TWO TONES PLAY OVERHEAD, the third and the first on a scale and then the announcement, “Customer service to bathroom fixtures. Customer service to bathroom fixtures.” Ian walks nearly the width of the home improvement warehouse on this Sunday morning. He observes the blue aisle placards as he passes them, indicating what merchandise is where. Not that he has to. He’s a home improvement do-it-yourselfer, but he’s not one to waste a step, especially in a retail space this big. Two more tones and the matter-of-fact one of the female announcer declares, “Bathroom fixtures.”
He’s finally changed from his funeral attire. Chore clothes now, worn jeans and a black t-shirt, sneakers and a baseball cap. He’s after a few specific items and he’s shopping in order of distance to checkout, which brings him to safety goggles. Tinted yellow, fluorescent frames, clear lenses, fully enclosed. He grabs the least expensive offering the most protection, the kind that would be found in most high school science labs. The selection for the second item doesn’t have the same variety, except for length. Ian grabs a demolition bar and weighs its heft in his hand, quickly satisfied that it will do. His shopping is interrupted by Bill.
“Ian? How you doing? You doing alright?” Bill says as he sees the bar and the goggles. “Looks like you got your work cut out for you today!”
“Just a remodel project,” Ian says, hoping that’s enough information to stave off the somewhat patronizing neighbor. It is not.
“Well, good. Good for you. A distraction like that will do you some-” He trails off. Saying good again would be awkward, more so than everything is already. “So, you doing okay?” he says instead.
Bill is a human communication archetype. Ian knows this because this is what he teaches. This is what he has researched throughout his career and this is what keeps Ian reclusive for the most part, a hazard of human communication study. There are unwritten rules about how one communicates to another who has suffered some kind of trauma. Death is a particular trauma, especially the death of a child, that rift in the natural order and death gets especially sticky to address when it’s from a self-inflicted major artery in the femur. Most everyone becomes the sympathetic, patronizing archetype when they have little or no experience with death on their own. Those who do, know enough to not say anything, to leave the grieving alone to do their shopping.
“Yeah, fine. How ‘bout you?” says Ian.
Off his guard now, Bill lowers his voice a bit. “Shouldn’t you be, you know, um, don’t you have family? I mean, man, Ian, it’s just been a couple of days-” and he trails off again. Ian’s mouth hints to a smile, though it is unmatched by his eyes that are boring into Bill’s search for some kind of relief in this imposed gesture of goodwill. Bill gives up.
“Well, if you need any help-”
“Yeah, I’ll let you know,” and Ian turns away from him. Bill is left in the background of home improvement, wishing he hadn’t run out of nylon line for his lawn trimmer, the reason for his visit to this big box. Instead he runs into Ian McDaniel, someone with whom Bill has never really been at ease and now here he is in Lowe’s shopping like nothing has happened. It’s pretty strange.
Ian would make most anyone uncomfortable. He has an energy coming off him, a determination now undaunted in the task he’s conjured up as coping or therapy or penance or all the above. He has an intensity that leaves a heat trail, fueled by thirty-six hours or more of raw consciousness, excruciating emotional control, little nutrition, painfully detailed editing of memories and the arrangement of a storage unit to enable the archival of a life that self-destroyed.
He queues up in a checkout line carrying the goggles, a couple of packages of visqueen, a bag of blue shop towels, duct tape, and the demolition bar. One patron stands ahead of him and two more patrons queue up behind Ian. A couple. She’s first, right behind Ian, and then a large, rolled area rug standing on end, and then him. The rug catches Ian’s attention at his peripheral and he glances at the couple. He sees her but not the man blocked by the rug, at least not completely. She smiles at him.
Ian turns back now facing ahead, waiting his turn at the register. The couple speak and Ian eaves drops.
“We’re not going to get this in the car,” the man holding the rug says.
“The back seats fold down, don’t they?” says she.
