Volume 3 Number 3
Yesterday, I had breakfast with an ancient friend. I was driving on the interstate when I noticed him, moss-bearded and limping alongside a colonnade of evergreens. I stomped the brake pedal, pulling onto the shoulder, and lowered the passenger window as I backed up. His brow furrowed, and he shied away until I turned down the radio and called his name. He stooped to look inside, and after a moment, his eyes gleamed with recognition.
"Get in," I said. "Please? Are you hungry?"
He watched a handful of cars roar by and, with a sigh I could hear in the sudden vacuum, shrugged and climbed inside. The car filled with a scent of ancient leather, sweat, and rosemary baked in the sun. I readjusted the volume on the radio and tuned it to the upper 80s FM, stopping when I heard a bright humming of violins. He folded his hands in his lap and nodded, and I watched the mirror for a chance to leave.
The Waffle House at the next exit was busy but not crowded. Beneath the din of china and cutlery, the jukebox reverberated with Blue Miller's "I'm Cookin'." We found a booth in the back corner, and I ordered orange juice and coffee. When our waitress left, her head-scarf leaking wavelets of plutonium-blonde hair, he leaned forward and whispered, "I tell you, Robert, as long as I live, I will never stop wondering at the energy our race expends on changing its natural coloration."
I laughed, but discreetly, since we hadn't been served yet. "I have a question for you," I said. "Well actually, I have quite a few, but here's an easy one to start. Who's the most beautiful woman you've ever seen?"
"Mmmm, and that is one of your easy ones?" He had a wonderful way of looking you in the eye as he spoke; his own were large and shone like polished rosewood. They were, I realized, eyes that had beheld the face of God -- eyes that could quickly flood with tears of joy or, more likely, sorrow. "Let me ask you something instead," he said, "while I think it over."
I slid a finger along the plastic edge of my menu. "Fair enough."
"I see you are married now," he said, with a quirk of his mouth, a deft nod at my wedding band. "So tell me about her."
"Her name is Elizabeth. We'll be married two years in August, and I have to thank you. For her and for everything. No, I know I did before, but not properly. So ... thank you."
I had met him almost twelve years before in a deserted subway station, back when I was living up north. I had just finished college; but I couldn't find or, because of my drinking, keep a decent job, and my student loan bills started arriving. My girlfriend finally had enough of me, and one night, after downing a bottle of Jagermeister, I did too. I remember stalking around the platform, for what seemed like hours, to the cawing of a beggar's harmonica. At last, there came the dark rumbling, the rush of air, the eye of light, and I stumbled toward the gap. But then his hands struck my shoulders, holding me, and I toppled as the train roared by, with the tunnel spinning around the locus of his face.
"You are welcome," he told me as the waitress returned with our coffee and juice. Just as he had told me when I -- struggling up on the platform and watching the metallic bulk of the train roaring by -- felt my heart pounding with the wrongness of what it had wished. I whispered an emotionless thank-you and realized despite, or because of, my stupor, he was much more than he appeared.
"Who are you?" I had asked, whereupon he gave the timeless, indulgent smile of one who doubts his besotted audience will understand or remember his words.
"Ahasuerus," he answered. "I have heard Howard Nemerov wrote a poem, if you'd like to know more." He took a deep breath and helped me up, saying, "You are a young man; give yourself a few more years. Go home. And go with God." Then he walked off along the platform, blowing a few soft notes on his harmonica. When God found me, I prayed I would meet him again.
And now I had. I asked the waitress -- her yolk-yellow nametag read SANDI -- to give us another minute, and I watched him stir two packets of sugar into his coffee. "How did you know?" I asked. "How did you know what I was going to do that night?"
He shook his head and lowered his spoon. "The invasion of the Goths. The Black Death. The ghettoes of Berlin. Too many times, I have seen the face of despair." A silence fell between us until his eyes flickered past my shoulder. "And," he whispered, "it looks nothing like this ...."
"An' what can I get y'all this beautiful mornin'?" Sandi asked. Pale flamingo gum crackled between flashes of teeth, and she pressed her pen and order-pad together as if she were preparing to write out a check for the full, bargain-basement price of a home with a jacuzzi and hardwood floors. I ordered a ham and cheese omelet with bacon, and he a large plate of hashbrowns -- scattered, smothered, diced, and peppered.
"Now," he said once Sandi left, "the most beautiful woman I have seen .... There have been so many, and especially these last decades, with the makeup and the diets. And these surgeries, eh? So, I will disqualify the movie stars and so on because of this, and because the camera is too powerful. It captures her face, and suddenly she is larger than life, and she becomes ... immortal." He nodded as at the impartiality of his judgment, even as a rebellious and self-deprecating smile took shape within his beard. "But still," he chuckled, "that Halle Berry -- oy, what a woman.
