Potato Heads

I am not generally considered to be charming -well, not effortlessly so at any rate. I figure I am able to fake it sometimes, but I mean how can you ever know? People smile at me, of course, but that’s kind of non-specific, don’t you think? They may be faking it as well. Let’s face it, not everybody is their surface. Like Mr. Potato Heads, they adorn for the occasion, and as only an outside observer of the game, I am usually taken in. I like to think that is a reflection on them, however. But, be that as it may, I am still bereft of an effective strategy. I am still left wondering whether or not I am taking them in -or worse still, whether I am even capable of so doing.

I suppose this all came to a head when I was sitting by myself in a quiet corner of the local Starbucks. It’s not so much that I wanted to hide -more that I felt I had nothing positive to contribute to the general turbulence around me. When in doubt, watch from the shadows and lurk -timing is everything in a coffee shop. At least that’s what I’d thought.

But silence is anathema to etiquette in a region where deportment is everything. Where the measure of one’s enjoyment is directly proportional to the harnessed decibels. Where polite is loud.

I’ve long since passed through the stage where I have to point at the words and vocalize what I read, but I’m afraid I was caught doing something even worse in the corner: winking. Well, not exactly winking –I’ve never been a particularly good winker, but the instructions I was reading suggested practicing a maneuver until I was comfortable with it -which I was not.

It was an article on how to make myself effortlessly charming -yes, effortlessly, but I was afraid I wouldn’t get the part right about raising my eyebrows when I first meet somebody I’m trying to charm. Apparently all it requires is a smile, a slight tilting of the head, and a quick up and down eyebrow movement -a flash, in informed circles. But I found the flash devilishly difficult to master without looking menacing. Without looking like I’d just been pricked, in fact. So I decided to concentrate instead on the down part of the exercise until I got good at it.

Ever try to get your eyebrows to go down without closing your eyes at the same time? I think it’s impossible. Of course I feel that way about charm as well, so…

Anyway, I was struggling through the routine when an elderly lady carrying a rather hot latte or something happened to need my table for a moment to rest her cup. I looked up at her and smiled, but I sit in corners to avoid issues like this, and so I hadn’t expected anyone to interrupt my concentration. As I recall, I was mid-blink and totally unprepared for guests, so the only thing I could think of to save face, as it were, was smiling. My head was a bit tilty on my shoulders from the effort of manipulating a set of vestigial brow muscles evolution was supposed to have discarded, but I think I pulled it off okay. At least she closed her mouth and stopped backing away.

“Are you okay, sir?” she said after taking a moment to collect her thoughts.

My forehead was just recovering from a painful spasm, and broadening my smile seemed to help. “Yes,” I said, trying to pretend I always smiled by curling my lips. “Thank you,” I added for some reason.

Her expression relaxed into chat mode –coffee mode – and she pretended her cup was still too hot to carry and sat down at the table. Her face asked me if it was okay, but her eyes told me her mind was already made up. “I’m a retired nurse,” she started, but in a way that implied she was simply answering a question I was about to ask. She settled comfortably in the chair and looked around the room for a while as if she were searching for someone. “My friend is supposed to meet me here, but she’s always late. Just getting off shift takes a bit of extra time when you’re a nurse, you know.”

I was able to relax my mouth a bit as my forehead softened, so I nodded pleasantly at her.

“It’s such a busy profession, you know… I’m glad I’m retired… I mean it was time, but…”

I’d never met anybody who could conjure italics like posters and scatter ellipses about as if they were pepper corns. This woman was special. “But?” I asked, after she’d resumed her ocular search of the crowded room.

She turned her head and called her eyes back to search my face. “But, I miss the constant interactions.” Her eyes rested briefly on the doors of the cages where I was still confining mine. “You know, walking into a room in the middle of the night to check on somebody and realizing they were having a stroke or a heart attack and having to react immediately. It’s what you have to do…” She dropped her eyes on her lap for a moment and sighed. “It’s something you can’t just give up that easily… I mean just because you’re not on a ward, it doesn’t simply go away…”

I could feel her eyes walking over my face again. They were looking for something I could tell. My mouth was getting a little tired with the continuing smile, but I thought I’d boost it up for a second. “Did you think I…?”

She reached a bony hand across the table and touched my arm. Actually it was my wrist and I think she was going for my pulse, but I didn’t say anything.

“No, no… not at all,” she said. “I just wondered if you were in pain… or…” She suddenly tightened her fingers on my wrist and examined my face as if she’d lost something there. “Raise your eyebrows…”

I felt rather relieved that she hadn’t asked me to lower them again, so I raised them and my eyes popped open like freshly washed saucers.

“Good. Good,” she whispered under her breath. “Now see if you can open your mouth really wide for me…”

When I did so she looked pleased. “Good, good,”she repeated, this time italicizing the second ‘good’.

Suddenly a second woman wearing a red coat over what looked like an old-fashioned nursing uniform appeared at her side.  “Jesse,” she said in a puzzled voice as she glanced curiously at me, “What are you doing here? I’ve been looking everywhere for you.” She smiled briefly at me and then gently unhinged Jesse’s hand from my wrist.

Jesse unleashed a warm smile in my direction. “Oh, I was just sitting with this absolutely charming gentleman while my hot drink cooled, Gladys…”

Gladys smiled apologetically at me and helped Jesse to her feet. “I’m sorry sir,” she said, brightening a little. “Jesse tends to wander off sometimes, don’t you dear?” she added, holding Jesse’s arm and gently, but firmly leading her away.

“Thank you for the visit,” Jesse said, turning her head to me as she shuffled away. And I thought I heard her say the word ‘charming’ again as she chatted to Gladys, totally unfazed by her apparent capture.

It made me feel rather good, though -I mean the article was bang on. 


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