“What the hell do these fucking movie stars have to be unhappy about?”
The man in front of me in the Walmart check-out line was looking at the tabloids beside the cash register and talking in a loud voice to an older man who turned out to be his father, a fact I picked up on from their one-sided conversation, which I couldn’t help but overhear, though I wished I could have tuned it out.
“I mean, really, Dad. What the fuck?”
The son wasn’t a young man himself; in fact, I would hear him say that he was forty. His father, who was stocky with a red face and thick forearms, just went about the business of emptying his shopping cart. He wore a Harley-Davidson T-shirt tucked neatly into his bluejeans and struck me as a man who might be unfazed by rough language. Or maybe Dad was just as embarrassed as I was for the son, who wore basketball shoes with the laces untied, a pair of loose-fitting shorts, a black tank top, and a gold chain around his neck. Had no one ever taught him to use his inside voice? He seemed quite pleased that he had a captive audience for his rant, jumping from subject to subject and peppering his speech with “fucking” this and “fucking” that. Some comments involved a wife (I’m thinking she’d have to be a tolerant sort) and a stepdaughter (the wife had a first husband who was worse than this guy?).
“ ‘Shit,’ I told her. ‘Go visit your girlfriend in Orlando. How much fucking time do we need to spend together anyway?’ ” I assumed he was talking about the wife.
His father didn’t say a word, not even uh-huh. It was as if, for him, his son weren’t there. And maybe he, like me and who knows how many others nearby, wished that could have been the case.
I’m not a prude — in fact, I learned plenty of salty language from my own father — but it hardly seemed right for this man to talk that way in public, with total disregard for the people around him. I’m not sure, though, that his thoughtless swearing was at the bottom of why the encounter was so unsettling to me. I stood there, quick to judge, but I didn’t utter a word of protest, nor did anyone else in line.
The young woman at the cash register scanned the father’s items and asked to see an ID for the bottle of wine. “Sorry,” she said. “Company policy.” She took his credit card, listened, as I did, to a few more fucks and shits from the son, gave the father his receipt, and with a smile told him to have a nice day.
I stepped up to pay for my own items, and the day shifted back to its regular routine.
Only I couldn’t quite get the swearing man out of my mind. I’d seen and heard much worse, but something about him was difficult for me to forget. I started to wonder why the universe had decided that I needed to be in that check-out line that day, a reluctant eavesdropper.
Once, when I was fourteen, I came home from being with friends and found my parents entertaining an elderly couple named Oat and Mabel, whom they knew from church. Oat was one of the church elders. A slack-faced man with pouches of loose skin under his eyes, he was tall and soft-spoken and smoked a pipe with a silver stem. Mabel was a trim woman who had her gray hair waved and set each week and laughed easily, throwing up her hands in delight. I’d always felt comfortable around them, and their presence in our home didn’t unsettle me, as a visit from certain other members of the church — the more proudly pious ones — would have.
It was a midsummer evening after the wheat harvest, a time of year when my father and I didn’t have to work until dark on our farm. I’d been racing bicycles with my friends at a dirt track we’d built in a vacant lot. We’d also sampled some Red Man chewing tobacco that one of my friends had stolen from his father, and, after deciding it wasn’t to my liking, I’d headed home.
An oscillating fan cooled the living room, where Oat and Mabel were visiting with my parents. Each time it turned toward the coffee table, it lifted the corner of a Life magazine cover, and Mabel smoothed the page back down.
“Where you been?” my father asked me.
I could have told the truth, but I didn’t want him to find out about the Red Man, so I decided to be cryptic. “Just screwing around,” I said, and then I went on to my room.
Once Oat and Mabel were gone, my father called me into our kitchen and asked what I thought I was doing, using vulgar language in the company of decent folks.
“ ‘Screwing around,’ ” he said with disgust. “What kind of thing is that to say?”
I should note here that he had often said much worse. He had a temper, and when it got the best of him, he let loose with a few hells and damns and shits — on occasion a son of a bitch or a goddamn. But it was clear that my father’s character wasn’t on trial here. Even my always tolerant mother was looking at me with disapproval. Our narrow kitchen felt particularly cramped. My father sat at the chrome-edged dinette table, his jaw muscles flexing in anger. My mother stood with her hands on her hips.
“Lee, you’re better than language like that,” she said.
My mother always told me that when people swore, it was partly because they wouldn’t take the time to find the words they really wanted to use. She was a grade-school teacher, a woman of faith. The strongest oath I’d ever heard her utter was Oh, fiddle.
“It’s just a word,” I said feebly. “It doesn’t mean anything.”
“It most certainly does mean something,” my father said, “and don’t act like you don’t know what.”
Yes, I knew the sexual connotation of the word, but I also knew in my heart that I hadn’t been using it that way when I’d answered my father’s question. I also knew that, no matter what I’d meant, I’d been wrong to say it.
