She noticed his hair first. White, clean, parted and perfectly combed. He seemed to be showing it off to the other men in the room, most of whose hair could be pressed in place with a dampened palm.
His eyes were blue, accentuated by the blue knit shirt carefully tucked in behind a modest brown leather belt holding up crisply pressed khaki slacks. His shoes were out of sight, hidden by the back of her chair where she draped her jacket. But surely, they were the same brown leather as his belt. The rest of him was too well put together for them not to be.
This man spent time in front of a mirror over his bathroom sink and in front of another full length one hung behind his bedroom door. This type of attention to detail had to be checked over – at least twice.
Alice looked away before he glanced up to see her taking him in.
She could sense when someone was about to catch her watching. A good watcher needs to know when to avert her eyes and feign interest in something or someone else. A good watcher mentally records the observations that will later be written down. Not in note form, but complete long thoughts converted to equally long sentences, written on a yellow legal pad, later when there is time to pour it all out.
It is then that Alice will sink into the details of what has caught her eye and begs to be orderly spread across the blue lines of the paper. Her ballpoint pen must feel the soft bed of layers of pages stacked in the pad to better hold her words in the pressed grooves of writing. When the bottom of the page is reached, Alice tears it off and finishes her sentence on the back side, careful to write and circle the number 2 at the top.
Later when she is satisfied with her “story” as it has raced through sheet after sheet, she will turn the stack over and read through them to make adjustments.
But today she is just getting started.
The white-haired, blue-eyed man was not there to make friends or greet old ones. He was there to be noticed. He could only go so long without eyes upon him and every so many minutes would interrupt the meeting to draw attention and apologize for being a bother.
Alice thought about his need to be noticed. Was it all about ego or was it simply loneliness? She thought it was the latter and went from annoyance with his actions to sympathy. The white-haired, blue-eyed man must simply be lonely.
Elderly single men who have either annoyed previous companions or watched them die off are rarely equipped with the ease their wives had for making new friends. Being chatty and showing interest in someone else was what women do. Not men who, once retired, have little to talk about.
This was Alice’s conclusion after years of watching and listening.
Of course, if he was a golfer, he would say something about golf, and get a conversation going. Same if he was a fisherman. Problem was that he would need another golfer or fisherman to have that exchange of words that lead to stories that lead to meeting up later to keep it going. To make a friend.
Here in this small retirement village, there was too much diversity of backgrounds. And too many men with wives who they depended on to listen. Why start over telling your story when you already had someone that was well-equipped to fill in when lapses of memory occurred and when details were needed to make something clearer.
In a way that is kind of what Alice does. She fills in all the gaps between actual observations with her own imagination. It is a way to fill her time. Words on a page are the physical evidence that she cared enough about something she saw or heard. And it held her attention, not only long enough to get it on a page, but also be developed into a narrative. One she could easily title, access, and read aloud to herself again and again to get lost in the telling.
Lost in her stories is the place Alice most likes to be. Anyone she ever observed, no matter how incredibly boring in reality, became a person she could turn into someone she wanted to spend time with. Over time she had made up many companions worth her time and attention. Some days when she needed them most, Alice would pour herself a scotch, raise her glass in a toast to the rustling of pages and to the people in them that kept her company.
Some of the women she knew sought out the company of others by joining organizations, going to meetings, or watching stories on the television. Anything to not feel the “aloneness” their lives could have if they didn’t keep involved in something outside themselves.
Not Alice. She loved her own company. Having to sit quietly through the time it took to appear to others like someone she wasn’t, was more time than Alice had to give. Well, more than she wanted to give, anyway.
So here she is. At her desk, with a paused pen as she considers the white-haired, blue-eyed man.
Surely, he was single. There is no wife who would have said, “Comb your hair before you go out, dear.” No, that detail of every hair in place is self-inflicted and takes time. Too much time for a shared mirror.
So, what does this man do with his days?
Well, once a week he goes to the grocery store and moves slowly down each aisle, sure that at least three women have looked him up and down. And if they haven’t, he will quietly seek advice on the freshness of produce from a nicely dressed lady sorting through the peppers. From her he can take away a kind smile along with whatever she gave him in conversation.
On Tuesdays he goes to the library. Always at 2 in the afternoon. First, he returns the book he took out the week before. Then he will slowly inch his way down the shelves of mysteries, make a selection, and carry the book back to a table in view of the front door. He will read only the first chapter between glances up to see who might be coming in. When he gets to the second chapter he closes the book and goes to the front desk to show his card to the librarian, who calls him by name. He relishes this bit of familiarity as he tucks his mystery under his arm and heads out the door and back home.
On other days of the week, weather permitting, he will take long walks in the park, sit, and feed the birds the crumbs from stale bread he brings along.
Fridays are reserved for lunch out at one of two small restaurants in town. Like the librarian, the waitresses from both places call him by name as they gesture to his usual table. He orders his weekly hamburger with fries and shakes out his newspaper to read while he waits.
Soon he will forget all about himself and how he looks to others as juices drip from his chin to the obituary page.
Here Alice pauses again.
Should the white-haired, blue-eyed man read of a neighbor’s passing? No, she thinks it best to not kill anyone off in her make-believe ramblings. It’s a small enough community as it is and having someone die off will add a sadness to her story that she will have to tell herself about again and again.
The dripping hamburger juices make her smile, and she leaves him alone and pleased with himself that none has dripped onto his shirt.
So what else can this man do with his time that Alice can put on paper?
He won’t have a dog. A dog requires effort and an emotional attachment that Alice is sure the man couldn’t handle. But a cat! A stray that has taken up residence under his back porch. Yes, a cat is good. Especially an old one that maybe, just maybe, the white-haired, blue-eyed man will miss when one day leads to another where it has not come to the door to look pleadingly for a handout.
But until then Alice thinks the man should have one small thing other than himself that he seems concerned about.
By now Alice has gone through most of her imaginings about the white-haired, blue-eyed man. She stops writing and puts her pages in order. And reads.
What she sees in her words is a man she doesn’t much care for. The fact that she didn’t even bother to give him a name is evidence of how little else she would like to know about him. To be fair she reads through her pages one more time and concludes there is simply nothing more to him.
Here on paper is what she saw in a man who caught her eye and briefly her imagination. She had done all she could with what little he inspired. So she folded the sheets, stuffed them into an envelope and wrote #37 in the upper right hand corner. Opened the drawer and placed it behind the others. Maybe later this week she will watch a #38. If not, maybe the week after.
Alice ran her hand over the other envelopes and paused at #17. She lifted it out and laid it on her desk. Then poured herself a scotch and smiled as she carefully pulled out the pages to spend some time with another man.