Copyright 2005 by Seth Chambers
It was on a sunny Spring day that everything I loved most in the world was snatched away.
When I first awoke that day, my beautiful wife was just stepping out of the shower, and there was a glint in her eye that told me I’d be a bit late for work this morning. And later, as I picked up my tool belt and was about to head out, my son dashed up to me, my hammer in his tiny hands. My hammer was his favorite toy: I had once bought him a plastic play-hammer but he would have none of that. Now I scooped him up into my arms and whirled him about. He laughed and screamed. Together, we whirled and laughed, whirled and laughed.
I remember feeling a wave of gratitude for how wonderful my life had become. I built homes for a living, as I had always wanted to do. I had a wife who couldn’t keep her hands off me, and the best son in the world. Stepping out the door that morning with Jennifer and Chad waving good-bye, my life had reached an all-time high.
It was the last time I saw them alive.
Should I go into detail about what happened? Or has the story of tragic loss, in one form or another, been told to death already? The details of the accident that took their lives could maybe fill a book, but none of that mattered. The fact is, they were walking through a parking structure when a minivan sped around a corner and killed them. End of story.
A police officer approached me at the job site while I was pounding in wall studs. He asked if I was Alex Griffin. I looked into the man’s eyes and knew my life was irrevocably changed. The hammer fell from my hand.
The next few days were a blur. Friends came by and mouthed words and were gone. Arrangements were made, insurance settlements conducted. None of it mattered. I paced about the house opening and closing cupboard doors. It didn’t matter. Nothing did.
The funeral came and went. Chad was buried with my hammer clutched in one tiny hand. Words were said at the service. Friends hugged me. Nobody ever knows what to say at times like these. People you’ve known forever recite trite platitudes like, “If there’s anything I can do…” My friend Aaron told me a story about The Buddha while I stood there wondering if he had rehearsed the tale before coming.
“A widow once came to the Buddha wondering if he could help her through her grief,” he said. I nodded while my mind worked like some mechanical toy. I don’t think I had ever heard Aaron talk about the Buddha before. Our last conversation had been about watching women volleyball players. It seemed a lifetime ago.
Aaron went on, saying that the Buddha told her he could, indeed, help her, but would need certain, particular herbs, which she agreed to gather. But, says the Buddha, there is a provision: these herbs must all come from households which had not suffered loss, tragedy or death. She went out in search. Of course, every household she goes to has suffered loss. And so, in her search, she learned she was not alone in her grief.
My mind worked that story over and over after I got home from the funeral. It didn’t comfort me so much as helped my mind to zone out. People came by to visit but, again, none of it mattered. I paced from room to room and out to the front porch and around to the back. I did this for a week, then two weeks, then sometime into the third week I stepped out my front door for the last time. I don’t know what I was really thinking, or if I was thinking at all. Maybe I intended to take the same journey as the widow in the Buddha story. Certainly I didn’t expect to find such a household—one that has not felt the sting of death or loss at some time—but it was something to do.
I walked to the downtown bus station and caught the first Greyhound out of town.
I didn’t know what was in store for me and I certainly had no idea I would start speaking Truths and conveying Revelations to people all over the world. All I knew was that I could not stand to walk back into my house one more time, nor could I even stand to step into my pickup. Too many memories. I had to leave it all behind.
It was in the middle of nowhere that I delivered my first Message. The U.S. is a big country, and all the bigger when riding a bus. A lot bigger, and often boring. The bus I was on stopped at every out-of-the-way burg on the map, and one such place was in the midst of 500 miles of flat, dry land.
I had been zoning from having stared out the window forever when a tall, lean Mexican boarded. He shoved his bags in the overhead rack and took the seat next to mine. I was only half awake when my head sort of lolled to one side, my mouth opened, and words spilled out unbidden: “Get off the bus.”
Rage clouded the man’s face, but I went on: “Get off. Go back home. Lucinda forgives you. She understands. Everything is going to be okay.”
