Older ladies, who still color and set their hair and know how to email, sure they’re fine. Whatever.
But the Bills of the world, they do something to me.
Cowboy shirt, faded, not worn ironically. Khaki shorts showing the white scars of his knee surgeries, and clean white socks pulled up the calf. Straw fedora set in the empty seat next to him. I drank him in with the longing of a GI curled on his bunk with that famous pin up of Betty Grable.
He spoke in lovely old baritone, reminding me of the resonance properly aged wood gives a violin. He talked breakfast talk to the women he ate with and I hung on every bit of unimportance.
“She puts that in her purse and you never gonna see it again.”
“We come in there after all day in the field, and sure she had a pile of steaks set out. Just a pile. All the guys were starving. Turns out she cooked the absolute hell out of them. Needed a damn butcher knife to cut through.”
I liked old people before my parents died, because I grew up in a popular retirement destination. After my parents died, “like” became a fixation. Not on all oldies. Just the right ones. Just as Humbert Humbert said only an artist and a madman could recognize a true nymphet, it takes a true melancholic orphan choked by nostalgia to find the perfect fake father figure. For me they are the ones that sat around with my Dad drinking cheap beer and discussing ham radio and Mexicans. The good ol’ boys that the coasts of our country hates, with their suspenders and prejudices and how they don’t consider shouting “Bullshit!” a real swear. I would swim around in a pool of them like a child in a ball-pit if I could. That’s a terrible analogy but I’m sticking with it.
It’s always the same with me. First, the idea of doing something inappropriate flicks a synapse. Like one of those gas lighters you click to start a barbecue. Then the briquettes, just one or two, start to pass a flame between them. “Could I? What would it go like? Would it be dangerous?” And then usually, as charcoal briquettes can be relied on to do, the idea extinguishes.
Or a deluge of lighter fluid in the form of adrenaline squirts all over them, and whoosh…
This is happening.
I pulled an article idea out of my butt. Ummm…say how bout….The Greatest Generation: Predictions that Never Happened. Did you think we’d have more robots? War with Russia? Then to make it more legitimate I texted the idea to my editor. Three times, the last text a pleading, “THEY’RE FINISHING THEIR CINNAMON BUNS, BEN!”
I sat alone at my now completely cleared table, drumming my fingers on the treated glass and peevishly watching my cell phone and my quarry. And then I realized. They don’t know my editor hasn’t responded yet. Because I am an utter stranger with dirty hair and a blouse that keeps slipping down and showing my industrial strength bra cups who just happens to be having breakfast at the same restaurant as they are! That could be turned to my advantage!
“Excuse me? Hello. My name is Therese and I’m a writer? I’m working on an article regarding ol…people in their 70s or so, and what they think of…how stuff…turned out?”
I really should be used to awkward silence by now. To the suspicious blinking of eyes who haven’t resolved the possibility that my next move will be to rip open my shirt, pull spray paint out of my purse, a graffiti a bloody pentagram on my belly.
I blundered on, talking fast and disjointed as if my crab scramble had been sprinkled with cocaine. I showed them a picture of The Week Magazine’s cover on my phone, as if that would somehow prove my legitimacy. I acknowledged how rude and strange I was being. And then I said, “So…can I sit down?”
Bless people raised with good manners, people taught to be kind the unfortunate, the challenged, the woman who has to keep punctuating every sentence with “I’m not crazy.”
Usually, given a decent amount of time to calm myself down, I can waylay the discomfort I bring on people. Because despite my social stupidity I listen hard and understand quickly. I didn’t really care about what predictions they’d had. I wanted to hear…I don’t know. I just wanted to hear. That the Elks Lodge across the street was the JC Penny where one of the ladies had bought her prom dress in 1951. I wanted to hear how Bill spent WWII on his Aunt’s farm because his parents traveled the west coast doing electrical work for military bases. He was six and they gave him his own cow to milk, Flossie. I wanted to learn how our two towns bled into one over the century, and how different the Mexican migratory farm workers were in the 1950s. Apparently, they all wore clean white clothes to town on Saturday but you never saw them the rest of the week. I asked quiet questions and let them go free-range, talking about whatever struck them worth saying. I loved it.
As it turned out, they had no answer to my original fake question.
“We didn’t think about that stuff. There was a mortgage, kids, farm. No TV, we hardly ever left town. Just get the work done and take every day as it comes.”
The leisure to sit around, wish, and then feel cheated when those wishes failed to come true was a gift bestowed upon their children, the Baby Boomers. And every generation since.
At that point I was 20 minutes late to pick up my daughter from a sleepover. I got up and turned to Bill, admiring the beautiful whirl of his white, Brylcreemed hair. Exit gracefully? Of course.
“I think you should know, I’m resisting heavy urges to kiss your head before I leave,” I said.
Bill said to his wife, “Christ hand over my hat,”