The Big Hoo-Ha
by MAREN MICHEL
At 8:53 a.m. Bill G. Johnson Sr. drives down another row of the A&P parking lot. For forty-four years Bill served as an engineer for BATMA, the Buckhead Area Transportation Management Association; he even contributed to the monthly “Buckheadlines,” which updated the good citizens of greater Buckhead about new stop lights, ditches, and other such developments that he spear-headed, or at least co-speared. But at this moment, beside him, his wife Roma wiggles a clipped index finger at the spot they should park in, and it is that finger that trumps all of Bill’s knowledge, experience, and parking-lot instincts. At this moment, that finger is God. Said parking spot is at the very end of the lot, one of a dozen other spaces, except this one is shaded by an over-weight oak. Bill would like to think he knows why Roma picked this spot: because it is a speck of shelter amidst asphalt and yellow parking lines. His Roma is a deeply thoughtful person. They are making their way toward this spot when Roma now points to a minefield of abandoned wagons just ahead, the types of wagons that she says responsible A&P employees should have attended to. Bill’s a skillful driver—he’s had a State Farm Good Driver Discount darn near since the Kennedy administration—and he works that steering wheel of their maroon Saturn SLR sedan. But in his peripheral vision he sees Roma’s finger still wiggling, then her whole body leaning forward; her whole being is fixed on said parking spot. At that moment it occurs to Bill that his beloved now sometimes resembles a bird-dog. In this moment, Bill feels the unsettling sensation of truth. This sort of truth feels not unlike the hands of that therapist pushing him back down onto the exercise mat when he only completed two leg lifts. In fact Roma has chosen another spot solely because there will be no cars on either side of them. A week ago Roma saw a “Nine-News Undercover Investigation!” called What Happens in Parking Lots When You’re Not There. Every day Roma’s told Bill another part of the report. First it was how very often cars get bumped by other cars, though her statistics changed the second time she told it. Then she told him stories of cars in parking lots getting side-swiped and no one leaving a note for insurance purposes. Yesterday, on the way to Rite-Aid, Roma remembered footage of a car getting scratched with a key, on purpose (“Teenagers are evil,” she said about that one). Just this morning, on the way to the A&P, she told Bill she saw footage of an unidentified male urinating in a parking lot (“they didn’t show skin,” she added), and said that that the unidentified urine of said urinator splashed on the door handle of a parked car. Apparently there was a slow-motion replay for extra proof. (“Moist door handles,” Roma chanted, “I don’t like moist things.”) For the last week, Bill cannot get Roma into a parking lot without her upper-lip rising, the way their beloved terrier Sam’s lip would rise when he saw the postman. “Cesspools,” Roma’s muttering now, as they move toward the remotest and driest looking spot. “Parking lots are pools of human filth.” Bill starts steering the Saturn to the right, into the empty spot Roma’s been eyeballing. Her index finger rises, the tip frantically wiggling to the left like she’s wiping at a windshield smudge. “No, that one. Quick.”
There is no need for the quickness, but Bill steers hard left and into the last spot in aisle R. The nose of their maroon SLR inches toward a SUV fender, already parked, facing them.
