that he held up to his neck when he talked and it amplified his voice and gave it a kind of electronic twang.
I just shook my head. “Mortality,” I thought.
There’s something about picking out the spare batteries for the kids flashlights—I guess it’s just imagining a boy in a bunk in a cabin somewhere, reading a book under the blanket, or making his way to the outhouse with a friend, giggling nervously, when suddenly the battery goes dead—“Uh oh, your flashlight battery is dead,” the friend says sadly. “It’s ok,” my son replies, “Because my father gave me an ample supply of extra batteries.” “Holy crap,” the friend says. “He sprang for the 2X power. He must really love you.” “He does, very much,” my son says back. “And please, don’t swear so.” Battery shopping puts me in a reflective, almost delusional mood, I guess is what I’m trying to say, so that when I heard a robotic voice behind me say, “Excuse me,” I jumped a bit and pressed closer to the display to let the man pass.
“No, no,” he said. “I just wanted to tell you, what a beautiful baby.”
I turned to look. He was right. It was a beautiful baby. Very, very beautiful with eyes of the clearest blue and a round face framing the most gentle and knowing smile, like he knew you were just a second or two away from getting the punchline and he didn’t mind, he’d wait for you. This is my baby—well, I was part of the creative team that came up with it. Typical writer, I was all gung ho at the concepting phase. Then, the seed of the idea planted, I was happy to sit back, hit the bars, have a few drinks, while my partner did all the heavy lifting. And now, post-launch, here was I, ready to take credit with the public at large. Life imitates work.
Turning my attention to this particular member of the public, this stranger who had approached us at the battery display, I saw a man who, somehow, immediately disarmed me. I guess I’m like anybody else who is human in that sickness, disease, deformity, fraility, incapacity—it all basically scares the crap out of me and I would rather not face it. I would rather turn away. But here was a man who had been through untold trauma, a man sick enough that he needed to hold a flashlight to his throat in order to communicate and lonely enough that he roamed the electronics section of a large department store on Sunday morning talking to whomever he could find.
And yet he seemed happy. His gaze was direct and open, his mouth held in a relaxed smile ready to grin at the least provocation, his eyes nearly as blue as my baby’s albeit with a more watery sparkle to them.
“You know,” he said, with his particular metallic twang. “He is just adorable. May I?”
He held up an index finger.
“Of course,” I said.
He poked baby in the belly. He tugged on baby’s big toe. He tickled the soles of baby’s feet. Baby responded with unfeigned delight.
“It’s the little feet that kill me,” he said.
“The what? Oh yeah, the feet,” I said. There was something about his voice that made you really pay attention—well, I say something like it’s a mystery. It was the robotic drone of it and the fact that it came more from his fist than from his lips.
“If you need an extra grandfather,” he said, directly to baby. “I’ll do it for free.”
Baby had no idea what to make of this offer. He smiled and seemed to shake his head.
“I think we find them so inspiring because they haven’t learned yet to hate,” the man said to me.
Well, that’s the kind of inspirational stuff that I don’t necessarily believe—couldn’t you just as well say that it’s because they haven’t learned to talk? In my experience there are all sorts of things baby hates—bedtime chief among them—and he expresses his dislikes with great clarity. It’s his unique diction that keeps him from becoming a real drag.
But rather than take up this issue with my new friend, I chose the much easier option of filling my eyes with tears and blinking at him wordlessly.
“Youth,” he said, looking from me to the kid and back again. “It’s pure hope. Look at him—more beautiful than a sunrise.”
Ok, easy there, Mr. Hallmark. You’re killing me.
This man’s easy, upright bearing and the way he was turned out on this Sunday morning, neat as a pin, in blue slacks and a blue work shirt, one button undone to show a white undershirt beneath, that and the way he approached me, forthright, unafraid and unthreatening, all open horizons— the whole package, suggested retired military. Navy, I imagined.
We stood there a moment, side by side, looking at the baby, and he said again, “If you need an extra grandfather, I’ll do it for free.” I laughed like I was hearing it for the first time—a patently phony laugh in that respect, but so much of what we do is formal speech, call and response, the grunts and squawks of the herd, without which we would never understand each other. The thing required a laugh and, because I liked this man and wanted him to know I liked him, I laughed. Simple.
Then he turned to me, clapped his hand on my shoulder and fixed me in the eye. And then he spoke to me, but this time without raising the little gizmo to his throat. His voice was all air, faint but clear: “Good work. Keep it up.” He gave my shoulder a thump and was on his way.
It wasn’t hard to imagine him, on some dark day in the distant past, piloting his landing craft onto a hostile beach. As boat lurches into the surf, he turns to the young soldier at his side and, seeing the fear and tears in this boy’s eyes, gives him much the same treatment. “Good work. Keep it up.”
“But I haven’t actually done anything yet,” the soldier cries.
“No,” he replies. “But you will. You will.”
Then he lowers the ramp and all hell breaks loose.
Truth be told, my man wasn’t likely old enough to have served in an LST nor is there any real proof that he was a Navy man at all. He could be a retired insurance rep for all I know. A rodeo clown. A bank president. Who knows what the truth is?
And you know what? Who cares? We pilot our brains around from place to place, all this data pouring in, through our eyes and ears mostly, and then we try to make sense of it. That’s all it is—storytelling all day long, to our favorite, most attentive audience. A coworker smiles or doesn’t smile, or leaves us off an important e-mail, and we interpret that as we will. The bank teller is angry—one person understands that she’s had a bad day, lost her boyfriend, drank too much last night, whatever. Me, I’d tend to take it personally. I’d assume the teller hated me for some reason and then I’d spend some time thinking about what that reason might be and imagining how I might improve myself. Or else plotting to kill the teller.
I guess the point is that in my world this was not just a lonely old man. This was a lonely old man and a sea captain who had stepped in at the right moment and, taking me by the shoulder, steered me off in a different direction. When life is rushing in through the eyes and ears, like water through the portholes, it’s amazing how a touch can shove you out of the trough, get you back on a weather helm and suddenly you can see and hear again.
That metaphor is a little strained but you see what I’m saying. I’m sitting there, looking at batteries, listening to this guy, trying not to stare at his throat, wondering about the baby, blinking through the tears, mad about something, getting short on time, laughing, smiling, nodding, shifting back and forth, basically all a-jangle. Then the guy reaches out and touches me and it’s like the noise just stops.
The rest of my shopping went off without a hitch only now, as I moved though the store, I was overflowing with good feeling toward my fellow man in general and gratitude toward this one in particular. He was old, he was mute, he spoke through a machine in his fist and he wandered the Insterstate Fred Meyer looking for people to talk to—but he was happy. If he could do it, could I try.
And as for the anger I’d been feeling and the fight that had caused it? Well, when it comes to these inevitable marital kerfuffles, I’ve got a secret advantage. I’m married to a woman who is basically never wrong. Oh, about factual things—the capital of Zaire, the molecular weight of Hydrogen—sure. But in affairs of the heart, pretty much never. I’m grateful for this because it simplifies my life. In the event of disagreement all I need to do is find the time to cool down and the nerve to apologize.
Apparently, you can find both at Fred Meyer.
And look, I’ve gone on and on about my morning shopping so that I’ve left aside the very thing I mean to talk to you about, namely our old friend John Carter. The news there is not good, but neither is it urgent. It will keep because, to paraphrase the old song, sadness never ends but this blog entry must.