Monday, April 14, 2014

The Man In Black

The Man In Black by Scott Lefebvre

     I’ll never forget where I was when I found out that Johnny Cash died.
     I had worked the graveyard shift the night before.  Midnight till eight in the morning.
     On the way home I was hungry and knew I’d need some food if I was going to get to sleep.
I stopped at a café for breakfast.  Nothing too fancy, but the breakfast menu was decent and you knew what you were going to get when you ordered it
     The place was empty.
     A Friday morning after the breakfast rush, but before the lunch rush.
The smell of hot grease, fresh coffee and frying bacon hanging in the air.
     I sat down at the counter on a red pleather padded aluminum stool, the chrome legs scuffed from a thousand thoughtless kicks.
     The waitress came over and asked me what I wanted to drink.
     I ordered hot coffee and iced water.
     She left behind a menu, but I already knew what I wanted.
     Two eggs, over easy, rye toast, bacon.  Side of home fries.
     I told her when she came back with my drinks and she jotted it down in her notepad and went away to give the order to the cook.
     I shrugged off my jacket and hung it on the back of the stool.
     I put my elbows on the counter and leaned my head in my hands, pressing the heels into the wells of my eyes.  Being an insomniac can be difficult, but it means I can do the graveyard shift without falling asleep at the job.  It’s not for everyone, but if it was there would be less work for me, so I make do with what I’ve got.  You have to play the hand you’re dealt.
     I pushed my hair back.  It was starting to thin at the front, the widow’s peak gradually retreating as each hair gave up.
     Time is a traitor.
I watched the morning news.
     Yesterday was the anniversary of 9/11 and the day was commemorated by the nation in a variety of ways.  Some with moments of silence and some with noisy protest but none of it undid what happened two years ago.
     I remembered 9/11.
     I was asleep when the first plane hit.
     My mother called me and left a message making sure I wasn’t planning on flying anywhere.  That’s what parents do.  When the hawk flies overhead, the chickens gather their chicks under their wings.  I called back and got the answering machine.  I left a message saying I was flying out of Logan and what was the big deal?  She called me back a minute later and I found out that this was the wrong day to make jokes about air travel.  I went to their house and watched television all day and into the night, watching the second plane hit the second building and the buildings collapse into themselves over and over again and again.
     I remember thinking it looked like the dozens of controlled demolitions I had watched.  Whenever I’d see one, I’d stop and watch the puffs of smoke and listen to the roar as the building met its fate, the debris churning out into the adjoining streets.  I didn’t know if I’d be able to watch a planned demolition ever again and feel the same way and ever since then when I saw a plane that looked like it was flying a little lower than it should I wondered if I’d see it crash into the side of a building and explode in a fireball.
     But in time, those thoughts faded.  I went on with my life, like everyone else did.  Although I had some friends that said that the whole thing was a staged event and I felt at first that the collapse of the buildings looked like a planned demolition I figured that we’d never know for sure and it didn’t matter day-to-day.
     The segment ended and the television showed a clip of Johnny Cash performing Folsom Prison Blues.
     They showed the first two measures and let the first three lines of the first verse play.
     I sang along under my breath.
     “I hear the train a comin'.  It's rolling round the bend.  And I ain't seen the sunshine since I don't know when…”
     The clip faded into a talking head who said, “Country musician Johnny Cash passed away today at the age of seventy-one.”
     “Fuck.” I said to myself.
     “We all have to go sometime.” a voice said from behind my right shoulder.
     I turned my head and saw an old white man looking up at the television.
     He was wearing a black suit with a white shirt and black tie.
     His hair, what was left of it was shorn short and wrapped around the back of his head.
     He had dark circles under his eyes that looked like bruises.
     He looked like he had carried those bags a long way.
     He looked sideways at me and shrugged, gesturing at the seat to my right.  “Is this seat taken?”
     I looked around the restaurant.  It was empty other than the two of us and the waitress, who was making small talk with the grill cook through the serving window.  No reason to be rude.
     “It’s a free country.” I said.
     “That’s what they say.”
     “They say a lot of things.”
     “They do at that, don’t they?” the man said and pulled out the chair.
     The waitress came over and asked the man what he’d be having.  The man said, “Coffee, please.”
     The waitress replied, “Coming right up!” and turned to fetch a mug.
     She came back a few seconds later with a white porcelain mug and a carafe of coffee in one hand and my plate of food in the other.
