Rein It In, Dear
I felt my face scrunch itself into a perplexed frown. I raised my head from the bland salad that I'd been trying to commune with and slowly --oh, so slowly-- twisted my head up and to the left and to the side, corkscrewing the dull, pervasive ache in my neck into a sharper, more focused one. I did it again, this time to the right. It didn't help much. It never does.
The big guy six stools away from me was babbling on about Christmas, and how all it meant to him was money out of his pocket. Idly, I wondered who he was talking to. Maybe it was the cute little redhead I'd noticed when I'd walked in...
I had spent most of that morning and early afternoon picking up a load in Seattle, right down near the waterfront where the tugboat engines roar and roil the oiled rainbow of port water into a rippling foam, straining to nudge the giant container ships laden with goods from the Orient. I wasn't there, though, to pick up expensive electronics from Japan, nor some exotic, esoteric, intricately crafted, new age, ancient world, yin-yang doodad made by some East Asian artisan with centuries-worth of archaic wisdom and artistic discipline. Hell, I wasn't even there to pick up a truckload of something cheap and ordinary, shipped from some Walmart-supplying sweatshop. I was there to pick up recycled glass.
Actually, I was there to pick up a load of empty bottles made from recycled glass. Beverage makers --in this case, a group of wineries in California's Napa Valley-- don't make their own bottles, you see. They contract to have them (custom) made and labeled and then shipped to wherever they fill 'em and cap 'em-- or, in this case, cork 'em.
In retrospect, it probably wasn't as bad a day as I thought it was at the time. Between dragging my eighteen-wheeler from the freeway to the warehouse, and then dragging my very heavily-loaded eighteen wheeler from the warehouse to the corner and through six stoplights and up the sharp, steep on-ramp and onto the crowded, mad-dashing freeway... I figure I probably only [peed] off six or seven dozen people. It bothered me that I couldn't explain to any of them that I didn't like being there any more than they liked having me there, but that I had a job to do. What bothered me even more, though, was knowing that even if I had explained it to them, they still would have been [urinated].
By the time I'd reached the truckstop outside of Toledo, Washington, about a hundred miles to the south, I was tired and cranky and the muscles in my shoulders and neck were bunched tight and a dull throbbing had started in my temples. I wanted to take a nap in the worst way, but I knew I wouldn't be able to get to sleep when I was that keyed-up. I decided to try to relax a little over an early dinner, first.
The restaurant was a big, clean, airy room with booths, tables, and a diner-style counter at one end. For all I knew, the place would be packed in another couple of hours. Just then, though, as I walked in and paused and looked around, it was nearly empty. That suited me fine: I wasn't in any mood to deal with anybody. I didn't even want to deal with the cute redheaded waitress, who was almost certainly too young for me anyway. I took a stool at the end of the counter, facing the kitchen, my back toward the empty bulk of the room. It was about as far away from the few other patrons as I could get.
I asked for a drink and a menu from a brown-haired woman who acted like she was having a worse day than I was. She was trying real hard to be nice, though: When she brought the drink, she didn't throw it at me. I ordered something that came with a salad. I ordered it like I knew what I was doing, dammit, and she scribbled it down like she knew what she was doing, dammit, and if it had taken three seconds longer we probably would have bared our teeth and sprung at each other's windpipe.
When she brought my salad, she didn't throw that at me, either. Not exactly, anyway. It wasn't a bad salad, but it wasn't a good one, either. I picked up a fork and kind of stirred it around a little, then hunkered down and tried to enjoy it as best I could. The throbbing in my temples had spread to the rest of my head, and intensified. That's when the big guy six stools away suddenly started talking...
"Chrissmus! Huh! Don't talk to me about Chrissmus! All Chrissmus mean to me is money outta my pocket," and he was off and running.
I frowned, and raised my head. Carefully, I twisted my neck around a couple of times, but it didn't help much. It never does. Then I swiveled my stool and looked at the guy. He had a big, half-eaten plate of food in front of him, which he was ignoring. He sat half-slouched on his stool, talking steady and loud, looking at no-one in particular-- because there wasn't anybody there.
I swiveled some more and looked around the room. There were three waitresses on duty, I knew, but I could only see one of them. She was at the other end of the room, emptying one ketchup bottle into another. There were a couple of truckers, each of them in a booth by himself. Each wore a flannel shirt and a worn-out look. Each had a tall, well-used thermos standing on the table next to his plate of food. Neither was paying any attention to the guy who was talking about Christmas. The only other customers were a young, twenty-something couple at one of the tables by the window. They weren't paying attention, either.
For a moment, I thought maybe this guy was one of those people who converses out loud with people that they only imagine. I looked at him again, and found that he was now looking at me, still chattering away like it was the most natural thing in the world. He didn't look crazy. His expression was docile and honest, lucid and friendly. Oh, my God, I thought, it's a nightmare come true: He actually expects me to interact.
I felt my upper lip start to curl back to reveal a canine. With a conscious will, I stopped it. I didn't manage to stop the low growl that was threatening to choke me if I didn't let it out, but I don't think he noticed that. After that, for what seemed like a long time, I just stared at him, frowning in a way that was supposed to mean, Who the [rudeness] are you and why the [rudeness] are you bothering me? I don't think he noticed that, either. If he did, he didn't let it slow him down. Maybe he just thought I was concentrating.
I wasn't. I hardly heard a word of what he was saying. Something about his daughter wanting a new computer but she already had a computer but she wanted a new one and if he was going to get her a new one then he was going to get one for himself, too, because he was tired of spending money on everybody else...
I looked at my salad. I was still holding the fork, poised a few inches over the bowl. I took a deep breath, sighed, put it down. I picked up one of the cheap, paper napkins and wiped my mouth. Then I looked back at him.
Now the subject was his wife. I don't know what-all she'd said or done, this year or in the past, but I don't think he liked it. I know this not because I was listening, really, but by his overall tone. And by the way he suddenly ended his tirade: "...Maybe I buy me a new wife, too."
I didn't miss a beat. Briefly setting my jaw in that way that puts a little quirk in the corner of my mouth, I gave my head a couple of short, decisive shakes and said, "Rent one first-- see how ya like it."
Sudden explosion of laughter, four feet behind my ear. I snapped my head around, which didn't do my neck any good (it never does). The redhead had inadvertently sneaked up behind me. She'd been squatting down, quietly rummaging around in those shelves that every dining counter has, everywhere in the world, where they keep the extra condiments and napkins and a stray bussing basin or two. Now, though, she straightened up, still chuckling, twinkle in her eye. She leveled an index finger at me for emphasis and said, "That's kinda how my grandfather met his new wife!"
It's a good thing I'd held on to the napkin, because I needed it: My chin had dressing on it from where I'd dropped it in the salad.
These are the bare bones of the story she related...
It seems that the old boy had a friend who had sent away for one of those proverbial Russian mail-order brides. As the day of her arrival approached, the husband-to-be planned a big welcoming party. To heighten the suspense and the sense of pomp and circumstance, he chose to have one of his oldest and dearest friends --the redhead's grandfather-- pick the woman up at the train station and chauffeur her to the party where he --the husband-to-be, that is-- would make some sort of grand, well-groomed, expensively-dressed entrance, complete with shiny gift.
Needless to say, it didn't quite go the way he'd planned. Having someone else meet her at the train station turned out to be a bad idea.
P.S.... Bud "Happy Holly Daze" Selig must go.