It’s love at first sight. His drab brown suit, rumpled shirt, and ill-fitting khakis. The way he shuffles into the restaurant like he’s lost. Those glasses, thick and foggy, perpetually a syllable away from being pulled gently off his nose. And the hair, my God, the hair. Billowing, wafting, gray, and frequently full of soup. Yes please, Elmer, come dine with us.
He takes his seat at the table quietly, almost reluctantly, as if gracing us with his presence will in any way result in our dining displeasure. Little does he know that his pickled Hobbit form is exactly the sort of mad companion we’ve been craving on this Caribbean cruise. As he sits, we collectively lock eyes, astonishment and unexpected joy quite evident in our glowing cheeks. This is it, we groupthink. Shit just got weird.
Elmer sets down his book, a dog-eared copy of something, possibly Ted Kaczynski‘s manifesto. It seems Elmer expects to be ignored during these family-style dinners Disney has subjected us to. He expects to have to flip through a fully memorized bomb-making manual instead of engage his companions in good-natured conversation. Fortunately – fortunately! – we are here. And we want to know every damn thing about this man, this mythical half-beast, this sodden mound of ancient withered flesh that introduces itself in a soft, charred mutter as “Elmer.”
Boring Table Family, arranged like Russian dolls across from us, is visibly disturbed by Elmer’s presence. Daughter shifts as if a viper has suddenly joined the meal. Father looks down his nose for a long moment before suddenly embarking on an impassioned examination of his napkin. Mother desperately, desperately wants to order a drink, probably one of the tall green mojitos we have, but the rest of her family remains sober and so she wilts in her padded seat.
The closest to Elmer among us begins to quiz him. Where are you from? Dallas. What do you do? Retired from government work. Is this your first cruise? No. How many cruises have you been on? 12 (!!). How many Disney cruises? 11 (!!!!). Why do you keep choosing Disney cruises when you’re a hairy, disheveled, single 75-year-old man? The service.
Elmer eats like the food might run away, bringing his face down close to the plate and shoveling it all in with panache. Always, always, he orders the soft food, the wet food, the food that will most attractively dribble down his beard when we make eye contact. Looking into those milky brown globes while tomato soup soaks his facial hair is like looking into the face of God. It seers itself into my memory banks, like a hot iron pressed on a slice of bread. I look back down at my own food and it suddenly seems less nourishing, just a disgusting pile of slop, really. Maybe I should order some soup.
Sometimes Elmer speaks. In response to questions, both real and imagined. To tell lengthy, unintelligible stories. To extemporize on the football prospects of the Oregon Ducks. To spread food from his tongue and teeth down onto that luscious expanse of chin fur. To suddenly, unexpectedly ask the waitress, “What are you doing this summer?” as if perhaps they will make plans to run away together. To explain that no, he didn’t really do anything for his birthday because the New Years Eve revelers kept him up so late that he decided to just sleep aboard the cruise ship all day.
But oh, the things he didn’t tell us. The things we will always wonder about. The madness within him that we could never fully understand. Like, for instance, why he never changed his outfit, despite the evident stains, the tattered appearance. Or just what exactly his career was. Was he on a government pension after years spent slaving away at mad research projects? Or was he quietly stamping books in the dark, endless stacks of a government library? And, perhaps most importantly, we never learned why he was alone on these 11 Disney cruises. What happened to your wife, Elmer? Or did you never have one? Have been alone all this time? Have you been waiting through 11 damn cruises, for someone to finally engage you? Have you been waiting for us?
I hope so, Elmer. We were waiting for you.