One Time People
A year before I’d thought so much. People in debt weren’t me anymore. People with marriage problems weren’t me anymore. People obsessed by whatever people get into, hobbies or careers or religion or politics or whatever, they weren’t me anymore, I’d done all that and it was never quite real. Now I’m all of it, all over again.
We weren’t rich, but we’d hardly any debt; we’d been together fifteen years, and still people stopped us on vacation to ask if we were on our honeymoon. I enjoyed a good book, a good documentary, I read about stuff I liked on the side, I’d a good job and went to church sometimes, but none of any of that swept me, they didn’t matter so much I became an asshole.
It’d taken years to achieve this, a calm balance between everything, we’d cleared so much away as a couple, I’d cleared so much away from my mind, I was happy, not enlightenment happy, not lottery happy, not the kind of happy you put on the news, but real happy, so much so we’d even thought about adopting children.
It was a Saturday and I was cutting the grass for the first time that year, it was up past my ankles and as I turned to make a pass a rabbit shot out from the standing grass and bounded down to where I’d already finished, by the railroad ties and the broken fence I’d always wanted to replace with a stone wall, ever since we vacationed in England and saw the countryside, even the mountains, incredibly like some magic trick, covered in old stone walls crisscrossing everywhere.
Of course I’d never actually’ve run the rabbit over, but still the flash of doing just that came to me: its cry (would it cry out?), the spray of blood and insides, the red grass and the mangle I’d find when I turned the mower over to clean the blades—this’s what I thought of.
There was an older woman I used to see on my lunches at work, all the time. I always thought she was eyeing me, but I doubt she ever was. She was tall, and taller in the stiletto heels she’d spent decades perfecting how to wear and walk in, I don’t now how you do that, she never wore the same thing twice, but I remember once a red leather jacket and a tight skirt. She was maybe sixty with white hair, long, and she cinched it up in back right up against her skull so it spilled in a white line between her shoulders. She walked straight-backed, clicking with great purpose whenever she came to where we ate lunch with a ton of others. She always had black sunglasses on. She was so tall, so apparently elegant, or just pretending—I don’t know the difference, I doubt if she dropped something she’d deign to bend over and pick it up, she’d just leave it there, bright red lipstick, horrid old white face, and red in the cheeks. She seemed so together, so confident, or just fashionable—I don’t know the difference!, so sure of herself, but she was always alone, it was creepy to think she was looking at me, but then I felt sorry for her. She always had a paperback to read, if she had a phone I never saw her use it. She walked in like grace, obviously looked and acted differently than everyone else, left like grace, but didn’t seem any happier than the people she was apparently different from, who were more sloppy, like me, all that style didn’t do her any good it seemed like.
And just after the rabbit flew away I continued with the grass, keeping an eye out for others. I remembered as a kid once this time I’d seen a frog leaping out of the way of the mower, I’d stopped and picked it up, first to get it out of the way, but then, because we had no pets, we were always allergic, and since I was just little and liked these things, I put it on a shelf in the garage under a cup, since I wanted to play around with it later, and even having it in my palm as I carried it was something, its legs wrapped around two of my fingers.
But then I forgot it was there, and didn’t remember for a week, and no horror movie was as scary as approaching that turned-over cup in the garage, and the garage was now really dark and dank and spooky, dusty, and I lifted the cup and it was just sitting there like a rock—and I stepped back because I thought it was still alive and was just staring at me, but then I nudged it with the cup and it was hard and soft, hard so that it didn’t move like it was rigid, but soft like it was starting to rot, and when I found the courage to just sweep it over the edge into a trashcan I held up and tried not to watch, it left a spot of slime on the wooden shelf.
After that Saturday I started to go the bar all the time, the first time I didn’t realize it was a college bar but I got used to it, it meant no one was going to talk to me—women, I mean, or they were really just still girls. They would squeeze in getting their drinks and giggle, but I had nothing to make them laugh, no line, no personality, no game, I didn’t want anything to do with them, didn’t even try. And the men they were after were their perfect match, so I wasn’t a threat to them at all, I didn’t dress or smell or sound like them even though I could’ve run circles around them talking sports statistics, stolen bases and batting averages and slugging percentages from the eighties, and a few of those guys I could’ve been friends with but I was closer to their dads’ ages than their own, and you only have one father.