Rage warred with confusion on his face. In Spanish, he demanded to know who I was. In English, I told him I was nobody. It was then that I realized I had spoken to him originally in Spanish. Only I don’t even know Spanish beyond the basics. He kept firing questions at me. I came fully awake, aware that I was in danger of getting my ass kicked. “I’m sorry, I don’t know what I was saying. I think I was sleeping or something,” I said.
The bus doors closed. The man looked at me hard. The bus shifted into gear and we lurched forward. The man grabbed my shoulders in his big hands. “Bless you, senor! Bless you!” He snatched his bag from the rack. “You have a gift, my friend. A gift!” Then he shouted, “Driver! Wait! I changed my mind, stop the bus!”
I did not know what had just happened, but it seemed I had passed some sort of invisible barrier. It began happening more and more as time went on. It was a strange thing, but at least it gave me something to occupy my mind. Reactions to these “messages” varied widely, of course, but they always seemed to convey some sort of good news, or at least useful information. Often I’d end up having money foisted on me, tokens of appreciation, not that money meant all that much to me any more.
I traveled by whim, intuition and serendipity. Quickly tiring of the bus, I went by train to San Francisco, Monterrey, Albuquerque, Dallas, Fargo, and countless points in between. I delivered Messages on an average of four or five times a day. I gathered a small fortune along the way and in Chicago I decided I might as well travel the world as well as the states. Why not? I had no place to call home.
I went to Turkey and China and Italy. I bought and discarded phrase books along the way, but as for the Messages that came out of my mouth during those times: Language was no barrier. I delivered the Messages in foreign tongues as easily as in English.
Nothing seemed real. I met hundreds of people in my travels. Every now and then somebody would ask what I did for a living and I’d be at a loss for what to say. “Divine Messenger,” perhaps? One of my “divine messages” was to an elderly lady in San Francisco: “Buy a ticket,” I said to her. She bought a lottery ticket and won five thousand dollars. “I used to be addicted to these things,” she told me. “Sometimes I’d even win, but no matter how much I won, it never covered my losses. But now a stranger comes out of nowhere and…”
She insisted I take a hundred dollars.
Days and months passed. I had ideas about what these messages were and where they came from, but nothing more. Maybe I was Chosen, I don’t know. In any case, I kept traveling and delivering Messages because I didn’t have anything else to do. I could not bear the thought of returning home and trying to start my life over.
In Amsterdam I told an American tourist where he had left his traveler’s checks; in China I said something in Mandarin to a young woman that made her jump up and shriek in delight; in Barcelona I told a police officer where he could find the body of a murder victim (I just barely escaped being hauled in as a suspect, myself); in Hungary I led a young man to his soul mate; in Ireland I gave a man the lost combination of his family safe.
Then, still following intuition, I flew to New Orleans where I delivered my biggest Message yet.
It was October and I walked without direction through the Cities of the Dead. Caught a cab, rode around, got out, meandered through the French Quarter, stopped in a bar on Bourbon Street. I delivered no Messages and felt no guidance to do so.
I wondered if something inside me had burned out. I felt like crap and realized I had been wearing the same clothes for way too long and was badly in need of a shower and a shave. I wondered if a Divine Messenger should be better kempt. Or maybe the Wildman look was more appropriate for an itinerant prophet.
Sunset came and still I delivered no Messages, nor did I feel any inclination to do so. Had something gone wrong? Had I fallen out of sync? Out of grace? Or had the Big G just granted me a day off? Well, fuck it in any case, I thought. I didn’t ask for this job. If “job” is even the right word for this weird thing I do.
I went into another bar and ordered a hurricane and some deep-fried snacks made from alligator. I seriously considered the possibility that much of what had been happening the past months were merely my own delusions. That would be the most rational explanation. But as I stepped out of the bar I felt something stir inside me. My Talent, or whatever it is, had been resting up. I didn’t know what it could be, but this wasn’t business as usual. I found myself striding quickly and purposefully, although to where I didn’t know.
The drink haze cleared from my brain. I forced myself to stop at one point. It seemed important to me that I was not a slave to this thing. I knew I could deny it, could turn away and not deliver any more Messages. But the thought of quitting filled me with sadness.
