Monday, March 19, 2012
In gasping breaths, she thanked me for picking her up and taking her to see the doctor.
"I could have got one of my boys to do this maybe," she said. "But they've missed so much work anyway and we need them to work."
I nodded. It wasn't a problem. I was glad to get the chance to make good.
We talked. She was lonesome and wanted to talk. Other than her two sons, both likely in their late 20s or early 30s, and an old friend she spoke to on the phone, all she had left for company was an ailing dog she believed was worse off than she was.
"The vet says it's cancer," Margie told me. "They can't do much for her, but she's not in any pain. She's eating, but the swelling." She shook her head. "She could go anytime."
Losing the dog would be hard, one more event in an already troubled life.
Margie barely remembered anything good about being Margie. She was defensive about her life, bruised about her catalog of injustices and slights. Her hard-drinking, hard-living father, whom she'd adored, had been tossed out of her mother's house when she was in five or six. On a rare, unannounced visit by the man, her mother had discovered the two of them talking together inside the house and the sheriff had been called to haul him off.
Her mother apparently had run through several men, but Margie lost the roof over her head when she got pregnant in high school.
She'd been married. It had fallen apart. The husband was scarcely mentioned. If she'd ever loved him, the joining had been reduced to an obligatory footnote. He was probably not the father of her sons, who she cooked and cleaned for, even in her condition.
Margie said she'd owned one really nice car, a Cherry red Mustang, but mostly she'd driven junk and lived in trailers.
Margie struggled. She'd been sick. Once, she'd been locked up in a mental hospital for depression. Her doctor turned out to be an old college friend.
Despite the falling out with her mother, Margie said she'd taken care of her during her final days when others wouldn't.
"She got cancer."
I don't know how much of what Margie told me was true. There was a certain hollowness in her words. Her story rang of edited for time and content kind of truth, like television movie based on the book truth, but not the straight stuff. Still, I believed that seeing her mother slowly succumb to breast cancer had taken its toll on Margie.
She told me the year before, she'd discovered a mysterious lump in her breast. The discovery terrified her.
So she did nothing.
Not for months, not until early autumn when she finally went to a doctor, who told her the breast would have to be removed immediately if she wanted to live to see the new year.
"It was agony," she told me. "It was like being cut over and over with a hot knife."
After it was all over, she'd considered reconstructive surgery.
"I thought about replacing my boob," she said. "But I couldn't go through that again --besides, I'm not interested in dating any more. I'm past that. I don't know that I'd even want to try to meet someone."
She didn't think she'd be much company anyway. The pain had never really gone away and it had spread, which was why she was seeing another doctor. Now, her back hurt her and she told me doctors had narrowed the problem down to either bone cancer or disintegrating vertebrae --neither had much appeal.
The drugs, she assured me, as strong as they were and they were pretty strong, weren't cutting it.
"I don't know what I'm going to do," she sighed. "I don't want to die, but the pain is killing me."
Then she asked me why I was here.
Wednesday, March 7, 2012
It was a serious commitment with a push mower, which is what I had at my disposal: a second-hand refurbished mower that looks like something Mel Gibson might have used in a Mad Max movie.
I made plans to start a garden almost immediately. Of course, I recognized I started with some handicaps: a lack of actual, working knowledge, no tools to speak of and little idea where to start.
All I had was some vague encouragement from the neighbor next door that the previous owners of my home had always maintained a wonderful garden.
So it was at least possible for me to continue that tradition --if not especially likely.
Over the years, I've repeatedly tried my hand at growing small gardens. Mostly, I've grown nothing, not even weeds. A couple of times, I did manage to create small toxic areas that remained bare for years after I quit attempting to cultivate them.
But this year, I'm gardening. I'm gardening, not so much because I want the delight of homegrown tomatoes and peppers. I'm not gardening as competition with my neighbors or to earn some hippie, homeowner cred. No, I'd just like to continue eating in the fashion I've grown accustom to --you know, continue eating actual food.
So... we'll be blogging a bit about the garden, along with the other threads.
Don't expect to learn anything.
