During his next attempt to find Antonin Renard, Howard again approached the woman who worked as a volunteer at the homeless shelter that was located on the first floor of the old church.
“You have the look of a lonely, forlorn man.”
Howard stared at her, not knowing how to respond.
“It is all right. You do not have to say a blessed word. I know. I raised four boys. I know that look. Back in Kingston, when my boys had a sad heart I would say to them, ‘It does no good to keep the misery locked up inside. Let it out, and maybe we can soothe your hurt together.’ I am Regina Thomas.”
“Oh, it’s in my country, Jamaica.” When Howard looked confused, the woman said, “That’s in the Caribbean. I do not mean Queens.”
“I know where Jamaica is. I haven’t ever spoken with anyone from there. Why are you here?”
“Well, that does not sound friendly.”
“Oh. No. I mean why did you come here?”
“Where is your family from?”
“Originally, from Germany.”
“Why did they come here?”
“Oh. I see. You came here for a better life. I understand.”
“You are a strange and wonderful man.”
“I know I’m strange, but I’m not wonderful. I’m lost.”
“I can see that. Perhaps I can help.”
After Howard explained his time-and-place problem to the woman she said that she did not understand. Then, after shaking her head, she wrote a name and address on a scrap of paper, saying, “This is the address of a wise man. Go there. It is in Crown Heights. Do you know where that is?”
“Yes, in Brooklyn.”
“Speak to Mr. Wilcox.”
“And he can help me?”
“That I do not know. Your problem is not written on the pages of a book. No one can search an index to find it and come up with a solution, can they?”
“No. I know that.”
“Go to that man. He is very wise. Open up to him, and say hello for me.”
As he sat on the A Train on his way to Crown Heights, Howard worried about and then resigned himself to the fact that, once again, his bookstore would remain closed for a while. He thought about hiring someone to fill in for him since he seemed to be spending at least a few hours each week searching, first for Antonin Renard, and now for some man in Crown Heights who might be able to help him. Who would he hire for the store? He did not know anyone. Then he thought about Annemarie. He had met her a few months before he had met Faye, so it must have been 1992. She looked very nice, very attractive. She must be about my age, but she looked younger, he thought. Perhaps she would want to work in the store. He vaguely remembered that when he had been in her seedy apartment, all those years ago, she had said she was out of work and desperate for money.
The rocking of the subway car soothed Howard. He was tired and felt ill, mostly because he had not slept well in weeks and his stomach was inflamed. He never seemed to have an appetite anymore. As he closed his eyes, he thought about how it would feel to journey to another country, maybe spend a few days or a week on a rail excursion through Europe or India. Sitting up, he looked across the aisle at a young East Indian man. As the train screeched through a curve in the tracks, with the overhead lights blinking off and on, Howard decided that he knew the man. When the train came out of its turn and speeded up again, Howard caught the man’s eye and asked, “Do I know you? You look familiar.”
“It is possible. I am on a spiritual journey. Are you?”
“I’m not sure I would call mine spiritual. It has more to do with time and space and dimensions and planes of existence.”
“Ah. I am on a purely spiritual quest, one in which I may achieve a high degree of illumination and understanding.”
“And you’re from India?”
“Are you Siddhartha Gautama?”
“My name is Howard,” he said as he stood up and lurched across the aisle of the rocking train and fell into a seat next to the young man. He smelled lavender. As they sat in silence for the next few minutes, Howard believed they understood each other; they were both haunted by their need to answer questions involving otherworldly matters. Siddhartha was searching for spiritual enlightenment, whereas Howard hoped to achieve what, so far, had been impossible in terms of time and space and reality. After thinking long and hard about how to explain his situation, Howard asked, “Is it possible to return to a time in the past and stay there? In my case, I don’t want much. I just want to return to a time when I was happy. Can that be done?”
“Each living thing is a fragment of the cosmos. There is no you and there is no me, and time is not an arrow moving off into the distance. It is a wheel.”
“How does God fit into that wheel? Is God even real?”
“God is as real as you and me and the others on this train and birds and horses and flowers and stones and the dust particles of the world.”
“How is that?”
“All is God. God is all.”
“So, does that mean I can return to another time and place?”
When Siddhartha did not answer, Howard closed his eyes and tried to understand. He realized he was dozing off; he tried to open his eyes, but then he thought, I’ll close them for a bit and then I’ll talk to him again, but when he opened his eyes the young man was gone, leaving behind the scent of lavender.
Howard exited the train and took the stairs up to the street. Then he headed toward the address on Dean Street that Regina Thomas had written on the scrap of paper. As Howard plodded along Troy Avenue he hoped that this man, Mr. Wilcox, would be able to help him. He was exhausted; for weeks, he had felt drowsy and fatigued when he forced himself out of bed in the morning, and became progressively more tired as the day wore on until, by the time he closed the store, earlier than usual these days, he was barely able to walk straight and make it home.
