Content 18+ Lou was sitting at the table in the cafe eating his sandwich and staring absently at the milling about of other people. It was random of course, but it also seemed strangely choreographed, as if they had all secretly made plans to move this way and that, occupying tables, chattering and eating, paying and leaving. And he wondered why he saw them this way, and if his vision was accurate, why he had been left out of the plan.
He was 70 now, and he stared at his gnarled, knotty, nobby hands as they gripped whatever they reached out for. The hands told the truth, he had decided many times. Even when, on good, brisk days his face in the mirror seemed to retain some of its old flirtatious verve, the hands didn't lie. Nor did his dead penis and miserable feet. Their degrading objectivity gave the lie to all inner mythology. Sometimes his spirit still struck up the band, briefly, flickering, as if some ghostly old maestro…
Well. He signalled to the waitress, and it was then that he felt the sudden pain in his left arm and chest. It simply came onto him. He had read plenty on the internet about heart attacks; he had listened to testimonies from those who had recovered, and he had heard the stories about those who hadn't., and it seemed to him that maybe this was one of them. He felt both fear and detachment.
He swallowed hard and took a few deep breaths. They hurt, but it seemed the right thing to do. The young waitress came within one of those great embalming smiles of the absolutely unconcerned, and he paid on the spot. She looked at him in a funny way, but said nothing.
Lou rose from the table, the pain stabbing him now, and wandered out from the interchangeable patrons of the cafe whose circular blabbing reminded him of aircraft when the turbines come on and you must fasten your seatbelt. Or maybe a convention of dentists all with their drills humming, waiting for the signal to see who could make the fastest filling in some diseased mouth.
If I get to the street, he thought, I can sort myself out. Get out of the cloisters of this cheese and salami impacted hell and reevaluate. And so he did.
But as he hit the street, instead of feeling better, he felt worse. His left arm was coming off at the hinges and his chest felt like something had poisoned his heart. A king cobra had punctured it. He looked at the wide avenue as if searching for a lost aunt or a misplaced cane. The street had never seemed wider or more impersonal before now. He felt engulfed by the asphalt, the vast, living cemetery on which strangers prowled alone or in groups, all hungry, their eyes leering and menacing and violently empty
He was about to collapse when an arm reached out and a voice asked, “Are you ok?”
At this point Lou, who had maintained a kind of stoicism earlier, as if dying on the street would be an embarrassment before the jury of the world, began to whimper.
“No, no I am not ok. I think I am going to die!”
“Try to stay calm,” the man said. “Don't make it worse than it is.”
Lou looked at him and was amazed to see how familiar the face looked. He couldn't place it, but he was sure he had seen this face somewhere before.
There was a bench nearby and the man led Lou to it and helped ease him down onto it. Then he sat beside Lou.
“Now,” the man said softly. “Are you better?”
And in fact Lou did feel better. Not much, but some of the paralyzing fear had fled. For a moment he held his head in his hands, as though half in prayer and in despair.
“Can you call me a cab or help me get to a hospital?” he implored the stranger, gritting his teeth and taking slow, calculated breaths.
The man, who also appeared to be getting on in years, but who exuded the health of springtime, replied, “Yes, my friend. Can you walk alright?”
“I think so,” said Lou. He looked at the other man's rich hands, fingers carefully crafted like Murano glass. He gazed down at the polished, gleaming shoes. He felt ashamed, like a hobo.
The other man seemed to sense his disquiet. “What do you think of my shoes?” he asked, as though, by means of casual conversation to ameliorate Lou's fear.
“No, not at all. I have had them for ages. But I am always polishing them.”
Lou, his chest still heaving but without the same pain, asked, “Why? You work somewhere that makes you keep your shoes shined up all the time?”
The man chuckled. “Let's just say I am fastidious about certain things. We all have our eccentricity, don't we?”
Lou agreed but was still feeling some anxiety. He understood that even though the sharp pain had left him, he would still be wise to get to a hospital. An emergency EKG would let him know that he needed to be admitted or could just go home and rest.
“Look,” he said, his voice under control now, having lost its grovelling aspect, “will you walk with me to the nearest hospital? I really need a doctor.”
The other man reassured him, and, after enquiring once more if he felt steady enough to walk, began to lead Lou along the street.
“You know of a hospital nearby?” Lou asked. Since he had never needed such medical attention as apparently he needed now, he really didn't know. It seemed stupid, like a person not remembering where they had parked their car, but that's how it was. It was like, how would you know where the nearest orphanage was when you had never been an orphan, or where there was a pawn shop when you had never pawned anything?. They were out there, of course, but why would anyone care who was not trying to adopt a child or get some quick money for their wedding ring?