     “Here you go!” she said, putting the plate on the counter in front of me.
     “And here you go!” she said and put the mug down in front of the old man sitting to the side of me, filling the mug with steaming hot coffee.
     The woman held the carafe out and asked me, “Top you off?”
     I looked down at my coffee.  I had only had a few sips so I said, “No, thanks.”
     She took her carafe and went away.
     I reached for the salt and pepper shakers and shook a little of each over my plate of food.
     The man reached for a sugar jar.  The kind with a glass bottom and a chromed metal top with a little lever in the lid to let the sugar pour through.  He tipped the sugar and silently counted to five and put the sugar down.
     I picked up the bottle of ketchup and shook it hard, shaking the sauce into the neck of the bottle.  I uncapped the bottle and poured it over the home fries.
     He picked up an aluminum cream container and poured a dollop into his coffee and watched the cream swirl into the oily blackness and well back up to the top.  The man stirred his coffee with a spoon, clinking it around in a circle inside the mug.
     I put the ketchup bottle down and picked up my fork and knife and pinned down the center of one of the eggs, and cut across it, the bright yellow yolk bleeding out onto the white of the egg.  I cut a square and raised the fork to my mouth, tucking the first bite into my mouth.
     The man asked, “What do you do?”
     I looked down at the embroidered badge on my uniform shirt and looked up at the man.
     “I’m a security officer.”
     “Yes… I can see that.  But what do you do?”
     “I mostly just stay up all night making sure that the place doesn’t burn down around me.”
     “Sounds like easy work.”
     “It is.  I get a fair amount of time to read so I get a fair amount of reading done.”
     “What do you like to read?”
     “Charles Bukowski.  Raymond Chandler.  Bret Easton Ellis.  Hubert Selby Jr.”
     “Good stuff.”
     I turn my head and raise my right eyebrow.  “I think so.”
     “Do you like your job?” the man asked.
     “I’ve worked harder for less.  If I’ve got to do something it might as well be this.”
     “You’ll miss it someday.” He said.
     “I doubt it.” I said and cut another fork of eggs, wiping it onto a triangle of toast before biting it off.
     The man took a sip of his coffee and smiled a satisfied smile.  “God, how I miss the taste of hot coffee.”  He looked a little to the left and raised his eyebrows.  “You’ll miss it someday.  It’s the little things.  The simple things you never think you’ll miss that you end up missing the most.”
     “Why do you miss coffee?” I asked the man.
     The man laughed a quiet laugh and said, “They don’t have it where I’m from.”
     “Where are you from?” I asked, more out of politeness than genuine interest.
     “I’m from here.”
     “So, you live around here?”
     “Yes and no.”
     “Fair enough.” I took a sip from the glass of iced water to wash down the bite of eggs and toast.
     The man took a sip of his coffee.
     “If you’re from around here, and you said they don’t have coffee where you’re from, then how is it that they don’t have coffee where you’re from, since you said that you’re from here.”
     “Do you ever wonder what the future is going to be like?”
     “I guess.  Sometimes.  I don’t think it’s going to be a whole lot different than things are now.  Maybe we’ll finally stop killing each other over oil and we’ll find a way to make enough food to feed everyone, but people are people, and that not a lot’s going to change for the next thousand years or so, and even if it does, I won’t be around to see it, so it doesn’t bear thinking about.”
     “You’re right and you’re wrong.  Some things change and some things stay the same.  But it’s the little things you miss.  Coffee.  Bacon.  Cigarettes.  Enjoy them while you can.”
     “How would you know?”
     The man put his coffee on the counter and jerked his left arm back, hiking up the sleeve of his suit jacket.  He unbuttoned his cuff and folded it back.  He put his hand down on the counter and I looked at his wrist.  I expected to see a concentration camp tattoo and have to hear about what that whole thing was like.  Instead there were eight blurry words.  They weren’t in English, but I knew what they meant.  I looked at his face and his eyes locked on mine.  He said, “Day in.  Day out.  I hunger and struggle.”
     I held the man’s gaze.
     He folded the cuff back into place and buttoned the cuff, shooting the sleeve of his jacket back down.
     I looked down at my left wrist.
     I was wearing the bracelet that my friend Maya had given me when I was in Toronto.
It was a tight woven bracelet of chain mail made from little metal rings and black rubber bands.  I didn’t wear it because I was ashamed of the tattoo in the skin of my wrist underneath it.  I just didn’t like the way that anything felt when it rubbed against the scar on my right wrist so I wore the bracelet on my left.  It was closely knit and wide enough that it usually hid my tattoo unless I pushed the bracelet aside to show someone.  And I hadn’t done that.