"I can tell you, without doubt, that the one with the most beautiful eyes was Anne Boleyn. I am no poet to do her justice, but they were like black pearls in the snow. Though warm -- even fiery -- and seemed to look into you, into your soul, and gleam with surprise and delight at what they witnessed. As if she saw only the goodness in you, as if all else dissolved in their heat -- or could dissolve entirely and forever, if only you were kind to her, if only you loved her well."
He was looking past me now, or through me, seeing or being seen by her again. Even as I realized this, he caught himself and winked.
"So you see, even if Henry had had twice the self-control -- though I believe twice zero remains zilch -- he would have had little chance."
"Though they didn't save her in the end." For an instant, I envisioned the head of a woman, raven-haired, tumbling down a medieval staircase. The impact, upon the last, jarred loose a pair of gleaming black pearls.
He sipped his coffee then touched a paper napkin to his mouth. "A woman with irresistible eyes meets a king with an immovable desire for a son, and he creates -- and breaks -- a church to accommodate his desire. But even with regard to Anne, his will could never be denied. Of course, it was their daughter who became England's greatest monarch -- a lovely, strong-willed woman in her own right and," he nodded, "in all of history. Truly, the Lord has a sense of humor."
"Do you mean, you believe in Him?"
He set this aside with a pass of his hand. "You can understand how my mind wanders, eh? Though I suppose I began with Anne because she relates to the answer of your question. And those impossible eyes ....
"Anne, you see, replaced Catherine of Aragon as Henry's wife. But well before, in fourteen-hundred seventy-eight, I was in the Spain of Catherine's mother, Isabella, when she and Ferdinand began their Inquisition. I was traveling the southeast, having come from Morocco -- ah no, it was Sicily -- not so long before. I decided -- rightly, most would agree -- to depart for France and England; I went southwest toward Gibraltar to find a ship, if not there, in another port en route.
"It was a beautiful, late summer afternoon, and the Spanish light was as golden as I have seen. I was near the Sierra Nevada and the terraces of the Moors, on a broad trail through a forest of pines. The air was sweet and cool in the slanting light, but clouds were gathering, thickening, into a promise of rain and perhaps lightning above the Mulhacen.
"I heard hoofbeats behind me, soft on the fallen needles, and looked back. Her horse was chestnut-brown, with a long white blazon along its face, and she was riding, truly riding, so slender and light. She may have been eighteen or twenty-five -- Christian, Muslim, or even Jew -- I do not know.
"Her hair was black and flowed like a banner above the deep red of her cloak. She rode into the sunlight, and her face became like amber, drinking the light, glowing with its warmth. As she came near, I heard behind her a man calling Wait!, and I saw another rider following hard on the trail. She glanced back, and her face brightened, brightened, with the most radiant and playful of smiles. As she looked again to the path, she caught me standing aside; and she pursed her lips because I had seen her as she smiled. I bowed as she passed, and she snapped the reins and thundered into the wind and light. Of course, I never saw her again.
"The young man who pursued her was young and handsome enough, with something of the wolf in his eyes. I have since come to believe he was courting her and, more precisely, that this was the day their love became true. Indeed, I believe -- with little proof -- that at the moment she looked back, her heart overflowed with joy. Joy that he, and no other, was the one who was in chase of her. And I believe it was this, this first blossoming of love and its great freshness of joy, that I saw upon her face. And so she became the most beautiful woman I have ever seen." He took his cup between both hands, and the disc of coffee shimmered.
"Over five hundred years now," he said softly, "and I remember her face like this morning's dawn. I ... do not remember the face of my wife, or sometimes as a shadow, but I remember this young woman. But as I watched her vanish that day, I remembered also the Preacher's words." He whispered in his native tongue, lowly and thickly, then said for my understanding, "I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind."
"For it was vanity to ride as she rode, vanity for him to chase -- and chasing what? Perhaps they found happiness together, but certainly they are dust."
"But ... what was their alternative?" I asked. I felt, along my spine, the chill of the subway platform. "My wife and I -- " I stopped as he lifted his eyebrows at Sandi's return with our food.
We thanked her, and she freshened our coffee. "'There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil,'" he said with a wink. "Ask me another question. Let us talk of more pleasant things."
So I asked where he was going (Toronto and Montreal) and which were the most beautiful places he'd seen ("All are lovely when unspoiled."). We talked about movies and poetry, baseball, and the television. When we were done, he left two faded dollars folded on the table, and I drove him on the interstate until my exit arrived.
His hand went to the door, but halted. "I am sorry for being so dark before. I was hungry, and it has been several years since I tried to remember my wife. There is nothing better than to eat and work and live, as long as you do so in love, as long as you journey with Him."
He looked me in the eye and nodded. "To answer your earlier question ... yes. In your language, there are two senses of belief: one for existence and another for trust. It is the second with which I have struggled." He opened the door and stepped onto the shoulder.
"Go home, and love your wife. And do not run too fast through your days." He closed the door, leaving his hand on the window-frame, and smiled. "One day, the wind will turn and chase us. And when it catches us, we will fly."
And then there was nothing I could say, except shalom, and the prayer I whispered for him on the short drive home, the rapid sojourn into my future.