It isn’t being left home alone I mind. I was on my own for a long time in my life before I met my wife. What I mind is that she treats me like a child and hides the car keys on me when she goes out. Like a blue-footed booby, I’m grounded. And neither one of us is extinct—yet!
Plus, there are no Rice Krispies—what I always have for lunch. Decaf for breakfast. I don’t go for all that have a big breakfast stuff. Anyway, Ellen, my wife, is here in the morning if I need help with anything, but she goes off to do her volunteer work at eleven at the museum or the damn church. She takes the bus. She cares more about those people than she does about me. That’s obvious. The nurse comes by in the afternoon. Really I’m just alone for a couple of hours and the fact is, I don’t go anywhere. I stick around the house, maybe work in the yard, rake or weed the garden. The paper boy, nice kid, always says hello, delivers the paper in the afternoon. Ellen comes back by three and we have tea together. But of course Ellen worries about how I don’t eat enough. I’m six feet tall and used to weigh a hundred and fifty pounds. Now I’m down to a hundred and thirty pounds. Every year I lose a little weight. Soon I’ll disappear—just like the blue-footed booby.
So at noon on this particular day of our Lord, whatever the hell day it is, I open up the cabinet to get the cereal and there isn’t any—all gone. I figure I’ll take the car down to the market. Why not? I spend the next forty minutes searching for the keys. If there’s one thing I hate, it’s looking for stuff I can’t find. I swear I spend half my waking hours looking for lost, misplaced, and forgotten items. I put my glasses down. Five minutes later I can’t find them. I leave magazines in the bathroom and forget I left them there and go searching around the house, clomping up and down the stairs until I can hear my heart whomping against my chest like a bunny thumping its hind foot. I have to sit down and calm myself. Talk the bunny down to get my breath back. Sometimes I get lightheaded and have to lie down. Next thing I know, I’m waking up two hours later and the nurse is sitting there knitting.
Some guys get sexy nurses. I get the knitting nurse, the overweight nurse, legs like stumps. Why I need a nurse I have no idea. All she has to do is dole out some pills I could as well take myself if they were labeled so I could read them. She takes my blood pressure (which I could do myself) and my temperature. Big deal.
I find the keys in Ellen’s bureau in the top drawer under her underwear—the sexy underwear. Why would she have sexy underwear? She must have a boyfriend she meets at the museum or the church because she ain’t wearing them for me, I’ll tell you that much.
I stuff my wallet in my back pocket and head out. It takes me a half hour to figure out how to get the car going. It’s a new car, German, a VW Passat wagon with a hatch back. Ellen just bought it. It has this remote with a key on it that doesn’t even look like a key. I can’t see the symbols on the remote, and I keep locking and unlocking the doors. I finally get the hatch to pop and I climb in the car the back way. Can you tell me why they have to make these cars so small?
I can’t get the key in the ignition. Finally, when I get the damn car going it’s barely moving, chugging down the street until I realize the emergency brake is on. That’s the kind of mistake I hate to make. Maybe Ellen is right to hide the keys on me. I don’t deserve to drive the car. I’m a goddamn menace to society and I ought to take the car up on the highway, bring it up to ninety and find a good tree. What the hell am I alive for if I can’t drive myself to the store and buy some food?
I drive slowly and I know people are angry at me—hitting their horns and cursing, giving me the finger. I just smile and keep going. I have to read the signs and I need to get close to see them. I want to get onto Main Street and follow it to the four-way intersection and go right where that big rock is. I get to the four-way and by the time I make it through there, I’m sweating because there is always a lot of traffic and no traffic lights. Why don’t they put a light in? All these impatient, rude people get angry at me, but it isn’t my fault. Americans don’t respect their elders. I worked hard for forty years servicing machines at IBM and I deserve a little respect. Damn right I do.
I pull into the lot. I park at the back, facing out—less chance of getting hit by all the maniacs. I get out of the car and try to figure out how to lock it, hitting the buttons over and over until I just give up. There are bushes and trees just behind the parking lot. Birds are chirping away. They have the right attitude. They don’t care about us. I see a cardinal, bright red with his black mask. He’s perched in a maple whistling. Probably calling for his mate. He is a northern cardinal. See? I still remember some things. I’m not a complete idiot. I feel like a bird myself—spindly legs, sharp beak, bald head, beady eyes. You’ll look like this if you live long enough.
