He lay in twilight of waking. Playfully dreaming, sleep softly danced in and out of consciousness. The room was softly lit by the rising sun. It threatened to wake him. He slowly rolled to turn his back to the light source—a bay window that looked down from the second floor to a gently descending, wooded, eastern-facing mountainside. Birdsong filled the air. He smiled and drifted back to sleep.
How long later? He drifted back up to soft, warm lips on the hairless part of his cheek. Gentle, sweet breath tickled his eyelid.
“Papa?” Sweet and musical. He smiled and kept his eyes closed. Hair brushed his ear—another kiss. “Papa? I know you’re awake.”
He opened his eyes. “Good morning, Alise. Guten Morgen.”
“Guten Morgen, Papa. Will you be getting up soon? I have to dress and go out. I told you yesterday. Do you remember?”
“Yes, dear, I will be getting up right away, and of course I remember. I may be 30 years older than you, but I’m not senile.”
“Of course you’re not, Papa.” He rolled onto his back and sat up against the headboard. The cream sheet slipped down to cover his naked lap. Alise sat beside and facing him, crossing her legs in a yoga posture. She was barefoot and dressed in threadbare jeans and white t-shirt.
“So young,” he thought, “so young, limber, beautiful and innocent.”
“Did you sleep well? Are you o.k.? Is there anything I can do for you?”
“Well and well and nothing. Just who are you, young woman?”
She bounced off the bed unto the balls of her feet and spun back facing him all in one motion. She threw her arms above her head, and waggled her hands. He laughed and clapped.
“Just Alise, Papa! Just me! Auf wiedersehen!”
“Auf wiedersehen, Liebchen.”
“Will we speak German when I get back?”
“If you want. Do you like to speak German?”
“I like when you teach me, Papa!” She flipped her hand at him and sprang through the door.
“Wunderbar,” he said out loud. “AbsofuckinglutelyWunderbar.”
Thomas Alexander Benning III, got out of bed, and pulled his pants on over his naked bottom. Barefoot, he plodded down the stairs and turned on the stereo. George, the Wonder Cat, came to him and began the feline Dance of Love with his legs.
“Yeah George, I love you too. Now go away.” Tom pushed him away with his foot. George started to come back, thought better of it, and sat.
Van Morrison came on. “She’s as sweet as Tupelo honey. She’s an angel of the first degree. She’s as sweet as . . ..” He sang softly along. In the kitchen he found a freshly brewed pot of coffee and poured a cup. Turning to the fridge and stove he made breakfast—three scrambled eggs and toast.
After breakfast, he went into her office, sat and turned on the computer. As he waited for it to boot up, he filled his pipe and lit it. He opened a document file he’d been working on. It was an essay on life and death among the homeless. Too broad? How can he limit it?
Sitting back, he puffed his pipe and stared at the screen. He didn’t see the words though. Focus was absent. Concentration slipped away. His writing sucked lately. Is it true that much happiness and easy life is a death sentence for the muse? Could be. It certainly seemed true with him lately. “Well look where you on THIS project, dummy. Nowhere!”
Blocked, Tom’s mind wandered back over the past three months, wondering how anything prior to the past 90 days could be used to predict or account for this life in which he currently luxuriated. It was glaringly simple. “It can’t be done,” he thought. It was as unpredictable as it was unaccountable and insupportable. He tapped his pipe into an ashtray, dislodging and expelling the top layer of ash.
He learned long ago the wisdom of never looking a gift horse in the mouth, but this was so exceptional it defied explanation and begged examination. Three months ago he was homeless, lonely, sick and hungry. He lived on the streets of Leighston, a liberal arts college town in the green mountains of western Pennsylvania. He had been homeless, with and without shelter, for a little more than four years. After four years he had adjusted to the miserable life of a street dweller. His gray hair and beard grew long, stringy and greasy. His clothes grew tattered and irretrievably stained and dirty. He hovered on the edge of malnutrition and sleep deprivation psychosis.
Thomas survived. It was not so much out of perseverance or even dumb luck. He just survived. It was miserable, but when misery becomes a constant way of life, it becomes tolerable—even pitifully acceptable. It was as though God was enjoying a mean little joke at his expense.
A great quality of humanity is adaptability. And, so he did. He adapted. He went in the space of five years (prior to his hitting the street) from a position in the upper echelon of his profession to that of a mangy cur, roaming city streets and alleys; scorned kicked and sometimes pitied by passerby.
He brought about his own ruin, but let’s not think on that now. There’ll be time enough between now and then for us and him to contemplate such matters. Our sins may be forgiven, but they are never truly forgotten. By God? Maybe. By ourselves? Rarely. By others? Never never.