I was at the gas station the other day. There were four of us standing in line in front of the cashier: an older man behind me, me, two townie looking dudes (jeans, ripped single-colored t-shirts, leather faces with bulging button eyes), and a woman in jean shorts at the front. The woman was trying to buy a lottery ticket, but didn’t seem to understand what “buying a lottery ticket” actually entailed; the clerk was trying to explain it to her, for what sounded like the fourth or fifth time, and everyone was in a mood.
One of the guys in front of me—let’s call him Gollum, because why the fuck not—looks back at the older man behind me, and says, “You look like you’re in a hurry.” Then he gives this big sarcastic, “Fuck this shit, right?” grin, and I guess we’re all supposed to be teammates now, united against the woman who is clearly feeling the pressure and is starting to get defensively annoyed in that way you do when you realize you’re probably fucking up, but you’ll be damned if you let some asshole rub that in your face.
The older man nods cheerfully. “Yup,” he says. “Yup, I get a bit restless. I just get a bit restless sometimes.”
The woman buying the lottery ticket laughs nervously about something, signs a receipt, and leaves. Gollum goes to the counter. “Stupid bitch,” he says, and does that grin again.
I’m not having a fun time. Crowd scenes like this, I try and go invisible, but you can’t, not really. I’m annoyed at the woman for holding up the line; I’m annoyed at Gollum for his stupid grin and his presumption that we are all now co-conspirators on Team Stupid Bitch; I’m annoyed at the doofus between me and Gollum who isn’t really saying anything, but keeps nodding over and over. I am embarrassed and bored and there’s somewhere else I need to be.
"Do you get restless?" the older man behind me asks.
"Sure," I say. He’s talking to me, he is actually talking to me, and I am not a fan of this at all.
"I get restless sometimes." The older man (who is in khaki shorts and a polo shirt and a baseball cap, and is better dressed than any of us) has a pair of bills in his hand, a twenty and a ten, and he waves them at me. "I’m getting gas. My wife’s driving, and I’m getting the gas."
"I can’t drive no more. I got the Alzheimer’s, so I can’t drive no more."
He’s smiling at me. I’m not very tall, but this guy is shorter than I am, and in his cap and shorts, he looks—actually, he looks nothing at all like a little boy. Not even in the slightest. Maybe a little boy who’s been left out in the sun too long. In my head, I make calculations: if he’s got Alzheimer’s, he can’t be that far gone, because his wife trusts him to come into the store and pay for the gas. And he doesn’t seem lost or confused. Just cheerful and determined to be friends with me in a way that’s slightly off. Like he doesn’t have that barrier you get, that you need, to move through strangers. To him, I am just someone who is still listening, and that’s enough.
I feel bad about these calculations. They seem selfish, ruthless. Also nervous. What if he gets lost on his way to the front of the store? What if he forgets how to pay the clerk? What are my responsibilities here?
"It’s okay," the older man says, right into my ear. You know personal space? He does not have that. "It’s good. My wife is driving. I can’t drive."
I nod. Gollum is buying cigarettes, and he’s waiting to sign his credit card slip; once he’s done, it’s just one more customer, and then freedom; back to my car where I can contemplate what happened instead of living it.
"I had a good run," the older man says. "Seventy… eight, no, three, no seventy. Seventy seven years."
"Oh," I say.
"Seventy-seven years. That’s a good run. But it’s okay. My wife is driving, and I’m going to to pay for the gas. I just get a little restless."
It’s not that he’s standing too close, really. He is, but I’ve noticed people in lines always stand too close. Maybe my standard for distance is too high. The older man, he’s not so bad. It’s just that he’s friendly, and there’s no way to deflect that friendliness. And it’s an empty friendliness, too. Whatever I say, whatever I don’t say, he rolls with it. There’s a person still there, but not completely. It’s not dramatic, but I feel something—something like sand or cracking ice or those bright colorful balls you dive into at the amusement park—slipping away from under me.
Gollum leaves. The doofus in front of me buys a single beer, which the clerk puts into a small brown paper bag, and if you ever wanted a perfect image for “loneliness,” you could do worse. Then it’s my turn, and when I had over my credit card, the older man behind me waves his handful of money at the clerk over my shoulder, and the clerk says “Forty bucks?” and I think fuck, no, it’s thirty you idiot, don’t make this worse, and the older guy keeps waving the money, and finally they figure it out. It’s fine. I pay my money and go.
It’s only later that I realize I never saw the older man’s wife. I didn’t even think to look for her when I came out of the store. Which is okay; I doubt she needed strangers gawking at her. But she’s the one I keep thinking about. That older man, who gets restless and doesn’t drive anymore and talks like he keeps rediscovering his teeth—he seemed happy. And she’s driving him through Maine, to wherever they’re going, probably listening to him talk most of the time, maybe sighing on occasion when she can’t help herself. Maybe she’s mean to him, or maybe she still loves him and she’s learning to adjust. Maybe it’s somewhere in the middle of that. I hope they were good together, I really do, and I hope that there’s enough left of the man he once was to make what time they have left more for her than what it felt like to me in that gas station: like being a wall someone kept bouncing smiling tennis balls against.
I’m not sure there’s a point to this. To any of it. But it made me sad to think about it; the sort of warm, sweet sadness you only feel when you’re by yourself, thinking about strangers.