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John William Tuohy lives in Washington DC

Short story: Beat Time

Horse Blinders. 1968-69. (Two of Four)

Horse Blinders. 1968-69. (Two of Four)



   With every passing year, she came to the Diner less often, but she still came.  She sat in the same booth they used to sit in and she ate the way they used to eat.  Except now she ate alone, but at the end of each meal, she ordered two bowls of strawberries and milk, one for herself and one for him.
   She thought about him often and the vision of him crossed her mind at least once a day.  He was a soft-spoken man.  She remembered that about him the most.  How peaceful and calming his voice was.  He was tall with sharp features and a wonderful mane of silver hair with a spectacular widow’s peak that he wore combed back away from his handsome, freckled face.  He had a magnificent toothy grin.  He was a respected and productive member of the community.  He was a high school English teacher, a reliable man of steady habits, of good convention and deep spiritual beliefs.  He was also, or at least he had been once, in another version of his life, an American iconoclast. He was a legend of a generation of poets and artists and writers who had once, briefly and a long time ago, held sway over a now almost forgotten corner of the world’s literary realm.
   He was all those things and more, but on the night she first sat with him in the Diner, although she could not recall how long ago that was, he was an older man who couldn’t decide between onion soup or New England style clam chowder.  The waitress shifted her weight to her left side and played with the pen, preparing for the older gentleman to take another several minutes to decide.  She looked at the unchanging clock on the wall and then back to the old man.  At the counter, the busboy was inspecting an A&P’s Ladies Fragrance Perfume in the fancy glass bottle.
   “I’ll take the onion soup,” he declared but not in any way that would inspire others to order the onion soup.  The young woman wrote “1 onion” on the note pad and silently walked down the narrow and near empty isle of booths and tables and then disappeared into the kitchen.
   Alone at his table, he shook his head.  From the moment, he read in the New Haven Register, that Yale was sponsoring an Open University evening class entitled, The Works of Louis Scott, he knew somehow that everything had changed.  It was taught by a young woman named Epione, Anna Epione.
   “Why did I go?” he asked himself in a whisper.  He should have stayed home.  And since he did go, the least he could have done was to sit there and not talk.  But that young women, that instructor had it all wrong.  An intelligent young woman to be sure, impeccable credentials of course, and she knew her facts, dates, her times, and her places but she didn’t understand what it had all been about.       
    “That generation of writers, the so-called Defeated Ones, embraced spontaneity, and the primitive, instinct, and energy...”she concluded to the class of about twenty.
   “But to what end?” he said surprising even himself. 
    She stopped, looked up from her notes and said, “I don’t follow you.”
   There was a long silence.  He was sorry he had said anything at all.  He glanced at the door to judge the time it would take him to escape the room but she caught his eye and gave him an encouraging smile.  She wanted dialogue.  He wanted to leave but he continued reluctantly, his eyes trained on the tip of his shoe as he spoke. 
   “They didn’t just embrace spontaneity and the primitive,” he said. “They worshipped it.  Which is fine, I mean, those are good options to explore but not to take up as a residence for the mind.  Their entire being was based on anti-intellectualism and an opposition to the mores of society, which made sense because none of them was very bright, much less intellectual.”
   “Is that necessarily bad?” she asked miscalculating the depth of his feelings on the subject.
   “Yes, in fact it is,” he said looking up for the first time, “but again, not to visit and explore as a topic.  That is one of the functions of an artist, to explore and to temporarily embrace, but again, not as a permanent view point, because the only thing that can follow anti-intellectualism and an opposition to the mores of society is violence.”
   “Not necessarily,” she interrupted. “Society would have...”
