Foot traffic was brisk at the ShopRite Supermarket Saturday afternoon straight through until seven-thirty when the relentless flow dribbled away to a handful of stragglers most of whom made a beeline for the twelve-items-or-less, express register. “Sometimes in India, after a man marries and raises his family, he puts his worldly affairs aside to become a wandering mystic.” Returning from break, seventeen year-old Fanny Jackson blurted the unsolicited musings all in a jumbled heap then, by way of clarification, added, “I’ve been reading up on eastern religion.”
Fanny was working aisle three with Bert Weiner bagging groceries. A retiree who lived off social security, Bert worked part time at the supermarket. The widower owned an olive cape with white shutters off Hathaway Street just a half mile down from Fanny’s house. Sometimes when their schedules coincided, Fanny and Bert carpooled.
“Yeah, I heard something of the sort.” Bert rubbed a hairy earlobe. “I was never big on all that mystical malarkey.”
“You’re Jewish,” Fanny said. “What do your people say about heaven and hell?”
“Not much.” The older man removed a handkerchief from his pocket and blew his nose rather loudly. When he was done he surveyed the end result before crumpling the cloth in his liver-spotted fist and putting it away. “Main thing is you gotta take care of business in the here and now. The next world – the one with all the celestial mumbo jumbo and enraptured souls – takes care of itself.”
To be sure, no self-respecting Sadhu would be caught dead bagging groceries in a backwater town like Brandenberg. Paper or plastic – such inanity did nothing to facilitate one’s spiritual unfolding. Fanny had seen a potpourri of colorful pictures accompanying a National Geographic article featuring the wandering mendicants of Bombay and Calcutta – religious zealots who made pilgrimages to the various holy sites. Sadhu or sanyasi – those were the terms the magazine used to describe the holy men. Some resorted to extreme measures like sleeping on beds of nails, taking lengthy vows of silence, bathing in icy streams or standing motionless on one leg for prolong periods to rid themselves of material cravings and merge with the divine essence. Others smoked hashish and cannabis – not that Fanny was about to share that miscellany with straight-laced Bert Weiner. They painted their faces with outlandishly garish designs, let their hair grow down to their waists or roamed about buck naked! Many had led sedate, conventional lives before turning to the spiritual path. They held jobs, joined civic organizations, paid taxes and participated in local government. Only after their own children were grown did they turn their backs on the material world. And yet, not all Sadhus were straight shooters. Wallowing in debt, rotten marriages or dead-end jobs, some older men took on the yellow mantle of the religious zealot as a pretext for deserting their wives and family obligations.
The outside lights blazed, flooding the parking lot in a mellow, amber glow. “You’re graduating in June?” Bert Weiner asked shifting gears.
“Yes, this is my senior year.”
“Heard yet from any colleges?” Mr. Weiner was leaning against the checkout counter. He wore a pink, ShopRite Supermarket smock plus a nametag with a happy face that looked a bit silly on such a slight man.
“No. Not yet.”
“How’d you do on your SAT’s?”
“Twenty-one fifty,” Fanny replied.
“You don’t say!” He shook his head up and down appraisingly. “That should get you into most Ivy League colleges.”
“So I’ve heard.” Though she had effectively left her classmates pawing in the dust, the brittle numbers meant nothing to Fanny. SAT’s were just a cunning shell game with each private college raising the ante, charging exorbitant tuition and dorm fees for the privilege of attending. A young woman negotiated a shopping cart up to her register. Fanny flipped on the conveyor belt and the endless parade of brown eggs, butternut squash, TV dinners and fresh vegetables crawled toward the scanner.
Mr. Weiner waited until the first few items collided at the far end of the checkout counter before raising his eyes. “Would you prefer paper or plastic?”
