AFTER work, J. sat on the steps outside the diner or the late-nite solitude bench in the park across the street while his pulse cooled, smoking and reading under the verdigris gaze of Count Casimir Pulaski. The metallic ticks and clanks of the traffic signal box sounded throughout the empty town square as the neon blinking traffic light painted the streets green gold red green gold red green gold red green gold red green gold red…
Sometimes, the town’s reverend and rabbi punctuated the quiet with their steady steps, two children of God inscribing circles in the square. They liked to while away these wee small hours together, each warmed in the metaphysical glow of the other’s halo, debating the number of angels that could comfortably polka upon a pincushion. Anglers in that lake of darkness, they nodded to J. as their orbits passed him. J. replied with a slight dip of his head. Even such small gestures felt like surrenders to his circumstances, but as customers, they tipped well and demanded little, which earned them whatever politeness J. had the wherewithal to offer. Along with other tools of the trade, he suspected they carried under their vestments calipers of sufficient sensitivity to measure the pittance proffered by a pauper.
One night, while J. kept company with a small pea-green clothbound book, the pair slowed their steps.
“What’s the book?” the reverend asked.
J. literally jumped. Had they seen his mouth moving, forming soundless words in the shadows?
“What book?” he said. “This, you mean?” J. picked up the book, which had fallen from his hands. “Just something I brought to look at while I had a smoke.”
The rabbi dipped like a drinking bird to read the title embossed upon the spine. “The Way of a Pilgrim,” he said as he bobbed back upright.
“Why is that title familiar?” the reverend asked. He rubbed his furrowing brow briefly, until the massaging hand recoiled, stung by the snap of resurgent memory. “Thessalonians 5:17,” he said with the wide warm smile one usually reserved for unexpected encounters with old friends. “The eponymous Pilgrim takes it to heart and wanders the land as a mendicant, searching for a starets to unlock its meaning.”
“I’m a bit rusty after Malachi,” the rabbi said.
“It’s an exhortation to pray continuously, more or less,” the reverend said.
“Any words in particular?” the rabbi asked.
“Do you know the Jesus prayer?”
“Hum a few bars.”
“‘Lord Jesus Christ — ’”
“‘ — Have mercy on me — ”
“‘ — A miserable sinner.’”
“Tough landing to stick.”
“Repeat until enlightened, supposedly.”
“Does the pilgrim do so?”
“He does indeed.”
“And does enlightenment follow?”
“It does indeed.”
The rabbi nodded his head slowly and exhaled long and low with the satisfaction of a sated epicure. “The nishmat chayyim is a gift from G-d — the Elohei ha-ruchot lekhol basar himself — and some believe that his breath is always on our lips” he said and J. didn’t know what it meant and didn’t know how to reply so he just said “Huh” and the reverend and rabbi nodded goodbye and returned to their perambulation and the starry dynamo whirled unperturbed over all their heads.
J. followed The Way of a Pilgrim with The Pilgrim Continues His Way; The Way of Chuang Tzu; The Discourses of Epictetus; Meditations of Marcus Aurelius; Pensées of Pascal; Selected Writings of Eckhart; Selected Stories of Lardner; Memoir, Text, Selected Renderings and a Literal Translation of Sappho; Thomas à Kempis’s Imitation of Christ; de Sales’s Introduction to the Devout Life; de Caussade’s Abandonment to Divine Providence; Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling; Rilke’s Duino Elegies; Dickens’s Dombey and Son; Dickenson’s Bolts of Melody; Baudelaire’s Flowers of Evil; Vagrakkhedika (Diamond-Cutter or Diamond Sutra, from Buddhist Mahayana Texts, Vol. 49 of Müller’s Sacred Books of the East); the Diaries of Kafka; Kilvert’s Diary; the Mumonkon (in the compilation Zen Flesh, Zen Bones); Tolstoy’s Anna Karenin; Flaubert’s Madame Bovary; Stoker’s Dracula; The Bhagavad Gita; excerpts from The Upanishads; The Sutra of Hui-neng; The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna; Keene’s The Hidden Staircase; Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard; The Little Flowers of St. Francis of Assisi; Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World; Hayes’s The Boy Allies on the Somme; Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby; Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot; and The Essential Haiku, a collection of work by Basho, Buson, and Issa.