    “Wait,” he said softly but firmly and then returned his gaze to the top of his shoe. “Listen to me.  I’m speaking in the specific, not in the general sense.  We….they…people listened to us, people mimicked us, and it would have been fine if we knew our ass from our elbows but we didn’t.  It was all just vanity gone mad.  Society had nothing to do with it.  We were not revolting against society, capitalism, or even common respectability.  Ours was a revolt of standards, which is pretty damn cheeky since we didn’t have any standards.  We, the morally inferior, wanted standards lowered.   We declared a war of words against those who strove to find a moral balance in their lives; those artists and educators who rose above the common place and the low brow.  We were hateful, angry young men who resented normal because attempting to be normal, productive human beings is hard work and requires commitment and we held neither of those attributes.  We resented any attempts to cope with the larger world through simple intelligence.  We resented the coherent because it was beyond our grasp.  We resented commitment on any level, to a woman, a job, a country.  Anything.  And why?  Because we were morally inferior and we knew it, and rather than bring ourselves up to the standards of society, which, if you consider it aren’t all that high in the first place, we tried to reduce society to our meager spiritual and moral levels.  The complete and total sum of our spiritual and intellectual interests was based on half assed mystical doctrines, irrationalism, and unusable philosophies.  Our crusade was so stupid that only an idealist could have thought it up.  We said we were jazz enthusiasts because it reflected the primitive vitality and spontaneity of our writings, but actually it was because we were incapable of putting together a coherent rational artistic thought.  Hipster slang as a literary form?  No, no, my dear young woman.  We simply had self-imposed impoverished vocabularies that made us unable to express anything in words beyond a handful of worn out adjectives.  We decided we were beaten before the game started.  The game was life and the game was real.  We were the fakes, the phonies.  We had no form, no restraint, no complexity and no literary or intellectual responsibility.  We were a bunch of poorly educated turn-your-life-into-literature-Proust wanna-be’s.  Nor did we speak for a generation...ten or twelve people who have decided that life is too hard to live do not for a generation speak.  We were on a dance macabre.”
   When he finished speaking, the room was filled with a sense of awe that translated into a dreadful silence and looking around for the first time, he realized that all eyes were on him.  After several seconds had passed, she asked, “Who the hell are you?”
   “I’m just ...”  He searched for a word and concluded with, “I’m just …I teach English up in Seymour.”
   That night, she followed him, from a distance, and when he pulled into the Valley Diner for a late supper, she slid into the vinyl seat across from him and said, “I know you.”
   He didn’t look at her.  He didn’t speak to her but he had drawn his lips in tightly and his face was flush red.  His jaw was clenched.  She was frightened slightly, but still frightened.  The chill was momentarily broken when the waitress arrived and placed the bowl of onion soup in front of him and then turned and left.  He stirred his soup and after a full two minutes, he said without looking at her, “You followed me.”
   She leaned forward with a smile and said, “I think that...”
   “You have no right!” he shouted without lifting his head to look at her and then promptly lowered his voice when he noticed that most of the diners in the restaurant were staring at him.  “You have no right to invade my life.”  He looked at her for the first time and his face was absolutely menacing.
   She reached into the well-worn pages of a copy of Down to the Bone and pulled out a 38-year-old-photo of him. “You’re him.  You’re Lou Scott,” she said with a tone that was half questioning and half damn sure.
   He lifted his eyes from the soup, stared at the black and white photograph, and saw a troubled young man he left behind almost a half century before.  Still, it was good to see him.  For despite the young man’s faults and foibles, he liked him and a slow warm smile of nostalgia came across his handsome face.  Staring at the younger man in the picture, he noticed that he was holding a copy of Down to the Bone. He was sitting at a table in a coffee house in San Francisco with the legendary poets Phil Wallen and Barry Snyder and other but lesser gods of ink.  He returned to his soup, stirred it with his spoon, and watched her as she took a pen and paper from her large pocket book and wrote a few words and then slid the paper over to his side of the table.  He read it.
   “A dyslexic man walks into a bra.”
   He didn’t want to, but he smiled anyway.
   “I realize,” she said, “that following you was wrong, and invading your world was wrong.  I made a mistake and I’m sorry.”
   Like most people who have led a life filled with errors and goof ups and miscalculations, he felt for her immediately.
  “It’s all right,” he said.
  He put the spoon down and reached for the photo, looked at it and said tiredly, “Yeah.  It’s me.  I’m him.” 
