Even after I started eating marijuana, I didn’t get much sleep. I’d go to bed around midnight and wake up at dawn. Most mornings I’d slice a plate of fruit and wander out onto the stoop where I’d eat and watch the early risers on their way to work. Ed was usually there, sitting on the corner with his cane and his sign. One morning he waddled up to me, “How you doin’?”
Ed was an old man, with a full head of white hair and a toothy grin. He squinted when he spoke and was usually drunk. “Can I tell you a story?”
I put a slice of mango in my mouth, “Sure.”
He sat down slowly, as if every joint were sore, then arranged his hands and feet. When he’d gotten comfortable, he straightened his back and looked out at the street, at the passing cars and early morning walkers. “I used to live in New York, Brooklyn, in fact. That’s why I have this accent,” he pointed at his mouth with a gnarled finger, as thick as brown sausage. “One day I had to deliver a load of hard wood flooring up to some swanky penthouse in Manhatten. When I got inside there was all this Beatles memorabilia layin’ around — guitars, records, you name it.” He turned his head to face me. It was a stiff affair that involved his back and arms, “Do you like the Beatles?”
“Me neither! So I unload this hardwood and the guy’s signin’ the invoice and he asks me just that, he asks me, ‘Do you like the Beatles?’ and I said I didn’t care for them. He handed me the invoice and I went on my way. Later, I looked at the invoice and do you know what it said?”
“John Lennon,” Ed laughed, still delighted with himself after all these years. “I told John Lennon I didn’t like the Beatles! Ha! Ha!” Ed slapped his thigh merrily.
“That’s a pretty good story.”
“My name’s Ed,” he held out his hand, “I fly a sign, drink too much and I hate cursing.”
“Well, Ed, my name’s Nathan and I curse like a sailor.”
“That’s OK, brother. You do what you gotta do.”
Ed was full of stories. Most of them involved women. “There’s this girl, a real pretty brunette, must be about 30. How old are you?”
“I’m 50. She must be about 30 and she’s my friend. I don’t want nothin’ from her, I swear to you, I don’t. We’re just friends. And she’s beautiful and kind. Sometimes she lets me shower in her place and sometimes she gives me booze. We drink together and talk about her boyfriends. I haven’t seen her in a while. I keep stopping by, but she’s never on her porch. Poor girl works too much. This one time, she gives me a note and it says, ‘Ed, you are a kind soul, thank you for lighting up my life.’ Thirty years old and she gives me a note like that. That’s all I need, respect and a kind word.” Ed put his hand on his chest, “I didn’t need nothing but that from her. Kindness and respect.”
I sat with Ed most days that summer. Sometimes I’d give him water, sometimes I’d make him lunch. “It’s too hot out here, Ed. You need to sit in the shade for a bit.”
Ed’s skin was deeply tanned. It gave his blue eyes a clear, ghostly look, like he could see things that weren’t there. “Why don’t you move to Florida?” I asked him one day.
“What’s in Florida?”
“Sunshine, all year ’round. Denver winters are brutal. If I was a bum, the first thing I’d do is move to Florida. I don’t know why any of you guys stick around.”
“I never thought of that,” Ed took a sip from the water I’d brought him. “I got a case pending. They’re gonna give me disability, retroactive for the past five years. My lawyer says it should be any day now. I just gotta stick it out. Maybe once the checks start coming through I’ll go see my daughter.”
“You have a daughter?”
“And a grand daughter. I haven’t seen them in years.” Ed pulled his pant leg up and rolled his sock down. There was a nasty bulge above his ankle. Something under his skin was trying to break through.
“The fuck is that?” I asked. Ed squished the thing around with his fingers.
“Cirrhosis. I’m gonna have to get it drained again.”
“I always thought you were faking with the limp and the cane. I thought you were doing it so people would give you more money.”
“I wish.” Ed kept poking at the bulge.
