The lunch crowd has thinned, providing a bit more elbowroom, better access to electrical outlets, and speedier wi-fi. Without thinking, I watch you push your tray to one end of the table, clearing a spot for your writing tablet and steaming mug of tea. You click your ballpoint several times and I stare at the ceiling for inspiration.
We’re the same, you and me. We frequent the same bookstores and coffee shops, have even roundtabled each other’s work at a local conference. We know each other by name, by reputation, by genre. We’re not friends exactly, just writers.
You see the man first. I see you see him and follow your gaze. It’s obvious he used to have a story. And now he’s lost. Not directionally challenged, but rather detached from everything he used to know and hold dear. Save for his bottle. His hair is dirty and wild, the clothes frayed and too thin for the weather, his shoes two sizes too big. Manicured sideburns have migrated over skin that’s red in all the wrong places, his exposed hand trembles, his eyes on the brink of something. The hairline fractures that divided his once perfect teeth have now yellowed and are surrounded by sores.
He’s hungry too. Not that we’re close enough to hear his stomach growl. He just has that look, that sense of aching from the inside out. I watch you watch him some more and the right word just seems to float from your head to mine. The man we’re studying is hollow.
You squint, then scribble something. I aim my laptop at the man and we do wat we do best. We observe scraps of humanity, then fill in the gaps. We transcribe what can be seen and invent the rest. I don’t have to look at you to know you’re engaged in similar telepathy. Neither of us asked for these roles in the literary caste system; most endure life, others of us bear witness. If all goes well this unfortunate stranger will inspire me to inspire others. I can turn his misery into something useful, multiply it on the page to teach us all something about ourselves, about humanity, about the existence of a loving God in the face of abject despair.
I name my man Henry. I endow him with a cancerous son and a wife who poured herself into the young, dying vessel. His career in sales withered like the boy, his bills eclipsing his ability or motivation to pay them. I take a mental snapshot of a graveside ceremony and infuse it with life. I wait until I can smell the dirt, hear the quiet sobs, and taste the despair on the back of my throat before I allow my fingers to dispatch the words to the screen.
Now that I’ve ensconced him in a past, I take another quick inventory before sketching in his future. I glance in your direction and have to grin. You’re packing your things, no doubt unable to conjure the necessary words. Competition is beneath the serious writer, but I can’t help feeling like the winner. You collect your backpack, fleece jacket, and wrap up the half-sandwich you ignored for later. I have to wonder if your failure stole your appetite, then I feel guilty for wondering it. I watch you go, then turn back to see Henry hug himself against an unseasonably cold breeze. I decide the actual transition from fall to winter is the perfect metaphor for the rest of Henry’s story.
After a few quick paragraphs I regard him with fresh eyes. Henry is no mere puppet and I’m not his hero. I try and see past the man, or perhaps into him, for the fertile ground, the emotional fodder, the conflict, maybe even a few punch lines.
I can feel the story spilling out of me. I’m in a panic to type it all up before it gets away from me. That’s when I see you again from the corner of my eye and have to smile. It seems I’ve underestimated you yet again. You’re not giving up, but rather daring to experience your subject’s misery firsthand. It’s a brilliant stroke and fills me with envy. Where I’ve conjured nameless whiskey, you have the audacity to climb down from the writer’s perch and smell the man’s breath. You won’t have to guess if he’s high on cough syrup, bourbon, pot, or rat poison. You can stare up into his blinking eyes for any sign of sanity. In fact, it appears you’re willing to risk disease for your art. Or could it be that you just don’t have the chops to write about chapped hands without first shaking them?
Fresh insight floods my brain and I’m about to transcribe it when I see you hand over a warm cup of coffee and uneaten sandwich. When you shrug out of your fleece jacket and offer it to Henry, I realize there is no competition. And I have to second-guess my thoughts on inspiring potential readers. Henry’s broken face flickers as he leans down toward you. Then it dawns on me that we’re nothing alike, you and me.
When you don’t shrink away from his grateful embrace, I delete my open file and close the lid on my laptop.