   He sighed deeply and returned his gaze to his bowl. “I suppose you’ll be running off to the nearest newspaper or television station with your little discovery,” he said, the words sounding far more sarcastic, which was not his intent.  Still, the words caused her to say nothing in her defense.
   “I didn’t mean that the way it sounded,” he said.  “Let me say this.  I’ve done nothing to harm you.  I’ve done nothing to harm anyone.  The fact is, young lady, the only person I have ever harmed in this life, is myself.  I have elected to live out my life here, in anonymity and in peace and in happiness.  It has taken me four decades to build,” he stopped mid- sentence and edited himself, “to rebuild my life and if you tell the world about me it will all be over in a matter of hours.  There is nothing I can do to stop you.  But speaking as one rational person to another, it will harm me.  I will ask you not to do it, and again, I say unto you, I have done you no harm.”    
   When he finished speaking, he leaned back and waited uncomfortably for her answer.  She really had no desire to share him, or her discovery with anyone.
   “All right,” she declared. “But it’s going to cost you.  I want the Diet Plate.”
   “All right,” he smiled. “Fair enough.”
   “And I’m contemplating desert,” she continued, “just to let you know I can’t be bought off cheaply.”
   “Desert it is!” he said.  
   “What name do you go by now?” she asked. “What should I call you?”
   “You can call me by my name, Louis Scott,” he replied with the slightest smile.  “I prefer Lou.  I’ve never been called Louis, actually.”
   “Well what name have you been using all these years?” she asked.
   He shrugged and pushed out his lower lip and replied, “Lou Scott.”
   “Really?”  She asked, astounded by it.  “You didn’t use an alias?”
   “No one ever put one and one together,” he said returning his spoon to his soup.      
   “Besides, I really didn’t know how to go about creating a new name.  I mean, I have no idea where a person would get a fake driver’s license and all that.”
   He paused and took a sip of the onion soup. “And despite this rather ridiculous legend that had grown up around us, this image of us as fearless rebels living outside the law, the facts are, we were a very law abiding group.  Jail costs money and we didn’t have any money.  Not in the early days.  So we followed the law.”
   He turned the spoon in his hand as though he were admiring its craftsmanship and said, to the spoon, or at least in the spoon’s direction, “I’m sorry I shouted.”  She looked at the spoon too and said, “It’s all right.  I deserved it.  And you’re right, I invaded your space.”
   And so they talked.  Over the many months that passed in the short time they knew each other, he never invited her to his home, preferring to meet her at the Diner. It was twice a week at first, and then three times a week, at her request.  They met at the same time and sat at the same table.  After several weeks, they decided to try everything on the menu simply to say that they did it.  They sat, they talked, they ate, and they drank coffee, sometimes for only a few hours, sometimes deep into the night.  They talked about everything, life, art, literature, her boyfriends, and lack thereof.  In turn, he told her that there had been a marriage once, in what he termed “my new life.”  It was a good marriage, a happy marriage, to another teacher.  It lasted for over three decades.  She died four years ago.
   “Children?” she asked hopefully.
   “No,” he sighed and looked at the floor for a moment. “We were too old by then.  It’s a shame.  I think ...you know, once I got my problems cleared up...that I would have been a pretty good father actually.  There was just not enough time.”
   He told her everything about himself.  He was born in Phoenix, Arizona, to a wealthy family of noted local surgeons.  His parent’s marriage broke up, and his mother moved him to California with her.  She moved from town to town and his childhood was rootless, skipping  from Santa Monica to Coronado to La Mesa, and El Cajon and finally to Palo Alto where she allowed him to finish high school.
   Following two uneventful years in the Air Force, he returned to California, and he entered college at Berkley intent on studying, “Something worth knowing  but instead I settled on philosophy.”
   He started writing, having been inspired by Gertrude Stein's long story Melanctha, which is one of  the three stories, independent of each other,  in her book Three Lives, all of which take place in the city of Bridgeport, Connecticut.
   “I know the work,” she interrupted him eager to find a common ground with him as much as to impress him, for he was the kind of man that others felt they had to impress. “One woman’s bitter experience with love.”
