he calls himself shamrock.
he was a kennedy kid. started on the berlin wall, but ended up in 'nam. the sun has long since dropped behind the bay & his hood obscures his face. all that is visible is a long white beard. if there is a god among the shadows, i believe he shows himself through figures like this. worn & tattered. always there in the background, but no one cares enough to pay him any attention.
i can/t see his eyes but i can feel the burn of his regard. it/s too dark to tell, but i/m blushing.
the night started simple. a few friends. wine. a loaf of bread & a loaf of cheese. bellingham bay. a blanket. the closeness of the night sky & the comfort of intimate conversation. we hadn/t been there long when we saw him approach. he paused in front of our blanket, mumbled something about the grace of god & something to eat. his back to the ocean, his face was shadowed. by his silhouette we could see the hook that had replaced his left hand, the limp of his right leg, the hunch of his back from long years sleeping on the hard ground.
the wind stopped in that awkward moment, the hesitation & apprehension. should we respond? do we want to acknowledge him? should we give him some food? of course we will. of course we always do. just like being stopped at a red light next to a corner where a dirty old man holds a worn sign with a few simple words. we try so hard not to look, or at least not to meet his eyes. we/re willing to look just enough to see what his sign says. to see if his cause seems valid. if it/s too close of a call, we won/t do it. we won/t risk taking that glance because if your eyes meet his you/re doomed. you/re locked in. held responsible. you can/t pretend you didn/t see him, you can/t pretend you were so occupied with your own thoughts that you didn/t even notice his shame so near to your locked passenger door.
i wanted to talk to him, i wanted to listen. i needed to listen. to hear his stories. but there/s always that awkward hesitation.
we offered him some food. broke off some bread & cheese & wrapped it in a plastic grocery sack so he could enjoy it later. alone. we offered him a beer & a place on our blanket. he propped himself on top of his rolled up sleeping bag & you could hear his body sigh as it settled. he was ugly beautiful, so worn, so broken that it somehow made him more whole than the rest of us. what was perfectly clear was that this man had lived. i felt humbled in his presence. i wanted to listen.
by now he/s discussing the details of the situation in the early sixties. how vietnam had this plan to eradicate hunger in all of asia & most of africa. how they needed technology to do this. how the states offered financial support. offered the technology. offered help from young men like shamrock, to provide political & military stability. how the first post-independence years were years of peace. but then kennedy died. kennedy was killed & it all went to hell. johnson & nixon & ford. they were supposed to withdraw. but instead they sent more troops & imposed taxes. conflict arose. "jesus christ may forgive those sons of bitches, but i never will." you can hear the rage in his voice. you can hear that he can/t control it.
he tells us how he hasn/t slept a day in a bed since. how he hasn/t carried a piece of paper with his name on it since.
-it/s not worth it, he says. there/s no point.
-what is your name? someone asks.
he smiles. we can/t see in the darkness, but we all imagine that it/s toothless. he/s already missing so much. he lost his hand in the war. his left hand. his right is crippled, the tendons permanently damaged from vietnamese bayonets. he lost toes to gangrene from cold nights in hiding in the jungles, from the cold & damp of the mekong as she winds lazy through the rice fields of the asian countryside.
-shamrock, he repeats. he smiles deeper. it/s irish.
he/s on his way to alaska. he started in massachusetts. in the valleys of the green mountains where fish don open cancer sores and rabbits are born with missing limbs. the pollution is too much, even in the mountains. he had to get out. he tells us about the earthquake. the big one that/s coming, and coming soon.
-alaska will split off from the mainland, he tells us. but don/t tell no one.
we give him the rest of the bread & cheese. wrap it up neatly & tuck it away.
-looks like you need it more than we do, someone says.
he laughs, deep in his chest, an honest laugh. from the gut.
-that/s for damn sure, he chuckles.
we pack up our blanket, put away the wine. check our cell phones for the time, make sure our car keys are handy. i hesitate. my heart is racing, but i have to know.
-do you believe in god? i manage.
there is a long pause. he recoils into himself. his voice softens, almost a whisper. he quotes james joyce. something about every part of the world, every place he/s been, every person he/s met, all somehow a part of him. he composes himself. draws his coat in tighter, wrapping himself in his own awkward arms. he starts to hum, to whine, to whimper. a lullaby his mother used to sing when he was young. he rocks back & forth, melodically.
we get up to leave. i can feel that something has shifted, something has changed within me, or has been awoken, aroused. i can/t tell what. i feel like i/ve been numb for so long & my limbs are just waking, the excited pins & needles that we both love & hate. i shake his crippled hand. his twisted fingers are unnaturally & unexpectedly warm in the frigid air. almost too warm. for a man from this world.
-it was an honor to meet you, he says.
i can feel his eyes burning into me & i know he/s being honest.
-likewise, i whisper. it/s all i can manage.
i am tempted by this man. by his stories. by the notion of his freedom. i want to travel the world like he has traveled this country. i want to explore, to play, to hitchhike every road & visit every village. but the temptation passes. because i know that he is no more free than i am. that while he may be free in spirit, he is trapped within the systems, the confines of reality within any political system. within the chains of modernity. within the constructs of his own withering body."my skeleton is exacting revenge."
i know that we all must choose to be free in our own way, & that his vagrancy is his own. i must find my own inner vagabond. i must embrace this wanderlust alone.
a few words about miss chelsea elizabeth...
oregon-born, seattle-raised, bellingham-bred and franco-refined, she had moved back to the states from her affairs across the atlantic & now resides in columbia city with french husband & love of her life rémy. they spend most of their time taming the garden, taking care of their three chickens & two cats, and preparing the urban homestead for a new little chick of their own.
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