You have to let them talk about whatever they need to talk about. Especially when the last time you saw them the conversation went there. Sometimes the best way to address grief is to ponder something else for a spell; Time is the preeminent healer, and while we wait around for it to give us some perspective, maybe chit-chatting about selling your record collection isn’t the worst idea.
That’s what was on his mind tonight, a week after the world ended. Some people cut their hair off. Others wear black for a year. For this fellow, music and cleaning house were the healthy distraction he needed. We rolled down a moonlit First Avenue together, approaching the rise toward West Seattle Bridge.
“My daddy though, he got more vinyl than me even, he got a stack like from here to here. Original stuff like I got, too. Stevie Wonder–”
I interrupted. I’m a sentimentalist. “Man, you got Stevie Wonder? You sure you wanna sell those?”
Pragmatically: “Iss for my grandson’s tuition.”
“Okay, that’s cool. Good cause.”
“Yup yup. I got the Temptations, the Dramatics–”
“The Temptations! Oh I love that! Their sound, you know?”
“Lemme ask you something, check this. Is there any sound better than The Temptations?”
Somehow this led to us cresting the bridge’s high rise with him singing. He was good. He was great. “I’m half black half Italian,” he reminded me, alluding to a musically inclined upbringing, but I didn’t need the reminder. It was right there in his voice. I was listening to Pavarotti croon “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” and it would’ve been magical even without the unspoken knowledge of what we both knew: that this enthusiasm was but the feeble cover for an open wound, each minute a marathon hurdle of improvisation, the desperate search for a salve that never lasts more than a few minutes. He was doing the smartest thing available to us humans; taking on the challenge of fighting pain with joy. Who was it who said the harder thing to do and the right thing to do are usually the same?
I knew from previous encounters the value of song at times like this, and let him ride the melody out. Our conversation drifted. He may have had the electric soul of Pavarotti’s voice, but rather a little less of the man’s philandering habits; I was privy to a monologue wherein our friend explained that sleeping with his son’s separated mother was “just too messy.” It was Faulkner by way of Tarantino.
“Listen. I go over there and him and me play video games. We like to siddown and stay up late. And she be there. She leavin’ the door open to her room, crossing the hallway in her underwear. Lookin’ sexy as hell. But I don’t go there. I’m not trying to say she ain’t sexy as hell. She is sexy as hell. She know she got it. But I’m tryna peep the long term. Iss about keeping it simple. Keeping it friends, respectful, easy, what I can go over there and kick it with my boy, kick it with her without no…”
“Soap opera drama?”
“Exactly. Without no soap opera drama. It just gets too messy that way.”
“Staying on good terms sounds all right, especially ’cause they’re always gonna be part of your life, him and her.”
“Yeah.” Yeeeeah. He switched course suddenly. Maybe the future was too much to think about. Because thinking about the future usually means thinking about the past.
“I’m goin’ to Brazil,” he said.
“Yeah man, I need a vacation. I’m cool though.”
“I’m glad you’re taking care of yourself, some of these guys something like that happens they just fall apart out here. I been thinking about our last conversation, man, and my heart’s still broke.”
“I got love for everyone I meet,” he replied, without missing a beat. “I ain’t mad at nobody. That’s what I respect about you. Iss an honor. I love, I’ve always loved, and I ain’t gon’ stop now. I love hard.”
“Man, that’s what I like about you. You’re an inspiration.”
“Listen.” He leaned in, conspiratorially. “I done talked to the guy who did it. To my daughter.”
I slowed down. I needed to hear every word.
“He said, ‘I apologize.’ Ah said, ‘I need you to look at my daughter. I need you to go look at my daughter. And I want you to take her some flowers. And I want you to put some money in those flowers.’ And he said, ‘okay.’ And he did. He put a hundred fifty and a bunch of dark chocolates and everything else up in those flowers. The point is, he meant it. He said, ‘I apologize.’ He said ‘Mr. Young, I heard you’re full-blooded Italian.’ I said, ‘that don’t matter. Iss the principle. I ain’t no violent man. But if you come at my family sideways again, I’m gon’ run up on your whole house and that ain’t no joke. I ain’t no violent man. But I need you to go look at my daughter’s eyes, bruh.’ And he did. I ain’t mad at nobody. Ah got love, and I love hard.”
This wasn’t Faulkner, or Williams or August Wilson or anybody. It wasn’t considered. It had no conscious design or intended moral. It was simply and crucially existence, being, and it was up to us to shape it into resonance. To tie the present to our past how we choose, and thus give it meaning. This is the advantage life has over art. But it’s also what’s so terrifying about life: you have to decide what it means. And all the while the clouds will keep rolling on by above you, silently.
They will never tell you if you’re right or wrong.
To be continued.