Roma’s hands lunge for the dashboard, squeezing it so hard her knuckles go white. “Watchitwathchit,” she pleas, shutting her eyes tight. Bill jabs the brakes a hair stronger than needed—a little trick he’s developed to let Roma think that she’s saving them again from another catastrophic smash-up. As a BATMA Engineer, he long ago realized that everyone needs to feel that they were right in the first place, even the Planning Commission crack-pots. Of course his Roma is not a crack-pot, only a little strong willed. Maybe more so since they both stopped working and began sharing five more lunchtimes a week, lunchtime being the most silent meal of the day—none of the morning’s perky sunrise and the crisp newspaper to occupy one’s attention, none of the dinner chat about the evening news, or what was in the mail. It was not that lunchtime was unpleasant. It’s just that lunch was like breakfast and dinner, but with a higher probability of tuna. Bill puts the gear in park. “Good thing you said something.” Roma opens her eyes, one at a time. She sinks back into her seat and exhales. “Mmm-hmm,” Bill says, and he pats Roma’s hand, then once more for good measure. He turns off the ignition. The engine burps and then it’s quiet. Beside him, Roma unzips her handbag, yanking out envelopes. She calls out the names of the coupons inside: “Minute Maid. Land O’Lakes…Where’s Mr. Clean? There you are…” It occurs to Bill that he would really not like to be here this morning. “Cottonelle?” Not just in the A&P parking lot. Not just Buckhead. No, sir, he’d like to hit the high seas again. He’d like to stare out into the oblivion, or horizon, whatever it’s called, and he’d just like to see water. He’d like to smell salt again, not that hairspray Roma’s wearing, which makes him think of paint thinner and makes his nostrils twitch. Saturday morning, April 10, marks two weeks and three days after they returned from his seventieth-second birthday week-long Dolphin Fun Cruise to the Bahamas. The card enclosed with the tickets read, “To our loyal Secretary (40 Years!!!) of Membership—Have a Big Birthday Hoo-Ha and a Whoop-de-doo! Your Brother Elks of Greater Buckhead, Branch # 4432.” Yes, it was the voyage of a lifetime, like the brochure said. And beside him was with his beloved of forty-nine years, Roma (“like aroma—but no ‘ah’ ”) Kate (name of unknown familial origins, possibly related to a spinster aunt), nee Hemphill (“of the Smyrna Hemphills,” she used to point out at ornery PTA meetings). That wasn’t just a vacation, Bill thinks, as Roma leans over him, strands of her caramel-colored hair flirting with his nostrils while she zips his jacket to his chin. No, it was not just a vacation, though what exactly else it was he can’t decide either. He watches Roma sit up again, huffing slightly. When she’s done, she stares at him. In this moment Bill is certain Roma knows he is thinking about the cruise again. And that she just does not understand why. (“A hotel at sea,” she whispered to the Elk wives just last week, “but I must express gratitude for that breakfast buffet.”) But this stare this morning is more than that. It’s an expression as stunned as the one baby Bill Jr. gave them thirty-eight years ago when he wanted Roma’s breast again, not Bill Sr.’s big hands trying to burp him. And maybe this stare is even one of surprise. Of all the paths life could have taken, this is where Roma Kate Hemphill ended up. Bill knew she had loved art, and things with French names. In the High School Annual she was voted most likely “to see the world,” and she had even done a TWA Air Hostess Training Program, which she would have completed had she not kept screaming during landings. Instead, Roma is sitting in a Buckhead A&P parking lot with a husband who has a growing incontinence problem. And at that moment, as if Roma knows exactly what Bill is thinking, and she usually does (except during Hill Street Blues re-runs, when he is not actually thinking about anything), Roma opens her door as if to end these disturbing thoughts. She hoists herself up off the seat, gripping the window for leverage, and now Bill finds himself opening his door, holding onto his window, too, as he rises into the cool morning air. Bill moves around to Roma’s side of the car, where Roma waits for him, arms folded. He shuts her car door. They link arms and then in unison they walk. It’s the same walk as when they were dating in the Eisenhower administration; the same as when he linked his arm into her’s after riding the Ferris Wheel at the 1952 Georgia State Fair, and she told him she felt like her dinner might come up; he promised her then he wouldn’t let go. And so he hasn’t. They move at the same pace. Now, as they walk through the A&P lot, the polyester covering of their down jackets rub against each other, making mating sounds. But, ah, the S.S. Dolphin. Bill thinks of it again as they make their way down aisle R, the concrete still shiny from a shower that drummed half the night, well past midnight, well past the glass of milk he had while watching T.J. Hooker re-runs. Last night, again, he’d been having a fit of a time sleeping. But not on the S.S. Dolphin. On the S.S. Dolphin he didn’t need help hoisting himself up. It was like the sea air made him float. On the S.S. Dolphin he got to wear a special shirt—“Starboard Crew Member” was stitched in gold letters on the breast pocket—that got him saluted by toddlers, and even the recipient of complaints about someone’s air conditioning. In that shirt, Bill was authority. Twice on Fiesta Fridays he got to go up to the room with all the gizmos, which point-of-fact was fancier than The Starship Enterprise. It was a room with all sorts of electrical lights blinking and buzzing—this was where the Captain controlled the ship. Where he charted her destiny and all of that. Yes, once in Bill’s life he got to press two blue buttons, and because he pressed said blue buttons, a ship sailed on through that great, endless ocean. Bill steers Roma around a small grey puddle; he notices a rainbow of gasoline on the surface. Funny how filth can be so pretty, he thinks. Roma points to it, like an accusation. “Cesspool,” she says. He had directed the destiny of S.S. Dolphin and her passengers that day. And maybe, Bill thinks now, as he takes Roma’s elbow in his hand, steadying her as they work their way around another puddle—“lawsuit, lawsuit,” Roma mutters—maybe that fact that he pressed those blue buttons the moment he did and not a second earlier or later, maybe he changed the fate of the ship. Maybe he prevented the ship from smacking into a whale or some other sort of inconvenience. Maybe that was the moment that everything he had done in his life was leading to, and now Bill wiggles his fingers silently. There was a force in these fingers yet to be understood.
