The Boiler

Lisa Knopp

FREE SAMPLES

I pull into the U-Stop Convenience Shop, the last place to get gas on North 27th before you cross or merge into Interstate-80. I sort of know what I’m looking for. The four photographs I’ve seen of him reveal that he’s tall, wears wire-rimmed glasses, and has short light hair. Yet none of the photos offer a clear, close shot of his face. Just minutes earlier on the telephone, he told me that he drives a white Malibu with customized license plates bearing the shortened version of his last name, which I recognize as his username on the internet match-making site where we “met.” It’s what everyone calls him, he says. I wonder if I’ll call him that, too, someday.

Twenty minutes together is all we have. He drove into the city this morning for shopping. He wanted to meet me for lunch, but I had a brunch to attend in the late morning and a memorial service in the afternoon. A brief interview for a date is what this is. Within twenty minutes, we will determine if we merit a full weekend evening of each other’s time. From my experiences with other men I’ve met on the match-making website, I can usually determine that within 20 seconds and usually, my answer is either “probably not” or “absolutely not.” In recent years, each of the men that I’ve kept company with for more than a few dates were ones that I met the old-fashioned and rather random way — while giving a reading at a coffee house; while waiting too long for service at the Verizon store; while washing clothes at a laundromat during that brief window of time between the breakdown of my old washer and my purchase of a new one; while rallying at the state capitol in opposition to the TransCanada pipeline.

What I’m looking for. I sort of know what that is at this point in life: deep friendship and a little romance. What I don’t know is if I’m willing, yet again, to invest the time, energy, and love that it takes to really get to know and feel comfortable enough with a man that we can treasure, worry over, and receive solace and joy from each other.

A man sits on a bench outside the double doors of the U-Stop Convenience Shop, his long legs stretched out in front of him. I recognize the glasses but the hair that I saw in his photos is gone. “Candidate for a Date” (“C.D.”) rises from the bench and watches me pull in next to his Malibu. He is smiling. I wave him over to my car and point to the passenger seat. I shove the seat in my little Honda Civic as far back as it will go. As C.D. eases himself into the seat and folds each long leg into a high, sharp angle, he tells me that it’s better for us to sit in my car than on the bench because the wind was messing with the hair on his shaved head. The joke could have been amusing, but it goes on too long. Then he explains it. But of course, it really doesn’t matter what we are saying because what we’re after is a good look at each other’s faces — especially the eyes and the mouth, especially the eyes. His face is pleasant and his eyes are blue and attentive.

We chat about real estate. He tells me about the century-old farmhouse that he bought, lifted, and moved several miles to the little Nebraska town where he’s lived the past couple of decades. He refurbished every inch of it, doing all the work himself, including removing the asbestos-filled slate siding and replacing it with vinyl. I tell him I moved far north so I’d be closer to the interstate and so, closer to my job in Omaha. Yet four years later, I still don’t feel at home in this part of Lincoln. I long to return to one of the old, friendly, walkable neighborhoods nearer the geographical center of the city. But because of the lowered property values in recent years, I can’t sell my house without paying at least $12,000 to cover the realtor’s fee and the difference between what I owe on the house and what it’s now worth. Before I can sell my house, I have to paint or side it, but because the house was built in the late 60s, back when they still used lead paint…”

C.D. puts his hand on my arm and I stop talking. I suppose that I was going on and on and now I’m mildly embarrassed. “There’s a dog in traffic,” he says. The cars and trucks in the two northbound lanes of North 27th have stopped. “I bet he jumped out of the car when his owner stopped for gas or something.” C.D. pauses. “Look! He’s coming this way.”

“I’ll go get him,” I say. I step out of the car and run toward the stopped vehicles. Some dogs are so rattled around traffic. They run erratically, zigzagging like squirrels, confusing everyone. There . . . there it’s coming toward me. It’s tiny, with a tight, barrel-shaped body, and stumpy little legs. I don’t like that type of dog with its fast, mincing, ridiculous-looking steps. I prefer the more confident, graceful stride of a taller, longer-legged dog. Even so, I don’t want to see this little one with the bright black eyes spattered on the pavement or hear its piercing, final yaps.

“Here, puppy,” I say, as I bend down and extend a hand. It’s so tiny and pure white, an older dog, an older dog with a collar. If it will let me, I’ll scoop it up in my arms, take it back to the car, call animal control, and wait. In that impulsive moment, I don’t consider the possible outcomes of this act: that it might take so long for someone from Animal Control to come for the dog that I’ll miss the funeral of the old acquaintance, a woman who was younger than me and with a daughter still in high school; that no one comes for the dog ever, and I’m stuck with it; and the least likely scenario, that the dog moves my heart and I can’t let it go, even though another dog is pretty much the last thing that I want or need. But when the dog sees me, it veers and heads toward the Cracker Barrel Old Country Store and Restaurant. I give up.

