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A Monday Afternoon
Gretchen has a passion for Bulgarian folk music. At a stop sign her old and varicose hand inserts a black cassette into the tape player. As soon as the tape clicks, a plethora of sounds containing drums, horns, accordions and something sounding remarkably like a mountain goat fill the car. She glances at me over her purple tinted spectacles.
“Do you know who this is?” she asks pompously. I’ve been expecting this question, and I shake my head.
“Well, if you must know, it is the famed Bulgarian clarinetist Ivo Papasov. He was born into a gypsy family. That might shock you, but its quite normal in Bulgaria.”
She looks back at the road, and continues in her soft, grandmotherly cadence that I’ve grown accustomed to over the years.
“He’s in a different league than music today” she says while lowering the volume of the Bulgarian wedding taking place in the speakers. Whenever she is about to go off, she turns down the volume. I brace myself.
“You wouldn’t know, because you’re only 16, but trust me. After listening to music from every decade as I have, it is obvious that the stuff produced today is by far the worst!” She pronounces stuff with such vehemence that I sit up straight in my seat.
Gretchen is now in fervor best compared to that of an evangelical minister. “Oh my god! I can’t even will myself to turn on the radio anymore! The noise! The worst part of it all is that even if good music existed, I couldn’t find it! This place has no radio!”
She pauses and catches her breath. I remember past experiences, and remind myself to keep quiet.
“Oh, what do I know? I’m just some old lady who has nothing else to do…”
She chuckles sadly, and looks at me. Usually in this situation I optimistically, but cautiously, bring up my opinion on the subject in an attempt to help her see the other side of it. However, I can tell that this afternoon is an especially bad one in the life of Ms. Gretchen Green. I choose my words carefully.
“I think we listen to very different music” I begin. “And that makes sense. I’m in high school, and you’re…”
“Old?” she interrupts, obviously aghast.
“No, no, no” I say reassuringly. “I was trying to say that I realize we listen to different music. But, there is a lot of music that we both like. And whenever you show me something that you love, I usually love it too. Like that Bulgarian stuff you were showing me before. That was awesome.”
A look of satisfaction appears on her face as she continues to drive. “Well, I’m glad you liked it” she says, and turns the volume back up. The speakers vibrate with the sounds of the Bulgarian countryside, Gretchen confidently hums along, and I can’t help but tap my finger to the beat.
With Gretchen content and distracted, I take the chance to pull out my phone and check the score of the Dodger game. 1-0, Dodgers. Bottom of the 2nd. I smile, put my phone back in my pocket, and rest my face on the window. It’s not often that I have this type of opportunity during our weekly car rides; usually the trip is spent playing music or conversing. I stare out of the window and observe the old stores with faded paint and the virtually empty sidewalks. Sure, it’s a Monday afternoon, but the almost palpable lack of liveliness surrounding the town exists year round. A sense of relief comes over me as I counter these depressing images with the fact that I only go to school here. I begin to drift off, but as soon as my eyes close, the old Volvo station wagon hits a pothole and my head slams against the rickety window. My throbbing forehead finally forces me to sit up straight and talk to her. She doesn’t realize that I have sat up, and I stare it her.
Somewhere in her past Gretchen had cancer, but I don’t know more than that. The chemotherapy, although many years ago, reduced her black and gray hair into a short and wiry mess that now resembles an assortment of filigree paperclips. It’s an odd contrast to her round face and wide eyes. The most distinct feature about Gretchen’s face, however, is her mouth, specifically her bottom lip. For reasons unknown to me, Gretchen never has her lips together. Her mouth is always slightly parted. As a result of this, her bottom lip, chapped and grayish pink, protrudes out from under her top lip and hangs there subtly. I am always scared that one day, the bottom lip will begin to quiver, and Gretchen will burst into tears.
“I went to the new Italian restaurant last weekend with Susan” she announces while making a right hand turn.
“Did you like it?” I ask. “I’ve talked to a few people and they said that they liked the food and the patio outside.”
Gretchen processes this information. “Well, as usual, I tend to be at odds with everyone else…” Her voice is woeful as she trails off.
I sigh. “Oh stop, I want to hear what you think” I console her.
She shrugs. “Well, like I said, Susan and I thought that it would be fun to go see the new Italian restaurant. Everybody had been talking about it, saying the food is so amazing, the service is so great, blah blah blah. So, we got there, I ordered shrimp ravioli, and Gretchen ordered a salad.”
She pauses, and looks at me over her spectacles. “Well” she smirks, “I think from the tone of my voice you can tell what happened next!” She lets out a laugh.