At nine twenty-two a.m., they stand in the meat aisle, in front of the display case. They have thirty-eight minutes before the early-bird Super Saturday Specials! end, but Roma has a theory that everyone else is trying to beat the half-hour to go rush, too—and darned if the aisles don’t start clogging up every Saturday at nine twenty-five. And so here they are again, getting a piece of the fresh meat first, minutes before the weekly all-hell begins.
There’s a muzak version of “Do You Know the Way to San Jose” on overhead, which makes Bill tap his right foot just a little. “Hoo-hoo-hoo-the way to San Hoo-say,” he sings. But beside him, Roma’s not feeling the music. She leans over the counter, raising a saran-wrapped slab of beef-tenderloins up in her palm, its marbleized veins of fat and fleshy red meat on display to everyone as far as produce. “This meat,” Roma sputters, as though she’s using an obscene word, “is no good. No good at all. Smell it.”
Safely hidden from Roma by the counter, Bill observes Javier the meat-cutter raising a waxed eyebrow; the waxing is Roma’s theory that this is why Javier’s eyebrows look so lady-like, and Bill himself thinks it sounds like a smart idea from preventing Wolf-face, like Bill Jr. had when he was a boy. Roma says that the whole idea of a man doing anything like that to himself is disturbing. Javier knows nothing about the wax rumors that he and Roma have discussed (and Roma has suggested at more than one Elk dinner). Javier’s new to the A&P, not even a year behind the counter, but he has already put up framed photographs along the tile walls behind his counter. There are photos of himself hugging chefs in restaurant kitchens, as well as photo of himself standing by the octopus tank at Sea World in San Diego, CA. Roma finds all of these photos “egregious,” though Bill isn’t exactly sure what Roma means by that (another one of her school-teacher words she likes to use when she’s feeling persnickety). But in the last month Bill has picked up on a bit of tension between Roma and Javier, and he’s teased Roma, “Well, Roma, I think that young man’s flirting with you,” which makes Roma turn beet-red and swat Bill’s shoulder. Javier’s standing firm this morning. His hands are on his hips. “I do not appreciate accusations, Ma’am,” he says, his voice cracking slightly under the occupational stress. “I carved and trimmed that piece myself. For you. I tell you, it is good.” Behind Roma, Bill stares at a row of peppers and marinade—Sprinkle Me This! Soak You!—under the counter. He remembers the tasty teriyaki pork chops on the last day of the cruise. “Smell it,” Roma says again. Bill doesn’t look up. This is Roma’s battle, and he’s not going to get in the middle again. He glances at his Timex: 9:24. If this is gonna be one of her long fights, he should just suggest that they go to the Wendy’s drive-through. Truth is, she’s been getting herself worked up about so many things—what time the mail comes, whether or not to cancel the Cinemax (“Skin-a-max,” she calls it, studying Bill until he nods in disgust, too), even which package of bread is freshest (she’s already been asked twice by the assistant manager to stop squeezing). If only they were back on the S.S. Dolphin. Bill shoves his hands in his pockets and looks up in time to see Roma drop the tenderloins on the counter. She wipes her hands in the air. “I don’t want it.” “I can’t re-sell it, Mrs. Johnson. I saw you open the wrap. You put your nose on it.” “It’s not right,” Roma repeats. She turns to Bill. “You smell it,” she says, wobbling slightly, which reminds Bill of the afternoon Roma got sea-sick on the Aloha Deck after the 3:30 ice-cream buffet; too much whipped cream. Behind the counter, Javier starts muttering something in a foreign language with many syllables and undoubtedly foul. The mere sound of his words, whatever they are, makes Roma—who is, after all, a retired seventh grade social studies teacher with an acute ear for foul language—look back at Javier again, now with startled eyes. Aw, jeez, Bill thinks. Too much brew-ha-ha. He knows what Roma’s thinking: sure, they’ve been having another… disagreement, but you, Javier? Has it come to this? To language? Underneath