Fanny left work a little after nine. Bert had already gone home a few hours earlier. She drove out of the parking lot and was passing through the center of town when she saw her brother, Norman, coming out of a 7-Eleven with a soft drink. She recognized him not so much from his physical features, which were obscured in shadows, as from his slouching, rubbery gait. The lanky youth, who had a hooded sweatshirt pulled up over his head, scurried across the street at a diagonal, disappearing into the Veterans Park that bordered the downtown area. At the next traffic light, Fanny caught sight of Norman again seated on a bench next to the Vietnam memorial and talking energetically on a cell phone. Pulling over to the curb alongside a slender elm, she killed the engine.
The park was empty, shrouded in muddied darkness except for a row of lamps bordering the street. Five minutes passed. A slovenly youth in his early twenties ducked into the park from the far side and approached. Sporting a scraggily goatee and torn jeans, he dropped a backpack he was carrying on the bench. The twosome bantered back and forth for a while. Norman handed his friend an envelope; the man jerked upright, disappearing into the darkness. Pulling an unfiltered cigarette from a pack, Norman lit the smoke and inhaled deeply then, reaching over with his free hand, he tugged the backpack firmly up against his hip.
The previous spring, Fanny’s brother was caught selling two ounces of marijuana to an undercover police officer in the west end of the city. As a first offense, he received a year’s probation. By the size of the backpack, Fanny estimated Norman had bought at least two pounds of weed. For sure, he would divide the twigs and leaves into thirty-two, one-ounce packets, skimming a modest amount from each bag for his own, recreational use. “Nothing ever changes,” Fanny muttered. Turning the engine over, she put the car in gear and eased away from the curb. In the rearview mirror she could see her brother still sprawled out on the bench with his legs askew, a cloud of smoke snaking from his nostrils.
Fanny went home, took a shower and washed her hair. At eleven o’clock she flicked on the TV and settled down in the den with the evening news. A roadside bomb in Iraq had killed three American servicemen; a second bomb exploded outside a Sunni mosque shortly after evening prayers. “There’s never any good news.” Fanny’s mother shuffled into the room and slumped down next to her daughter. She had a cup of tea in one hand and an asiago bagel slathered with chive cream cheese in the other. “How was your day, sweetheart?”
“Pretty good.” The front door opened and Norman glided down the hallway without bothering to acknowledge anyone. Out of the corner of her eye, Fanny caught a fleeting glimpse of a blue, Adidas backpack trimmed with silver piping.
So now the drugs were in the house, putting everyone in the family at risk. Not that a blithering idiot like Norman would recognize a causal relationship. Why should he? It wasn’t like the emotional derelict had any intention of ever working an honest job. When the news faded to commercial break, Fanny got up and wandered down the hallway to her brother’s room. Norman lay on an unmade bed, his bare feet dangling over the side. “What’s up?”
“Nothing.” Stepping over the threshold, Fanny noted that the shades, which had been raised earlier, were drawn. A pile of candy wrappers was scattered about the floor close by a wastepaper basket and clot of dirty underwear thrown in a heap near the closet. The air reeked of rancid body odor shot through with marijuana; a half-smoked roach balanced tipsily on a porcelain saucer called into service as an impromptu ashtray.
He brushed a mop of greasy brown hair away from his eyes. “You need a lift to the supermarket tomorrow?”
“No, Mr. Weiner’s gonna swing by.” Norman wiggled his rear end and farted – intentionally and loud as he possibly could. Fanny was unimpressed. “When are you going to get a real job?”
“I got some irons in the fire.” Reaching over, he grabbed the roach, raised the weed to his lips and lit the end with a cigarette lighter. “Wanna toke?” Fanny shook her head. The ‘irons in the fire’ nonsense was nothing more than a stock phrase, a knee-jerk reaction. Norman hadn’t done much of anything since flunking out of Rhode Island Junior College in the second semester of his freshman year. More to the point, he hadn’t been on a serious job interview in over eight months.
“They’re looking for help at the market.”
