Ernst

When Road Runner bonks Wile Coyote on the head with a giant mallet we laugh.  Why?  Blue stars, a halo of them, circle Coyote’s head, while his eyes roll back in their sockets, his canine head lolling.  Or, in another scenario, Road Runner, wielding a mallet 10 times his size, pounds Coyote into the ground, only a few strokes required.  His situation now compounded, Coyote is well beyond incapacitated, half buried as well as semicomatose.  Trapped and incapable of action, that is the joke.  Precisely why this seems funny…the reasons are elusive.  Maybe we know that under the surface everyone is capable of being little more than incapable.  All it takes is a few nights in Hawaii.  But I digress.

Or do I?  This is the opportunity, or the terror, of a lifetime.  Really, I have nothing to digress from.  Each day dawns blank and agenda-free.  Because I have a primal fear of the inchoate….  Well, it’s not easy being…easy.  Have a gentle day, Jane will say.  The word ‘gentle’ rings in all directions.  Mostly it reverberates with mystery and the unfamiliar.  In the end, this advice for the day becomes the agenda, the destination.  Only after hours of wandering about, metaphorically, amid the day’s distractions does it rise, the gentleness or its possibility.

All of life’s answers are to be found in and around Menlo Park’s main street.  Certainly, any matters involving time.  For time is what I have put into this place, or what it has taken from me.  Mad Mary is proceeding along the street, her cheeks simultaneously rouged and blackened, as for a stage urchin.  Her shopping cart, piled skyhigh with blankets, an endless supply of sweaters with holes, and doubtless a certain cache of food, sits abandoned.  God knows where she is headed.  Perhaps Peet’s, where I have just departed.  She makes no eye contact, but that is nothing new.  Most people don’t.  Something about a wheelchair, being just below the conventional sightline, dangerously below the conventional functionality…well, it all adds up to a kind of invisibility.  Though I am hardly alone in this matter.

The homeless people outside Draegers Supermarket may number no more than one or two, but they have reached a similar state of transparency.  I don’t see them.  Actually, I don’t pay attention to them.  In some strange way they even annoy me.  Perhaps it’s because I don’t give them cash.  I don’t give them the time of day, truth be known.  They pull at my guilt strings.  Surely they have something better to do, although what that would be eludes me.  But they should be doing something, my German Jewish chromosomes tell me.  

Craziness, that is my other diagnosis.  One would have to be mentally deranged to sit outside, rain and shine, collecting handouts from Silicon Valley shoppers.  Judgments, protective judgments, attitudes I adopt to distance myself from…the simple down and out facts of many human lives.  Many more these days.

Paul, my once-a-week volunteer, accompanies me to Peet’s on some Tuesdays.  I like the company and occasionally get to play mentor to my 30-year-old companion.  Above all, morning company provides a buffer against that nervous thing just out of reach, my naturally panicky sense of abandonment.  Oh, says Paul, as we stride past the Draegers car park.  Hello there.  He is speaking to the middle-aged black woman who is forever outside the market’s entrance, waiting in the cold while the electric doors whoosh open and  close  Paul kneels to achieve her height.  Doesn’t he know her, he asks?  Didn’t she used to wait outside the Whole Foods market in Redwood City?  Yes, she tells him.  Paul knows her story.  She has had some medical problem.  She is on a waiting list for a housing nonprofit.  Paul chats about the latter, acknowledging how long it takes, wishing her well.  In the end, he gives her a hug.  Paul, emissary of the Catholic Worker House, somehow on loan to me via Jewish  Family Services…well, this morning he is mentoring me.  Setting an example.  The woman has a name, Josephine.  Paul knows this, because he has asked.  He has not given her alms but recognition.  A hug.  Good luck, Josephine.  Whatever you are doing with your sign and your cup outside on this February day, good luck.

Thing is, Mad Mary was most certainly heading to Peet’s to use the toilet.  She doesn’t linger there, eyeball the Godiva chocolate or consider the Italian espresso machines for sale.  Just a quick hit, in and out.  But it always disturbs me.  Just as the surly, rude homeless guy from the park across the street unsettles me when he does exactly the same thing.  My recently deceased friend Clint had no compunctions about saying hello to this guy, even attempting to engage him in talk.  Even lunch.  Clint once gave him half his sandwich.  Why, I asked?  Clint shrugged.  He really didn’t want it, he said.

