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Johannes Vermeer: Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (About 1654 - 1656)
"Hey! Nice shoes! Howya doin?" …"

I'd visited the discount pet supply store because I'd failed in an earlier attempt at the anonymous Kroger's to buy the only kind of cat food Max and Molly agree to eat. I'd learned in a SmallTalk exchange a few weeks before that this particular brand had been suffering distribution issues, with my favored jumbo family-sized packages no more than sporadically available. I'd picked up the wrong kind a couple of times only to find that they'd try to bury it before they consent to swallow it, those batches donated to the magpies or the cat shelter. They're picky eaters. As I was checking out, separated from the checker by a plexiglas partition and our masks, the checker attempted to maintain some semblance of normality by initiating a little SmallTalk, the very foundation of every commercial interaction. I honestly thought that she'd, for some reason, asked to see some picture ID. I figured there was a new directive from Homeland Security, so I struggled to remove my driver's license from my wallet, "No," she said, "I asked if you had anything exciting planned for the rest of the day." Embarrassed, I replied with a curt, "Probably not," collected my cat food, and left thinking that This Damned Pandemic might have killed SmallTalk.

SmallTalk has always been the glue of human interaction.
We're capable of big talk, but our selves only seem to shine through when we're engaging on a much smaller scale. A memorable aside might stay in the warm corner of my memory forever. I have to look up any of the great speeches to relive the inspiration they intended, hardly an inspiring activity. The ten thousand ways to ask about the weather better exemplifies who we are than does what we wear, who we associate with, or how much money we make. The more menial the task, the more masterful its incumbent seems at bridging these small gaps to turn a brief encounter into an uplifting experience. In the old days, shoe shine guys and barbers could pleasingly connect with anyone in under a minute, and they didn't deal in mere trivia or banality. By the end of the encounter, a patron like me would depart longingly, desiring only to continue the banter for a little longer, though I'd know further extending the exposition would violate something sacred.

Now, I seem to shuffle through my essential errants like a monk meditating on my mortal soul, but only because I probably am meditating on my mortal soul. I'm so preoccupied gauging distances and threatening proximities that I only very rarely ever see my fellow shoppers, and then, only to sidestep their trajectories. Nobody even attempts to mumble anything in passing, our voices effectively muffled by two layers of tightly-woven cotton. My ears seem filled with cotton, too. I inhabit a mute, almost silent world. Should that gregarious guy responsible for overseeing the self-checkout stations offer an aside, I won't receive the message. He won't catch me attempting to smile in acknowledgement so I'll just knowingly nod my head, a gesture so much smaller than SmallTalk that it likely fails to register. I feel as though I've suspended these most essential relations for the unforeseeable duration of this Double-damnedable Pandemic.

A significant draw for us HeadingHomeward has been for us to reinhabit a small city where SmallTalk's an ordinary components of every blessed interaction. When we lived just outside of DC, in the earlier part of our exile, I came to understand what I'd grown to grieve. I suddenly found myself an anonymous stranger immersed within a culture that left even my still, smaller voice mute. Nothing computed properly. I saw people passing on the street, many mute and studying their own shoes and many effusive, sharing some shit with whomever they might pass. I thought those people especially gregarious until someone clued me in to this glaring cultural difference. The natives, those with generations of history there, made it a point to never pass anybody without acknowledging their presence. This, I learned, amounted to a matter of honor for them. Carpetbaggers like me couldn't quite perceive this imperative and so we tended to stroll silently through the city. I decided to dedicate myself to at least trying to fit in, and so I took a chance and set about extending myself, to great success.

Suddenly I felt as though I belonged, too. I didn't need to slip through without being noticed, but could attempt to make a small spectacle of myself. It didn't take much, often nothing more than a nod and a smile, sometimes amplified with a roll of the eyes. The supermarket checkout clerks, acknowledged masters of SmallTalk, seemed to appreciate when this white boy didn't go all shy on them. I came to play favorites, waiting in a longer line so I'd end up being checked out by the SmallTalk master. There was a damned good reason their line was always longer. This was how I came to belong there, though I was an obvious alien. When The Muse accompanied me, she'd asked if I knew that person. I'd reply that I didn't, not really, other than to recognize that she was a SmallTalk master. "Hey! Nice shoes! Howya doin?" …

©2021 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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