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In the Light

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I can cry only if I let myself cry, which comes perilously close to saying I cry only if I make myself do it. So when I woke up in the dead of last night crying, I felt shame.

My sleep had been going poorly already. It wasn't a matter of disturbing dreams, simply a state of mind in which the thoughts of the day and the days before it persisted in place of dreams. There'd been a problem with the dog, who's becoming old and progressively incontinent, and there was my wife's latest X-ray, which the doctor had shown me, delicately referring to the shadow that wouldn't quite go away as "the disease," and there was my own growing sense of helplessness before the stern hand of fate. And so, whether for the dog, or my wife, or myself, or simply because it felt good, I cried.

I soon stopped, but I couldn't get rid of the bad feeling the crying left behind. This feeling carried over into my dreams when they did come, as eventually they always do. In one dream I was back in my store, working behind the counter. A customer had just purchased two packs of cigarettes and a few other items. When I went to total up the bill it occurred to me that cigarettes probably cost more than the 30-cent figure that immediately came to mind. I took a wild guess--32 cents. This business of undercharging customers for cigarettes had been in my dreams before, and carrying over from dream to dream was always the feeling that my wife, who worked many long hours in that store, was becoming more and more irritated at my inability to get such a simple matter right.

As if this weren't bad enough, I soon discovered I couldn't make the adding machine work. Our store had one of those old-fashioned mechanical adding machines that very reliably totaled things on a roll, but now, in the way of dreams, the paper somehow twisted up and got stuck. In despair I tried to total the bill with a pencil and paper. And of course soon discovered I'd forgotten how to add.

The general feeling of such a night's sleep was still with me when I sat at the kitchen table sipping my morning tea, wondering if I should attend the weekly free concert at the Cultural Center or simply stay home, pretending I had something more important to do. That was when the phone rang. I spoke briefly to my son, who had some computer talk to get out of his system. "Go to the concert," he concluded. "Go." He is a good son who seems to know what's actually in my heart.

Lately I find I have to force myself to do things I really want to do. I suppose this is a part of growing old, watching all the old passions dry away, until at last there's little left of the person you once were. There are magazines meant for older people, and numerous newspaper articles and television features addressed to the older generation as well, but I don't recall any of them ever taking up this problem or even admitting it exists. Instead we see color photographs of vigorous white-haired men and their slim postmenopausal wives bounding off to the tennis courts; presumably they'll make lusty love later, if they haven't already done it. This is what's called putting a positive spin on a situation everyone will get to experience sooner or later--unless fate steps in and provides a less welcome alternative.

I've been going to these concerts at the Cultural Center for a long time, at least a dozen years, and weekly since I retired. I always go alone. It's a wonderful, civilized way to spend not just the noon hour but the entire day, knocking around the Loop, visiting the library, sifting through book- and record stores, stopping for coffee and a muffin.

It hasn't been quite as much fun lately. I find it harder and harder to concentrate on the music, and the rest of it--all those pleasant leisurely things--must be done in a pleasant leisurely manner, which has been getting less and less possible. Today I would have time to visit the library briefly, walk the length of the Loop, eat my muffin, take in the concert, and hurry home to get my wife to the clinic by three. A classical guitarist was scheduled to perform, and in all probability his efforts would be amplified. One might as well stay home and play a record.

There was no denying the truth. I was going downtown for one reason and one reason only. Because my son had urged me to get out of the house.

I had no real business at the library, no books or records to return, no material to research, and no time to research it in, but for reasons too complicated to include here, I decided to see what they had on World War I and Big Bertha, the German gun that shelled Paris in 1918. I went straight to the computer, which promptly informed me that the Chicago Public Library, one of the largest in the nation, has no books on World War I. So much for the great information superhighway. By the time I had this straightened out--with the aid of a librarian who seemed only slightly less befuddled than I was--most of my hour was gone, and the uneasy mood that had begun with my nocturnal depression had darkened. It suddenly seemed imperative that I succeed at something, if only at finding a book I hadn't wanted until today.

World War I must have inspired enough books to stock an entire library, but what I finally turned up was several shelves of dusty volumes printed many years ago. When I began searching through them most seemed to be field histories of various American regiments. There wasn't one single word about Big Bertha. My time was almost up when I came upon a history of the Battle of Verdun, a killing field so horrific it's said that French soldiers on their way to the trenches bleated sardonically like sheep. I have never forgotten the stories my father told me about that war--none of which I entirely believed, since they so obviously contradicted what we saw in the movies. According to him, certain French regiments had been literally decimated by their own commanders when the men refused to enter battle, which is to say that every tenth man was singled out and stood before the firing squad. I made a quick check, found a chapter titled "Morale," and determined that my father had not only told the truth, but had understated it. Some rebellious regiments, it seems, were marched into open fields and shelled by their own artillery until no one was left. Young men who wanted only to live had been given the choice of one death or another.

This was not a very cheerful note on which to continue the day: 600,000, a million, a million and a half--no one knew for certain how many lay dead in the cold and blood-soaked mud for a cause they could hardly have understood or escaped. What an evil world this was. I would have been better off if I'd stayed home.

Walking north from the library, I noticed an attractive young woman about a dozen feet ahead of me. It was her hair more than anything else that attracted me, though there was nothing unusual about the color, black, or the texture, straight and soft, or the cut, not even shoulder length.

The closer I approached, the more clearly I saw that there were highlights in her hair, secret colors, hints, suggestions. She had the most beautiful hair I'd ever seen, and it did my heart good to see it. I wished there was some polite, nonthreatening way to tell her this. Then I realized that her companion, whom I'd hardly noticed, had equally beautiful hair. And that was when I became aware of the bright noon sun.

It was the sun that was making this young woman's hair beautiful, and it was the sun that was making her companion's hair beautiful. The sky had cleared unexpectedly, and the sun was straight overhead, turning the light on State Street into the kind of light artists travel far to find and treasure when they do find it. And this light was here, if only for this moment and if only for me, in the darkest, weariest month of our big-city winter on this busy, dirty downtown street. When I looked around I saw that it had touched everyone and everything, not just the hair of women but of men, and the clothes they wore, and the packages they carried in their hands, and the shoes they walked in--every fiber, every fabric, every color, every person, man and woman, young and old, rich and poor, beggar and banker and for all I know thief, silently, softly, mysteriously illuminated.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Armando Villa.

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