I see the car almost every morning when I drop Sam at the High School. It’s a grey, economy compact with a bumper sticker that says “Wheatland Music Festival.” Wheatland is a weekend festival of folk music and traditional arts that takes place not far from here. For months, I knew only three things about the car’s occupants. The family did not, for reasons of money or preference, go in for flashy vehicles. At least one member of the family liked folk music and/or traditional arts. The student, of whom I glimpsed only a sliver, liked to sit in the car and talk to the adult driver long after the late bell had rung. I know this last thing because getting Sam up and out in the morning is nearly as difficult as constructing a three-mile suspension bridge; by the time we get to school it is often past the last possible minute. And yet, as I hustle him out the car door in a flurry of headphones, lunch money, notebooks and a last gulp of coffee, the Wheatland People are still sitting in the car, gesturing with their silhouetted hands, giving me that off sensation one gets when passing a stopped train in a moving one.
All winter I have entertained various scenarios about what goes on with The Wheatlands. My first storyline was that the student, who I always believed to be a girl, was miserable at school, maybe a victim of Mean Girl bullying, and that her mother had to spend a long time every day persuading her to go in and try again. One day, however, I noticed the fluid animation of the hands, and the heads shaking in what might be laughter. Maybe this wasn’t a sad story, maybe the people in the car were thumbing their noses at convention, walking on the wild side, choosing to risk truancy court and tell each other the important stories of their lives instead of sending the child running into the building to endure an English class taught by a disaffected and marginally literate football coach who couldn’t tell his Aesop from his Ecclesiastes.
Before I go on, I should tell you that I am not a stalker, a creeper, or otherwise pathologically interested in the activities of other people. I am merely unusually curious, nosy, a Gladys Kravitz of the highest order. I always want to know everybody’s story, why the family came to America, what it was like fighting in a war, how the child of a sharecropper grew up to be a college professor. I have always had “subjects,” strangers who struck my fancy and made me wonder. The disheveled attorney taking criminal defense appointments in the Dorchester Circuit Court with his battered vinyl briefcase and one sideburn longer than the other. How could he look so silly and yet, when it was his turn at bat, be so very sexy with his thick Spanish accent and his languorous lean against the podium? The woman who is often at the gas station in the morning buying groceries, all long limbs and black eyeliner, thick black stockings wrinkled above some sort of slippers, arms full of toilet paper, breakfast cereal and spray cleaner. Why is she shopping at the gas station where everything is three times more expensive? Did she really used to be a ballerina? Why doesn’t she carry a reusable bag if she knows she’s going shopping and buying more than she can easily carry?
But anyway. This morning we were actually on time, and as Sam assembled his motley assortment of personal effects the car directly in front of us pulled out, revealing The Wheatland Car. “Sam,” I hissed, as if they could hear me, “their door is opening!” He regarded me balefully, took a final drink of coffee and held out the mug for me to hold on the drive home.
“You’re a crazy stalker lady, do” he said with a shake of his head. I could see her getting out of the car – she was pretty, actually, slender and pale in skinny jeans, Ked’s sneakers and a pea coat. Her long hair was piled up carelessly on her head, and she carried a sort of rucksack thing with lots of pockets and some papers threatening to escape out the top.
“Look!” I said, leaning over towards the open passenger door, “do you know her?” He hoisted his backpack onto his shoulder, glanced in her direction and shook his head. “You’re crazy” he said.
“Have a great day,” I called to his retreating back as I watched my girl waving at her mother. I knew her, then, knew that she did not like Justin Bieber, didn’t watch much TV, made bracelets out of bottle tops and read “Nylon.” She wrote poems, not very good ones, but heartfelt nonetheless, and drew pictures in the margins of her notebooks. She hung out in coffee shops, and went to vinyl record sales to hunt for early Kinks and Velvet Underground. She became, in that brief period of observation, my creature, living a fully imagined life to be culled and shaped into a fictional character, a source of inspiration, and a mystery partly solved.
I will probably never see the Dorchester Lawyer again; I will probably never be in Dorchester again, and if I am, it is unlikely that I’ll be hanging around in a courtroom as criminal defense appointments are doled out to underpaid counsel. I may never know the secrets of Gas Station Ballerina, because I can’t very well leap from my Hyundai and accost her, offering her one of the disposable totes I carry in my bag. I so, however, have answers enough about my Wheatland Girl to change and decorate her story like paper doll clothes. I kind of hope Sam will never really get to know her, now, because I’m not sure I could stand the disappointment of learning that she is actually a cheerleader who loves Rihanna and collects knockoff Chanel sunglasses. I picture her now, sitting bored at a classroom desk, drawing skulls and crossbones embellished with black, inky stars. She’s thinking about moving to Brooklyn after graduation. She’s humming something by The Civil Wars. She makes me smile.