We’re in the car going to dinner, driving though the west side of town, where there are car dealerships, rock-bottom carpet, house of style and these apartment complexes where a person could disappear. There is a man all in black, walking purposefully. He has a design of flames around the hem of his shirt and shoulder-length, apricot-colored hair. He is wearing a short, black cape.
Look at the man, I say to my daughter, behind me.
Should we get him?, my husband asks. Because when you live in a place where no one walks pedestrians are like safari park animals, I guess. Because we are listening to the Ramones. We would never actually abduct a pedestrian, they belong in the wild, and I don’t know why he says it, but it’s funny, in a perverse way, which is why he said it.
The 13-year-old, ever practical, without missing a beat, says, “But, where would we put him?”
Other, better things happen as the result of our impulses. My husband gets the idea to invite a singer who does house concerts to come play at our house. She lives a couple of hours away and after a few emails back and forth a date is fixed and she will come play a concert. I suppose, for the 13-year-old, there is some slight connection between this and our absurdist car humor. You never know what these people will do next.
We clear all of the furniture from one end of the living room and line up seats and sofas. I love the emptiness of the room. The emptiness makes me happy. Emptiness feels like possibility. Knowing that there are many other things I could do, always, at any time, a fact that can be paralyzing, I decide that the couch being moved away from the wall gives me a chance to finish alphabetizing the fiction. This was something I had finally rallied to do a few weeks ago but every time I started I would get comments like if you’re going to do that, you could do this. Change the air filters, wash some dishes (I have spared you a post about the first-world trauma of a month of no dishwasher), but it’s been three years and, frankly, for my sanity if no one else’s, it needed to happen, and when it was done, though imperfectly, A-D is a bit jumbled, there was this incredible sense of order having been restored. I worked it so that Liebling and Mitchell share a shelf.
Tonight, my husband asked for Lanterns on the Levee, and I said, from upstairs, Middle section, second shelf from the bottom. But still, because he doesn’t hold with this kind of thing, I had to get it for him. However, I was able to pluck it from the shelf like a lady in a cereal commercial, sure of herself because she is in control, what with the jeans that button and the 99-calorie desk snacks and the 10 PM binges mastered by chocolate-tinged pulped fiber food product.
A friend who came to the concert told me afterwards that he told the singer about the time he hitchhiked from here to Seattle. I asked him to tell me about it. He ended up in some ghetto in Los Angeles and a gang of youth — I pictured something out of an 80s movie, one of those multiracial gangs they would have, with bandana headbands and sweatshirts with cut-off sleeves, but it could have been a couple of kids with backpacks on their way home from school — came up to him and asked if he had a knife. Now, this is a kind of basic thing I know from my urban youth, have mugger money in your pocket and if someone at all threatening asks for the time, don’t expose your watch.
Our friend pulls out his knife. He is telling a story on himself about naivete, but I am still surprised that he is carrying a knife. No, don’t take it out, I think. But he does. And here’s the funny part, the guy takes his knife, as you knew he would, but then he uses it to open a can of tuna fish. My friend says, Now, I don’t know how much you know about men and their knives [here I’m thinking, Clearly not much!] but we take pride in keeping them clean and sharp, and this L.A. guy, gangster or just a guy, had crossed a line. Somehow, our friend is whisked away, knife returned to him, by a cop who was like, What are you doing here? and tells him to get in the car and not to tell anyone, but he’s like, Of course it’s a story I tell everyone.
It took him five days to hitchhike across America and three to get across L.A. The trip, he says, restored his faith in people. It made him less cynical. The people who gave him rides are all sorts. There are kind and good people out there, even in L.A.
For the singer, he said, he thought that her travels had done something similar. You think of her pulling up at a house, following whatever directions had been sent to her, taking a risk with each one; and for him, the car or truck pulling to a stop. This is where your stories intersect. Once a person broke down at the exact place where he was hitchhiking.
At the concert, the singer tells stories about the songs, which are themselves stories, often about a time when it was sung and took on an additional layer of meaning, at Folsom Prison, or in Christchurch, New Zealand, just after the earthquake, or inside the Arctic Circle, where she saw the midnight sun and then a solar eclipse. She lays down tracks of story over story and if you imagine that each telling leaves a vapor trail you can look up into a blue sky and see a complex latticework of car rides and walking routes and maps and flight paths and songs and stories and experiences that we hand each other along the way, so that in this room full of our friends and their children, each of us will remember some piece of the experience as part of our own story.
After the singer has left and homework is done, I drive the girls down the parkway to a flea market. We listen to her CD in the car, already a soundtrack to our lives. At the antiques warehouse, we wander through stalls of untold stories, things and things to be priced, alphabetized, explained. Four impish children in a portrait stare and beckon us from beneath a neon beer sign.
We won’t hurt you, we won’t steal your watch, just tell us what you’re doing here. Tell us why you wear the cape.