Wednesday, June 20, 2012

A Foolish Indulgence

The day had been hot, and it was apparent that the night would bring little relief. There was no wind, nothing but the humidity and the stillness and the swelling sleigh bells of the insect world jangling from somewhere in the trees and bushes. Up and down the block people were sitting out on the stoops of the apartment houses and duplexes, murmuring quietly and waiting for the darkness.

He was sweating profusely, and he was not a man who liked to sweat. It was a clammy sweat, sticky, persistent, difficult to make peace with. He knew he should find something to eat, but he had no appetite. He did not feel like eating.

It seemed to him that men had had no business blasting themselves into space time and again when there was so much puzzling emptiness yet to be explored on the planet that was their home.

He lived with the regular intrusion of sirens, erupting at all hours. They mostly bored him, even as they served as a constant reminder of the seemingly limitless ways in which human behavior, and the human body, could be tragic and disappointing.

His wife now lived in the country.

His mother had come to look after his two daughters, who were spending a few days with him. He loved his daughters very much, he supposed, but they were better off in the country with their mother.

He was in the half-finished attic bedroom over the second-floor apartment that he had rented many years ago with his wife. It was hot up there, but his mother and the girls had taken over the bedrooms downstairs.

The attic room had a window that allowed him to stare out into the street while he listened to the radio. His mother had given him some money, and he was drinking a beer imported from Germany, a foolish indulgence. The beer would be warm before he could get halfway through a bottle, and he was trying to drink fast.

Outside the window he saw his youngest daughter struggling along the sidewalk with a strange cat dangling from her arms. She had the cat by the underarms (if cats can be said to have underarms) and it was hanging almost to the little girl's feet.

Someplace out in the neighborhood an ice cream truck crawled tinkling through the dusk and the unmoving shadows of the condemned elms that were splayed in the streets. The sky to the west looked like it was bringing in some rain. That would be fine with him.

He was trying to think seriously about a photograph he had looked at many times in a book his wife had left behind. The photograph showed a Vietnamese monk seated calmly on a sidewalk, ablaze. There were other people in the photo as well, spectators, watching the monk burn. There were two men and a young girl. They all appeared to be leaning slightly away, as if they could feel the heat from the fire or were afraid the monk would explode.

The girl was holding a purse --or perhaps it was a book bag-- and it was this girl he was trying to think about. He was wondering about the girl, as he had before from time to time, wondering what she was thinking and feeling there as she watched that man burn for some apparent principle she was likely too young to understand. He was wondering what had become of the girl, frozen there for all time, trapped in that image, and he was curious about what effect that moment had on her as she grew older and went out into the world on her own. He wondered what had happened in her life since that day.

He also, of course, wondered about his daughters.

And then he thought about the monk.