"Oh, but who do we have here? Is it an angel from the heavens?"
Fred was startled, he didn't think anyone would speak like that, unless in some badly made remake of "Oklahoma" or something. It took a while before he realized the emitter of that particular bit of drivel was, in fact, Manny. By the time Fred turned he just felt the wind of Manny racing past him to get to the lady who was simply sitting there with an obviously confused look on her face, as if she didn't understand whether the man was joking, or maybe a lunatic actor rehearsing his monologue, or straight loony, or speaking a foreign language that just randomly seemed to make sense in English. By the time her hand was being done the honor of the close company of Manny's lips, she looked no longer confused, but merciless, and Fred was sure poor Manny is going to get a special treat for his kind deed, and not after a very long while, at that.
"And to think I was about to put gloves on this morning."
The look in her eyes left no doubt in Fred's mind that she didn't mean her best pair, and he decided it was time for a daring and heroic rescue, before the damsel remembered she did in fact pack a purse revolver, or alligator, or some other little thing for self defense, so he grabbed Manny solidly by the left forearm and dragged him to the office, dropping a plastic spoon or two on the way.
"What is wrong with you?!"
"Huh?" Manny was rubbing his arm and looked about somewhat dazed and mentally exhausted as after a whole week of non-stop blind dates.
"For a moment there, we were back in junior high. Actually, you were, and I was dragged down with you for no good reason. Think we could maybe not give out the definite impression that we are about to ask the girl to take a walk behind the bleachers?"
"What do you mean? I was just being nice."
"No you were being temporarily, I hope, insane. That's not nice. That's imitating Errol Flynn, drunk."
"Man never was sober."
"What?" Fred was puzzled for a moment. "Never mind that, point was..."
"Now you listen to me. Standing there, I suddenly didn't understand. How is it possible for anyone, anyone at all to be lonely and sad and desperate? When all there is to it, really all there is to do, is just work past the terror and the possibility of looking like a dopey kid and all the other silly details and somehow manage to express yourself."
"Huh?" Fred was looking in the general direction of Manny with glazy eyes.
His thoughts whirled about, like a small tornado in his head. Did Manny just say the same thing he was thinking himself minutes ago? So then he was right after all, the invisible fog, the dark, desolate, damp fog that always seemed to cling to him, enclosing him in a couple-yards wide circle, leaving everything else outside, making him invisible and unimportant to everybody and everything to the point where they might as well never have existed for him... and more painfully, he might as well never have existed for them, for people and dogs, pebbles and puddles, lamp poles and meteorites alike... that fog maybe can be simply dispelled, because it is all in your mind. His mind suddenly filled with the memory of his day at the museum, not the painting he had liked so much, but the moment of him gazing at it was filling his mind. There, that very moment punctured the fog bubble, and ever since then it wasn't clinging to him anymore. It was still there, everywhere, clouding his eyes and hiding him as before, yes, but now it wasn't clinging anymore. Before it was like iron powder on a magnet, no way to get it off, can't shake it off, can't wash it off, can't really pick it off, that's that, there with it forever. Now it was more like real fog on a tree, it's still there in its leaves, but every gush of wind takes some off, until there is none left at all.
Really listening to people, really paying attention and noticing the world, its paintings and run down buildings where clubs can be organized, that was the way to dispel the nasty fog. And yet Manny doesn't seem to care for all of that, he just wants to express himself! Come to think of it, how can Fred be sure Manny didn't pay any attention? Maybe the girl, with her green eyes and red lips and everything else was Manny's own painting. Maybe Manny felt just as captive in a bubble of his own... and maybe it was just punctured.
Could Manny be right? Just do it! No! It couldn't be, Manny should not have acted that way, if everybody just did whatever they felt like then nobody could get along with anybody else for as long as five minutes. Manny's painting, if that's what she was, definitely didn't like his self-expressing much... or maybe that was just appearance? Manny did sound a lot like his own thoughts a few minutes ago, when he realized people should listen to each other, and come to think of it maybe that was a worthless realization, people had to listen to each other, didn't they? If nobody listened ... Now that he thought of it, people mostly didn't listen, at least not really. And since people don't listen anyway, although they really should, maybe people could do anything they felt like anyway, although they really shouldn't. Fred shook his head dissatisfied with the way he seemed to run from dilemma to paradox and back again lately.
