the strangerhood (out of order)

peach. gun. overweight.

I realized my numbers of travel by way of distance measured in miles against hours had far exceeded the law. I was speeding in my car, my bucket of bolts. With a thought, I eased up on the gas, and noticed a road sign fast approaching at the end of the road. Detour. Though I could not make sense of the media in which this word had been applied to the canvas, I understood its meaning. As non-English speaking drivers know a red octagon means ‘STOP’, I knew I had made a horribly wrong turn, and had no choice but to divert my course. I had been driving down the wrong road for over nine hours. One might wonder what the ‘right’ road would have looked like. In any case, I was somewhere unfamiliar. Like I said, foreign.

The road sign with the meaning painted in meaningless black against reflective yellow told me to turn around. I thought I should just try to get back on a main road, or lane, or thoroughfare. There were little gray houses built in the natural style of city construction along the horizon—winding, organic-like. I turned my machine around and drove back to the horizon, to meet the houses, and made my way onto a residential drive. It twisted left, then right, and so-on. I didn’t know what I was looking for.

Perhaps a nice, friendly looking one-family house to park in front of, go up to the door and ask directions. All the houses were identical, though, so it stood to reason one would be good as another, as another would be just as good as the other, and the other, and on and on.

I began to think, then. I had never actually asked directions before. In my life. For anything. I certainly didn’t want to start now. But by the time that thought had spawned, I was already at the door, knocking. A woman about my age or older answered. “Hello,” she said. The door now wide open. “May I help you?” The tone of her voice was off-center in some way. In some beautiful way, I mused some time later. But for the moment, what stood before me was no more than the sum total of every single middle-aged woman I’d ever seen; nothing so spectacular to look at, to be sure. More than anything, an assemblage of all the various body parts and gestures and clothing choices culled from every strip mall, country club tennis court and bridal shower known to man (or woman, for that matter). This Frankenstein creature of not at all unpleasing physical traits in no way spoke for the substance of her voice. Instead, it hid something. Obscured something. Behind the domestic exterior, I supposed, something very disagreeable could very well be lurking. Frozen in time, I linger on her words. I discard her physical appearance and linger only on her words.

So lovely. What I heard in her voice, however, surely were not the words that had sprouted from her tongue. I could taste an inappropriate glimpse of intimacy not usually afforded the common stranger. In my head, I could almost hear a double of her—of her voice—speaking unspeakable things from one stranger to another. Not obscene, but unspeakable still. The plasticity of her smile, the fold of the yellow linen frock, meeting the lace at the pit of her soft, gentle neck. It bespoke of something not found anywhere within those mundane few words. And I could hear the overlapping of some sweet mental nothing with every syllable to pass her lips.

I nodded. She seemed nice. But she was more than nice. I had never heard a stranger speak as she had. In her manner. I began to realize that what she said was utterly impossible; it could not have passed her lips, at least not cloaked in the same words that had fallen into my ear. The mundane clothing of those words only excited my senses all the more, as I imagined—puerile in nature, for I am but a man—the nakedness of the meaning beneath the folds. If she’d said what I heard, it was the first real thing to hit me in some time. If she’d said what I heard whispered in my mind, then I would have a whole lot more to think about than how to find a road back to civilization. I had trouble, then. Without knowing for sure if the words I thought I heard were real, or if I was hallucinating, or if I had simply misunderstood what she said, I could not be sure of her meaning either. Had she in fact said those things and with the subtext with which they were spoken, a possibility existed I may have bungled the reception. Having gathered so much in so short a time from someone I had never met, I may have assumed too much. My head began to hurt. Immensely.

“I wonder if you might be so kind.” I said. “That you would give me some directions.” I suddenly became aware that I was dead tired. I could barely keep my eyes open. “I think I’m lost, ma’am. To be perfectly honest. I seem to have gotten myself lost.” The focus in my retina was decaying before my cones; I only remember looking into her eye. I seemed to take her meaning, then, by looking in her eye. But it wasn’t the one I required.

“Would you like to rest awhile, sir?” I nodded, almost collapsing in on myself, and she took my hand, her eye still in mine though mine was already asleep. She took off my hard dress shoes, and I felt a fuzzy quilt drape over my chest. She took my meaning. I fell asleep, then. With my eye still open.

BEACH

I woke up. That was something, at least—the waking up. At the very least, the bare minimum, I could take solace in that. For all I knew, I could be dead or comatose, hunched over and bloody and with my ribcage mashed to paste against the steering wheel. But I wasn’t. I was awake. Being awake being the only virtue by which I would even know my pulse still functioned and my brain still worked. That was something, anyway.