He knew he was being irrational. There was no reason for him to be so unhappy and feel such a need for Faye. After all, he had been alone and more or less content before he had met her and for many years after she left, so why did he now feel such an urgent need to go back to a past time, to the when and where with her? He thought about when he had become dissatisfied with his life and when reuniting with Faye had become his overriding need. It had not happened at once; his hunger for her had grown over a period of years, beginning with the time of the World Trade Center attacks. That was when he had first begun to feel gloomy and then depressed and then downright miserable, but not because of the tragic events of that day. When people, strangers, had begun to smile sadly at each other on the street and pat each other on the shoulder and help each other out, Howard was mystified. Of course, he understood the size and depth of the calamity, but it had not been his calamity. He had not been hurt or even affected by the violence of that clear-sky Tuesday in September. His store and his apartment were intact. In fact, he had done an unusually large amount of business in the days and weeks following September 11, 2001. It wasn’t that he disliked the fact that people were being extraordinarily nice to each other; he just did not want people giving him teary-eyed looks and putting their sympathetic arms around him. Why would they do that? He had not been harmed and had not suffered any kind of personal loss that day. It annoyed him and then it upset him when strangers looked at him with sad, moist eyes and shook their heads and reached for him. Then, when he pulled back and turned away, they appeared to be shocked, as if he had cursed at them. It was bewildering. At that point in his life, at the age of 38, when he had just about finally understood how to navigate through the misty swamp of modern-day urban life and how to interact with people, albeit in a way that kept him on the periphery of society, the rules had changed. Was he supposed to touch people on the street? He knew not to do that. Was he expected to plaster a gloomy expression on his face? Was he supposed to smile at strangers and hold doors for people and carry packages for those who were disabled and elderly? Should he start muttering sympathetically and giving heartrending looks to others around him? Had everyone gone crazy? It was over. People had died. That was bad, but they all had families to grieve for them. The rubble would be removed and the buildings would be rebuilt. It was a big disaster, but thousands of people experienced adversities every single day, and no one noticed or cared.
During the next few months, as Howard avoided people more than usual and eventually stopped looking at them and began living deeper in his dark, isolated world, he became progressively more depressed. This was not due to the caring, compassionate way in which people were acting, but because he finally understood what they all seemed to know: they needed the support and warm wishes of others. It hit him like a sledgehammer that, in his entire adult life, he had never made an attempt to care deeply for anyone, to reach into the soul of another. Even during his three plus years with Faye, while he was always happy to see her and talk to her and hold her and kiss her and have sex with her, he never actually thought about her or what she wanted or how she felt about him or how he should have felt about her. Each time she had attempted to explain to him what was wrong with their relationship and how it could improve he had failed to understand and could not imagine why or how he should change. Even when he said what he said and Faye’s brother left and she cried, Howard did not comprehend what he had done, what his cold heart had caused to happen and how he had ruined lives.
Howard became distressed and then offended and then, when he finally understood, angry with himself. Why were all of these people who had witnessed or had simply heard about the terrorist attacks able to reach out to strangers, while he had been unable to feel what he was supposed to feel for the only person who had ever mattered to him? On many occasions, Faye had said that she loved him. Why had he been incapable of composing a simple sentence and then look at her and say the words she wanted to hear? She obviously had wanted him to do that to satisfy some need of hers. Why had that been impossible for him? Who were these nameless, faceless people who were able to offer affection and support to strangers? He hated them; he detested himself.
During the next few years, as Howard slid deeper into a cold pit of loneliness and sorrow, he began to believe that his life was over, that it had been a futile, pointless waste of time. He felt guilty for all of the food and water and air that he had taken in and the space that he had occupied. Then he began to understand that reuniting with Faye would make him happy and redeem his life. But how would he do that? He knew she did not want to speak with him, that if he were to locate her and approach her, she would reject him. That is when he began hoping to return to her during that time in the past when they had been together.
Howard reached the house in which Mr. Wilcox lived and rang the bell. He waited. He rang the bell again. When no one answered he sat on the bottom step of the stoop and looked around. The houses on the street were mostly single-family, nicely kept, with neat front yards. Most of the cars parked along the curb were old. There was a small park down the street. It did not bother Howard that he seemed to be the only white person in the neighborhood. When he had been young, he had never understood his parents’ warnings about which streets and neighborhoods were safe and which were not. Since he had kept pretty much to himself most of the time, it had been a moot point.
After an hour or so, as the sun began to go down and a chilly breeze kicked up, Howard began think that he should go home, but why would he do that? He would only have to return the next day and the next, and continue to keep his store closed. And, if this Mr. Wilcox could not help him, he wanted to know now, not tomorrow, so he waited.
