Chapter Three (wherein Jed Berman’s new friend, “Doris,” holds forth on the answer to Jed’s lifelong burning question):
But she couldn’t answer the question, and that brings me back to the guy on the bench by the smoke shop in Old Town. He was smoking, which inclined me to like him from the start, since he didn’t grab a rag and hold it over his face to avoid the deadly fumes from my cigarette, like I’ve seen more than a few people do in recent years.
The last time was when I was working on a story in Washington, D.C. I was sitting outside a breakfast place drinking coffee and having a smoke before an interview I had set up. This very professional and liberated-looking younger woman comes striding down the sidewalk with those big authoritative steps real feminists take, as if they can ward off unwanted, ungainly male advances by walking right over you. I had no desire to chat her up anyway, but when she saw my cigarette, she immediately clapped her hand over her nose and mouth and gave me that hairy-eyeball look, as if to say, “You are fouling my world, buddy. People like you shouldn’t exist.” And she moved over a yard or so on the sidewalk to get as far away from me as she could, without stepping in front of the bus that was pulling up.
Anyway, this guy in Old Town was nothing like that. Plus, his brand looked homemade and suspiciously like something more stimulating that tobacco, which made me even more comfortable. So I parked myself beside him, and lit up. That’s when he started talking to me, and the things he talked about told me this was another human being, out of the billions of possible intersections of red dots on the map of our lives, with whom I had a connection before either of us had hardly said a word.
When I sat down, he turned and looked at me, nodded, and then settled back against the bench and looked straight ahead. Didn’t say anything for a while, and, being me, I sat there silent as a rock. I was more than halfway through my smoke when he said, “You have the look of someone who’s carrying the weight of the world around on his shoulders. Are you?”
I didn’t think my facial expression even hinted at the deeper issues that occupy my solitary moments. Starting a conversation that way knocked me off balance, a little. My job –I’ve been in TV news for twenty years–long ago taught me to conceal my thoughts and emotions behind a fairly neutral, usually slightly happy, face. I turned to him and said, “I’m sorry. I’m not sure I got that.”
He looked straight ahead, but responded to me in a very even tone.“Not trying to pry into your soul, my friend. I just have this extra sense that tells me things about people, and it’s usually right.” Now he turned toward me. “Am I right?”
So how would you have reacted to some total stranger who starts a conversation with you like that on a bench outside a grocery store? My hunch is a lot of people would stand up and walk away, pretty sure this guy hadn’t been out of the psych ward all that long. But, I stayed. Considering all the cold shoulders people give each other these days, while they yak on their cell phones to their friends about pointless, mundane crap, or bop to the music injected into their heads from their iPods, or flip you off when you accidentally cut them off in traffic, or whatever, and despite the fact that I am just as shy today, maybe even more, than when I was riding the bus, something told me not to cut-and-run so fast. Here was a human being, who owed me absolutely nothing, not his time or his attention or even an acknowledgment that I existed, who was offering to engage in a conversation about the things that created this raw wound inside me since way back when.
He kept his eyes pinned on me, waiting for an answer. I let out a deep breath, leaned back against the bench, and turned my head to meet his gaze. “I don’t understand how you do that, but I have to admit you’ve got it about right.”
He clapped his hands once and said, “I knew it. Want to talk about it?” His tone of voice shifted a little higher, and he spoke a little faster. “’Cause I think about those things a lot, too.”
I asked him why that was, and he said it was just the way he’d always been, since he was a kid, which for him wasn’t really so far back. I’d guess he was about thirty-five or so.
“So,” I said, “after all that thinking, do you have any answers?”
“I wouldn’t necessarily call them answers, more like theories.”
“What are they based on?”
“Well, I’ve been a history and philosophy double major at UMaine for about fifteen years, dipping in and out of classes and doing a lot of reading. I signed on for those because I thought they might help me explain some of that stuff.”
“At the top of the list, would have to be: How is it that human beings, pretty much since the species arrived, have been willing to treat each other so fucking miserably? That’s the one that just claws at me, most of the time.”
That settled it. There was no way I was going to walk away until I found out what he had learned. I allowed myself to hope that he could help me understand what looked to me like eons of human history laced with an utter disregard for human life and dripping with the blood of countless ordinary people who died untimely and violent deaths through no fault of their own. I launched into my usual lament for the common people, and told him it just seemed to me that most people, most nations of the world, no matter how civilized they think they are, really behave no better than Attila the Hun.
“Ah, Attila!” he said, holding up his finger, as if we’d hit on something important. “And the Huns! Now they were a very interesting bunch. Yeh, they did some awful things.”
“Well, a guy named Tumer, for instance, one of Attila’s ancestors back around 200 B.C., gave his son, Motun, to his neighbors as a hostage, because he didn’t want him to take over as chief. Then he attacked the neighbors, hoping the kid would be killed in the fighting. But Motun managed to escape and made it back home. How’s that for a loving family?”
“Sounds pretty heartless to me.”
“Yeh, but the kid was on to the old man. He acted like he was happy, but in his heart he was planning to kill Tumer for trying to get rid of him. Talk about delayed gratification, this went on for years, during which Motun hardened into a warrior, and a bad ass, just like his dad. He demanded absolute obedience from his men. He made his point by executing any soldier who refused to shoot his arrows at whatever target Motun chose.”
I wasn’t sure where this was going. It was a disturbing story, but I didn’t see how it answered the big question. I began to have some doubts about what this guy actually knew. But I still asked him what happened next.
“Oh, the kid had a plan. He nursed his resentment against his father and tested his soldiers to make sure they knew what to do when the time came. One awful day, Motun fired an arrow at his favorite wife. Sure enough, everybody else shot her, too, and that was it for her. There’s no sign that Motun wasted any time mourning her demise.”
“Some time after that, Tumer, the old man, invited Motun and a neighboring ruler on a little hunting trip. You see what’s coming, don’t you?”
I said I did not. He looked at me, a hint of impatience on his face.
“Well, to get to the point, when they got into the field, Motun took a shot at his dad. Of course, his soldiers did, too, and killed the old man. Just for the hell of it, Motun zipped an arrow at the other ruler, so did his troops, and that guy died, too. Cool, huh?”
I hoped he was just being sarcastic, when he said that.
“Definitely not cool,” I said. “Just another example of how totally horrid people can be to each other. I mean, how could a father treat his son that way, and how could the son, after the way he’d been treated, treat anybody else that way? Just kill them.”
I shook my head.
“Doesn’t really answer the question,” I told him.
“Maybe it does, or at least it suggests part of the answer,” he said, holding up that finger again. “Maybe it does,” he repeated. “You have to think about it.”
For the life of me, I didn’t see how it shed any light on the big question. I told him I’d give it some thought, and left him there. As I pulled out of the parking lot, I could see him rolling another of his special blends.