I had wasted most of the day already. At the current frozen moment in my life, after a very long stretch of employment -- I am not. The lack of routine and normalcy after a period does not send a person into a state of monastic reflection, no matter how long you stand in the woods with your dog and stare at the amber bed of dead pine needles. Thoreau never had a credit card debt.
I am also a long way from living on Walden pond. I have a car, which provides me the long escape of wandering the suburban landscapes listening to audiobooks and NPR. Occasionally, I listen to the shuffle setting on my iPod through the car stereo – futher removing me from living a real Buddhist lifestyle.
One time recently, upon accidentally criticizing my sister’s keeping every last scrap from a full farmhouse and into a storage space with my belongings, my mother snapped back at me: “not everybody can lead the simple lifestyle that you have chosen where you give up everything”.
Weeks later, I spend the afternoon after getting let go from a staffing agency project (the money ran out and the agency which wasn’t very good didn’t have anything prepared for me) staring at my half of the storage shed and all the objects with which I recently co-habitated. Actually, it’s more like a third of the space but the point is that I have not given up my personal possessions. Gathering concrete dust and cobwebs, my kitchen gadgets are cold in the Wisconsin fall air. My favorite couch is upended, my favorite chair is buried under weight and probably now broken.
I suppose I was not thinking of this today as I headed out on errands. I always make the joke to others when they tell me what they did that day saying, “I was out running errands…”
“Who is this Aaron guy and why is everybody always out for a run with him, ha ha…”
My father, who is retired but occasionally substitute teaches at high schools to keep himself busy writes a note on the kitchen table: Went out to run some errands, see you later this afternoon. –Dad
It is not a funny note to me, despite the fact that it is written on a spare white space from a coloring page his grandchildren left out before going to daycare. The house is quiet, which it rarely is these days. My father is gone way to long to be out running to Menard’s to get bags of salt for the water heater. It is obvious to me that he has gone to the Indian Casino. He does this when he is bored or worried about the state of finances and his children’s inability to have any finances.
It may seem like nothing, unless of course you have ever been to the big casino in the valley. It is very extravagant on the inside, rivaling anything in Vegas in its décor and bright machines. What strikes you when walking the long aisles of slot machines, poker machines, roulette and blackjack tables are the despondent working-class and retired people sitting on stools. They clutch their big purses half-turned away from the machines they’ve chosen. They stuff their hands in their jacket pockets while a cigarette hangs out of their mouth. It’s kind of like someone took occupants of a blitz bombing and transported them somewhere shinier and insulated.
My father started by going with his sister or Grandmother (who were also addicts), just for fun. If fifty dollars went goodbye, it was just entertainment. But my father pins his hopes on that one draw that would change the family’s fortune. Just one good tug and the financial state of despair we often face would be obliterated. They could afford every medical malady or automobile injury that popped up. He could buy his youngest daughter (and single mother of three) a house. He could tell his son to go off elsewhere to seek his luck somewhere he could be appreciated. He could take my mother on a long cruise like she’s always dreamt of doing.
When I leave the house, after I run to the bank but before I can purchase my new pants (to replace the one that ripped this weekend) my father calls me on my cell phone. He sounds chipper, maybe just a little bit manic.
A pause ensues, partially because of bad reception – but only partially.
“I was just wondering if you were going to home for dinner.”
“Didn’t you see the note I left on the table?”
I left a note on the backside of an envelope that looked like junkmail.
It read: Went out. Don’t think I’ll be back for dinner. See you after 6:30.
”Well, yeah. But I didn’t know whether I should leave something for you or…”
”No, no. I’ll eat while I’m out here.”
”Okay. I was just wondering because I was going to make the individual chicken pot pies that Mom had gotten out of the freezer and I didn’t know how many to make.”
This went on for awhile. A phone call with my father has to have some sort of qualification of a longer conversation in order to make the effort worthwhile. He talked about what arrived in the mail. He talked about anything that would avoid talking about what he had done that day. This is how you know. If Dad does legitimate things, he tells you about them.
