Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Teller and the Listener

Most of the homeless people I encounter in the library are either old, missing teeth, or mentally unable to follow the simple structure having a conversation requires. Most are all three. That is why I like to talk to them. But Adam was none.

I found him lying on his back on an old, wooden bench in the fiction section, under a large window, the sun illuminating his dirt-stained shirt and torn-in-both-knees jeans. His legs were bent up with his shoes flat on the bench and he held a book above his face, as if it were some sacred text that he felt the need to raise higher than himself. His 90s jacket and blue cap were discarded beside the bench, along with a cloth satchel spilling bruised apples and scraps of scribbled paper.

"What are you reading?" I asked.

Without looking at me he answered, "Survivor. By Chuck Palahniuk.

"I've read it," I said carefully. "You like Tender? You on the run?"

He stuck a papyrus bookmark in the book, set it next to him, sat up and leaned forward while looking up at me. "How'd you know?"

"Why else would somebody so young be homeless?"

"There could be plenty of reasons."

"What's your story?"

He scratched his beard and stared at the bookcase behind me, folding his hands together, arms resting on his legs. "I'm only telling you this because I've had no one to tell a story to in a long time."

"That's all I'm living for right now. To listen to stories."

"The telling of them only gets old if the teller becomes bored."

"The listening of them only gets old if the listener becomes boring." We spoke the same language.

"I was a soldier in the Reserves right out of high school and went to weekend trainings once a month while going to college. While I was there I studied and became best friends with a girl who was in love with someone else. Alicia. She was deeply moved by, who she called, God or Jesus or the Holy Spirit. And so it was only natural for her to be in love with a guy moved by the same, a guy she called John who was spending a year in Malaysia as a missionary.
We were in a lot of the same sociology and history classes and knew each other's intelligence. We could debate and argue and always convince each other to see another view other than our own. We taught each other how to see different while everyone else was trying to see everything the same.
I figured out I loved her the day she got a phone call from John's sister. She told Alicia that John was in a boat on a river when a girl fell into the rapids. John and another boy had dove in after her. When the three bodies were finally pulled from the waters, they were torn from the rocks along the way.
She cried for days and wouldn't tell me why. She told me this was one thing she couldn't make me understand. I've never been more pained or angry. She wouldn't talk to me. She wouldn't let me tell her I just found out my unit was going to be activated soon, that I was going to be fighting in Afghanistan within five months."

"What did you do?"

"I made the mistake of blurting it out when she wasn't ready. After she told me her story I knew I couldn't go to Afghanistan and so here I am, on the run, running away from her for her."

I think my story is to tell other people's stories. I'm willing to see all at once what is beautiful and horrendous.

Here is a poem I wrote:


The girl’s fingers are strong when they pump the keys on the piano,
her brain also, when she writes an A paper for Politics of Africa,
she laughs for a long time when jokes are told, but stops suddenly
when no one is looking, stifled by some memory, her big eyes

How was I supposed to know the boy she was in love with died
nine months ago while he saved a girl from drowning

when she said, I just watched Black Hawk Down. Please don’t go

I answered, I’m sorry. I have to. And maybe I will die,
but then maybe I’m supposed to.