Dark of Heartness

August 16, 2009

It’s been almost a month since this happened, and I keep thinking about it.

I went to Kroger one night after 10:00, a fairly regular occurrence for me. I was there with Kelly, and we were rounding up various vegetables and some Topo Chico for that evening’s dinner. I wandered through the produce department picking up vegetables and setting them down, cursing the hard avocados, cursing the smushy avocados, and having that what-the-shit-am-I-supposed-to-be-looking-for thought when I forgot every ten seconds what I went there for. While idly holding some vegetable that I surely didn’t purchase something caught my attention. I was somewhat startled as it sounded like THIS was rolling down a cobble stone hill at me, but it was just the voice of a man. A visual of him was not much more settling: he had a weathered face, gnarled hands, he wore a hat of some U.S. Navy ship and he carried a giant stick in his motorized shopping cart. His question finally made it to my brain after passing through a water like barrier in my ear canal that had been caused by my dumb and momentary stare at him: “Are you a fisherman?” Another moment of dumb staring and I was able to say “No. Well, I used to…” I didn’t want to finish that statement. “But, you like the sea?” he asked. My confusion only lasted a few seconds before I realized he was commenting on the tattoos on my shins. One is a sailing ship, and the other is a shipwreck. Normally I don’t care to converse with strangers about my tattoos. This was different. “Yes.” I responded.
I take great lengths to avoid these kinds of situations usually, but something about this gruff old man was strangely difficult to avoid. “Do you read books about the sea?” he asked. “Yeah” I responded having not actually completed a book in over a year. “Like what?” He followed. At this point I couldn’t tell if he was trying to break my balls over these tattoos, or test my knowledge of the sea, or what, but I couldn’t stop talking to the guy. I listed a few of the books that I’ve I particularly enjoyed, and he listed a few titles and asked me if I’d read any. He was sort of giving me a litmus test: asking me what I thought about Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and assured me that it’s a quality tale. We had a little bit of overlap, but I really peaked his interest with In the Heart of the Sea. He squinted at me when I said the name of the book, and he asked me to elaborate. I told him that it’s a nonfiction account of the first known ship to have been sunk by a whale, and that some of the events were the basis for Melville’s Moby Dick. He was a tad incredulous for a moment about In the Heart of the Sea being a recent title, like somebody cheated him or slipped something by him, then he asked me to repeat the title, and then the author’s name. He started to look for a pen and paper with some urgency, while doing so he mentioned that he wouldn’t remember the name of the book because of his condition.
Before I knew it I was walking to the front of the store in search of a pen. I spotted one in a recently accumulated dust/debris pile and I picked it up before the pile could be swept into the trash. I walked intently back across the store to find this guy just to give him this pen so that he could write down the name of this book. When I found him again I tried to just write down two titles and authors on his coupon sheet, but he couldn’t read my handwriting, so I stood there and spelled out the two titles while he wrote them down. He had a dry, violent, coughing spell for a moment that made me think he was going to shoot handfuls of pea gravel out of his mouth. He mentioned something again about his condition, and then he asked me what Sailor Song is about. He snickered a little bit when he realized that it is from the author of One Flew Over the Cukoo’s Nest and made some remark about living in California around the time that Kerouac and Kesey were creating their movement. With very few words he identified that he understood it, but that it was so passe´. I was being paged over the intercom at this point to come to the front. He touched for a moment again on Moby Dick right before he reverted to his original question; he wanted to talk about fishing, and for no reason that I can possibly imagine I wanted to indulge him.
I had already mentioned that I used to fish, but I wasn’t going to elaborate on that just the same as I didn’t want him to elaborate on his “condition,” which was clearly a limiting factor to what was certainly his biggest passion. He was asking me what kinds of fish I had caught. “Speckeled and rainbow trout mostly, flounder, redfish…” As I recited my list he nodded, and made some gestures of approval. “You ever catch any snapper?” The question itself was morsel of bait at the end of a 60 lb. test leader. “No, almost all of the fishing I’ve ever done was in the bay, or in the surf. I’ve never gone offshore.” “Well what’s the biggest flounder you ever caught?” I really didn’t know, so I made a conservative guess (which I realize is not very typical of fish-story-telling). “Maybe 8 lbs.” I answered, recalling one particular large flounder my grandfather was so excited to see me bring onto his boat. This stone voiced man, who shopped in a motorized cart, who was propping himself up on something the entire time we talked had a literal knee slapper of a laugh at my 8 lb. flounder. He had already been searching through his wallet for something, giving it a really good once over. The man said that it was nice talking with me and that… “WAIT! There it is!” He held a trimmed down piece of color photo paper up for me to see, and he handed it to me. On it was the same man, ten years younger, holding a giant red snapper in his arms, wearing some kind of PVC bibs, with the unmistakable look of joy on his face and in his eyes. I flipped it over to see the weight of the fish and the date, “That’s a big fish.” I said, and when I looked up to hand it back, he was leaning casually on the frozen food case in front of me, with his arms proudly crossed, joy in his eyes, a smile, worn down.
It’s characters like him that make it that much more unbearable to see limp-dick-jerk-off-douche-bag-goobers like this guy holding some fish in some vacation destination with their Columbia hat, and PFG shirt, and neon mirrored sunglasses, and crocs, and Livestrong bracelets, and vacation stubble while shitting their pants.
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