some of her complaining and tendency toward bluntness, his beloved is a lady. A lady who will stand up for herself in public, then crumble in her seat as they drive home, at least until she detects bad driving on the road and tucks into the crash position. Roma picks up the meat again with both hands and she’s wiggling the meat at Javier as if she might throw it at him, shushing him silent by the motion, so much so that both of Javier’s finely waxed eyebrows go up now, and he backs away from his counter. Then Roma’s whole body is wiggling, and Bill thinks, Boy, she’s not kidding, is she. Sure hope this young man ate a good breakfast; she’s not going to let this one go. Bill watches Roma’s knees buckle, and how she lands on her left side, her left arm trying to break her fall. She’s still clutching those tenderloins in her right hand, though, and he thinks, well, it must be true; she’s slipped on meat juice. There is meat juice on the floor again by the meat counter. Roma had warned Bill to watch out for meat juice, that she has spotted it on the floor. That sometimes it can be clear and just looks like shiny spots, and that Mr. Javier was not as conscientious as the former butcher, Hal Krumpkin, about keeping a tidy meat department. Until now, Bill thought it was just more of her brew-ha-ha. But now he realizes Roma that was right. He lifts up his pant thighs and bends down beside Roma, touching the floor with one hand for balance. His knees strain a little—he hasn’t done his stretches in some time—so he lets himself land on his backside, and kicks his legs out in front of himself. He pats his way to Roma, sure he’s going to find the floor a sopping mess, but the floor is dry. And Roma lies on her side, twitching slightly, as though she’s being tickled. Only she keeps her eyes wide open, not unlike one of the groupers on ice at the fish display they had almost selected instead of the tenderloin. Bill tries to lift Roma’s head, and he feels her jerking now, as if she’s one of those people who gets seizures on medical shows, but Roma doesn’t get seizures, and Roma isn’t squinting like she would when Bill tickled her when they were courting, always his pretense to cop a quick feel, and Bill realizes he’s now sitting on a Sea-World place mat that Javier has rushed around and placed on the floor of the A & P for him. Bill’s holding Roma’s head in his lap and stroking her hair and she’s relaxed now. He sees the top button of her blouse has come undone, the edge of her beige bra is showing, and there are some gray lint balls on the strap. Bill buttons up that shirt again so no one will see anything inappropriate; Roma doesn’t even like to be seen in public with her shoes off. There are people, now, strangers’ shoes and pant legs crowding around them, and a toddler squatting over Roma’s head as if he’s trying to pet her, and there are people are whispering above them. Bill can’t hear music anymore, and then, from outside, he realizes an ambulance siren is growing louder. Roma’s handbag has spilled open in front of them—her mailing envelopes stuffed with water-stained coupons, a tube of her lipstick with a Long’s Drugstore price tag still stuck on the side, a “Book of Prayers For Daily Living,” and a copy of People magazine (did she take that from the podiatrist’s office?) all falling out. Javier is on his knees beside them, shooing strangers back and trying to put everything back into the mouth of Roma’s purse. Bill realizes the seat of his pants has become wet; he realizes there’s urine, and it’s not his. It’s Roma’s urine in a puddle underneath them, on the tile floor of the A&P. There’s a puddle on the floor, and Bill thinks of when Bill Jr. used to wet the bed, and how Roma used to pick him up in his wet pajamas and tell Bill Jr. not to be embarrassed, and Bill knows he’s going to have to tell Roma not to be embarrassed when she realizes she lost her bladder in the A&P meat aisle. Roma’s head is in Bill’s lap, now, in his hands, like she has fallen asleep again watching re-runs with him. He weaves and weaves his fingers through Roma’s yellowing hair, which she insists on coloring herself (“Do you know what those crooks at the salon will charge