Oniontown Pastoral: One Morning Before Heading South
While the novelist is banging on his typewriter, the poet is watching a fly in the windowpane. (Billy Collins)
Wednesday was far from a bad day, but until I left Erie for the sanity of Oniontown, it was a head-scratcher. For sundry reasons the Colemans are temporarily a one-car family, and this fact is the main reason that my male-pattern baldness took a turn for the worse in 90 minutes.
Driving wife Kathy to work was routine, including kissing her hand as we passed the first expanse of open water along the Bayfront Parkway. After seeing her safely to St. Vincent Hospital, I stopped at a Country Fair for a fountain iced tea on my way to pick up son Micah for the second leg of my chauffeuring duties. This particular location is frequented by folks I presume to be either homeless or somehow in a bad way, and a guy who seems always to be there didn’t look himself. He had lost a lot of weight and kept hiking up his drooping sweatpants. On this chilly morning, a red fleece blanket tied around his neck in cape fashion and a Pittsburgh Steelers stocking cap were his only warmth. He set a couple of two-liter RC Colas on the counter along with singles and change.
Watching him carry those bottles to his usual booth got me sad. Why do I find myself strangely invested in strangers whose lives appear rough? Just an over-thinker from my youth, I guess. (If you are spared this affliction, consider yourself fortunate, since every day brings a soul or a site that seems tragic, but is beyond one person’s power to alter.)
Of course, when standing in line, you shouldn’t get lost in thought. I snapped to and put my tea on the counter.
“Is that all you got?” the cashier asked.
“Yep, that’s it,” I answered.
She waved toward the door: “Go on. You’re good.”
Um, no charge? I blinked. “Gosh, that’s nice. Thanks,” I called back.
“This world is so weird,” I thought, riding along in silence. But the world was only getting warmed up.
By the time Micah flopped in the passenger seat, Gregorian Chant Radio was filling my hybrid with monks’ prayers and psalms. He agreed that I’d chosen calming music to put him in a good space for the painting work ahead.
Then out of nowhere, he said, “Cardboard Nosferatu.”
I gave him a drawn out, “What?”
“Cardboard Nosferatu,” he repeated. “That’s what it sounds like they’re singing.”
When you listen to men in habits singing Latin you’re apt to hear anything, even a reference to a paper, cinematic vampire. On the off chance I ever form a rock band, a good name is waiting.
[A writer’s sidebar here. At this point I thought that my morning might eventually add up to an Oniontown Pastoral. Although I am banging out prose on a typewriter, my interest isn’t in designing plots, but paying homage to the flies in each day’s windowpanes. In the moments ahead, I witnessed another oddity and this column took hold.]
So I parked illegally at Giant Eagle while Micah ran in to pick up provisions for his junk food lunch. As he disappeared, out strode a young woman with a purpose, and a gust swept the black ball cap off her cornrows and sent it somersaulting in the air. She glanced over her shoulder and made an immediate calculation: “Not worth it.”
A whiskery old guy standing by picked up the cap and called after her. But she was gone, just that fast. He stood stranded, confused, holding the hat in one hand as if he had caught a grackle with a broken wing fallen from the sky. Folks usually return for their hats, after all. He had been deprived of a good deed. The store manager soon arrived on the scene, and the two of them stared wordless into the distance.
I felt connected to the manager and the hat bearer, as if we three were fulfilling a sacred obligation to notice, to give at least scant consideration to mysteries great and small. As a failing salesman’s wife observed, “Attention must be paid.” To flies and strangers getting thin.
And to church signs, one of which struck me as a perfect segue to point me south for Oniontown: “Never make snow angels in a dog park.” That’s sound advice, but a discordant choice for a Methodist marquee—rather like a candy company selling Earl Grey tea flavored jellybeans or Dracula wearing a sweatsuit or a balding pastor going heavy on the Brylcreem.
Once on I-79, I gave thanks for one take-away. If I ever make a snow angel, I’ll check the snow before falling down and swinging my arms and legs.