Strangers tell me EVERYTHING.
Seriously, it has always been this way. I’ll just be minding my own business, and have the most innocuous interaction with someone — “Oh, excuse me, can I scoot by and grab the orange juice?” — and the next thing you know, I’m backed up against the produce hearing about their colon resection and divorce.
I don’t know why this is, but I do know that it sucks for the people I’m with, which may be why no one ever wants to run errands with me. One of my sons has been with me for two of the oddest encounters I’ve had, both of which left me feeling haunted for days afterwards — probably because if you believe, as I do, that there isn’t much randomness in the world, you have to wonder…WTF, God? See what you think:
A few summers ago, my son and I were driving home from a town a couple hours away on a two lane rural road. He was snoozing in the passenger seat beside me when I caught a glimpse in the rearview mirror of some jackassery going on behind us.
A small car was weaving in and out of the line of traffic, hazard lights flashing. As we approached the top of a hill — where you could not see if there was traffic coming from the other direction –she came roaring up behind me and gunned it to about 75 mph, scooting across the double yellow to pass. Just as she did, a car crested the top of the hill in the other lane.
I stood up on the brakes, and watched in horror as she swerved in front of me, nearly taking the front end of my car — and the other car — with her.
And then I did what any responsible parent would do: I laid on the horn and shot my middle finger up.
The car took off. My son and I watched her progress down the road, both of us alternating between anger and disbelief over her idiot move.
About twenty minutes later, we came to a complete stop behind a paving project. The woman was about eight cars in front of us. She was looking behind her frantically, and when she spotted us, she got out of her car. Jogging back to me, she gestured for me to roll my window back down. (This is a drawback to a Jeep. You can roll your window up to keep people out, but when you don’t have a roof, it gets silly pretty quick.) I shook my head, and she darted in front of the car to the passenger side.
“What do you want?” I snarled. “Leave him alone. You almost killed us!”
“I know,” she said, and started weeping. “I’m so sorry. I never drive like that. It’s just, my sister died, and they’re gonna cremate her, and I have to get to the funeral home before 2 to see her. I didn’t know she was dead until an hour ago and I’m just trying to see her one last time.”
Beside me, I could actually feel my son thinking, Oh, Christ. Here we go.
“I am sorry about your sister, I really am,” I said. “But that was incredibly stupid.” I jerked my thumb at my son. “This guy here? This is my kid, and you don’t get to endanger him like that, you just don’t.” At this point, I — because of some ridiculous inability to see anyone cry without also crying — start bawling, too.
Long story short, I end up holding hands with this woman, who is no doubt hopped up on some illegal substance, standing on blazing hot asphalt in the middle of a construction zone, while she tells me all about her sister. When the asphalt truck finally belches its way off the road, I look at her and she just seems so incredibly downtrodden that I hear myself say, “God be with you. But please, be careful. You’re going to make it in time.” She squeezed my hand and ran back to her car, and traffic started moving again.
We saw her turn into the funeral home. It was 1:58 pm.
I hope she saw her sister.
This past weekend, the same son and I, and his girlfriend, went to a restaurant for lunch and sat outside in spring sunshine bliss. The waiter was a bit chatty with me, but no biggie – I get the chatty waiter every time I go out. (Classic example from waiter in the hometown Mexican joint. Him: “Wanna know what’s special tonight?” Me: “Uh, okay.” Him: “Me. I’m special every night.” Me: *crickets*) As he’s collecting the glasses and plates, he asks me if we live in that town, and I say no, we live in a different state, about an hour away.
“Oh,” he says. “I just moved here and don’t really know anyone.”
“What brought you here?” I ask, expecting him to say a girl, or school – he’s in his 20’s.
This is the story he tells me: Four months ago, he was down in Florida, and he bought a new car. That same day, he drove up to Memphis, and took his brother, his brother’s girlfriend, and the girlfriend’s aunt out for a ride.
“I got that car up to 140 mph,” he says.
“What the hell for?” I ask, and he explains that he just wanted to see what the car could do, see how it would handle.
It was a two lane road in the middle of the night, and he lost control of the car trying to avoid a deer. The car flew off the road, flipping multiple times before landing on its side between two trees. He and his brother were severely injured, but managed to kick the windshield out so the brother could walk up to the road for help. The girlfriend’s aunt was screaming in the back seat, and the girlfriend was really quiet.
“Please tell me they were wearing seatbelts?” I said, and he shook his head no.
“I was in the hospital for four weeks,” he tells me. “I lost half my stomach, and nine feet of intestines.”
“Jesus,” I say. “That’s awful. How is your brother?”
“My brother’s okay. But his girlfriend is paralyzed from the waist down, and her aunt is dead.”
“And…?” I ask, sensing there is more.
“And I’m adopted, so my parents… well, they want my brother living with them, but, umm, not me, really. And his girlfriend’s family came up to the hospital a few times to try to kill me. So…I needed to get out of there.”
I look up at this kid’s face, and he looks absolutely haunted.
“You’ve got to stay strong,” I say, and he nods and wipes his eyes with the back of his hand.
“I have to tell you that I would have wanted to kill you, too,” I say softly, and he nods again.
His need to be forgiven, to be absolved, is all I can see, like it’s written in black ink across his face, but of course, I don’t have any magical powers of absolution.
So I say, “But you’re alive and you’ve got to do your best. Every day. And go to someone – a pastor or priest – and talk about it. Keep talking about it,” and he nods again.
It was all I could do not to hug him on the way out, even as I wanted to smack him for being so stupid and irresponsible — and I had to fight the urge to go back and talk to him all day.
Now, I have no idea what prompts someone to tell a stranger something so personal, but I could tell you twenty more stories just like this — random encounters with waiters and waitresses and fellow shoppers that have ended with a story that I can’t shake. In each case, the person seemed to be searching for something through the telling, wanting something from me that I think I failed to deliver.
But maybe it wasn’t that they needed something from me. Maybe it was more like Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, where the mariner’s penance is to tell his story — how he shot the albatross so carelessly, bringing ruin to the ship — over and over again, to the people who need to hear it.
The only problem is, in each of these instances…I have no idea what I was supposed to say, much less what I was supposed to hear.