The other man stood up and said, “Yes, I do. I know where you should go. Please come with me, and if you start feeling bad, just tell me, and we can stop for a while.”
The man looked closely at Lou, as if he were a doctor himself trying to make a diagnosis. Lou wasn't sure, but something in his mind started to unscramble slowly and remember where he had seen the man before. But he was distracted by his situation and didn't want to get into some sort of meaningless guessing-game conversation. This simply wasn't the time.
“Shouldn't we call an ambulance?” he asked the man. “You have a phone, don't you. Mine is recharging at my apartment. I didn't think I'd be out long.
“Of course I have a phone, but why do that? We don't have far to go. Besides, haven't you noticed? This is a pedestrian only area. By the time we find a taxi, we will have reached our destination.”
The man waited, then said, “C'mon, let's go,” in a casual way, like two old schoolboys about to set off on a jaunt to visit the old school grounds.
So they started walking. At first, Lou would stop every few steps and take a breath. The other man would brace him with his firm grip until Lou gathered himself for the next chapter of their journey. As they walked, he looked around. The wind had picked up, its raw November breath just starting to feel unsettlingly cold. Lou instinctively hiked his sweater up as far as it would go toward his throat.
“Damn the winter,” he muttered.
The other man laughed. “It happens every year!” To Lou, who even in his pain was not devoid of perception, this man seemed almost nonchalant in his circular way of looking at things. He appeared studiously unruffled, and Lou also noticed that there was no urgency in his manner, no sense of panic, and in fact this helped Lou to feel better, safer. After all, if he were really in serious danger, the other guy would take the appropriate measures. It seemed that, with only a few exchanges of language, a degree of trust had been built. Oddly enough, it suddenly struck in Lou's mind the question of whether or not he had remembered to leave the waitress a tip. His brain always worked that way: forgetting or not forgetting and then not remembering which it was.
“Is it near?” he asked the man.
“Is what near?”
“The hospital, for God's sake!” Lou cried out, partly offended but mostly puzzled by the man's response.
The man stopped walking and looked Lou straight in the eye, although not harshly. “Look,” he said, “let's just try walking for a while. You seem better, and, besides, these hospitals are always so crowded. You — I mean we — could be there for hours. If you really need it, we can go. But tell me, and be honest, are you feeling better now? You seem to be breathing normally.”
In truth, Lou did feel better. Maybe it had just been a false alarm and the fresh air was all that was needed. Or maybe he had been lucky and met up with someone who was able to slice through his terror and put him at his ease.
Thus they continued along, and indeed it seemed that the walking was proving to be a kind of therapy. The grand square faded behind them and they embarked on a passage through narrow streets, the kind that tourists always hope to find so that they can have the ‘genuine' experience after having been to the art museum and gazed at all the appropriate cathedrals.
It had been a bright afternoon, but now, as it was November, the sky gradually began to glower and the light was leaving the sky. Lou, who at his age and with his solitary, sedentary lifestyle, did not have a great number of friends, found that he was actually enjoying himself. The two men talked back and forth.
At length they came to an outdoor cafe, and Lou suggested they sit and carry on their conversation. But the other said, “I really can't because I have other errands, but I'll get you something. It's on me, don't worry.” And he summoned a waitress. As all of these servers in the endlessly self-repeating world-cafe tended to look the same, Lou saw a vague resemblance to the one at the other place, and his mind filled with the gloomy but habitual conclusion he had reached a long time ago: the sense that the basic sameness of all the faces almost made it a waste of time to possess a memory..
In a twinkling, she returned with a tray, containing a glass of water and a small tumbler of whiskey.
“The whiskey is on me, “ the man said. “I assume you drink alcohol sometimes?”
“Well, sure,” said Lou, a bit taken aback, Then he laughed, finding that the pain in his chest was gone. “What's the occasion?”
The man replied in a way that artfully mixed the jovial with the somber. “You have evidently had a very frightening experience. So put it behind you, put it all behind you, and enjoy your drink.”
“But won't you join me?” asked Lou, and noticed that the other glass contained only water.
“No,” the man replied,” I never drink while it's still daylight!” And at this he laughed mirthfully, as if someone had just told him an especially clever, perhaps slightly off-color joke. Lou felt a little awkward and wanted to get going because he was afraid that he was now becoming an imposition and whiskey was just a way the man had of signaling that the time to separate was near.
