Saturday, November 1, 2008

Vagrant's Reply

I don’t know why, but when the heat swelters I turn owlish and squirrelly. Take what happened last night. I paced about my room, hopped on dressers, perched myself on windowsills, tossed socks and shirts and sheets and towels and feathered pillows on the splintery floor. I burnished my bed posts. I transformed tarnished brass into a mirrored shine that reflected back my perspiring face--sweat flowing out of my pores like beads of water down a shower wall. Ah, the heat, the heat, the heat.

Over and over the ceiling fan turned round and round. Its wobbly, unsteady blades blew no cool air—just a noisy breeze that didn’t quiet the storm of sleeplessness inside of me. Then the phone rang.

It’s one a.m. Who has no regard for a man’s repose?

The voice on the line spoke vaguely, wanting to reclaim an old acquaintance at a bar named Vic’s. So we met. I watched the old acquaintance steadily drink whiskey sours while I sipped a Mexican beer and a quart of cold ice water. Reluctantly I listened to his reminisces of our childhood. He talked of baseball, of hitting sliders, of running bases, of shagging fly balls like the great Red Sox players—Yazstremski, Petrocelli, Mike Andrews and the young Conigliaro brothers. He spoke of Friday nights at Kelly Field and the heroes we watched, the semi-pro teams who strode the shortened grass like giants. But we knew they weren’t the biggest of giants. None could play left field as did Yaz, nor throw a fastball with the speed of the great Fenway pitcher Lonborg. The old acquaintance spoke of those long ago days as the time of our living dreams.

He took a sip from his whiskey sour, made a bitter as lemon face, and revealed how sad and lonely he had become. His wife had gone mad. His daughter had run to the hills of California, cut-off in a faraway cult.

I knew the type of person he was; the type of person who believed in the interconnectedness of humanity. To reconnect with me was to reconnect with youthfulness, to toss away his sadness, to reclaim those living dreams. In his eyes I could see his desperation, the wanting of my kindness and sympathy. But all I could give him was nothing because I felt nothing. I too had seen madness, the madness of war—dying men; dead men; crazy men screaming, exorcising the last of their vaporous sanities into hot sweltering nights.

War shakes you up. It freezes you. It turns your nerves into reactive overdrive and numbs you at the same time. But I knew none of this. I had never donned a helmet. I had never trundled knee deep in thick jungle muck, my precise eyes on the look out for snipers and poisonous vipers whose bite can infect you with madness and death.

This was my make believe. This was my lie to keep at bay the truth—the hot sleepless nights when I hear voices through the walls, when I sense burning death rising through the dark cracks in my splintery floor.

But that too was a lie. I hear nothing. I sense nothing. Just as I feel nothing for an old acquaintance who needs to reconnect with me and to reminisce about times that never were. He could see all of this in my face.

"Do you ever just want to lie down and let yourself die?" he asked in exasperation.

On a razor’s edge. I wanted to say.

It was 3 a.m. Time to go. I put aside his protestations and paid for our drinks. Together we made our way back into the heat of the July night. As we walked I dropped a coin into an outstretched hand. I asked the beggar if knew of the vagaries of life, like summer becoming winter? His lips muttered insensibly. The old acquaintance walked with me for a few steps and then we parted. By late morning a cold front had come. Sleep came easily. I felt normal again.

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