My father often interpreted the misfortunes of others by saying that the person was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. He’d explain that this could be a matter of either poor judgment or bad luck.
“You could even be in the right place,” he’d say, “but at the wrong time.” I guess he was trying to clarify the concept for me by providing additional possibilities. The problem was that I tended to get confused by any simple premise, and extra information only made things worse. And so I struggled with the right-place-wrong-time variation.
In order to keep it straight in my mind, I’d create examples for myself. I’d picture someone standing in line at the church bazaar, waiting to buy a slice of pizza and a root beer, when a big rock falls out of the sky and mashes them into the ground. Or they might be spending an afternoon at the zoo at the exact moment that the male lion emerges from his drunken stupor and decides he’s had enough fast food and is in the mood for something fresh, and at least a little more challenging.
You could be at the library, or taking a spelling test, or in Confession, and suddenly a hurricane completely blows away the building. And then, before you have a chance to make a move, a thunderstorm could roll in and fry you on the spot with one good bolt of lightning.
The more I thought about what my father said, the more I could sense my options fading away. Eventually, I’d have no idea where to go. Or when.
At some point, I began to wonder if it would be possible to be in the wrong place at the right time. And if so, what would that look like? On the surface, it would seem that if it were the wrong place, it would always be the wrong time. My brain hurt to think about it, but I persisted, mostly on Saturday mornings, when everyone else was asleep and there was nothing on television but test patterns and a show about farming.
What if I rode my bike up one side of an active volcano and down into the crater? That would qualify as being in the wrong place. I was pretty sure about this, even though I had never bothered to ask my parents if I could go to a volcano. They subscribed to a lot of silly rules. If I ate a sandwich, I had to wait an hour before I could go swimming, and our pool was barely two feet deep. There was no way they were going to authorize a trip to a hollow mountain filled with boiling rocks.
“The lava will melt your tires,” I’d imagine them saying, “and then you’ll have to walk home.”
But what if they did say yes? Maybe I’d ask while they were playing cards, or watching Gunsmoke, or arguing about how much to tip the paper boy. Even better, I could wait until we were trapped in one of our weekly dinnertime confrontations. I’d be seated at the table, alone with a plate of cold meat and green beans. My mother would be in the kitchen, washing everyone else’s dishes. My father would be on the couch, pretending to read the newspaper. Having failed to attract the attention of the cat, I’d have both hands clamped over my eyes, attempting to make the food disappear through pure mental power. Meanwhile, my parents, realizing they couldn’t break my will and that I was prepared to sit there for the rest of my life, might offer a deal.
“Finish your steak and you can go to the volcano.”
Then, of course, it would be a matter of timing the adventure correctly. That shouldn’t be difficult. The average volcano goes for years without erupting. With even mediocre judgment and the dumbest of luck, I’d be able to get in and out of there without so much as a blister. It was possible I’d even make it home for supper tomorrow night, when we’d be having pizza and root beer. Then I’d eat as much as they wanted me to, which would no doubt prompt my father to ask what the problem was with the steak and green beans.
“I don’t know, Dad,” I’d say. “I guess they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”