The door swung back with an agonized squeel of dry hinges. In the gloom, beneath the pinup calendar of a 50's blond with a wrench and tits the old man slumped in a broken chair.
The air was heavy and hot and smelled like an old basement furnace room. Next to him, it's door swung wide, a coal stove burned bright. A scarred wooden counter lined the length of one business card speckled wall. The counter supported an old time cash register with an open drawer. Behind the counter a cracked mirror reflected the room. The shelves were heavy with dust.
"Ain't nothin' here to buy or sell." He said. "Them days long gone."
"What did there used to be?" I asked.
"Anything you want." He replied. "Long as you could pay the price. But that was then. Like I said, them days is gone."
He paused and spit on the floor next to his feet.
His milky, cateracted eyes flickered with memories. The skin around them was etched with pain and disappointment but his cheeks were smooth and unlined as a child's.
"Are you the owner?"
"Shoot! Me?" His mouth twisted in a lopsided, toothless grin. "I ain't the owner of nothin' Bub... not even my own life." He added with a limp wave of his fingers against the arm of the chair. "Not any more." He glared at me myopically. "You lookin' for owners you gotta look real hard to find any around here."
He paused and spit again.
"Oh, there's her. Suppose she's the owner at least of part of it."
"Where is she?"
"Who the hell knows? she's just 'bout everywhere nowdays. Too many people fuckin' things up. Barely got time ta' slap on a new coat a' paint.""
"What do you mean?"
"You ain't dumb. What do you think?" He lowered his head and stared at his shoes while his knobbed fingers rubbed nervously at the arms of the chair.
He caughed and glared at me again.
"Don't worry, I'm goin'- soon as I can get myself up out'a this chair. I been here long enough."
"Need some help?
"Why?" He asked, eyeing me suspiciously. ""Eager to take my place?" He wiped his sleeve across his face. "Shoot! That was the way I was once. Look at me now."
"This!" He croaked with a swing of his arm that encompassed the room.
"I thought you weren't the owner." I said.
"Don't get smart. Everybody thinks they're smart when they start out. You ought to know that by now." He scratched his stubbled chin.
"Shoot." Do I look like the owner?"
"What does an owner look like?" I asked.
"What does she look like?"
"Don' worry, you'll find out soon enough. Me, I'll be glad to get it over with." He gestured impatiently at his body. " Been luggin. this load long enough. Ain't worth it."
Suddenly, I realized that whatever he was talking about was of a different nature than my understanding of it.
"Mind if I sit down and get warm?"
"Can't wait huh? Well you ain't gettin' my chair. Not yet gosh darn it!"
"Didn't ask for it."
"Well you're here ain't you? Can't be that innocent."
I sat down next to the stove on a narrow bench.
He slumped back in his seat and closed his eyes.
I was silent.
"I ain't sleepin' if that's what you're thinkin'." He mumbled.
"There ain't nothin' here worth stealin' neither, case you got itchy fingers."
"Any more good advice?" I asked.
"Smart ass ain't cha?"
He caughed fitfully.
"...One 'a these days gunna drop over dead, I swear! But don't get no funny ideas bud. I can still take care of myself!"
He snapped and clawed at his chest.
"Gosh darned woolies. Always hated wool now here I am, next thing it'll be asparagus."
"Asparagus and liver. Hated them both. When I was a kid I always had to finish them before I could get up from the table. The rituals of social orientation suppose you'd call it now. Hated Ma too for makin' me eat 'em. Paw was different, never gave a darn. Always too drunk to care, else he was gone, out planking some neighbors wife. Good ol' Paw. Served 'em right. Maybe if they would have done something with their lives they wouldn't have had the need. Doin' what's expected ain't all there is!"
"Did you do what was expected?"
"Me? Heck no! I was always the wild bunch. " He snickered. " at least in my own mind I was. Wouldn't know it now I suppose but you don't know my mind. I ain't just this wreck of a body, no sir, not by a long stretch of immagination."
He sighed and leaned back into the chair.
"Ah... what's the use in talkin'."
"If you have anything to say."
"Oh I got plenty to say but what'd be the point? Who wants to hear about old stuff? Nobody cares. Everything has to be new now. Heck, got ten year old kids inventin' movies so gosh darn real you'd darn near believe anything was possible."
"What's wrong with that?"
"Nothin' wrong with inspiration. Age got nothin' to do with inspiration, heck, look at Rimbaud. I had my heros, it's what they're comin'' up with now that's the problem. Who in heck wants to take after some comic book hero? An all this mutilation? Body mod they call it! I call it crazy!"
"I see your point."
"Oh yeah. I got somethin' to say about just about anything. That's why I never had any friends. Nobody likes somebody that says it like it is."
"It's called politically incorrect."
"Shoot!" He snapped and spit on the floor." Politicians!"
He raked his hair and then rubbed at his stubbled cheek.
"Expediency! agenda! Now those are words you'd use if you were politically incorrect about politicians. Me, I'd use some that might be a little bit harsher but, like I said, that's why I never had any friends."
He twisted his chair until he faced me.
"Now, what about you? Can't just come in here and plunk yourself down without givin' something back. Too many mooches in the world."
"I'm not sure yet."
Heck! What kind of answer is that?"
"I'm not. I don't know what I'm doing here yet. I just found the door, opened it and came in out of the cold."
"Well, fair enough. I'd be pretty foolish to expect a baby to start spoutin' philosophy. No that you're a spring chicken, mind you. It's just you don't seem like you fit too well in your skin. Me, I've been in one place so long I know the history of every speck of dust on those shelves. Believe it or not, that wall might look like it's covered with bird shit but I know each and every one of them travelin' salesmen. Heck! I even met a lot of their families, girlfriends, gosh knows, even boyfriends though that kind'a thing didn't go on much in the old days. At least not out in the street like it is now. "
His playful grin was lined with gold.
