Sunday, July 28, 2013

I Am The United States Marine Corps

I need to write this down so I remember it.

I need to write this down so I can begin to forget it.

I need to write this down so I can understand it.

This actually happened.

She: relaxed, cute, articulate. She asks me for a brewed coffee. I treat her with the deference she deserves: a polite customer ordering a simple drink. I meet her eyes and smile, then break off after no more than a few seconds. Look at customers too long and they get uncomfortable.

He: clothed in dull red shorts and, incongruously, a red sweater, white-bearded, stooped. He lurches from the right into my field of vision. I look in his direction. He is no customer. I see them a lot: the ones who come in to day-drink at one of the bars in the building. As a matter of course I nod mildly at him.

He stops, turns, moves toward the counter. Perhaps I was wrong? No: "Can I just smell the flowers once?" He gestures at the vase of zinnias. I nod. He eases into her personal space. Elastically she shifts away from him, imperceptibly re-establishing her bubble.

He sniffs the flowers perfunctorily. Turns to her: "do you like how they smell?" She could be his daughter. She says, "I haven't smelled them yet."

"United States Marine Corps," he says to her. "That's me. I'm the United States Marine Corps." I make some motion, because his attention shifts momentarily, grudgingly, to me. He holds out his hand to me. "I'm the United States Marine Corps." I take his hand; it has that banded wiriness of muscle built long ago. He squeezes my hand.

Then he's back to my customer. "You should smell those flowers." He moves his arm up and touches her back. It is a strange touch; familiar suggesting intimacy, or the proposal of intimacy, but brief suggesting camaraderie. He does not clap her on the back. He does not trace her shoulderblade. He touches, and then his hand drops.

Now she steps away from him. "You take care of your business now," he says to her, and she just nods. I watch, frozen. He turns back to me. "I'm the United States Marine Corps. You take care of your business now," to me. I nod too, with false cheer. "I sure will!" I chirp. He's moving away from us. I almost dare to breathe again, when he stops and turns back.

"I fought in the war," he says. "I fought overseas, in the war. I'm the United States Marine Corps." I nod again. "You take care of your business now," he says. "I take care of my business. I can prove it. You want me to prove it? I got my shotgun in the truck."

I swallow something in my throat. I manage to shake my head. "That's all right. I believe you."

He steps back toward us, and despair rises like my gorge. But he only wants to repeat the importance of taking care of our business. "I will, I will," I say. I hope my growing panic doesn't sound in my voice. "Have a good night, sir."

"Take care of your business," and then he is out the door. I see him talking to someone outside--another innocent buttonholed? but no, it is his female doppelgänger, and his body language tells me she and he are together. I am mildly surprised that he should have someone, anyone.

I turn back to my customer. Still cute, no longer relaxed. I lean across the counter, attempt to re-establish that rapport which so often leads to a dollar tip in the jar. "I am so sorry about that," I say. Then I realize what I have said.

She shakes her head, hands me her money, takes her coffee, walks away. Not another word. No tip, no smile, no connection. A repeat customer slipped through my fingers. And why did I apologize for that man, for the United States Marine Corps?

I go into the kitchen and breathe great deep shocked breaths until I have calmed myself. Then I return to my counter to smile, to banter, to serve, and, it seems, to apologize.

Long live solubility.

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