Except one guy, he was older than them but still younger than me, there was still a bit of rope connecting his age with mine, it wasn’t a huge gulf. He was just as miserable as me, but that’s different than some kid at college, a few of those came to the bar and sat at booths or tables or right in front of the amp of whichever musician was playing that night, and they’d scribble in notebooks, one of them even tried to read, or I guess he did read, whole books, surrounded by all that noise. Once I saw him talking to a girl and his face lit up, and he seemed to be making progress, but then a bunch of other guys came around that she knew and I could tell this kid was barely able to talk to her, let alone make some stuff up to talk to these other guys about, and anyway they all just wanted her and she liked that all of them wanted her, and the kid with his notebook went away after pretty quick.
But this older guy wasn’t like that, he didn’t have anything to write down, nothing to work through, nothing to pretend he was creating, or observing, all those excuses, and when it got down to it he just told me that he’d been born and immediately given up, he’d grown up in an orphanage and never got adopted and had a horrid time going through school and all that, said he’d found out, I don’t know how, I don’t know why he’d lie, he said his mother’d been college-age and he’d just been the product of a one night thing, didn’t matter.
And when he finally came around to telling me all this, I had to piece it all together, I asked him if being at this bar of all places wasn’t torture to him and I said there were sports bars and old dives and shitty corners where college kids wouldn’t ever go so why does he come here where an unwanted kid just like him has a pretty good chance of being produced? And I said that’d be like me trying to forget about my wife by hanging out at the stadium where I’d dropped her off that morning for graduation but he said no, he said no even after showing me all the marks on his arms and all the attempts and all the drugs, he said no, they should be allowed their fun, he said there’s not much either way and they’re as lonely as him except don’t know it, and should be allowed to pretend they’re having fun.
And there are boundary markers in the lawn, these thin iron rods like bridge cables twisted around that stick up out of the ground maybe a few inches, must’ve been put there after the war when the neighborhood was built and it’s strange to think of this whole street empty and the place getting plotted off with these rods in the ground and the first families showing up and the fathers still young but rattled about the war and already drinking.
And when the grass gets real high I always forget those rods’re there and I always go over them with the mower and there’s that huge crunch and I’m an idiot and I jump up real quick because I’m afraid it’ll break the blades off from the mower and they’ll fly out at full speed and chop my feet off at the ankles, I’ve worried about that since I was a kid. And I look around stupid like my neighbors might see it, but then the pain from that sudden movement of moving back shoots in and I forget the neighbors, nothing’s as real as the cramps the feeling of splitting like I can’t move but the spasm subsided almost right away, and as I righted the mower and started throwing it under the small red trees in the front yard, soft red leaves but low to the ground, I just throw the mower under there blindly since I can’t see under it, my phone rings, but I ignore it. I know it’s her and she must be ready for me to pick her up but she’ll leave a message and I’m almost done and it’s always a pain to stop and start again.
There’s a t-shirt I always see that makes me feel different, something about a famous surf-shop and all kinds of people you see wearing the shirt, teenagers and old men, and I always wondered what that kind of life must be like. It can’t be like the movies but it can’t be like having a real job everyday either. I think of myself, already getting older, shirtless on a beach all day with a dark red chest and grey hairs burnt white and starting to wrinkle and if I’m not safe everything starting to sag. Life on the beach, cold sand at night, sandals and boardwalks like when we were younger and couldn’t afford to go overseas, all the lights from the t-shirt shops and souvenir joints and what all those lights must look like from out on the water and some missionary group doing a huge sandcarving of Jesus and the crucifixion, of all things, and handing out tracts. The whole thing of always eating outside or around those bars like pagodas and crowds in a swirl, I think of these people as illiterate even though I know they aren’t, or carefree even though I know they aren’t, I don’t know what I think of them except that they’re different from me, that they might be as paralyzed thinking about my life, or at least what it used to be.
The last guy I saw wearing one of those shirts was a guy who always shipped stuff I was sending out and I got there late one night and he was on his way home and had changed his clothes. He was a nice guy, early forties though he looked younger, face like he must’ve once been a boxer and he couldn’t have been getting paid much to weigh and ship stuff. He wasn’t married and I hardly ever heard of him with a girl and he had a crappy job and all he talked about when I saw him was what was on TV last night, he was one of the first people I ever saw actually watching a movie on his phone and I said I’d never do that, said I’d never do a lot of things. But he said one night he was training to be a bartender and I guess it’d pay more but I could tell he wasn’t worried about it and I thought of my mortgage and car bill and what the doctor had told me and how we’d been talking about children again, and here was this guy whose whole mind was on becoming a bartender and learning drinks and subbing at places for training, and why shouldn’t he, I was happy for him.
