The Man In The Chair: Discovered

In my last story, The Man In The Chair, I described my observations of a man who appeared to be troubled by something, but it was something I couldn’t figure out.  In the end, it was a man I never talked to.  So I walked away, taking my assumptions with me.

It is now one week later, and, I must say, it’s a beautiful thing when opportunity knocks twice…

I talked to the man in the chair.

I had gone to the library, again, to write a story.  Much of my writing is done on my phone which makes it easy to write at any time or place.  I settled into the same chair in which I had sat across from the man the week before.  For ten minutes I paid no attention to my surroundings, but was simply immersed in writing.  That is, until I looked up.

There he sat, across from me—the man from my story. And there I sat, surprised, staring at him and wondering what to do as he read a newspaper.  I was reluctant to introduce myself. I knew nothing about this man. What if I tell him I wrote a story and he takes offense? What if he makes a scene?  What if he tells me to mind my own business? I was not going to let this be a missed opportunity.

 My focus had quickly slipped from my writing as I continued to take glances at the man. It was inevitable that I would say something. A few minutes passed before he got up to go to the magazine racks where he selected Guitar, then returned to his seat.  Hmmm…interesting…a musician. I mean who else looks at pages of musical notes? Good chance he plays the guitar, which means he enjoys the arts, which means there’s a greater chance he’ll like my story. I waited for him to close the magazine before I spoke.

“Excuse me,” I said. “But do you have a minute?”

“Sure,” he replied.

“I’m a writer. I have a book coming out this year.” I paused. There were so many different angles from which to start the conversation.  “I really don’t know where to begin.” I paused a second time, then extended my hand.  “I’m Ros.”

“I’m John,” he said, leaning forward to accept the handshake.

“I write about people. You sat there this past weekend staring at the ceiling. You caught my attention. I couldn’t help but wonder what you were thinking. You seemed lost in thought. So I wrote this story.”

I showed him my phone which was opened up to my writing blog site displaying the title, The Man In The Chair. 

“That’s you. I wrote about you.”

Taken by surprise, he said, “You wrote about me?”

“Yes. It looked like you were dealing with something. Like a problem or a loss. I hope I’m not getting too personal, but something was obviously weighing on you.”

Where a week ago I had walked away, never to know what was burdening him, I now had put him in a position to divulge his anguish.

John looked at me for just a moment, then chuckled. He pointed up through a large window next to where we sat. “See that wasp nest up there, under the eave? I was studying that. Watching them build.”

Forget that I was in a library—a public sanctuary for silence. I just flat out laughed. “THAT!?” I said. “THAT was your problem? All the struggle I knew you were dealing with—something that was certainly wrenching deep inside you…and your ‘problem’ was that wasp nest!? This is just too funny.”

How was it possible I was that far off the mark? I was certain he had made a poor decision, said something he later regretted, or had possibly suffered some kind of a loss.  But, no. Far from it…

A wasp nest!

“Well, here it is if you’re interested,” I said, offering my phone to him so that he could read the story. “But please understand, it’s an observational story based on my assumptions.”

“No problem,” he said, putting on a pair of reading glasses. “I’d like to read it.”

For five minutes I watched John read—his expression changing from smiling to one of attentiveness.  I couldn’t help but wonder where his mind might be traveling. Here I was, a complete stranger, handing him a phone that contained a short story written specifically about him. He had every right to be weary of me—skeptical that I might have ulterior motives.

But when he finished reading and handed back my phone, it was clear he had cast aside whatever doubts he might have possessed regarding motives or just me in general.

As it turns out, there was something going on well beyond the wasp nest. John looked out the window toward the passing cars beyond the library’s property.  He began to reminisce and speak openly of his past and current state.

“Your story.” He paused, as if collecting himself. Continuing to look out the window, he pointed blindly back at my phone. “Your story…it hit me.” He took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. He spoke softly with a peaceful demeanor.  “You wrote that you wanted to tell me that things will get better, that happier days are ahead. You know, you could never have told me that one day I’d be homeless. That each night at the age of 65 I’d have to look for a patch of dirt or grass, or a slab of concrete to sleep on for the night.  It’s crazy. I mean I’ve had some incredible memories in my life.”

I had to interject, and said, “Such as being a guitarist?”