“First of all, the food comes 20 minutes after we ordered it. My ravioli is set in front of me, and so I take a bite.” Gretchen says while shaking her head slowly. “It might have been the worst pasta I have ever had! It was cold, the texture was mushy, and it utterly flavorless! Well, this wasn’t all.”
She pauses in a dramatic fashion and readjusts her spectacles. I hold my breath.
“Susan takes a bite of her salad, and the first thing she tells me is how little flavor it has! I mean, is it that hard to add some salt to the dressing? How unprofessional!”
Before I can respond, she continues as a dejected look comes across her face.
“I get so frustrated living here. This place is lifeless! The few restaurants that I do like I’ve eaten at too many times. No variety! No art, no theatre, no culture!”
I want to roll my eyes at this snooty lament, but I let her continue.
“Its okay. That’s why I have Netflix!” she says, and I smile at her sudden change in demeanor.
“Have you seen West Wing before?” she asks, and as usual, I shake my head. “Well, you might be too young, but it is the best thing to happen to TV…”
Before she can finish, we arrive at the doctor’s office. I open the door, and step out into the parking lot.
“Thirty minutes, right?” I ask as usual.
“Yes, that sounds correct. I have to do some errands, but I’ll be back in time” she answers. I close the door, and give a little wave as she drives off.
For the last two years, Gretchen has been taking me to allergy shots. I have what’s called environmental allergies, which means my eyes water and I tend to sneeze sometimes when I’m exposed to a lot of dust, pollen, or anything along those lines. The shots don’t even hurt anymore. It’s funny to think that from these allergies our friendship developed.
On the outside, Gretchen and I seem to be an odd pair. She, in her mid sixties, tends to dress in a combination of shawls, blouses and long skirts, and plays her music via a cassette. Conversely, I, in my mid teens, tend to dress in a combination of jackets, collared shirts and skinny jeans, while playing my music via an iPhone. If someone were to see us walking down the street together, it’d be safe to say that we’d appear as a comical grandma-grandson pairing (we both in fact have curly hair), and I suppose I do look at Gretchen with the same sympathy that I would a lonely and withered grandparent.
I open the door, and enter into the doctor’s office. The nurse at the front desk smiles as I sign in.
“And how are you doing today, Howard?” she asks exuberantly. It’s not worth correcting her, and I smile back.
“You know, just another Monday!” I say. She laughs loudly, and I sit down in the waiting room.
I open up Pediatric Monthly, and flip to an article titled “That’s Not a Rash! How to Identify Poisonous Spider Bites on Your Child.” Just as I begin to enjoy myself, my name is called out again. “Howard?” a nurse asks. I stand up slowly. It’s a real hassle sometimes to have a first name that sounds like a last name, and vice versa.
“Jackson! What am I thinking calling you Howard?” the nurse laughs as she leads me to the lab where I receive my shot.
“It happens to the best of us,” I say, forcing a smile. She gives me the shot, and sends me back to the waiting room.
“Remember!” she says warmly. “30 minutes!”
Every school week for the last two years has been like this. Gretchen picks me up, bemoans everyday life in a small town, and drops me off. I sign in. The receptionist switches my names. The overweight nurse in the pink Mickey Mouse smock ushers me in, and gives me a shot. I ask how her kids are: “Great! But it sure is a handful to have two little ones…” I never ask about her husband; she doesn’t wear a ring. I wait thirty minutes, “in case of a reaction! We don’t want your arm to swell up and fall off!” and then proceed out to the parking lot, where Gretchen waits for me.
I find great pleasure in this weird routine of mine. Most of my friends would surely laugh if I told them that I actually look forward to going to my allergy shots. There’s no use trying to explain.
I walk out on to the parking lot, and sure enough, there is Gretchen and her Volvo, parked under a tree. Her large frame is slouched against the front seat as she reads Time magazine; she tells me later that she borrowed it from the library. She sees me approaching, and takes her time sitting up.
“Okay. On the way home” Gretchen says somewhat happily. She starts the car, my seat shakes for a moment, and we are back on the road. It’s quiet for a few minutes until Gretchen decides to put on some music. She ejects the Bulgarian tape, to my relief, and replaces it, to my dismay, with a collection of Italian opera standards. However, as soon as she inserts the cassette, the tape player groans and begins to rumble like a garbage disposal. A look of utter horror comes across her face. “Oh!” she exclaims, obviously appalled. The noise finally subsides, and the tape is spit out from the player. She grabs it hastily, and throws it behind her into the back seat.
Gretchen is flabbergasted. “It always works! I don’t understand! I’ve had that player for 15 years; not once has it done this.” She shakes her head.
“Maybe it’s time to get a CD player,” I say.
