I’m sitting at a coffee shop waiting for someone who never showed. In the midst of a crowd of people, a familiar loneliness engulfs my spirit like cold dark water, a frightening tide coming in at night, weighing me down, pulling me out, threatening to sweep me away—and I like it.
“Master, carest thou not that we perish?”
A bible study at the table next to mine. Two men and a woman, each with a musical Nigerian accent. The woman is the reader. She’s dressed in bright colors and her voice is as soft as a flower. The men sitting directly across from her are sipping lattes and actively listening with nods, “Yesss, Lord” and reverent mmm’s.
I order another coffee, black. Hidden beneath notebooks scratched to unreadable, I reach into my writing bag, pull out a bottle of whiskey and add an inch. The godly African man at my right shoulder pretends not to see. The hot drink is now tepid but warms my throat and sternum and belly in a different and better way.
A midget in a cherry red dress waddles to a far corner table across the room. She is carrying two notebooks and I wonder what is written on the inside of them. She is so squat that climbing up onto the chair becomes a subtle ordeal. I can’t help but stare. She nods at me and there is a brightness behind her eyes and I like her immediately.
To my left there is a young woman who looks like Cameron Diaz and she is interviewing a quiet and reserved bespectacled girl. She’s talking about her brand (a word which, for some reason, annoys me) and how the Internet will make you rich if you work hard at it. She’s very loud. She keeps glancing at me because she wants me to hear what is being said. “We just need more people on board. Jesus, I made so much money last year!”
I eavesdrop a little while longer. She’s talking about freedom but her plan sounds to me like bondage.
There’s another man who’s penning a very long sermon with a slanted Thomas Jefferson script. His table is overcrowded with commentaries and an ink-scarred Bible. He’s sipping on water. Maybe he’s fasting. His hair is as white as snow and I imagine that he must be a Presbyterian minister. He that openeth the scrolls.
A large clap on the floor startles me because the liquor is doing the trick. The tiny woman has dropped her cell phone. She is staring as if it were a poisonous snake. It’s very awkward and difficult for her to get in and out of the chair. I almost stumble to her table and pick up the phone. She thanks me with a sunshine expression and I have earned the right to ask what secret things are contained within her notebooks. Helen is eager to explain her personal notes for a class she’s about to teach concerning how to line your brain up with Jesus’ plan for your life. She mentions someone by the name of Carolina Leaf. She advises me to seek her out because she will connect me with divine guidance.
Jesus is the theme all around me tonight. Helen, the tiny lady in the red dress, suddenly seems as if she were a palm or a Tarot card reader. She gives me a séance smile and I politely excuse myself back to two thick volumes of Thomas Wolfe.
I love the south but soon the highway will take me north. I will look back over my shoulder, in love with this place, these curious people, and a blue eyed girl who has stolen my heart and sanity.
A distant train whistle taunts me. My calling is mysterious. I don’t know what it is. I’m not sure if Jesus has anything to do with it but I hope so.
I share the same birthday as Thomas Wolfe. Old October. I wish I had more in common with him because I am obsessed with the beauty of his poetical prose. Asheville (“Altamont”) is right up the road but I’m heading elsewhere and I damn don’t know why.
Almost an hour later, before I exit the coffee shop, I ask the Nigerian woman with the soft voice to read a paragraph of Thomas Wolfe to me and she does so, beautifully.
“The old hunger for voyages fed at his heart….To go alone…into strange cities; to meet strange people and to pass again before they could know him; to wander, like his own legend, across the earth–it seemed to him there could be no better thing than that.”
And (“Just one more, please, ma’am.”)
“All things on earth point home in old October; sailors to sea, travellers to walls and fences, hunters to field and hollow and the long voice of the hounds, the lover to the love he has forsaken.”
I thank the kind Christian woman and enter the cricket evening with loneliness, hope, and an troublesome excitement tugging at my heart.
The door closes behind me. For a split second, the aroma of coffee mingles with the warm southern air. I think of my blue eyed girl—whose tight embrace has always been home for me—and I am torn with pain between my comings and goings, between her rich reality and my poor illusions.