After that, I made a little salad for lunch tomorrow, out of some fresh things I have on hand at the moment: local arugula, thin half moons of zucchini and radish, slices of mango and avocado, small quarters of cucumber, accompanied by a dressing of tangerine juice, red and sherry vinegars, and olive oil. I was assembling this while frying plaintains in a little coconut oil and beef tallow, not realizing how quickly the starchy sweet fruits would brown--or nearly blacken--but they turned out all right. After they came out of the skillet, in went two pork chops, to be nicely browned before going into the oven.
With this all squared away, I decided to run over to the thrift store near my house, which was closing in about 20 minutes, to see if I could find a few supplies for soap-making. Yes, I know, it's trite hobby, if that's an appropriate way to characterize it, but on the other hand, we all use soap on a daily basis. Making cold-process soap is an easy and satisfying endeavor, involving a minimal amount of effort, materials, and know-how, and it incorporates some things I enjoy dabbling with, like herbs and essential oils, and also fats.
Anyway, I was on a mission for a few things, namely a stainless steel pot and a stick blender, and possibly some spoons and spatulas, things to use as molds, etc. I found just the pot, and a stick blender too, which I put back on the shelf, initially, for various reasons, and walked back into the next aisle over, to look for some things that weren't there. What was there--or rather who--was an elderly gentleman who began to explain to me that he thought he was "home free", I believe were the words he used, in reference to an object which he pointed to, on the shelf below. It was a silverware box, a fairly large wooden one, nothing terribly fancy but sturdy-looking enough. He went on to tell me that he was 90, and just getting his house organized, and he had seen the box the day before but not bought it, and when he came back had thought it was gone, but then there it was, in the next aisle over. He'd thought he was "home free", with it no longer there, and I misunderstood him as trying to say that he lucked out, by finding it wasn't gone. Since I clearly was missing his point, he continued to explain that there are times when you feel a certain sort of relief, knowing that something is no longer available to you, no longer an option, and haven't I ever felt that way, he asked.
He was wearing a turquoise ski jacket that was quite dirty on the front, over a turtleneck and flannel shirt which were both blaze orange. His hat was a little hard to describe, sort of a modern fedora, off-white fabric trimmed with dark green piping. He looked, but did not smell, like a homeless man, and he was clearly a little bit out there...It had been at least 2 minutes I suppose, at this point, and I was feeling anxious to go back and get that stick blender before the store closed, and I regretted it for the rest of my life (or not).
He went on, telling me about his son in California, and his four children born between the years of 1957-1961, and about the woman at the other store earlier that day who had given him five dollars, and when he asked her why, said it was because she missed her dad. He told me about the little concertina that he found there, with ivory keys, which he knew how to play because he survived the war in the Bavarian Alps, where he learned the folk music. When he went back to the store later, he said, the woman had left a bag for him, and told the clerk he'd left it behind. It wasn't entirely clear if the concertina was in it, and with my attention level wavering between compassion and the urge to remove myself from the situation, I didn't pepper him with questions.
It was probably worth $75 dollars new, though.
He looked me straight in the eye as he spoke, in the way that some people still do. I stepped back a little, to keep my distance, and better prepare to round the corner and leave him behind. She missed her father, and he knows what that's like because his own died when he was very young--4, no, 1--and talking of blessings and God and what-not and the usual slightly crazy talk that you get from old lonely people. He finally introduced himself as Gabriel, of course (I think?), and said that he is close to God and he would talk to God, about me, if that's all right with me. I said that was fine, thanked him, and wished him well.
It was a brief conversation--though perhaps longer than a typical one with a random stranger--and he was neither offensive nor completely nutters (believe me, I've met a few.) but actually rather kind, in a very peculiar way. His face is memorable to me, oddly, the color and shape of his pale blue eyes, the dark age spots on his cheeks. He did not speak with hesitation, or with haste.
I wrangled myself away at this point, and tried to keep my distance, as I browsed for a few more things. I stopped to check my phone on my way toward the checkout and he passed me in a bit of a hurry, with his hat in one hand and his hair disheveled, saying that his [phone] said it's 9:01... I said yes, I noticed that as well, and asked if they were closing. It's nice to [have someone let you] know how much time you have, he said. It was something to that effect.
I paid for my things: a pot, a blender, and the rolling pin which I'd just picked up and was considering, when the old man had approached me. I'm sure there are those who would judge, or misconstrue both his meaning and mine, in telling this story, but there was something oddly moving to me, about this brief encounter, almost as if I'd been the sole audience to a theatrical performance of an existential conversation between Life and Death... I looked over at him and his wooden chest with a little sadness, as I left the store. Did he have a home? Did he really live through the war learning Bavarian folk songs? When did he last see his children? Do any of us know how much time we have?
I miss my dad, too, sometimes, even though he's still alive.
Back in my wagon and not entirely satisfied with my own take, I decided to try my luck at the dollar store next door, where I found a couple silicone spatulas and plastic stirring spoons--an imported waste of resources, admittedly--which, after an extended period of deliberation and wandering, seemed to be just what I was looking for... I paid my $2.19 in cash and left, while the cashier talked to the teenager behind me about the time her own daughter's pacifier went missing and by the time she found it in the bassinet a week later, her daughter no longer needed it, and she was so mad... Have a good rest of your night...
There was a small metal bell taped by its handle to the middle of the door.
But wait. I forgot to get a bottle of vinegar. Do I go back? No going back. Do I go to that awful red place where everything seems wrong, somehow? Ugh, not now. The little grocery down the street probably isn't open this late, the drugstore is too expensive, the hardware store is surely closed by now, but if I'm making soap tonight--as I had intended to--it would just be stupid not to have vinegar on hand, in case of an accident involving lye. Not worth risking burns or blindness.
My last best option, at this hour, is the big grocery store. I pull in to park and have this passing sentimental feeling, about seeing that old man, whatever his name is... I walk in through the out door and make a bee line for the vinegar, grab a jug and head back to check out, when I glance to my left.
There, near the cigarette counter, reading a newspaper, is Gabriel.
Chance is a strange companion.
I found my missing earring tonight, too.