by Jack Pendarvis
I was strolling toward the high school on the opening day of football season when I saw a five dollar bill fly out of the pocket of a little girl’s shorts. By the time I scooped it up, she had gamboled quite a distance down the block. I wanted to run up to her and say, “Little girl, you dropped this.” But then I pictured myself, a stout and ugly man of the town, a bachelor past my prime, wheezing as I dangled a five dollar bill in the face of an unattended child in the town square on this busiest of days. Though I had no reason to be ashamed, the picture was too unseemly to contemplate. I put the money in my pocket and kept walking.
The little girl rushed forward to meet a group of friends, other little girls. Something else flew from her pocket, a single this time. I kept that too.
Now the girl had stopped. She and her knot of chattering playmates were concerned about something. They scowled and carried on, hands on hips in a miniature attitude of high drama that was quite charming, though my heart was chilled with fear that one of them had seen me picking up the bills from the sidewalk. I passed them without incident, however, and continued on to campus. On the way, I stopped at the Chevron station and bought a pack of cigarettes with a portion of my loot.
We have no opera house. Tailgating passes for art here. My friend’s mother always puts out a tempting spread. I wolfed down pimento cheese sandwiches with the crusts cut off, homemade fried chicken, sugary ham biscuits, and other finger foods. I drank gin from an enormous cup and worked on a sunburn. Nothing could have been lovelier.
Four or five nephews (not my own) sported about in the grass with their toy football, waiting for the game to begin. I popped a whole slippery deviled egg into my mouth in order to take the hand of an old woman I did not recognize. She mentioned that her granddaughter had just been accepted into the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. I remarked in turn that the event was world famous, and she seemed surprised and delighted by the news.
“World famous!” she repeated. It is a fact that I am more informed about entertainment and culture than many of my neighbors.
Something important had almost dawned on me the night before as I watched a crummy old movie about a French viscount escaping from a British prison.
The woman he loved helped get him across the channel, disguising herself as a shepherd and then as his “postboy.”
There was the snooty Englishman—in love with the same woman—tracking him down.
There was his decadent French cousin who was happy the viscount had been put into prison. He was weak and foppish and awash in debt. He coveted the fortune that belonged rightfully to the viscount, and was so spineless he was willing to poison his old benefactor to get it quick.
There were various supporting players, such as the girl’s feisty old aunt and an unshaven, double-crossing innkeeper.
It was awful.
The girl wore a tri-cornered hat and snug livery as she said, “Not now! Who has ever imagined a viscount kissing his postboy?”
“Everybody,” I ventured aloud.
I thought it the kind of witticism that would go over big at a sophisticated party where everyone drank cocktails and poked fun at an old movie, a sort of event for which this area is not primarily known.
It was late. I kept thinking I would turn off the TV and go to bed. But I could not deny that I wanted to see the snooty Englishman bested and the decadent fop get what was coming to him.
I wanted to see the girl—the worst actress in the world—glowing with connubial happiness.
I had trouble sleeping. Something was flitting there, not merely the girl. The next day, amidst the bright revelry, I tried to grasp it still. One of the little nephews of my friend bumped into my legs, distracted by squinting at the instructions on a medicine bottle with a pink cap. He neither begged my pardon nor acknowledged my existence.
“What’s wrong with that child?” I asked my friend. “Is he sick?”
“Pinkeye,” answered the old woman, who had overheard.
“So I should completely avoid him?” my burly friend asked in a jocular tone of voice. He is large and full of life and enjoys joshing about his supposed vulnerability to the vagaries of fate.
“I don’t worry about germs anymore,” said the old woman, whose hand I had clasped so warmly. What a luxury, I thought, to be an old woman who no longer cares about germs.
In a coffee shop I had witnessed a little boy ineffectually stifling his liquid cough in the crook of his arm as he stood over one container full of straws and another full of spoons. Nearby, his brother, smaller still, spun the postcard rack around and around with something like viciousness. Nonetheless, I took no pleasure in the cruelty of the marketing executive who had decided to put pinkeye medicine in a little white bottle
with a bright pink cap.
“Children remind me of that once-famous movie midget now in the shameful regional commercial,” I told my friend. “Have you seen it? He is forced to say, ‘I’m short on cash.’ I never cared for him at the height of his popularity, yet I am moved when I consider what he goes through. Ha ha, ‘height of popularity,’ that’s marvelous.”
“Jen and I are going to have a baby,” my friend said.
“Have I ever told you about the couple my brother knew who had a pet chimpanzee with cancer?” I replied. “This was in New Orleans, the Crescent City. For a long time you could walk by their house and see the chimpanzee glaring out the window at you. It was very sick. The husband was a wine merchant. He traveled around the nation to fabulous restaurants and sometimes he would take his wife along. During one of these professional visits, a rather famous chef in Charleston asked where the wife was and the fellow answered very matter-of-factly, ‘She couldn’t come. She’s taking the chimpanzee for chemotherapy.’ The chef made a certain face, so my brother’s friend smashed a valuable champagne flute in his eyes. The man felt insulted and judged. Perhaps he was sensitive. You may be asking yourself, ‘What were the consequences of his rash actions?’”
But my friend had ceased to listen to me. He was huddled together with his tiny wife, with whom he seemed to be sharing a private joke. I examined her figure for signs of pregnancy and saw none.
I have nothing against babies per se. People are fascinated by their own babies, perhaps with good reason.
