He sat there, placidly on one end of the only available bench in the unnaturally bright pharmacy department of our local Wal-Mart Supercenter. The old man glanced up briefly from his folded newspaper as my wife and I strode toward the bench, where I sat on the opposite end while my better half waited in the short line to get her prescription. I nodded politely at the old man, noticing the dark circles under his eyes, as if he hadn’t slept in a really, really long time. He clicked the felt tip pen he held in his hand, springing the point back and forth several times, but remained silent. After a short while, the old man returned to his newspaper, paying me no mind.
I rubbed my hands together, trying to warm them up from the brisk weather outside, and shoved them into the pockets of my overcoat. My wife was the third person from the front of the line, and by the way the person was arguing with the pharmacist at the counter, I knew it was going to be a while. I discreetly turned my head to admire a sweet little thing coming down the center aisle, pushing a nearly empty cart in front of her while her hips swayed fetchingly. Dark hair curled downward around her shoulders, and over the ample breasts protruding like hills underneath the tight sweater she wore. I almost started drooling, to tell you the truth. But I quickly looked away, in case my wife happened to catch me salivating over another woman like a lean dog hungering for a bone. Thankfully, she hadn’t noticed, her attention focused on the trouble maker in the front of the line, the miscreant responsible for holding her up. She turned toward me with a muddled expression on her face, shrugging her shoulders. I plaintively raised a hand upward, a smirk on my face, as if to say “What are you going to do?” That’s when the old man decided to speak.
“It’s all about lists, you know,” his raspy voice floated over to me.
“I’m sorry, what?” I asked him, turning slightly.
He looked up from the paper, a wicked grin playing on his dry lips, the deeply-entrenched wrinkles on his face widening to chasms on his pale cheekbones. The old man’s eyes were dark, submerged in deep cavities that extended nearly to the sockets of his skull, a light twinkling barely visible where his pupils dilated from the fluorescents overhead. He groped his pen with long, bony fingers.
“Lists,” he repeated to me.
“What about them?” I asked, completely dumbfounded, wondering what he was getting at, if he had a point to make at all, that is.
The old man sighed loudly, as if he were trying to teach something simple to a retarded child. The fine white hair on his head almost seemed to glow with the surrounding light. He ran the tip of his pen across a section of the newspaper with a scratching sound, then dropped the paper into his lap and gave me his full attention.
“Everything has to do with lists, sonny boy,” he exclaimed. “You take your latest events, for instance.” He ticked them off on his bony, elongated fingers. “War going on everywhere, strife at home and abroad, a weakening economy, the assured collapse of the democratic system, most likely.”
I nodded, not necessarily because I completely agreed, but because it gave me something to do while I listened to him rant. “Well, that’s life, certainly. Not much we can really do about it, is there?” I asked, half-jokingly.
The old man’s face went solemn, gravely serious. “Yes, there is,” he stated. “It’s a matter of getting down to the basic elements, my friend.”
By now, I was starting to get a little frightened, despite the fact that I was nearly thirty years old and in a very public place. Something about the old man struck me the wrong way, something that wasn’t quite right. I entertained the notion that he might be off his rocker. I looked over him toward my wife, somewhat relieved that the arguing customer was now gone, and the line had moved along. She was still second from the counter, however. I sighed inwardly, smoothing my jeans down with the palms of my hands. “What do you mean?” I finally asked, feeling the pinpoint stare of the old man’s dark eyes on the side of my head, refusing to look at him directly.
He barked a cough that rumbled with regurgitated phlegm, slapping one Ichabod Crane kneecap. “It’s all so simple. When you were a kid, didn’t you have chores?”
“Of course,” I told him, thinking back to my younger days, when I complained about feeding the dog and mowing the lawn.
“All right, now,” the old man continued, “did you really think about everything you had to do to get those chores done, or did you just go out there and do them, to get them over and done with?”
“I guess I just went out there and did them,” I said, overjoyed to see my wife had finally approached the counter and was placing her order with the pharmacist. It wouldn’t be much longer, now.
“And when you were done, did you just cross them off the list, and go on to something else?”
“I suppose I did,” I said, smiling bemusedly at the old man, glad to know that this conversation was nearly over.
“That’s what I’m talking about!!” the old man gleefully shouted, causing some heads to turn around toward us with wondering eyes. I felt slightly embarrassed, but the old man rattled on, oblivious to the commotion he had caused. “Just cross one off, and go to the next one. It doesn’t have to be that hard, not as hard as everybody makes it out to be. When you get down to it, the basic elements, that is, it all really amounts to absurdly simple things. Man, fighting, struggles...right?”
I nodded, my throat clenching. The pharmacist was rooting around in the rack behind her, searching for my wife’s prescription. I wished she would hurry the hell up.
The old man nodded back at me, his dark eyes widening in that ancient, pruned visage of a face. He regarded his newspaper once more, bringing it to within an inch of his bent nose. He studied it closely, then lifted the pen to scrawl a jagged line over some of the black print. The old man smiled, seemingly satisfied with his perverse action, and looked back at me for the final time. “Problem solved. Onto the next order of business.”
My blood seemed to run cold, sending shivers down my arms and legs. I would have run, right there and then, if it hadn’t been for my wife moving toward us, limply holding the small white bag that held her medicine in the grip of her left hand. Before she could come close enough to hear him, the old man stated, “Tomorrow, when you wake up in the morning, ask your wife about those dreadful Arabs in the Middle East.” He said nothing more, engrossed in his newspaper as my wife asked me if I was ready to leave. It was an understatement.
The next morning, I shuffled down the stairs to drowsily greet my wife, sitting down at the kitchen table, letting the enticing aroma of freshly cooked bacon and scrambled eggs awaken my senses. The Sunday paper that had been placed next to my plate made me think of the old man, and the boisterous thing he had said. I decided to go along with it, for shits and giggles.
“How about those Arabs, huh, honey?” I said, a grin on my lips.
“Who are they, dear?” she asked me innocently, spooning some eggs onto my plate from the frying pan with a spatula. Needless to say, my appetite had vanished.
And, of course, I never saw the old man again.