It was to his surprise, therefore, that the other man beckoned him to walk more. And for the first time, Lou really looked at him. He noticed that they were about the same height, but the other man seemed much younger and more nimble. His face was an uncanny blend of barrenness and sensuality, sort of like an old faded masterpiece that, perhaps, with sufficient expertise, could be made to glow like the original. He looked like a man who belonged nowhere. His eyes contained what struck Lou as a hidden ferociousness even as his smile appeared as an ambiguous, carefully woven thing, simultaneously rising and falling. Lou realized that he was slightly afraid of this man who had done absolutely nothing to inspire fear.
“I think I'm ok now,” Lou said hesitantly. “Maybe you have other things to do.” It was a suggestion.
The man stopped and briefly rubbed his jaw. For some reason, the gesture and motion made Lou think of a coyote on a cliff. The man seemed to be considering something important, or at least what he regarded as significant.
At last he spoke. “I am in no hurry because I am a loner. I do everything alone, and in aloneness I find my definition. So, please, if you don't mind — or if you are like me, with no particular place to go and with no one impatiently waiting, let's just walk awhile. “In fact,” he brightened, “we could go to my house for a cup of tea, who knows?–maybe a second whiskey for you?”
To Lou it sounded like lonely words but with no real loneliness behind them They were said as if they had been recited many times. But maybe it was only the inevitable staleness of advancing years, those years when flowers and promises of sea cruises with some ‘new', albeit wrinkled-infested doll-baby found on a ‘dating' site for the desperately adrift, seemed no better than a walk on the plank of an old pirate ship, cutlasses poking you in the ass, and then a seaward plunge, gasping and flailing, while those aboard laughed and slapped each other's knees like fools. Sure, trying to find someone. Haha ! Hoho Yaha! Heehee!. The humiliation was of two ragged carcasses, still breathing for God knows what reason, pretending to be joyous at the discovery of a new life and many happy Christmases together. It was like a meeting in a shithouse and pretending it was a French restaurant in the center of Paris.
This was not what Lou really thought, but it was what the other man's timeless and timeworn expression said. It wanted the truth, and the truth had poured out of Lou like pent-up lava.
“Let's go, “ the friend said exactly as he had before, but a little sternly as if he was sure of something and was not to be misguided.
So Lou said to himself Why not? And yielded to the other man's authority in the way an alcoholic will follow a man who says he knows where the next drink is.
In fact, Lou was amazed at his recovered strength and.. if not exactly totally convinced, found himself willing to go the way of his new friend. After all, he confessed inwardly, he really had nothing better to do. He saw now that the friend was walking ahead of him, no longer holding his arm, and Louis took this as a sign that his condition had improved. In short, he wasn't an invalid any more.
Suddenly, like a bird flying out of a nest of many trees, the man asked him: “How was your life?”
Lou was sharply stunned and it needed a couple more deep breaths. But the question was intriguing. He hadn't thought about it consciously, and now here was a perfect stranger asking him to evaluate the sum total of his existence?
He decided to be coy, even though he desired to answer. “What do you mean?” he said. And then, as if on an impulse delayed by some play-reply button, he asked, “By the way, what is your name?”
The man ignored the second question and focused on the first. “What I mean is this: Did you, or should I say, have you, enjoyed your life?. Did, I mean, have you done the things you most wanted to do? I mean, did you…have you…been happy?”
At this, Lou's memory seemed to wake up, even though he had no idea what this man was getting at. So, hesitatingly, he decided to answer, noticing as he did that they had been walking so long that they had now finished with the crooked but seductive backstreets and were now on the outskirts with an open field lying just ahead.
He remembered studying philosophers in school: Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche, without understanding a word of what they were about. He had passed the exam by cheating. But evidently they had left an echo behind, just as like the religion he had been brought up with but discarded years ago. On this basis he had always second-guessed himself. They must all know something or why would people keep bringing them up? Jesus, he figured, had always been more of an idea than an actual man, and yet for two thousand years people wiser than him had set fire to other people in honor of Him. In other words, they had found meaning in what to him was clearly falsehood if not a joke.
He didn't know what to think.
So he combed through his mind carefully and answered his friend:
“I did what I needed to do. Sometimes it was a smart or even a wise choice. Often it was not. Often it was something I didn't even remember doing the next day. For years I was like that. I saw balconies and wrote stories about them. I looked out the train window and went crazy with desire. I listened to music and imagined perfect lovers.”
“And did you find them, these perfect places and lovers?”
Lou fashioned a hard cold look at his friend.
“Why not? These places, the people are everywhere.”
Now Lou paused before the undeniable truth of this statement. How had he managed to miss what was everywhere? “I guess I didn't look in the right places,” he finally said but did not really believe his own words.