Friday, March 2, 2012
The path to Margie's house was scarcely a road, it was a paved golf-cart trail; some asshole land development planner's idea of a joke. They'd wedged the only way to get to Margie's house in between a tree gnarled and rocky hill and a steep drop into a muddy creek.
The shoulder on either side was negligible.
Over the phone Margie promised getting to her house wouldn't be hard. It was easy to find. "It's the most rundown one in the neighborhood. It's the least expensive."
From her voice, I didn't take that as modesty or humility, but a kind of vicious contempt. She hated her neighbors because they had more and she hated what she had because it was less. Her irrational envy spoke to mine and the two did not get along.
I didn't like the sound of her voice either. It was coarse and thick with phlegm. I thought I could hear her smoking as we discussed the details of the trip. She sounded suspicious and a little angry, though I couldn't tell what for. By the time we hung up the phone, I was already hoping Margie was just a one-time passenger.
Our rough start only got worse. The directions I'd been given to pick her up were dodgy at best. My contact with the service had said Charleston, an easy transport, but it turned out to be Cross Lanes which made it a bit out of my way.
Margie's directions were confusing and vague. She wasn't sure about her right from her left.
She apologized. She just didn't give good directions.
"It's no problem," I told her. "I'll get them online."
But... technology when given the chance will betray you and Yahoo maps stuck the knife in. They sent me all over the place and so I called from the only landmark Margie had mentioned I could find and asked her to guide me in.
Three phone calls and almost half an hour later, the burly, plainly disfigured women was standing on the slimy steps to her obscure and unimpressive house yelling at me. She was righteously angry and in the grimy light of the rainy day, resembled not so much a person with a deadly disease, but a storybook troll; all wild hair and sickly gray.
Because I couldn't get there, she'd missed her appointment, an intake meeting with the doctor's staff to do paperwork. It was kind of miserable, but at least she hadn't missed medicine.
I tried to tell her that, but she wasn't listening. Instead, she lit into me about not being able to follow directions.
I told her, "You said housing complex. There are nothing but housing complexes over here."
"I told you there was a gate."
"You told me it was busted and no longer there. The church you said to look for is Methodist, not Baptist."
She sneered. What was the difference?
I had no idea, except that if you're following directions, if someone tells you to turn at the McDonalds and it should be the Burger King, odds are you're not going to even look at the Burger King unless you never find a McDonalds, which is more or less how I figured out what she meant.
I never saw the church she mentioned and guessed she meant another one, but by the time I'd arrived, I'd been driving around for almost an hour. I was flustered and annoyed. I'd taken time out of my day to do this. I felt poorly used, indignant then suddenly embarrassed.
"I'm sorry about this," I said. "Call them and reschedule as soon as you can. I know how to get here now. It won't be a problem again. We'll take care of you."
What other choice did she have?
Grumbling and glaring at me, she hobbled back up the steps, while I gingerly tried to back out and up the squirming wormy road in my still new car.
I screamed and cursed the entire way, promised retribution to no one in particular if I dumped the car in the creek. I didn't. Somehow, I didn't.
On the drive back home, I felt sick about what happened. I felt sick about screwing up the assignment and felt just as bad about getting testy with Margie. She was profoundly ill, frightened and nervous about having to step out of what she was comfortable with to ask a stranger for help. She'd invested some hope in me and it wasn't like she had a lot of that banked.
I blew it. I really did. I didn't prepare enough in advance. I didn't double check. I waited too long to call and then got mad when she didn't thank me for showing up too late to get her to where she needed to go.
As close to a prayer as I get these days, with my hands on the steering wheel, I asked if I could fix this.
"Let me get it right next time."
Thursday, March 1, 2012
A couple of greasy girls with scalded complexions eyed me from behind the counter at Panera's first with impatience and suspicion then gradually dawning pity and mild embarrassment.
I hung back, not even pretending to read the menu boards or do more than glance at the baked goods piled on plates and scattered like glutinous treasure, waiting to be bought up and devoured.
None of it appealed to me. I had no appetite, hadn’t eaten since lunch and dinner just never happened. I couldn’t eat, didn’t want to eat. My stomach felt like it was packed with steel wool.
