A Vicarious Local
“Eh . . . Southampton?”
He had that old man stoop to his walk, but maneuvered easily enough between the cars. My foot hovered over the gas pedal as we squinted at each other through my windshield. I moved my sunglasses down from the top of my head to cover my eyes and willed the traffic light to change color. He moved to the side of my car and tapped the driver’s side window.
The word was clear if a bit muffled by the glass separating us. I stuck out my thumb and pointed it over my shoulder in his destination’s general direction. He leaned back to gaze off into that distance as if to calculate it before moving over to the sidewalk. I clicked on my turn-signal before I’d even begun accelerating.
The one damn town in all of Long Island that I know how to get to . . .
When we were belted and buckled, he gave the interior a critical once-over.
“My car is nicer.”
“Well,” I took a breath, “times are tough all over.”
“Don’t I know it.” I merged back into traffic and, rolling down my window, told him to do likewise.
“What, I stink or something?”
“The AC is broken, Pops. So we’re both gonna be a little ripe real soon.”
“Yeah it does. Nothing but overcast and humid. So much for June.”
I made a left hand turn across traffic and felt like a local taking the unmarked street.
“You know, you’re pretty lucky. I’m not from Long Island. I just happened to come from Southampton. Only reason I know where you’re going.”
“Why you out here?”
“I’m staying with my father-in-law for the summer. He’s got a shop in Southampton.”
“You work for him?”
“Nope. Not working.” I indicated the large, hinged knee brace on my leg. He acknowledged it with a grunt before pointing out the window.
“You see that? Dark Horse Restaurant. Good place to get a drink.”
“You sure you ain’t been in there already today doing some heavy lifting? Is that how you ended up wandering in traffic.”
He laughed and shook his head as I bent my arm at the elbow and pantomimed taking a drink.
“No, no. No more booze.”
“Good plan. I was a bartender, so I know. Seen it all. Done with that mess. Going back to school and see if I can find another way to make a living.”
“How you hurt your leg?” “I don’t even remember at this point. Probably just years of barwork. On my feet all night, breaking up fights, carrying heavy stuff up and down stairs. Breaks you down after a while, you know?”
“I tell you what, though. I haven’t felt this healthy in years. Getting to sleep at a decent hour. Eating better, exercise. You know I went for a swim every day last week? You believe that? The house I’m staying in is just a few blocks from the Peconic Bay. I just walk down there and dive in.”
“Swimming is good. All that sand and salt. Scrub you clean.”
“Yeah. It does feel like that.”
I went around a traffic circle and pulled onto route 24 heading south towards Hampton Bays.
“There is a faster way.”
“Yeah, well, this is the only way I know.”
We drove for a few miles without speaking and I kept thinking about what he’d said about getting clean. I liked the idea. I still wasn’t sure why I’d given him a ride, but figured that little gem was worth the hassle.
At his shout, my hands jerked the steering wheel making the car swerve a little in our lane. I felt my heart-rate throttle up as I glanced around.
“What’s the matter with you?”
“Ha. See that building is shaped like a Big Duck. Get it?”
“Yeah, I get it. And those tourists in front of the Duck almost got it, too.”
I let out my breath and looked over at him. He was in his sixites or seventies with longish, gray hair and wore a brown, leisure suit type outfit. He squinted back at me through a pair of eyeglasses with thick, smudged lenses and a there was a gold chain around his neck resting among some more long, gray hairs.
“Where’s your wife?”
The flush of adrenalin was fading, but I still had to downshift my temper.
“No offense, old timer, but I don’t think I’m going to tell you that.”
“Where you living?”
“Yeah, not telling you that either.”
We were moving through Hampton Bays at the leisurely thirty mile-per-hour speed limit.
“My wife is such a bitch.”
“Easy there, Pops. Let’s keep it PG.”
“There’s Villa Paul restaurant. Good food.”
“Another good local tip, but where are we headed exactly?”
As I slowed at the next intersection, he pushed open the car door and pulled himself to his feet.
“This is fine.”
He leaned down and stuck his hand back inside for me to shake. As I took it in mine, I said, “Seriously, I have nothing to do. I can take you the rest of the way . . .”
I chewed on a mouthful of guilt and relief as I watched his silhouette in my rearview mirror. I could still feel the grip of his fingers, skin slack with age and wear. The flesh felt cool and damp despite the thick heat as I watched a white, plastic hospital bracelet slide slowly towards me until it caught in a tangle of long, gray arm hair.
I continued driving along Montauk Highway. It took me past the church where I’d been married and I knew that, in a few more miles, there was the farm stand that my wife counted as one of her favorite places on earth. She would join me in a few weeks when the interminable New York City school year finally ended and she was released from her teaching gig at P.S. 3 for the summer. We would have a few months for me to recover from knee surgery and look for a new place to live as I applied to the graduate school whose campus lay only a few more miles ahead on the same road. She would be surprised when I told her about the old man, but in a good way. And I would remind her that, before she came along, it wasn’t too hard for me to imagine ending up on a humid street corner in a strange town with no one to give me a ride.
I parked the car at my wife’s childhood home and let my feet carry me to the Bay. There was a wooden ramp leading down the bulkhead to the rocky shore and I held tight to its railing as I pulled off my shoes and socks. I dropped my damp tee shirt on top of them before unhooking the Velcro straps of my knee brace and letting it fall as well. The air felt cool on my bare skin. I let the small stones bite into the soles of my feet as I squinted into the glare of sun obscured by low-hanging clouds. I was alone on that slight curve of beach, save for a single gull that eyed me suspiciously as I waded into the water.