Saturday, March 18, 2017

...and then I was hit by a truck.

I have a hard time with emotions a lot. I have a hard time figuring out how to behave and when confronted with some emotional outpouring I usually respond in whatever manner I consider most likely to tame that emotion and bring the interaction back into equilibrium. I'm the emotional version of the second law of thermodynamics. Usually this is a good thing, unless it's not and I find myself laughing at totally inappropriate times or saying something morbid and depressing when I should be laughing.

I ran into this girl, a friend of a friend, whose name I couldn't recall in 1,000 years but she talked to me with the familiarity of a lifelong friend, which in itself throws me right away. I was only paying a minimal amount of attention to what she was saying because she looked a little worse-for-wear in the traditional Walmart-shopper uniform of fleece Mickey Mouse pajama pants bursting at the seams, over-sized Duck Dynasty t-shirt, and flip flops. Her red hair was a greasy mess perched atop her head and similarly-clad children were running circles around us. I had to come up with something so I asked her what she'd been doing all these years since I'd last seen her. I was expecting the social standard "not much" or "oh, you know" or something. What I got was more like a list of increasingly tragic circumstances, recounted with all the weight and melodrama which makes these situations so dangerous for me, not a hint of humor or light, something along the lines of:

"Oh girl... well, you know that [what's his name] left me after [what's her name] was born, but what he didn't know was that I was pregnant again! And I guess that's just as well because I lost that baby. Oh, I nearly bled to death on the way to the hospital because the dadgum car wouldn't start and I had to wait for [what's his name two], you know, these two's dad, to pick me up. Anyway, I lost the baby and spent nearly a week in the hospital. I told my boss and had doctor's notes when I got out, but she already hired someone else. We lost the apartment so me and the kids moved in to Mamma's trailer. She has a bunch of cats. Yeah, the cats just come and go. She always has a feed bowl outside for them. Her food stamps don't buy cat food so she usually buys a bunch of bologna and cheese and milk so the cats can just eat what we eat. Well [what's his name three] had just started crawling and got into the cat bowl. Girl, you should have seen it! He had cats climbing all over him! I think I have a picture... [pause for picture of traumatized child] ...Have you ever seen anything like that? Anyway, I took him to the doctor for all the scratches, just to be safe. I just got this stuff I have to rub all over him twice a day. He seems alright, that stuff is sticky though so we have to wipe all the cat hair and crumbs and dirt and crap off of him all the time. Anyway, I found a new job working nights at this gas station but it was about a dadgum mile from the house and I had to walk. I worked there almost two months and then I was hit by a truck."

And with a "what can you do?" shrug her story was over. I had managed the first several sentences with what I felt to be an appropriate degree of sorrow and empathy. About the time the food stamps were used to buy food for the cats I started wondering if I was being messed with but I maintained an empathetic expression while watching her closely for some indication that she recognized how crazy this story was and that it's a lot to react to in a grocery store aisle, but she just plowed right through in an Eeyore-esque monotone. Then she was hit by a truck and, with that, her story was over.

Now it was my turn to look hit by a truck. There was a moment of panic as my hyper-self-awareness tried to reason with my totally-uncalibrated sense of humor. Then I actually issued a giggle as my sense of humor overwhelmed my social grace.

"Damn, girl! You were hit by a TRUCK?!?! I would have started my story with that!" I managed to explain, and it was okay because she seemed to recognize how absurd life can be and that despite all the horror she lived, she had a great story and a captive audience for just those few moments leaning against her shopping cart full of bologna and cheese. She kind of chuckled. I laughed, encouraging her, and she started laughing. I told her I would pray that things got better for her, to "keep in touch" even though we didn't exchange any information, and I patted her on the back with "...hit by a truck, good Lord, girl!" as she giggled and wiped a mass of cat hair and fluff off of the toddler in the cart.

Things might always be horrible and scary and it's hard to keep from being mired down with all the regret and shame and fear and negativity, but, as for right now, I'm thankful that my story doesn't end with me getting hit by a truck. And, as thanks for the story she provided, keep my friend in your prayers.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Boo Radley Is My Neighbor, Maybe

I moved to this nice little plot of land at the "loop" part of Dowdy Loop over ten years ago. In all that time I've not spoken a single sentence to our next door neighbor, Jeff, or Boo Radley-my euphemism for him, the reclusive hero from Harper Lee's classic "To Kill a Mockingbird". We've never even exchanged the niceties one would expect of neighbors. It's not that I'm snooty, and I've been told I can seem snobbish on occasion, nor do I consider myself overly shy or rude or ignorant of social norms. The thing is, in all these years I can't think of a single face-to-face encounter he and I have had. There's the strangeness of that, and then there are some other eccentricities and unflattering stories about him, the validity of which I question but I certainly wouldn't be shocked to find they're true.

