Sunday, January 25, 2015

My Lucky Day

My Lucky Day

September 2006

          I don’t know what made me stop at My Lucky Day. Oh, maybe I was looking for a fake flower, a feather or a fancy hatband for my gray felt hat. Or it could have been the Imp of the Mischievous enticing me to spend money on things I don’t really need but can’t pass up as a real bargain, like a slightly dented copper drinking cup, or a piece of Japanese indigo cloth, or a candle camp lantern.
Standing outside the resale shop, examining the offerings on the Super Bargain table, I pick up the camp lantern. It still has the stump of a white candle with a curlicue black wick inside a glass cylinder protected by a tarnished brass holder. 
The man next to me starts talking out loud. I glance sideways, but he’s not speaking to a cell phone. Maybe he’s trying to talk himself into buying the tiny portable black and white television he’s cradling in one large hand. He picks up another item, a little recorder, the old kind that uses tiny tapes.
          “This is a really great deal, only $25,” he exclaims, “and look, it even comes with an earphone and batteries.”
          When he says “look” he thrusts the recorder in my direction and I realize he’s addressing me. So I do look, not at the recorder, but at the man who’s holding it out as if he expects me to take it. Tall, well-built, with short graying hair, he’s the kind who’s done physical labor all his life. Probably played football in high school and joined the military after graduating. We turn to face each other, me holding my miniature lantern, he holding his miniature TV and miniature recorder.
          “Are you selling or buying?” I ask.
          “Oh, I’ve already got one like this. Had it for 25 years. Still works fine.”
          He’s wearing a white T-shirt with a faded American flag and “I love America” emblazoned over his heart, a rose tattoo on his left bicep and a bald eagle clutching arrows on his right bicep. I’m wearing a white T-shirt with a hand-painted Ganesh and “India” sitting on my left breast, silver hoop earrings, no tattoos.
          “So are you trying to get me to buy it? I’ve got one just like it too.” Actually, it belongs to my husband, who's also had it for at least 25 years.
          “No, no,” he protests, shaking his head slowly from side to side. “I’m just looking.”
         Just looking, for what? Right now, he’s looking at me.
As he talks, the acrid odor of cigarette smoke sways in the air, passing from his lungs to his mouth and then across the small space separating us into my nostrils and lungs. I want to step back, but don’t want to be rude, not like the smokers who impose their second-hand smoke on everyone around them.
          Is he just being friendly or is he making a pass at me (unlikely as that seems)? Maybe he just needs someone to listen to him. I’m good at listening. Complete strangers somehow detect that. It’s as if I go around wearing a sign on my forehead: “Talk, I’ll listen.”
          So he does. And I do.
          He tells me he likes to buy broken electronic gadgets and fix them, but he always ends up with a huge pile of things that need fixing.
          “You sound just like my husband. Are you an electrician?” After I blurt this out, I realize it sounds like I’m making a point of letting him know that I’m married.
          His face doesn’t change with this bit of news. “I worked for John Deere but I’m retired. People I’m living with, they told me I’ve got too much stuff. Need to get a storage unit.”
          “Oh, my husband’s the same way. He’s got several storage units, all stuffed to the rafters.”
          He gazes off over my left shoulder for a long moment. “My wife left me six years ago.”
Uh oh, now we’re getting personal. It always amazes me how quickly total strangers will spill their heartaches.
“And my only son moved to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, to go to college,” he adds wistfully.
          “You’re kidding! My youngest son is taking classes at a college in Coeur d’Alene.” How odd, that we would have that in common.
          He squares his shoulders like a soldier at attention and says proudly, “Well, tell your son, if he ever meets a guy with the last name of Luke, that’s my son.”
          “Do you ever get out there to see your son?”
          “It’s such a long ways, I don’t get to see him very often.” He sets down the TV and fiddles with the buttons on the little recorder.
          I'm immediately sorry I asked. He probably doesn't have a much money for travel. “I know just what you mean,” I say cheerfully. “I’ve only been out once to see my son.” I don’t mention that my son comes home for holidays.
          Suddenly, his whole story spills out, like a tape recorder on fast forward. “See, me and my family stopped here on our way from Atlanta. Couldn’t afford to go on, so we stayed here for a year.”
Where were they going and why on earth did they stop in a small town in Iowa?
Suddenly I remember a trip I took years ago with my friend Carolyn in a VW van with our combined eight children, all under the age of 10. We traveled from Kansas two thousand miles to the Northwest. Carolyn wanted to visit a friend in Oregon and my sons were going to visit their father in Washington State. The van was new and Carolyn was vainly attempting to keep it clean. She made the kids take off their Keds when they got in, lining them up just inside the sliding door. Every time the door slid open, 16 little shoes fell out and we had to count them to make sure they were all there. On the way back, we ran out of money right before the mountain pass into Wyoming. Neither of us had a credit card. A nice lady lets us stay in a one-room cabin overnight, the little ones crowded into two beds with us, the older ones on the floor. We had just enough gas to make it over the pass. The next day, at Cody, Wyoming, Carolyn waltzed into a bank and came out with a hundred dollars. Her father worked for a bank, she said, and she knew the ropes. But I think she used her Southern charm to sweet-talk some stranger into handing over cold cash.
The man at the Super Bargain table is still rambling on when my attention returns to the present.
“I’m on Social Security and full disability pension from the military, but it’s not enough to support a family."
Ah, so maybe that's why the wife left.
"I was in the first Desert Storm, running the supply vehicles. Got a brain stroke from the heat.”
Or maybe that's why she left. Brain stroke sounds like some kind of mental impairment, although the guy seems coherent enough.
          What I say is, “Wow, my stepson was in that war and he’s also on full disability. He was a paratrooper instructor. Ruptured a disk jumping out of airplanes.”
          The man barely seems to listen to my side of the conversation. He’s like a polished ax cutting through a woodpile of resentments.
          “They never should have gone over there this time,” he says, pounding the little recorder on the table until I’m afraid he’s going to break it.
          Oh, oh, now we’re getting into the landmine zone of politics. But then he takes me by surprise.
          “I don’t know what you think about the present Bush,” he says, lowering his voice, “but he can’t hold a candle to his dad.”
          I nod but keep my eyes on the candle stub in my camp lantern. He looks every inch a far-right redneck, could he really be putting down our current president?
“Why, the man can’t even talk right!” he exclaims, shaking the recorder in his fist.
          I laugh, amazed and relieved to find us standing on the same side of the fence, or at least in the same pasture. I venture, “It’s embarrassing to have him as our president.”
          “You got that right!”
          He sputters on awhile longer, but I can tell his battery is running low. I’m getting a little impatient to get away, but I keep nodding and smiling. There must be a reason this man singled me out, and it wasn’t a pick up or a political diatribe or, thank heavens, a religious rant.
          His loneliness wafts across the gap between us, like a fragrance that cuts through the tobacco smoke, through the preconceived ideas, straight to the heart. So different on the surface, but underneath we’re both humans, seeking some kind of connection with at least one other being. I feel a warmth growing in my chest, like the flame of a little candle in a brass lantern lighting up the darkness. 

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