“Yeah, thanks a million. Maybe I’ll put in an application." He took a second hit, sucking the sweet drug deep into his lungs and holding it there until his breath ran out. “That horny old widower ever try to get fresh with you?”
“What?” Fanny couldn’t follow his fractured logic.
“Old man Weiner … when the two of you are driving to work, does he ever try to put his hands - ”
“Oh, for God’s sake! Bert's the nicest guy in the world,” Fanny fumed. “A goddamn saint!”
“Awesome!” Norman reached for the joint a third time, but thought better of it and lay back prone. “So this old geezer who bags groceries at the supermarket is really an enlightened master. Bert Weiner with his baggy, polyester trousers and Izod shirts is living his life under false pretenses.” Her brother began to giggle uncontrollably; she couldn’t be sure how much of it was the dope, how much a byproduct of limited intelligence. Fanny waved her hands, a futile gesture, trying to conjure up a reasonable response. She had resigned herself to the unsettling fact that Norman was a boob, an intellectual cretin. The evidence was irrefutable. She heard through a friend-of-a-friend that Norman recently acquired a personal stash of high-grade Maui-wowi. The glassy eyes and supercilious expression suggested that he may have gotten a tad more than he bargained for.
“Maharishi Weiner,” Norman quipped, bursting out in another paroxysm of giddy hysterics. He grabbed up what was left of the wilted weed, ran a flame over the blackened stub and waved the crumpled roach in the air as his sister reached for the door. “Tomorrow night, be sure to give the Enlightened One my regards.”
“Two pieces of mail were addressed to you,” Mrs. Jackson noted, when Fanny returned to the living room.
“Yes, I know.”
The woman pressed her lips together and studied her daughter with cautious ambivalence. “You didn’t open them?”
“No, not yet.” On the news the Mayor of North Providence, Rhode Island, was being interviewed over a brewing scandal. Retired firefighters were still receiving hefty clothing allowances even though they no longer actively worked for the town. The mayor seemed morally outraged that anyone would question the matter, and when the reporter demanded to know why tax payers should buy clothing for retirees with cushy union pensions, the mayor interrupted with a barrage of nonsensical rebuttals.
Fanny could picture her brother two doors over groping about for some discrete place – under the bed, the top shelf in his closet, beneath the soft porn magazines in his dresser drawer - to hide his latest stash of drugs. “The mail … it could be important, you know,” Fanny’s mother pressed. Mrs. Hazelton left the living room momentarily and returned with the unopened mail which she slid onto the arm of the sofa next to her daughter. “The letters are from colleges you applied to.”
Fanny opened the first letter, read it and did the same with the second. “Boston University and Brandeis accepted me for the September, freshman class,” she announced in a flat monotone, handing the letters across to her mother. On the television, Senator Rangel, the democratic from New York had just resigned his position on the house finance committee due to ethics violations, the Greece economy was near collapse and Israel announced the building of sixteen hundred Jewish apartment units on occupied territory in Arab East Jerusalem.
“Which school are you planning to attend?”
Fanny balked at the question. She could play it coy and study ‘liberal arts’, but what the hell were ‘liberal arts’ and could anybody on planet earth explain the value of a four year education in nothing-in-particular? “Neither,” Fanny muttered without looking away from the television.
A brief, uncomfortable silence ensued. Mrs. Jackson bent over and kissed her daughter on the cheek. “You had me going there,” the woman blurted with obvious relief. “I forgot that you’re still waiting to hear from Colby and Simmons College.” She picked up the empty dish and retreated to the kitchen.
“Look what I found while cleaning out the basement.” Later that night Mrs. Hazelton shuffled into her daughter’s bedroom as Fanny was turning down the covers. In her right hand was a shiny silver object with a round disk fused to a metal stem. A frayed and discolored string was loosely wrapped around the center post.
