It’s getting to the point where I’ve lived in this place, Wallowa County, long enough that maybe I’ve learned a few things about how to act and where to watch out for black ice and how to split a few cords of wood without taking off any of my toes, like one fellow did, only that was with a lawnmower, not a splitting maul or chainsaw, and he was wearing flip-flops, so what do you expect? And he grew up here, so I guess that just goes to show there’s no guarantee that, even if you’ve lived in a place for thirty years or more, you’re not going to go and do something stupid.
Which I have done my share of, but one thing I have learned over the years is that in a small community, you just don’t know who is related to who, or who was married to who, or who had a kid with who. So you’d best think twice before you say what you really think about so-and-so, although sometimes not saying it actually gives you a chance to have second thoughts and maybe even change your mind, so I suppose there’s some virtue to be gained from having to watch your tongue on account of not knowing for sure who’s related to who.
Along those same lines, I’ve learned, more or less, to look around and see who’s in earshot or eyeshot before I go blabbing about this or that. That’s why, when I ran into an old acquaintance, Gerald, while standing in line at the post office, which as a place to see and be seen is right up there with the hairdressers, I just sort of talked in generalities, because I knew that, in addition to all the people in line, the lady behind the counter was listening to every word, just like she listens to every word of every other conversation that takes place while people are waiting in line with their package to send, or with their little yellow card saying they’ve got a package too big for their box, and there was a lot of that going on because it was just before Christmas that I ran into Gerald.
I asked Gerald if he was keeping busy, and he said he was, still driving bus every once in a while. He looked pretty good, even at 75 or however old he was. He was one of those spare, small men who probably had next to no bad habits, and even though at his age he had to have a few aches and pains, there he was just smiling for no particular reason other than he happened to be one of those guys who couldn’t help but be pretty positive and optimistic all the time. What I didn’t say to Gerald was, “How’s Sally?” because, truth be told, I couldn’t even remember if Sally was still alive.
It had been years since I’d seen either one of them. She’d been a computer customer of mine, back when you looked at green letters on a small screen and printed your stuff out on a daisywheel printer if you wanted it to look good, as if it came off an IBM Selectric. She used it for word processing because she was a writer, but I never did read her stuff, I just sold her a computer and helped her with her problems when she had them. But it had been years since I’d seen her, and of course, since she had been my main connection to that family, not Gerald, it would have been kind of odd for me not to ask after Sally, but I didn’t, not there in front of everybody at the counter, because some little voice inside told me I might be sticking my foot in my mouth and it could be embarrassing for Gerald and for me.
But once we’d both finished our business at the counter and I was getting my mail out of my box, because sometimes if it looks like it’s busy or going to get busy, and you have business at the counter, you want to go to the counter first and get the mail out of your box second, because otherwise, while you’re standing there fumbling with your key, or with the combination, if you have one of those kind, two or three or maybe four people are going to walk through that door and walk past all the boxes and go stand in line, each one of them making the little bell ring as they pass under the invisible motion detector. And if it’s Christmas time, the traffic can be kind of heavy, so that’s why I was getting my mail out of my box after having chatted briefly with Gerald at the counter, and why, as he was about to walk out of the post office, I was able to catch him a second time and ask, more or less privately, how his wife was.
Gerald flashed me the subtlest kind of look that said, “Thanks for asking. It would have been a little odd if you hadn’t,” but maybe I was just imagining that. He told me that she’d been suffering with a long illness for years, and could hardly get around, and it was up to him to make all the meals, besides driving the bus and chopping the wood and cleaning the house, which last three are all things he didn’t mention but I’m sure he was doing them, without complaining and with that good-natured attitude of his, just taking the dish he’d been served and eating it without complaint. And when Gerald and I shook hands and I told him to give my greetings to Sally and he walked out of the post office, I knew I was watching a better man than me head home, because I do complain.
Which reminds me that some of my friends, who, having only lived here for maybe ten years or so, haven’t quite figured out this business of picking your time and place to say just exactly what you think of someone or something. Because it was in that same post office a day or two later, standing at that same counter in front of that same postmistress, that I ran into one such friend. I was in the process of dropping about sixty bucks to mail a few books to some friends in Scotland despite the fact that the postmistress told me that if I could get the package to under four pounds, instead of the four point six pounds it currently weighed, the price would drop dramatically, only I wasn’t about to take the package apart and decide which book or books to pull, and then have to ask to borrow tape to put it all back together again, only to find out that I’d only gotten it down to four point one pounds.
So I just stood there and took the announcement of the cost like a shot to the gut, and then my friend, who had arrived in the midst of this revelation, asked what I was sending off, and I named some of the books, including Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, only I said “Louie” not “Lewis” and my friend, who is smarter than I am by a long shot, gave me a black eye on top of that gut shot, laughing loud and long in front of everyone there, “It’s Lewis, not Louie! Robert Lewis Stevenson!” He didn’t have to say, “You idiot!” because everyone there knew that was just naturally understood, even though my friend meant no harm, he just thought it was funny that I had mispronounced Robert Louis Stevenson’s name. I think Gerald, if it had been him in my place, would have just smiled and thanked my friend for the correction, and gee you learn something new everyday and have a nice Christmas. But I, who used to work for a literary non-profit, just stood there with a red face and swiped my credit card so the post office could get their sixty bucks to send Treasure Island and Huck Finn and some other books off to my friends in Scotland, and then I walked home.