you?”). So of course she’s relaxed, because he told her once and he held true, he would always hold onto to her and he would never let go. Not even now, when she has made her little puddle. Oh, Lord, how embarrassed she will be about this puddle, he thinks. Roma’s mouth is slightly open, just like it is at night when she sleeps; her pink lipstick has smeared off her top lip onto her cheek, the way it smears when she kisses everyone at Elk Lodge on Pot Luck Wednesdays, and it occurs to Bill that it has been such a long, long time since he has given Roma a nice tickle, and he has forgotten until now, sitting on the floor of the A & P, just how cute Roma looked when she used to squint and yell at him to stop tickling or she would call the police.
Bill stands in the emergency entrance of Buckhead Memorial Hospital. He has watched Roma’s gurney wheeled past him and through doors that open and shut again. He has signed papers that he did not read, and dated them. Now he is uncertain about where to go. As he stands there, a Nurse in a pale green uniform offers to get Bill a sandwich. “Mr. Johnson, we have a really nice roast beef au jus in the cafeteria,” she promises. “Why don’t we get you something to eat while you’re waiting?” Bill looks at the Nurse. She is maybe thirty, a sprinkle of lines—laughing lines, Roma calls them—around her eyes, and a sun-burned nose. Freckles spread across her face, like children who spend too much time in the sun. She is just a girl, Bill thinks. “Mr. Johnson, why don’t you sit?” Nurse Freckles says next. “I’ll have someone bring you something to drink.” “No, thank you, Miss. I had whole-grain pancakes for breakfast.” Roma’s idea. Good for the cholesterol. “Why don’t you come with me and sit? I’ll bring you some juice, just in case.” She leads him to back, to the waiting room, and sits him right next to an end table covered high with Newsweeks and Reader’s Digests, the sorts of magazines they have at home, always stacked neatly in the magazine holder beside the toilet. Roma’s idea, too. Maybe all those magazine subscriptions are a waste of money; Bill has to admit he just reads the letters to the editor, mainly to see where people are writing from, and not even those so much anymore. Sometimes he just looks at the photos—world disasters, political leaders, some new computer gizmo, movie stars he doesn’t recall from the movies he knows. Yes, those magazine subscriptions should have been cancelled a long time ago, but Roma always says they’re good for him: “What else are you going to do, sitting there?” Bill waits for his juice. He folds his hands on his knee, and sees a hole in his sock. And seeing this hole, he uncrosses his legs, because what would Roma say about wearing socks with holes in them? She would swat at his foot and wrestle that sock right off him, mending it herself, or plopping it right into the trash can under the kitchen sink. Bill unlaces his shoes and slips his foot out; the orange Dr. Scholl’s cushion insert pad Roma puts into his shoes comes out, too. He takes off his sock and stuffs it into the pocket of his windbreaker. Now it’s just Bill and his foot. His toenails are long; they need clipping. Roma clips his toenails on Sunday nights; no reason for Sunday nights, just and always Sunday nights. He puts the insert back inside his shoe; Roma says these things aren’t cheap. He slides his foot back in his shoe, taking his time to lace up his shoes again. Makes sure the knot is tight, like Roma tells him to make it. Across the waiting room in the corner, there’s a television showing a black-and-white cowboy movie. Beside it, a woman sits with her son, and she swats his head when he asks for a dollar, and the son glares at his mother and gives her the middle finger. Oh Lord, Bill thinks, Roma would have a fit. Worse than language are fingers. Nurse Freckles interrupts Bill’s thoughts to present him with a square box the size of his palm, one of those juice boxes that Bill Jr. gives Bill the third after pre-school. She jabs the straw into top of the box. “Here you go,” she says, handing it to Bill. The box has a picture of a clown with a red ball for a nose. The little boy across the room stops giving his mother