"Shoot, Sometimes I think about opening new doors. Sometimes I even think I see the handle. Kinda out'a the corner of my eye, you know? But you have to close one door before you can open another and I suppose I don't want to give up what I have. I've worked hard to get it."
"All these wrinkles, that's what. You don't see wrinkles any more. Not like mine. Now you got skin stretched tight like a drum head you'd think them folks would be afraid to tap on for fear they'd break. If you can't play it what's the point of havin' an instrument? Life ain't no museum filled up with exhibits. You got to go out an' face the music! Otherwise what's the point?"
His flem choked laughter brought tears to his eyes.
"Whew! Haven't laughed like that in a long time. I wonder how I'd be classified in this hypothetical museum of mine?"
" I suppose it would depend on whether they included the contents of the gallery and not just that it only had one way in or out."
"Hay, there you go now we're startin' to talk 'bout stuff that's real! Like expressionism is just a room full of paint dabs and cubism is just playing with blocks?"
"Somethingl ike that."
Tell me about it. Critics spend too much time on the meaning of ART. Like it's something sacred instead of living proof that we're really alive. "
He slumped back in his chair and closed his eyes.
"Yah, I could have been a contender once."
" I decided it was more important to do the work than to fill up museums. Doing the work doesn't always need something to show for it. Sometimes the best work never gets shown. Like with me. It's all in here." He said and tapped his skull. "You'd be amazed."
"I've opened and closed too many doors." I replied.
"Yah." he said. "Looks like it. You can only juggle so many balls before it all becomes a blur."
"That happened. And then, one day, I decided to just let go of it, like a big balloon full of gas. Just surrender the string to the sky."
"My my, ain't that something. How'd that come about?"
"I was staring at the stars and one fell out of the sky and put out my eye."
"Ouch!" He said as his hand reflexed to cover his eye.
"When I came too I decided my vision was flawed and I just let go."
"Never was one too spend time on stars. Never saw the point thinking about things that were that far out of reach." He replied as he squirmed in his chair like a cat trying to get comfortable. "Never thought about them that way though. That they would get personal. They were always kinda' like God. You go to church an' prey an' follow the rules but what's the point- all that God stuff- to me I might as well be preying to stars, or spaceships for all the good it does."
"Watch out what you say about space ships."
"Oh no, you ain't one of them Area 51 nuts are you?"
"No, that's not what I meant. It's just that there's more out there than we know but somehow, if we just let go of the string, our little gas balloon goes on journeys that end up where we never imagined we could go."
"Aliens huh?" He scoffed and spit on the floor.
"Nothing is alien. It's all part of the same body. Just because one of the blind men couldn't see the elephants tail didn't mean he wouldn't get swatted if he got too close."
"Flies. It doesn't have anything to do with us. It's just flies but still, we're the ones that get swatted if we get too close."
"Oh. Kinda' a poet ain't you. Me I've always been a down to earth kind of guy. I just sit here in this chair and everything eventually comes through those doors."
He frowned and stared myopically at the old calendar on the wall. " At least it used to back then when there was plenty of time. Never had anything to do with me though. It just came and went on it's own. I only knew because I was here, not because I was necessery."
"A tree needs an audience when it falls."
"You really think so?"
"Why else are there audiences?"
"Never thought about it quite like that. Makes my sittin' here mean something don't it?"
"That's for you to decide."
"Well, I decided.At least I must have seein's I've sat here this long. 'Course a lot of it probably had to do with her."
"You keep talking about "her" but you never say who she is."
His laughter was bittersweet.
"Yah, I suppose I don't talk about her much. I mean who wants to hear an' old coot talking about the old days?"
"What old days?"
"Back when things used to mean something."
""More than now?"
"Now? What do things mean now?" He paused to let my words sink in and then nodded."
"Oh yeah, I see what you mean. Yeah, I suppose it would be hard to find any time when things meant more than they do now. It's not those things I'm talking about. It's the things you can't buy and sell."
"You're not going to start talking about spiritual values or ask me if I know Jesus are you? I've had enough of that already."
"No, not that. Maybe, if anything, I'd be talking about the indians. They knew her."
"Wait a minute. Are we talking about a concept or a person?"
"Guess that depends."
"Who you're talking to. Take one of those kids we were talking about. What do you think they'd say if I told them that everything is a part of something?"
"They're not as dumb as you think."
"I'm not talking dumb.God knows a lot of those kids are brilliant. I mean look at those 15 year old kids hacking into the pentegon. They could probably relate to it as part of the net but it's not them I'm talking about. Its that great middle bunch that needs TV anchors to tell them how to think. What do you think would be the first thing in their mind if I said indians?"
"Probably cowboys, or indian gambling casinos, or drunken indian."
"You're not so dumb."
"Yeah, but those are stereotypes."
"So? What do you think thinking is to people like that?"
"So what's your point?"
"I wasn't particularly excited about getting into an extended conversation about the cosmos with him but I decided that I had ended up there for a reason and that he was part of the reason so I sat patiently in the glow of the stove and waited.
I opened my eyes.
The old man was gone.
The fire was out in the stove and the room smelled of burned coal, old age, and hot wool.
My neck was stiff and my body felt as if I had been sitting there for a while. Deja vu weighted me down. I had ended up like this too many times before and, for an uncomfortable moment, felt as if nothing would ever be new again. Again I recalled the words of William Burroughs in his letter to Allen Ginsberg in the Yage Letters in which he described his feeling of stasus. That things would be the way they were until the end of time. It made me depressed. I wanted to be somewhere I hadn't been before. After all, wasn't that the purpose of travel?
I got up and walked to the door.