As I walk back to my car, I realize that I’ve just given C.D. quite a bit of information about me – that, depending on his interpretation, I’m the type of woman who has such compassion for a dog in harm’s way that she attempts to rescue it or that I’m the type of woman who acts rashly, leaving a stranger in her car with her purse and keys; how I move when I run; how I look from behind, specifically, my hair and my butt. Or maybe he had his eyes on the dog the whole time. If so, I want to know that.

“Gone,” I say, as I slide into my seat. I pull my cell phone out of my purse and call Animal Control.

“You have Animal Control on speed dial?” he asks.

I nod. I realize that C.D. might think that I call Animal Control with frequency because I’m a real dog lover. But actually, I’ve listed that phone number as one of my “favorites” because on too many of my daily rambles in city parks and neighborhoods, I’ve been threatened by dogs at large. Once, I was even run down, attacked and bitten by a boxer. The puncture wounds on my leg healed long before the nightmares about the attack faded. In truth, I am the type of woman that reports dangerous dogs and files complaints against their negligent owners, and I rescue dogs in traffic. When I get off the phone, I tell C.D. that apparently others have called about the dog, too, since the woman who answered asked me if the dog I was seeing was “a little white one with a collar.” Someone from Animal Control will be here soon, I tell him. We wish the dog well.

C.D. says that he’s sorry that my job has been so stressful lately, something I shared with him in an email message earlier in the week. I’m touched that he remembers that. We talk about work place politics and how much we both dislike meetings and those folks who won’t let the meeting end until they’ve said everything they have to say at least three times. Then, we both see it at the same time: a bird whose form is familiar to me but whose plumage is like nothing I’ve ever seen. “I think it’s a blackbird,” C.D. says.


“It’s shaped like a blackbird but that’s not blackbird plumage,” I say. The feathers are light brown and highlighted with the oranges and pinks of a sunrise or of orange and raspberry sherbet. “It would be beautiful if it weren’t so weird,” I say. We watch the bird stride past the car toward the front doors of the U-Stop.

“Weird,” he says, as he slowly nods. Then the bird flies away. Runaway dogs and bizarre but beautiful birds. I feel like I’m watching a parable, with all of its familiar yet strange, ordinary yet extraordinary imagery unfurling before me. If I can tease out the meaning beyond the immediate and the apparent, perhaps these parables will tell me something essential about this man or my own intentions.

I wonder if C.D. is the kind of guy that can see the parabolic potential in seemingly random, everyday events. I’m about to ask him something along that line when he nonchalantly announces that he has bats in his attic. I’m not sure if he’s being straight with me or if he’s making another joke, with an explanation to follow. So I wait.

“You know how you usually have flies in your house this time of year and you don’t know where they came from?” He slowly shakes his head from side to side. “I don’t have any, so you know there’s something wrong.

“I took a lawn chair out in the yard the other evening and sat there and watched the attic. There they came. The bats. It can’t be good to have bats in your attic. It’s not hygienic,” he says, scrunching up his nose.

“No, it’s not,” I agree. “They’re up there defecating, urinating, shedding, and who knows what else.” I don’t say anything about rabies because I’ve heard that contrary to what most people think, the incidence of that disease in bats is no higher than that of any other wild mammal. Besides, I like bats. They use echolocation to locate and capture their prey; the females raise their young in nursery colonies of dozens or hundreds; and as a summer evening edges toward night, these flying leaves straight out of the Eocene Epoch dart and veer overhead and suddenly drop out of sight. I would never spread erroneous and potentially injurious information about bats. But neither do I want one anywhere near me, unless I’ve been forewarned of its presence.

“There are only two kinds of bats that these can be in Nebraska. Big Brown Bats or Little Brown Bats.” C.D.’s “b’s” are slightly bombastic. “A Little Brown Bat is about the size of a mouse when it’s like this.” He crosses his arms over his chest and hunches his back like a sleeping bat. His shoulders almost touch his knees. Then, he sits up straight again. “They’re only this big,” he says as he spreads his thumb and second finger a few inches. His nails are clean and nicely clipped. “But the bats that I have are a lot bigger.” He nods for emphasis. “They’re Big Brown Bats.

