Fragments from Old Stories

[W r i t e r' s N o t e b o o k]

Sketches of Those We Have Known: BERKELEY PEOPLE

He always boasted that he would live without women. Then he would wait for a reaction and modify this statement to mean he would never live with a women. A significant pause emptied the listener of the thoughts he may have conjured at the thought of a young man living without a woman to his last breath.

Well, he went on, I'll treat them like sisters. And that was true because women came to him often for advice and though they may have had many illusions in their minds, they always left the young man with the perfect advice they had been looking for.

Allen was explaining this once again to a new friend who lived in the next apartment. The new friend had recently separated from his wife and had moved to a dispirited neighborhood in the flatlands of Berkeley, with the idea of collecting himself for another go at living a life.

They sat opposite each other with a jug of wine between them and discussed their lives with alternative tones of openness and distrust.

The apartments they rented were boxes; fit for one person and no more. Red Spanish tile lay broken on the roof and the bright red steps leading from the sidewalk to each apartment had become dull and spotted by the black marks of rotten walnuts falling from the old tree in front.

At night the neighborhood became exceedingly quiet as though everyone were in prayer. The Santa Fe rolled freight from Seattle to Los Angeles along the tracks laid narrow through the neighborhood and at nine o'clock the whistle blew each night like an excited sentence before trailing off into the dark.

Phillip's daughter came to visit every week-end and at nine o'clock, as she was preparing to go to sleep, she would imitate the whistle as it shot through the backyard and into the dim room.

Phillip and Allen had finished their third glass of wine. Allen had asked his new friend about his divorce and Phillip was managing in his mind the rationalizations he had made to cover this particular pain. It was a sweet pain because now he was free and moving to his own tune. But, it was painful because divorce is an enormous pain and each divorce replicates the millions, if not billions of divorces that have happened through time. They are bundled in the genetic code and released each new divorce so that the divorcing members are forced to visit the hellish regions.

Well, he said slowly, we were going different directions. She wants her dreams worshipped and that's asking plenty from a man who doesn't worship much of anything.

He paused and looked at the strange, new friend and then felt embarrassed about what he had said. Allen was stroking the black beard he had recently grown and then fit a cigarette between his lips and waited until Phillip had finished before he lit a match. "What's the use of talking about these things to someone who hasn't gone through it? That's an understatement. Especially to someone who has sworn off women or dreams that he will."

And this answer, "I dream of women all the time. They are speaking to me in my dreams. Do you think that's crazy? Well, I don't care if it is. There now, they'll speak to me, the dreams of 'em anyway and...they tell me the things I need to know."

Phillip stirred in his chair and began to think of an excuse to leave. But then Allen laughed. "Don't be put off by that- people who say they don't hear voices are insane."

Phillip began to laugh a strange laugh and then shrugged his shoulders. He thought to himself that the man was harmless and simply wanted to impress a stranger with the occult and sublime power of his own loneliness.

"In fact, right now, a woman is speaking to me- yes, that's right- she's telling me bad things about you. she's terrified and angry- no- not at you but what...ah, she's gone."

Phillip stood in exasperation and threw out his arms, "We've been drinking too much wine!"

And then Allen asked him again whether he thought he was insane.

"Aren't you putting the wrong kind of responsibility on my head?" Phillip answered. His voice had pitched an octave higher than usual.

"I simply want your opinion," Allen answered.

"Wouldn't that be a judgement rather than an opinion?"

Allen laughed with a pixyish flavor and his eyes nearly closed so they appeared as slits. "I'll decide whether it's a judgement or not."

Phillip drew in the air of the room and looked at the strange neighbor who up until a week ago had been unknown to him.

As he thought about it he suddenly realized how much information he had given Allen about his private life- how that information had been drawn from his mouth like a lovely, honey-dipped string. Within a week he had revealed more of his past to this man than he had to any other person in a lifetime.

"1...I don't think you're crazy. But I don't think you're a normal Joe either."

Allen's eyes flamed open. "Ah, a cross between insane and a normal Joe. Hm. What if I told you I believe in angels as well?"

"I would suggest to you to visit another century."

"Bravo! Could be done, could be done."

"I'm an intelligent guy," Phillip was saying. "I have never given thought to the existence of angels but something in me rejects the idea off-hand."

Allen got up out of his chair and retracted three steps to a cage hanging in front of the hall closet. Inside the cage a stoic Parrot observed the room, blinking quickly out into the dim, candle-lit surface with Phillip now deep in shadow drinking his wine.

A laden stick of sesame seed was held up for the Parrot who bent its head and pecked at the stick until it brought it into the cage and fit its talons over the crusted seed. It had two evil eyes and looked matted. Below him the floor was littered with seeds and droppings. "He rules the roost," Phillip had thought at one point. Later in the year he discovered that the Parrot was a dangerous bird but now he saw it as a harmless thing, owned by a harmless nut. His neighbor, who looked sometimes like Charles Manson.

"We're no more intelligent than this bird here," Allen said. "It has been listening to us for the last several hours and is bored. Not only is it bored but it is laughing at us...whether we know it or not."

"You read the birds thought I guess?"

"It's face tells the story of its thought. Don't you think?"

Phillip poured the two glasses full of red wine again and staggered into his chair. He seemed confused and frustrated at the same time. On top of everything else he had a job interview scheduled for the next afternoon. The Oakland Tribune was offering a position as an assistant copy editor and his resume had got him an interview. All the time he spoke to Allen he was thinking of questions they would ask him at the interview and the answers he would give for each question.

