Saturday, January 24, 2015
Listening to someone in person is mostly a matter of watching. You are undeniably hearing the words coming out of their mouth, true, but you are also gazing at that mouth, and their eyes, and the wrinkles aligned in an unsteady row at the top of their forehead, and their sudden hand motions that deflect attention away from the content of their speech. It's a game of absolutes. Both the aural and physical are unknowingly demanding your attention. Rituals are being enacted.
Hearing what Henry had to say, it seemed as if he were disconnected from himself, his agitaed speech and its uneasy rhythms offset by the equally jittery manner in which his upper body bobbed and distracted me from his words. And always the ebony occupation of that black patch over the surface of his eye, the sight of which had once come across as so compellingly opaque, but which now seemed like nothing more than an arbitrary affectation. I knew that it wasn't; I understood that his actual eye was damaged, and that the patch was necessary to keep out unwanted dust and grime from a sky that was steadily growing more and more black with the dark bulge of pollution. Still, as the conversation wore on, as he nattered on and gesticulated with his own sense of smug glee, I knew that I was losing something. Mostly my belief in some kind of whole truth.
I wish I could tell you. For I heard of his tales of dangerous travels in backwoods India, in villages so remote that these Hindu peasants were not even aware that white people had existed; I listened to what must have a twenty-five minute monologue on the difference between the texture and durability of Swedish and Finnish ice in the darkest of winters, a distinction he discovered for himself after cracking through the surface of ponds at some point in both of those countries, almost drowning in both, a frozen death deferred. (Twice.) I watched as he grew ever more excited as he told salacious tales of professional Chinese paramours and amateur Indonesian concubines; I did my best to let his attention hold me with narratives of African riverboats hastily pieced together from the barest of twigs. How many countries he claimed to have visited (or lived in) I can't even say, but a curious effect made itself known the longer the convesation extended. With each new place spoken of, every exotic experience uttered, my mind would start to imagine, not the contents of his explorations, but instead would begin to graphically paint a portrait in my head of my own office at the department store downtown. My trusty gray stapler; my metallic pencil sharpener firmly bolted to the right side of my desk (one of the first in Toronto, so far as I know); the slightly withered emerald plant in the corner that I suddenly remembered needed to be watered in the morning; my phone, gleaming black and expectant. Of course, I would mutter the approprtate words of sheer surprise and delight when he paused in his talk to let me utter these mandatory exclamations, but even while stating these obvious interjections, I would visualize the picture hung over the door of my office, the one featuring a fawn in the woods bathed by a sinking sun's crimson light . Trite, but moving to me. I got moved even then, while Henry Meadows rattled on. Moved to tears, almost.
"Old chap, I've said enough," Henry said, beaming, finishing the last of his beer. Smacking his lips. Slightly belching, but only slightly, as if he was self-conscious of the fact that he could have been more rude, but chose not to be -- for my benefit. He leaned back, made a grandiose decision to scan the bar and nod, and for all the world look like he had somehow come to occupy a higher residence of respectability in this place compered to these other said patrons.
And all the while, I thought: He's lying.
What a simple, likely scenario. He was lying, Henry Meadows was. He had gone nowhere. Done nothing. A dozen years is a long time, yes, but he had most probably spent it somewhere in Ontario, in small towns like Barrie or Sudbury, possibly further north in Kenora. Doing the odd mining job, or working in the kitchens of saloons, rinsing beer suds from old mugs. I can't say for certain why I believed my theory to be true, but I knew it was a sudden statement of fact, even if no verification would ever be possible. I felt like, at last, by acknowleding his own silly lies, I had grown up. Released myself from the shackles of my wondering all these years where the hell he had been. Knowing this, believing this, I could hardly ask himself to explain himself further, to justify his own life.
"What a tale," was what I said at the end. "My lord, what a tale."
"Isn't it, though?" Henry said, delighted at my own delight. "Isn't it all just the damnedest thing?"
We left the bar soon after, with a lengthy handshake and repeated backslaps. I did not see Henry Meadows again for another five years, when I happened to spot him while waiting in line one brisk autumn afternoon to see a matinee at the Royal Theatre off of Spadina Street. My wife and the twins would be shopping downtown for most of the afternoon, and I decided that a good Hithcock picture would be quite the time killer. There was a substantial line, so I had time to let my eyes wander, and I noticed Henry right out front as the lengthy que gradually crept closer to that towering marquee.
He was sweeping leaves away at the base of the box-office window. He looked heavier than before, and sunken, as if he had lost a few inches. A sparse beard speckled his face. His clothes appeared worn and shabby. I wanted to approach him, to tap him on the shoulder, to tell him that I would never forget the afternoon he left me in the pub, nor the afternoon he returned (as I never have, at some reliably standard level of my soul), that those days had did something to my life, had aligned my own fate into a moderately modest sense of proportion, that he nevertheless still occupied a heroic slot in my heart, that I remembered the way he had reassured that sad boy on the ice when we were both children. I wanted to say all of that, and whatever more I might find.
I said nothing. I watched him finish sweeping his leaves into a black garbage bag. He picked up the sack, slung it over his right shoulder, and hurriedly rushed into the cinema. (I thought I might have glimpsed that trusty old black eyepath, but I can't be sure.) I quietly stepped out of line, muttering apologies to the strangers surrounding me, and I and walked the other way up Spadina, not looking back. I wasn't sure where I was going, but there were a few more hours left in my afternoon before I would meet up with my family, and I wanted to fill that small space, make some good use of my time.