Well, it is really nice out today. The sky is blue with wispy white puffs. I inhale. It should be fresh air, but I can smell the exhaust and smoke from all the cars and it makes me cough. Why do people have so many cars anyway? The young couple across the street from us has three cars: two SUVs and a little two-seater that Mr. Dot-com keeps in the garage. They must be rich. They must be millionaires. He explained his business to me once and I didn’t understand a word he was saying. I hear a horn and turn my head toward it. There is a car waiting to get into the space I’m standing in. What the hell am I doing in this parking lot? I look over the car and see the Star Market. My stomach grumbles. I remember. I came here to get some kind of cereal. I’m not worried. I’ll remember when I get inside the market and see the brands.
I trudge across the lot. By the time I get to the market I’m dizzy. I stop and take a few deep breaths. I pull a cart off the row and lean on it for support. Yeah I’m just like the rest of these old geezers—leaning on their carts as if they are walkers. If you pulled the cart out from under these people, half of them would drop to the floor and croak. It’s pathetic.
I know where the cereal aisle is—it’s near the fruit and vegetables. I turn down it. Now what was it? What did I want? I stare at the hundreds of boxes. Tigers, squirrels, bears, and birds smile back at me. Some of the boxes are huge: Cheerios, Waffle Crisps, Grape Nuts, Captain Crunch, Fruit Loops. I used to like those. When I was a kid we ate everything. There wasn’t any of this healthy food talk. I was always hungry. There were four kids in my family. My father was always complaining about how much we ate and how much milk we drank. He’d come home with gallons of milk and it would all be gone the next day. At school I would drink three cartons of milk and eat three lunches. What did it cost? Nothing, pennies, a quarter for lunch. I get a flash. It’s a blue box I’m looking for. Krinkles? No, it’s snap, crackle, pop—Rice Krispies! I find them between the Healthy Granola and something called Go-Lean Kashi. What is that—Indian food? I pull a gigantic box of Rice Krispies off the bottom shelf. It feels so light. I shake it to make sure there’s cereal in there. I’ll probably die before I finish it all.
What else? Milk. How about bananas? I should have made a list. Ellen’s a big list-maker. She makes multiple lists and compiles them into a master-list. Sometimes I get up at night and find her sitting downstairs scribbling: things to do, things to buy. I get in the fast check-out line. I pat my pants pocket. Thank God I brought my wallet. I reach in to pull it out but it gets stuck. I have too much junk in it. I should throw away all those cards and addresses and notes. I have to write down all the numbers and passwords so I can remember them. All those numbers and passwords drive me nuts. I reach around with one hand and hold my pocket and pull the wallet out at the same time with the other. Quite the ordeal. Do I have any money? I have two bucks. Typical. I should get some money out of the friendly automatic bank. That’s okay. I have a credit card. Of course I can’t work the little credit card machine. I can’t read it and need help from the cashier—a Middle Eastern woman wearing a scarf. She has a red dot on her forehead. That means she is a married woman. She’s nice to me. She takes my card and runs it through the machine. The guy behind me is steamed. I’m holding him up. It’s the fast check-out line and he is stuck behind me. The cashier, whose name is Amal, gives me the slip and I sign it. I take my bagged goodies and head for the door.
The sun is blinding. I’m halfway across the lot before I realize that I don’t remember where the car is. The lot is not that big though. I can find it. Where do I usually park? A simple matter of deduction. I always park near the edges so I won’t get hit; therefore the car is probably near the back or the sides of the lot. It’s really gotten pretty damn hot since I went into the market. The heat makes it hard for me to think. I scan the cars. The sun shimmers off the metal. I’m a little woozy. I remember seeing some birds when I parked. A cardinal. What kind of car is it though? That’s a good question. I reach into my pocket and pull out the keys and hold them out in front of me: VW. That’s it. I walk to one side of the lot and head toward the back and I find it! A brand new VW Passat wagon. What a nice looking car! It’s a shiny silver color. It doesn’t take me long at all to get it open and get in but I’ll tell you, by the time I’m sitting in the driver’s seat, I am exhausted. My arm drops down and I feel a circular knob—just like on old cars. It is for adjusting the seat and I turn it back, relax and fall asleep.
When I wake up I check my watch. It’s just after two. That means the nurse will be at the house looking for me. I’ve got to get back there. My shirt is wet. I feel my chin and sure enough there’s drool. Yup, I drool when I sleep. What can I say? I’m a slob, a moron, a child. I’m lucky I didn’t pee in my pants. In fact I check just to make sure. Nope, they’re dry. Thank God for the little things. The other problem is that now I am really hungry. I haven’t had lunch and that means my blood sugar is low and that is not good. It makes me nervous. My hands shake as I start up the car. I have to get home before the nurse calls my wife. I can feel my blood pressure building. I need pills to keep that down. I need pills to thin my blood so I don’t have a stroke, and I take a handful of other pills for who knows what else. My memory deteriorates when I haven’t eaten and when I’m under stress.