"When I mean angels I don't mean the arrogant things you see painted in old paintings. I'm talking about beings who know when a person is in trouble and arrive at the right time to help that person out. They can be in any guise but they are of a different breed altogether. A person could speculate for years on their origination- that they come from somewhere else besides this planet is as good as guess as any."

Phillip now seemed curious. In his own mind he had forgiven the man's delusions as symptomatic of the times. Something told him that he shouldn't add to this loneliness by rejecting the man or his story outright but to bring it to some resolution even if it was a bizarre resolution.

"Maybe it's true...what you've said." And then with a strong voice Phillip related, "I've always believed there's something behind the UFO's. And not only the UFO's but natural phenomena such as increasing earthquakes and changing weather patterns."

"Yes- less rain and less snow. The drought of several years ago was only a prelude."

Tight-lipped Phillip said, "We'll get through everything."

The candle resting on the wood table had burnt to a thick curdled end and the dried pink wax folded several times inside a tin pie pan. It became evident that Allen no longer wanted to talk about the "end of the world" or angels or voices.

Later in the evening Phillip suggested they go to a club he had recently been too called La Salamandra. Every evening the club provided entertainment by struggling musicians or else held an open mic for poets and comedians. He had, in this interlude of his life, come to embrace the struggling musicians, poets, and comedians as brothers of a sort who acted out a craziness he felt in himself. Brothers, that is, who were much worse than he because every musician, poet, or comedian he met harbored a grand dream of becoming rich and famous.

No-no, Allen insisted he stay in his room and tell Phillip as story.

Phillip was irritated but agreed to listen to the story. The red wine had pinned him to his chair and he was becoming more worried about the impending interview the next day. Perhaps, he felt, with a bit more success she would return to him and they would be a family again. Or, at least, someone would be impressed by his show of ambition.

The story was long and involved and too strange to remember. For one, Allen insisted that the world had ended and only a few people knew about it. And that the turning point in his life was when he read roadsigns believing they were speaking to him and he ended up in a church garden trying to sleep before someone threatened to call the police. "They threw me out! Can you imagine such a thing? A Church?! Where God lives!" After that he decided to die and drove to the desert to perish. He became vague during this part of the story but mentioned a Bible his mother had given to him, among other things. And then his experience of the sulphuric end of the world that he had smelled through fog fingering up the streets of San Franciso early in the morning before anyone was up. "They were all dead but for one bar that was open and when I entered they looked at me as though they were expecting me and several men came up and ripped my shirt off my back and they beat me. That's when I went to the church."

"I went from the bar and staggered down the street when I saw a freeway sign that said, "Berkeley," so I decided to follow the sign, it was speaking to me, and I hitchiked at midnight to Berkeley. A guy dropped me off by the old Spenger's restaurant and I walked until I got to the church. Something strange was going on. I kept thinking, "well, I have survived the end I must be wanted by God for some wonderful mission in life."

"Well, I've been hobbled ever since. God punishes people with vision, it's not a blessing. I decided I didn't want to become a religious guy, I didn't like churches and the coffee klatches and so on. So I hung out and got free meals and the guy there, the minister tried to get me into a shelter and finally booted me out. I hung with the street people up on Telegraph, eventually started working again and got a little place down by San Pablo Avenue. I think about that little incident. Sometimes I think I was in a twilight zone of some sort.

"Now I'm burdened with the thought I had entered Hell. It came as such a shock that I had forgotten three important "missions" to be executed over a period of several weeks. I was travelling through Hell.

What an unalterably normal man he'd been! That's how he described himself to me. Whatever normal meant in those days, the apocylptic days.

He had worked five years at the hugegrey-glassed hospital in the north end of the city.

"There was my mother who I left years before down in the Penisula. There was the last image I had picked up of her, nearly by accident, so sadly waving from the window, her aging face pressed against the glass. Why had I turned back?"

"Now it's the city."

We went outside and stood on the corner of a long street, surveying the motion of machines and the blank strangeness of men like himself. Never would he let his face fall like that, he said but, I added, "how are you going to hide from mirrors?" And there were always the chrome bumpers of parked cars which made the body curved and unreal and, naturally, downtown if he had the patience he could stand across the great black-windowed superstructure and spot himself among the moving crowds along the sidewalk. Black windows made the flesh look pale and sad.

Now he sat in his favorite chair, lit a cigarette, then bent down to turn the knob of the radio and when the strains of music began he laid back, took the book he'd been reading up off his lap and thumbed easily through the pages, wondering through the pages as the music entered a new refrain. He was ignoring me and I took the hint. "I think you have an interesting story to tell. That is far more important than its meaning or whether it disturbs you or not. In fact, the more disturbing it is the more interesting it is. At least to someone who listens."

It's all quiet now, for him I imagaine. He repressed his natural taste for drawing those casual connections easily drawn when his love is alone among a thousand strangers.

The music now sounded as if it played out of the nooks and crannies of the house. He put the book aside and immediately the yellow cat leapt onto his lap and demanded either to be fed or stroked. He began by stroking the pale yellow fur to the contented purring of the cat's underside and then their eyes met for a moment and he was stunned by the familiarity in the cat's eyes.

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David Eide
January 24, 2014