When I pulled into my driveway on Thursday evening, it was dusk, and I saw an older black man in a chocolate velveteen jacket with a bucket of soapy water and a sponge. He was scraping white dollops of poo from the black paint. Steve was pulling on his leash in a desperate need to be near some random vine on the fence, but then Steve’s always desperate to be somewhere where he’s not already, and I was trying to balance his water dish, my few books from work, and a sack of groceries that held nothing more than cookies and a twelve-pack of caffeine-free Diet Coke.
As I undid the front gate of my yard, I turned to the man, awkwardly because I still was navigating the desperate Steve, and I said, “Those birds sure do a number on your car, huh?” I knew this from experience. My black car had been violently speckled more than once in the past few months.
He looked up from his soapiness. “I lost my neutron detector.” I thought I heard him right and I thought he was making an odd and possibly funny joke about birds and their defecating habits, so I laughed because that’s what I do when I don’t understand something. I’m a friendly guy, though, so I thought it might be good to ask for clarification.
“What?” I was still smiling.
“I’m a physicist.”
I laughed again, still not in on the joke, but maybe it was going somewhere familiar, a place where the two dots could connect and my laugh might turn into something genuine.
“And you’re a carp.” He said this with such authority that at that moment, I didn’t have any doubt that I was a goldfish looking for my plastic castle. “I work in physics and I lost my neutron detector,” he stated for the record, again.
Slowly closing my gate, making sure its clasp was firmly in place, I fished around my mailbox and walked up to the porch.
Not wanting to be rude, I waved after I opened the front door and wished him well on washing his car. “And I hope you find your detector,” I added. I didn’t want him to think me insensitive.