Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Deep Grooves

I picked up the Eli 8.1 from school today, and we stopped at Einstein's for a cookie, like we always do.

Eli was working on his homework in the backseat, so we just sat in the car for a few minutes. While we were sitting there, I saw a very elderly gentleman pushing a woman in a wheelchair toward the car that was next to us in the parking lot.

He was in his 70s, at least, and the woman (his wife, most likely) looked to be about the same age.

They reached the car and he opened the passenger side door to help her in. He was wearing a green windbreaker, a collared shirt, jeans and running shoes, and he moved in the way that very old people often do, as if he was walking underwater.

She was shorter than him, and a bit wider, and her hair was permed. It was incredibly difficult for her to get into the car. She adjusted her position a tiny fraction at a a time, moving even more slowly than he did, as if she was a stop-motion animation.

It takes forever, helping someone into a car one inch at a time.

I wanted to ask them if they needed help, but it was clear that this was part of a very exacting procedure, and although it seemed to be taking an eternity, the old man knew exactly what he was doing.

When she was finally in the car, he handed her a royal blue throw pillow, and she clutched it to her chest as he put the seat belt around her. Then he meticulously folded up the wheelchair and put it in the trunk, one frame at a time.

I wouldn't have noticed any of this when I was younger, because they would've been too slow for me to see. Now, though, I can see things at that speed, and think about my future, even though it's still in the far distance.

It hurt.

So many things that we see on a daily basis don't even register. Thousands of images pass us by without being retained. But this one, these people, put down a deep groove.

Twenty years ago, in December, I drove past a man who was holding up a sign at an intersection, asking for money. He was the definition of grizzled--old, whippet-thin, exhausted by life. It was cold that day, very cold, with a fierce north wind and temperatures in the thirties, and he was only wearing a thin nylon jacket over his shirt, holding it closed with his hand.

He looked haunted, almost a living ghost. I can still see that face today as clearly as if I'd just driven by. He cut a deep groove.

I pulled into a parking lot, then walked toward him. As I got close I saw the white whiskers like bristles, the only part of his face with any strength left.

I gave him twenty dollars. I don't do that, but this wasn't "that." It was something else, something so far beyond desperation that there isn't a word. I don't remember what I said, but I said something. I'm sure it didn't help. There was no real helping here.

I felt guilty as I walked off, because I thought he might just walk right to a liquor store and spend the money. Then I realized that I didn't care--if there was anything he could do to escape, even for a little while, then good for him. Maybe there would be a few dollars left and he could get a hot meal. A little comfort.

That day, I assumed that the old man was standing at the intersection because he'd made bad choices for decades. He'd just been in a boat on a river, like all of us, and decided to paddle in the wrong direction, and even though he knew it was wrong, he just kept paddling.

It was simple then, being young and knowing immediately why everything happened.

Now I never know why anything happens. I just know there are eddies.

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