I’m experimenting with vignettes. Narrative homage to Spoon River Anthology tentatively titled Boy in the Trees (homage, in turn, to Calvino). The first handful feels good in the hand.
“A championship-worthy sneeze.
“I overheard a woman saying a few days ago, ‘Thank goodness that allergy season is finally over.’ But it’s never over. I am living proof. There’s always something to be allergic to and someone who’s allergic to it. Just ask me! Although, honestly, I have no idea if that was an allergic sneeze or just a sneeze because something got up my nose, like pollen. Which brings me to a very scientific question, Bob. Oh, Bob’s stepped out of my imagination for a moment. But the question remains! If some pollen gets up my nose and I sneeze, is it because I have an allergy or simply because if something gets up your nose and starts tickling you, you’ll sneeze?! Is that all an allergy is? Tickling?
“Ah well, we’ll set that fascinating question aside for the moment in this blow-by-blow account of life, the world, my day, and the nature of reality.
“I’m fully aware that other people don’t do this. Well are you now? Why yes I am. I am one of the few, I think, who conduct a running commentary in my head about whatever’s running in my head.
“Crazy? No. Daft maybe.
“Daft. Who uses words like daft? Somebody in a droll BBC domestic sitcom. Somebody who would also use the word droll. I suppose I am a bit daft and a bit like a character in a droll BBC sitcom. The neighbors probably think I’m daft. So I bought a pair of earbuds. Everybody has them, and some people look quite hep and tuned in and well put together as they stroll about listening to someone else’s words or music inside their heads. Listening to podcasts. Hello, Pod here, and I’m about to cast. Ooh, ooh, got a bite, set the hook, reel it in, it’s a big one, look, why, it’s a Freshwater Speckled Listener! Catch and release, but take a picture.
“Do other people think like this? And if they don’t, who’s better off, me or them? Are they entertaining themselves as much as I entertain myself?
“Now, I’m perfectly aware that I’m eccentric. Which as the daft star of a droll BBC sitcom, I must be. It’s in my contract. Even though I’m an American and living in a pleasant suburb that would be perfectly ordinary except that we have a boy who lives in the trees in the neighboring woods.
“What?! Stop the presses! What did you say?
“Yes, it’s true. And perhaps the oddest thing about it is that we’re all quite used to it. It’s not a big deal. It’s about as important as having a historical marker beside the street. ‘Here in some distant past General Beauregard Shenanigans had his famous breakfast.’ And ‘Here lived a boy in the trees.’ And ‘For a while a daft man lived nearby and walked about talking to himself, but only in his head. He wasn’t crazy, just eccentric.’
“And if I was sneezing my way through a barely funny BBC sitcom, who would be my wife? I’d have to have one. And she would think I was daft, but in a good way. She would roll her eyes at me often, but in a fond sort of way. I would be a ‘look-what-the-cat-dragged-in’ sort of husband, the kind about whom she would say, ‘Now what am I going to do with him?’”
Randall was spot on in his self-analysis. He was indeed thought of by most as harmlessly daft. Few wanted to or made the effort to get to know him, few being a euphemism for no one. On those rare occasions when someone would engage him, he often offered astute observations about local or world affairs, being well read and quite articulate. He would even listen quietly to another’s observations. But who needs a daft friend? Life’s complicated enough. So the neighbors got on with their divorces or drinking or affairs or depressions or failures—and good things, too—and thought of him as a character, and having thus characterized him they felt free to give him very little thought, of which they had little to spare. There were some that found him somewhat alarming. Someone to avoid on the sidewalk, someone not to let the children too near. He, on the other hand, observed them as one observes birds and houses and clouds and brightly painted cars and people involved in their personal dramas, which is to say, not intrusively.
“Would I have a family in my program? Well, that’s a question. I’d be an odd dad. Not a bad one. I’d try not to interfere with junior’s or missy’s life. I’d be away at work doing something boring, like endlessly checking inventory, which, in fact, is what I do, and I don’t find it boring at all! But the rest of the world does, and that’s quite all right. So I would work at a somewhat dull but stable job and I’d bring home a decent salary and I’d watch the news on television when I got home. The family would eat in front of the television every evening. We would be the kind of family lamented by the intelligentsia, but we’d actually be quite content and stable, and my wife would do the actual raising of the children while I did chores around the house, putting in new light switches, painting rooms, that sort of thing. And always managing to make a mess of things; it is a dramedy after all! They’d all roll their eyes at me. If I wasn’t me, I would too.
“But now that I think about it, in the show the children would be young adults who’d moved out of the house. We’d be empty nesters. My wife would do lots of volunteer work. I’d do things like, well, fix the toaster while she was out. And we’d have odd neighbors.
“Well, it’s a good life, isn’t it? Take that, boy in the trees. You’re not the only successful oddity hereabouts!”
One day, on his rounds, as he liked to call them, he spied two young mothers with their four children ahead on the sidewalk. He noticed how they gestured with their hands and communicated with smiles, occasional conspiratorial facial expressions, eyebrows raised and heads nodded in mutual agreement over the true reasons behind errant deeds. So involved were they in their engagement that they didn’t see him approach, and he, knowing what was what, stepped off the sidewalk so that he wouldn’t scare them with his surprise proximity, and it was a good thing he did, for a perfectly ordinary thing happened. A three-year-old girl who had been turning in bored half circles beside and just behind her mother wandered into the street as the two women engaged in enthusiastic engagement. He heard, “Can you believe it!” in the tone that conveyed that they had seen right through whoever had done whatever had transpired. And a young person in a car was tapping on a cell phone and paying no attention to the street, so important was the communication that would soon take place through the phone.
It was a partially sunny day, or a partially cloudy day. He’d always been amused by the distinction. In fact, he’d become increasingly amused by the weather industry. In his childhood, only hurricanes had received names. Now any storm of consequence, and many of no consequence, were christened. The practice would make for excellent dialog in a droll BBC television program.
“I’m going out dear.”
“Be sure to take an umbrella. Slight Drizzle Camille is supposed to arrive today.”
When the car driver did not see the child and the child did not see the car, Randall ran forward, picked up the child, and was able to throw her clear as he was hit. She skinned her hands and knees on the pavement and let out a piercing wail. The mothers turned. The young driver crushed the brake with a foot, stared ahead, stunned, open mouthed, and then had the presence of mind to turn off the phone and stow it in a compartment.
If a tree falls in the woods and there’s no one to hear it, does it make a sound? The police came, of course, and an ambulance, although there was no hope. The driver professed to be too shaken to remember much beyond “he came out of nowhere.”
The mothers were inclined to think that he had attempted to abduct the girl. It was difficult to fathom how this could be the case, in the middle of a partly cloudy or partly sunny day on a well-traveled street. But how else could the events be explained? He had always been odd, they all agreed, as did others later. No one knew him well. No one knew what he’d done. And it might not have dissatisfied him to have his life end this way. So much is unknown.