I made Ben stop at Butson's Groceries in Buffalo. I wanted to buy a newspaper. All they had were The Buffalo Times and USA Today. I had to look at the date to find out what today's was, not that I really needed to know. But it is disconcerting somehow not to know what day of the month it is. At least I like to know where we are in the clock of the world. For all I know, it could be my birthday. That is what living out of a van, driving across the country, has done to me. I make excuses for my habits. While I perused the snack aisle, I justified my preoccupation with the number of the month.
Okay, John, I thought to myself, You need to know the date, because what if today is the beginning of daylight savings time? You don't want to be out of sync with the nation. I could never remember which way those semi-annual time changes worked. I tried to think up that little verse about it. It took me a while to remember.
"Spring ahead, fall back" I said under my breath. The woman next to me turned around. "Excuse me?" she said, not unkindly. She was very short, maybe five feet, and had a small head and petite features that did not flatter her. She looked like she was eager to settle into old age. Her eyes were narrow set and squinty, like a mole's. They were framed by dark circles and sunk deep. Her nose was pointy and upturned and she had a set of fine wrinkles running vertically above her upper lip that identified her as a smoker. She smelled like it too - strongly enough so that I bet she was smoking a pack a day. I glanced behind her and noticed two cartons of Virginia Slims laid neatly side by side in the child's seat of her shopping cart. I raised my bet to two packs a day. She was still looking at me and I mumbled something with an apologetic grin. She turned around and I caught the flash of a silver earring glinting out from underneath her mass of wavy brown hair. She smelled like cheap perfume.
"Excuse me," I said, tapping lightly on her forearm, trying to avoid all that brown hair, "What is that perfume you're wearing?"
She stared at me hard with her squinty eyes. Suddenly I was embarrassed I asked. I opened my mouth again, I had to say something to cover that last part, to make it okay. Thinking quickly I blurted, "I normally wouldn't ask, you know, but I know it from somewhere, and it's very nice, and if I knew what it was, I would buy some for my sister for her birthday. It's next week. I know she likes it too and I think maybe our mother used to wear it, or maybe our Aunt Julie, one of the two." I gestured with my hands as I spoke, which is something I normally do not do, but I always thought it made my lies more convincing. This woman, however, kept up her unblinking stare, her thin lips set in a tight, white line.
"Who's your ma?" she said suddenly, her voice distrustful.
"Louise," I said in reflex, smiling at her, proud at my ability to think up lies so quickly. She was still staring and there was an awkward moment.
"She's dead now." I offered quietly, looking at the floor. This softened her. When I looked up again, her eyebrows were furrowed and it seemed to me that her face had moved closer.
"I'm sorry," she said, her voice full of real sorrow. I waved it away with my hand.
"Oh, it's been years. It's nothing, really." She tilted her head like the puppy I had in third grade, the one that was hit by a car.
"No, it's always something. You only get one ma, you know. She's the one who gave you life, right?" Her voice was strangely loud and assertive for such a small woman. I nodded.
"Yeah, I mean her and the big guy up there," she smiled knowingly at me and her thumb jerked upward toward the water-stained ceiling of Butson's. I couldn't help but smile at the thought of Jesus sitting cross-legged on the tarpaper roof of this dilapidated supermarket. She took my smile for something else.
"You believe in God, don't you, young man?" I felt my face drop. She was all set to lay a lecture about religion and morals and Jesus-Christ-OurLord on me. I should have spotted her as the type.
"Ma'am," I said in what I hoped was an earnest tone, "I have never in my life spent one Sunday out of church."
She smiled, tilting her head again. I was inspired by this reaction. I leaned in toward her.
"Wait ... no, excuse me, there was one ... possibly two, but one at least, one Sunday that I missed." Her smiled faded. I went on quickly. "It was in grade school I believe, I was maybe ten years old. It was summertime, and I took a real bad fall on my bike." She looked concerned. I shook my head as if to clear it from the memory. After a suitable pause, I continued. "It was just stupidity. On my part, I mean. Back in those days all kid's bikes were made with horns on the handlebars, the kind that honk real loud?" I phrased this as a question to get her reaction. I had her hooked - she nodded slowly. Her eyes didn't leave my face. I was really enjoying this now.