I would consider this a stressful situation. There’s a cell phone in the glove compartment of the car but I don’t know how to use it and even if I did, if I tried to use it while driving, I would probably drive off the road so I figure what I’ll do is I’ll stop and call at a pay phone just to let the nurse know where I am. I want to call her before she calls my wife. There’s change in the car. There’s a pay phone at the gas station near the four-way and that’s where I pull in.
I park the car beside the phone. It occurs to me that all gas stations look more or less alike. Sounds like the first line of a book. What was the name of that book? I put in a dime but don’t get a dial tone. I put in another dime. Nothing. A nickel. I’m thinking maybe it doesn’t work, but when I put in a third dime I get a dial tone. Thirty-five cents to make a local call! I start to dial but then I remember I have to dial the area code too. I am not a total fool. I hang up and put the money back in and dial again but I make another mistake. I hit the phone against the wall, hang up, reinsert the change and dial. The nurse picks up.
“Wilkens’ residence,” she says.
“Hi, it’s me,” I say.
“Yes, I went to the store. I’ll be right back. I’m just a couple of miles away. I have the car.”
“Yes,” I say. “I needed to go to the store so I took the car.”
“Well I’ve already called Ellen,” she says. “She’s on her way home. I called the police too. I thought maybe you wandered off. Why don’t you just tell me where you are and we’ll come and get you.”
“Uh huh, well, I’ll be home soon.” I hang up.
I’ll tell you something. Sometimes I just hate women. They worry too much. They make a big deal of everything. Okay, maybe I shouldn’t have taken the car but I was hungry. I am a grown man. No, I don’t have a license anymore. It was taken away by some idiot judge who blamed me for an accident I had no control over. I skidded through an intersection on an icy road and smashed into a motel. Big deal. Who did he think he was, pulling my license?
I find myself pacing, breathing heavily. Calm down, take a deep breath, I say to myself. Walk it off and by the time you get home, you won’t be angry anymore and you can have something to eat. But as I’m walking I suddenly realize that it doesn’t look very familiar. This must be a new neighborhood. The houses are huge! That’s what drives me nuts, the way they are always changing everything. How is a person supposed to find his way around? I’ve been walking for about ten minutes when I remember I left the car at the gas station at the four-way.
Now I’m in trouble. I stop at the corner and grab onto the stop sign for support. What are my choices? I can try to retrace my steps to the gas station and get the car and drive home. It must just be only a couple of blocks from here. The problem is that I wasn’t really paying attention when I was walking. I could probably knock on the door to one of these houses and use their phone. I still have all the numbers in my wallet. I reach back and pat my pocket. It’s empty. Jesus Christ! It must be in the damn car. Or maybe I left it on the counter at the supermarket. What else can I do? I could just walk. I’m trying to remember which way I came from. I’m searching for an image. That’s when I start to get the fear, an irrational feeling that comes over me from time to time when I don’t feel as if I am in control. It’s a creepy feeling. I have to take deep breaths and focus just to keep myself from bursting into tears like a three-year-old. A kid on a bike stops beside me.
“You okay, Mr. Wilkens?”
I’m not sure who he is for a second, but then I get an image of saying hi to him. He’s the goddamn paperboy! “Tell you the truth, son,” I say, “I’m not feeling so good.”
“Do you want a ride?” he asks.
I look at his bike. It’s an in-between size. Not as big as the bike I had when I was a kid but not one of those tiny trick bikes that some teens ride either.
“You sit on the seat,” he says.
I climb on the seat keeping one foot on the curb for support. This is one time that it helps that I’m tall and thin.
“You hold onto my waist,” the kid says.
I put my hands on his hips and stick my legs out so my feet don’t hit the ground. He pushes off with one foot and turns the pedal with the other. We swerve from side to side. I tap the pavement with my feet to keep us up and all of a sudden we’re off—gliding down the street. What a great feeling! The old bird has got his wings back now. I’m flying just like I did on my bike when I was twelve. I’m smiling like crazy. I remember what it felt like to cruise with the wheels spinning beneath you and the wind in your hair. The street is all downhill—not steep though. We take the corner wide and the boy is pushing hard with his feet and pulling with his hands. He is one strong kid. I see my house! He pulls up onto the sidewalk beside the lawn and stops, and the bike falls sideways and we both roll onto the grass. We’re lying there laughing when Ellen and the nurse come out. Ellen has her hands on her cheeks. The nurse has her fists on her hips. They are both closing in on me. Oh boy, am I in for it.