Recently, on our way to a conference, we visited a small town, the kind that appears touristy though you can’t understand why anyone would stop there. Nell likes to wander untethered so I ducked into a lonely café and purchased a cup of what tasted like hot water run through a filter full of pencil shavings. When I caught up with Nell, she was in an antiquey-type place that sold light fixtures ripped from saloons and chipped plates they gave away at theaters during the Depression. She had her arms crossed as a watery-eyed shopkeep offered the history of the glass blob they both were eyeballing.
“Well, this piece has a very interesting origin,” the lady started.
“I don’t really care that much,” Nell said, halting the woman’s spiel. “I just want to know how it’s made.”
I turned around and ran.
When Nell finally came out, I mentioned that telling a customer-starved old fogy in a dying town that you don’t care about a piece she loves is like flipping her a fossilized bird.
“Just don’t want to be bothered with all that talk.” She straightened up a bit. “I’m the customer and I had a specific question. Do I have to listen to all that? Can’t I just do what I want?”
She had a point and I’d seen her stress it time and time again. At restaurants we frequented, she’d cut off a waiter before he started his special-of-the-day oration and warned another that since the mineral water we ordered was both expensive and unlimited, he “better keep it coming, mister.”
After the first day of the conference, we decided to take a hike before the sun set. I felt relieved that the red rocks and blue sky would not force her to shorten their small talk, nor could she ask the cactus if its needles caused it any difficulty in the bedroom. In fact, after talking all day, Nell requested that we not speak during the initial part of our trek. I’m sure this might have hurt someone else’s feelings but not mine. I was happy to silently watch the moon tell the sun to get the hell out of its face.
We were descending toward a wash near a dirt road. I first thought the two still figures were deer or elk since we’d seen both on our trip and Nell had shooed them away like barn cats. I slowed my gait and then realized that wildlife doesn’t usually sport tattoos over skin the color and texture of old saddles. Two shirtless guys on mountain bikes glared at us, lifeless as undressed REI display mannequins.
“Hey,” I said, trying to gauge if they were friendlies.
“Yo,” the smaller guy on the right said. The dude on the left had longer hair and had not flinched. He firmly straddled his bike as if he was trying to keep it down. His tattooed body was dusted with brown dirt and his eyes burned like the ends of two lit cigarettes.
“Are you stoned?” Nell asked point-blank.
I just about sharted. The pause that followed felt larger than the canyon we were standing in. The smaller guy laughed and I hurried past, pulling her along with me.
“Why did you ask that?” I anticipated a water bottle hitting the back of my head at any moment.
“Wanted to know.” She shrugged. “Didn’t he look stoned?”
Just as I was about to say that wasn’t the point, a voice cried out in the wilderness behind us: “Yes, I am!”
“See,” she said gleefully and started to whistle.
Rob Wilder’s latest book is Tales from the Teacher’s Lounge.
His column, “Daddy Needs a Drink,” appears the first Wednesday of each month in the Reporter.