“Actually, no.” He said. “I was a drummer. Used to play with a group called ‘Ronnie and the Sonics’. We opened for Willie Nelson at his 4th of July picnic concert in Applebee, Texas. Those were great times. Hell, a couple of our songs made the top charts list in Sweden of all places. It was pretty cool.”

John paused, lightly shaking his head, then continued.

“You know, my mom always said that no matter what, things never stay the same. Everything changes. It doesn’t mean they’ll change for the better. Things can also change for the worse.  So here I am, homeless.  But I know one thing…you gotta believe in yourself to improve. Things don’t just come to you.”

The dynamics of John’s story unfolds as I learn he used to be a welder. But he says if he could do it all over again he’d have been a chef, as he loves to cook. He has a son that lives in San Marcos and a daughter that lives in Austin. Due to the complexities of their situations, neither is in a position to help him out. His homeless condition has been going on for four months now. It was a sudden and unexpected reality when his landlord nearly tripled the rent on his mobile home.  His only source of income is $900 from Social Security that is deposited into his bank account each month. All of his possessions are in a storage unit. I told him I’d keep my feelers out for any bargain rental spaces in town. But San Marcos being the fastest growing city in America, the likelihood of a “bargain” is slim.

At the end of our conversation, John said he wanted to go to Fredericksburg. “I hear there’s a huge bat colony that flies out from an old gypsum mine each night in the summer. I’d love to see that. There’s a $23 bus tour from here I can take. I’m gonna do it.”

The man in the chair, like all of us, has a story. And he also has a name. I think there’s a lot that John’s going to do. I think he has enough ambition to find a way to a simple, but comfortable place to live. It may be a little bumpy getting there, but eventually he’ll find his way.  And it doesn’t need to be much…just enough to be called Home.

Copyright Ros Hill 2017

The Man In The Chair

He sat slumped in a cushioned chair in the library. One arm extended on the arm rest with the hand relaxed over the edge. The other hand, holding a tissue, was on his lap.  Neck arched back—his head rested on top of the back cushion. His watery eyes, which stared directly at the ceiling, were looking beyond the ceiling.  His physical being was in the library, but he was far removed.

I had come to work on a humorous story—to find a quiet, secluded spot to let my imagination run free.  Funny how within the confines of your head, just how far a thought can travel.  Most of the time you have complete control of its whereabouts, while other times a thought can wander off, but then reappear more inspiring than when it had left.  I guess what intrigues me most about imagination is the never knowing of how a thought ever arrived, and what creative path it will eventually take.  But on this particular day, my imagination hit a road block.  Humorous creativity wasn’t flowing.  Instead, I had found something else—a curiosity about the man in the chair.

At times he took deep breaths, followed by slow exhalations as he simultaneously closed his eyes.  These were the moments he would lightly rock his head side to side.  But for the majority of the time that I watched him, his eyes were open, fixated on something—something that only he could see.  Perhaps something that he wished wasn’t there—a regret, a mistake, or possibly a loss.

I wanted to lean towards him and say, “Whatever it is, it’ll get better.” I wanted to assure him that happier days lie ahead. I didn’t know this man, but I wanted to guide him in a better direction.

I also didn’t want to say a word.  I didn’t want to engage.  I didn’t want to make any eye contact.  I wanted him to save himself.  Don’t initiate. You know nothing about this man.  He carries baggage you have no knowledge of.  Write your humorous story, and stay distant.

But the tears—the moist tissue in his hand—I could not ignore them.  He was struggling.  Back and forth, I weighed the pros and cons of whether or not to talk with him.  There’s a story here. There’s emotion. And there’s a man in need.

I’ve always said that anyone’s deepest struggle is just one conversation away from being rescued.  All I needed to do was reach out and give him a listening ear or some helpful words of advice.  And if my advice might fall short of its intention, then at least I’d have given him some conversation, which, on its own, would be therapeutic.

For nearly an hour my mind traveled, running the gamut of just what possibly could be wrong.  Oddly, it was almost as if I was getting to know him—that I was beginning to understand whatever it was I didn’t know.  Look at someone long enough, and sometimes you begin to wonder if, in fact, you’ve met that person before.

My time was up.  I had to leave the library. I collected my belongings and made my way for the door.  I had come to write a humorous story, but had written nothing.  Instead, I walked away, only to be inspired by a thought a week later…

I wrote a story about a man I never talked to.

