A green van pulled into the Mountain Palm Springs campground. I waved, as usual, although I couldn’t see the occupants through the glare of the windshield. It’s good to be neighborly, I figured, especially in these free campgrounds where official supervision is limited. It’s also good to know which neighbors to keep a healthy distance from.
A very buff shirtless man got out. No wife. Oh, crap, I thought. Sometimes even a wave is too neighborly.
He had parked at a discreet distance, and things continued in a distant, neighborly fashion for a couple days. He was Polish and lived in Toronto where he was a street vendor during the summer. His wife lived with their son’s family. During the winter he camped in places that were warm and free and near hot springs of any sort. He was 60, a perfect specimen of a human being, and that’s where his personal evolution had ended. I called him Mr. Animal Magnetism.
The only time the man put on a shirt (a skin-tight polyester number) was to ride a bike to the hot springs a few miles away. Then, with his dew rag and dark glasses, he looked like Hulk Hogan. He was all tatted up with the Virgin Mary over his heart and the nuclear symbol on his bicep. (“Because I am atomic.”)
This comfortable stasis was upended when my beautiful daughter arrived. I made the mistake of telling him that her father had been Polish. Now he had a harem.
“Oooooh, my daughter,” he cooed. “You do not look American. I could tell.”
We were going to the hot springs the next day, and Mr. AM rode along, but not before he had eaten breakfast—oatmeal liberally dotted with cloves of raw garlic.
“Is very good for you. I haf every morning.” It was not good to share a vehicle with him.
The hot springs were located in a nearby state park. There was a warm “therapeutic pool” in a lovely glass-enclosed space and two cooler pools outside. Mr. AM preened like a rooster when we walked into the therapeutic pool. He complimented my daughter on her nicely toned muscles.
“You could use more muscle,” he said to me.
A clutch of Yugoslavian grandmas were circling the pool supervised by their husbands who lolled on the lounge chairs like walruses. Mr. AM inadvertently blocked their progress, and they milled about like confused hens.
“Ladies, please!” said Mr. AM. “Not so much talking.”
The twittering became indignant.
“Iss a free country!” a babushka said.
“Yes! Iss a free country!” The sibilant echoes bounced around the cavernous pool.
“He does not like that he can’t understand us,” one said to me.
“I CAN understand you,” Mr. AM protested.
The ladies milled about.
Mr. AM began performing tricks. He plugged his ears and held his breath on the bottom of the pool for a long time. We went outside to a cooler pool, and he executed a shallow dive into the four-foot water. A man sitting on the side of the pool clearly wanted to join the fun. He made the mistake of complaining about his knees.
“Why do your knees bother you?” Mr. AM asked, but it was a trick question. “My friend, you are too fat.”
Trying to salvage a scrap of manhood, the fat guy slapped his belly. “Hey, this is expensive to maintain,” he said. “Besides, the only thing I measure is the length of my penis.”
Mr. AM all but clapped his hands over my daughter’s ears. “My friend, you haf gone too far. Come, girls, we go to the other pool.” He herded us away.
My daughter left the following day, and Mr. AM waved from his side of the campground like a mournful father. Our distant, neighborly relationship resumed.
The next day, I was preparing to build some muscle with a hike “up canyon,” when Mr. AM rode back from the hot springs on his bike.
“Are you taking a hike? Just a minute. I go with you.”
“Sure you’re not too tired?”
“I am never tired.”
Figures, I thought.
Without the distraction of youth and beauty, he dropped a bit of the swagger. After a half-hearted invitation to join him in his van that night (“Young, old, makes no difference. Ve haf a beautiful evening together”), he talked about his grandfather, a strapping man, even bigger than himself. Grandfather was just the kind of Pole the Nazis needed to power their war machine. They enslaved him as a Todt worker—literally, a death worker. When he tried to escape, he was put in Auschwitz. He managed to survive, barely. It took years for him to regain his health.
Of several grandsons, Mr. AM was the favorite. He showed me a medal, blackened by mineral water, that his grandfather had somehow managed to keep throughout the war. He gave it to Mr. AM before he died. Mr. AM wept a little at the memory.
We talked about Pope John Paul II and how we both loved and admired him. How Mr. AM travels with the pope’s picture in his van. We talked about his wife, and how she is very religious. She won’t give him a divorce, but she refuses to leave her family to travel with him. “I know you,” she says to him. He waggles a finger in imitation.
“Does she sleep with other men the way you sleep with women?”
“No, she is…” he struggled for the word.
Before he left, I waggled my finger. “You travel with the pope and the Virgin in your van. You should not be sleeping with all these women.”
“I know,” he said quietly.
“And you should go back to your wife.”
But that was maybe stretching things.
PS: Many thanks for all the very thoughtful responses to my post about solitude. Your comments gave me lots to ponder.