I finished my shopping in Costco and had pushed my shopping cart half-way down the aisle toward the checkout when an overweight, gray-haired man about my age, wearing sunglasses with bright-green frames, a pink T-shirt, purple athletic shoes, and cut-down denim shorts, came steaming along in the opposite direction with sweat on the brow of his red face. He stuck out a large hand. It shot out the way I recalled having seen a robotic tool on an auto assembly line push a bolt into place, and it gripped my arm with the strength of a pipe wrench. This invader of personal space screeched to a halt beside me.
“Well, hello there; I haven’t seen you for a long time. How are ya doing?”
He registered in my brain as a total stranger and certainly no name came to mind. Anyway, I’m not good at remembering names, a trait my wife calls antisocial, but as a rule I’m better with faces than with names. In this case, neither face nor name clicked.
Where could I have met him before? With those awful sunglasses and sneakers, he doesn’t look as if he’s from our retirement community and I can’t recall anyone like him from my former job. Were he better dressed, maybe I’d recognize him.
I decided I might remember his name and avoid embarrassment if I strung along with him for a while.
“I’m fine thank you. Fancy meeting you here,” I said, playing for time.
“Oh, I come to Costco quite often; it’s one of my favorite stores. On some days, they have people standing at the end of the aisles giving out food samples and you can get a whole meal that way if you keep walking past them. You know, you haven’t changed a bit since I last saw you; it must be years ago. Last time, I think we met in a Target store. What are you doing these days? You’re looking well so it must be good for you whatever it is.”
“Thank you. You’re looking well too. I’ve been retired for four years now and play a little golf, although I’m no good at it. I also enjoy home improvement projects and spend some hours on the computer most days — always have a computer project of some kind to work on. What do you do with your time?”
“I must say I didn’t realize you had been retired for so long. As for me, I’m retired too of course — made the break six years ago, when they offered me a big retirement package. Dorothy and I do a lot of traveling in our RV. It’s a forty-foot motor home, a beauty. We’ve been everywhere in it. As far as I’m concerned, you can’t beat having a motor home in retirement. I’ve always wanted to tour the good ole US of A and Dorothy quite enjoys it too, thank goodness. These days she’s having a bit of trouble with arthritis in her legs and touring in the motor home is her favorite way to travel. We’ve seen some great sights — Arizona’s not the only state with terrific scenery — and we’ve driven along the Rockies all the way to Canada. A few years back we even drove to Alaska and met the governor. She’s a class act. You get to meet some first-rate people when you travel. Do you like to travel? You don’t have an RV by chance do you?”
“That’s correct. We don’t own a recreational vehicle and we haven’t done much traveling since retirement because I’ve had back surgery and find it uncomfortable to drive for too long.”
“What a shame. I’m keeping very fit myself — knock on wood. Quit the ciggies a few years back after watching a TV program on lung cancer, but I do like a nice cigar occasionally; and I’ve cut down on the beer. I used to have a terrible time controlling my thirst. Once I got started on a new six-pack of Samuel Adams, I couldn’t stop until I’d finished every bottle and then I got started on another six. Stopping the beer helped me lose a bit of weight; look, I can stick my arm down inside my waistband real easy now.”
He nudged me with his elbow, leaving a bruise on my ribs that took two weeks to heal. “Don’t tell anyone but perhaps I’ll have a beer when I get home. This shopping routine makes one thirsty and I think it’s all right to indulge oneself a little when one deserves it. Ha! Ha!”
Before I could interrupt his confession and roar of laughter, he started up again.
“Changing the subject, how is your wife doing these days. Big tennis player isn’t she?”
“No, she plays a little golf now and then but she damaged her right shoulder a few years ago and can’t play tennis anymore. In fact, tennis was never really her game.”
“Is that so? I thought she was a big tennis player. Must have her confused with someone else. I could have sworn your wife was one of those champions who go off playing tennis all over the world: New York, Saint Andrews, Hong Kong, Wonga Walla, you know… wherever. Now then, I reckon she ought to see a sports doctor about that shoulder. My neighbor, Sammy Carson, used to have a terrible time with his knees until he went to see this sports doctor in town, a guy named Henderson. He did a wonderful job on Sammy. Now he skips about like a spring lamb — Sammy Carson I mean, not Henderson. They did it under Medicare of course. You should look him up in the yellow pages — Henderson I mean, not Carson. Can’t think of his first name but I’m sure you’ll find him there, under sports doctors I suppose.”
I now realized beyond a shadow of doubt that I had never known this character and wondered how I might get away unscathed.
I said, “I’ll have to remember that doctor’s name. Thank you. Well, I suppose I’d better be…”
“What about a cup of coffee? Let me buy coffee for us at the stall outside,” he said, waving his generously proportioned arm toward the exit.
“No,” I said. “That’s very kind of you but I really ought to be heading home.”
“OK then. That’s up to you. On the subject of sports injuries and sports doctors, my son Robert is the one you should speak to. He’s always been into sports in a big way—played for the Wildcats while at college and was constantly breaking bones or dislocating them. He had a hip replacement last year and he’s now so fit you would never know it. He took part in the Tucson marathon last December and placed three hundred twenty, which is darned good for someone with a hip replacement. What’s your son doing now? Wasn’t he going to be a big-shot lawyer in one of those Ivy League schools where they come out earning millions of dollars right away?”
“I don’t have a son. I have two daughters, Ann and Shirley.”
“You don’t have a son? I remember your boy was always coming round to spend time with our Robert. Your boy’s name was Henry, Henry Albertson. You are Fred Albertson, his father, aren’t you?”
“Well no! My name is Bill Houghton. I’m sorry, there seems to have been some sort of misunderstanding.”
“Misunderstanding my ass! Why are you pretending to be Fred Albertson? I’ve been standing here wasting my time talking to a complete stranger. Do you do this all the time: going around impersonating other people and trying to con innocent passers-by? You’re a public menace and ought to see a psychiatrist before they put you away.”
Muttering about idiots being worse than terrorists, Mister “what’s his name” stormed further into the store, his picturesque, purple sneakers angled at ninety degrees to each other as they each hit the concrete floor with a pronounced thud. Other people nearby looked at me as though I represented some kind of threat and I felt fortunate to leave the store without being arrested.
I guess I’ve learned my lesson about speaking to strangers in stores and am thinking of wearing a large name tag around my neck when I go shopping in future.
How could I ever have thought I knew someone with such a horrible taste in sunglasses?