All We Don't Know

I think the man in the park, wearing an official-looking reflective vest, picking up garbage, is talking on his cellphone until he gets closer and I realize he is just a good old fashioned crazy man, talking to people who aren't there.

There is a retarded man who comes to the public pool.  He swims all afternoon, sometimes bobbing underwater, but mostly just wading, stuttering out the same words over and over, holding his hands in front of his face and making silly gestures with his fingers. One day, Biffy and I see him way across the pool talking to some ladies. Eventually, he floats over to us, wiggling a finger in his ear, squeeling at a high pitch. We say hi and his hands drop and he transforms into a completely regular guy named Tim who is charming and funny and tells us about his dog and his respectable job.  It isn't too long before he asks if either of us are single.  When we say no, he asks if we know of any women right around our age who are.  "But I'm looking for a normal girl, none of these kooky types," he says.  "If you know what I mean."  We reassure him that we do.  And because we laughed when he told us about his dog, he tells us about his dog again, demonstrating how his dog runs off every time he opens the door.  But there is something about calling his dog's name over and over which sends him back to where he emerged, and his fingers flutter back to his face resuming their patterns as he squeals at them.  He floats away, and Biffy and I float back to our husbands who aren't too impressed with our discovery.  But we are, the surprise lingering for months, how startlingly wrong we can be about so many things.

My brother lives in nice old neighborhood in a large city, just down the street from a grade school. While visiting, I take my kids and my nieces to the grade school playground.  It's summer break and there are men working on the school.  We are the only ones on the playground except for a young woman who I don't notice at first, but when I do, I assume she a teacher, taking a break from preparations for the next session.  The woman eventually walks over to me and asks if I have any water and I say no, but I'm sure there must be a water fountain inside the school.  One of my nieces offers to show her where, and before I know it, both my nieces, are skipping off with this woman, each holding one of her hands.

It isn't until they are out of sight that it slowly dawns on me.  What kind of a woman is this, sitting alone at a playground, asking strangers for a drink of water?  I quickly gather our things, order my kids to follow, and hurry to catch my nieces.  Several workmen are taking a break outside the school.  I ask them if they saw a young woman with twin girls go into the building.  They shake their heads.  My imagination erupts with every horrific conclusion.  I rush towards my brother's house, trying to hold down the thought that my nieces won't be there.  I run up the steps and one of my nieces opens the screen door.  Okay, I breath.  No need to worry.  "That woman's weird," she says.  My other niece joins us. "She wants lunch."  Under my watch, my nieces have brought home a crazy woman.

My brother, older than me, a highly respected professor and classical pianist, comes into the hallway.  The woman who I thought had stolen my nieces, lingers in my brother's house, picking up objects off shelves and studying them quizzically.  My heart thumps with adrenaline.  "You have to go," I blurt.

"We're having lunch," she says, dreamily.

"No, you have to go, now."

"Come on, kids," she beckons floating out to the porch.

"No," I say.  "These aren't your kids."

"Oh?" she says, bewildered.  We watch her wander down the driveway, into the neighbor's yard, and through their bushes.  Eventually she crosses the street and heads back in the direction of the school.

"Maybe we should call the police," my brother suggests.  I agree that might be a good idea, but for some reason, we don't.

Where my fear became anger, my anger became guilt, realizing that a simple defect in my own imagination sent this woman back onto the streets instead of getting her what she really needed, a drink, a lunch, a call to someone who might be able to get her back to where she belonged.


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