   His eyebrows narrowed and he moved his gaze from her to his coffee cup and said with a hint of mild disapproval, “It’s more than that.  It is the representation of the internal struggles and emotional battles in finding meaning and acceptance in a tumultuous world.”  He then returned his gaze to her.  Chastised, she nodded in agreement.  He continued and said that he started to write constantly.  He wrote fiction mostly but some poetry which he never shared until he met the soon to be famous Phil Wallen and Barry Snyder, fellow poets and writers who were his co-editors on the school's literary magazine.
   After college, he moved to Chicago and worked as a copywriter for a large advertising firm.  It was here that his contribution to mass marketing in the latter half of the Twentieth Century was a slogan that he wrote. “Raid kills bugs dead.” He didn’t actually think it up, he just wrote it down after a meeting with a Raid corporate executive who replied to his question, “What does Raid do?” for he had no idea what Raid was and the executive replied, “Raid kills bugs dead.”  The fact that he had penned that slogan, appeared in almost everything written about him, but he didn’t mind.  In fact he found it amusing and many decades later he still took a craftsman’s pride at having penned such a straightforward, understandable and memorable sentence.
   He said that it was during this time in his life that he began to display the troubling emotional problems that he had hidden so well as a child and a teen.  Depressions, dark and painful, sprung out of nowhere without warning and crippled him.  Sometimes they were so deep they kept him out of work for days, even weeks and he started to drink and was soon fired from his job and a series of jobs that followed.
   He moved back to San Francisco, and rejoined his friends Wallen and Synder, who were starting to receive national attention for their poetry.  He decided to devote his life completely to his writing.  He became an integral part of the emerging San Francisco poetry scene, driving cab at night, and working on a fishing boat in the summers for pocket money.  He also taught a poetry workshop offered through the extension program of the University of California at Berkeley and he gave a poetry reading at San Quentin.  Phil Wallen made him a character in his best seller The Long Road as Dave Wait, a wandering poet who was always ready for a good time.  Then Barry Snyder included one of his poems in The New American Poetry, an important anthology and that same year his first novel, Down to the Bone was published.  More than forty years later it was still a best seller, a must have classic of every English major from Bar Harbor to Oakland.  During those heady years, he wrote extensively, but despite his burgeoning success, his demons were never far away and he drank more than he wrote and his dark depressions over took him more often than ever before.  The more frequently the depressions came, the more he drank until finally he was either depressed or drunk.
   For seven years he was involved with Maggie Cray, a Polish refugee.  He became a better than average step-father to her son, a bright, happy boy named Randy, who, as an adult went on become an international singing sensation.  If there was one thing that troubled him the most over the break up, it was losing contact with the boy.  She ended it.  She cried when she told him she couldn’t support his craziness anymore, the pills and the booze and finally the heroin.  She said she couldn’t watch him kill himself, bit by bit, piece by piece.  She left.  He didn’t know where.  He heard she and the boy had gone back east, but someone else said they heard she was in Canada.
   In those increasingly rare moments of sanity and sobriety in his life, he knew four things in life as a certainty.  He was burned out.  He was an alcoholic.  He was mentally ill.  If he didn’t change his life, he would be dead within a year.
   He knew that there are two types of people on this earth, helpers and those who have decided to become helpless.  He had become one of the helpless.  It was a learned trait that he had brought to an art form in his daily life.  All his problems were someone else’s fault.  What he had become appalled him. 
   He was staying in Barry Snyder’s cabin in the Sierra foothills, just north of Nevada City, California.  He had considered suicide, real suicide.  He even wrote a note.
    "I never could make anything work out right and now I'm betraying my friends.  I can't make anything out of it - never could.  I had great visions but never could bring them together with reality.  I used it.  I have $2,000 in Nevada City Bank of America - use it to cover my affairs and debts.  I don't owe Allen Ginsberg anything yet nor my Mother.  I went southwest.  Goodbye.  Lou.  PS. I took your shot gun."