One day, I gave Ed one of my Cheeba Chews. “You want this? I’ve switched to cake.” He took the candy and looked at it. “That’s a decca dose. It’s some serious shit so don’t take it all at once.” I knew it was bad to give drugs to an addict, but Ed was my friend and there was no fixing him. I figured the best I could hope for was to ease his suffering, if only for an afternoon.
“Thanks, brother.” Ed stashed the candy in his backpack The little bag held all of his worldly possessions. He was always pulling things out of it and showing them to me. “This is a letter from someone I met at the shelter. They have a piano down there and I played the piano for her family.” I looked at Ed’s thick, bent fingers and tried to imagine them playing the piano. “They were the nicest people. She wrote me this letter.”
Ed was always reading me that letter. Whoever had written it claimed Ed had changed her life. I could almost see her, the tourist with a boring life. She visited the shelter and helped out a bit, met Ed and went home, believing herself enlightened. She could talk about her good deed at church on Sunday.
After I gave Ed the marijuana candy, he disappeared for two days, when I saw him next he looked pale and tired, “Where you been, man? I missed you.”
Ed waddled over, shaking his head, “That candy you gave me,” he spit on the ground, “that was somethin’ else.”
“I warned you, man. How much did you eat?”
“How much?” Ed got a little angry, “I ate the whole damn thing. I didn’t know what was going on for two days.”
“It’s an arms race with that shit,” I laughed. “Everyone tries to pack the biggest punch. You want another one?”
“No. You keep it for yourself. I’m more of a booze guy.”
And that was how it went for a while. I’d write all day, dose marijuana at night, wake up starving, then sit on the stoop eating breakfast with Ed. I learned about his past life and his past loves, golden stories tinged with regret, each one accented by a bottle, sigil of Bacchus, the dark subtext of a man set adrift.
“I used to be a chef for the mob,” he told me one morning. “The owner of my restaurant would shut the place down on Christmas and it was my job to cook for his entire family. He loved my cooking. He’d pay me a thousand dollars for that one day’s work,” Ed tapped his cane on the ground, “Respect, that’s all I care about. If a man has respect he don’t need nothin’ else.”
“Why’d you quit?”
“I got fired. Too much drinkin’. They had to let me go.” He said it matter-of-factly, without guile or shame, as if he were reading a text book.
“Do you actually like Ed?” Asked one of my stoop mates one day. No one else was fond of him. He had a way of monopolizing conversation.
“I like him, but it’s just the pills. They make everything seem wonderful.”
Despite all the evils of prednisone, the steroid made me happy in a way I had never been. I was in love with the sky and the ground and everything in between. As I weaned off the drug, my euphoria faded. Man was not meant to live in rapture. Nowadays I can sleep, but my naps are too many. I no longer hallucinate, but the words come more slowly. There is less misery, but fewer things that give me joy. I doubt I could stand to be around Ed for 10 minutes any more.
Then one day, in the midst of it all, Little Ex came over.
It was a sunny afternoon. Ed and I were sitting on the stoop. Little Ex came walking down the street carrying a yoga mat. Ed saw her and stopped talking. She had that effect. I’d been trying to gain weight but my arms were too weak for push ups. Little Ex told me she’d bring over a yoga mat so I could take classes at the local studio. “Hi,” she handed me the blue roll of foam padding.
There was a moment’s pause, a fraction of a second when she could have said something or turned to leave, but didn’t. “Do you want to come in?” I asked. I was shirtless and sweaty with the beginnings of a tan. I’d been writing and laying in the sun for weeks.
“This is Ed.”
I stood with the yoga mat, “See you tomorrow, Ed.”
“I think I’ll sit here and enjoy the shade for a bit.”
Little Ex and I went through the hilarious front door, down the stinky hallway and into my apartment.
“How are you feeling?” She asked.
I laid down on my bed, shirtless and exhausted, “It’s the best and worst time of my life. How are you doing?”
“I heard you’re dating someone.”
“Is he nice to you?”
“He’s very kind.”
“Does he make good money?”
Little Ex flinched, like I had thrown something at her, “He will.”
