Continued from ALISE
Tom adapted. By night, he read and wrote by parking lot floodlights at break time picnic tables next to office building side entrances. He didn’t sleep at night. It was too frightening. There was the danger of violence or of theft of his few meager and vital possessions. The first month or two, the police would pull up to his table, get out and question him. After a couple of months they learned that he was as harmless as he was homeless and left him alone.
By day, he visited the soup kitchens and the college library. The soup kitchens were for his body. The library was for his soul. He had an account at the library, but rarely used it. Carrying books is a burden that not even the most book-loving hobo wishes to shoulder. He would walk into the library—dirty and ragged—and would be smiled at by fresh-faced students attending the check-out counter. You didn’t have to be telepathic to read their thoughts. “How pitiful. What a poor old homeless guy. Oh Jesus, I hope he doesn’t try to steal anything. We’d better keep an eye on him.”
Little did they know that this poor specimen of humanity was once a professor. Little did they know that the human wreck now fouling the foyer was Thomas Alexander Benning III, Ph.D. If they knew his name they might recognize it without quite being able to place it from the footnotes and bibliographies in the textbooks they stashed beneath the counter. He was a star in his milieu. Not any more. And, never again. Today he is just “that poor old homeless guy who writes all the time. I bet he’s crazy.”
The thought made him smile. The smile was not out of any kind of disguised superiority but came from irony for how far he had fallen and now entered the thoughts of these young collegians not as a respected, honored and even idolized professor but as a veritable bum and potential petty-thief.
George jumped into his lap as he finished his pipe. Lost in thought, he began to stroke the head and back of his new found friend.
He loved the library for the blessed silence. He loved it for the nostalgia of academia. He loved it for the young men and women who roamed the stacks starving for knowledge and feasting in the banquet halls of wisdom. He loved being surrounded and embraced by the accumulated knowledge of the ages. But, he was no longer Master of the House. He was now an interloper. He was an uninvited guest: a stranger. He was made to feel it and made sure that he never overstayed his welcome.
Leaving the library, he boarded the downtown bus. Tote sack in one hand and trusted cane in the other he trudged up the long, steep hill to the Town Park where he would take his daily rest. It was there he met Alise. Tom laid down in the clipped, cool grass beneath a shady tree. He put the tote beneath his head for a pillow and pulled his hat over his face to block the light. Soon, he was asleep. For how long he wasn’t sure. He woke to a voice speaking to him.
“Sir? Excuse me? Sir?”
He uncovered his face and squinted. The sun had moved and was now shining in on him from behind a squatting figure from which the voice obviously originated. The squatting figure was a young woman, but that was all he could tell. The sun cast the side of her facing him completely in shadow and the sun glare blinded him to all else.
“Could you move out of the sun please? You’re blinding me.”
“Sorry.” She scooted a few feet to the right. “Better?”
“Much. Is something the matter? Do I have to leave?”
His vision was adjusting. She was a beautiful young woman in her early twenties. Her eyes were sky blue under naturally long lashes. Honey-blonde hair fell lightly to her shoulders. She was small breasted and her hips had just enough of a swell to prove femininity. Here was a woman/child. Her smile was warm, soft, and genuine. It could melt the heart of any cynical old man. It certainly began to work its magic on him.
He scooted up to the tree and rose to sitting with his back against the trunk.
“Sit. You’re making my legs hurt watching you squat.”
Without a sound, or using her hand for support, and in one fluid motion, she sank to a cross leg-position facing him.
There was a pause. “Well,” Tom said. “Are you just going to sit there and stare at me? Did you need to see what a bum looks like close up? Why’d you wake me?”
“No. I just wanted to talk to you.”
“Here’s your chance. Talk.”
“Are you hungry?”
“Are you buying?”
“A man in my position never turns down a free meal, even if he’s not hungry. But as it just so happens, I am hungry.”
She stood. “I know a good place of the other side of downtown. Let’s go. I’m driving.”