“My golf bag’s in the trunk,” says he, bringing another archetype to mind for Ian, and within its framing, the stereotype. Ian’s mind flashes to his own frame of reference on this subject, which is rife with physicians, and he turns abruptly, stepping to one side to counter the rolled rug and he sees him, again, twice in one week.
Conditioned throughout his life to think that most everything happens for some preordained purpose, were Ian still a believer in divine intervention he might have assumed this second encounter with Doctor Reagan had happened for a reason. When stock is put into a higher power there is an expectation of a return, a causal order of things, a universal logic assimilated by believers. The dreams of heaven and hell are based on this fundamental principle that they are termini earned, not a place of default. That logic has translated epidemically to terrestrial causal living – reaping what one sows – irrevocable blessings decreed upon the good while the evil kick against the pricks. Turn on any twenty-four hour news cycle and witness the fallacy of this thinking first-hand – tornadoes aren’t discriminative, earthquakes tremble the feet of all in epicentric proximity, the tides raise every boat. Within his previous belief system Ian could see how easily this would be exacerbated by the care and feeding of a child with a terminal condition. Certainly, if everything happens for a reason there must be some better reason behind the suffering of a child. “You must be very special people to have a daughter like Virginia,” or “God knew where to put this angel,” or even on one occasion, “Man, what did you do to deserve this?” With the compounding of these assumptions this became the achilles to Ian’s faith, cruel and otherwise. The pressure of living up to these expectations eventually snapped that tendon. In part, his belief system unraveled from the assumptive logic that God would make his daughter suffer to make him a better human being.
The fatal blow to his faith was in the anticipation of the inevitable in caring for a terminally ill child. The McDaniels grasped tighter to their convictions in the doctrine of a heaven, where a glorious reunion with loved ones passed would somehow make Virginia’s dying easier. Death was romanticized by their religion, it is but a sleep and a forgetting, a transition, an ascent. The McDaniels lived their days in a way that according to their scriptures, their teachers and their faith, the sting of death would be replaced and assuaged by the knowledge of eternal life. While these promises surely must have worked for legions of mourners, this antidote was lost on Ian and on Linda. A process contrived to heal, to provide closure, to eventually move on through washing and dressing their daughter’s corpse, displaying her remains in a viewing for all to see her lifeless body and then to pack her away amidst bouquets and sprays of flora in a box that ensures the protection and preservation of the remains contained within, failed the surviving McDaniels. No reason could be tendered that made any sense of losing their little girl.
Removing divine intervention was therapeutic for Ian who now believed that things just happened due to more categorical reasons, like an overdose or a transected femoral artery or a cephalic version, except for earlier this week and now today in proximity again to Doctor Reagan. Ian is believing again in fate if nothing more and the electrons of that idea push his envelope of control beyond any he has held to this point.
“Even with the seats down this isn’t going to fit in that car.” says Gray.
Ian’s knuckles blanche as he grips the demo bar.
“Maybe we can tie it to the top of the car,” Pam returns.
“Not on that car!” Gray snickers at his wife’s suggestion.
The bar is now moving upward and as Ian lifts it he drops the contents in his other arm to the floor. That startles Pam and she turns away from Gray to see where the sound is coming from. Ian isn’t a threat, yet, but he might have been if Pam’s regard didn’t blink him back to his senses. He picks up his dropped items and advances to the register as his turn arrives to check out. Pam and Gray step forward as well. Ian makes his purchase, grabs his bag and bar and makes egress of the store.
The sliding glass doors open and he exhales with an exasperated growl, catches his next breath and holds it. Every step forward toward the parking stalls is a fight to keep his feet moving in a deliberate direction away from Gray. He exhales again at his truck and digs in his pocket for the key fob and presses the button to unlock his door. He opens it, puts the demo bar in the back, and as he lights onto the seat, there in the stall ahead of him is the Mercedes, the same E-Class from the filling station and as if to mock his nerve it chirps and its lights flash from being unlocked remotely by its owner. Gray and Pam enter Ian’s field of view along with the rug on a cart, making their way to the rear of the Mercedes. Another chirp and its rear hatch lifts as the couple approach. Ian watches. An oversize golf bag takes up much of the room of the cargo area of the Mercedes. Gray works the back seats, folding them down and assessing the space created. Pam surveys the top of the car.
