It might have been the rainy weather, or it could have been the constant stream of gloom pouring out of my TV set — but I was depressed. Not clinically, just covered with a blanket of thick, gray malaise. When you have days like that, it’s always good to force yourself to get up and move about and I did just that. I drove to my favorite bookstore and found a comfortable couch where I could sit to brood. I picked up George Saunders’ “Tenth of December,” a brilliant book of short stories and started to read myself to another place. The stories were amazingly well crafted and vibrant. Like the moment right before sleep, I found myself being transported mysteriously out of my gloom. And then a voice ripped me rudely back to reality.
“Mind if I join you?”
Being a crappy poker player, I could only imagine the look of foulness on my face. I didn’t WANT to be joined. I was having a pity party and wanted to have it alone. And since I’m a Southerner and hate to be rude, I reluctantly said, “Um, sure.”
I, of course, wanted him to get the hell away from me.
“You’re this guy,” the older man said as he was holding up my book. I couldn’t hide from my picture on the cover. ”I’ve read a couple of the stories in it. It’s pretty good. You’re a decent storyteller.”
“Thanks,” I said with a smile. A compliment is a compliment and I was glad to accept it.
We sat in silence for about five minutes. But I could tell he was curious. “Tell me about yourself.”
I sat there for a few seconds, took a breath and allowed all my venom to spill out. I told him about the past couple of years. The disappointments and the frustrations. I did manage to throw in a few blessings. I didn’t want the poor guy to jump off a ledge onto the floor below.
“Hmm. You’ve lived an amazing life so far, son. And you’ve been handed a lot of blessings.”
I wasn’t really sure I wanted to hear it, but I nodded and agreed. I have been handed a lot of blessings. Of course, I wasn’t really seeing them at that particular moment. I looked at the man’s face. I could tell he was probably younger than the lines on his face suggested. The lines were more like lines on a map. They showed the many journeys he had taken in his life. A few scars suggested sun damage and maybe even a skin cancer or two. But overall, most of his wrinkles were from smiling.
“Tell me about your life,” I said. I, of course, was just being polite. We Southerners do that sort of thing, you know.
“I thought you’d never ask,” he said as he shifted around on the couch. “Hmm, where to begin.”
“I was born in a small Delta town you’ve never heard of.”
I said, “Try me.”
He told me and he was right. Even though I have lived in Mississippi for 16 years, it was a new one to me.
“Of course, I grew up during segregation. I didn’t know it was bad at the time. I chock it up to youthful ignorance. Kind of like a fish not knowing the stream he lives in is polluted. But it was. I turned 18 in 1968, had an awakening and wanted to get the hell out of there. So I volunteered for the U.S. Army.”
I looked at him incredulously, “Um, didn’t you know Vietnam was going on?”
“Oh, I didn’t care,” he continued. “My dad was in World War 2 and I wanted to be a hero like he was. Of course, I didn’t quite understand that my father was suffering from nightmares from his time in the Pacific. So off I went for two tours of combat. I was shot twice, earned two Purple Hearts, one Bronze Star and the same set of nightmares my old man had. I came back to San Francisco, was spat upon and just wanted to die.”
My pity party was ancient history as I begin listening intently to his amazing tale.
“Obviously you didn’t,” I said.
“Thank God,” he said. “Literarily. I stumbled drunk into a Episcopal Cathedral and passed out at the altar. Within a week, I was in an AA meeting. Haven’t touched a drop since. I can see the Devil’s face in a bottle of bourbon. Well, anyway, I ended up at Berkeley. I know — a strange place for a Vietnam Veteran. I got in a few shouting matches with folks who had found ways to avoid the draft. But all and all, I managed to study while others were protesting. My hair and beard grew out. And my friends and family in Mississippi thought I was insane. Truthfully, I probably was.”
