I originally wrote this for the April Fool’s Day “Fake Issue,” but it got cut, so I had to rewrite it for this ordinary, “real” issue. Of course, in that my grip on the distinction between “real” and “fake” has been under the scrutiny of professionals for longer than I can remember (a fact rendered arbitrary by my loss of faith in the concept of Time), all I’m really sure of is that I am sitting here poking around on a keyboard with my fingertips. Disclaimers aside, I am fairly certain this really happened, in one way or another.
It was the anniversary of my dear friend’s death, and, as I had done every year since his passing, I walked out to visit his grave, to admire the air, to observe the neighborhood, the hustle and bustle around me, the thoughts that would appear in my brain as the blood flowed through and the breathing.
I have walked on this sidewalk countless times, I thought. I have driven down this street thousands of times. Some day, I’ll be dead, too, I thought.
Arriving at the grave, I sat for a moment, for quite a while, an eternity, perhaps, with my eyes opened, closed, looking, not looking, thinking about my friend, my life.
I don’t know how long I sat there before I noticed the man, sobbing over a nearby gravestone. He had appeared as if from nowhere, and he was making quite a noise with his sobbing. I must have drifted off into my thoughts to have become so oblivious, and I felt suddenly ashamed, vulnerable, but it didn’t look like the man had noticed me, either.
I made a humming noise, like I was sighing or meditating, and the man stopped crying. He took a cloth handkerchief out of his coat pocket and wiped his face and smiled. He didn’t just smile, he beamed! That’s when I remembered I had seen him before, here and there around the neighborhood, I guess, but on one occasion at the coffee shop in particular. I know I told you about that; it was such an odd moment, with the door and what he said. Still, it was his joyful demeanor that I remembered so clearly.
Seeing me, he stood up and said something I couldn’t understand, like before. It sounded like a foreign language. It was only a syllable or two, but it felt like he thought he knew me. Could it be he remembered that day at the coffee shop? He came right up to me and reached out with his hands and took mine, and repeated the word (words?) he had said before.
I don’t think I could transcribe what it sounded like. I may have to consult a linguist. I repeated the word (or words) back to him as best I could, with a consciously quizzical expression on my face, trying to communicate to him that I didn’t understand, and then he nodded, enthusiastically, and continued speaking as if I had just said “I know exactly what you just said.”
I don’t know how to describe what happened next. While trying to concentrate on what he was saying, trying to understand, I started to feel faint and fell into a dream.
A moment later (or longer, apparently), I was alone, standing over the grave the man had been looking at, a woman who had died over 40 years ago. “Beloved wife,” it said. She was not yet 24 years old when she died. The answers to my questions revealed themselves in my suddenly returning memory of the dream, the joy he had known in her company, and the terrible and unfair way that she was taken from him, how he had managed to live these 40-plus years without her, hiding the loss, maintaining the celebration of her life in the way he faced the world.
When I was leaving, the guard asked me if “that old man had bothered me.”
I guess I was still in a bit of a trance; I said, “No, I didn’t see anybody.”
He said, “Well, that’s good. We have no idea how he gets by us. We never see him coming in, but he walks out like he owns the place. You let us know if he ever bothers you.”
I said I would.
For further consideration: Nick Drake’s mother Molly made home recordings of a collection of heart-breaking original songs in the 1950s that weren’t released until last month.