Sunday, January 18, 2015
In the early spring of 1942, right around the time when the last remaining snowpatches of a very grey winter had finally decided to melt and give mercy to us all, a young man who went by the name of Henry Meadows decided that it was probably time to just pack up and go. He wasn't sure where. Nor for how long. A great change was in order, even if his life was already, despite its ostensible stability, functionally adrift. That there could be a focus, even an identifiable pattern, in the decision to unravel his own comfortable means of existence puzzled him, but he had long before then realized that he could reliably trust his own unconventional approach to the notion of pursuit. I had always followed his lead, but this was one voyage he would embark on alone. (I've never been good at leaving behind maps.)
So far, such seemingly illogical, one could even say haphazard reasoning had allowed him to reasonably stay put while the world all around him continued on its mad stab. I spent many an afternoon with him drinking our blandless drafts at the various pubs which used to drearily line Yonge Street in a sad staggered row, their shapeless brown forms like the perfunctory beer-blots from our fathers that stained the kitchen table-cloths of our youth, and I would gradually understood over time that there was something beyond our mutual alienation from society that had motivated his flight. While our fellow childhood friends were off fighting for Queen and country overseas, the two of us -- he blighted by the abscence of his right eye, myself crippled and inert by a left leg that was bum right from birth -- did our pathetic best for the war effort by making munitions in a small factory at the end of John Street, We daily felt a mixture of relief and panic, thankful that were were not getting blown up in some remote Italian outpost, and disgust that something inside of us was palpably shrinking, a vital part of our youthful bravado slowly chipped away as we heard secondhand that another acquaintance had passed. While we regularly enjoyed bratwurst sandwiches from Shopsy's for lunch, extra mustard a must. So when he told me over our ritual brews one April afternoon that he had decided to leave, I wasn't surprised, merely overly cautious in how I should process my response.
"This has been some time coming," I said.
He nodded, smiling. Took a long chug of his beer, and allowed the froth of his beer to give him the kind of full moustache he could never grow on his own.
"I think the factory has gotten all it can out of my ex-per-tise," he said.
"And who's going to assemble all the jeep engine parts?" I asked. "Harold? Ronald? You trust them with the future of Canadian military transportation?"
"My boy," he said, which was his pet phrase for me, and since he always said it so jocular, I didn't mind its banality. "I don't trust them, nor the Canadian military, nor trans-por-tation itself. I just trust myself, and you should, too."
"Implicitly," I said. "You were meant for more than the assembly line."
He wiped away his moustache with the sleeve of his shirt, suddenly looking quite serious, the same intense way that he did when we played hockey on the frozen pond behind our schoolhouse when we were mere lads, him always as goalie, in charge of stopping all the hard pucks tbat aligned against us.
"None of us are meant for anything," he said, shutting the lid of his one good eye. The other was covered by a black patch with a strap that crept up to his ear.
"Which means," he went on, "that Abel Crawford is dead as of last, when was it, Thursday, I believe, while we sit here and drink, all warm and content. His head blown right off, while we burp and digest. You prove to me that there's a meaning in that equation, and the next one's one me."
I said nothing. That one of our public school chums had been killed in battle was a familiar form of news, but Henry's current reaction was not. It had something palpably sullen to its cast.
"So you are off to search for meaning in a world that you've just identified as meaningless," I finally said, after what I felt was an appropriately long pause. (Henry did tend to get irritated if you didn't let his statements breathe.)
"Precisely," he said, and this time his smile was back, that smile which always bordered on the brink of a friendly sort of menace. He rubbed his hands together, took a quick look around the bar, and looked all the while as if he had unearthed some logic to life that only he understood.
"Will you let me in on your 'plan', if I can call it that?"
"I will let you know shortly," he said. "In-ter-mittently, I should add. Until then, I need to tell you something important. Will you listen to something important?"
"Of course," I said."
He leaned in across the table towards me, and I had to consciously try not to stare at his black patch. The stink of the bar, its smoky afterglow, felt very real and primal to me at that moment. I understood that, outside, mere steps away, the sun had begun to shine, and the grass of the parks had begun to flow with the aftermelt of old snow, but in here, all was glum and tainted.
"If I don't come back, I want you to know that my ambition was real. Promise me you'll remember that. My am-bi-tion was real."
Enunciating his main points, an old childhood tic that had become almost rooted to his character with each passing year. It had always amused me, then irritated me, and now seemed almost ominous in its ridiculous portent.
"And your ambition is what, Henry?"
"You'll hear soon enough," he said, then slightly slapped me on the cheek, as one would after shaving. He stood up, pulled on his coat, gave a last little nod, then hurriedly walked out the door and into his life. I knew that he would be gone for quite some time, but I didn't have any clue as to his ultimate intent or motive, and I would not see him again for almost twelve years. In all that time, it seems like I did nothing but wait.