     “What is this?”
     “What do you think it is?”
     “Is this some kind of trick?”
     “Do you think it’s a trick?”
     “Are you supposed to be me?”
     “Do you think I’m supposed to be you?”
     “Are you going to answer all of my questions with the same question?”
     “Only the rhetorical ones.”
     “So if you’re me, then what is the name of my pet cat?”
     “Your cat’s dead.  Her name was Tinkerbell.”
     I opened my mouth to ask another question and he said, “The first girl you kissed was Liz Jarvis.  It was on Halloween night when you were in seventh grade.  You don’t know what happened to her and you never will.”
     The man checked his watch and turned his head to look at me.
     “Do you want to do this all morning long?  Or is there anything else you want to ask?”
     “Why here?  Why now?”
     “You always remembered where you were when you found out that Johnny Cash had died.  All I had to do was look up the date.”
     “So there are time machines in the future.”
     The man raised his brow and gave me a deadpan look.
     “You’re not here to kill me, are you?”
     “If I was, I wouldn’t be here.  How could I kill you and then be alive to come back and kill myself?  It’s a paradox.” He said and sipped his coffee “And it doesn’t work that way.”
     “Why then?”
     “Why not?” he said, and said, “I’m sorry.  I just missed myself.  I missed this time.  Coffee.”  He laughed.  “I remembered what life used to be like and I wanted to come back and spend a little time enjoying it.”
     “But why this?  Why not travel back in time and kill Hitler?”
     “That’s what everyone always asks.  But don’t you think they tried?”
     “Then why…”
     “Imagine this.  Imagine if the Archduke Ferdinand had not been assassinated and the first world war had never happened.  That thousands didn’t die and leave behind the lesson of what a horrible thing war could be.  Imagine that the Lusitania had never been torpedoed and that the United States had never gotten involved.  Imagine what the world would be like if the attack on Pearl Harbor had never happened and that the United States developed nuclear weapons without having had to fight a major war recent enough to remember what it was like, and that the Russians had also developed nuclear weapons and that the cold war hadn’t ended with the fall of the Berlin wall.  Imagine instead that when the Cuban missile crisis happened that the Russian ships were attacked and that the Russians launched their missiles and we launched ours, and the whole mutually assured destruction scenario occurred.”
     The man took a sip of his coffee, tilting the cup back.
     The waitress picked up the carafe and came over as the man set down his mug.
     “Another cup?” the waitress asked with a smile in her voice.
     “Yes, please.” The man replied, and the waitress poured the hot black coffee.
     The man picked up the sugar dispenser and counted five in his head as it poured, then put it down.
      “Now, imagine instead that the Archduke Ferdinand is assassinated and world war one happens, and despite prior knowledge the Lusitania is allowed to be torpedoed and Pearl Harbor is allowed to happen.  Imagine a world where John F. Kennedy was assassinated so he couldn’t run for a second term, and his brother was assassinated shortly after so he could never be president for eight years after his brother.  Did you ever think that some things happen for a reason?”
     “Does everything happen for a reason?”
     “Not everything.  But some things definitely do.”
     “But…. Hitler…”
     The man stirred his coffee, the spoon clanking gently around inside the mug.  “You don’t get it.  That’s fine.  I know it’s a lot to wrap your mind around all at once.  But is it really that hard to imagine that the world you live in now is the best of all possible worlds?” the man paused to let me think about it.
     It didn’t seem like a very good world.  There was hunger and homelessness and social injustice.  Good people that never intentionally hurt another person their whole lives through died suddenly and without any reason.  It all seemed so senseless.
     “I know that it seems like the first thing that anyone would do if they invented a time machine would be to go back in time and kill Hitler and prevent JFK from being assassinated and try to prevent the burning of the library of Alexandria, but every action has an effect.  The consequences are like ripples that change everything that happens after.  I’m not saying that there weren’t people that tried to change the past and that the history of the world has been changed.  But how can you change the past if you only know what the future is going to be like based on what has already happened?   What if Lee Harvey Oswald was sent back to assassinate Kennedy, but then he was going to reveal to the world that time travel exists, so they had to send someone back to kill him?  Where does it end?”
     I looked down at my breakfast, growing cold in front of me.  “My head hurts.”
     “It should.  I remember.”