    He told her that he read the note again, with a writer’s eye, slowly and carefully, searching for redundancy, spelling errors and grammatical mistakes.  He found it to be a good suicide note, not a great suicide note, but an adequate suicide note, in as far as his limited knowledge of suicide notes allowed.  He carefully placed the note at the center of the table and walked away but stopped and returned to the note and read it again.  He didn’t care for the style and felt the tone might be overly somber.  He muttered a curse for not sticking to his original plan and writing the note a few weeks ago.  He put the note back on the table, and left the cabin, heading north into the forest.  An hour later, he remembered that he had forgotten the shotgun and walked back to the cabin in the dark to retrieve it.  A few miles into the woods, he tossed the shotgun into a pond.
    He didn’t kill himself, mostly because he just didn’t want to die yet.  And he didn’t want to kill all of himself, he wanted to kill that other part of him, the part of him he dreaded.  So he walked, due east, towards the rising sun.  He hitchhiked when he could until he landed in New Jersey and the Atlantic sprawled out before him and there was nowhere else east to drive to.  He avoided New York because he didn’t need any more crazy or the temptation of crazy.  He could go south but the notion didn’t appeal to him.  He hitchhiked up Route 6 into Connecticut, and he recalled Gertrude Stein's Melanctha, and decided to go to Bridgeport.  Then it started to rain, a heavy dark rain that for some reason, it seemed to him, changed everything.  The first car that picked him up drove him to the Valley where he created a sober, peaceful, and productive life.   
    He said that he read in the newspapers that despite an extensive search, his body was never found.  That didn’t surprise him, since it was a part of his soul that he had left there and not a body and the police were not skilled in the art of soul searching.  He read that there was speculation that he killed himself in the woods and that a bear or pack of wolves had carried off his body.  He told her that he envisioned himself being dragged back to a cave by a bear and found the vision humorous but saw no levity in the pack of wolves version because, “You just really never know what a wolf will do.”  He said that he was struck deeply by the fact that others guessed, correctly, that he simply decided to vanish.
    “Have you ever regretted it?  Disappearing that way?” she asked him.
    “At first, yes,” he answered. “In the beginning of this, this new life, not much changed. The depression and the drinking and the pills continued that cyclic hell- brief normalcy that was my life back then.   Yes, more than once in that first year, I had deep misgivings about disappearing in the way that I did.  It seemed...”  He searched for the word he wanted and finding it, he said with a nod, “cowardly.” 
    He told her how he decided to no longer live the coward’s life.  How he tried, struggled, failed and tried again, to lead the life of a helpful, productive man.  He got medical help for his depression, stopped smoking cigarettes, and gave up the dope and the drinking.  He told her, with great remorse, that he fell back to all those vices many times and then he met her, his wife, and he stopped failing.  He simply stopped and he never failed again. 
   He opened his wallet and showed her picture.  
   “She made you happy?” she asked.
  “No,” he said, “she did more than that.  She taught me that our happiness depends on ourselves.”
    Several years went by and they never ran out of conversation or notions to discuss.  Then one evening over dinner, he decided the time had come to talk about his death. 
  “As you probably know I left a suicide note once,” he said, “so I won’t leave a written will.”
  Moving his gaze from the table to her he said, “It would be a bit,” he paused in that way he paused and searched for the correct word, “so....egotistical.  No, redundant.  Redundant would be a better word to use here.  Anyway, those highwaymen over at Red Fox Press have been publishing my work for over thirty years now and since no one ever bothered to have me...the old me...” he corrected himself, “declared dead by the state, Red Fox Press owes my estate a fortune.  They’ll fight it of course; it’s a lot of money after all, seven million dollars at least.” He smiled and added, “Nothing in his life became him like the leaving of it.”
  He reached into his brief case, pulled out a single envelope, and handed it to her.  “Here’s a check for twenty-five thousand.  Use it to hire a good lawyer to fight them with.  Don’t fight till the end.  That’s not my wish.  Settle for a third.  If they won’t settle, try this.”
  He reached into the leather brief case again and pulled out three thick manuscripts, and dropped them on the table, which caused the sugar bowl to jump.
 “Three new works,” he said. “By me, of course,” and slid them over to her side of the table. “My autobiography, a fairly good novel and a collection of passable poetry.” 
   He paused and said, “I have no one else.  It’s a lot of money.”
