"Hiya, Simon!  Hiya, Simon!  How you doin'!  How you doin'!"

The deep voice booms out at me excitedly.  It's only Ritchie, of course – the mentally handicapped man who likes to hang out at the newsstand where I work.

"I'm good, Ritchie," I say.  "How're you?"

"Good!" he cries.  Staring at me fixedly from under the bill of a dingy red baseball cap he begins pacing back and forth in front of the counter, waiting impatiently for me to finish up with a customer.  Then:  "Lookit, Simon!" he cries.  "Lookit here!  Lookit here!"

"What is it?" I ask, though I already know what's coming.  We follow the same routine after all, every day.  Every single fucking day.

"Lottery number last night nine seven two!" he bellows at me.  "Big Four number six three four zero!"

"Oh?" I say, feigning an interest I don't really feel and looking over to where he's pointing, the chart tacked up on the wall where the numbers have been written for all to see.  "Nine seven two," I say.  "Uh-huh.  Six three four zero," I say.  "I see.  I see."

Ritchie stares at me, his body rigid, his face an impassive blank.  He's waiting for me to say the rest of my lines.  It's our regular scene, repeated so often by now that it's taken on the cadences of ritual.

"Did you play either of those numbers, Ritchie?" I ask.  He always plays the numbers.

"No-o!" he almost shouts at me, though not angrily.  "I no play – I din't no play those numbers last night!"

"Ah," I say.  "Well, don't feel too bad.  I didn't play them either."

Ritchie shakes his head vigorously.  "No-o!" he shouts.  "You no play that numbers either!  You no play that numbers either!"  He stares at the chart for awhile, his eyes moving up and down over the list as I wait, and wait, and wait.  "Lookit, Simon!" he calls out at last.  "Lookit here!  Lookit here!"

I sigh and go over to look, and as patiently as I can watch as Ritchie points out all the different places where various combinations of today's numbers have shown up over the past several months.  Seven three four came up two weeks ago; zero six four two came up the week before that.  Also on the chart are two zero three two and four nine seven and zero two nine and three four four six and zero nine zero nine and before long my head is spinning as I try to keep up with his jabbing finger.  Ritchie takes an inordinate amount of interest in numbers; also in dates.  In fact, Ritchie is Morgantown's very own exemplar of the idiot-savant.  Ask him when it was that triple zero's or any other trip numbers were last drawn and he'll tell you.  Ask him what day of the week your birthday falls on in the upcoming year, or the year after that, or the year after that, and he'll pause, think a moment, then rap out an answer:  and he's always right.  I should know.  I've seen him perform these tricks any number of times.

Ritchie hangs about the store off and on all day, every day.  After our initial conversation, which always includes, along with a discussion of the lottery numbers, a polite inquiry into how I'd spent the evening of the day before ("What you do last night, Simon!  What you do your house last night!"  "Oh, nothing much, Ritchie.  Ate dinner, read, played around on the computer awhile, went to bed . . ."  I always give the same answer, for Ritchie appreciates consistency), he spends his time flipping through magazines, smoking, and talking to the customers ("How you doin'!  How you doin'!  What you do your house last night!").  He's a harmless enough guy, if a bit boisterous, and everyone seems to enjoy his presence at the store; he's become a sort of fixture there, and serves, I suppose, as a reassuring sign of a kind of normality.  As long as Ritchie's okay, then everything must be okay with the world – relatively speaking, at any rate.

I wonder about the number of mentally challenged people who live in my town though.  While many of my customers are business people, there are a considerable number of others who . . . well, who strike me as being not exactly the sharpest tools in the shed.  There's a popular belief around here that in some of the nearby towns there's been a bit of "inbreeding" going on.  Hey, shit happens:  people fall in love, cousins marry, what're you going to do?  I used to laugh when I heard those rumors, but over the years I've come to believe in their veracity – partly because of their persistence, partly because of the number of people I run into whose slowness appears not to be caused by any psychological derangement or organic damage to the brain, but as if some sort of inversion of the personality had occurred.  There's a dense, stultified look in these people's eyes, as if they're wearing blinkers – but the blinkers they wear are inside their minds.  It's precisely the sort of look I'd expect the genetically muted to have.

On the other hand, I sometimes think that my own experience of this town is too restricted for me to properly judge just how bright or dull the average citizen might be.  For instance, I know that there are quite a few creative types living in the area, many involved with crafts of various sorts, also photographers and painters and even a few sculptors; sometimes they put on shows.  There are as well several theater groups which, by all accounts, do a more than respectable job of producing quality plays.  There's a local cinema that shows foreign films; traveling symphony orchestras that play at the local college; and an improvisational jazz band made up of locals that's apparently as good as any professional group you've ever heard.  Maybe I'm just a little too blinkered myself to be able to judge my fellow townsfolk properly.  Even at my job at the newsstand, I occasionally come across someone who has cause to reveal unexpected depths . . .

The other day, for instance, an older man came into the store who, to judge by his appearance, I would not have thought to be a very promising specimen.  His hair, which was thin and coarse, was dank with sweat; his dirty shirt was unbuttoned all down the front, revealing a sunken chest matted with long, grey hairs; his belly was creased with soft, jiggling folds of blubber.  He looked the sour type, one of those who could easily turn nasty on you:  I was on my guard.  But all he wanted to do was buy a pack of cigarettes, and he asked for those politely enough.

"Have a nice day," I told him, speaking automatically as he collected his smokes and his change and turned away.

He turned back towards me then and said, "You know, it seems like I've spent about half my life trying to do just that."  I gave a murmur of surprise and he lifted his face and looked into my eyes, his mouth working to control some strong pulse of emotion he couldn't quite suppress.  Then he looked down, as if ashamed.  "Sorry," he muttered, and shrugged.  "You see, a friend of mine just died."  He beat one fist futilely at the air; then, clutching his pack of cigarettes, turned and stumbled his way out the door.

I wanted to call after him; I wanted to say:  "I know just how you feel.  You feel as if life is meaningless and hopeless, utterly hopeless – I know.  I know just how you feel because I too recently lost a friend, and I feel exactly the same."  I wanted to call after him . . . but no:  I did not.  I couldn't have told him about my friend without admitting that he was a cat.  I could have lied about it, I suppose, and pretended that I was talking about a human being; he would otherwise, I fear, have thought me insulting, or some kind of an idiot, at least a fool.  And yet the knowledge we've both come to because of our experience of loss is just the same.  I too feel that something dreadful has happened, from which I will never fully recover; that life has suddenly revealed itself to me as being, at bottom, a meaningless and futile gesture; that the world has suddenly shifted, and for no better reason than reckless chance opened up a chasm in the ground beneath my feet.  I've come to understand that this is how life is; and to know that from that chasm no light glimmers – there is only blackness, only a void.  And this void is what I must, however poorly, try to make some kind of sense of.

I have buried my cat out at my parent's house, near to the fence that runs along the far edge of their backyard.  Carrie has made a marker for the grave, and both she and Lisa have helped me surround the small, blank space of ground with a circle of stones . . .

My life goes on
But his does not
His eyes are closed
While mine still see
The knowing of this
Breaks my heart in two
The crack in the world that I walk
Is death

Through the square of my window pane,
Leaves of green on a nearby tree.
The sun disappears behind a cloud
And a long, hard wind begins to blow.

You are here and yet not here,
You are gone and yet not gone.

The summer rain comes beating down:
Joy and sorrow, sorrow and joy.

Because you are gone
     I will honor your grave
          with flowers