Thursday, December 18, 2014

Energetic, young, broken, useless

This happened a year ago.

"Be still!" He yelled at me from across the street.

"What? Man, I can't hear you." I called back. Three minutes before, I had been on my way home from the Green Leafe. Since Eleven o'clock, I had finished off three beers, two excellent conversations, and one page of notes. Two weeks before this, road workers had repaired a long section of Scotland St., but never finished. I got a flat on a deceptively sharp pot hole. This guy, call him Rick, walked by on the other side of Armistead Ave. while I was repairing the tube. I had called some kind of respectful acknowledgment ("'S'up?") when I noticed his eyes on me.

"Be fucking still!" He demanded.

"Alright, I'm still." I said. I knew now what was going on.

"Get down. Now."

"I can't do that, man." I didn't want to take my eyes from him. I didn't want to confirm his fantasy.

"GET DOWN!" He yelled at me. "Five! Four!" and ran at me from catty-corner across the street. Forty yards. Thirty. Twenty. I stood my ground and talked to him softly, hands out of my pockets, open, palms facing. Not a threat.

He stopped inside of five yards. Eyes wide. I asked him if he served in Iraq. "Yes, I did." Still in his aggressive voice, the same rough, loud, monotonic tone a twelve year old boy uses on the playground to make a show of force and toughness. Falsely deep, I think it will crack.

"I know I look suspicious to you," I began.

He cut in, "Everybody does."

"But I'm not. I just stopped to fix a flat."

He's not buying it. I'm still the enemy. He's my height, maybe a bit taller, 5'9 and something. Broader shoulders. Dark hair, crew cut, maybe he's still serving. Khaki jacket. Features from the mid-west.
He's drunk. Slow, I could tell that when he was running. Probably higher pain tolerance and possibly unusually strong. But if he lunged, I think I could get out of the way. My phone is in my pocket, but I'm not going to do anything that looks dangerous to this man: this scared little boy in a man's shoes, the weight of many on his shoulders.

"You're a Marine?" I asked.


"My father was a Marine." I said.

"So was mine." still too-hard and loud, but less-so. His breath is steadier.

"He served like you. I've heard the stories. I know a little of what it's like." I'm waving casually at a passing taxi. He's seen the cab too, but he's scowling at it, chin set and pointing his finger at the ground.

He looks back at me. He's still making aggressive mumblings. I raise my right hand slowly and take a step towards him. "I'm going to touch your shoulder." His wide eyes flare wider and he steps back quickly. What did we do to him? "Ok, I'm not going to touch you. But I'm with you, man. I'm on your side."

"Just.. just give me what I want." He says, too softly now. I can't hear him, but he's pleading. Another taxi goes by. Too intent on him, I don't notice it stop behind me. "Give me what I want." He's stretched a hand out to me, now. Palm upward. I think he still might want me to get down, but I really don't know.

"I don't know what you want," I said. I put my hand on his, tentatively, aware he may grab and pull.

"Yes, you do!" His voice is getting louder again, becoming twelve again.

"My dad served out of Norfolk. Where do you serve from?" I'm trying to calm him. Ground him back into reality.

"You know what I want!"

"I don't know, where do you serve from?"

Someone is calling from over my shoulder. Calling his name. "Rick, come get in the van!" They're finally heard, but it doesn't calm Rick.

"Fuck you and your bike!" He yells. He grabs the bike, rear wheel still on the sidewalk, it seems energetic, young, broken, useless. He picks it up, swings, and throws it fifteen feet away. It lands in a heap on the lawn near a rust red sculpture of books held tight in a leather belt. It's dark over there, but it looks okay.

"Whoa," I'm saying, "whoa, Rick, calm down. These are your friends. You need to get in the van with them. Go home."

Now I'm someone else. "No!" he says, sternly, but not the same tone. "You need to! These are the guys that saved your life." It's odd. He's saying this with condescension. My life wasn't worth saving. They risked their worthy lives for my unworthy one.

"Rick, go home and get some sleep."

"They came back for you, man!"

His friends are out of the cab. Rick turns and paces down Scotland, towards the elementary school.
Five minutes later, his friends have managed to pay off the confused and worried taxi driver. (Though one tried to offer him some kind of rewards card in payment. "It has fifty points on it!") They've been standing on sidewalk behind me while I put the wheel back together, talking together about how bad life is ("I'm going back to New York, gonna be a student." "Me too, I'm gonna be a student too." "But that's all I got going for me. If I fuck up one class, that's it." "New York, man?" "Yeah, that's where it all started, 3000 people died there in 2001.") apologizing to me for Rick, ("I've never seen him this bad." "Are you also a marine?" "No, I'm Navy! but I've been with him for as long as I can remember.") wondering what to do now ("He's gone now, man. Gone off somewhere.") I've picked up the frame. The derailleur is bent. I notify the soldiers that Rick is coming back. ("Good spotting, bike guy." Like I'm one of the team.)

After a brief drunken struggle under the spotlight of the street, they head off together, cajoling and consoling Rick, this time down Armistead towards the train station. "Don't call the cops on him, bike guy!" as they leave.

"Just get him home, guys. And tell him Semper Fi for me."

Ten minutes later, I leave the scene and three police cars behind me. (He didn't have a weapon. I'm not pressing charges. Not worried about the bike. I'm worried about the guy. Just see if you can get them somewhere to sleep this off, please. He's been pretty messed up. More ways than one.)

