Fish out of Water

You ever stop and think about how many U.S. states you’ve visited?

Yeah, you know what I mean. You think of all 50, and then you start counting. (And if you’ve just driven through the state or maybe you’ve only landed in an airport there, that still qualifies.)

So, I’ve made it a point over the years to keep a running tally, and I’m currently sitting at 43. That’s respectable, I guess, just north of 85%, but I still have hopes to see ’em all. (A guy I know claimed that he had visited every state capital – twice! It always seemed so randomly weird that I never questioned if he was on the level. Frank, if you’re out there somewhere, you’re still the master sojourner, man. I don’t care what anybody says.)

Anyway, I went on a sojourn of sorts myself recently, my three girls and I taking the collective leap of faith that we could all handle five straight days together! (I shouldn’t joke, and I’m triply blessed that we all still like each other’s company.)

Landing late night in Salt Lake City, UT, we awoke early the next morning, hightailing it to the airport rental car counter, destination Jackson, Wyoming.

For those of you who don’t know me, I love driving. And for someone who doesn’t like to be alone too much, watching the world go by from behind the wheel is something I’ve always enjoyed.

This time, though, I’ve got the fam with me, and I’m hoping that they’ll find some enthusiasm for my offbeat brand of wanderlust.

It’s close to 300 miles to our eventual destination, so we planned to stop along the way.

As I mentioned earlier, I guess I’m a collector of sorts when it comes to domestic travel. So, getting to visit the unchartered territory of Idaho was a highlight for me. (Case in point, that picture. Stopping abruptly on the side of U.S. Route 91 North, my older daughter, Alex, agreed to run out with me, celebrating our arrival at the Utah/Idaho border.) Next stop, Idaho Falls, ID and a late-afternoon lunch.

I think one of the most interesting things about seeing new places is the anticipation of it all – your expectation of a given place vs. how it is once you actually arrive.

Idaho Falls seems nice enough, with a quaint-looking downtown strip and a network of small waterfalls spilling into the Snake River. After putting Siri to good use, we decide on the SnakeBite Cafe, sort of an American bistro with an edge.

As we all stepped out of the car and into the restaurant, we opted to eat outside, the mid-May sun burning down, but with a pleasant breeze just off the water. It was somewhere around 3pm, well past the regular lunch hour, and the neighborhood seemed
virtually deserted.

A pretty girl named Sue came out to take our order, and we all exchanged pleasantries with her. (“Where you from?”; “Where you headed?”; “You want that salad dressing on the side?,” that kind of thing.)

By the time she brought over our appetizers, we all needed refills on water. (Like I said, it was really hot.) Between the time that she headed back to the kitchen and before her eventual return, one of the strangest and most random events of my entire life began
to unfold.

I had just started eating my salad when I saw her, a short, bookish-looking girl in her late teens, walking down a steep stairwell from the apartment building located right next
to the restaurant.

To say she was carrying a lot of stuff would be a gross understatement. She was wearing a bulky, oblong backpack, had two additional bags slung over her left shoulder, and it looked like she’d tried to attach a metal water bottle to one of the loose bags.

And in the crook of her right arm was a little boy, clad in hunter green pants and a white T-shirt. It’s many years now since my own daughters were that young, but I doubt he was even two years old.

Suddenly, I felt like I didn’t belong there, morphing into some weird hybrid – a cross between odd timing and all-too-weird circumstance.

I didn’t know it yet, but somehow, I was about to become the proverbial four-leaf clover amidst acres and acres of tall grass – a lot like a befuddled cellist, maybe, suddenly finding himself parading down Main Street, inexplicably part of a marching band.

By the time I’d had another forkful of salad, the girl had managed to walk about halfway down the apartment building staircase.

My wife, Amy, and our two daughters were yucking it up over something, and just as I was about to try to get in on the joke, I looked up in time to see the girl misstep, unable to correct and steady herself.

As she started to stumble, I quickly sprung to my feet, the bowl that held my garden salad going ass over tip onto the sidewalk. (My younger girl, Sam, facing in the same direction, saw it, too, and she instinctively stood up and ran towards the steps of the adjacent building.)

The girl in the glasses yelled out in pain as she landed, the loose hanging bags and the stainless steel water bottle clanging down on the pavement.

As I raced towards her, I noticed that in an effort to protect the little boy, she’d managed to extend her arms high enough in the air that he stayed above the payment; I remember thinking that she looked a lot like a wide-receiver, desperately trying to maintain possession of the football before tumbling to the turf.