“I don’t need CDs,” she snaps dismissively. “I like my tapes. That’s all I need. Everything else is either unnecessary or too hard to learn or use. I only bought a DVD player, the cheapest I could find of course, so I could watch Netflix!”
She pauses, and I can’t help but curse myself for suggesting such a preposterous idea.
“Besides, tapes are cheap. I can buy four for a dollar over at Vons.”
As she goes on about the cost of living today, I subtly, but angrily nonetheless, turn my head and look out the window. I begin to think about how utterly annoying and ungrateful Gretchen really is. All she does, I conclude, is complain incessantly about how horrible life is. It’s almost as if she is a walking SNL skit. Does she even realize how ludicrous it is to lament about the lack of culture in a town of 8,000 people? If she’s this unhappy with her life, why on earth is she still living here?
We turn onto a residential street, and small, bland houses begin to pass by. The car has been quiet for a good ten minutes. Finally, she breaks the silence.
“I haven’t always been a driver for students, you know,” Gretchen says, her eccentric voice softer than usual. I slowly turn my head and face her again.
“I was a secretary for about five years. After that, I was an interior designer. I actually worked on that house there. See?” She points feebly to a brown structure with an overgrown lawn. I remain quiet.
“I’ve always enjoyed homes. When I couldn’t find work as a designer, I house sat, and worked as an organizer.”
“Organizer?” I ask, perplexed. “What do you mean?”
Gretchen looks surprised, as if I am supposed to know what an organizer does. “Someone would hire me, and I would go to their house to organize it. I would file all of their bills, put labels on things and store them, reorder their garage, things like that.”
I nod, and continue to listen. A solemn look overtakes her face.
“Other people, like your parents for example, have a calling in life, or something they are passionate for. I’ve never found that, and I gave up on finding it a long time ago.”
She pauses, and sighs.
“Everyday is the same. All I have to look forward to anymore is reading the Sunday Times and my car rides with you.”
I consider myself an expert in giving advice, having consoled peers and acquaintances alike through love problems, homesickness, school work, and, for a lack of a better word, general teenage angst. One in a while though, someone presents to me an emotional burden so incomprehensible and severe that I am simply left speechless. No matter how apt anyone thinks they are at doling out advice, there are always some situations, few and far between, granted, that completely blindside you.
My relationship with Gretchen, while stable and interesting most of the time, is nonetheless one big emotional burden. Only after hearing her last words did I realize it.
“I’m honored” I say, and I cant help but smile.
Suddenly, I am filled with energy, and I turn to look at Gretchen with vigor.
“And what do you mean you have nothing to look forward to?” I ask, and my voices fills the car.
“How about your cat? West Wing? Books? Movies?”
Gretchen’s wide eyes look at me, hanging on my every word.
“These are all things you’re passionate for! Just because these things don’t make up your job doesn’t mean they don’t make up your life.”
I pause, and then proceed to wave my hand slowly across the dashboard at the beautiful country landscape, as if I were an auctioneer trying to sell a priceless forgotten painting.
“Look at this” I tell her. “This is where we live. Yeah, sometimes it gets mundane and tedious, but come on.”
I look at her, and smile. “It’s all we’ve got.”
There is a moment of silence, until Gretchen, smiling wearily, looks at me, and tells me something that I have wanted to hear, but never have, for the last two years.
“I guess you’re right,” she says calmly, and I realize we are back at school.
We drive into the gate, and pull up to the health center, where only an hour ago she had sat waiting in her Volvo to pick me up. Gretchen parks the car; I open my door and step out.
“I have something for you” she says, taking a little gray newspaper clipping off of her dashboard and passing it to me out of the car window.
“Thanks” I say. “I hope your vacation is fun!”
Gretchen raises an eyebrow and laughs. “Don’t mind me. Your summer adventures will make up for mine.”
With that, Gretchen starts the car, pulls out of the parking space, and drives off. I wave goodbye, and unfold the roughly clipped piece of newspaper in my hand. It’s a photograph of a man, probably in his 50s, playing the clarinet. The small excerpt reads, “Continuing with its popular world music series, Walt Disney Hall will be hosting the acclaimed Bulgarian clarinetist Ivo Papasov next week…”
I am about to fold the clipping back up, until I notice in the top margin some black cursive scrawl.
“I thought you’d be interested in this. Maybe you can go and tell me about it! Love, Gretchen.”
I smile to myself, tuck the clipping into my back pocket, and pull out my phone to check the Dodger game. 4-3 Dodgers. Bottom of the 8th. I stare confused at my phone, and hit the refresh button. Surely the game must be over by now. However, the score remains the same, and I remember that I’ve only been gone for an hour.