“My old gyroscope.” Fanny set the gadget on her dresser. When her mother was gone, she lay under the covers but was too agitated to sleep. Ten minutes later Fanny relit the lamp and crawled back out of bed. She threaded the worn string through the eye on the gyroscope post, winding it neatly in a tight coil. Gripping the mechanism by the gimbal, she gave a fierce tug on the tattered string. The gyroscope gave off an energetic hum that fed sympathetic vibrations up her forearm halfway to the elbow. She placed the stem upright on an outstretched finger. Half a minute later, as the rotor lost strength, the device began to wobble drunkenly and eventually toppled into her outstretched palm. Fanny set the gyroscope aside on the dresser and climbed back in bed.
The National Geographic article she had been telling Bert Weiner about featured a full-page picture of Sufi mystics in sacred dance. The bearded dervishes whirled faster and faster around a central axis in search of spiritual transcendence. They pivoted on one leg, while thrusting with the other to gather speed and momentum. Round and round they spun like human gyroscopes where the human gimbal pivoted effortlessly about an axis on its own plane. Round and round they twirled in search of some ineffable equilibrium.
The main thing is you gotta take care of business in the here and now. The next world – the one with all the celestial mumbo jumbo and enraptured souls – takes care of itself. Like the hard-core mystics, Mr. Weiner was sublimely centered; he always could be counted on to do the right thing. Whether it was offering paper or plastic or a sappy joke, the slope-shouldered man with the hairy ears remained imperturbably balanced. He never disappointed.
Before returning to bed, Fanny drank a glass of juice. Norman’s fingerprints, literally speaking, were everywhere in the kitchen. A fresh loaf of sourdough bread lay abandoned on the counter, the individual slices fanned out like a deck of playing cards. Alongside the uncovered bread were a serrate knife and mound of breadcrumbs. A second knife smeared with raspberry jam and peanut butter – her brother never bothered with separate utensils – was abandoned near the dishwasher with a lengthy streak of red jelly dribbling across the Formica. On the kitchen table, a plastic cup with milk residue lay on its side. He couldn’t bother to put the soiled cup in the sink.
If Fanny wrapped a cord around Norman’s chest and spun him like a gyroscope the man would blow a series of fetid farts and, like an incendiary device, immediately implode. He was a person with no hub, nucleus, middle, focal point, foundation, boundaries or essence. Once in a fit of anger Fanny shouted, “When you move your bowels, do you even bother to wipe your butt hole or just wait until your monthly shower?” The question elicited a howl of delight but little else.
Monday evening, Mr. Weiner called Fanny shortly after supper, requesting a ride to the social security office. “My left front tire's flat and it’s too late to call a repair shop.”
“When is your appointment?”
“Tomorrow morning, nine o’clock.”
Fanny had a free period first thing followed by gym. She could shuttle Mr. Weiner to his appointment and still get to school with time to spare. “Sure that’s no problem.”
In the morning Fanny picked Bert up around eight-thirty, and they were standing outside the social security office with fifteen minutes to spare. He tried the handle, but the front doors were still locked. “I’ve already got a scheduled appointment so it shouldn’t be long,” he noted apologetically. “They loused up the survivor benefits after my wife passed away. Once the bureaucrats sort out the mess, I’ll receive the money in a lump sum.”
“Well, that’s nice.” Though Mr. Weiner rarely spoke of his wife, his voice was always tinged with muted reverence. Strangely, there were no images of the woman anywhere in the house. A vacant spot on the wall near the fireplace where a large picture had hung was lighter than the surrounding wallpaper. Fanny conjured up a wedding portrait in muted sepia tones dating back to the Vietnam War gracing the wall.
The front door of a car parked in the corner of the lot opened. A middle-aged man wearing a ‘Dizzy Gillespie for President’ T-shirt climbed out and sauntered toward the front door. Inside the building people were scurrying about as a row of fluorescent lights lit up the reception area. An oriental woman wearing a mint green, floral print dress hurried around the corner of the building dragging a much older woman, presumably her mother, by the wrist. They were speaking an Asian dialect with an endless barrage of ‘n’s’ and ‘g’s’ that sounded like Chinese but Fanny couldn’t be sure. The oriental woman glowered at them as, head bowed like a brown-skinned battering ram, she bullied her way to the front of the door, causing both men to back off several paces. Mr. Weiner had been unceremoniously bumped to second and the fellow with the funny T-shirt dropped back to third.