I could refuse to go, refuse to deliver these Messages. Then, knowing that, I said “yes” to it and let it guide me along.
I took a cab and got out in front of an office building. The business day was over and there were only a few people in the place. My heart pounded as I waited for the elevator.
Near, so near…
The doors opened and I stepped in. There was one other person in the elevator, a pretty but tired-looking woman. The doors closed and I looked at this person, who was looking away, her head bowed, her arms folded tightly across her chest.
I approached her, only a step but it was a deliberate step and she turned toward me then. Our eyes met. There was such a sadness there, sadness and terrible visions. Our eyes locked and a flood of compassion came over me.
“Don’t do it, please don’t do it!” I said, and it was anything but a routine message. Perhaps those were the most important words I’ve ever uttered, and I found myself saying them over and over because it wasn’t just words coming forth but boundless love. And there were those visions, fleeting glimpses of her past and the terrible thing she was planning to do about it. I could not let her take her own life, could not allow her to exit the world in such despair and misery.
Suddenly we were in each other’s arms, weeping, as the elevator went up and down, up and down. I whispered things to her, things like, “God loves you,” and meant every word with all my heart. After a long time we slowly pulled apart.
“Who are you?” she asked.
I smiled, touched her cheek and told her to take care.
That had been the only Message of the day, but it had taken everything out of me. My head reeled. I checked into the first hotel I came across, slipped into my room and fell threw myself on the bed.
I dreamt that Chad and Jennifer were in the room with me. Chad was waving my hammer about, looking for nails to pound. Jennifer kept saying something I couldn’t quite catch.
I awoke and could not get back to sleep. Chad’s laughter echoed in my mind, bringing me back to that last morning with them and how beautiful everything was... until the police officer approached me at work…
Jennifer and Chad had stepped out of the car just as an angry driver was racing through the parking structure. It would have taken so little to prevent it! Had there been a quarter some feet away and Jennifer walked over to pick it up, they would not have been in the van’s path at that instant. Or if they had sat in the car another minute to listen to a favorite song on the radio. Or if some stranger, a Divine Messenger, had come by and said, “Watch out, a maniac’s about to speed by.”
It would have taken so damn little!
I jumped up and threw on all the lights. Looked at myself in the mirror. What had I become? Some drifter who jaunted about the world delivering good news to everybody else while I had no life of my own? Why was I cursed to shuffle about like some somnambulist, like some zombie, giving hope and happiness to everybody else while I had nothing? WHY?
I kicked the walls, screamed and tore the mirror from the wall.
“WHY?!” I screamed.
Why, why, why was I some fucking bum? Why was having a normal life too much to ask? I screamed again, stomped about and kicked the door. WHO WAS I? I remembered times when people had told me I had “a gift,” and that set me off even more. Some fucking GIFT! It had cost me everything in the world so how the hell could that be considered A GIFT?
I threw lamps across the room, raging against the Powers That Be.
If God or whoever or whatever wanted more messages delivered… Why, He or She or It or They could just find some other stooge because I FUCKING QUIT!
The manager came to my door with two security goons. He requested I leave the hotel, which I did without argument.
I went to the airport out of rote. I had several thousand dollars and scads of frequent-flyer points. I could feel My Talent urging me to go to Japan. I thumbed my nose at it and flew to London, instead.
I tried to run. Every time I felt drawn to somebody, I turned away. I wandered the streets of London for a time, then got away from the city and the masses of people. The messages wanted me to fly to China and the U.S. and India, so I stayed in England. But I could still feel that strange intuition reaching out, seeking people who needed vital information. I denied it.
One time it caught me off guard.
I was sitting in a café near Stratford-on-Avon when I looked up and saw a smartly-dressed man tapping away on a laptop computer the next table over. He looked up and our eyes met. I opened my mouth to say something like, “Hi, how you doing? but a different set of words came out instead: “You left your disks behind at the amphitheatre.”
“I beg your… Do I know you?”
I only smiled, shook my head, and went back to my coffee. He went off to make a phone call. When he returned, he said, “They had just thrown them away by mistake, the custodial staff there. I left them, just like you said. The old absent-minded professor syndrome, I guess. But they’re safe now and you about saved all my work of this last year. Damn computers, anyway.”
