A Beautiful Crowd

At noon, we throw no shadows.  At noon, we are what we are.  Each one pinned to his or her own ground.  Separate as hell.  But look how we stretch over time.  The sun lowers and we step away.  What slender reaching figures we become, each turned into something new and mysterious and gracefully elongated.  Each exploring the surrounding landscape, dipping into the cracks and stretching over the crests and getting closer, closer to whomever might be passing. 

I knew a man once who lived in his car.  A tall, windburnt sixty-year-old with a greasy coat and silver stubble and dirt-lined hands.  A man who made rooms smell like fermenting bananas.  I would drive by him at noon, walking the road to town.  Always alone.  His hair blazing under the midday sun. And I didn’t stop.

But Doug showed up some afternoons at my open office door unannounced. 

His smell arrived in advance.  Then the tentative knock.  “Hello?”

He brought me stories—of a shop clerk who wouldn’t ring him up, of a lawyer who wouldn’t listen, of nuns who thanked him for his donation.  He gave me other stories, handwritten, about the zen-like focus of archery, about the dewy bejeweled spider web in his father’s pasture, about the two thousand mile bike ride he had undertaken as a young man all the way to New Orleans in winter, warming himself at night with a candle. 

In the winter Doug carves spoons.  Every winter, he carves elegant, ladle-like spoons.  It is his way to get through the blistering cold of northern Iowa and the enforced solitude of his Chevy sedan.  Each spoon is unique, made from hand-picked cherry wood or walnut or honey locust.  Each one is carved with its own special design—sometimes angular, sometimes nothing but curves.  He brought me a whole set one winter, rolled up in felt.  After lifting the packet out of his stained army-surplus coat, he unrolled it carefully, setting each spoon down on my desk.  Like little sculptures, those spoons rested there, with their long arching handles and precise oval cups.  Lit up by the late afternoon sun in my window, each threw down its own lovely shadow, a defined mirror image with lithe curves and planes and angles.  Together, I tell you, those spoons made a very beautiful crowd.  Just like you and me and all the others.  We make a beautiful crowd too, if we really stop and look.   

When I reached out to shake Doug’s hand that afternoon, he looked startled.  “I don’t know if you want to do that. I haven’t washed.”  And, to be honest, I didn’t want to shake.  But I did. And I’ve never regretted that decision since.

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