Neither woman acknowledged the existence of the other visitors waiting in line; when the security guard finally stepped forward with the key, they stampeded through the door and hurried to the service desk. Mr. Weiner took a number and sat in the waiting area. The security guard approached. “Any weapons, firearms or knives?” He gestured indicating Fanny’s purse.
“I still have to look.” She handed him the bag which he unzipped and examined with a bored expression before returning. “Thank you.”
A rather disheveled, middle-aged woman with gray-streaked hair and a jumbo cup of coffee entered. A teenage boy dressed like a skinhead was bringing up the rear. “No food or drinks.” The guard pointed at a sign strategically placed over the facing wall.
The woman went out, disposed of the coffee and returned to where the guard was standing. “Where do I sign in?”
The man gestured toward the help desk. “Just give them the last four digits of your social security number and wait with the others until they call your name.”
“It’s for him not me.” She indicated the boy.
“Then give his social security number.”
“Don’t know it.” She exploded in a hacking, smoker’s cough.
The guard gave her a dirty look. “You don’t know his number?”
The woman just shrugged and screwed up her face in a dull-witted frown. He turned to the boy. “What’s your social security number?”
The boy bit his lip and cocked his head to one side. “I dunno.”
“Corrigan.” The guard disappeared down the corridor.
At the service desk a worker was getting the Orientals squared away. “Who’s applying?”
“My muddah.” The woman in the floral dress yanked the equally dour-faced, older woman closer to the window.
“Does she speak English?”
“No English! No English!”
“Has your mother ever worked or collected taxable income since arriving in the United States of –
“No work. No taxes,” the angry mama-san sputtered.
Fanny leaned closer and was about to say something when Mr. Weiner’s name was called. “This won’t be long,” he assured her and disappeared down the hallway.
Fanny glanced around the reception room, which was filling slowly. With the exception of Mr. Weiner and the Orientals, most of the people were quite young. The security guard reappeared and approached the young boy and scruffy woman. “You’re all set. Take a seat and they’ll call your name.”
The twosome sat down next to Fanny. The dull-witted woman, who wasn't the boy's mother, reminded Fanny of the welfare recipients who flooded the market after the first of the month with their food stamps, AFDC and welfare vouchers. They loaded up on TV dinners, ice cream, over-priced junk food, peanut butter, bologna and pastas. When the manager, out of a sense of misplaced altruism, put one of them to work at the market, she seldom lasted much beyond the first paycheck. Viewing work as an avocation - something you did for amusement or under protest for short duration; they used the system to beat the system. In many respects they reminded Fanny of her brother, Norman, who smoked dope, frittered and farted his self-indulgent life away.
“I ain’t got no goddamn clothes,” the skinhead said, turning to the woman. Fanny noted a metal ring in the youth's left nostril and matching silver hoop dangling from his top lip. “Maybe I should shoot by the house… get my stuff.”
“Okay,” the woman replied hoarsely.
“What if my old man called the cops?”
“Why would he do that?”
“Hadn’t thought of that.” The woman seemed stymied. “Tough call.”
“Hell, it’s not like I did anything wrong,” he sputtered weakly. “Not really.” The mystery woman, who taxied him to the social security office, shrugged noncommittally.
Fanny rose and went to wait outside until Mr. Weiner finished his meeting. Ten minutes later they were back on the highway heading home. “How’d it go?”
“The administrator was very helpful.” He seemed genuinely pleased. “I’ll know more in a day or two.”
“Those two Orientals …Why should a foreigner who never worked a stinking day in her life here and can’t speak English collect benefits?” Fanny made a hard right onto Commerce Ave.