But then I remembered where I was, tenuously as I even knew to begin with. Some gray house in some neighborhood or town I had never known even existed. And then I remembered how I got there. My words were still lost—illegible and meaningless in my right breast pocket. The woman had been so kind as to take my meaning, thinly veiled as I may have presented it. She was smart, that one. She must have been. It showed on her part an ability to understand and accommodate feelings I myself was not even consciously aware of. I needed to rest, that much was certain. I felt I had been running for days, weeks, years, to no destination in particular and with no compelling or logical reason. I had been running, asleep, but drained and exhausted still. Where was I.

I had been at work that day. The day I lost my words, got in my car, and found myself petrified and fossilized in this strange place. I leaned over on my side, peeked through the blinds, and saw that it was still light out. Was it light out before? Maybe it had been dark. I couldn’t remember, but still I had the feeling that the moon and sun had swapped shifts. I saw my arms. Bare, pale, mottled with tiny blackheads along the bicep. I realized I was shirtless. Not only that. Pantsless. I was clothed in nothing but my underwear and socks.

For a moment, a vulgar guilt flashed in my brain. But I knew there was no way anything inappropriate, per se, had happened. I flung the fuzzy quilt over my shoulder, stood up, and began to search for my clothes. The room was tiny. Not much bigger than a men’s room stall or a portable john, like you find at a construction site.

“I hoped you wouldn’t mind, Mr. Sutter.” The woman’s voice peered around the half-closed door. She followed it, stepping gently in my view, dressed in plain black. “I thought you might like your clothes washed.” She looked as if expressing something. Levity, maybe. I was beyond caring. “They were a little stale, actually.” I understood that. I smelled. Great.

“Thank you, ma’am,” I said, strategically draping the too-small quilt over my chest, not sure of which part of me I should try to cover. I had nothing else to say. She stood, and unable to take her meaning as I was, it seemed she had likewise either forgotten or decided not to take mine. “Well, then.” I might as well have punched her right between the eyes.

“Coffee,” she said. “After you shower, of course. Your clothes should be dry by then.” She began to back away, in a manner I couldn’t identify. “I’ll let you make yourself presentable, Mr. Sutter.” She closed the door in front of her. A bit too late, perhaps. I was still wondering. Wonder took me only so far as to speculate, blandly, on the motive for her hospitality. Perhaps she thought I was homeless. A drifter. Some down on his luck type guy, just looking for a place to lay his head and maybe a reasonably warm meal. A vagrant, in short. But what would a nice middle-aged suburban woman find to sympathize with in that, and more importantly, how unlikely must it be for such a person as I was possibly perceived to be taken in in a place like this, or to even be found anywhere in its general proximity. There’s a reason they’re called street urchins.

Either way, I knew what I wasn’t, and to a lesser extent, what I really was. The latter counted for more, anyway. No point in waxing philosophical when the door to anything such a practice would yield is already bolted shut, or even nonexistent. I was a man. That I knew. A businessman, I had come to suppose. And I had simply undergone a bit of difficulty. I had trouble. It’s what caused my brain to crust over, to lose words, and ultimately to drive in the resulting stupor into wherever I had arrived. Where was I.

The more immediate question. The one that begged my anxiety and affections, wrapped and bound as they were in red surgical tape and gauze. Who was she. More importantly, perhaps, what was her motive? But I’d been over this. And over this again. I concluded that standing in that porta-john bedroom ninety-five percent naked would accomplish nothing, towards the end I sought, or any yet to be seen. I did smell. My hair was oily, thin. I made my way to the shower, unsure of how I eventually got there—not quite caring anymore why. I felt I had washed the odor away. The dirt, and body soil. She came gently rapping against the green vinyl shower curtain. “Your clothes, Mr. Sutter. I’ll place them right here on the commode for you.” I meant to say something. But it wasn’t necessary. I had no intention of making myself alive and naked behind that curtain, even though I obviously was just that. Like pee shyness. I always turn the faucet on when I urinate, just to mask the sound with something more appropriate.

I was dressed in time. I dressed in the bathroom, with the door closed. The steam from the shower had dampened my entire outfit by the time I stepped outside. “Coffee, Mr. Sutter.” She was calling me from the kitchen. Strangely, I found no obstacle or disorientation in navigating my way from point A to point B. She had a breakfast tray laid out on the table. Nothing but coffee. How did she even know I liked coffee? More pressing, rather, how did I know that I liked coffee? I couldn’t remember the taste for some reason, inasmuch as a taste can be remembered. I’ve never tasted brisket. I felt I hadn’t tasted coffee either. But I was a man, with a desk job. Inconceivable to think it hadn’t ever passed my lips before. Enough of that, though.