“Ok,” said the man, “what about your work? What did you contribute? And was it what you wanted?”
At this point, Lou suddenly rebelled against the questions, and he shouted, “NO ! Goddamnit, I didn't do anything that I wanted to do!” Rage, unbridled fury suddenly burst out like a kind of volcano. “I married a hog and watered and slopped her until she died. If I could have chopped her up and sold her to a supermarket, I would have, believe me My job? Do you mean my so-called ‘career'?”
Lou drew a breath, then kept on spluttering, “I'm not gay but I have been sucking corporate cocks for years, OK, Do you understand? My life was a fucking masquerade, don't you get it?”
The other man was calm, as they continued walking through the fields. The moon was coming and so were the stars. There was a majesty, an inviolable calm that seemed to be passed down from the cosmos like one feather after the other.
“I get it,” the man replied. He paused. “But what about happiness? You must have achieved something, even love, even a little, somewhere among your travels. Please think and tell me about them.”
Lou relented in his anger and thought. “You know,” he said, “yes I have had happiness. But only piecemeal. Lips here, smiles there, women hairy and shaved, magic fingers and eternal smiles. The immaculate feet of the finest courtesans. But never as a whole. You know, my friend, it was like wanting the perfect meal at a single, well-lit restaurant, violins playing at table-side, the well-groomed waiter patiently taking your order, and then everything coming on time: appetizers, main course and dessert or fruit, apples or ice cream, and then a coffee or cognac. That's what I wanted. That's what I dreamed . And I had it. I got it. But only one thing at a time. I had to go to a dozen restaurants to get what I was looking for in one. It was never the total package. A smile here, a nod there, a wink here, a whisper there. Tits, hands, asses, pussies, it was a sexual flea market of disembodied things. So, you ask, was I happy?”
The other man said, “Yes, that's what I asked.”
Lou replied, “ If wandering alone in a piazza while others seemed connected, then No I was not happy, especially on rainy Sundays. If getting stoned and licking a woman's cunt was happiness, yes I was one ecstatic son of a bitch.”
“So in the end, you did what you wanted to do. Lick cunts.”
Lou cleared his throat. He considered all he had said. “Well, I suppose so. What else was there? I mean, really, really?”
By now darkness had fallen and the stars were popping out, assisted by a great orange moon.
“You know,” Lou said, “ I never thought about it until I couldn't choose anymore. Life was over before I understood. My friend, and I am treating you as a friend, why is that?”
The friend thought and said. “ Do you live in this universe?”
“And who lives in it with you?”
“I'm not sure.”
“Tell me this then. Who will share your death with you.”
“So you mean you are alone, and eating a delicious cunt will not save you? That having a top job will not save you? That Jesus isn't there? After all, after all, after all?”
“I want to cry, but have forgotten how. It's like a man who needs to shit but can't .The shit piles up in my stomach but where does it go.??
Now darkness was overwhelming and, as if a storm were rising, the stars started going out one by one. And so the darkness increased.
Lou was beginning to experience fear again, so he asked his friend, “So you are taking me to your house”
“Yes”, the man replied. “Most certainty. In fact, it's just up ahead. We are almost there.”
Lou didn't understand why this landscape had changed so much. It was like he had entered another time zone, or at the very least, a dark forest like in the fairy tales. He no longer trusted his friend completely, but he understood — some underlying truth — insisted that he follow. And he did.
Then to his chagrin, the stars started going out and there was only the moon, and even the moon was waning. Where was this place?
“Man, come on, where do you live? My chest is starting to hurt again . I am having trouble breathing.”
And then the moon disappeared, and the only thing Lou had to comfort him was the sonorous sound of his friend's voice — it's bizarre, mysterious yet implacably precise musicality.
“Well,” the friend said, quite cheerfully, “we are almost at my door”.
But the darkness was blacker than black, and Lou asked, “For God's sake, do you have a candle in there.”
The man, who had been so exuberant earlier, seemed weary. “No, my good and passing friend, there are no candles.”
Lou screamed, “Open the door. Open it!!!”
The clouds and stars and even the idea of a sky were gone.
Lou cried “Lou! Lou? Come back and take me home!”
A voice from, nothingness, said,” Enjoy the darkness.”
“Noooooooooooooo!” cried Lou
But enjoy it he did, greedily munching it like a pizza, until it too, that darkness, ceased being dark anymore, and was as emotionless as a breeze on a distant uninhabited planet, or like someone shutting off a TV set in some grotty room somewhere.
By Eric Le Roy