Bill thinks he knows himself, then his girl leaves him, and later that day he’s singing along to Johnny Cash’s rendition of “Hurt” in his beat-up Civic at an overlong stoplight and trying not to cry, when a goateed man with a brutal, angular face wearing a cut-off plaid shirt pulls up alongside him in an F-150 with giant wheels and laughs and speeds off as the light turns green, and Bill is overcome with such impotent rage that he thinks that this drive-by laugher is everything that is wrong with this world. He snaps off the radio and goes after the man, asking himself what kind of person would be contemptuous of another man’s tears—whipping himself toward righteousness, he thinks his rage is not with the man in particular but a condemnation of a prevalent attitude toward vulnerability: that our feelings are excremental, involuntary, a mere accident of our relationship with the world, motivating but unwilled, thus in some essential way not our own; an avalanche coming down upon the self. He is thinking that this attitude puts shame at the figurative wheel, makes it something impossible to conquer, thus impossible to tell of.
Bummer, then, that shame is at the literal wheel. Bill watches the man drive off on a straight-away under a canopy of trees that shuts out the light as he pulls over on the side of the road.
He turns off the car and tries on generosity, imagining a sit-down with the man, whom Bill will call Todd; he imagines having Todd over for dinner, telling Todd my girl left me, man, over chili-and-cheese-stuffed baked potatoes and light beer; with National Public Radio murmuring in the background, Bill explaining to Todd that sometimes a man goes years without bothering to wonder what is going on in the head of the person they need the most. Bill imagines Todd nodding agreeably, offering some down-home advice, like you’ve got to till your own fields. When Bill realizes he is congratulating himself for the imaginary emotional education of a functional stereotype, he is ashamed again.
He rolls down his window. The must of rotting leaves. A squirrel is dropping nuts from a tree, and they fall into a roadside gutter.
The man is not here. Bill is here. For once, he thinks, he would like to be able to control the erratic, headlong nature of his thoughts. He thinks he knows himself—but what kind of person allows himself to be undone by the mocking of a stranger?
What kind of person does not protest when someone he respects and admires leaves him? What kind of person does not promise to change because he thinks he can’t? What kind of person is proudest when he is listing his own faults? What kind of person makes himself wait for an answer?