One time, after a day of gambling at the casino, he came home and told me that he was up $100. Thirty minutes later in front of the laundry hamper as I sorted towels, he gave me the $100 bill and said that it should hold me over for a bit. I tried to hide my shame as I accepted it. He was bringing me into the big secret and holding up the ideal of why he does what he does. The next day was a Friday, and I spent most of it on dinner and many, many drinks at the Cactus Club. It is unusual to witness me drinking heavily, and it was not fun for me or others.
But today was another day, and here I am buying new Columbia pants to replace the old Columbia pants I ripped across the bottom of my right butt cheek. To make it worth my while, I get a nice white undershirt to wear under the dress-collared shirts I may someday wear to my imagined office job. I also get an unnecessary sweater. The sky is lit up at dusk like my favorite popular-culture-maligned artist Maxfield Parrish.
I have not eaten breakfast. I have not had lunch yet either. It is four o’clock and too early for dinner even for the Wisconsin farmers who eat at 5:00 p.m. sharp. I crave fruits and vegetables as much as I crave meat. I crave no limits on my binge, either. These are things I currently cannot do at home. The four food groups have always been present at my homestead’s table; the weight of the pyramid has always rested on red meat and potatoes.
I venture to a nearby strip mall that sells, wrapping paper for a dollar and Venetian nails for $30. I speak of course about ‘Old Country Buffet’. If I was going to be depressed and bloated, I wanted to blend in with a crowd. I paid my ten dollar entrance fee (dinner starts at 3:30 there, which sounds funny but wait for it). I saved my seat and plopped down my heavy man-bag. Two plates later (and dessert) and I was satiated. Cold peas bathed in mayo, institutionalized carrot coins, pineapple slices, fillered meatloaf, a salted baked potato, and other sampled edibles slid into my belly.
I rarely come here, unless I am either truly in the mood or desperate. I was both. The patrons around me weren’t so much diverse as they all belonged to a subset not normally pictured in the audience at talk shows or featured in Kohl’s clothing catalogs. Some were senior citizens, just hours away from bedtime. The food here would be soft enough to chew, and varietous. This is important because these folks were not here for the unlimited refill but the ability to choose what they ate instead of being limited by menus or trays to the monitored bedside of a retirement home.
A young couple at the next booth cooed in Spanish to each other, startled when the waitress with the crimped hairstyle took their empty glass salad plates. Another man with very thin hair and pale skin slouched on the same side of a table of four with an attentive-looking Asian woman. A single heavy-set black woman in a bright blue basketball warmers’ jacket sat humbly with her bewildered toddler nearby in a highchair. It was hard to find an exceptionally different person than someone who sounded like a known caricature.
Soon the booth with the young Hispanic couple left and were replaced by a threesome: a man in his forties balding but still with a mullet, his ghostly aging mother who wore her headwrap even when they were seated, and (with her back to me) a mostly silent woman with dishwater hair pulled back into a simple ponytail. When she did speak, her voice was hoarse like she had just come off a factory line.
“How’s this, Ma. Pretty good hah,” said the man who sounded like sat at a barstool all day.
”Yes,” said the mother in a weak and dentured voice. “This is alright.”
The conversation undulated like a choppy tide on a wooded lake. It nevered stopped, as a moment of silence became a signal that something was wrong at the table. Yet when the old mother spoke, the sentences waivered like a tape recorder whose batteries were failing. She talked about neighborhood gossip, grocery shopping, the squirrels outside her house, anything. Anything.
I almost couldn’t read my fancy men’s magazine. Scarlett Johannson looked out at me from the page like she wanted to change her frozen expression from horny and desirous to bored and incredulous. I pushed my plates to the edge of the booth for the “waitress” and left. The sun goes down way to early in Wisconsin’s late fall season. I unwrapped a piece of Trident to calm my aching stomache, turned the key in my beloved leased car, and drove off.