Friday, June 13, 2014

Ordinary People

There are inexplicable things. 

On a warm spring day in my small town, a short and squat Asian woman waits by the bus stop. She is the personification of every National Geographics photo of Mongolian femininity. Only the yurt is missing. She wears a fur hat, and has a black eye. She is smiling, showing strong and even porcelain-white teeth, and she’s holding a McDonald’s Happy Meal.

A few minutes later, that very same morning, a tall, cadaverous man strides by dressed from head to toe in a grey sweat suit, the likes of which has not been seen since 1964. He wears a jaunty golf gap and strides purposefully forward, his head bobbing a good 12 inches forward of his knees. He is a human egret and I don’t understand why he does not pitch headfirst, a victim of his own momentum.

Sitting at an outdoor table at a sidewalk café, a man with a hole in his throat smokes a cigar. He is a neighborhood fixture, and for a decade at least has maintained this strange regimen. I have never seen his mouth, which is always covered by a soiled handkerchief. He places the cigar over the hole in his throat and inhales; he exhales through his nose. His eyes are rheumy and bloodshot; he coughs, dabs at the hole in his throat with a Kleenex, looks at his cigar, and repeats the procedure. This is a vision to scare small children, and every time I see him, I wonder what happened to this man and why. I discovered many years ago that he is mute. I suppose his vocal chords have been destroyed, a precursor of the fate of his remaining physiognomy.

At the local coffee shop an elderly man’s voice rises as he talks on his cell phone; it’s hard not to overhear. He’s shouting to someone called Mary that he knows the difference between Belgian endives and watercress and he will bring home the latter, not the former, which he knows she dislikes, and yes, for God’s sake, he can be trusted to know which is which even if  Mary, obviously, does not believe him. “Good bye!” he yells, then looks guiltily around. At least a dozen customers have heard the argument. He frowns and bullies his morning bagel.

Later that afternoon I run into Mary, a homeless woman who speaks fluent if accented French. Mary lives at the Quarry Motel, a guest of the state and of the county, and the better part of her day is spent in front of a local Starbucks nursing a large cup of decaf.  Mary’s hair is dyed a deep and glossy black with blue overtones and her mouth is a slash of scarlet. She can be angry or kind, and occasionally a mixture of both. I know her story because a couple of winters ago, I gave her rides home during the worst of the cold, and she rewarded me with a threadbare blue scarf she pulled out of a plastic bag. She said it was my color, and strangely enough, it is.

Mary says she was the wife of an Army general who dumped her for his secretary, long enough ago that Mary had no legal protection. Today, she would. Back then, the military did not concern itself with the former wives of officers, and she found herself without income or home. She worked in the glove aisle of Garfinckel’s and lived at her sister’s house until alcohol got the best of her and the sister died.  She was fired for cursing at a customer while under the influence, and luckily this was the same month her Social Security kicked in.

Mary speaks French, passable Italian, and Korean--fairly decently, I was told. She served in the American Embassy in Seoul with her military husband, whom, she will tell anyone listening was an evil sonofabitch who screwed anything in skirts but refused to give her children.

Mary’s days are numbered, I suspect. She has taken on the florid hue of a street drunk and when I saw her, she wore the fruity reek of a cheap wine drinker. She’s unsteady on her feet and her two top incisors are gone, leaving a cavernous black inch-long gap in her teeth. I guess she’s given up going to AA meetings.

Some years ago, she was commended by a local sober house for the imaginative sculpture she created in the front yard. It was a kinetic thing of bicycle wheels, tins cans stripped of labels, and sheet metal cut and bent in the shape of angels’ wings.

The local paper ran a picture of it on its front page, and a week later the neighbors got a court order to take it down. Mary disassembled her creation carefully and when the complaining neighbors were gone on vacation, buried it in their backyard.


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