“Good.” I wanted the best for her. “What’s wrong?”
“You’re so skinny.”
“And tan! The day I went crazy, the day I thought I was God? Samantha told me I should shower, put on fresh clothes and lay in the sun. She said it would make me feel better. I’ve been doing it ever since.”
“What happened to you? I thought you were fine, that you were getting better, but I read these things on the Internet.”
“The doctors put me on some pills. The pills turned me into a madman. I can’t stop writing. It’s kind of glorious. I’m too weak to work so I’m building this website. I’m going to put my story on it and there will be pod casts and t-shirts and people will be able to buy things and maybe I’ll be able to pay down my medical bills, even though I can’t work. I’ve finally become the artist I always dreamed of being.” In the midst of my rant, Little Ex began to cry. “What’s wrong?”
“It’s just,” she looked at the ceiling as if the words might be hidden in the plaster, “You people fight so hard.”
She looked at me as if it were obvious, as if I had known all along. “Artists.”
The word struck electric, a moment of clarity so pure, it moved the air. The veil had been torn. Little Ex was not an artist. She was a ballerina, but there was something missing. All the obstacles, pain, demeaning instructors and vicious back stabbing amounted to an entire childhood spent chasing the wrong dream. Her tears came faster, hands politely folded, staring at the broken husk of the man she used to love.
I watched, feeling helpless. Could I hug her? Should I hug her? She had a boyfriend. She was in pain. We weren’t allowed to hug, such was my oath. I got up and flopped across her legs. I lay there awkwardly, like a salmon, crying in her lap. It was the best I could do, my cowardly compromise. She placed one hand on my back. Tears flowed, a salty reverie to the nameless, honest sorrow of things which might have been.
“You’re so full of shit,” said Nega Nate over his shoulder. The column had retracted in on itself and now hung above the plain like an ominous cloud. We had to cross before it fell. A dangerous journey, but there was food on the other side.
“What?” I’d been talking as we ran, trying to finish my story before the world ended.
“You weren’t trying to comfort Little Ex, you were just relieving the guilt you felt for breaking up with her.”
“Art is truth and beauty, the transient made eternal, but none of that holds up if the story is predicated on a lie.”
“It was a poignant moment,” I said to the ground. “I was trying to capture it. I guess I failed.” We were moving as fast as possible, a desperate marathon across the dangerous plains. Behind us, the robot followed, resolute and at a respectful distance.
“Stop trying. Write your guts out and let the chips fall where they may.”
“It doesn’t work like that. Art is tension. It’s filled with opposites, a struggle for unity and variety, movement and rest. You have to plan and not-plan. You have to fight and flow. There is no formula.” I wanted my story to be good, but so did every writer. What separated the great from the forgotten was anyone’s guess. The muse was a fickle beast, as untouchable as the dawn.
Our journey had been up a slight, interminable incline. Suddenly, we crested the summit of the plain. Nega Nate and I stopped, catching our breath. The ground fell away, a slow descent from the shallow hill we had been climbing. In the distance, near the horizon, stood a tree. “The last push,” said Nega Nate. “Think you can make it?”
“If the story allows.”
“Such a fatalist.”
“I’d change if I could.” I looked up at the cloud, “I never said goodbye to Ed.”
We began to jog. “I started to hate him.” Above, a rumble, the tremor of impending wind. The lifted reality of the world had been released from its chaos, it was settling back on itself. The sky began to fall. Nega Nate, the robot and I began to run. Despite the exertion, I found I could talk without panting, as if running through a dream. “It wasn’t Ed’s fault. He hadn’t changed. I was weaning off prednisone, and as I did, my mood shifted. I became less joyful, more aware of life’s trauma. I remember avoiding him on that corner, ducking into my apartment when he wasn’t looking. Eventually I stopped seeing him on his corner. I wonder if he remembers me. I wonder if he’s still alive.”
“Maybe he won his case and bought a ticket to see his grand daughter.”
“Maybe,” I looked up at the reality descending on us, “but I doubt it.”
to be continued