There were two mailmen who delivered to the shop. A coin toss. Friendly and unfriendly. The friendly one had a long blonde ponytail. You could tell how he set the mail on the counter he took pride in his work. I wondered if he counted his steps between businesses, thought of his breathing in a meditative way—he exuded mindfulness in his actions. The unfriendly one had thinning peppered hair that fell in little rings around the collar of his shirt. He never made eye contact. The muscles in his face looked incapable of smiling. He would quietly duck out of the building like he was dodging a check. I always tried to be extra friendly with the unfriendly one—didn’t want him going postal; sometimes people snap. The coin tossed the friendly one today. I felt relieved.
It was the slow season. I tried to keep myself occupied. There was a peacefulness to quietly organizing and cleaning without the interruptive flow of customers. I had each hanger on every rack ¾ of an inch apart. The exactness of the task framed a reference of order the rest of my life had been lacking thus far. The bell on the door jingled Pavlovian senses into action; a customer. A bored peruser. She declined my help. She plowed over the racks like a drunken farmer—so much for ¾ inches. Her disruption of my perfectly aligned hangers really got to me. Or maybe it wasn’t the bored peruser that bugged me. Maybe it was the nineteen messages that were getting to me. Nineteen and counting. The blinking light on my phone commanded a presence of urgency that I was slow on comprehending, or maybe past caring to comprehend. How did he still have so much to say after all this time and I had nothing? Too long for so little he had been the drunken farmer plowing through the scant order of my life. The bored peruser ignores my “Thanks for stopping by” and I resume giving order to nothing. My phone sits idle and useless, blinking stupidly on the counter.
On my breaks I like to sit outside and read. Perhaps a creature of habit I frequent a shady nook on a less busy street downtown. I slinked like a cat into my corner and pulled my book from my bag. Today I had A Wild Sheep Chase. I had devoured Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World for lunches the previous week. I had just begun weaving myself into the binding of the pages when a man approaches. Folks always want to talk to someone reading a book. It seems a compulsion; like they fear the quietude of a good long read. Or maybe they just want to write their story right then and there on a strangers mind. In any case, this man began to unload his life on my lap and I put down Murakami to hear him spin his yarn.
His name was Dana. He had just moved to Chico. When he talked he smiled and squinted toward the sky like it was in on some joke and his face ignited in a web of happy wrinkles. He walked with a casual loaf and paced when he talked.
“I’m just kinda getting the feel of Chico. Very different from Santa Cruz county, man.” He reaches for a smoke and pauses, “You mind?” I nod no and he lights up. He sidles up to a tree and takes a lean. I lean back on the shaded concrete slab. “I’m 45. Been working construction my whole life. Had back surgery a couple of years back—you kinda can’t go back into construction after that. There a younger hands, and stronger backs. You know, I started taking courses up there for machining. Just 12 units shy and it just didn’t pan out. I am starting classes in the fall at the community college. I can’t be getting minimum wage, can’t be working customer service my whole life. That would be real depressing, you know what I mean? But what can you do if you work construction and your body starts to fail you? What can you do but work at McDonald’s for minimum wage and say, ‘May I take your order?’—no thank you! But you know, life is funny. I am really starting to like Chico. Been living at a homeless shelter.” He stops and laughs at the sun. I say, “No way, man?” Order and the drunken farmer, must happen to everyone. He has weaved me into his tale. My character takes on his way of speech. “Yeah, but it’s not so bad. Gonna get financial aid, been at the library every day looking for a place before all the college students snap them up. Chico has been really nice.” I nod in affirmation. “I got divorced some years back and it’s just been me. I like it that way. Makes things easy, like picking up and going somewhere new, not being tethered.” I nod again. I had put down one lonely middle-aged man going through a divorce with my book and picked up another by listening to a stranger. Written word and spoken word, serendipitous. I apologize, but tell him I have to get back to work. He smiles at me, takes his eyes from the sky. “It was real nice talking with you.” I smile and collect my things. It was nice to hear his story.