  She pushed them back wordlessly as if to accept would be to accept his death.  She wasn’t prepared to do that.  He knew, and he understood that.  He slid the manuscripts back across the table to her and said, as gently and kindly as he could, “People die.  Nothing escapes death.  No one escapes death.  And I am going to die.  And you are going to die.  And when your time comes, I hope you too have someone near you as strong, dear, kind, and competent as I have in you.  I'll carry the memories of our conversations between my hands as if they were a bowl filled to the brim with fresh milk.”
  They fell into a comfortable silence that friends do, who understand each other, and after a moment she said, “How do you want to…” she didn’t know exactly what she wanted to ask.  “Do you want a funeral, you know, a regular funeral?”
  He tilted his head to the left and considered it. “Yeah,” he said happily, “I think that would be..” he looked around the room for the word, a habit writers tend to perfect, and finding it near the ice machine he said, “appropriate.  I’ve taught about a thousand kids over all these years, give or take a few hundred.  I’m sure one or two of them would show up.”
  “Oh, I’m sure it will be more than that,” she added and then they fell back into silence before she spoke. “What religion?  I mean, who do you want to conduct the last rites and all that?  A priest?  Minister?”  
  “I was Buddhist once,” he grinned, “a California-American style Buddhist.”
  “I know,” she answered.
  “You do?”
  “Yes, it’s ....” she paused. “Well everyone knows that about you.”
  “I keep forgetting that the other me is famous,” he smiled.  “We were all something spiritual back then.  Whatever we wanted to be or said we were, that’s what we became.  No one questioned us.  Hell, Phil Wallen declared himself a Zen Abbot at one point, whatever a Zen Abbot is.  He said that Padduck Gray-Malkin, aka Magic Patty, a self- proclaimed witch who flew through the fog and filth air of his mind back then,  had turned him onto Zen.  Have you ever heard of her?”
  “Padduck Gray-Malkin?” she answered.  “Of course.  We studied her work in grad school.”
  “Her work?” he asked incredulously. “I wouldn’t go so far as to call that pabulum work.”
   She shrugged, “She has her fans…..thousands of them.  Did you know her?”
   “Oh I knew her alright,” he said with raised eyebrows.
   “A great poet in the Russian tradition,” she said solemnly. 
    “That was her persona,” he said waving off the air of sanctity that had crept into the conversation. “She was actually from Brooklyn.  She was half Mongolian-Russian, half Irish.”
    He adjusted himself in his chair and said, “Let me tell you something about Magic Patty, because it explains so much.  She was little more than a hack with a penchant for crudeness who passed herself off as an oppressed artist.  She was a camp follower, a talent groupie who attached herself to the naturally gifted and redefined their works by comparing them to her own and inevitably found them inferior.  She was just another con artist in a generation drenched with con men, hypocrites, parasites, and lunatics.
    “Wow,” she said and opened her eyes wide.  “Were you two…” she knew the word but didn’t want to use it.
    “Involved?” he asked.  “How’s that?  Involved?”
    “Okay,” she said with a smile. “Were you two involved?”
   “She was ‘involved’ with half the population of San Francisco, men and women.”  He smiled. “She was a voluptuously plump woman.  She could belly dance, you know.”
    “I didn’t know that,” she said.
    “Oh yeah,” he continued, “it was part of her shtick.  She was physically commanding and had a natural ability to mesmerize.  She proclaimed herself a poet and had a brief stint with fame as the author of a short book of poetry, The Book of Love.  It consisted of four poems, one of which was titled, To Fuck with Love.  She called her poetic style, ‘a psychedelicized aesthetics holy erotica’.  The San Francisco newspapers literary critic disagreed and called it ‘Wholly babbling rubbish between covers’.  So anyway, the book, it was more of a pamphlet really, was seized from bookstores across San Francisco by the police as hard-core pornography in violation of state obscenity codes which gained her cause célèbre status in San Francisco for a few weeks and then was forgotten.”
    “I’ve read it,” she said. “You can still buy copies of it.”
     He shook his head in disbelief.