“Is it a word you think Mabel or Oat would use?” my mother asked in a soft voice.
I bowed my head and didn’t answer.
“Then you shouldn’t use it around them,” she said. “Do you understand?”
“I do,” I said, and it was the truth.
Although there would be times when I’d forget this lesson, for the most part it stuck. It was a lesson the man in line at Walmart had never learned or, for whatever reason, had chosen to ignore.
“Shit. She’s carding you for the wine,” he’d said to his father, when the cashier had asked for identification. “Can you believe that shit?” he’d asked, laughing. “Holy fuck.”
In the days that followed that encounter, I thought of the poem “Compassion,” by my former teacher Miller Williams:
Have compassion for everyone you meet, even if they don’t want it. What seems conceit, bad manners, or cynicism is always a sign of things no ears have heard, no eyes have seen. You do not know what wars are going on down there where the spirit meets the bone.
Even after recalling Williams’s poem and feeling the gentle nudge of its guidance, I still felt a strong distaste for the man in the check-out line and the way he seemed to think that he was the only one in that store who mattered.
A few days later I went to my dentist’s office for a cleaning and exam. I’ve been going there for ten years and have gotten to know the staff: the Venezuelan dentist who runs marathons and reads Gabriel García Márquez; the hygienist who enjoys gardening and cutting hair and has a daughter who’s graduating from high school this year. They’re pleasant women who laugh easily, and I enjoy seeing them even if it means a filling or a crown.
The one person I don’t know as well is the receptionist, Christine. It’s not because she’s unfriendly, but because I spend the least amount of time in her company. Mostly she makes my next appointment and hands me a free toothbrush.
This morning I arrived early and parked in front of the building, near the steps that lead up to the office door. Before getting out of the car, I took the time to glance through some mail that I’d grabbed from my box as I was leaving home.
When I finally looked up, I saw Christine standing on the landing by the door, giving me a playful grin.
“I was starting to think you’d never see me,” she said as I got out of my car.
“Just taking my time,” I said. “I knew I was early.”
It was a glorious August day, a few wisps of cirrus clouds in the sky. We’d turned the corner toward autumn in central Ohio. Evenings were filled with the chirr of insects. Spiders were busy weaving webs across the yew bushes. Christine was wearing a white lab coat and a dark skirt that hung just above her knees. I came up the steps and asked how she’d been.
When I was a college senior, I’d had an English professor who was very direct. Once, when I’d asked how he was, he’d narrowed his eyes and said, “Do you really want to know, or are you just making conversation?” Still, I went on using the question as a casual hello with others, never really expecting anyone to open up and tell me what was happening with them.
But what I got from Christine was this: “Oh, I haven’t been too good.” Her grin crumpled, and her lips quivered. “My brother died last week.”
In that instant she invited me into her grief. Perhaps she was in so much pain she couldn’t keep it inside. Or perhaps she had no patience with social conventions: if someone asks how she’s been, she tells them, no matter if it’s someone like me, who sees her two or three times a year and only long enough to transact the necessary business.
I struggled to find words with which to respond. I couldn’t be mute the way I had been behind the man at Walmart. I had to say something, and I disappointed myself by falling back on a clichéd “I’m sorry” — words that didn’t really express what I was feeling inside. There, I was feeling shit and fuck and words even more vile than that. But of course I didn’t say them. I said, “I’m sorry,” and then there was a moment of silence. It’s times like these when we feel how close we are to our fellow human beings, even strangers. We sense the common end we’re moving toward day by day. We know the incapacity of language to rage against that fact.
“He had a heart attack.” Christine lifted her hand to her mouth and lowered her head to gather herself. Then she looked at me with damp eyes. “He was forty-two. He had a heart attack and died.”
I opened my arms, and she moved into them without a word. We stood there for a moment as traffic went by on Main Street. The noon whistle blew at the firehouse. An airplane passed over.
“Sometimes . . . ,” I finally said to her, and then I didn’t know how to go on, because I’d thought of something the man in Walmart had said when his father was paying for his purchases: “Dad, I’ll make this up to you once I’m back on my feet.” The voice he’d used was softer, humbler. I wondered whether the son used vulgarities because the things he really wanted to say to his father were so intimate — so holy, residing as they did down where the spirit meets the bone — that they were beyond words.
“Sometimes,” I said again to Christine, “life is . . .”
She whispered, “It’s so hard,” finishing my sentence, making it her own.
“Yes,” I said, “you’re right.”
It was only then that I really heard the man who’d sworn so openly that day in the check-out line. I hadn’t heard him in the store — not really — though at the time I could have sworn I was listening to every word.
“Compassion” is reprinted from The Ways We Touch: Poems. Copyright 1997 by Miller Williams. Used with permission of the poet and the University of Illinois Press.