the finger and stares at Bill’s juice carton. Bill finds himself holding onto the carton tighter. He needs Roma to tell this youngster to mind his own business or she’ll blow her whistle until the police come. Moments pass, a blur of juice, red-nosed clowns, and cowboys moving silently across the t.v. And then Javier shows up in the waiting room. He races toward Bill so quickly that it makes Bill cough. Bill has never seen Javier without his apron on; now Bill sees how thin Javier’s legs are... How powerless young Javier looks without his apron. Javier plunks himself down into the seat beside Bill, his knees right against Bill’s right leg, which Roma says is always a sign that someone’s flirting. Javier puts a piece of paper in Bill’s hands: a $50.00 A&P gift certificate printed on a piece of beige paper, the size of toilet tissue. “Compliments of the store manager,” handing Bill a big brown grocery bag as well. “Don’t open it now,” Javier says gently, like it’s a present on Christmas Eve, but Bill squints into the bag anyway: the beef tenderloins are inside, still in its cellophane. Underneath the tenderloins, Bill sees Roma’s handbag. Javier leans closely toward Bill. “The key is preparation.” “What’s that, son?” “Do you need me to cook this for you?” “Oh,” Bill answers. “No, thank you.” “I can come. I’ll bring you some marinade. You give me your address.” “That’s all right, son. I never cared for those meat soaks much,” he says, knowing he’s lying. “You come back to my counter. I will take good care of you.” Javier becomes silent, but he doesn’t get up. He sits next to Bill, and Bill listens to Javier breathe. He’s a wheezer, this Javier—‘course the pollen count this time of year is always something. Roma always has to get the steam cleaner to really get the dust out. “Dander, dust. Nasty pollen,” Roma mutters, shoving the steam cleaner over and over the rugs, using that stick contraption in the corners, letting it suck on the sofa and chairs. Bill finally looks over at Javier. “You need decongestant, son.” Javier turns and bear-hugs Bill. “You’re such nice customers.” For a moment Bill thinks, what are you getting so worked up over? “I will make it better,” Javier says in Bill’s ear. “I get a feng-shui man to come.” Bill pats Javier’s shoulder. “I don’t speak Spanish, son. But you do what you have to.” A doctor that Bill does not know comes to them. “Mr. Johnson,” he says, and Bill nods. “Is this your son?” the doctor asks, looking at Javier. Javier beams. “I am a close family friend.” This doctor looks to Bill. He’s not so much older than his son Bill Jr.—said doctor is Tim T. Karlson, M.D.—and he gives Bill a firm, military handshake and then he doesn’t let go. “She had a massive stroke,” Dr. Tim says, “and something that massive, well…” The doctor pauses. But Bill hears massive, over and over. Massive would suggest to Bill something enormous, like a tidal wave or rough seas. The doctor’s mouth keeps moving, and Bill catches bits of words, pauses, the sound of horses galloping from the television. There is slurping; the little boy has stolen Bill’s carton of juice and he is running a victory lap around the waiting room. “Put it back,” his mother is yelling and the boy continues to slurp. Bill is listening and he is not listening; he is right here and he is in the A&P and he is getting Roma another orange sherbet on the S.S. Dolphin and she’s reaching for it with both hands, and then he is at the 1952 Georgia State Fair, holding both of Roma’s hands on the Ferris wheel. The wheel is running round and round; the air is blowing up the edge of Roma’s skirt and she lets go of Bill’s hands to hold down her skirt, her thin hands with pink fingernails, such delicate hands, and she’s finally laughing, and Good Lord, if she doesn’t have a laugh like the whinny of a colt— “Mr. Johnson?” “Yes, son?” And now he’s losing Roma, the sound of that laugh, the sight of young Roma rising up into the night with the world twinkling at their feet. It’s all fading and there’s nothing but this doctor talking about the general idea that she would have been in a sorry state. Complications. Damage. Bad sorts of things. It seems to Bill that this young doctor is genuinely