TWO QUARTS LOW

My truck had been running a bit rough, so when I stopped this
afternoon at the Handy Andy on Flores for soy milk and laundry
detergent, I picked up a couple of quarts of motor oil. I tossed the
groceries on my front seat and popped the hood. I was right, the dip
stick came out dry but for a varnishy drop on the very tip. I have
recently started drinking again. Not a wise decision by any arithmetic.
I was sick with hangover, and I wiped at a constant scum of sweat on my
forehead. When I opened one of the oil quarts, I was afraid I might
make a mess. I wasn’t exactly shaking, but I sure wasn’t feeling
steady. I dipped into the cab and rooted around behind the seats. There
was a flyer I had pulled off my windshield last month advertising a
Klezmer band playing downtown at the Sons of Herman Hall. I fashioned
it into a paper funnel. It worked like a charm. And as I was opening
the second quart a girl who works at the grocery store sat down on the
bench next to the coin-op dispenser of sanitized water near where I was
parked. Her name is Laurena. I’ve read her name tag before. And I’ve
overheard her co-workers call her Laurenita. I assume she’s still in
high-school.

“Is it okay?” she asked. It took me a beat to realize she was
speaking to me. In this era of the cell phone it’s, at times, difficult
to know when a solicitous voice is directed your way.

“It’ll be fine.” I turned to give her a smile. A neutral,
non-threatening smile, I hoped. She has this beauty found in so many
teenage Latinas that is guaranteed to break your heart at a hundred
yards, and I know the child doesn’t need yet another middle-age man
wagging his eyebrows at her and dropping double entendres. “I think I
caught it in time.”

She managed a shy, distant smile and began unwrapping an ice cream
sandwich. An old man shuffled up hugging a paper bag of groceries tight
to his chest. He spoke a bit with Laurena in Spanish. I wasn’t trying
to eavesdrop, and beside my Spanish isn’t what it once was, but I
gathered the old guy was asking after the girl’s grandmother. It didn’t
sound good.

The man nodded polity and headed off. Laurena ran her tongue around
the edges of the ice cream sandwich. That’s the way I do. And next you
wait for it to melt a bit and do it again.

I recalled the first time I came to shop at Handy Andy. She was
working the register and she possessed this simple, stunning beauty.
Thick eyebrows, strong cheek bones, and full, soft lips. Her face was
more solemn than serious. Some great sadness was back behind those
eyes. I though maybe she was pregnant like the girl bagging my
groceries that day, but no, over the months she never got bigger. She
never changed.

I used to think that I was drawn to sad, damaged women like my
father. But eventually I realized that whereas he wanted to rescue the
maidens he deemed to be in distress, I just wanted that sort of
communion between me and a fellow traveler. I didn’t want to save or
change anyone. I just wanted to be able to offer and receive solace.
Every woman I have ever been attracted to, I have been able to see the
stamp of pain on her face no matter how subtle it might be.

This is how my heart operated even before I met Karen. I could
instantly diagnose the shattered abused neurotic in any room. And even
if I lacked the courage to approach, my heart would always go out to
her. And so when I met Karen I knew this was my perfect Pieta. And I
can’t simply blame her bottomless sadness, it was indeed with a mutual
midnight that we dragged each other down into the gutter.

But today I don’t want to dwell on Karen and what happened to her.
Besides, there’s nothing common between her and this checkout girl.
Sadness is no real commonality. It’s just too ubiquitous.

I tossed the two oil cans and my makeshift funnel in the trash
barrel. Laurena wiped her hand on the denim of her thigh. I watched as
she stood and tossed her ice cream wrapper into the trash. She was
standing close enough so I could smell what I swear was vanilla extract
coming off of her.

“What’s Klezmer?”

“What?”

She pointed.

“Oh. It’s Jewish music.”

She looked at me and blinked.

“It sounds like gypsy music,” I added.

“You like it?”

“I don’t know. It was on my windshield.”

She nodded vaguely. Then she nodded decisively. She smiled, but without looking at me, and headed back inside.

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