I was almost done cutting the grass, still a twenty food square looking even higher from how short it was all around, when the phone rang again and I actually sighed and swore as I stopped the mower and stopped the music I was listening to and went to the shade under the awning to answer it, it was some lady she worked with using her phone.
That night somehow when I was able to fall asleep I dreamt as I do all the time of my eighth grade class reunion, I always have, and almost every time even as we’re all in our fifties now I dream of us all as twelve year olds again, but that night we were older, maybe in our mid-thirties, but still much older than ever before, but in a second it changed into a movie, the camera in the backseat of a cop car and two cops going down a dirt country road and the one in the passenger seat the rookie and the driver a veteran, and the new guy says Who’s that walking on the side of the road? The old guy tries to tell him it’s no big deal, the guy’s here all the time, and of course it’s me, and I’m as old as I am now and it’s only this young kid who prompts the old one to stop the car and he comes up to me and I can only ramble in the heat since it’s summer about the gradeschool I graduated from and our reunion and where was everyone, I was lost. And the young guy took my name and the school’s name down and the year, like he was going to look it all up and verify it, and when he pointed into town we all saw the humped shape of a dead deer further down the road and its broken and the dream must’ve gone on for awhile after but I can only remember how the smell of the dead deer was coming at us up on the wind.
At this all-night restaurant once, some place that was proud they went back eighty years and had old menus and funny cartoons everywhere, I saw this withered guy come up to the counter and he had unlaced white tennis shoes on and he shuffled and he had sweatpants on and over that and I don’t know if he was shirtless but he had a big green jacket on and all the clothes sagging on him, all of it, his skin even seemed to sag on him and he was bald and it was as if he didn’t have the strength to keep his mouth closed or that all of his skin was sliding away so it pulled his mouth open and left his hands shaking and forced his eyes wide open in staring. His open eyes and his open mouth swam around as if he was blind, he was the saddest person I’d ever seen, and on his jacket was a patch for Vietnam that said he was a veteran and a POW and it would take decades for all these old veterans to die off, all the old pain and all the lost ones with no families there were all over and still in rehab or counseling for what they did decades ago, and this guy looked like he already was dead and who knows what happened when he’d been a prisoner, who knows if he may have done horrible things over there. And I watched him because no one else seemed to notice or talk to him and how he sipped his coffee and used a spoon later to eat some hashbrowns and how at one point he forgot what he was doing and spooned hash browns instead of salt into his coffee but he didn’t want to say anything about it and just drank the coffee and then dug for the soaked potatoes with his fingers when the cup was drained.
She’d been caught somehow in a crowd of graduated students and their families. It wasn’t even her job but once a year on a Saturday she went to help and it was held in the same arena as the pro hockey and basketball games and concerts were and she never went to her own graduation and I think it made up for that, she was always so cynical about so much and I think families being together and old and young people being together and a genuine sense of celebration really meant something to her since it was so rare, she felt so much and that’s why I loved her and it was so hard for anything but us to really make her feel good about the world.
And it was a running joke between us because we’d been given free tickets to concerts at that place more than a dozen times over the years and always took them but in the end always decided to stay home. Of course I see great significance in that now, like our staying home was a sign of what would eventually happen, but it’s unimaginable to me that her life and mine with it was leading up to that moment and the only hints we were ever given of it was that we never used free tickets to go to the place, that’s not really a world I can conceive of.
Years previous I’d driven to pick her up and always been slow and careful going down that road, clogged with police directing traffic and kids in their caps and gowns and their parents, none of them paying attention and just spilling across the road to the parkinglot on the other side and she was with them when someone coming the other way ploughed through and somehow it was only her that died, smashed and then dragged to the next stoplight beneath the truck, some shithead with bumperstickers and a rack and guns and I don’t have anything against hicks but when I saw who’d killed my wife and how he’d dragged her the way he had I said I thought he probably wouldn’t think twice mounting her on his fucking wall, just another dead animal for him.
