Tuesday, January 26, 2016

White Hat, Grey Hat

I’m sick.

Remember Johnny Carson?

“How sick are you?”

So sick I’m ready to kneel like an addict in an emergency room and beg for drugs, specifically antibiotics…

I staggered out of the bathroom and heard a popping sound from the skylight.

Rain, how cool. So I pulled a chair up to the window, the one providing my best view of a rainy street.

At the far end of the trailer park, a flashlight swept back and forth over dark windows.

Somebody locked out, I thought, maybe a power failure?

The flashlight moved up to another house, surveying another yard. Same routine, very methodical. 
No way someone was casing this safe neighborhood, I thought, let alone committing a robbery! Just the musings of sleep deprivation and a viral imagination.

Thoughts of bed had just about claimed me when a dark denizen emerged. It came from that part of my mind posted “Shitty Memories, don't fish there!”

In my early twenties I successfully talked my way into a very sweet job, room and board, and a salary as a security guard at local retirement home. A bedroom access to a comfortable executive office, keys to kitchen refrigerators and a pool room, the table always unused (as if one of those geezers could actually hold a cue steady enough to strike a ball!). Basically, an incredible place to bring girls and get paid for my inept efforts at seduction.

One night (sleeping alone as was the norm), I heard feet slapping down hard outside my window. In that residential community nobody could fart that fast let alone run with that rapidity.  Barely dressed I went outside and looked up and down the walkway, hoping I would not shock some elderly woman into a cardiac arrest. Nothing. I even ventured to parking lot where I’d once caught people stealing a license plates. Again, nothing.

So I went to bed wondering at the hint of smoke in the air and why anyone in the neighborhood would be using a fireplace so late.

And slept.

For maybe half an hour until I awoke to the sound of sirens. I followed the flashing lights, fully dressed this time. Next to the “campus” (weirdly named because it was a retired teacher’s home) was a Lutheran church, actually MY church at the time.

Stumbling across hoses and debris, I found Pastor Molnerr wandering about the burnt remains of his office. He was actually smiling.

“Don’t worry about it, John. It’s not so bad as it looks.”

Never again…

It was wet in San Simeon so I put my white baseball cap (where did I get that?). I effected the casual gate of a late night walk and went down to where I had seen all the lights. Normal cars in expected locations, no commotion. An inner voice told me to wait.

Smoke was in the air--but probably just drifting from nearby firepits.

I leaned against a fence outside the house where I had seen the lights.

And heard a female scream. Not like a woman pissed or surprised, but the scream of a woman fully in terror, enduring torture, and expecting imminent death. Without thinking (always my weak suit), I ran up the steps and rang the doorbell. No sound, no answer.

Then I rapped on the screen and exercised enough sense to move back and allow for a quick exit.

The door opened.

A perfectly quaffed grey head of hair popped out from behind the screen.

“What is it?”

“Well... I was walking by and thought I heard a scream.”

“Oh shit, I must have the TV on too loud…
And yes, there was a scream...”

She seemed embarrassed and so was I.

“Is it raining now?” It sounded like an accusation.

“Yes,” I stammered. This lady must have been a teacher or mother superior in her previous life.

“And what exactly are you doing here?”

“Just taking a walk—“

“In the rain?” She regarded my white twisting hands for a moment. 

“Damn it!  And I still have to walk these dogs again.”

The door slammed shut.

But I was assured at not having to read a grisly article about the murder of an elderly woman in the morning. A smile erupted on my face and I continued my walk around the park.

I remembered those quirky older people who had shared their lives with me during those two years at the retirement home…

John Ehlen with his lightening fast intelligence at the age of the 91--always up at 6 AM, his sidewalk swept before breakfast. And the ageless Mrs. Fontaine (sister of the famous but very real Joan who often visited us) and, of course, Miss Daugherty who one very late night caught me rifling through the “B” section of the library. Tall, thin and ghostly pale, she leaned over my shoulder and whispered, “Why are you reading Pearl S. Buck?

After jumping out of my skin, I came up with a answer: “Because I want to learn about life.”

“In that case, young man, you are reading the wrong author.”

And when books weren’t sufficiently stimulating, there was always Sister Maria, supervisor of the night infirmary and object of my youthful crush. She dispensed wisdom and drove a sports car.

I continued my walk through the drizzle. The lady I'd disturbed tonight was certainly capable of taking care of herself.

And I realized my age had met, surpassed, and approached those other elderly people I once pretended to protect at the teacher’s retirement home.

My white hat was drenched. But I felt happy.
At least for a moment, I forgot I was sick.