 

Copyright Ros Hill 2017

A Nugget Of Wisdom

I was exhibiting my art at the Pecan Street Art Festival in Austin, Texas, when a boy about seven years old and his parents walked up to my booth. I always do a signing for my children’s books which I set on a table at the entrance.  The boy was enthralled with the books—his eyes grew larger each time he turned a page.  “Mom! Dad! Come see these!”

What could be more beautiful than the excited voice of a child calling his parents to join him in a moment of discovery? What could possibly deter the parents from giving him their attention? Perhaps a round of bickering between the mother and father…

“We should go,” he said. “It’s too hot anyway.”

“But we just got here.” she replied.

“I don’t like the heat.”

“It’s not too hot.”

“There’re too many people anyway.”

She looked him straight in the eyes. “This is ridiculous. Why’d we even come?”

He shot a stare directly back at her and said, “That’s what I’m sayin’.”

As they stood a few feet behind their son, the father ordered, “Put down the book.  We need to keep moving.”

Continuing to flip through the pages, the child was captivated by the book. “Look at this whale!”

The dad elevated his voice. “Let’s go!”

Shaking her head, the mother said, “Just great. So glad we came today.”

The father grabbed his son’s arm, and led him away.  That was the last time I would ever see them.

Just a parental dispute? Not quite.  There was more to it that caught my eye.

It was the father.  I could not stop looking at him.  And in doing so, I could not stop thinking about the boy.  What were his chances of growing up without being bombarded by negative influences?  In fact, I had wondered about that before the three had arrived at my booth.  In the distance I had spotted the father wearing a tank top.  On the front of it, and in large bold letters, it read:

SHUT

THE

F**K

UP!

I get it. Blatant.  In-your-face shock value.  A rebellious streak has been riding on your shoulders for quite some time, years in fact.  Say what you want and express it as you wish.  But, dude, you’re about 35 years of age, and you have a young, impressionable boy. I don’t care if you’re walking the streets at a crowded art fair or grilling burgers in the backyard…trash the shirt before it trashes your kid…if it’s not too late.  Lord knows what your language is like at home—walls thickly painted with profanity.

Seven years old.

The father was under my skin, quickly becoming rancid and septic.  And there they stood at my booth: the child lost in the imagery of my books, while the parents argued behind him with classy dad sporting the bold statement of the day.

I could not let this moment pass by without capturing it.  While I would certainly relay to my friends what I had seen, it would take more than words to convey the full impact. So I took out my phone and discretely took a photo of the three. The father’s shirt was clear as day.

*                 *               *

The art festival was on the weekend.  By noon the following Monday, I had shown the picture to nearly twenty people. “Want to see a photo of a kid who doesn’t have a chance? Oh, and that’s his dad behind him…”

Everyone’s reaction was no different than mine: appalled and sad.  For three days I continued to share the image and voice my opinion about the father.  I lost sleep over the photo. I could not erase the four bold words printed on his shirt.  I could not unsee it.

Then along came a conversation with a friend named Dianne…

“Ros, you know that photo you showed me earlier? It bothers you, doesn’t it?”

I don’t often admit to things that bother me, as I usually do a pretty good job of ignoring them.  “Well,” I said. “I wouldn’t say I’m bothered so much as I’m just intrigued by the scene I captured.”

“I understand that, “she said.  “But you’re showing it to everyone because it bothers you. Right?”

I hadn’t shown it to Dianne with the hopes that she’d turn therapist on me. But it sure felt that way.  “Okay, yes, it bothers me.” What was next? Hypnosis? Delve into my childhood? Interpret my dreams?

“I’m going to give you some advice,” she said. “Some Jim Pape wisdom.”

Jim Pape was her late husband. He had passed away five years prior. A defense lawyer, Jim was well known for not only delivering great story jokes, but had a gift for putting things in perspective that often contained a valuable nugget of enduring wisdom.

“Obviously,” she continued. “The child in that photo doesn’t have much of a role model as a father.  No doubt, the father’s shirt is disgraceful.  But think about this:

There is nothing you can do about the father.  You’ll never be able to change him.”

“And that’s the great wisdom you’re passing on to me?”