All had appeared in the pages of Buddy Glass’s pretty skimpy-looking book, either pinned and spotlit against a beaverboard bristling with quotations or alluded to by title or author. J., ever the epigone, went so far as to excerpt, in jet-black and passionately legible lettering, a number of passages from these books to a notepad just to know how it felt for the words to fall from his pen.
When a man is speaking, he cannot be breathing. — The Upanishads.
A stranger in a strange land, he is no one; men know him not — and to know not is to care not for. — “Dracula.”
I have a peculiar dislike to meeting people, and a peculiar liking for a deserted road. — Rev. Francis Kilvert.
Ummon asked: “The world is such a wide world, why do you answer a bell and don ceremonial robes?” — Mumonkon.
Our only satisfaction must be to live in the present moment as if there were nothing to expect beyond it. — De Caussade.
Stars, darkness, a lamp, a phantom, dew, a bubble. A dream, a flash of lightning, and a cloud — thus we should look upon the world. — The Diamond Sutra.
“Ah, when shall I see Athens and the Acropolis again!” Wretch, are not you contented with what you see every day? Can you see anything better or greater than the sun, the moon, the stars, the whole earth, the sea? — Epictetus.
He did not see that it is not in our power to control our heart. — Pascal on Epictetus.
One quite forgets one’s earthly existence because one is so entirely full of fury and is permitted to believe that, given the opportunity, one would in the same way fill oneself with more beautiful emotions. — Kafka.
It is entirely conceivable that life’s splendor forever lies in wait about each of us in all its fullness, but veiled from view, deep down, invisible, far off. It is there, though, not hostile, not reluctant, not deaf. If you summon it by the right name, it will come. This is the essence of magic, which does not create but summons. — Kafka.
Powder exists in charcoal before it exists in fire. — Emily Dickinson.
Who’s not sat tense before his own heart’s curtain? — Rainer Maria Rilke.
Love is just the same as the fisherman’s hook: the fisherman cannot lay hold of the fish unless it is attached to the hook. If it has swallowed the hook, the fisherman can be sure of his fish; whichever way it turns, this way or that, he knows he will get it. I say the same of love: they who are caught by it have the strongest bonds and the sweetest burden. — Eckhart.
There was no other girl like her. — Sappho.
A sort of off-cordovan-colored Western Electric 2500 touchtone telephone roosted on J.’s uncle’s roll top desk, though it had enough play in the cord to glide over to the adjacent armchair or J.’s cot. The number on that phone originally rang to J.’s grandfather’s hardware store. When J.’s uncle opened the diner, he installed a separate line downstairs. Customers still occasionally called, searching for washers of various inches, table saw replacement blades, flat-cut paint brushes, etc. From Boca Raton and Scottsdale and Santa Fe, elderly emigrants rang to check in on J.’s uncle and recount the same shopworn stories about J.’s grandfather. How he got up early to shovel and salt the storefront sidewalks from one end of the square to the other after overnight snow storms, save for the stretch in front of the grocery store, owned by a family with such exacting standards for snow clearance that the work was best left in their capable hands. How he would show up on your doorstep, toolbox in tow, after he closed the store but before he went home to help you stop the kitchen sink leak or replace the rotting porch floorboards that you’d mentioned when you stopped in earlier that day to pick up pipe compound or wood planks. How he once caught “Long Lucy,” a legendary fifty-inch northern pike, in Bantam Lake’s deep waters between Deer Island and Point Folly but cut the line when J.’s uncle, eight years old at the time and as tall as the fish was long, almost capsized the boat trying to haul it in. A diffuse look, like a single cloud’s shadow drifting across a glaring meadow at noon, softening more than darkening the grass, passed over J.’s uncle’s face whenever he answered such calls.
