Close Encounters

With Those Unlike Me

©2017 Hal Padgett

 

—Really happened—

 

WIDTH or WITHOUT YOU—I’d just begun my break at work (I work in a hospital), taking in the great concrete outdoors and minding my own damn business, when some guy stumbled up and asked to borrow a writing pen. He showed me a small, stuffed lion, and explained he needed to write a message on a card for a woman friend who was a patient in the hospital.

 

I reluctantly handed him my Uniball retractable medium point. He paused before writing: “How do you spell ‘width’?” [He definitely said “width.”] It was a question one should expect from a fourth-grader, so I answered accordingly: “W-I-D-T-H.” He said “Okay,” skeptically, and began to write.

 

I couldn’t imagine the context in which he would use “width” on a get-well card, unless it was “Hope your bed is soft, and of adequate width,” or “My love for you is greater than the width of the Mississippi.”

 

He stopped writing and I snuck a peak: “Width All My Love.” My exact internal reaction to the  prose scribbled with indelible ink was Oh, shit!

 

Almost immediately there was another near disaster: “No!” I urged him, “You don’t want to tear off that L’il Simba tag hanging around the lion’s neck. That’s not a price tag. It’s a name tag, like a dog collar.”

 

He handed me my pen then lumbered up the slight incline and disappeared into the main entrance of the hospital. He returned about seven minutes later—presumably to kill me, for setting him up as a dumb-ass in the eyes of his woman. But he said, “Damn, they release her from the hospital two hour ago. Wish-id somebody’a toll my ass then stedda now.”

 

I wish-id somebody’a toll his ass then stedda now, too. But my break was over by then, and I had never been happier to get back to work.

 

SUSHI & the MULLETHEAD & X—Sunday night, shortly after sunset, the Publix parking lot in south Jacksonville Beach. NPR’s opera broadcast blared from my car radio. The opera was most likely sung in Italian, because every phrase ended with a warm, seductive vibrato of vowels, instead of the phlegm-ridden pomp of German. I had just closed my eyes and surrendered my spirit to the music when the soprano hit a note that could’ve shattered an iceberg. Sensing the worse, I looked down to find the seaweed wrap of my sushi had unraveled.

 

I’d begun to reassemble the mess when I looked up and out into the gloaming, and spotted a short, dumpy man about fifty years of age stuffing bags of groceries into his trunk. His hair was carved into a “mullet” and he wore a black tank top with a NASCAR logo across the front. In retrospect I failed to notice the absence of a number 3 or 8, but was acutely aware that all mullets are not of equal hideousness—this guy made Joe Dirt look like Hans Solo. It was impossible not to stare.

 

I cranked up the radio volume to what sounded like a murder scene and/or act of betrayal—the basso profundo’s steady foghorn lamentation, countered by the soprano’s prolonged shriek. As I shoveled fragments of rice and tuna into my mouth, an ill-advised extra pinch of wasabi blew off the top of my head.

 

The explosion triggered an unwelcome memory of alienation past . . . X's reunion tour gig at Freebird; me 52; all other squirming humans less than half my age, clad in nearly identical uniforms of rebellion: lots of black, plaid kilts, heavy black boots, de rigeur tattoos and piercings. Retropunk coiffures in attendance were the Mohawk; the skin head; the porcupine (in both dazzling rainbow and classic black); a rounded spike job that resembled the ball portion of the medieval weapon Morning Star; and one hairdo that can only be described as an enlarged version of what a gynecologist might see on any given day in the office. The inevitable mosh. Angry wild boars fighting a sea of snakes. Waves of beer flying without discrimination into Mohawks, porcupines, and the gelled hair of half a dozen recently arrived Tommy Hilfiger disciples. Two girlish women at the edge of the stage, catching Billy Zoom’s fifty-something attention. He moved forward, mock flirting, then his hammy smile as the women slid their hands and fingers up and down his leg, like calipers, as if to measure the diameter of his thighs—and perhaps to measure the length and diameter of anything else that might’ve accidentally gotten in the way.

 

When I reopened my watery eyes, they were met by the eyes of the mullethead in the NASCAR tank top. Suddenly I was the watched one; I was the weirdo.