I tell these stories, not because I think they are unique to me. It is not about “my journey” but about the human condition. I tell them because I’ve observed them and like a correspondent, I want to write about the experience because I think many others have had the same. A good friend and professional colleague told me once that “When you talk about things like this, it makes you look weak.” I gave up on looking strong a long time ago.
Joe paid me a call last night, in the small hours of the new day. He doesn’t come as often as he did, thank goodness.
He’s a lanky man, dressed in a short-sleeved white cotton button-up shirt and dark pants, held up with a thin leather belt, looking like a memento from the fifties. So thin, he slithers into my bedroom without the necessity of the door being ajar.
My eyes had just opened. No reason this time. No pain, no twitching, nothing but sleep slipping away from me. The stillness told me it was early. The House Finch and Robin, not yet warming up their morning songs. Summer’s solstice sun not yet illuminating the eastern ridgelines beyond my window.
I heard Joe sliding the hard oak chair across the floor to my bedside. I feigned sleep. Between the slits of my lids, I could see he wasn’t buying it. Lit cigarette dangling from his lip, he sat beside me.
“Why are you here?” I asked.
He didn’t answer, but pulled a piece of paper from his back pocket. Methodically unfolding it, white paper with thin blue lines and a serrated edge as he had torn from a spiral-bound notebook. He studied the page and then looked over at me, a Jack Nicholson smirk carrying his face.
“I was just looking at the list of mistakes you’ve made and thought it was time I reviewed them with you.” His cigarette bouncing on his lip with each syllable uttered.
He continued to study the page, took the cigarette out of his mouth and laid it on the edge of my bedside table.
“Please don’t do that. It burns a notch in my table.” I pointed at a dozen bronzed burns along its edge. He ignored me.
His smirk morphing into a chuckle, still a Nicholson style, he said, “You stabbed another kid when you were five?”
“Oh, just wait until I get to the adult stuff . . . the betrayals, the selfish acts at the expense of others, some of them your friends, your family, even you wife. All your failures.” Looking at the papers in his hand, “I have five pages here.”
“Hey, what’s the matter . . . too afraid to face it?”
“I’ve faced it. Now leave me the hell alone!”
“Hey man, I’m an educator and I’m just here to educate you.”
“But I already know this shit.”
“I’m afraid you might forget. You’re not getting any younger you know, and the memory slips.”
I put my pillow over my head. I heard the rustling of papers.
“Okay, let’s move on to how others have betrayed you. There’re some doozies.” I peeked from beneath my pillow and saw him pulling a pack of papers from his other pocket. He picked up his cigarette, knocking its long gray ash to the floor, and taking a draw. He returned it to the burned furrow now in my table. He released the smoke slowly from the side of his crooked mouth as he read the pages.
“Man, o man, you were thrown under the bus by those you admired and loved the most. That must have hurt. Brutal. You got to still feel that.”
“Shut up! That’s all history!”
“Maybe you should give it some more thought?”
“I’ve given it too much thought already. Put that away!”
He continued to read betrayals and mistakes, altering one with the other. With my eyes closed, I imagined putting my pillow over Joe’s face, coming down hard to suffocate any life left in him. Another mistake? He would survive anyhow.
The words were tearing into my soul, finding traction as guilt . . . as anger. No longer any chance of sleep for this night. Finally, I couldn’t take it any longer and I sat up in bed and screamed at him, “Joe, for the love of God!”
Suddenly he vanished. An empty chair. A smoking cigarette still resting on my bedside. I put it out and tossed it into the can. I laid back down and a warm, restful sleep was soon lapping over me like waves on Caribbean sand.