Thursday, January 22, 2015

HENRY MEADOWS (fiction -- part V)

"I thought I'd find you here," Henry said, that wry grin of a badge still intact and shining.

I should have shot back a witty retort, but such perfectly-timed lines of rebuttal don't exist in real life. (That is to say, they quite possibly could, but surely not in any of the interior lives that I've lived up to this late point in my place.) The very act of speaking itself seemed an unreasonable goal. My mouth was connected to my face, and my tongue inhabited a space in the reasonable vicinity of my assembled teeth and two lips, but somehow synching these disparate parts for an audible purpose was a task that I couldn't even begin to approach. In front of me was a symbol of something I thought I had lost -- what you could call a facsimile of a life that might have been mine, had I stepped out of myself at some point in my past, and not embraced what I later realized was my present, period. Instead of my friend, I keenly understood that I was looking at a mirror, darkly; I saw my own status as a man in the wearied glare that he gave as he sized me up.

What could he see? Nothing but the steadily-approaching-mid-thirties man that I was, one who had spent the previous dozen years or so building a settled life of some sort. Embedded in a city so eager to let the war find its space in the cozy history of Confederation that something vital in my cranium had been psychically buried along with that whole bloody era. A kind of resilience, perhaps, sunk in a grave of good will. A boldness, deferred. 'We'll get back to that bravado in a bit, but first let's not raise too much of a fuss' -- isn't that the meekly Canadian way? Or maybe I was merely reading into Toronto what I most feared in myself -- an acquiescence to civility, and all its mundane minutia. The quivering need to solidly plant myself in this town had allowed me to steadily rise in the hierarchy of the Eaton's Department store chain.

No lack of ambition in this chap, right?

That was my line as I nightly lay in bed before the dark became deep. It was what I silently whispered to my soul when the lights were all out. My own monologue, mute in its shout. Henry Meadows had escaped into oblivion, but I would soon be managing the whole of Men's Wear at both the flagship store on Bloor Street and the new John Street location. Take that, globetrotting ambition! One can find contentment in tasks that allow us to refine and mature. Henry Meadows can take a flying fuck.

Oh, if only I had said that to him! I was regretting my cowardice, but I also understood that it would be futile and absurd. I uttered nothing of the sort, of course, because this mysteriously tactile and accusatory mirror-image of myself quickly shattered in my vision, and I was left with my friend, Henry, now a middle-aged man like myself, and boy did it show.

The patch was still there, and in its brightly black sheen I could almost believe that it was the same one he had worn on the day he had left, were it not for the spider-web of wrinkles that stretched out from its edges and crawled down his cheeks. His entire face seemed to have slightly cracked, as if it had merely been an egg shell that had shattered at life's every tap. His chin was scraggly, his build a little more bulky, yet despite all his newfold creases, he was still nothing but Henry Meadows, and the smile that he wielded with such force let me know that he knew it too. He had left, but not divided.

"I don't know what to say," was what I finally said.

"Ha!" Henry spat, more of a bark than a laugh. "Good call, my old friend. What can you say at a moment like this? At the very least, order me a beer, and that will be fine for a start. I'm pretty parched."

I did as I was told, he the schoolmaster, and I his pupil. I raised the index finger of my left hand, waggled it a bit, cleared my throat with a cough, all in an almost-vain attempt to get the minimal attention required of Jurgen, the portly German barkeep, who seemed to reluctant to let his gaze wander from his folded-up newspaper that lay splayed on the counter from morning to night. He gave me the briefest of glances as I pointed at my beer, motioning for another, and I wondered where the waitress was, and why he had hired her if she would not come around.

"You look well," I said, which is what you say to everyone who you've not seen for some time.

"'Well' is a relative term," Henry said, taking off his scruffy black coat and letting it slide to his side. "I'm broke, and weary, and shell-shocked to be sitting across from you in a bar, but I suppose, compared to many, maybe most, I could even be called, shall we say, exemplary."

He laughed at that, and so did I, a genuine chuckle that felt authentic and welcome. The past and the present had suddenly tied themselves into a finite loop of completion with our mutual laugh of great cheer, as if a warning shot had been fired, an icy puddle dissolved, and I felt less than enamored with the thought of continuing to torture my spirit, wallowing in my life's lacks. We were two old friends about to share a drink, that's all, and our lives had been leading to this moment of plainspoken kinship. I told myself that our experiences were compatible, perhaps even adjacent. And I've been repeating this to myself for a good many years.