“Beats me,” he replied.
“And that teenage boy with the black leather jacket and body piercings – the one who didn’t know his own social security number … He isn’t even in high school yet. Why the hell’s he getting benefits?”
The older man chuckled softly and shook his bald head. “Ask me something easy – say, quantum physics or Einstein’s theory of relativity.”
“Is it like this all the time?”
“No,” Mr. Weiner replied. “Sometimes it’s worse.”
Saturday morning Fanny was sipping tepid coffee with Sally Bicknell in the employee lounge. Sally was a floater, who filled in for cashiers who called out sick or couldn’t finish their shift. The willowy, bean pole of a girl might have been passably pretty but for a pulpy lower lip that hovered a good half inch below its mate. A year younger than Fanny, Sally was a jittery, train wreck of a bleached blonde with a twitchy left eye. “I got this wicked paper cut.” Sally held an index finger in front of Fanny’s face and squeezed the fleshy tip with her free hand. A microscopic cut no more than a thirty-second of an inch wide puckered faintly. “It was bleeding profusely an hour earlier.”
Fanny had her own rather elaborate theory about Sally. Sixty years from now, when three-quarters of her contemporaries were moldering in the grave, Sally Bicknell would still be pissing and moaning about paper cuts and free-floating anxiety. Despite all her bellyaching, the woman would be remarkably unfazed by the passage of years. And Why? Because obscure and extravagant maladies, inoperable brain tumors, terminal parasites and pathogens were her raison d’être. On her deathbed at the age of a hundred and ten, as the priest was reading Sally Bicknell her last rites and anointing her with holy water, the woman would be showing the soon-to-be-bereaved the scar from her bogus paper cut.
“That Bert Weiner is a swell guy,” Sally gushed “I was telling him about my problems… you know, with my nerves.” Though there was no intrinsic merit whatsoever to her endless kvetching, Sally panicked imagining all the morbid, ill-defined things that might go wrong with her otherwise uneventful existence.
“You were telling Mr. Weiner about your problems,” Fanny tugged Sally gently back to the topic at hand, repeating the ditsy girl’s words back to her. Up until this week apparently Bert Weiner was the only member of the ShopRite staff unaware of Sally’s emotional excess baggage.
“Yeah, I’m telling him all about my nervous condition, and Bert stares off into space with this demented smile. Then out of the clear blue, he starts jibber jabbering about Helen Keller, the deaf and dumb woman who couldn’t - ”
“I know who Helen Keller was,” Fanny interrupted peevishly.
“He starts telling me how Helen Keller said that security was really just superstition and that it didn’t exist in nature.”
“Bert Weiner said that?”
Sally’s head bobbed up and down and her left eye likewise fluttered like a trap door a half dozen times in rapid succession. “Oh, he went on and on talking a blue streak how avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than confronting things head on and that life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all.”
“Bert told you all that?” Fanny couldn’t believe that the same elderly man, who never said diddly-squat to her, would open up to an emotional goofball like Sally Bicknell.
“Well, he was just parroting back what Helen Keller said after she grew up and got famous. But still, it sure was nice of him to share that stuff.”
Fanny was still trying to digest what she had heard when Sally leaned across the table giggling like an idiot and thumping her on the wrist. “Miss Goldberg in the pastry department’s got the hots for Bert.”
“What else is new?” Fanny had spotted the squat, older woman an hour earlier in the cosmetics aisle purchasing a box of L’Oreal hair coloring and wrinkle cream. Everyone was aware that Edith Goldberg had more than a passing interest in the frail elderly man who bagged Fanny’s groceries. A rumor was making the rounds that she invited him over for supper on at least a half dozen occasions, but each time Bert declined with vague excuses.
“I don’t think the feeling’s mutual.” Fanny noted.