A couple of months back, on a mild, quiet night in February when the diner was so slow J.’s uncle let J. knock off early on the condition that he neither passed go nor collected two hundred dollars but went directly upstairs to their apartment, J., bored with the book he was reading, On Unheated Faith (a seven-hundred-page slog written by a crazy woman), answered that phone, and discovered he had to add another name to the register of those who knew the long-delisted number: Blue.
Hearing her voice, he tried not to smile, knowing it would sound through his words, not knowing he should for that very reason. Years later, he wondered how she found out the line even existed, let alone its digits. Not when he heard her voice on the line, though. At that moment, he only wondered why she called, even went so far as to ask but cut her off when he heard the answer catch between her tongue and teeth.
Blue continued to ring J. as winter skidded into spring. Though they saw each other most days, shared the same air, he had never yet felt closer to her than when copper wire trembled their words across town.
One night, a waiter at the diner having earlier that day reminded Blue, in a brief, almost unnoticeable, gesture of quiet solicitude to a customer of the kind waiter at Sickler’s, the topic turned to Franny and Zooey. (Which waiter? Matt? Mark? John? Which customer? The dance instructor? The busker? The newsdealer? Blue declined to provide details. In the shape of her obdurate silence, J. detected the presence of that big nothing, Tallboy. Never able to press her over the phone, when he couldn’t see her face, he let it go.)
“The description of the waiter as ‘not a young man,’ that’s a real iceberg. It might be my favorite moment in the whole book,” Blue said.
“More than that extraordinarily beautiful dial tone at the end?” J. asked.
“More than even Bessie pruning her way through the golden pharmaceuticals and less indigenous whatnots of the family medicine cabinet.”
“You didn’t find all the time spent rummaging around those shelves tedious?”
“You don’t like those parts? I love those parts! All their overflowing knickknacks and sempervirents. Stopette and Sal Hepatica — it’s music from a bygone era of cosmetics and panaceas.”
“‘Bare lists of words are found suggestive to an imaginative mind.’”
“Thanks, I think?”
“What’s it from?”
“Not sure. I came across it the introduction to William Carlos Williams’ Selected Poems.”
“I thought you couldn’t get into poetry.”
“I am large, I contain multitudes.”
“You know, that scene with the waiter you mentioned, first time I read it, I was sure Franny was pregnant.”
“Right, because he was ‘not a young man,’ maybe he was a husband, a father, someone who’d recognize her pallor and perspiration as signs she was pregnant. I thought so too. I’m still not sure she isn’t.”
“What a mom she’d have made.”
“What do you mean?”
“If that baby wasn’t reciting the Four Noble Truths and translating the Dhammapada from the original Pali by the time they were released from the hospital, dollars to donuts she’d send it on an unaccompanied one-way ticket to Nepal with a prayer wheel for luck.”
“Or the first time she saw it, held it, could have sparked satori. Who knows, she might’ve made a great mom. Proud, attentive — a little overbearing, but in a kind way — and more often right than not, even when she was wrong, like Bessie.”
Blue paused, perhaps waiting for more, but the words got caught between J.’s tongue and teeth. “There’s an unpublished story he donated,” she said, “along with some letters, to Princeton called ‘The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls.’”
“I know, right? I can picture it so clearly. One of those windy, watercolor gray days — ”
“With black waves rolling all the way back to the horizon.”
“Yes, exactly! It’s housed in a special collection at their main library. I think it’s available to the general public, not just students. They don’t allow you to take photocopies or notes, but you can sit and read it. One day, I’m going to go down there and do just that.”
“I expect a full report.”
“Or you could come along.”
“Wouldn’t it be nice?”
Bathed in the susurrus of each other’s breath, pulses pounding against the Bakelite in their hands, they spoke no more words to trick the stars, who, for lack of lovers to cross, turned off their lights and shut down the machinery of night.