On the John
A weird one
Completed October 16, 2008
Some stories write themselves. This was one of those stories.
One Friday night this past August, I was making the walk from my brother’s apartment to my own when I came upon a familiar face. It is a fifteen-minute walk, heading up North Avenue in the Wicker Park/Bucktown area of Chicago right into the North/Damen/Milwaukee intersection. This particular evening was a beautiful one, low 70s as the sun dropped out, no wind, everywhere life bubbling and gay. The street was choked with cars, the sidewalk wet from bars, and from Ashland to Damen and a bit beyond drivers foolish enough to navigate the street found themselves in a crawl. To be on foot, beautiful.
As I passed the two-front window of Santullo’s Eatery, I noticed two people sitting on the walk alongside the stretched brick wall. One was a black woman. She seemed in her late 40s. The other, a white man, about my age.
But when I neared the latter, I recognized him immediately. We’d attended high school together, and I was struck at how the instant I saw him slumped there, a cigarette pressed between his fingers, I could piece together a reasonable timeline of his past eight years. Of all my 900+ fellow graduates from New Trier High School’s year 2000 senior class, this one—let’s call him “Davis”—was the person who I was least surprised to find eight years later near-bumming on a Chicago street.
He looked the same, sharply angular at every point. As he sat, his knees pushed together as they always did, forming the apex of his legs. His feet pointed inward, his sharp elbows bent like his knees, a cautious, mistrusting anger still haunting his now scraggly-bearded face. In high school he had been a benign irritant, the kid who played the hardest in gym. Awkward as hell, those pointy elbows and knees clanking together as he hustled for a soccer ball heading out of play or from second to home on a single to right, Davis bothered us most with his nervous competitive desire. Additionally, he often came to school dressed in a John Starks jersey, an act that made him even more irritating, partly as a Starks supporter and partly because both Davis and Starks seemed annoying in the same way. There was no personal animosity—we all liked him, admired him even for his gym effort annoying as it was, and the moment I saw him sitting there that late August night, I was excited to say hello.
“Hey man!” His head did not turn. I made a slow wave through his sight line. He looked up. “It’s Jack. From New Trier.”
“Oh, yeah…hey.” He nodded at me like a celebrity giving a fan on the street the requisite courtesy.
“Yeah…Jack Silverstein…yeah, how are you?”
“I’m good man. Just heading home. How’s your night going?”
“Yeah, it’s fine.” He looked around, side to side, and I noticed that his eyes were much baggier; looked like he’d been dragged through the shit in the intervening years. His eyes still had the anger, though now there was also an unmistakable tinge of indifference, as if the counter on his emotions had reset to zero while they were plum in the red. In fact, he seemed disproportionately wiser, disproportionate to the standard amount of wisdom one gains from 18 to 26. When he spoke, he used the tone of a man who’s seen it all and can’t wait to laugh about it with a like-minded someone, a sense that he was “speaking human” just to fit in and was quietly amused at each throwaway word. “And you?”
“Night’s good. Just enjoying the weather. How have you been these past eight years?”
“Good, good. I’m Christ’s Dark Angel of Death.”
Now, it could have been the beautiful weather, or the relaxing evening, or simply the straight-forward candor with which he spoke, but I decided to roll right along with this statement and see where it led. “Oh? How did you find that out?”
“God. In a dream.” He took another pull from his cigarette, flipping his head from side to side once more. “A couple years ago.”
“What was that like?”
“It was fine.” His cell phone rang. He picked up. “Hey Dad…no, I’m just east of Damen. East! Yeah…yeah, OK.” He hung up.
“So you’re really Christ’s Dark Angel of Death?”
“Yep, really him. Twin brother of Prince Williams, my arch nemesis…” And in biting yet reserved comments he proceeded to tell me his story, that “sometime in the 2040’s” Prince Williams will have him killed by guillotine in the ghettos of Paris, and then when Christ returns to Earth in 2052 Davis will return as his right-hand dark-angel-of-death man, killing all the facists. “It will end up being most people,” he told me casually, “though some will be spared.”
I looked at him with inquisitive eyes. He understood.
“You’ll be fine. Most small towns too. Like Door County.”
“So Door County will be fine?”
“Yeah, except for Egg Harbor Condos.”
When he finished, I asked him to repeat himself. He gave me a look that was halfway between a smirk and a glare. “Why?”
“Because I want to write about it.”
His phone rang again. “Yeah?…No Dad, I’m on North. Right up against a wall. Are you really that lost?” He took another pull. “OK. OK. See you.” He hung up.
“Do you have time? I’d like to run through it once more.”
He shrugged. “Okay.” And we went back through the details.
Still, I may have flubbed some. Though it is my preference to work without the aid of recorder or pad, this was such an incredible story that I may have momentarily lost track. No matter. The precise details are largely incidental. What kept me was his face.
Was he telling the truth? There are three plausible answers to that. One: he was telling the truth. Two: he truly believed he was telling the truth. Three: he was lying, and was so unconcerned with the story getting around that he would repeat the details without ever giving a wink to let me in on the joke.
Each of these scenarios has its interest, Scenario One for obvious reasons. What if he really was telling the truth? I realize that assessment seems entirely absurd, but with approximately six and a half billion people on Earth, something entirely absurd could happen to one single person and it would still only be one person out of six and a half billion. To put it another way, we all know humans cannot fly. But if through some bizarre happening—divine or otherwise—one person every thousand years were born with flying abilities, and if you happened to know that person…
Scenario Two is frightening and sad: Davis went crazy and is now suffering from a mental disorder, most likely schizophrenia. In that case, I wish him the best and hope he manages.
But then there is Scenario Three. That’s the one I find most appealing. Most people try to shade their post-high school life so that it will seem as successful and sane as possible. If Davis is lying, it means he has reached a point where his reputation among 900+ people is no longer a concern. Perhaps he is simply pathological, but from his face and manner it seemed to me that he spun the whole yarn for his own amusement to be deployed whenever he is forced into reconnecting with an old high school acquaintance such as myself.
So which of the three is the truth? I really can’t say. All I can say is this:
He did not crack. He did not seem to be telling a joke. He did not seem to be acting. He did not seem angry or violent or twitchy or nervous. Apart from his scraggly beard and his preferred seating, he did not seem bummish. His clothes were clean, as was his hair; the only smell coming from him was his cigarette. He did not seem impressed by what he was saying, as if it was all quite ho hum. He was open to me telling his story, was quite encouraging in fact. He remembered my first and last name. He seemed, in his way, genuinely pleased to see me.
It was getting late. I was on my way home to change before meeting some friends for a drink. High school friends, as it happened. Davis was heading out as well: his father was near. He stood without saying goodbye, flicking his cigarette into a sewer. I stood quickly, trying to keep up. The standard post-high school run-in banter felt wrong here, but what do you say instead?
“Well hey man, great to see you.”
“Yeah, hey…same.” And then, before he ambled away: “Let me kiss your cheek.” He took my shoulders with both hands and placed a careful kiss on my cheek. He then spoke with the official stateliness of a politician’s declaration, yet in the careless, throwaway manner in which he had said everything else, as if he was making it up as he went: “It was at this spot where you were, uh, kissed by Christ’s Dark Angel of Death.” He then waved his hand in front of me in a “And now, go in peace” kind of way, before shuffling off towards Damen.
“Yo! Hold up!” I dashed towards him. “What does that mean for me? Is that good? Bad?”
“Oh,” he said with an indecipherable look, “don’t worry. It’s a blessing. You’ll be fine.”
And then he walked away.
Copyright 2008, jm silverstein