Grunting, he pushed himself up with the help of his cane. “I’m game,” he muttered, and started after her. “HEY! Allow for speed differences, bitte.”
She shot a smile over her shoulder and slowed her pace, allowing him to catch up. “’Bitte?’” “Please.”“Please?” “It’s German.” “Oh.”
“George you old hairball, get down.” Aided by a gentle push, George grudgingly obliged. He had sat for 45 minutes, lost in space and not writing a blessed word. He closed the document and turned off the machine. He stood and brushed George’s hair from the front of his pants, picked up the half-empty, cold cup of coffee and carried it to the kitchen. He rinsed, poured another and headed to the porch. George dashed by him through the open door nearly tripping him and flew into the yard bug hunting. When George runs free, insect torment is unbound. Mothers, hide your larvae.
All things wicker. He sat his cup on an end table and then himself beside it in a rocking chair. Placing his bare feet on a footstool, he picked up his cup; sipping and blowing to cool the hot liquid. He looked out over the yard, the stalking feline, and into the valley 300 feet below. Not a cursed unnatural sound reached him up here. He had no home but felt a strong emotional and physical attraction to this place. He must be careful not to assume and certainly not to take anything for granted. All things here seemed blessed. It was dang near a holy experience.
It felt like a gift. Nothing he ever did in his glorious or inglorious past paid for this experience of beauty, peace, and developing love of which he was the happy recipient. For the first time in his life, Tom felt calmness in his soul.
For the time being he was questioning it. But, he knew the time was coming for an end to questions. There was soon coming nothing but acceptance. At the end of riddles, answered or not, all that will remain will be acceptance; calm, peaceful, and orderly. He didn’t need to pray for it. It was coming. This side of the horizon, it was in sight.
He drank his coffee—very good. George was crouched low in the grass. At ground level and from the front all that could be seen were eyes and ears. From his elevated vantage, Tom could see him stretched out, back leg muscles coiled to spring, and a straight and rigid tail. Just the tip twitched, an inch back and forth and rhythmically—like a clock pendulum.
“Look Out, Bugs! George has your number!”
George shot him a dirty look.
The house faced south. Around the corner, the sun was coming up nicely in a cloudless sky. The air was warm and sweet. It was going to be a pleasantly warm, late-spring day. There was a large untended meadow on the east side. A multitude of flowers gave their fragrance to the air as a light breeze carried it to the top of the hill. He cleared his sinuses and inhaled deeply.
Twice now, he and Alise had gone into the meadow. She went barefoot. He was not so brave. Twice they came back with his arms full of blossoms, for her to decorate the house, including his room. One Sunday morning he overslept and woke to an empty house. Looking for Alise, he walked into the yard and around to the east side.
There she was. Thirty yards into the meadow, she stood facing but did not see him. Her eyes were closed. Hip deep in wild grass and flowers, her palms outstretched to her sides, lightly brushing the blossoms and grass heads. Her head was tilted back, face lifted to the sky. Her flawless, angelic face radiated peace, love and happiness. He imagined he could see it coming from her in waves. It seemed her lips moved in silent song. For a moment Tom stood in awe and something that felt nearly like love. He shook his head to clear it. He was an invader here! This was a deeply private moment for Alise. Hurriedly and quietly he retreated into the house. When she returned, nothing was said of where she had been or that he had any clue that she was anywhere but inside.
“Alise,” he whispered and leaned his head back against the chair. “Who are you Alise? Are you a woman or a child or both? Whose child are you? You call me ‘Papa’ but surely you are not mine, are you? Who claims you for their own?”
He closed his eyes and breathed deeply.
In the yard, George spied his prey and pounced. As he lovingly dismembered and delicately devoured his fat, sleek, grasshopper sacrifice, the only witness was the sky.
Papa was fast asleep.
END CHAPTER ONE
CONTINUED — CHAPTER 2: Hamburger Steak and Salad)