“Glad I could be of assistance.”
We introduced ourselves. His name was John Brubaker. We shook, then John reached for his wallet. I told him no, I had plenty of money.
“But really, you did me a valuable service just now.”
“Forget it. It’s just this thing I do.”
“It’s quite a gift,” he said. Then he scowled and said, “Or maybe it’s more of a curse?” “You’re quite a perceptive man, professor. Just what kind of professor are you, anyway?”
“Associate Professor of Totally Useless Information, some would say. Philosophy and Ethics.”
Well then, I have somewhat of an ethical and philosophical conundrum for you…”
I guess I hadn’t realized, until that moment, how much I really needed to talk to somebody. I joined Associate Professor John Brubaker at his table and we had supper together. It was not a bad meal, as far as food you can get in England goes. And for reasons I cannot explain, I felt totally at ease around him.
I told him that my Big Ethical and Philosophical Question was very personal and difficult to ask.
“Now I am even further intrigued,” he said.
Through the rest of the meal and desert, I danced around his questions. Then, while I had coffee and John, Englishman to the core, sipped his tea, I finally told him about my life before the Messages began. About Jennifer and Chad, about the accident and the funeral, then I doubled back and talked about how Chad loved my damn hammer.
At one time tears started to flow and when I apologized John said, “Don’t worry, anyone asks I’ll tell them you’re a bloody cold-hearted bastard who never shed a tear.”
I got myself together and went on to tell him how I had sold and given away most everything I owned and set off to go nowhere in particular. “Don’t worry,” I assured him. “I really do have a Big Question to pose eventually.”
“Take your time,” he said, then went off to call his wife and tell her he’d be late. And late it became. Fortunately, it was a Friday.
I told John about the Messages and the traveling about and how people would often foist money on me for the information I related. I told him about a dozen different instances in which I delivered information I had no way of knowing to people I had never met in languages I didn’t know. I asked him if he believed me.
“I’ve seen you in action,” he said. “But anyway, your Question is…?”
“My Question? Isn’t it obvious? I want to know if I’m some sort of Divine Messenger. That’s the philosophical bit. As for the Ethical bit, do I have the right to quit like I did?”
Being England, I awoke to the sound of a rain shower. The shower turned to a downpour. John had insisted I spend the night in his guest room, since I had no other place to stay. And now I lay in bed listening to the storm until I heard voices in the kitchen, at which point I tiptoed out.
“Morning,” said John.
“Morning,” I said, watching a leak in the ceiling form a stream which broke at one point to go drip, drip, dripping into a bucket by the fridge.
“Our way of communing with Mother Nature,” said a plump, cheerful-looking woman. “I’m Jocelyn, John’s wife, but I’m sure you figured that out. Here, have some coffee.”
“I didn’t think you English drank coffee.”
“We do in this household. High-octane’s the only way to start the day, although java’s more rare and precious than gold around here. We’ll gear down to tea later on.”
I took a sip and wondered what all John had told her about me.
As if reading my mind, she said, “John tells me you’ve been traveling a bit, but not much else. If you don’t mind me being a snoop, what is it you do? For a living, I mean?”
I looked at the runnels of water trailing along the ceiling and I looked at the drip bucket. For the first time in forever I felt at home. “I’m a carpenter.”
“A carpenter, very good. So as Jesus.”
Did I invite myself to stay? Did they invite me? That part is blurry but I stuck around. I re-shingled the roof, when weather allowed repaired the front porch, girded up the rear balcony and took on numerous other projects around the house. Payment beyond room, board and company was of no interest to me. I felt generously compensated. Also in the Brubaker household were John and Jocelyn’s two daughters, Linda and Caroline. Linda was a popular senior in high school. Caroline was a post-grad student; she was smart, successful and perfectly content to still be living at home at twenty seven years of age.
From time to time the messages called me to move on, but I said “no” and they quieted. I busied myself with numerous home projects, with making trips into town to acquire supplies at hardware stores and lumber dealers, with dealing with pounds instead of dollars, with reminding myself to look left instead of right when crossing the street… Nothing much, really, but something like a normal life.