“Thank you.” My language was plain. I’d left words in the care of whatever part of my brain now housed, restrained, them. I didn’t like coffee. It tasted bad. Like sewer water, only warmed over in a kettle. Though, to be fair, I probably hadn’t ever tasted sewer water either. “Thank you.” I was repeating myself.

“Welcome.” She left out a key word.

I reflexively snapped up my wrist, looked at my watch like I was late for a meeting or something. Really, I had no other plan of action. I’d always found, I felt, that the best way to divert awkwardness was to appear busy or stressed. I recognized my meaning for a brief flash. She, however, seemed oblivious. How was it, I wonder, that she’d taken my meaning so graciously and intuitively the cycle before, but now appeared as aloof and thoughtless as I was. I thought of something to say. “How do you know my name, by the way?”

“Wallet.” She’d left out another key word.

“Hmm.” I’d been shut up pretty good, I guessed. Stupid question, stupid answer. In any case, we were left sitting in each other’s company yet again—silent—and I began to get the feeling my feeling was not mutual. She seemed rather content. Just to sit. And say nothing. I had a grampa was given to that. Difference was, me and my grampa took each other’s meaning without need of a word between us, or an excuse to break the silence. I needed this silence broken. But words, logically the only solution, seemed just as awkward an alternative. We sat for some time.

I can’t recall exactly, but I know that our sitting had come to an end, I had moved for the door, and she followed attentively behind. She stepped in front, opened it for me, then stepped aside. I still didn’t know how we’d gotten to this point. “Thank you, ma’am.” That’s all I said. She nodded without sparing a word. Apparently, she held the cards. Not apparently. Of course. She would be perfectly content to let me wander out that front door not knowing how or why I had come to the place I had just moments before departed. I certainly did not know. But I didn’t particularly care, either. She could hold the cards. She could play go fish, for all I cared.

But I did care. Uncertain how, exactly, but once I stepped out onto the cobblestone walkway leading to the sidewalk, I felt a bit ashamed of myself. The woman, whoever she was, had shown me kindness. Never mind her peculiarity. I myself am no doubt any less peculiar. It had been an even exchange, then. I would leave her with an unshared gratitude, to do with as she wished, provided she had perceived it at all. That was fine with me. That was good enough.

The thought hadn’t dispersed completely as I proceeded down the winding sidewalk. It was still there. But more important—more immediate—was the resulting question: just where in the hell was I walking to? I supposed I wasn’t walking to anyplace, at that precise moment; I was only walking to increase the measurable distance between her and me. That’s what you do, generally, when you leave someplace. You start walking. Away. From that place. But then again, most people generally leave someplace with another in mind—hence the motive—the meaning—of the walk. I felt drunk.

I was still walking. Then I remembered I had a car. I stopped walking. Turning back around, I had become instantly and illogically unable to judge the distance I had covered. I hadn’t kept time. But that was no excuse. My panorama looked to be an exact duplicate, no matter which direction I faced. Back. Forward. Side, then to the other side, and not even taking into account diagonals or tangents or any variation thereof. I had lost direction. I had lost my car.

But the houses remained in diligent regularity. Everywhere I turned, another door to knock on—a new stranger to burden. I didn’t want to go wandering into another stranger’s house—have things end up like last time—or even have to explain my situation, or pawn my meaning in hopes of a profitable return. No. What I needed was a phone. What I wanted was a payphone.

SUPERCILIOUS

“Hey, Jack.” A gravelly voice from the bushes. I turned my head, stepped in closer to the gray picket fence dividing two identical properties, and saw a 50-something man stooped over—hunched over—positioned as if he were about to pounce on something. He hadn’t pounced on me. Yet. But he maintained his posture nonetheless. “Hey, Jack.” He kind of tilted his head in an upward motion. It might have been an involuntary tick. In any case, I realized he was speaking to me.

“Yes.” I stood plain, with my arms to my sides and with good posture.

“New?”

“Yes.” I said.

“How new?”

“I don’t know. I think I’m lost.” He seemed to be waiting for something. “A day, maybe. Overnight. Fifteen hours, max.” I didn’t know why I felt the need to be so precise to such an imprecise question.

“Like it?”

“Alright, I guess.”