A short while later, right after the street lights came on, a very thin, very black elderly man stopped in front of the house and said, “And you, my fine fellow, are not from around here, are you?”
“No. Are you Mr. Wilcox? Regina Thomas gave me this address. If you’re Mr. Wilcox, I need help.”
“I see you get right to the point. Regina Thomas sent you?”
“What is your name?”
“Howard Roark Fox.”
Holding out his hand, the man said, “I am Reginald Wilcox.”
After they had shaken hands, Mr. Wilcox gestured for Howard to stand and walk up the stoop to the door of his house. Howard did that, and stood at the door, blocking Mr. Wilcox, who said, “If you will let me pass, I will open my door and invite you into my home.” Howard felt energized and optimistic as he entered the tastefully furnished sitting room. Mr. Wilcox invited him to sit, saying, “I will make some tea. You do like tea. Is that not so?”
“Yes,” Howard replied, pleased that this courteous gentleman somehow knew that about him.
Howard sat in a sturdy black armchair. A few seconds later the phone rang; Mr. Wilcox answered it. Then the man came into the sitting room holding the phone. As Mr. Wilcox listened to whoever was on the line, he turned the handset away from his mouth and whispered to Howard, “I must take this call. I promise I will not be long.”
Howard closed his eyes for a few seconds and organized his thoughts. He wanted to be well prepared for his conversation with Mr. Wilcox, thinking, If he has a special power or great insight, I must be able to convince him to help me. I think Mr. Renard would have helped me, but I don’t know where he is.
When Howard opened his eyes he saw that a young African-American man had come into the sitting room. The man gave Howard a fleeting glance before sitting down on an adjoining chair. Something about how the man held himself seemed familiar to Howard, so he asked, “Who are you?”
“Who are you?”
“I’m Howard. I’m waiting for Mr. Wilcox to get off the phone.”
“He’s gonna be a while. That’s his daughter. She calls him at this time every day to check up on him.”
“Do I know you?” Howard asked.
“You might. You ever read the book Native Son?”
“Yes. You’re Bigger Thomas.”
“Right. Don’t tell me you feel sorry for me, man. I can’t stand when white liberals say that. Don’t say nothing.”
“I wasn’t going to say that. I’ve never said that to anybody.”
“Are you here to talk to Mr. Wilcox?” Howard asked.
“Maybe. Why are you here?”
“I have to talk to him. He has to help me.”
“What’s he gonna help you with?”
“I have a problem, a complicated one.”
“Sounds like life.”
“My problem involves being stuck in the wrong time and place. I have to get back to another plane of existence.”
“Oh? You really believe that jive?”
“I do. Life is not just the here and now.”
“That’s good to know ’cause my here and now’s just a bucket load of shit, misery, and bad endings, but, as I said, I don’t need sympathy.”
“I know. I know your story.”
“Or, so you think.”
“Tell me something: in the book, as you just said, you have to deal with many problems. How do you maintain a positive attitude?”
“Who says I do?”
Howard turned as Mr. Wilcox entered the room, apologizing for keeping Howard waiting. He said the tea would be ready soon. When Howard turned back, he saw that Bigger Thomas was no longer there. “There was a young man here. You know ... Bigger Thomas.”
“I don’t know anyone with that name.”
“You know, from the book Native Son.”
“I read that book ages ago. Someone with that name was here? In my house? How did he get in?”
“He walked in, I guess. We were talking. Now he’s gone.”
Mr. Wilcox sat on the chair that Bigger Thomas had vacated and studied Howard before saying, “Why don’t you tell me your problem.”
“Are you from Jamaica too, like Regina Thomas?”
“Yes. She and I are both from Kingston.”
“I like your accent.”
“Thank you. Now, what can I do for you?”
As Howard explained, he periodically looked toward the door, expecting to see Bigger Thomas. When he finished talking, Mr. Wilcox rubbed his chin and closed his eyes and seemed to be lost in thought. The whistling of the teapot broke his concentration. He said that he would be right back. Howard closed his eyes. Then he opened them again and looked at the other chair. No one was there. No one came into the house. Then Mr. Wilcox returned, carrying a tray with an elaborately designed tea set and a tray of cookies. After setting the tray down on a table and pouring the tea, Mr. Wilcox sat and said, “I have thought about what you have told me. Your desire to return to your past is not unusual.”
“Can you help me?”
“Can you help me?” Mr. Wilcox asked.
“Oh. Yes. I will help you if you help me. Help me first.”
“Well, now, you see, I do not know how to do that.”
“Well, after all, I want the same thing as you. I would like to return to my past so that I may live my youth again, especially if I am able to retain the knowledge I have now.”