Dianne let out a slight chuckle. “No, Ros. The wisdom is this: Chances are you’ll never see him again. But as long as you keep showing that photo, and as long as you keep talking about it, well, that father will continue to live rent-free in your head.”

“But, it’s such a great photo. It captures everything.”

“I get it, Ros. I get the dynamics of the photo. But my suggestion is to delete it. Let it go.”

I couldn’t argue with her. Living rent-free in my head was exactly what was going on. It was as if I’d granted the dad total access to every virtual square inch of my brain. He had become a fixation that I could not turn away from: in the grocery store, at a gas station, on a group run, or throughout my work day. It got to the point that if I wasn’t showing the photo, then I was at least describing it.

Living rent-free, and the worst tenant possible. Dianne was right: there was nothing I could do to change a person who I’d never see again. I must admit though, he sure made for great conversation. Not one person sided with the dad. Nobody shared his choice for freedom of expression. It was unanimous: he was a jerk.

Still, how long did I want to continue parading the photo around town? How long would I lug this fixation around with me? By the end of the week, I made a decision to evict the tenant.

Heeding the wisdom of Jim Pape, I selected the photo from my phone one last time.  I gazed into the innocent child’s face mesmerized by my books. Such a pure and beautiful moment for him. I can only hope my books would be everlasting memories.

And right there, before I pressed DELETE, I wished the child farewell.

 

Copyright Ros Hill 2017

Five Mississippi

On September 11, 2001, America united as a single population.  We put aside our differences, and patriotically held hands. The color of our skin and our political views mattered none. When was the last time you saw that many flags proudly waving in this country?  There were no reports of Hollywood celebrity marital dramas. No one gave a damn about them.

That was until time passed.

We certainly don’t need another catastrophic terrorist attack to realign ourselves. But seems to me that we do need something. Let’s face it—we’re bickering, screaming, tweeting, snapping, posting, and walking against anything and everything.  And the enemy? Ourselves.

We are entertaining the world with our discontent.   It’s about time that we sought a little reprieve.

*          *          *

It’s funny how time—the most available commodity of all—is, quite often, hard to come by. We all wish we had more time all the time, but apparently time, which never ends, is in short supply…at times.

The other day, as I was at the gym, I watched a repair man standing on top of a ladder, replacing the batteries in a wall clock. The clock had been slowing down, its hands lagging to keep up with regular time. Almost as if it had been conserving energy in an effort to stay alive, as if it knew its time was almost up. But it was soon to be powerless as he unscrewed the cover of the battery compartment.  I found it ironic how he had to stop time in order to keep time going.

In an attempt to open a new package of four batteries with a screwdriver, the package shifted in his hands, and the batteries toppled and clanged down the ladder’s aluminum rungs before hitting the floor and scattering in different directions, like mice evading a cat.

“I do not have time for this!” he vented in frustration. “My time is too valuable!”

His time? I thought. What makes his time different from my time? I mean, don’t we all share the same time together?  At any given moment we all share the same duration of time.  And if you look at shared time as shared moments, the perspective shifts from objective and scientific to connective and personable.

Regardless of our differences and disagreements, we share the same moments at any given time.  Imagine if the entire U.S. population decided to acknowledge five seconds together.  Five seconds of time. Or better put, one moment of shared experience.  There are over 31 million seconds in a year. Am I to believe that it would be nearly impossible to get everyone to set aside their troubles for five seconds? Certainly it’s possible.  We’d call the event “Five Mississippi.”  It could be a sort of truce to show that we can, in fact, collectively share a moment.  And if, by some miracle, we should pull it off, then who’s to say the following year we can’t shoot for…hold on to your seat!…ten seconds?

It shouldn’t take a couple of skyscrapers collapsing to the earth or a careless and unforgiving hurricane named Katrina to wake us up and unite.  It’d be nice if we took it upon ourselves and made a conscious effort to find some middle ground where all of our angst and criticisms could be set aside.  Acknowledging five seconds together as a nation could be a start.

And just what would we do for five seconds? That’s easy…we’d go silent and recognize that for the first time in history (without the nudge from a crisis), Americans agreed to make time for one another. Now that’s something to entertain the world with.  Lord knows we have the technology and resources to make it happen.

Seems to me it’s just a matter of time.

 

Copyright Ros Hill 2017