sorry about what’s happened, almost as though he takes it personally, and Bill finds himself shaking the doctor’s hand and telling this Doctor Tim T. Karlson, “I understand, son.” Bill sees the doctor nod quickly, as though he’s relieved to hear it. So she didn’t really suffer. Not so much, maybe. Roma had twisted her ankle once walking on the sand in Myrtle Beach, and when that happened she screamed so loud a Life Guard blew his whistle at her. But this time she was quiet. Like she did not put up a fuss at all. And the A & P—they spent most of their life shopping at that very A & P, even after they did the re-model four years ago that Roma found so disagreeable (“I can’t find a damned thing in this place now.”) Bill watches the young doctor walking away, cracking his knuckles over his head. Poor fellow, Bill thinks. He doesn’t have the temperament for the medical business at all. Javier leads Bill to his seat again. They sit in the waiting room. Javier starts to shake, not unlike the way Sam, their terrier, did when he would cough up a hair ball. Bill puts his hand on Javier’s shoulder. “You remind me of my Papa in Pernambuco,” Javier says. “He’s where, son?” “In the east. Of Brazil. He is the proud proprietor of a tire shop. I think.” “Mmm.” They fall silent. The little boy runs in and out of the waiting area, giving everyone the finger now. His mother shakes her head. “I am not here,” she chants, like this will make it come true. “Do you want me to make this for you,” Javier asks Bill again. “Make what? Oh. No, son, I can do it,” Bill says, so quickly he surprises himself. Why, of course he can. He can cook a piece of meat. He has watched this a thousand times. Three-fifty, or two-fifty, in the oven; either way, it will get itself done. “Do you have any family,” Javier asks. “Bill Jr. and his family are in Tallahassee.” “Why don’t I cook this for you?” “Well, son, I think a nurse is bringing me some roast beef au something.” Javier shakes his head. “I will follow you to your home and prepare something.” “Son, it’s unnecessary.” And then Bill pauses. He has a feeling, not unlike the moment when he found himself on the fifth floor “Jubilee Deck” instead of the fourth floor “Hibiscus Deck,” all because he decided to take the stairs instead of the elevator. A feeling like he can’t remember how he got here. Or there. How one floor of the ship, just one, was like stepping into a different universe, one he did not know, and he quickly had the feeling, for no reason he could explain, that he did not want to be part of. He looks at Javier. “Son, would you mind bringing me to my car?”
The car ride back to the A&P is a surprising delight. Javier is a talker, but a darn careful driver as well: turn-signals, yielding to the right of way, and all of that. Javier pauses at each traffic light, counting two seconds past green before he touches the gas again. At the next stoplight, Bill sees Javier’s lips moving as he counts, “uns, dois…” Javier turns to Bill. “I got hit in Rio once by a driver who ran a red light. Now I never go just because it says green.” “I would say that’s smart thinking, son.” “Thank you,” Javier says as cars begin honking at them. As they drive Javier tells Bill about his childhood. The father, who ran off to the Bolivian Army (“for the thrills, I think”), a mother who opened a leading Japanese restaurant while she waited for him to come home (“I do not like sashimi, and raw eel tastes like old socks, just so you know.”). There are anecdotes about career paths briefly taken—a stint in cosmetology school. An unfortunate period as a school bus driver in Topeka. “Do not even begin to ask me how it was I ended up in Topeka.” “Okay, son.” “I will tell you. Love gone bad. But I suppose many others have ended up in Topeka for this very reason. We end up in these places, and afterwards we say, ‘How did I get here?’ You know what I think? There is some divine force in the heavens, chortling at us.” “Maybe.” They reach the A&P. The store is still lit, and Bill thinks for a moment that they might just go in and do a little shopping. But the parking lot is empty now, except for a gaggle of wagons left in the back of the lot, and Bill’s Saturn SLR, waiting in row R. “That’s you, yes?” “That’s right.” Javier pulls in front of the sedan, his headlights bright on the empty driver and passenger seats. To Bill it looks like someone else’s car. Javier turns off the lights. The sedan returns to shadows. Neither man move. “I miss my papa,” Javier says. “When is the last time you visited with him, son?” “1987.” “That’s a long time. Too long, son.” Javier nods. “I miss the ship,” Bill says. And it is true, isn’t it? The words seem to echo in the car, echo in Bill. “Excuse me?” “Did you know I commanded a ship?” “No!” “That’s right. Only weeks ago. I was right in the Captain’s office. Or room. Whatever it’s called. And I commanded it.” “I have always wanted to sail, but it gives me the vomiting.” “Not on this ship, son. No, sir. This was no little boat. This was a… what d’ya call it? A huge ship. Big enough for… A lot.” “Like The Love Boat?” “That’s the idea, son. That big.” “That is something. I did not know you were a sailor.” Bill pauses. He is a sailor, after all, isn’t he? No—better. “Actually, son, I was a captain.” “No!” “Yes!” Bill answers, the lie filling him with a sudden energy. He could be a fibber now, a big fibber if he wants to. There is nothing to stop him. In this moment he feels absolutely awake. “And do you know what, son? Want to know something I have never told anyone?” “I love secrets.” “It was the best moment of my life. I am sorry to say it, but it is true. Yes. And do you know why?” “The food?” “That, too. But, also, because I was the boss. I was in control. Free. Sometimes you don’t want to be so tied down to all this. These… habits.” “Yes, but was the food not good?” “Oh, sure. I ate food that used to give me heart-burn. But not this time. And I made new friends on that ship.” “That is not easy to do,” Javier answers quietly. “It was on this ship. And I was the boss. In my hands I controlled the ship. Which controls everything.” Javier is quiet. “And I went to bed when I wanted.” “Like Jesus!” “I’m going to back on that ship. As soon as possible. Son, I see things differently. I don’t see world of hygiene problems and lawsuits. I don’t see danger. There’s more to this life than this.” The two men sit in the car, staring at the near empty A&P parking lot. Javier wheezes slightly in the moonlight, a gently rhythmic wheeze. And in that wheeze, there is companionship. Bill realizes he has been understood. This need to sail off. He has said it. Out loud, and in complete sentences. He will be able to hold the power of the universe, again, in his hands. And Javier, of all people, has understood this. Javier. A man he hardly knew at all. Javier exhales, a satisfied type of exhale like he has been sneaking a cigarette, the way Bill Jr. used to behind the Elk Lodge. “It has been so long since I have felt that much…” Both men wait for the word to come. And wait. Javier finally claps his hands. “Do they hire meat merchandisers, too?” “Well, I’m sure they do. We had some nice barbeques.” “You could tell them. I am good… I have my troubles, again, even here, in this nice place. My significant other, you know, from Topeka, has followed me here. I fear that somehow I will end up driving school buses again.” “No, son, you won’t. You just don’t let yourself get trapped in some life you didn’t want in the first place.” In the moonlight, Bill thinks he sees Javier nodding. Javier sniffles a little, but with his lack of decongestant use, the sniffle is unsettlingly loud, and Bill backs up a little. “Excuse me.” “It’s ok, son.” “Mr. Johnson, will you give me just a moment? I would run into the store, but it is too late.” And with that Javier jumps out of the car, and turns sideways. In a moment Bill hears Javier sigh as a long stream of urine hits the pavement like rain. As he listens to the sound of Javier’s urine sprinkling the concrete, and likely the car tires, and Bill remembers that news report again. And now Bill can imagine it splashing up, even in tiny bits, on that door handle. Making it moist. And only then does Bill G. Johnson Sr. begin to cry.
MAREN MICHEL attended The Writing Seminars of The Johns Hopkins University. Her fiction has
appeared in Slice, The Bellingham Review, Calyx, and elsewhere.