“No. That’s not it. I already do return to that time. I just want to stay there. I don’t want to fall back to this time.”
“You really think you travel back and forth?”
“Of course. Everyone does.”
“It happens to me over and over again. I was with her, Faye, for a few hours last night, but I’m back here again.”
“Is this belief an article of your faith?”
“I don’t have a faith.”
“Well, without faith, you can accomplish nothing. Christians have faith in the divinity of Christ and the Resurrection; Jews have faith in the truth of the Torah; Muslims have faith in the Quran. I can go on and on.”
“What does faith help a person to accomplish?”
“Faith, true faith, an unyielding belief in a system having to do with God or gods or a supreme being or something bigger than you can bring you peace.”
“Yes, and that can allow you to survive the misery of your life.”
“That doesn’t help me. You haven’t helped me. Mrs. Thomas said you would be able to do something for me.”
“No one can do anything for you. You must do it yourself. After all, it is your life.”
“Can you at least give me a suggestion about how to proceed?”
Mr. Wilcox began to speak, but then he stopped. He sighed, cleared his throat, and then, after thinking for a moment, stood up and walked out of the room, returning a moment later with a thin, dog-eared book with a torn red cover. After sitting and then gently thumbing through the book, Mr. Wilcox handed it to Howard. “My grandfather wrote this book at the turn of the previous century. It circulated in Rastafarian circles in Jamaica, but then it was banned. You may find some parts of it helpful. You may read it here. I cannot allow it to leave my house.”
“What does the title mean? The Errors of Bobo Ashanti.”
“Ah. Bobo Ashanti is one of the three ... how shall I put it? It is one of the three main denominations—although that is not the correct word—among Rasta people in Jamaica. My grandfather was a part of that until he had what he called a revelation. He was shunned as a heretic. In the years that followed he tried to explain his thoughts, but people didn’t listen, so he wrote the book. I will leave you now. I have some things to do. Please do not leave the house with the book. Let me know when you have finished reading. I’ll bring paper and a pen so you may write down any information you think will help you.”
Howard quickly read the slim book. Then he read it again, taking notes and writing down his own thoughts as he went along. A bit more than an hour later he called Mr. Wilcox to say that he was finished.
“Did the book help you?”
“I don’t know.”
“Perhaps you need time to digest what you have read. Of course, it is possible that the book will not answer any of your questions. Each person faces his or her own personal hell on Earth at some time or other and must search for deliverance. For each individual, it is different.”
“You seem to understand so much.”
“I, like you, have thought about this—the circle of life and death and the many ways in which one can be unhappy and dissatisfied. Ah, I see you took notes. Good. Go home now and think about what you read.”
“I will, but I need help. In two places the book refers to ‘a perpetual cycle of birth, life, death, and resurrection.’ Is that true? I think it is. It also talks about the use of ‘long-term, painfully deep, isolated contemplation’ to reach what your grandfather, calls ‘revelations having to do with the celestial plane.’ What does that mean?”
“I do not know. The book is just a guide. I’ve read it a number of times. My grandfather was a brilliant, kind, and very spiritual man, but I do not know whether he ever actually experienced a revelation.”
“But he might have. Right?”
“If you believe in that sort of thing, yes.”
“I don’t know what to believe. I just know I can’t continue to live this, my fake life, much longer.”
Mr. Wilcox, looking troubled, said, “You sound desperate. Don’t allow your unhappiness to poison your life. Listen: I lost my wife when I was a young man. I didn’t think I could live another day, I missed her so. Do you know what allowed me to go on? No. Of course, you don’t. How could you?” He took a long sip of tea before continuing: “It was my daughter. She was only a year old. At first, I said, ‘How can I raise a child without its mother, especially a girl? What do I know about girls?’”
“What happened was a miracle. My daughter, my Effie, guided me. No,” he said, smiling brightly. “I don’t mean she gave me directions. I mean her cries and her smiles told me what she needed.”
“And, caring for her became my reason to live and my joy.”
“I don’t have anyone.”
“I know. You are searching for your love, the love of your life. You will find her.”
“Yes! That’s why I am here. How do I find her? How do I find Faye here and now or my time with her?”
Mr. Wilcox looked down. Then he turned back to Howard and said, “It may not be Faye, but you will find the love of your life. I am sure of that.” Mr. Wilcox stood. When Howard, looking up, did not move, the older man said, “Now you must go. Spend some time thinking about what you have read and what I have told you.” Howard slowly rose from his chair and followed Mr. Wilcox to the door. As he clutched the doorknob, Mr. Wilcox said, “But, a warning, my friend: be careful, be very careful about where my grandfather’s words lead you. Make sure you understand what you read, and please hesitate before you act. Do not do anything rash.”