A typical conversation with a parent might go something like this:
“After Maddy’s nap, I either heat a bottle of breast milk or mix up a bottle of formula. Marcie pumps at work and puts the milk in these little plastic bags for me to use at home. We’ve been feeding her baby food for about the last month, too. She likes sweet potatoes.”
“An old classic!” (Here the secondary participant is trying to muster some excitement and bring the discussion around to something more universal.)
“Those I’m not so crazy about. But I’m sure they’re good for a baby.” (Introducing a Hegelian dynamic to jazz things up.)
“Beef baby food.”
“My, what a hungry baby.”
“After you feed Maddy, you need to burp her. I either set her on my knee or put her on my shoulder and pat her back. It’s fun when you get a big burp. It’s funny when a big burp comes out of that little mouth. Sometimes you can hear the air coming up her throat right before it comes out of her mouth. Sometimes Maddy spits up. It’s mostly pretty random. You just wipe it up. Once or twice I’ve changed shirts when she spit up on my shoulder. And about once I’ve changed her outfit because it was so wet from spit-up. She seemed to amuse herself a few months ago by waiting for me to change a soiled diaper, then going again as we were putting the new diaper on. Sometimes she would do it two or three times in a row. I hope that means she’s going to have a funny sense of humor. I’ve heard her laugh repeatedly twice. I mean, not just a random laugh, but a prolonged bout of laughter that had some object to it.”
Once I suffered through just such a conversation with a former friend, a man called Mr. Harris. He was rather aged for a new father, which may have accounted for the otherwise unaccountable relish with
which he employed such coprolalia.
“Why is it,” I asked him, getting into the spirit of things, “that a cat knows not to crap on the floor from the very day of its birth, but a baby will gladly crap in its own pants without a second thought?”
“But then a baby learns to talk,” said Mr. Harris. “What does a cat learn?”
“One of Little Jimmy Parker’s twins crapped on my breakfast table when she was a baby,” I informed him. “The other one crapped in my new porch swing. I think you could give babies a serum. Something with
feline genomes in it or something. I just had an idea for a product. Something you put in a cat’s diet so its poop smells good.”
“Lavender,” said Mr. Harris.
“I don’t know,” said Mr. Harris. “It might work.”
For a moment it was there, the familiar spark. Mr. Harris was my old science teacher, and how we had always loved to come up with ideas for products. None of them amounted to anything, but our dreams kept us going. After he married his much younger wife—a former biology lab partner of mine, in fact—nothing was ever the same.
I observed the long table of tailgating dainties, so lately full of promise, all of which the infected nephew had rummaged through with antic physicality. Hands in pockets, I took my leave.
I smoked as I walked, recalling, as I often did, a father who was carrying his baby around a department store. The child was not wearing shoes, a fact I noted aloud at the time, as the temperature outside had taken an unseasonable and precipitous dip. I thought perhaps that the father had been shopping in the department store for some hours and was unaware of the change in weather.
“You know who says things like that?” the father responded. “Old ladies.”
He said it in a jesting and harmless fashion, as we have known one another for some years. I went on to humorously respond, “That is exactly what I am!” The humor derived from the fact that I am middle-aged
and male. I was poking fun at my own shortcomings to be a good sport.
The father went on to describe how an actual “old lady” had come up to his wife, who was carrying their boy in her arms at the time. The old lady in question grabbed the baby’s bare foot and remarked, “His feet are like ice!”
The wife jerked her baby away from the old lady’s grasp and said, “Don’t you dare touch my baby.”
This story was presented as an example of bravery and fortitude on the part of the wife. The teller’s face shone with pride as he related the manner in which his wife had snarled at an old lady. I could not help feeling somewhat chastened, albeit it in a passive and not unpleasant way. At the same time I was bewildered.
Similarly, my thoughts were crazed and muddy as I walked home from the football game, a state of mind I welcomed. Hot air balloons, the electric coffee pot, the poetry of William Blake—here are just a few
of the items we would not be able to enjoy today if someone had pushed a crazy thought to the back of his head because he didn’t want to brood about it.
The Bible says something about a “still, small voice.” What a beautiful thought. Another Biblical phrase is “like a thief in the night.” Inspiration does not come crashing and stumbling like a lout. Few of us are old enough to remember homemade crystal radio sets, a pastime of yore. I do not believe I ever put one together successfully, yet somehow I retain a mental image of the process, possibly from a movie. What I am picturing is the infinite patience with which the young enthusiast groped for a signal. Somewhere, from the stars, a message!
I would not have to get my teeth fixed to become a so-called “Hollywood character actor,” the henchman or goon of a corrupt and oleaginous Southern senator, saying things like, “Get in the car.” My unfortunate smile might even turn out to be a benefit.
“He’s authentic! He’s the real thing!” Such encomia I could imagine bursting from the lips of agents and casting directors as I stood by modestly within earshot.
Upon arriving home, I made up a list of the good points and bad points about my town.
Bad: a chemical smell.
Good: plans to revitalize the economy through tourism.
Bad: tourism based on an infamous murder in a creepy doll hospital.
Bad: a dog somewhere that barks all night.
Good: old-fashioned hobby shop provides nostalgia and irony in equal measures.
The list thus completed, I called my friend. It was halftime, and the marching band was playing.
“There is nothing keeping me here anymore,” I said. “I’m off to pursue my dreams.”
My friend said, “Who is this?” He said, “Hello?”