But, still it made so much sense, after all problem was people didn't dare talk to each other most of the time, and certainly never actually said anything when they did. But, why not say whatever, if nobody was listening anyway, what did it matter? But then, if everybody really acted like that the world would be chaos, but then of course it really was chaos already, wasn't it? Fred realized this was getting him nowhere; it was just back and forth, round and round, the same thoughts, just different words. If his sudden idea about listening to people had been right, then it followed Manny must also be right about just expressing yourself, and yet both must also be wrong.
Fred was rubbing his forehead and looking about with the vaguely dazed and mentally exhausted expression of someone who just went through a whole week of non-stop professional development seminars, when he noticed the origin of the entire problem and consequent headache standing in the door frame. Oh glory.
"Anyway, if any of you gentlemen care, my friends call me Frankie and I think I'd love to spend some time in your asylum."
There was a sudden chorus of unarticulated moans from the gentleman's side, and then a sort of buzz encompassing the entire room, would the lady want a chair? Not that one, this one over here is a lot more comfortable, soda? Coffee? Low fat milk with special coupon imported green tea? Should the air conditioning be turned on? Or maybe the heating system? (in July!) Would she like a canary? Canned French glueberries?
Peggy settled into the front seat and reached over her shoulder for the seat belt. Ralph was fumbling with the keys, and trying to cover his nervousness. They had already exhausted all the usual small talk, the how are yous' and isn't the weather nice (it wasn't), and have you seen the current popular movie (she hadn't), now what? (nothing).
Her mind raced, trying to come up with a topic to fill the uncomfortable silence. How was she to know that Ralph was thinking the same? Experience?
Ahh, story night!
"Ralph, do you know who is going to tell the first story tonight?"
"I think John volunteered to go first. That should be interesting, John really doesn't seem the type to tell stories, in fact, he is often difficult to understand. I am sure I don't know just how he will manage to tell a story. I don't know what he is talking about most of the time, he never seems to stick to whatever subject he starts with."
"You don't? It's not that hard, of course he is very soft spoken, you have to listen closely."
Again the silence stretched between them like a small river of some sticky matter, oozing over the transmission, encircling the gear shift, slowly filling the leg space with goo, threatening to fill all that and rise to cover the seats and their hands and mouths and eyes and then, that would be the end of it.
At last, Ralph broke the silence. Clearing his throat a bit, he chose to change the subject, which appeared to be heading straight for a disagreement.
"Have you spoken with Fred recently? He mentioned the other day that we had several new members, and some of them might be coming tonight."
"Yes, he told me that the other day. I am rather hoping some women will join, it's a bit hard being the only woman in the club you know."
"Is it really? I would have thought it would be fun, I certainly would not mind being the only man in a club."
They both laughed at that, but Peggy groaned a bit on the inside. She wondered briefly if all men were really as shallow and transparent as this or was it just that she somehow managed to attract only that kind.
"Have you planned a story to tell when your turn comes?"
"I don't really know that I will ever take a turn at it, I have no idea what sort of story to tell. Maybe after I hear a few from the others, but I am just not good at talking in front of crowds."
"Yes, I know what you mean, stage fright. I never even tried to do things like school plays, my mouth gets too dry to talk. But I really mean to give it a try when the time comes."
"My mother used to be daring like that..."
Peggy turned to look at Ralph, and since they were waiting at a red light, she found that he was looking at her too as he spoke. For a moment, their eyes met and understanding passed between them. Then the light changed and the moment was gone. Again, they rode in silence, but now it was simply a quiet, while each thought their own thoughts and not as uncomfortable as before.
Peggy was surprised when the car came to a stop and Ralph turned the key to shut it down. The silence must have lasted several minutes for them to already be there and yet it had not felt so, apparently she had been lost in thought about that school play she really had wanted to try out for...
They opened the doors and gathered up the boxes of cookies and other things and together they crossed the street, heading for the silly wooden Indian.
Peggy was the first to notice that Fred was not at his usual station, by the door, ready to greet each person.
As they entered the room, there was an indistinct buzz in the air that was very irritating to Peggy, although she wasn't very sure why. But when they got to where they could see plainly through the open door of the office the interesting spectacle of Fred and Manny all but doing the manicure of a very particular blonde woman, she was very sure why, suddenly, and it wasn't all that indistinct anymore either. Quite the contrary, Peggy had the distinct feeling of all her guts making a regulation round turn and two half hitches knot.
"Well, looks like your wish is about to be granted." said Ralph with a grin.
