My husband complains that I will make friends with pretty much anyone who wanders across my path, often with less than desirable consequences. I am a slow learner on this front.
The most perfect example is Fred. I met “Fred” at church when we were living deep in the Bible/Rust Belt. Well, it was kind of a church, but not really—it was more of a support group for non-Evangelicals. There were a handful of Wiccans, several Secular Humanists, one Spiritual Naturalist, whatever that was; three pairs of swingers who had all gotten divorced and re-matched; a rabid blind lady football fan in a wheelchair, a family that (I am not making this up) dropped off several dwarf children and peeled away in their van every Sunday morning; and, there was Fred.
Yes, I did see all this the first time I walked into this church. Most visitors, after sitting through one of our services—which usually involved children reading prayers for dead hamsters and the football fan lady standing up (!) and yelling “GO STATE!” at inappropriate times—walked out afterwards and never came back. Not me! I said to myself, Don’t judge on appearances! Give them a chance!
The church was small and, not surprisingly!—somewhat desperate for new blood. In a matter of months I was the Sunday school teacher and serving on a number of committees.
(When I brought my mom to this church a few months later she said, “Jesus Christ, Jesseca, that was the oddest group of people I have ever seen in one place in my entire life!” )
Fred--one of the more normal people at the church!—was legally blind, had wild red hair, severe scars all over his face, and a terrible limp. ( I never asked how he got that way. Years later, when we watched Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire and Mad-Eye Moody stomped onto the screen, my husband and I clutched each other gasping, “It’s Fred!” )
Because he was legally blind, Fred could not drive a car. But he could ride a bike—and not just any bike!—an enormous, modified tricycle, painted purple and orange, with a giant bell, streamers attached to the handlebars, and a huge basket on the front. Best of all, it had two long poles attached to the back which he festooned with seasonal decorations. I thought it was awesome.
“I can’t see ‘em coming, so might as well make sure they see me,” he grunted. I could see his logic. (The fact that he rode around town barely able to see was a little disturbing.)
At the town holiday parade, Fred was in his glory, weaving the SuperTrike though the parade, narrowly missing Girl Scouts and baton twirlers, the bike flashing with colored lights, and a large plastic Santa head looming unsteadily six feet overhead.
“What the hell is that?” gasped my husband, his jaw dropping.
“Ah…you know my friend from church?” I said, “Fred? The one I’m on the Community Outreach Committee with?”
“Yeah?” said my husband, staring, spellbound, at Fred, who was now riding in figure eights and lobbing Twinkies at the crowd. He glanced at me. “Is he here? He better watch out so that freaking nut job doesn’t run him over.”
“Umm….actually, that’s Fred, “ I said, as Fred ran over one of his own Twinkies and swerved dangerously into the crowd.
“What’s Fred?” asked my husband, mesmerized, as people from the crowd gently righted the SuperTrike steered Fred back onto the parade route.
“On the bike. That’s Fred,” I said. “That’s my friend, Fred, on the bike!”
“What?” My husband whipped his head back to stare at me. “That’s Fred? The lunatic on the giant purple tricycle? Are you serious? What is wrong with you!”
“He’s funny,” I said defensively. “He’s a good guy!”
“Is he homeless?” my husband demanded, aghast. “Does he live on that bike?”
Fred was not, in fact, homeless. Despite popular belief, he was a professional accountant who held down a job in social services.
After I had known Fred several months, he asked me if I could drive him around to run errands for the church, since it was winter and hard to get around on the SuperTrike. I readily agreed—who wouldn’t help a blind guy with church errands!—but I said I had to bring the kids. (I did like Fred, but being alone in the car with him felt a little awkward. I mean he wasn’t exactly normal. ) He seemed a little put out at this, but grunted his assent.
I was thinking his errands would run an hour. First, we went to the party store. Fred spent 45 minutes picking out balloons and streamers for his bike—St Patrick’s Day this time!— and a couple of things for our next church event (“Pagan Garden Party”).
As we walked out, thinking we were finished, I said something about getting home and Fred said, “Do you mind if we stop by Wal-Mart?”
Of course not. I like shopping at Walmart —especially in the South—about as much as I like having a hypodermic in my eyeball, but whatever, it was right next door.
The boys groaned. (I am sorry to say I had conditioned them to hate Wal-Mart, too.)
“Just one more stop,” I hissed, dragging them back to the car.
We went into Wal-Mart. I knew it was a bad sign when Fred purchased a hot meal—a jumbo bucket of popcorn chicken—to sustain him during our visit. Luckily, the kids were pretty entertained by Wal-mart, and kept helpfully pointing things out, like, “That lady has no shoes,” and “That man’s belly is too big for his shirt,” or “That lady has eleven kids, and one of them doesn’t have any pants!”
Fred filled an entire cart. While we were in there, we ran into at least half a dozen of his friends, all of whom looked like they slept under overpasses.
After an hour, I said I really had to get the kids home.
“Okay, okay,” said Fred in irritation. Now I was getting annoyed—this was tuning into a major hassle! After loading up his nineteen shopping bags, I turned the car toward his apartment complex.
“Oh, just one more stop," he said. “I’m out of cigarettes. Pull in here.” He grunted at a gas station and hopped out when we pulled in.
I turned to look at the boys, who were both staring at me with huge eyes. For kids of their generation, cigarettes are like, a really, really bad thing, like Nazi propaganda, or goat porn, or meth, or something. Now I was really pissed at Fred. We had been out for nearly three hours, it was getting dark, and, now, I was taking him to buy cigarettes—in front of the kids! Church errands, my ass!
Fred seemed to know a lot of people at the gas station. After shooting the shit with all of them, he finally headed back to the car.
“You guys, start screaming as soon as he gets back in!” I hissed. My boys nodded. They totally got it. Fred was the type who barely acknowledged kids and had zero tolerance for their noise.
Fred got back in the car. The boys looked at each other gleefully and started screaming and smacking one another. Pretty soon they were trying to kill one another for real.
“I really better get them home,” I yelled over the noise. Fred grunted and mumbled something about really needing to go to the drugstore, but I ignored him. My kids were both under 8, it was dinner time, and we had been running around all afternoon.
We pulled up in front of Fred’s apartment. I offered to help bring in his 19 Wal-Mart shopping bags, three huge bags of St Patrick’s Day supplies including helium-filled, shamrock-shaped-Mylar balloons and an electric leprechaun, and two cartons of Marlboroughs, but he nimbly blocked me from getting anywhere near his front door (I realized later he was probably trying to spare me seeing the inside of his apartment, for which I should be probably be forever grateful. )
We got home 5 minutes after my husband, who had been a little alarmed to find the house dark and cold and no one home.
“Where were you guys?” he asked, as the kids, after 3 hours pent up in the car, made straight for the trampoline. He saw by the look on my face that I was seriously steamed about something.
I told him Fred has asked me to take him on some errands for the church but that it had turned into a three-hour odyssey, including a stop for cigarettes!
“We kept running into all of his friends,” I complained. “It took forever!” My husband sighed and closed his eyes.
“Oh, Jesseca,” he said. He patted my arm.
“Wha—“ I said blankly, suspicion slowly dawning on me. “You don’t think Fred has—a thing for me? He can’t. He knows I’m married, and anyway, he can’t even see me. ”
“Yeah, well, his friends can see you! Why do you think he dragged you around Wal-Mart for an hour?” My husband shook his head at my hopeless naiveté.
“Huh,” I said. Maybe he was right!
But I still felt bad for Fred. A month later, we were back at the party store, buying decorations for the SuperTrike to sport in the Easter parade.