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