(HOST) Commentator Philip Baruth claims to meet the oddest people in the oddest places. Recently, according to Philip anyway, he came across Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in the oddest place of all.
(BARUTH) Like a lot of people, I almost never remember to shop ahead of time or in bulk. Instead I tend to shop when I’m fresh out of work and ravenously hungry, utterly defenseless.
The big chain grocery near my house knows this about me, and they put out cheese cubes and bits of smoked turkey in a little glass case in front of the deli. This case stands just at hand-level, like an oversized mouse trap.
But I have my own strategies. On my first run past the samples, I pick up what looks like one cheese cube and one slice of turkey. But really each cube and slice is holding a duplicate cupped against my palm. Later I’ll come back to work the same pathetic magic trick one more time.
Only then do I break down and buy a pound of each.
I know the store still wins in the end, but the point is: It’s wicked good turkey.
The other night, though, as I’m about to strafe the sample case for the second time, something catches my eye as I pass the Pharmacy. It’s an older man in glasses and a sharp pinstriped suit, gray at the temples, and I think, at first, that he’s having some sort of seizure. He’s sitting at the automatic bloodpressure machine, after all, and as I glance over he yanks hard once, and then twice, on the arm locked into the beige plastic cuff.
But then he slumps back in the chair like he’s winded, and it dawns on me: he’s trapped in there. The blood pressure machine sits behind a little ficas tree meant to provide privacy and obviously once it inflated, the cuff never deflated. Maybe he’s been there for hours.
So I roll my cart over to the ficas, and as I do, I get my second epiphany: this trapped guy is not just a guy, it’s Donald Rumsfeld.
There’s this awkward pause, so I introduce myself and ask if he’s OK.
He looks up and gives me this tight grin, and then he says, “Never better, son. This is one heckuva store. I don’t get up this way much, but I’m enjoying this place.”
There’s another pause. He hasn’t mentioned the cuff, and so I feel odd mentioning it for him, but he’s clearly trapped. The hand sticking out of the cup has gone white. “Can I help you out of there, Secretary?”
He squints through the glasses. “Out of where? I’m afraid I don’t follow you.”
“Your arm,” I say. “It seems like you’re, you know, stuck in the blood pressure cuff.”
He follows my gaze, as though I’d pointed to a quarter someone dropped on the floor. “These machines take time, Phil. They deflate at their own pace.”
“I know, but you look stuck,” I say. “I mean, you were really yanking on it before.”
Rumsfeld thinks, then says, “I like to simulate stress, make sure the circulatory system’s battle-ready.”
“So you’re all right, then?” I ask.
Rumsfeld squints, and then he just starts asking questions, and answering them. “Is this blood pressure cuff operating at peak efficiency, Phil? No, it isn’t. But, will I eventually be picking out some arugula for my salad tonight? Darn right I will.”
So I sort of shake the hand sticking out of the arm pressure cuff, and Rumsfeld nods and looks quickly away, and I leave him there, behind the ficas tree in the pharmacy.
I start my loop back to the sample case, but as I near it, I sort of lose my appetite and wheel past. I try to convince myself that it’s someone else’s job, ultimately, to get the guy out of there. But still there’s this little voice in my head that says I should have just hauled him out when I had the chance — whether he wanted the help or not.
Philip Baruth is a novelist living in Burlington. He teaches at the University of Vermont.