When You Least Expect It

WHEN YOU LEAST EXPECT IT It’s rare you find an irascible person who becomes less so with age. Tank Stark was no exception. He’d find all kinds of reasons to yell at my mother. She was dumping her grass cuttings on the swale of the dirt road — which everyone did, since it was the right of way. Her dog barked twice one afternoon. She hadn’t yet trimmed off a tree limb that overhung the road. And sometimes it was just that she’d stepped outside for a moment in her nightgown. When I came to visit, he’d find reasons to yell at me, too. Mostly for not keeping a more vigilant eye on my Bohemian/beatnik/hippie/probably-a-goddamned-commie mother. The older Tank got, the more vehement and spite-filled his periodic harangues became. After retiring from his job with a local oil delivery company, he had more occasion to shout across the road at my mother, because he mowed his lawn every other day. If you looked real close on a bright day, you could almost make out the microscopic tips of grass blades shooting out the back of his riding mower, but the weather conditions and angle of the sun had to be exactly right for their decapitation to be even barely visible. I figured this frequent shearing off of a day’s worth of growth was less a result of some compulsive need to keep the lawn protected from any errant needle of green that might creep above the height of his mower’s blade, and more a function of his wife ordering him to take his snowballing obsessiveness out of the house right this minute or she would scream. Loudly. That, and Tank knowing that if he didn’t go, his hands might find their way… accidentally… to her increasingly chicken-like neck. The sense of expendability that unemployment had unleashed in him made such alien thoughts more and more comfortable in his mind. As my widowed mother aged, my visits increased in frequency and duration. Which translated into more time to see Tank verbally assault her. It wasn’t that my mother couldn’t give as good as she got. It was that I worried what Tank’s progressively more violent tirades might lead him to do some day. My own rage burned deeper and deeper. Ma and I had gradually switched roles as to who was the caregiver to whom, and my protectiveness toward her had become increasingly intense. Tank’s unflagging hostility to my mother was making me more and more furious with him. When I’d go out to run errands, I’d check to see if Tank’s old Chrysler was in the driveway. If it was, I worried the whole time I was out that he and Ma would fall to fisticuffs. If he was out, I fervently hoped I wouldn’t run into him anywhere. One day I was picking up my mother’s New York Times at the local luncheonette. As I started up the two wide steps to the door, I spotted an older gentleman leaving the place, obliquely bent and unsteady. I relieved him of the open door so he could fumble with a cane in each hand. While his spine stood fairly erect, side to side he was bent this way at that, a series of opposing angles that made movement slow, laborious, and unpredictable for him. I kept an eye on him for a moment as he started making his slow way down the small ramp set into the concrete steps. As I watched him over my shoulder with a mix of anxiety and concern, the old gent lost his balance. I whirled to him and caught one of his arms, steadying him with a hand on his back while I tried to figure out which way he preferred to lean. Another bystander had simultaneously grabbed his other arm, and balanced him with a strong hand on his shoulder. The three of us exchanged brief smiles, and the old gent thanked us. And as I looked to my fellow Samaritan, I was as shocked to find myself staring into Tank’s rheumy blue eyes as he was to be looking into mine. Tank continued to shoot stiletto glares in my mother’s direction after that day, but held his tongue. Sometimes I thought the effort might do him in, so distended were the veins in his neck as his weathered complexion grew ruddier. At other times he pretended not to see her. When we crossed paths at the post office, or the luncheonette, or as I walked down the road while he was torturing his lawn back down to an acceptable level, Tank wouldn’t quite meet my eyes, but would give me the merest of nods. After a few weeks of this, I saluted him when we found ourselves in the other’s vicinity, and he actually cracked a smile. Finally, one night, my mother asked what I thought accounted for the softening –- if you could call it that –- of Tank’s attitude toward her. “Ah, y’know… He’s getting old,” I answered. She considered, then shook her head. “But –- ” she started. I just shrugged.