“Wanna buy a wallet?” He opened his black trench coat, which I had only just noticed was black, or a trench coat. Stitched along the right hand inner lining of the coat was a varied selection. Mostly leather. Some crocodile. All quality stuff, regardless.

“I already have a wallet.” The moment I said that I realized I was wrong. Without bothering to reach in my pants pocket, I knew my wallet was missing. I reached in my pants pocket anyway. I patted myself down like a schizophrenic beat cop busting himself for possession. Nothing. The logical thought hadn’t crossed my mind until awhile later. For now, forgetfulness was logical enough an explanation. In any case, I wasn’t lingering on an explanation to endorse. I was thinking about buying a new wallet. From the guy calling me Jack.

“How ‘bout it, Jack?” He began to wave and brush his left hand up and down the columns of wallets on display, like a model on one of those game shows. “The price is right, Jack. No kiddin’. I wouldn’t hoodwink a fine-lookin’ gentleman like yourself. No.” His eyes were puffy. They seemed to have gotten puffier. It might have been an allergic reaction.

“I’ll buy a wallet,” I said, quite unaware I had even said it till I heard the words melt into air. I did something stupid, then. I reflexively reached in my back pocket for my wallet, so I could extract the money inside to pay for my new wallet. I had no wallet. And needless to say, I had no money. I don’t know how that could work any other way; unless you carry a money clip or a billfold like some dego guinea wop, you probably aren’t going to have money on you in absence of a proper container. A wallet. “I would like to buy a wallet,” I said, “but I can’t. I left all my money in my wallet. The other one,” I said, “…the one I lost.” It seemed unfair. I knew I had money. I wasn’t a wealthy man, Lord knows, but I knew I had at least a little money. It was the goddamn wallet’s fault.

“Well, that’s a sticky one, then,” the Merchant said. “You got money. Just not on ‘ya. I know how that fucking goes.” His language seemed inappropriate. “But what you’re fixing to buy isn’t just no regular thing, like…toilet paper…or gum. What you’re fixing to buy is a wallet.” He began to rip one of the crocodile skins from his coat lining. “A man needs a wallet.” I nodded. I think it was a question. “Gives a man a place to put his money. And a man needs money.” I nodded again. I think it was a question. “Furthermore, a man—‘specially a man such as yourself, sir—needs a place to put his driver’s license. A man needs a driver’s license. Gives him something says he’s capable of drivin’ a car.” I nodded. “A man needs to drive a car.” I wasn’t sure where he was going. “Fifty bucks.”

He thrust the wallet in my face and held out his hand. I almost reached back into my empty pocket. “I don’t have fifty dollars.” We looked at each other.

“You got yourself in a fix. But I’ll help you out, because I kind of like you. What do you say…I give you this here fine croc skin wallet and in exchange—as collateral, you see—you give me something else of value. Whatever it is.” I supposed it was a reasonable suggestion. Though I somehow knew a brand new wallet would be of no use to me empty. I wasn’t thinking about that. I wanted a wallet. “Look,” he said, flipping the croc skin wallet open, “it even got some stuff you might need inside. What I’m sellin’. It ain’t the wallet.”

The Merchant had already sold me. “I’ll take it,” I said.

“Beans. You can’t just take it. What you and me are about to take part in is old as the world’s oldest profession, friend. This is a barter.”

I took that to mean he was intent on trading his ware for something of a particular interest. I had almost forgotten the trading part. “I’m not sure I have anything you’ll want.” I reached in my pockets. I knew they were empty.

“Maybe not, then.” He began to pack up shop, looking as if to walk away from the transaction. He stopped. “You can do me a favor in return. That’s it. What man, after all, is worth so little he can’t even be of use as a surrogate hand?” He curled his lips, like he was smiling. More levity, perhaps.

“What can I do for you?” My mind was locked and aimed on that damn wallet.

“Nothing I can’t do, now mind you. It’s just a favor, you see. Just something you can do for me I’d rather not do myself. You’ll be my hand. That’s all.” He reached in the left side of his trench coat and groped around. “This,” he said, handing me a crumpled up wad of lined paper. “Take this.” I took the wad of paper and began to uncrumple it. “Don’t do that here,” he whispered. “Just take that. And your wallet.” He handed me the croc skin wallet. “And don’t think I don’t know my business practices don’t make no sense. I know. Just take what I give you. I’ll have my profit.” He packed up shop and began to scuttle away. “I trust you, Jack, even if I don’t have to.”

The first thing I did was fold the paper up nice and neat, then tuck it safely in my wallet.

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