     “One time,” he continued, she said to me, ‘Lou, when a society is afraid of its poets it is afraid of itself.  A society afraid of itself stands as another definition of hell.’  Well, at the time, I was doped up and that sort of hogwash, which is what it is, sounded deep and profane and made enormous sense to me.  I thought she was such an enlightened person, a great being.  We would sit around for hours discussing philosophy and art we didn’t truly understand.  Stuff like Zen and Buddhism, all of it.  It was lost on me.  All I ever learned from it, no, all I ever misunderstood about it, was that there is no god and that the earth is not an intimate mass but was a living, all knowing soul.  There was no heaven or hell.  Instead, the universe was people with a hierarchy of spirits and from those spirits came all the features of life itself.  The cosmos was a thinking organic unity in which every spec of existences was related to everything else.  Colors, letters, and numbers were all endowed with magical properties.  It was in that kind of a primitive thinking that people like Magic Paddy prospered.  I wonder whatever happened to her.”
    “She’s dead,” she answered.  “She died about ten years ago.  The newspapers called her an icon of an age.”
   “How did she die?” he asked.
   “She married a biker poet.  On their way to their honeymoon at the Big Sur their bike collided with a 16 wheeler, killed them both and immortalized her as the  doomed wild child poet of her generation.”
    They fell silent for several moments.  She looked out the window into the darkness and he examined the empty plate in front of him.
    “Will you write about me,” he asked, “when I’m gone?”
     “Would you mind if I did?” she asked.
      “I’ll be dead, so it’ll be fine with me,” he answered. “But I hope that you write that  my life…my old life, was a futile pursuit, a listless wandering, and a great deal of talk without meaning.  I grinned at the devil, mocked the Lord, and created a belief system that only I could believe and all others, including me, found ridiculous.  I was meaningless to heaven and hell had no interest in me.  I lived a life of moral silence and spiritual blindness.  I didn’t have the courage to see God so I thought I would ask the devil about him, or in his place, those lost idiots who unknowingly did the devil’s work for him.  We sought truth but we had no faith because to have faith, to believe, is to suffer.  It is like loving someone in the dark who never answers.  It is true that had I not changed my life when I did that I would have died a very young man, but cheating death, at least in the first few years of my new life gave me no consolation or peace.  Sometimes death comes as God’s emissary.  About three years ago, I decided to use the time remaining to me on this earth to complete one significant action.”
    “And what was that?” she asked.
     “To find God,” he answered quickly.  “After my wife died, I looked for God.  I had questions but I never found him.  I thought it over for a very long time, about why I could not find God.  I realized I wasn’t willing to work for it.  I wanted God to put out his hand, show his face, and speak to me.  When he didn’t I thought, well perhaps there is no one there and if that is the case, then life is a senseless terror.  I was trying to conceive God with my senses.  I wanted knowledge without belief.  I was on a quest for God and a quest for meaning in life.  Eventually, I figured out that those two things are really two sides of the same coin because there is no true meaning apart from God.  From that, I learned that the reason I never found God was that I was not looking for him out of love.  God is love.  You can’t see him or understand him in any other way.”
   He paused and added, “Anyway,” and said nothing else for a moment.
   “I did great things in my life,” he said after a while.
   “Yes,” she told him. “Yes you did.  You’ve written wonderful….”
    “No, no, no,” he said cutting her off. “I meant great things.  I was there a hundred times when a student finished Gatsby or found a part of himself in Holden Caulfield.  I took a thousand students across the Alps with Hemmingway.  I did great things in my life.”
    They didn’t speak for a moment, each lost in their own thoughts.
    “So, I’m going to die,” he said.  “What are you going to do?”
    “I don’t know,” she said sadly. “Find a new friend to replace you, or go look for Hart Crane maybe.  Gulf of Mexico can’t be that big.”  
    One evening she arrived at the Diner, the booth was empty.  He was gone.  His funeral was a sellout.  Four generations of his students, and hundreds of people whose lives he had touched with his passion, came to see him off.
    So, she came back to the Diner every once in a while, less now than she did before, always on the same night and at the same time that they used to meet and talk for hours.  She ordered their strawberries and milk and thought of him.