With that gridiron analogy in mind, I quickly grabbed the boy and tucked him beneath my right arm, as my daughter and I tended to the girl.

Still holding the little boy, I said, “Jesus, are you OK?!” Her glasses had flown off of her head, and my daughter was busy inspecting them to see if the lenses were broken.

“My ankle, ” the fallen girl said, as she rubbed the side of her foot, crocodile tears tumbling helplessly from both of her eyes.

I’ve had my share of ankle sprains, stubbed toes and other foot maladies, but I couldn’t really tell how bad it was.

“Don’t worry,” I said, “We’ll get you some ice.”

As I began talking to her, trying to calm her down, keep in mind that I’m still holding this little kid. And he hadn’t made a sound, a perfectly stolid look on his face, like I’d held him 100 times before.

By this time, all three Fischer girls were there, tending to the fallen teenager who told us her name was Gracie. When she started to calm down a bit, not crying as much, I tried talking to her.

“Don’t worry, Gracie,” I said, as I tried to reassure her. “We’ve got that ice coming.”

Not sure what to say next, I attempted to praise her for protecting the little kid I continued to hold right next to me. She explained that she was actually his babysitter, and that there was no way she was going to let him fall. (She also said that he had just awakened prior to her tumble down the stairs, perhaps trying to explain why he was completely devoid of any kind of emotion, even when being held by a total stranger.)

As seemingly random and just plain weird as all of this was, something was missing. (I can’t give myself credit for being that astute in the moment, and it took a still-weepy Gracie to help me connect the dots.) “I spend more time with him than anyone else,” she said, sounding sad. “Some days, I guess I’m all he’s got.”

As above, I won’t try to say I initially knew where she was heading with that, but in an instant, she ended the mystery.

“His mom left when he was only a few weeks old,” she said matter-of-factly. And then she paused. “I guess he must like you,” she said, offering what was unexpected, yet endearing admiration. “He usually cries a lot.”

For what seemed like a very long time, I just stood there. (Yes, all the while, still holding this quiet, motherless little boy.) Gracie just looked down, probably not too sure
what to say next.

And then, returning the favor and trying to validate what she’d just said, I did my best to break the already uncomfortable silence. “I guess I had my share of practice with that sort of stuff,” hoping that was the right thing to say.

She smiled when I said that, and then as if on cue, my daughter, Sam, jogged over to the door to the restaurant, returning with a bag of ice and our waitress, Sue, in tow.

Seemingly unfazed, Sue took the ice bag and smiled. “Don’t worry,” she said. “I’m an EMT.”

As she began administering help to the wounded Gracie, Sue looked up at me and then back to Gracie. “Is that Doug’s kid,” she asked offhandedly, as she applied the ice to Grace’s rapidly swelling right ankle.

That’s all she said. No mention of me, this random guy on the wrong side of age 50 (yeah, the same guy by the way, who’s mushroom and swiss burger was surely growing cold back in the SnakeBite Cafe kitchen), standing there clutching who Gracie quickly confirmed was, in fact, Doug’s kid. (And for those of you keeping score at home, the kid must have known me in another life or something; not once did he fidget, struggle or cry.)

Eventually, Sue (yes, our waitress turned EMT) encouraged Gracie to try to get to her feet, and I got ready to hand the kid over to her. (Forgive me for continually calling him “the kid.” Truth is I never did get his name.)

It did surprise me that Sue didn’t even seem to know who the boy was, but by that time, I had given up on things making any kind of sense.

So, just as Gracie steadied herself and tried to stand up, I decided to hand the boy over to Sue; guess maybe I figured I’d done the good Samaritan thing enough for one afternoon. Before I could do that, though, a tall, 30-ish- looking dude with thick black hair pulled back into a man bun, and with a dish towel draped over his left shoulder, walked between us.

He smiled at me, took off the plastic gloves he was wearing and shook my hand. “Thank you, sir,” he said. Then he calmly took his son from me, gently got Grace to her feet, and then the three of them headed back towards the SnakeRiver cafe kitchen, where I later learned he worked as a dishwasher.

“You’re welcome, Doug,” I said, and just like that, my girls and I went back to the table to
finish our lunch.

“In life’s endless procession of surprises, the expected rarely occurs and never in the expected manner.” – Vernon A. Walters

@Copyright 2023 by John L. Fischer









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