The Old Ghost

I’m confronted by the impossibility of beginning. I used to be good at this, I figure, or at least I used to be naïve enough to act like I was good at it so I could just dive into things. Now I’m so worried about a good start that the start sucks and so does the rest of it.

I’ve gotten sick of slamming futilely on the pump of the long-emptied hand-soap dispenser in the bathroom so with the fifth episode of True Detective still replaying in my head and the knowledge of a hefty tax exemption in my wallet I dig my keys out of my umbrella (no kidding, that’s where I found them) and head out into the un-customarily warm February air towards the nearest promise of perpetual low prices. My heart is surprisingly light, and I sing along to some Owl City with the front passenger window half rolled down (at least some of the windows in that piece of junk still work) and the fear that every pair of headlights in my rear-view mirror is a cop car keeping the drive interesting.

I find myself a spot and wander in through the exit, working my way back around past the registers to the entrance where a guy who doesn’t really have a solid handle on English can’t tell me why they don’t have hand-baskets and gives me a shopping cart. I tell him it’s okay and head for the “personal care” section where I grab the cheapest bulk bottle of soap I can find. I get ten feet away before realizing it says “antibacterial” exactly nowhere on that bottle. Trip two secures me something uglier but less bacteria-friendly. Trip three is me remembering the body wash at home is almost empty and being shocked that body wash costs so much more than soap. Trip four is a “sensitive skin” can of Barbasol and hoping for no trip five.

And then I wander. I don’t really know if I want anything in particular, but there’s something about the place that says if you’re here you may as well make the most of it. I take it as a challenge, though in retrospect I’m pretty sure I lost.

Passing through the kitchenware aisles I come extremely close to buying a Mr. Coffee so that I, too, can guzzle a pot a day instead of settling for the meager, watery output of successive K-cups. I note incredulously that a generic rival brand coffee maker is positioned beside the official Mr. Coffee. The joke isn’t so much the presence of a generic brand, but that the brand is literally Rival.

I come to the corner of the store and discover the clearance section, marked with a giant banner with the Aquafina logo on it (though for the life of me I can’t imagine what water and the overstocked inventory have in common, except perhaps both are largely tasteless). Near the entrance I discover shelves filled with discounted seasonal candles one season too late, which would normally fill me with glee except I made the mistake a couple years ago of purchasing a pumpkin candle from the store back home which ended up smelling exactly like stale urine (our family lovingly dubbed it “the piss candle”).

The thought crosses my mind that someone might wonder what I’m here for (I do not know why such a stupid thought crossed my mind) and the answer I’m pretty sure I would blurt out if asked is “morbid curiosity.” I guess that goes for the whole of Wal-Mart but doubly for back here, where the person for whom buying gaudy neon glow signs at full price is too lofty a proposition can find them for 50% off, and where the truly adventurous souls can find food and flavored water even less fit for human consumption than it was six months ago when they put it out originally.

I overhear one guy, maybe twenty years old, telling his friend (who is sporting bleach-tipped spiked hair straight out of a 90’s music video) rather urgently “but her birthday’s only a month away” and I hope for both his sake and hers that the impending celebration and his presence in this godforsaken wing of Wally-world aren’t related.

But then, somewhere between the inception and execution of whatever smug laugh at my own joke is about to surface, it occurs to me yeah well either way at least he has someone. And suddenly here I am, humbled between a Brutus Buckeye lawn gnome and a can of Pringles tortilla chips, wishing I were in his shoes, with a girl whose birthday I’m expected to do something special for.

The new money in my checking account suddenly takes on new import. Sure, I could blow it on luxuries for the next year or so and still probably be fine. Or I could make a point of holding onto it. I could put it away, out of sight, because maybe one day there will be a birthday I’m trying to make special, a smile I’m trying to conjure via rose or rosé. Hasn’t happened even once in all these years but then they say there’s a first time for everything, right?

I choke down that egregious use of cliché and head towards the exit, no longer even morbidly interested in shopping here. Along the way, remembering an impending lack of printer paper, I turn down the arts and crafts aisle, and an array of sketchbooks and rubber stamps causes my memory to ripple like water under skipping stones. I see a young me faintly, and then the sensation is gone.

The next aisle brings me my paper, but it also brings me chills. Surrounded by pads of paper, a myriad of expensive pens, and index cards, my past floods back. Nine years old, and I’m going to be an author. I adore stationery. I’m reading a Hardy Boys book. I’m taking important notes on some bird I saw while sitting in a tree. Draft after draft. An old laptop. Dreams. Say What? “We’ll solve any crime by d—”

I blink at the steno pads in front of me, and I want to fill their pages, all of them, with the stories I never bothered to tell, with the ones I thought I’d live instead of the one I actually did. I lift one of them and examine the cover, which tells me the pages within are Gregg-Ruled. I wonder who Gregg is and (as I flip open the cover) why he had to write so large. At twenty-seven cents I decide to indulge the writerly impulse and toss a small pad into the cart beside the pack of printer paper. As I once more aim for the exit, this time for real, I can’t shake the feeling that if I just turned around, right now, I’d see him, looking wide-eyed at all those overpriced designer pens, too caught up in his dreams of all the important things he’d write with them to notice the lonely, cynical man staring wistfully in his direction.

The optimism and naïveté that had sent me into the night are gone as I shuffle out to my car trying to remember who I used to be. Paramore sings of burying idealistic dreams, which stirs something, but it’s the next song that really gets to me:

Well I can see behind the curtain: the wheels are cranking, turning; it’s all wrong the way we’re working towards a goal that’s nonexistent. It’s nonexistent but we just keep believing. And the worst part is before it gets any better we’re headed for a cliff. And in the free-fall I will realize I’m better off when I hit the bottom.

My mind turns to everything I’ve seen and heard in the last few weeks regarding this world I’ve chosen to find myself in, the nigh-crippling cynicism giving way to a kind of reserved something to make it all work. Yesterday I told someone that when I set out to be a professor I had no way of knowing what that meant to the people along the path to getting there. It truly has been like visiting Oz in more ways than I care to articulate here.

A week ago someone called me idealistic and it angered me. Tonight, I’ll take it as a compliment. Because so long as I can hold out hope that this life is anything like what I once believed it to be, that little boy is still alive. The mysteries I read have grown darker. The hands reaching out for mine have grown farther. The words have gotten longer. But I’m still in there somewhere.

And, wouldn’t you know it, I’m as obstinate as ever.

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