One of the first jobs I got as a kid was a grocery story and the manager there was in his late thirties, he had kids and a wife and people all said he’d spent time in prison or at least jail and the more I got to know him he talked to me about all that and said how as a kid my age it was a great and a powerful thing to hold a gun on someone. He said he’d never use it and just pointing it at someone was enough, it was enough power since he could take their money and it was what you did when you were that age.
But he was always playing catch-up and his lack of college always bothered him because he thought other people noticed and it bothered them and he always used words in a weird way and he always used his hands when he was talking like he didn’t have the words and wanted the hands and the words to mean something really deep. He was a good man but wished he was better and knew that he wasn’t, or at least to his standards. He took care of his aging father on the weekends and his kids loved him and he didn’t have a lot of money but he dressed as if he was going to his usual courtside seats, or just to a funeral, everyday, like he was the president. I never saw better shoes than his and a way about him like he belonged in the forties somewhere going to baseball games in a jacket and tie or zoot-suit or long hours at a jazz club.
Except he was at a grocery store and he always complained about the customers and the people because they did treat him horribly because that’s what customers always do and young kids like me working stock always came in late and even kids in their twenties came in late and he’d ramble on (and complain out loud to me, he trusted me) about how stupid kids were these days, didn’t respect a job and didn’t realize how lucky they were all the same stuff. But then after all that he came in early every day and he came in early every single day and he walked the floors like a king dressed up like he was and shaking hands with the stockboys and the cashiers and the deli and bakery people and the regular customers, and I knew even young there was some kind of hole in his life and some kind of problem at home he wouldn’t tell anyone about, some stab at class or rank he wanted to live up to.
And even being that young I knew he was better than all of that but he was twenty years old than me and even then I knew advice from a kid would be an insult. What did I owe to him, to tell him anything? When you see someone in misery is it your duty to tell them so or burst the only safe bubble they might have, like my manager’s solace of coming to work a king dressed to the nines, to find a worse misery underneath, some misery you’ll never be able to deal with? At least the smaller sadness you can deal with.
How was he any better or worse than the old cashier lady, she was retired and working there because she’d never been married and was lonely and she always looked completely beat down and no one talked to her and she wore a plush pin on her vest of a cat sitting in a shoe and the pin as wrinkled as the rest of her clothes and her sagging arms the bottoms of everything like her hands and legs and face and ears and eyelids that just sagged and I hated to see her. What is our duty to people like that?
I ask myself now because no one seems to be asking it of me. I always dropped every friend when I fell in love with a woman and now there’s no one left. I used to fake interview historical people in my head all the time and do huge dialogues of things. Now I interview myself because no one else is asking the questions.
Before she died I’d spent months and probably years collecting movies and pictures and making these hours-long sets of home movies of travel footage all that we’d done since we met. We both admitted, not with false modesty or anything, that we were looking better and better the more we aged because there was no more pressure to be some pretty girl or some dumb boy and none of that anxiety, and so just a woman and a man of a certain age comfortable in their bodies and able to talk and talk. All the memories saved up that were gone.
Before I’d met her I traveled around a lot and I was aimless and it wasn’t until we met that I saw what a waste it’d been before she came around. She’d asked about my friends and people I’d met in all these places I’d been to but I couldn’t think of a friend really and I made a list of fifty or more people I’d met up with and talked to at a restaurant and met at a bookstore and a bar or through other people and nearly all of them I only saw once, they were my one time people. And when I made that list I could see them all again and I remember really being happy, but I only saw them once and I never sought them out and they never sought me out. And I don’t just mean women, I mean men, I mean couples, older people.
And when she was killed I found that list again because she’d laminated it and it was a reminder to me of what she really meant to me and I couldn’t remember any of them anymore except for a couple I saw out once and then again at a diner and we sat and talked for a few hours, me and single on one side of the table, and the two of them on the other side who were really affectionate and sweet.
The rest of them are all gone. They’ve been replaced by others and some nights as I drive or walk or as I take a train or arrive at an airport and don’t stop moving I feel a great sense I can’t explain of something lifting me up, and as I approach a place filled with lights on the inside and crowded with people and as I approach and understand that she is dead and in the ground, but that I never knew what happened to these other people, to any of the people I’ve seen and come to know only by looking or briefly talking, and I think that in her absence I deserve to walk into a place like this and find them all there, waiting for me, greeting me with the looks not of a stranger, but of an old friend.
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