"Anyway, to make a long story short, my friends and I used to ride alongside each other and try to honk the other kid's horn, while protecting our own. It was very dangerous. I wasn't looking where I was going one day and BAM!" I slammed my fist into the palm of my other hand in front of her face. She jumped.
"I rode head first into a telephone pole."
"Dear Lord," the woman said, creases appearing on her forehead. "What happened?"
"Oh, I had a concussion, of course. I broke my wrist ... my right wrist," I added, making a fist and swiveling my hand around in a circle to show that I had regained complete dexterity.
"I broke my leg in two places, and slashed my cheek on the pavement. See the scar there?" I tilted my cheek toward her and pointed at it. She leaned forward
"Ummm ... no, I don't," she said quietly, almost apologetic. I reached up over my head with my other hand and stretched the skin tight.
"See it now?"
She leaned close until I could feel her nicotine breath on my face. It was a moment before she spoke.
"Well, yes, I think so, maybe. It's very faint."
I laughed good naturedly.
"Yeah, well it's been 30 years since I was ten."
"Thirty years? You're lying to me now, aren't you? You don't look a day over 22."
I laughed again. She had hit it right on the mark - I would be 23 next month.
"Don't flatter me; it's no use. If I look young, I give all credit to the Lord. I never laid out on the beach frying my skin like the boys in my day. No, ma'am, I was inside reading my Bible." She looked pleased. I looked her in the eye, smiling, and tried to remember if I had ever opened one of those serious black books. I must have at some point.
"Where's your favorite verse?" Her eyebrows shot up with her question. She was smiling a dopey little smile. My mind went blank. I hadn't expected this.
"Ohhh ..." I said, looking into the distance, pretending to decide, stalling.
"I would say Mark One: Seventeen: AHe who believeth in the words of a stranger is doomed to live a life of lies,'" I cringed, dropping my act for a moment. It sounded like a fortune cookie. She looked pensive.
"Mark One: Seventeen?"
"I'm afraid I'm not familiar with that one. But, of course, I haven't studied Mark in many years. I'll have to look it up."
"Yeah," I nodded again, energetically. "Go look it up at home." There was a pause. She stuck out her hand.
"I'm glad to have met you ..." "Neal," I finished for her, shaking her hand heartily.
"Neal," she nodded.
"Take care of yourself, Neal."
She nodded again.
"I'm on my way now, I'm afraid."
"Sure," I nodded back to her. We were beginning to look like a couple of pigeons in the park. I broke away from her gaze and walked away.
In the cracked and sandy parking lot, I climbed into the shotgun seat of the van where Ben sat slumped behind the wheel.
"Jesus Christ, John. You took long enough. What did you have to buy that was so important?" I held up the newspaper. He swore at me loudly.
"If you keep buying those things we're not gonna have any money for beer." He gave me a long, cold stare. I did not mention the newspaper had only set us back fifty cents. I looked away. The window of the van was covered with smeary fingerprints. I couldn't stand to look at it so I rolled it all the way down, jerking the handle. It was stuck and stiff and I felt anger growing in me. The van was old and broken down. I gave up when the window was three quarters down. I stuck my head into the open air and breathed in deeply. Ben slammed the palm of his hand against the steering wheel. Neither of us said anything. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the woman - I realized I never had found out her name - come running out of the automatic glass doors of the supermarket. She had her purse clutched to her chest as if someone might rip it away from her at any second. She looked around widely. Her mouth was open and I could see she was gasping. Before I could hide my face she spotted me. She stared to run over to the van. I looked away quickly, putting my palm up against the side of my face. But it was too late.
"Neal!" she called, her voice still so strangely loud. I did not look but I could hear her shoes slamming the pavement. She was running.
"Is she calling you?" Ben asked, his anger forgotten for the moment.
"Start the van." I said in an even tone. I watched as he turned the key in the ignition.
"Who's Neal?" he was looking at me too now. She was getting closer.
"Neal!" she called again, almost breathless. "I didn't tell you what perfume I was wearing!" Ben looked at me, absolutely mystified.
"What's going on?" he was laughing now. I glanced at her out of the corner of my eye. She was twenty feet from the van.
"I didn't tell you what perfume I'm wearing!" she repeated. I looked at Ben.
"Floor it." I said sternly. He did. We peeled out and left her standing there alone, coughing in the van's exhaust. fl
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.