Frankie turned to face the nice fresh additions to her fast growing, if not very impressive retinue. There was a balding man with an otherwise cute belly development, if you care for that sort of thing, and... oh dear god. A woman, by all appearances. This wasn't in the book, what was going on here? She carefully examined all the eye corner wrinkles she could possibly find and decided for divorcee. How neat, there is going to be some action tonight...
Peggy sized up the situation. She really couldn't see much of the woman from this angle, but from the way Fred, balanced Fred, everyone-is-right Fred, wise-and-just-ruler Fred was drooling, there must have been at least some cause. Peggy didn't even want to find out how much cause. And Manny was not even doing his usual slouch, trying not to look so tall.
Seeing the woman's eyes on her as Fred moved a bit out of the way, Peggy could only smile weakly in acknowledgment and rush off to unburden herself of the boxes of cookies. Grateful the refreshment table was out of the line of sight, she dropped the boxes on it and stood there, trying to regain some composure and collect her thoughts a bit.
Jealousy, fear, confusion, curiosity; the emotions flooded her senses, colliding and creating new ones she couldn't even put a name to. She leaned against the refreshment table a bit, steadying herself and began to repeat "Get a grip, Peggy", softly under her breath, mantra like. Slowly the monotony of it calmed her, allowing rational thought to return.
What was that woman doing here? A woman like that was certainly not like the rest, lonely, bored, desperate. She probably had countless admirers, the way young ladies used to last century, yet certainly she wasn't stopping at what would have made those young ladies faint. What was she up to, coming here? Well. She certainly was not the cookie baking type! Realizing that her little territory of Mommy' to the club was in no danger Peggy finished arranging things on the table, while resolving to keep an eye on this woman and keep her from ruining things for all of them. Now, where was Ralph with the rest of the things from the car?
Peggy turned to look for Ralph and spotted him still in place, in line with the office door, staring at the woman. He was shifting his weight back and forth, as if he was trying to walk away but stuck there, feet held to the floor by some incredibly thick matter.
Apparently her voice broke the spell. Ralph turned his head, acknowledged her and his feet broke lose allowing him to join her at the refreshment table and deliver the items he had been clutching all this time, but moving in a very amusing way, head a bit turned back, so if a pole magically appeared on the wrong side, a nice bump would have correspondingly appeared on his head, in due time. Peggy briefly regretted she didn't carry a rolling pin.
"Oh would you look where you're going for Christ's sake!"
"Uhh... I was just..."
"Ya, ya, you were, now careful there is a table there and a wall further ahead."
Ralph looked at her with the expression of a kicked puppy, hoping it was all an accident. Good. Peggy was well sick of this sort of behaviour. Ever since she was old enough to notice this sort of thing, it was getting on her nerves. Every boy she ever met acted in this impossible way, and men seemed no better, as if there was no maturing out of it, as there is no maturing out of having two hands with five fingers a piece. She would chat or play or just hang out or walk or listen to music or do whatever else with others. And then the second some better looking girl, or sexier looking, or taller, or whatever the hell else, would walk in, that was it, focus would sharply change and there she was, abruptly cast in the shadows. As if she was expected to naturally move to some subordinate place in whatever invisible hierarchy. In fact, Peggy didn't care much to be the focus of attention, she didn't do wild things, she didn't speak loudly or dress provocatively, and not because she was too dumb to notice or be able to reproduce the ridiculous tricks that one uses to summon male attention. She didn't do it simply because she really couldn't see what is so great about working for hours to prepare dresses and accessories and gestures and postures and idiotic little phrases and everything else, just so that people would gaze at her more than at the wooden chair next to her. But she resented the way focus shifted, decidedly and sharply, and with no right of appeal, as if it was governed by some law au par with the tide. Every time it happened, she was a bit hurt, because she did things wholeheartedly and always invested herself into whatever it was, baking cookies or talking to the crazed telemarketers swarming her phone, and then people would just suddenly drop it and start moving while looking backwards and give half articulated answers while looking past her, and it was as if she really just didn't matter, and more importantly, nothing that was going on five minutes before could be reasonably considered any more important or valuable. Because, after all, if whatever distraction presented itself five minutes earlier, she would have been dropped then, just as suddenly. It wasn't that it made her feel unimportant and suddenly invisible, it was that it made her realize how unimportant she is all the time, and entirely expendable, and she resented that realization with a passion, even more than her very invisibility and undesirability.