“No, Mr. Weiner doesn’t have any romantic interest in that frump – not even for a casual role in the hay.” Sally leaned still closer across the table. “Edith met Bert’s wife, though. They volunteered together at the library. You know, stamping books out and filing returns back on the shelves.” “Mr. Weiner quit his job and took early retirement so he could care for the woman after her stroke.”
“Where did you learn all this?”
“Miss Goldberg. Once that woman gets going, she don’t hardly come up for air.” Sally seemed to take great pleasure divulging information that only she had been privy to up until now. “Anyway, the hospital wanted to ship Mrs. Weiner off to a rehab center, but Bert closed down his accounting firm so he could take her home.”
“I know, ain’t it swell?” Sally sighed, a drawn-out, if somewhat theatrical gesture. “Can’t imagine anyone doing that for me.”
“What else?” Fanny pressed.
“Edith went over to visit in late May a month after the woman left the hospital. Mrs. Weiner was all scrunched up in a wheelchair. Bert brought her out on the back deck so she could enjoy the fresh air.” Sally reached up and brushed an errant tear from the corner of her eye. “He had his wife all bundled up in a flannel blanket and was feeding her Motts applesauce right from the jar with a plastic spoon. The poor invalid… She couldn’t talk or nothing. Just sit there like damaged goods.”
Suddenly and without warning, Sally let her mouth go slack, scrunching up her nostrils and jutting her lower jaw to the right at an oblique angle. She held the grotesque mask for a solid five seconds before allowing her features to relax. “The stroke – it paralyzed all the muscles on the right side of her face; if Bert wasn’t there every minute with a Kleenex, the poor creature would slobber and drool all over herself like a freakin' mongoloid.”
“I didn’t know any of this,” Fanny said.
Sally sucked air sharply into her lungs and sighed. “Three years.”
“Three years what?”
“That’s how long he nursed his wife and then one day she up and died in her sleep in the hospital bed right next to him - the poor son of a bitch!”
“Sally Bicknell says you’re a goddamn saint.” Fanny threw this out in an offhand, acerbic manner as soon as she returned from break
“Really?” Mr. Weiner chuckled lightly. Five minutes – that’s how long I spent commiserating with her and now I’m sprouting wings and a halo.”
“How come you never told me about Helen Keller?” Fanny demanded, sidestepping his previous remark.
“I only told Sally because she was all lathered up.” Mr. Weiner replied. “And, anyway, you make high honors and score in the two thousands on your college boards. You don’t need any dopey advice from some two-bit amateur psychologist.”
On Wednesday they carpooled. Fanny called Mr. Weiner on her cell phone. “Be ready fifteen minutes early. I need your advice on a personal matter.”
“Yeah, whatever.” He hung up the phone.
When they drove passed the golf course and were turning onto South Main Street, Fanny said, “Two colleges accepted me for the fall semester.”
“I’m not attending either.”
“Okay.” The older man stared out the passenger side window.
Fanny smiled grimly. “Thought I’d take a year off,… maybe join the French Foreign Legion.”
“North Africa’s can be muggy this time of year.” He scratched a silver tuft of hair that peeked out from behind an earlobe. “I graduated high school in nineteen fifty-eight. The class valedictorian was a brilliant Swedish kid - Lars Something-or-other. I can’t recall his last name. He went bonkers… had a nervous breakdown and spent the next few years on the locked ward at Bridgewater State Hospital.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“I don’t know,” Mr. Weiner replied. “Life’s a crap shoot. Go to college. Don’t go to college. Join the goddamn French Foreign Legion. What difference does it make? At some point, hopefully before you’re wearing geriatric diapers and slipping away into second childhood, you figure out what you want to be when you grow up.”
The market loomed directly ahead. Choosing a parking space a healthy distance away from the front door, Fanny scanned the lot to make sure nobody else was close by. Reaching into the rear of the Subaru, she grabbed a navy blue backpack off the floor and placed on the seat between them. “Open the top flap.”
Mr. Weiner eyed her uncertainly. “What’s this all about?”