Standing a little too close to the door, I looked out of place. The outfit, while very natural, seemed a bit contrived for the location: A Captain America t-shirt and a second hand sports coat. This was my best t-shirt and my best second hand sports coat, but I worried that the bulls-eye star logo on the shirt didn't somehow make me look, just a little, like one of the Star belly Sneeches.
While assembling this dubious fashion concoction, I'd also slipped on a pair of motorcycle boots. I do not ride a motorcycle, but I own the boots, which made me feel exactly two inches more confident.
I'd thought it all out; what I was wearing, at least. I hadn't actually been on a date in almost a decade and this, for all intents and purposes, was what this was: my first date.
I wanted to put my best foot forward. The shirt was my best because it looked the best on me. It clung to my torso in a way I thought didn't look too shabby for a guy who only got the gym about half the time. The jacket, of course, negated the effect, but at least the boots were cool.
The point was to look different, but comfortable. I wanted to stand out and that seemed to be working in spades.
The girl in question, my date, was late --late or maybe not coming at all. The girls selling bread and soup on the other side of the register seemed to have picked up on that. I was no longer a potential customer. I was some light entertainment.
They might have wondered how this would play out? Would I just order something, perhaps the richest, sweetest thing on the menu, grab a seat and pretend, just pretend, everything was fine? Maybe I’d get coffee, find a corner and stare darkly at the door until the joint closed down.
Did my presumed date even exist? What kind of a lunatic did they have on their hands?
I considered some of the same questions and decided I'd probably just wander off in the direction of the parking lot, disappear and never step foot inside the restaurant again.
There was booze at the house. I could take up smoking. Rejection didn't need to be lethal.
I'd offered up Panera because I was looking for safe, neutral ground. I wanted a place where we could sit without the music blaring or without the distraction of a movie. I’d offered dinner, but she’d seemed hesitant: too much and she knew just enough to go running, screaming in the other direction.
I told her I’d been married, that the marriage had abruptly ended in the middle of the summer and that the legal parts of it were being slowly resolved.
She was kind about the whole thing and that was what drew me to her. I needed kindness.
A few weeks before, my grandmother had passed away. It wasn't exactly a surprise, but it was a shock and I came home from Michigan a little battered from the experience. My date had been part of a tiny minority who'd reached out, whose response wasn't the usual two-dollar card signed by the entire office. It didn't feel like a knee-jerk reaction.
Still, I kept my expectations modest: an opportunity to test the waters maybe, the chance to feel what it was like to sit across the table from someone new. If I was lucky some conversation and a few easy laughs. Just a couple of hot chocolates at a chain bakery.
Safe. Public. Unpretentious.
She bustled in almost half an hour late, wearing a jacket that I'm not entirely sure was black and a thin scarf carefully wound around her neck. I don’t know what else, including the jacket. I never looked down past the scarf.
She was beautiful, even more so than I remembered.
She apologized for being late. I didn’t care. It didn't matter.
We ordered a couple of drinks and took seats across from each other at a small table. We talked.
She apologized for being soft-spoken, but we never stopped talking, not even when she discovered her hot chocolate didn't taste very good. I hadn't noticed it tasted like anything at all. Neither of us had more than a sip.
Talking felt easy. We joked back and forth. She told me about her job. I told her about mine and what I did with the Cancer society. She told me she was one kind of geek. I told her I was another. Finally, she worked up to asking me how old I was.
“I’m 24,” she said. “Almost 25.”
Swallowing hard, I blurted out I was 41.
It surprised her a little, but not as much as she expected, I think. The comic book t-shirt might have worked in my favor maybe.
We chatted and laughed on and on until it became apparent that the crew running the restaurant would like to go home now, please. I walked her to her car.
In the parking lot, I thought, well this is still early. We could go somewhere, but I couldn’t think of anywhere, not anywhere just to talk. Inviting her home seemed incredibly stupid and besides, I wasn’t ready for that. So we said good night.
On the drive home, I laughed and made lists of places I wanted to take her. On her drive, she texted a friend, telling her she didn’t think I was that interested. I hadn't asked for a phone number.