I was quickly adopted as a part of the Brubaker family, through some strange sort of kismet or another. We played Scrabble and talked endlessly about everything, including my old life and the accident. Or, almost everything. Only John and I knew about my Talent and the Messages, and that was a subject we would reserve for late night discussions at the kitchen table, just the two of us
“I think maybe you have a knack for being in the right place at the right time,” he once told me. “Maybe a lot of people have that knack, but most… Well, most people are rooted to one spot, or go where their own career and circumstances take them, and so cannot go with the flow.”
“You mean, most people have a life.”
“I think that when you lost everything, Alex, you became empty.”
I thought about the days following the funeral when I sleep-walked through life feeling like a hollow shell. “Yeah, you’re right there.” “So then you were able to be filled up again, but with something new.”
And that would lead us off on more conjectures and speculations. It was so easy to sit around talking about my Talent or Gift or Curse, and talking about the Messages, as if it were all some far-away mystical world. But the whole time we batted about ideas, something inside me stirred.
“Do you think I should get back to work?” I would sometimes ask.
“A bit late at night to go crawling around on the roof.”
“That’s not what I meant. I mean, maybe I should be out delivering my Messages. A Divine Messenger can hardly stay on strike forever.”
“Oh, you’re divine, are you? Well, Your Holiness, I’d hate to see you go, but…” Then he’d adopt a Yoda-voice: “But if go you must…”
My passport was wearing thin and I was wondering about how hard it would be to become an English citizen. I began having long, animated conversations with Caroline while I hammered and sawed and painted my way through the year. John sometimes hinted about what a decent son-in-law I’d make.
A new life. A normal life. It could happen.
I was happy and at-home there with the Brubakers. They were an open, trusting family and seemed to have uncommonly good fortune. Both of John’s parents were still alive and feisty in their eighties, as were Jocelyn’s parents. Not only that but nobody in the family had ever, as far as I could tell, lost any friends due to accident or suicide or crime or sickness. Only ripe old age ever took anyone associated with either side of the family. Even pets had all lived long, full lives before slipping into that Good Night.
Unlike the woman in that parable, I had found a household that didn’t know sorrow.
I awoke around three in the morning knowing it was time to go. I started to pack, but decided there was nothing I really needed. I tiptoed out but not so quietly that John didn’t hear.
“Getting back to work, are you?”
“They’re calling to you? The Messages?”
“Yeah. Yeah, that’s exactly it.”
It was a fib. But I didn’t want to tell him that what had roused me from a sound sleep was the thought that it didn’t matter that their family didn’t know sorrow. It didn’t matter because, eventually, some day, they would. And if I left, if I got back to work, maybe I’d be able to do my small part at alleviating a few of the countless sorrows in the world.
John offered me a ride into town but I declined. I needed a good, long walk. We said a few, final words, then I was off.
By the time I made the airport I was sweaty and scruffy. My plan was to take a jaunt to Heathrow, then see where the spirit led from there. Did I still have the Talent? I found myself hoping I did, even looking forward to getting back to “work.” If I still had it, then I could bring hope and even joy to people around the world. I thought about that night in New Orleans when I raged out against God.
Maybe that, plus my subsequent strike, had knocked the Talent out of me. If that was so, then what would I do? I wondered if God, or Whatever or Whoever, could forgive me.
I dozed in a chair near the ticket counter. After about an hour a young couple came by hauling suitcases to the boarding platform. Their little girl trailed behind, running to keep up. By this time I was in a stupor from my long walk and lack of sleep. My head sort of lolled and I called out, “Pooh-bear’s still in the locker!”
The little girl broke and ran back to the baggage lockers. Her parents called out for her in exasperation. The girl reached into a locker, pulled out Pooh, then raced over to me. “Thanks, mister,” she said, planting a kiss on my cheek.
Then, before her fussing parents could haul her away
from the grubby airport bum, she looked in my eyes and said,
“Jennifer and Chad send their love.”
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