There is a wooden fence between our properties. Nearest the road is a nice little house where his mother lived. Behind that is a two-story dwelling that looks kind of like a tree house without the tree. Between the two is a graveyard of old cars and BMX bikes. Sometimes we hear him revving the engines of the cars but they never seem to be driven or even moved. I think he cleans and "restores" the bikes but, like the cars, they never seem to be ridden or moved. And I've only ever actually seen him outside working on his toys a handful of times. In fact, I've had the most luck catching sight of him in the evenings walking from his house to his mother's to get his plate of supper, returning home to eat, then taking his plate back to his mother. And every Thursday he rolls the trash out to the curb for Friday pickup and back again the instant the the trash is emptied. Other than that, he's a rumor, a hypothesis, a phantom. Sometimes we'll be working in the yard and we'll hear footsteps through the leaves on the other side of the fence. Sometimes when we're getting ready to get in the car we'll catch a glimpse of him peeking around the side of a tree. Once, and I still try to convince myself I imagined this but I know it happened, we were sleeping with the bedroom window open, which didn't have a screen, and an arm reached up and through the window. It was jerked back and we heard retreating footsteps as soon as Justin and I had about three heart attacks apiece and turned on the light, but I'm fairly confident I know who it was.

When I first moved here, Boo's mother seemed to be at death's door. We wondered to ourselves how he would one day survive when she was gone. The old dear hung in for a good many years longer than was expected or humane and only passed on about two years ago. We had kind of concluded that Boo would have to move to some sort of assisted living-type establishment based solely on his reclusive and creepy existence which we assumed would prevent him from doing things like paying bills and feeding himself, not to mention interacting with at least one other human being. So now, since he continues to tinker with his toys, wheel his trash out like clockwork, peer at us from behind fences and trees, and presumably pay bills and inexplicably acquire food to sustain life, I'm desperate with curiosity. Is he a sneaky deviant as assumed or is he really a misunderstood kind-hearted recluse more like the fictional Boo Radley who saves the Finch children?

Today as we were working in the yard, a guy, a stranger I'd never seen, approached us from Jeff's property. He was talking to Justin, asking him if he needed any help with his project, but the stranger had my full attention. I'd never known anyone to visit Jeff, much less someone socially appropriate, even outgoing. His name was Steve and the best I could gather, he's some sort of relative of Jeff's and is just staying the night, hanging out and being familial I guess. He said Jeff was talking his ear off.

I couldn't help it. I had to ask what Jeff talks about. How does he survive over there? What does he do all day all by himself? I couldn't contain my curiosity and had to admit I really don't know how to think of him. Steve was easy enough to talk to and conceded that Jeff is certainly not your average guy, may not even be quite all there mentally, but Steve and I did agree that he is an interesting case. I learned that he ventures out about once a month to stock up on necessities. He receives some sort of income, Social Security or disability or something, with which he pays his bills. Steve said he had a TV and a couch in his bedroom and he listens to music and he has a bunch of photographs he likes to look at. I kind of bristled at that and questioned the content of the pictures, but it wasn't what you just, and I at the time, assumed. Steve said he takes pictures of his house and his room. Then he likes to sit in his room and look through all the pictures of his room. In his room.

I'm still undecided as to the eccentric but endearing Boo Radley-ness of my decidedly eccentric enigma of a neighbor. There has been enough questionable behavior to make me uneasy, but in over a decade I've yet to truly fear for my safety, well, aside from the arm through the open window horror show. There's no justification for that, assuming it was, in fact, him. Steve seemed comfortable with, yet aware of Jeff's proclivities, and appeared to even be somewhat amused by him and considers him a kind of harmless oddity. Of course, he spent time in the same room with him as opposed to having him peek at him from behind a tree. Maybe I'll start leaving notes for Jeff in a hollow tree. Maybe one of these days he just might save me or my children. Maybe there are real-life Boo Radleys. Maybe Jeff is one of them. On the other hand maybe one day he'll climb all the way through an open window and murder me...or take pictures of our house that he can look at in our house when he starts coming in night after night.