“Hard is the heart that feels no fear,
Without the bad, the good disappears.
Long is the road that leads me home,
And longer still when I walk alone.”
—The Oh Hello’s, ‘Cold is the Night,’ Oh. Hello. (2011)
Scribe. I can’t say that it’s a name that I necessarily liked, but then again, it was a hell of a lot better than UB or Mule, so I couldn’t really complain. More than anything, it made me think, caused me to ask questions that I’d probably been avoiding for longer than I care to admit.
I’ve known plenty of people that couldn’t stand to be alone. Farley was one of those. Even if he was just riding down the street to the gas station for a pack of cigarettes, he’d always find someone to go with him. Looking back, I suppose Tommy was a little like that, too. He liked the idea of being the wingman, riding shotgun.
It wasn’t until the very end that he seemed to desire time alone. The moments of quiet contemplation must have been part of the process.
I, on the other hand, had always enjoyed quiet time alone. Before Tommy got sick we used to camp out along the river. Sleeping bags in the beds of our pickup trucks, a few cases of beer, a campfire—it always seemed like a good way to pass the time. More often than not, I would stay up later, after everyone else had passed out, just so I could sit alone and listen.
Insects chirping and rustling the brush, the breeze flowing down through the river valley and rustling in the branches, the sound of the water—the constant, gentle flow. It’s amazing how loud the stillness is around us. We have a tremendous capacity to tune out the larger world, to focus on what’s in front of us so hard that we become blind to everything else. Pretty soon, if we’re not careful, we’re blind to everything all together.
There was a small park between the bar and my dorm room on campus, just a meager set of rusty playground equipment and a few dry-rotted picnic tables. On the rare nights that I went back to campus instead of crashing on Hollis Drive, I would stop at the park and sit for a while in the stillness. Though there was too much light from the small city of Whitehaven to see many stars, I still liked stopping there to look at the sky. I would lie on my back staring at the black sky overhead, trying to rectify that great expanse against the stars I had always gazed at back in Drury.
I read a poem once, by Charles Bukowski, called “I Met a Genius.” It’s about a guy riding on a train next to a 6 year-old boy. When they come to the ocean, the boy tells the man, “It isn’t pretty.” The poem is very short, and the narrator’s response is simple. He says, “It was the first time I’d realized that.”
I don’t know if I agree, but I think I get what the guy was saying. We see mountains, or the ocean, or the night sky, and we say, Isn’t that pretty?, but that isn’t really what we mean. Beautiful or not, appreciation isn’t the appropriate emotion for a scene like that. We should feel awe.
I think that is why I like being alone sometimes, especially with a head full of booze or the occasional puff of weed. It allows me to feel awe in a way that I would otherwise ignore.
After a few months, Whistler gave me a key to the bar, so that I could come and go as I pleased. Sometimes, I would sit in the bar late at night, after everyone else had gone home, just so I could bask in the stillness, listen to the hum of the neon bar lights echo across the empty floor.
One night, I was sitting alone on one of the couches in the pool room for at least a half an hour before I realized that Whistler was there. I thought he had left hours ago, but he had been in the back office the whole time. I was halfway dozing when he walked in.
“I sometimes like to sit here by myself, too…” Though he spoke softly the sound of his voice reverberated off the tile of the floor, and I nearly jumped out of the couch. “Sorry,” he said with a laugh. “Didn’t mean to scare you.” He leaned up against one of the pool tables and stared at me for a few long moments. “You never really talk much about your brother, but your face always changes any time his name comes up.” He pulled a smoke from a pack of Malboro Lights and then tossed it to me.
I pulled a lighter from my pocket and lit the cigarette, taking a long, deep drag. “Cancer,” I said. “He was my best friend.”
Whistler nodded as though he weren’t surprised by the answer. “Is that when the panic attacks started?”
I thought back to the days before Tommy’s death. If my last days in Drury felt like a dream, my life before Tommy’s death felt like the memories of an entirely different person, like the backstory to a movie character that I knew really well, or the subtext to a favorite novel. I could vaguely remember something akin to the panic attacks when I was very young, but nothing like the convulsive, head-turning fits that I experienced later.
“Is it that obvious? I thought I did a better job of hiding it.”
Whistler waved away the thought with a swish of his hands, leaving a trail of white smoke drifting in the wake of his hand. “You do,” he said. “I just notice more than others. Besides…” He took a long pull and exhaled in a deep, profound sigh, “I have some experience with that myself. When I was younger.” He pointed the glowing embers of the cigarette in my direction. “Death, I mean.”
He looked down at me with the kind of reassuring, understanding eyes that I imagined normal fathers had for their sons. I would be a fool if I didn’t understand that this was really what I had been looking for all along. I was like those runner-up county fair queens who run off to California and wind up doing porn films to support a nasty drug habit—the male equivalent of a valley girl with daddy issues.
Although Whistler was only ten years older than me, there was no doubt that he served as a de facto father figure for most of us. Enduring the trials and tribulations of Marvin Kauffman’s fatherly love had certainly left me starved for that paternal influence. Though many were no doubt turned off by Whistler’s pontification, it was hard to deny his natural charisma.
“There is not love of life without despair about life…That’s Camus,” he said. “The Stranger.”
I had actually read the book before. My high school English teacher, Mr. Tieman, had assigned it to me when I was a junior. Although he would have fit in well at Whitehaven, Mr. Tieman was always a bit of a square peg in Culver County. He was this really intense intellectual, the kind of guy that wore a lot of tweed blazers and wore a thick, straggly goatee.