He shifted around in his seat and continued:
“Anyway, I graduated with a 4.0. in business. I found peace in the certainty of numbers. From Berkeley, I went to Harvard for a MBA. I was a like a laser. I was, no pun intended, all business. And once again, I graduated with a 4.0. I went into real estate and amassed a small fortune. Which I promptly lost thanks to interest rates skyrocketing and the housing market crashing. I’m not a big Jimmy Carter fan as you can imagine. But they weren’t all bad times. I met a beautiful Bostonian named Mary. She was Catholic and her family and the Pope forbade us from marrying. We married in 1977. God, I loved her. The best things in life are worth the risk.”
I could see his eyes begin to tear up.
“Anyway, after the real estate crash, we went broke and I started over again. This time, I went to Wall Street. I loved the street and my love of numbers and research rewarded me. Mary and I lived in an expensive apartment in Manhattan. We travelled the world and found time to have a daughter. Her name was Madison and she had her mother’s beautiful Irish Catholic eyes. Life could not have been better. Until that clear blue fall day in September…”
He paused. It was getting harder for him to speak. I sat there waiting for him to regain his composure.
“I was late for work that day because I went with Mary and Madison to the airport. They had our granddaughter, too. They were flying to San Francisco on United Airlines Flight 93. I worked for Cantor Fitzgerald.”
He stopped as tears ran down his face.
“Those bastards murdered them. All of them. I lost everything.”
I didn’t know what to say. I had remembered that day like it was yesterday. But here was a man who had lived it so horrifically.
“I went insane. My life came unraveled and I left Manhattan forever. I couldn’t bear the pain of looking at the holes in the ground where the Twin Towers stood. I’ve been out to Shanksville, Pennsylvania a few times and have seen Mary, Madison and Magdalene’s ghosts. I grew my beard out and ran away.”
“Where did you go?”
“The Keys. I used to love Jimmy Buffett and the song, “He Went to Paris.” I could relate with the old guy in the song. So I moved and became a bonefish fishing guide for a living.” He started singing:
- well, the war took his baby
- bombs killed his lady
- and left him with only one eye
- his body was battered
- his whole world was shattered
- and all he could do was just cry.
“That was me. God, Jimmy Buffett wrote about me. I had pursued adventure and yet now I was left with nothing but pain and scars. I thought about drinking again. But I couldn’t go there. So I started writing and painting. They were my saviors. My writing landed me a column at the local newspaper. It was quite popular until 2008, when I was laid off. Guess the CEO needed a bigger bonus. At the age of 58, I had to reinvent myself. Again.”
I looked at his gray eyes and could see the pain. “How?” I said. “I would have been in the fetal position.”
He smiled, revealing even more lines on his face, “Now isn’t that the secret of life? Not returning back to the fetal position when things get bad?”
I didn’t get his humor; but then again, I’m not sure he was being funny.
“I earned my doctorate and now teach at Ole Miss. It’s only a couple of classes, but it allows me to write and enjoy all the joy Oxford has to offer. I really enjoy Thacker Mountain Radio and a good local bookstore. Love me some Square Books.”
“So that’s why you’re here at Lemuria?” I said. “Because of the bookstore?”
He smiled, “I’m here to visit my niece and have lunch with her. She’s at Belhaven College. But this is a great bookstore. No, I stopped in and just had this feeling I needed to talk to you.”
“I’m glad you did,” I said. “You’re a good teacher.”
He laughed, “But I’m better student. Life is the best teacher. I just hope I get an A for effort. See, I think life is like a train. You can either hop on, watch it go by or get run over by it. I hopped on and have no regrets.” He looked over to the book I was holding and continued,”Oh, that’s a good book. But your writing can be just as good. Keep after it. You have a purpose.”
He stretched his legs and said, “Well son, I’ve got to run. I’m meeting my niece downstairs for a bite to eat. Have you ever had their chopped salad? It’s darn good.”
I nodded in agreement.
He handed me his card and said, “And remember to hop on the train.”
I watched him walk away and thought about what Jimmy Buffett had written,
- if he likes you, he’ll smile and he’ll say,
- some of it’s magic,
- and some of it’s tragic,
- but I had a good life all the way