Without waiting, she tugged on the zipper and held the bag under his nose. A sweet, aromatic odor not unlike fresh-mown hay immediately suffused the car. Mr. Weiner poked about among the transparent, cellophane bags. “Is that what I think it is?”
Fanny told him about her brother, Norman. “I’ve considered everything from dropping a dime on the idiot to handing the knapsack over to my parents.” She pulled the zipper shut and flung the pack into the rear of the car. Fanny gestured with a hand toward a metal container near the loading dock at the side of the building. “Of course, I could just as easily throw the drugs in the dumpster and that would be the end of it. What do you think I should do?”
The elderly man sat with his hands folded in his lap and head slumped forward on his chest. “Hard to say. Don’t know what to tell you.”
Fanny reached out and flicked the master lock securing all four doors. Folding her arms across her chest, the girl stared sullenly at the steering wheel. “Not good enough.”
A minute passed and then another. Five minutes later Mr. Weiner cleared his throat. “Okay, if I was in your situation, kiddo, this is what I would do.” When he finished speaking his mind, Fanny unlocked the doors and they went to work.
An hour into her shift, the store manager approached with Sally Bicknell in tow. “Your brother’s on the phone. Says it’s a family emergency. Sally can manage your drawer until you get back.” He shut the light down over the register to discourage any additional shoppers from queuing up in the aisle.
In the office, Fanny picked up the phone. “Yeah?”
“I’m missing something,” the voice was frantic, borderline hysterical. “I was wondering if you - ”
“I got your stupid backpack.”
“Got it where?”
“Not to worry. We’ll talk when I get home later tonight.” She hung up the phone.
At nine-thirty, Fanny returned home and went directly to her brother’s bedroom. She tossed the Adidas backpack on Norman’s bed. “I saw you in Veteran’s Park buying this crap the other day so I know what you’re doing.” Her brother ripped the pack open and examined the content. Satisfied that nothing was missing, he stared at her warily. “After considering options, I’ve decided in favor of a hands-off policy.”
“What the hell's that mean?”
“Sooner or later, the cops will catch up with you again. As a repeat offender, you’ll get prison time and that will be the end of it.” She turned and left the room.
Later that night before going to bed, Fanny replaced the worn string on the gyroscope with a fresh length of cord. Setting the rotor in motion, she balanced the toy on the tip of a pencil then, flipping it end over end, stood the gyroscope upright on a taut piece of twine which she anchored between the bedposts. Where human nature proved both erratic and unpredictable, the laws of physics produced consistently replicable results
A decision was reached.
Fanny would become a supermarket Sadhu, traveling about the country, visiting religious shrines and holy places. Well, not really. She could work in stores where the grocery chain had outlets, while sharing an apartment with roommates. She would ask the admissions department at Boston College to hold her spot in the freshman class for one year, alluding to some vague family crisis. Perhaps Norman would be safely tucked away in a federal penitentiary fabricating Massachusetts license plates - his first real job. The money she squirreled away over the past few years for college – Fanny would leave that in the bank gathering interest.
Of course, most Sadhus made the break much later in life, but this was a finite yearlong sabbatical. In this the year twenty-ten, the universe was in deep flux. Retired Rhode Island firefighters grabbed generous clothing allowances so that when their forty-inch waists mushroomed to fifty, they wouldn’t look totally foolish; US soldiers were being blown to smithereens in the lush poppy fields of Afghanistan; Chinese women, who looked like they just floated into Boston Harbor on a sampan, applied for social security, demanding benefits with such galling tenacity that an army of native-born bureaucrats were stood back on their heels.
But none of this mattered. Maybe the new frontier, the untamed wilderness, was situated between her ears. It was a pristine state of mind, not some topographical, x-marks-the-spot smudge on a roadmap of North America. It had more to do with some foolish claptrap purchased second hand from a deaf, dumb and blind woman about life being a wondrous adventure or nothing at all.