“I got on the internet and found a humane way to evict them. You make a valve tube out of a two-inch diameter plastic pipe or caulk tube. You cut it so it’s about six to eight inches long.” He shows me these distances by spreading his thumb and second finger. “You take a piece of plastic netting – you don’t want the mesh more than a sixth of an inch – and tape it to one side of the exterior opening on the pipe. Then you thread the tube through the opening in the roof where you saw the bats coming out. The bats can get out through the tube, but they say that because of the netting, they can’t get back in. Well, I think they can’t climb back in because their claws can’t get a grip on the hard plastic surface in the tube. Once you see that there aren’t any more bats coming out of your attic, you seal off the entry points.” C.D. has been looking over the top of his glasses at North 27th as he delivers this tutorial, but now, he turns and looks at me. His eyes are quite blue and sincere. “But I’m not evicting them just yet. It can still get pretty cold at night in April. I don’t want them to suffer.”

“That’s a good plan,” I say. “And you only have to wait a few more weeks until it’s warm enough that you can give them the boot.”

This man is gainfully employed, kind, politically progressive, not unattractive, and on cordial yet detached terms with his ex-wife and so, he meets my minimum standards. There is nothing particularly wrong with him, though his imitation of the sleeping bat was a little weird, but neither is there anything particularly right about him, though I was touched by his remark about his unwillingness to make Big Brown Bats suffer from the cold. Because of that remark, I move him from the “definitely not,” past the “probably not,” and into the “perhaps we’ll get together again” category.

I tell C.D. that I need to leave for the memorial service and that I have a big pile of student essays to grade this weekend. He tells me that he needs to get some chores done at home because Sunday morning, he’s heading out for an epic bike ride from the small town where he lives all the way to a little speck of a town near the Nebraska-Kansas border.

At this moment, it’s not Candidate for a Date in a nylon Lycra full body suit leaning into a turn that I’m imagining, but the produce aisle at the grocery store. I picture the free sample lady, the one with the big, coal black hair-do, red lips, and big, jingly, often holiday-themed earrings, placing a corn chip on each of the napkins that she’s laid out. Customers can take a chip and dip it in one of the three bowls of salsa, each filled with a different and new-fangled flavor, say, peach-mango, pomegranate, or tequila. Nearby in a clear plastic globe are wedges of blood oranges that you serve yourself on a toothpick. On a typical Saturday morning, the walk past the meat counter is a bit of an obstacle course, because of the various stations where you can sample Little Smokies sausage, shaved hickory-smoked ham on a snack cracker, and if you wait just a minute, a tiny chunk of the beef hissing and popping in an electric frying pan. In the bakery, a woman fills tiny plastic pill cups with dabs of pineapple or blueberry cheesecake. “Go on,” she says to me with a wink. “You can take one of each.”

There’s an etiquette that you should follow when sampling. You should feign interest in the product even if you don’t like it or if all you really want is a bite of free food. If the free sample lady is passing out coupons, you should take one, look it over and ask a question or nod your head to show your approval. You can throw the coupon away later. And always, thank her for giving you the opportunity to try something you’d never buy or something that you never knew you wanted until now.

At this moment in the parking lot outside the U-Stop Convenience Shop on North 27th Street in Lincoln, Nebraska, what I wish for are free samples, tiny dollops of the quotidian scooped from a typical day ten years hence, served in pill cups with tiny plastic spoons. In the first free sample, I see myself rising from my bed to close the window because the temperature falls so fast on an April night. Before I let the curtain fall back in place, I turn and see a single pillow positioned in the center of the head of my empty bed. But in the second sample, when I turn from the window, I see this man’s sleeping face illuminated by a slat of moonlight and framed by the pillow on his side of the bed. In both scenarios, what I most want to see is the unguarded look on my face when I turn from the window and see my empty or occupied bed. Is it contentment? Wonder? Dismay? Desire? Contempt? Ambivalence? Gratitude? If I could see my expression, I would know what to do and say in this parting moment before I take my leave of this man who is considerate of bats.

Before he gets out of my car, C.D. and I shake hands. I thank him for the opportunity to meet. “We’ll be in touch,” he says. I nod. And if we aren’t, I say to myself, it has far more to do with me than you.


Lisa Knopp is the author of six books of creative nonfiction. Her most recent, Bread: A Memoir of Hunger (University of Missouri Press, 2016), is about eating disorders and disordered eating among older women. Both Bread and What the River Carries: Encounters with the Mississippi, Missouri, and Platte (University of Missouri Press, 2012) won Nebraska Book Awards. Knopp’s essays have appeared in numerous literary journals including Georgia Review, Missouri Review, Michigan Review, Gettysburg Review, Crab Orchard Review, Connecticut Review, Iowa Review, Shenandoah, Creative Nonfiction, Prairie Schooner, and Seneca Review. Her current project is Like Salt or Love: Essays on Leaving Home, which will include “Free Samples.”

Knopp is a Professor of English at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, where she teaches courses in creative nonfiction. She lives in Lincoln, Nebraska. Please visit her website at http://www.lisaknopp.com