“I’m not from here.” That’s the first thing he said to me. It wasn’t out of fear or panic, and he wasn’t asking for help, at least not in a direct way. He was just stating a fact. Still, it made me uncomfortable. Then he said, “I’ll assume you are, though.” And he smiled, which made me feel better.
He was carrying a vague-beige knapsack, which he set down, as if to say to me, this is going to happen. You and I are going to have a conversation, right here, right now. And he said some interesting things, or at least I found them interesting.
First he told me about having to go through customs at the airport, then he talked about customs and rituals from home, the differences between ours and theirs. He seemed a bit flustered, like he was trying acclimate to his environment. I didn’t tell him that I wasn’t from around here either, at least not natively. I’ve been here for awhile, but is this my home? It made me think about all the people I’d met who were born and raised here, my reaction. There’d be a subtle defensiveness, like I was judging them, but I was just curious.
He talked about habitat, loves, death, mothers, fathers, tubas, trivia, good people, language, here and there, being home and being lost. He was amicable, and even though I didn’t really talk, he was often waiting to listen. And he asked me questions that I rarely answered except maybe in shrugs and non-committed mumbles. And if all of this sounds like it could’ve gotten heavy or intense (and it sometimes did), the man had plenty of charm and good jokes, too.
For instance, he says to me, “I’ve had occassion – this is embarrassing – to question my existence, just the plainest fact of it. Not in big ways, just little constant daily ones. This might be something the folks instilled in me. Bless their hearts, they loved me like only they could: out of the corners of their eyes, kind of, and with pentrating questions like, ‘Who exactly do you think you are?” and “And now where do you think you’re going?”” Then he said, “They brought me into this world, of course, and taught me the difference between right and left.”
I liked him very much.
He was often apologetic and slightly ashamed of certain things. For instance, he said to me, “I sound so dour, and I’m not,” as if trying to convince me of something. I wanted to tell him that he didn’t have to feel sorry all the time. He apologized with his shoulders. I eventually got around to asking him if he was homeless. He said that he was “unhomed.” Then he said, “Made-up word. What word isn’t?” Peculiar thing to say. What word isn’t, indeed. Pretty smart if you ask me. He might’ve been “unhomed,” but he was clean and well-spoken. He spoke plainly, and most of our colloquialisms and words the same, except for one: skipplejick. Sometimes he’d stop and stammer to find the proper or, more accurately, accurate word. Boy, could he ramble. Ramble, what a word…
You could tell that he was homesick. And lonely. And sensitive. Early on, he said, “Oh, so, one other thing – don’t hate me, if you wouldn’t mind. Thanks. I know that’s not something you can ask a person.” And he was very delicate with his words and phrases, his actions and steps backward and forward. He was always measuring distance between us based on how comfortable he felt. He stayed calm most of the time until he started hitting himself with his stick. We weren’t even drinking, but it was happy hour at the pubs. Pub. That’s a word I imagine hearing in his light, Irish brogue, but he never said it. And he definitely wasn’t intoxicated.
If the man was high on anything at all, it was words. “Lamp” and “horse” get the job done, he says to me. He loved the pragmatism of language, too, all things the two of you probably have in common, wUndertUNGE. Then he’d go full-blown enraptured and say something like, “Trace the origin of any word, and if you’re half a man, and I can say without bragging I am, or half a woman, which is sort of my type, you’ll shed some serious tear at the long and trembling history of these frail little sounds, made up out of nowhere.”
He wasn’t being cheesy or pretentious, no. There was plenty of profundity. And sincerity. And jokes! Did I mention the jokes? He wasn’t arrogant either, and even though he talked a lot (the whole time!), I miss him. Maybe that’s an overstatement. But seriously, was our conversation enough? What do you have to do to get the full meaning of a man? How well do you and I know each other? What about lovers? Friends? Do I know the characters from my novels better than they know themselves, or better than the other characters know them? I remember the names of his loves: Lisa and Lauren. How am I doing? Am I describing him adequately? Do you even care? If we’d shared accents, would it feel like I knew him better? I didn’t even get his name, not that it would help.
We would’ve had more time to talk that night. I might’ve been able to tell him a thing or two, or show him around, but things ended abruptly and a bit, well…it was so odd…
Towards the end, he pulls out a metal, blue lunch box. “This’ll offer us a little diversion,” he says. “Now, this object tells an interesting story.” And he stares at it, and his vision is so drawn to the object that I can’t help myself either. He held it up with his hands palm-up, like an offering, and I’m just stuck on it, too Someone goes by and laughs. He looks at me, irritated, so I give him a look like, I didn’t do it. Then he goes back to the lunch box. Just staring. Intently.
And we just stood there for a minute, maybe more, and it felt like that could’ve been the entire story. Beyond all the words, that silence was it. Then, even though the sun was completely down, there seemed to be more light. And then, stars. Dead stars hanging all around us, like we could touch them. Or maybe they were chunks of earth that had been torn out of the ground. I felt almost like I was dreaming at this point. “We should thank our stars,” he says, “if we believe in stars, for the listeners of the world. You’re doing fine, is what I’m saying. You’re doing very well and I thank you.”
Or maybe that happened earlier.I’m starting to get confused. I guess you had to be there. I was there and I don’t have many answers. Then again, I didn’t ask any questions. I’ve been going back to that place to see if he might still be there, but he said he was leaving Sunday. Come to think of it, he never told me where he was going, either. No name, no destination. Home, maybe? I hope so. It sounded like he really missed it.
In any case, this might be a good place to stop. Here. My jaw is starting to click, and it’s making me nervous. I might start repeating myself. I hope you respond soon. Hope you’re well. Hope…that’s another word. ”We don’t need hope,” he said. “Things move quickly enough.”
Let’s talk soon. I’ve forgotten the sound of your voice.