THE MAN WHO KEPT SILENCE
Ann woke me up when she came back from work. She was still wearing her scrubs from the ICU, her stethescope dangling from a side pocket. She paced back and forth while I struggled to sit up in the water bed. As usual, I felt a little stupid coming awake at 4:30 in the afternoon. Maybe talking would bring me around.
"Hey. How's it goin'?" I tried. The corner of our water bed frame - actually, four 2 by 12's nailed together - provided her with a perch. I rolled over and put my head in her lap. "So what happened today?"
"You know that guy who walks around in the long white robe?"
"Yeah, I've seen him. He's got a hood, and long hair and a beard. Looks Indian, but he's just a dark American?" He was strange, but only by outside standards; in Venice, he was a model citizen. He walked the streets and alleys, mostly along Pacific and Ocean Front, always wearing a long white rough linen robe with a rope sash, no socks, and ratty brown sandals. His furry face was deeply tanned and pock-marked; his thick brown hair dangled in his eyes. Always alone, he seemed intent on his destination, and moved with an inner peace. Now I began to think he was moving to inner voices.
"Yeah, that's him. Well, he doesn't talk."
"Whaddya mean? You mean he can't talk? Or is it some kind of religious thing?"
"I don't know." She laughed. Her laugh sounded accidental, like she had just now realised the whole thing was actually funny. "I picked him up on the way home. He was hitch-hiking."
"You picked him up? Why'd you do that?" Ann was not in the habit of sharing her red VW bug with strangers. Something about this guy must have seemed safe.
"Well, I've seen him around.He was walking along Ocean Front, where the new buldings are going up. He must've been coming back from the grocery store, cause he had some bags with him; he looked tired. Anyway, I asked him where he was going, and then I noticed he was wearing a sign. It says he's keeping silence."
"What's that mean, he's keeping silence? It really sounds like some sort of religious thing, you know, umm, pennance? Or maybe he's a monk or something."
"I don't know - he wouldn't tell me!" She gave me that accidental laugh again. She sounded just like my old college girlfriend, Susie, who had seemed so sure of herself, she would laugh out loud at things as she thought them. "I mean, he's keeping silence, right? So he can't say anything about himself."
"Well, did you try to communicate with him by sign language or anything? How can he do anything? How can he buy groceries? How does he rent a place to live?"
"He got a ride home with me without saying anything, didn't he? He must have been doing this for years - he's probably really good at it by now. I just asked him if he needed a ride, and he nodded yes. So he's not totally non-communicative, just ... you know, silent."
I tried to picture it. Venice between Rose and the Boulevard was the last slum on the beach. To the north and the south, condos, re-builds, and high rises were bringing in people with real jobs, who liked the idea of having weirdos nearby , but didn't want to actually interact with them. North of Rose, where Pacific Ocean Park used to be, someone had taken about five blocks worth of land, torn down the last remnants of the roller coaster and midway, and started putting up two 20 story towers across the street from the beach. In response, a local bakery had turned into "The Boulangerie", complete with outdoor brick patio and twenty different kinds of wine to drink with bread and cheese. This guy must have walked into that store, and brought home his wholesome meal of sourdough and gouda. Where did he get his money?
"That's great!" I speculated, "Here's a guy who's actually living out his philospophy. He probably believes talking is a corruption of the pure spirit or something like that - like it injects the ego into reality, and he's some Buddhist who's trying to dissolve his ego, and the only way he can get there is by not talking."
"I don't know, but it was really weird, him sitting back there ... "
" He was in the back of your car? How did he fit - I mean, he's kind of a big guy, isn't he?"
"It seemed to be where he wanted to be, so I pushed the seat forward for him ... anyway, it got weird, cause I started doing all the talking" - she giggled again - "of course he couldn't talk, could he? So I just babbled on, trying to goad him into saying something."
"Did it work?"
"No. This guy's really good ... he's had a lot of practice, I guess."
"I don't know. Women say a lot of guys won't talk."
She glared at me. My strong silent type impersonations didn't go over with her at all. "I just tried playing with him, asking where he lived, where he was from, where he wanted me to take him."
"Where did you take him?"
"He didn't give any sign of where he wanted to go, so I told him I was going to our house, and he could get out there. When I turned in the alley, I just let him out, and he started walking down Pacific."
"I'll bet he lives out in the canals." The canals are the original part of Venice, built in the early 1900's. Instead of streets, the houses are on little ditches connected to the ocean. Arches - bridges - carry sidewalks from one side to the other. The houses are tiny, old, and falling apart. The canals outlet to the sea long ago got clogged up, and now they're just filled with rain water, run off, and garbage. It would be very easy to be invisible there.
"Maybe. You know what was funny? I started speculatng to him on why he wasn't talking, which then I thought was a little rude, so I told him that. Then I started analyzing why I was apologizing to him. I started out trying to get his goat, and ended up talking about me and my faults. I just couldn't keep quiet around him; I had to fill up the space he made out of silence. You think that's what going to a psychiatrist is like?" Ann knew I'd gone to medical school wanting to be a shrink, and that I'd dropped the idea after giving it a short try in the first two years.
"Hah! That's why I decided not to become one, I guess, 'cause I couldn't shut up when people told me their problems. I wouldn't be much goodto them if I did all the talking, would I?"
"I don't think I could do that," Ann said.
"What, be a psychiatrist?"
"No. Keep silence. I couldn't do that. I need to talk to people, to reach out. I just can't imagine what it would be like to be him, never saying anything. It's way too disciplined for me."
"Maybe it's all he can do. Maybe he just gets into trouble when he talks. Maybe he feels safer this way. Maybe talking is too disciplined for him."
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