The Mockery of Billboards

Dearest Rachel –

I forget if I read much of his stuff before you were a part of my life – I don’t think you introduced me to his work – but you seemed to have an affinity toward the poetry of Ogden Nash. His series on ‘Animals’ was one you favored, but the most germane to me is the following:

I think that I shall never see
A billboard lovely as a tree.
Perhaps, unless the billboards fall,
I’ll never see a tree at all!

Ogden Nash, “Song of the Open Road”

Admittedly, the trees here don’t reach as high as the billboards do; Mr. Nash wouldn’t have seen much of anything if he was driving along I-53 as opposed to the surface streets. There are plenty of trees here in the suburbs, but you have to be at street level to see them. You also have to be in the residential neighborhoods; in the industrial parks, it’s been decided that there’s no particular need for much in the way of foliage.

I say this to introduce a billboard I saw last week, when I was dropping off my car to have its steering frame replaced. Naturally, the mechanics’ place is in an industrial park, so most of the things that are planted there are billboards – so… sorry, Mr. Nash.

Of course, he might have found it fascinating that billboards these days at least have the virtue of changing from one advertiser to another, cycling through purchasing possibilities a dozen times over in the course of a minute or two as drivers speed by at some sixty-plus miles per hour. Blight on the horizon that they may be, at least they couldn’t be said to be boring.

What stings me as I walked past it (because I’d dropped the car off, you’ll remember) is one of the advertisers is specifically geared toward today’s festivities:

I should mention that the camera’s eye actually manages to make the picture look infinitely more lurid than it would appear to someone just standing there observing it; the flesh tones actually look like, well, flesh tones, rather than this garish red. On the other hand, for the purposes of this letter, this almost seems more appropriate.

It’s times like this when I wish that, since the Lord saw fit to take you home, He would have done me the favor of switching off my libido when He did so. To be fair, the fact that He didn’t suggests to me that He might yet have been gracious enough to leave someone out here for me to find, but in the meantime, signs like this just get under my skin. They’re just standing there, mocking me. I realize it’s not intentional, and I’m sure I’m not the only single person upon whom the holiday (and all its attendant commercial interruptions) grates. It’s just that it’s in my position, it holds a certain poignant nostalgia that most others I know wouldn’t necessarily experience.

Admittedly, this wasn’t the kind of store we frequented, but we didn’t exactly avoid it, either. Back in the early days of our marriage, we didn’t bother going out to shop for such wares; we received, for whatever reason, catalogs from Frederick’s of Hollywood (I guess they still exist online, but we never bothered to look after we moved, and the catalogs stopped coming). Every so often, we would get one of their grab-bag specials (you’ll recall, we weren’t making a lot of extra money back then) and you would try out this or that, to determine what you did or didn’t like. I don’t this you ever got rid of the stuff that didn’t appeal to you, or didn’t feel good (I think most of that wound up in the box Jan and I found last April); the stuff we did agree on got a fair amount of use, such that they didn’t last well enough to be left behind. Remember that catsuit that you wore our first Halloween together? Good times.

As something of an aside, I will say that shopping at such a store can be one of the most uncomfortable experiences for a male on his own. Combine the fact that sizing is virtually incomprehensible (and I thought my shoes were a tricky thing), the fact that we can only guess at what your tastes are (frankly, I was never sure as to whether you didn’t harbor some resentment, however slight, at being treated more or less like a paper doll. You at least made it clear that you did not favor bikini bottoms – after your pregnancy, you insisted that you never had a figure for a bikini, in contrast to your mom’s pride of having a ‘wasp waist,’ so I knew not to pursue that matter. And let’s not even start about thongs), and that surprisingly powerful sense of self-consciousness that we are being sized up by the female clerks to determine whether or not we’re perverts or on some sex offender registry. That last thought is utterly irrational, I know, but you’d be surprised at how many guys feel it when they’re alone in such a store.

On the other hand, by contrast, were I to accompany you to a place like that, it would be one of the most satisfying experiences a man can have while shopping. All those concerns about size and taste are resolved by your presence. It also gives off a vibe of ‘get a load of this; she wants to look this kind of nice for me during those times; aren’t I a lucky man?’ Oh sure, it spoils the surprise of such a gift, but you were never into that in the first place, so that was fine.

Granted, as the years went by, we concerned ourselves less and less with adding stuff to our routine; I think we learned that you didn’t need to dress up for a good time, so why bother?

Whoa, and our good times start and end
Without dollar one to spend
But how much, baby, do we really need?

The Monkees, “Daydream Believer” (1967)

But I miss those days, whether you were dressed up or not.

We didn’t always make a big deal of Valentine’s Day in those last few years; by 2019, while we managed to have a nice dinner out together at a local sushi place, we were dealing with a cloud over our heads at that moment, as Dad had just been admitted to the hospital in what didn’t immediately look so serious (and indeed, our thoughts at the time were along the lines of ‘well, he’s in the hands of professionals; there’s not much we can do at this point. Might as well carry on with our original plans’) but quickly developed into a fight for his life. We had no idea that things would never be the same from then on.

Even our last Valentine’s Day together, while memorable, wasn’t entirely full-on romantic. After all, what can you do when it’s the whole family in one hotel room? Still, our trip through the Riverwalk was pleasant, and we found a nice place along the shore to eat at, but it wasn’t as if we took one of those magic carriage rides together.

But of course, we thought we’d have plenty more of those kinds of days where this one came from. How little we knew.

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I am Rachel's husband. Was. I'm still trying to deal with it. I probably always will be.

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