Now Thomas—please try to keep T.D.M. in mind—he is, after all, one of the central elements of this story, if not, as some would have it, life itself. As I was saying, Thomas was under the weather. Normally he considered this a good thing, but on this particular day it was not weather he particularly wanted to be under. It was one of those marrow freezing, soul draining early spring rains you get in the Mid-West that brings not a promise of growth or renewal, but a sense of the slimy decay of the grave. The kind of day that would make Tiny Tim say, “God help us, everyone. What’s the fucking use?” When the local PBS station broadcast a work by Mahler that afternoon the suicide hotline had to bring in extra help. The world was cold, wet and gray, and not only was Thomas being rained on, he felt like hell.
His umbrella seemed especially designed to direct the maximum amount of water down the back of his neck, and as he walked along the reflection that kept pace with him in the shop windows was a lot pudgier than he remembered. He had remarked to a friend just the other day that he was sure shopkeepers were using a new type of magnifying glass in their windows that made him look like a fat, old man. She had been less than impressed with his theory. “So, you’re saying that all of the city’s merchants have gotten together and secretly installed new windows just to make you look fat?”
“Well, it sounds silly when you put it that way, and I didn’t say the entire city. I only shop on the east side. I doubt if they did it over on the west side.”
“There’s nothing over there. It’s all residential.
“See! It’s just like I said. I don’t shop on the west side of town, and there are no stores with magnifying windows there. Tell me it’s not a coincidence.”
“You’re a twit,” had been her thoughtful reply to his ironclad logic. “You’ll be wearing tinfoil in your hats next.”
Thomas’s umbrella chose that particular moment in his reverie to dump what seemed like a quart of water it had been saving down the back of his neck. His breath came out all in a rush, “Whoa!” and he kind of danced/skipped a couple of steps. “Bloody designer probably graduated from here,” he muttered. A woman walking toward him wondered when the state would start providing decent care for those unfortunate people and decided to cross the street.
“The problem,” he muttered, “is life. It’s a concept that needs a bit more thinking through before being shoved off on someone with no training.”
The way people were edging away from him reminded him that he was muttering again and he clamped his teeth firmly shut. Unfortunately, his left cheek was not paying attention and he bit into it, which caused him to exclaim, “Shit!” with enough force to cause people to edge even further away from him. This irritated him because he was, by all accounts, a fairly nice guy—he was just under some particularly ugly weather at the moment—and he glared at them for edging away. Which, of course, made them edge even further away.
“At least the sidewalk’s not crowded,” he muttered.
It was at this precise moment that a very large, and seemingly perfect stranger ran into Thomas knocking him off the sidewalk into the gutter. The man had just jumped out of the blue, or perhaps a hat shop—Thomas was a bit confused by the blow—and the passersby who had looked out from under their umbrellas, there are always one or two, could never quite agree if the stranger had come out of the blue, a hat shop or a Starbucks. When he had recovered his breath Thomas stammered a quiet, and totally insincere, “Pardon me,” while in his mind he screamed questions that, if said out loud would have gotten him arrested—or an Emmy award winning series on HBO—or both.
By this time Thomas had collected himself sufficiently to observe that the man was, thankfully, a complete stranger and not one missing any obvious parts. He was, after all, not quite sure what the proper response should be if, for example, a one legged man had knocked him off the curb. Do you apologize and pretend it was your fault; or do you try to be cool and say something like, “Nice hopping, Man”; or do you act like having a person hopping wildly about and crashing into you and almost putting you under the number 3 bus is so routine you don’t even notice it anymore?
Now while this was, as I said, a total stranger, he was not quite a perfect stranger. For one thing he seemed prone to knocking people into rain-swollen gutters. He did, however, take firm control of the situation, not to mention Thomas’s upper arm, and in a demanding voice asked, “What are you doing here?”
There are those who contend that this was a purely rhetorical, or at best situational question, and could have been answered with a simple, “Oh, sorry. I didn’t see you coming;” but this was an ugly, early spring day in the Mid-West and Thomas was middle-aged so he took a more existential view of the question. He made a stab at a couple of answers, missed, and tried a couple more, one of which he wounded; but they had trouble convincing him let alone strangers out of the blue—or a hat shop.
"I'm not sure."
"You're not sure?" The stranger's voice was dripping with scorn; or, since he didn't have an umbrella, it could have just been the rain.
"No." Desperately Thomas groped for the wounded answer, but it escaped by hiding under some old dreams in one of the darker corners of his mind. "Should I be?"
"Christ. You're even dumber than a wildebeest," and the stranger jumped back into the blue, knocking two Stetsons off a shelf in the process, one of which he had to pay for.
Now this exchange hurt Thomas very much. Partly because he had twisted his ankle when he fell off the curb, and partly because his ego wasn't quite up to unfair comparisons to wildebeests at the moment.