“There’s no way that rug is going on top of this car,” Gray asserts this time.
Maybe this is the reason for this second encounter. This is the moment Ian can reintroduce himself, serve as a good Samaritan, offer a hand and open a door, a kind of Karma in the good intention, something to abate this vitriol. He can and must do something in this moment. He steps out of his truck, a move without compulsion, a man on auto-pilot without the conscience that kept the fuel nozzle in control the day before.
“Excuse me,” he says, startling Pam. “I couldn’t help but notice you have a bit of a situation.”
Gray is a bit embarrassed, “We weren’t thinking ahead here, impulse buying.”
“Yeah, impulse buying.” The Mercedes, the rug, the wife.
Ian forces himself to continue, feigning pleasant, “What direction is home for you?”
“We’re north of here in Silverado.”
“You know, I’m heading that same direction. Why don’t we throw that into my truck and I’ll follow you home?” He’s really nice, this Samaritan. Pam warms to his offer and charm. Gray is relieved to be offered this alternative, saving face and the finish on the top of his Mercedes.
“Why don’t you ride with me,” Ian says to Gray, “in case we get separated by a light or I decide I want that rug more than you.” They all laugh. Gray hands Pam the keys. “See you at home,” he says.
The Mercedes pulls rearward out of the stall and into the lane. Falling in behind are Ian and Gray. Behind in the bed of the truck is the rug. Gray is gracious.
“I’m Gray Reagan,” he says. The cab of the Ranger is a bit cramped for a comfortable handshake.
“Ian, Ian McDaniel.”
Talk radio accompanies their navigation out of the parking lot and onto the streets that lead to over-built homes with blue swimming pools and green landscapes. The Mercedes is several lengths ahead. In it Pam checks her mirrors making sure she hasn’t lost the men and leads them past culs-de-sac and bisecting avenues. A red sedan slowly passes the other way. Pam’s mirror reflects her view of the pickup, but it’s difficult to see detail in the cab with the overhead sun making contrast extreme. All she can make out are the two figures of its occupants.
“This is really nice of you. I hope we’re not taking you away from anything,” says Gray.
“Oh, I’m just doing a little remodeling. I’m in the demolition phase right now, the easy part.” Says Ian. Gray nods his head.
“McDaniel,” Ian repeats. “I said, ‘McDaniel.’”
“Yes, Ian McDaniel. Pleased to meet you.” Gray takes a harder look. “Sorry, have we met before?”
Ian is distracted now, an idea has coalesced in his mind, his thoughts are turning, aspirated with the vitriol from the gas pump. He looks out ahead.
“Yes, we have.”
Gray studies him further. “How embarrassing. I don’t remember.”
“Yeah, you see? That’s the problem.”
Ian throws his right elbow into Gray’s face, breaking his nose and dislodging teeth, a blunt force trauma that renders Gray unconscious, bleeding onto his golf sweater, his head now bowed.
He stuns at this own reflex. He inhales and holds his breath in. This wasn’t even a thought – the elbow – just a natural reaction to the impulse that formed in Ian’s mind. He looks ahead at the Mercedes. There’s no change, no brake lights. She hasn’t seen this happen. The E-Class rolls through an intersection and Ian accelerates, turns right, and speeds away down another street at a right angle to the now hesitating Mercedes.
Ian’s hands are ten and two on the wheel. He forces himself to slow down and pushes Gray back into an upright position. The g-force of that right turn dumped Gray out of his seat belt across Ian’s lap. He cannot draw anyone’s attention with a man hemorrhaging unconscious in his front seat. A cell phone ring tone cracks over the droning of the radio. Gray’s cell phone in the holder on his belt illuminates and vibrates with its ringing.
Ian clears his nose, check his mirrors, and drives.