The only think I could remember about the book was Mr. Tieman shouting about the main character lying in a tree trunk, staring at the stars overhead. I remember the severe glare from behind his thick glasses, the kind of intensity that emanates from a deep and untouchable place.
The image always stuck with me because I could see myself being that guy. Lying up in a dying place, just watching the sky change.
Suddenly, the radio switched to a new song, and Elton John’s ‘Levon’ started playing.
“Elton John, huh?” I said. “I like this song, but it’s a weird choice.”
Whistler nodded, cashing out his cigarette and starting to pack a bowl.
“I’ve never gotten it, though,” I said. “I mean, who’s it about?”
Whistler lit the bowl and took a long drag, holding it before expelling a white waft of smoke. He held it out to me, but I raised my hand in deferral.
“Not who,” he said. “What?”
I furrowed my brow. “I don’t follow…”
“He shall be Levon…He shall believe on…The song isn’t about a person, it’s about religion.”
The words to the song floated through my head, and it all made perfect sense.
…And Jesus, he wants to go to Venus, leave Levon far behind…
“I get it,” I said, “that makes sense.”
We sat in silence for a moment, Whistler continuing to smoke with a sly smile draped over his lips. He enjoyed that, the moment where he could teach one of his followers, a bit of insight he could pass along.
“Do you believe in all of that?” I asked.
“You mean religion? God and the Devil, and the holy trinity?” I shook my head. He leaned forward, pointing a bony finger at me as he spoke. “No, I do not believe.”
I leaned back and thought for a moment. I wanted to say the same thing. I wanted to swear off God and the Church and the whole lot. Logic told me that it was nothing but a bullshit promise. A lot of parlor tricks and manipulation, and nothing more.
If God existed, he had taken Tommy from me, and then he had taken my Mom. What kind of fucked up deity would do that?
Still, thinking the thoughts were one thing…saying the words was something different.
“You don’t really know,” he said, wagging his finger in my direction. “You don’t know what to think.”
I leaned back on the couch again and took a sip from my beer. “That’s true,” I admitted. “I don’t know what to think. I believe in something, but not necessarily the stories they told me when I was a kid.” Whistler nodded and smiled. “So, you don’t believe in anything?”
His smile broadened even further. “I didn’t say that,” he said. “I just said I didn’t believe in God.”
“Okay, then. What do you believe in?”
He leaned back in his chair, stroking his chin in silent contemplation. “Well,” he said. “You’re from a river town, right?” I nodded, and he continued with his lesson. “So, you’ve picked up a flat stone, skipped it across the water?”
“Of course, a thousand different times.”
“Exactly,” he said. “Because there is something natural about throwing that stone when you stand by the water, right? Sending it sailing across the surface.”
“Sure.” I thought about standing on a river bank with my grandfather. Him showing me how to pick up the right stone, two smooth sides, with just a little bit of weight. Not too heavy, but not too light either. The stone has to have mass, but it still has to be light enough to travel…
“Ok,” he continued. “I believe that we all throw our stones, and we watch with solemn pride as they skip across the surface…” He motioned, making slight loops with his hands. “But sooner or later, those stones come back to us, one way or the other.”
He leaned back again in his chair, scratching his chin once again. “Not exactly,” he said. “Karma is built on your actions…on morality, right?”
“Well,” he said. “I don’t believe in that at all. I don’t believe any of it is premeditated.” He leaned forward again, holding his hand flat in front of him. “The surface of the river is never calm, so the rock’s path is never the same. You could throw the same rock a hundred times, release it exactly the same way, and it would never follow the same path twice.”
I thought about Tommy again. Rare, aggressive cancer. One in ten thousand. I’d heard the doctors talk about the odds more times than I could even begin to recall. I had always thought about his disease in terms of fortune or providence. Something in my upbringing had failed to let me consider the alternative. Maybe it was just stupid, naked chance, a stone’s bounce off a rogue wave.
“Even if the water was completely calm…dead flat, it still wouldn’t matter,” he continued. “Because down deep, right on the top layer of the water, it’s never calm. No matter how flat it looks, the water is never truly smooth. It’s a rough-grooved surface, and that rock is going to bounce in different directions. Every. Damn. Time.”
It seemed a lot simpler than the thoughts that had crowded my mind for so long. And though it was sad and depressing, somehow it made me feel better. “So it’s like chaos theory, then?”
Whistler held up his hand, showing me the flat part of his palm. “Not exactly,” he said. “In chaos theory, there’s no rhyme or reason at all.”
“Yeah, isn’t that what you’re saying?”
He leaned back again, that sly Whistler smile wrapping back across his lips. “The thing is, you stand on the river bank, and you throw the stone. So, if we’re really on a collision course with all those stone’s we’ve thrown? Chaos or not, we had a hand in it. It was our choice.”
I thought for a moment. Of all the things in my life that I had done to bring on regret, standing on a riverbank and throwing stones was never one of them.
“What if we choose not to throw any more stones?” I asked.
Whistler laughed. His loud, shrieking hoot. “You said it yourself. Who stands on a riverbank, surrounded by flat rocks, and doesn’t pick one up?”
I picked up my beer, draining it down to the last swallow and threw the bottle over into the corner, shattering it against the old iron radiator. “Nobody,” I said.
Rather than get angry about the wanton destruction inside the bar, Whistler looked over at the pile of broken glass with a satisfied glint in his eyes, the grin still plastered firmly across his lips. “That’s right,” he said. “You’re goddamned right.”