      “I know what you’re going to ask, and what I’m not going to answer.  I’m not going to tell you what tomorrow’s lottery numbers will be.  I could.  But I won’t.  And it wouldn’t matter anyway.  Where I’m from, money doesn’t matter.  There’s enough of everything for everyone.  At least as much of the things that really matter.  Some people had to make some major sacrifices to get the world to that point, but without knowing death, people don’t appreciate how precious life is.  It isn’t a utopia.  Not the way that people think it will be.  But it’s a better world than the one you’re living in now.  Not everyone gets to have everything they want, but everyone gets what they need and that’s more than most of the world gets as it is.  Wouldn’t you agree?”
     “I guess.”
     “I know.  So ask.”
     “How am I going to die?”
     “I don’t know yet.  We’re not dead.  But I’m looking forward to it.  People still die, but knowing that everything happens for a reason, they aren’t as resentful as they are now.  Everything has to come to an end and everyone has their time.  You’re going to get cancer, like you always thought you would, but by the time you do they’ve got a cure.  It isn’t pleasant, but it beats the alternative.”
     “What about…”
     The man cut me off with a wry chuckle.  “She’s never coming back.  And you’ll never know why or what happened.  You’re never going to see her again.  You kind of know that, but if it helps to know for sure, and it will, well… now you know.  There will be others, and you will love each of them for who they are and they will love you in their own ways and it will go sour and love will turn to hate as it almost always does, but you’ll move on and they’ll move on and it won’t be the end of the world until it is and by then it won’t matter.  I know it stings a little to know for sure, but time heals all wounds.  That’s one of the things that they say that’s actually true.”
     The man picked up his coffee and drank the rest of it.  He closed his eyes and sighed a satisfied sigh.  “God, how I missed coffee.”
     “So there’s no coffee in the future?”
     The man raised his left eyebrow, an expression I had practiced in the mirror a thousand times to make sure that it looked the way I wanted it to look.
      “I could tell you everything you want to know.  I could tell you that there will be a colony on the moon.  That we’ll put a man on Mars and that you’ll live a good life.  Not too short and not too long and that you won’t regret most of the things that you do except the things that you do regret and that regret is part of life.  If you don’t make mistakes, you won’t learn from your mistakes and that’s the way that lessons stick best.  I think you already know that.  In fact,” the man paused and winked at me “I know you know.  But knowing what the future has in store for you isn’t going to make your breakfast taste any better so you might as well enjoy the moment.  It’s the only one you have and you’ll never get it back again.”
     The man stood up and pushed his chair back under the lip of the counter.  He took out a wallet, took out a twenty dollar bill, and put it under the empty coffee mug.
     “Is that it?” I asked.
     “That’s it.” he said.  “Nothing that I said today will change your future.  If it did, I wouldn’t be here and wouldn’t say it.  I know you won’t forget this talk because I still remember it and you’ll spend the rest of your life looking forward to this day.  I could tell you everything that happens from now until then.  Every success and failure.  Every love and every loss.  Good luck, bad luck, good times and bad.  But part of the pleasure of there being a future is the anticipation.  The surprise.  I know you think you want to know, but you don’t.”
     The man held up his hand and closed his eyes, shaking his head gently side to side.  I felt a wave of calmness wash over me.  I knew myself well enough to know he had said his piece and that if his mind was made up that there was no convincing him otherwise.
     He opened his eyes and smiled and said, “Got a cigarette?”
     I reached into my pocket and pulled out my pack.  I flipped the lid and took one out.  He reached out and took it, rolling it into the gap between the first joint of the first and middle fingers of his right hand the way I watched my hand perform this simple task a thousand times.
     “What if I quit smoking?  Will I still get cancer?”
     “You won’t quit.  You’re not a quitter.”
     “But if I did.”
     The man tucked the cigarette into the corner of his mouth and grinned.  “You won’t.”
     The man walked behind me, and clapped me on the shoulder as he walked past.
     “Everything’s going to be alright.  Your breakfast is getting cold.”
     I looked down at my breakfast and I heard the bell on the door ring as he opened it and began to sing.
     “I hear the train a comin'.  It's rolling round the bend.  And I ain't seen the sunshine since I don't know when…”
     The door closed behind him, muffling the words as he walked away.
     I picked up my coffee and drank what was left in the cup.
     The waitress came over with the carafe and asked, “More coffee?”
     “Yes, please.” I said, and she filled my cup.

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