When I catch the occasional reflection of myself in the retail plate glass along Santa Cruz Avenue, the larger truth half emerges.  No matter how hard I try, something in me is profoundly slumped.  I have become one of those wheelchair people.  Slightly distorted, things musculoskeletal permanently awry.  I am an oddity myself, one of the street people, like it or not.  Downtrodden or survivor?  Frequently I cannot tell.  About me, or them, or us…now uncertain as to the distinction.

Lunch with Alan.  A regular occurrence.  We have Jewish guy talk.  Which is to say, the big questions mixed with irony.  Also sushi.  We always build in time for cappuccino, and being short on time Alan drives the few blocks to Peet’s, while I floor my wheelchair, bouncing towards caffeination at maximum warp.  Something opens.  Possibly it’s the sky, the fiercest of rain clouds forever massing, the grayest of fists…unclenching, the sky’s blue piercing the day.  

I stop my wheelchair en route to coffee and have another go at the schmutz.  This may not be the wisest place to halt.  I am not on the sidewalk but the street.  The traffic and occasional driveway backings of Live Oak Avenue are not to be taken for granted.  But I don’t cae.  I spattered something, perhaps soy sauce, on my trousers, and now I apply a fingertip of spit to out the damned spot.  Actually, two.  The ridiculousness of this never occurs to me.  The spot is tiny, the half paralysis of my body massive.  Not to worry, for it seems to be gone.  The spot, not the body.

It would be overstating things to say that the caffeine gives me a new lease on life.  But not by much.  I even remember the important thing I forgot.  The cartridge for my computer printer.  I have important things to print.  Principally exposés of America’s demented right wing in salon.com, gratuitous preaching to the choir, but I don’t care.  

The salesperson who sees me struggling with the door to Village Stationers is someone I know.  She lets me in, follows my wheelchair to the counter, and we begin tracking down the HP printer and its appropriate cartridge.  There is a universe of these things, it seems.  The woman makes a trip to the shelf, then another, finally resorting to a paper catalog.  I offer to help, flipping through the pages.  There it is.  She thanks me, apologizing for her waning eyesight.  A quick exchange of the MasterCharge, and business is done.  

But not quite.  I ask about Ernst, her husband.  It has been a long time since I last inquired.  We have a long history, if I think about it.  Once, during my second bachelorhood…
between marriages…I rode an adult tricycle about the lesser streets of Menlo Park.  And on Saturday mornings I was often in the company of a couple of guys out for a walk.  Major exercise for me, minor for them, and outings always ended at the Swiss Bakery.  Run by Ernst and his wife.  He was a master baker, Ernst, displaying wonders such as a chocolate Torah cake for someone’s bar mitzvah.  

How many years ago?  More than 12, I think.  Another neuromuscular era for me, another metabolic one too, for eating Swiss pastries every Saturday would now be unwise.  Not that that was an option for long.  The bakery went broke.  Ernst, his wife told me when I ran into her every year or so, had taken to drinking.  He had no job.  But, when was it, in the last few years had she said something about Ernst finding work?  Either way, here we are at the Village Stationers cash register, me about to go.  This woman’s job behind the counter reminds me of the fate of the farm family in Jane Smiley’s ‘A Thousand Acres.’  How is Ernst, I ask?

Something in me already knows.  Oh, the woman says.  He died more than three years ago.  Because I am ready for this, the other thing comes easily, the saying I am sorry, but not overdoing it.  Having been on the receiving end of this exchange, it is all easy.  The bakery’s failure broke his heart, she says, and Ernst never recovered.  I understand about the failure of great works, the failure of life, and the schmutz on my trousers is long forgotten.  As the woman opens the door to let me out, I wonder about telling her.  After all, the whole Swiss Bakery era predated Marlou, our meeting, our marriage, our death’s parting.  But I mention it anyway, that my wife died not long ago.  Or maybe not long enough.  On 2 April, it will have been two years.  And I am readjusting from my trip to Hawaii, or maybe recovering parts of the experience.  How hard it was.  Marlou’s parents both brave, having lost their family.  All that is gone, while sun and wind and wave continue.  I clutch the printer cartridge against my paralyzed fingers and wheel home.

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