The officer, slightly overweight, blond hair, buzz cut, double chin, maybe 5'10", had asked if I needed anything. "No, I'll get home alright." Was I sure about not demanding any money for repairs?

"Yes. It's just one of those things, you know? It's life."

The bent derailleur clicks the whole way home.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014


It was a long trip.

“There’s a thing,” he said suddenly, “that I’ve never been able to express - mostly for fear of making it true. I’ve always felt, since even before his birth, that he was too good for this world. I can see, when I look at the rest  of my children, their futures spreading out: the paths they might take, and whatever lies at the end of them. I can see nothing ahead of him. Every day he gets closer to the nothing or unwittingly avoids some unseen peril, but eventually that last step is unavoidable.

“The details of his birth only confirmed this nagging feeling in my mind. The sudden complication, his attempt to get into the world backwards, his umbilical cord wrapped around his neck, like a noose…”

He trailed off, so I interrupted his thoughts with mine, “an omphalic suicide.”

“A what?”

"Omphalic. It's a Greek word. 'Omphalus' the navel, the source of life, the rock of Delphi, the center of the world.”

“Oh. Yes. Huh. Omphalic suicide. An ironic death, maybe.

“I don’t know. I could be… I hope I’m wrong. He will probably live a complete life. Go to school for dentistry, marry a girl named Barbara, have three children and a black lab, become devoted to the art of Chinese calligraphy, and retire to a life filled with brushes, ink pots, and grandchildren. It’s just - it’s a secret fear. He’s too perfect to survive.”

And that’s all he said, because he had to tell someone, and so he told me. We rode the rest of his journey together in silence. He tipped me a few dollars, gathered his umbrella and briefcase, and left his secret behind when he closed the door.

Coffee Characters

In the corner, under the lamp so low that it stands accused of causing the headache of many unwitting patrons, sits a matriarch lost in time. Surrounded by her family, she mutters wisdom under her breath. She has watched the rise and fall of civilizations. She’s seen the sun set over a thousand lands. She has witnessed the death of ten people, both parents, two husbands, her firstborn son, and five others: relations and friends whose names are indelibly etched in her memory. You do not forget a person you’ve watched die.

She is too old and hunched too low that not even that lamp, stretch as it might, is a peril to her. Her family pays no heed to her words, because even her daughter, aged seventy-three, reaching across to pull the blanket over her mother’s shoulders, is too young and headstrong.

So she mumbles incessantly, even over the lip of her earthen mug, the history of the stars. She scatters the treasures of a lost world on ears which are attached to mouths that say, “take a sip of this fine warm soup now, _Mee-Ma_.” No woman is an oracle in her own house.

At the next table closer to me sits a short man who shaved his face this morning with a flat razor while leaning close to small round mirror as the dawn’s newborn light illuminated his square chin. While he shaved, he hummed an aria from an opera I don’t recognize and in a language he doesn’t know. Now he’s sitting silently, leaning back in his chair with his legs crossed in a manner that is confident, but there is a tension beneath his mannerisms, like he’s trying too hard to be comfortable. I think, perhaps the only time he’s truly at ease is while he’s shaving in front of that small round mirror, in the bathroom of his own low house which smells of damp stone and aftershave.

At the far end of my row, a wizard and apprentice discuss some arcane experience. The elder mystic is content in himself, is surprised at how easily he slipped into the role of tutor. He frequently finds himself recollecting his own time as an apprentice and finds himself unconsciously emulating the body language, posture, and tone of his professors. He's doing it now: leaning back against the uncomfortable straight wooden chair, leg crossed, hands together or steepled on the table. He thinks that this posture must have been passed down, tweaked, personalized, by unknown generations of mystical tutors, since prehistory. He imagines now, while he continues to discuss the latest alchemy, his apprentice in this position a hundred years from now. Her own thin hands steepled. There's a word, he's sure of it, for the cultural markers passed on and around, evolving in meaning and method, a word that has itself passed into popular culture with expanded and unscientific meaning, but he cannot think of it. She probably knows. He won't ask.

She, though, is more interesting to me. He's certain, and I tend to dislike certainty. She is intent, concentrated, absorbed by the new knowledge. Two years ago she had been a frightened little girl with a talent for the telekinetic that she could not understand and could barely control, meeting a group of  powerful people that intimidated and impressed her. Now she is a woman. Through force of curiosity, she made something like a family out of that eccentric disjointed convocation. She’s confident and powerful and she simply won’t look at me. Hasn’t glanced in my direction, or any direction, really. Her eyes bore holes through the mind of her professor. She leans forward, over the table and her medium brevĂ© in a to-go cup. The closer she is to source, the quicker she hears the words.

Behind me, a tree stares deeply into her mug. She’s trying very hard to focus on the things she’s learned since assuming her human form, things like the an appreciation for time and mortality, the nature of loss and physical pain, but also of joy and pleasure, but she keeps getting distracted by the thing her roommate told her about Deidre’s boyfriend’s brother. She flushes and the sap rises to her cheeks and leaves uncurl in her mossy hair. She’s cute and unkempt and younger than her years.

And in my corner, in my chair, sits an ordinary man with wild hair and terrible breath. He’s seated at a small computer, typing at it absentmindedly, and he keeps getting confused about who he is. He’s imagining the lives of strangers and forgets that he is the ordinary man in the corner. He’s looking at his own hands now and wondering, ‘Who’s hands are these?’