This is an old short story that I wrote in 1995. As I recall, it’s the proper length that a short story is supposed to be. I didn’t try to make it that length, it just turned out that way. I only mention this because it strikes me as funny. Why? Because “A Night in the Life” is the first piece of prose where, in writing it, I threw away all the rules (at least as I perceived them to be at the time). It’s also the first piece of prose that wasn’t a struggle to write, the first one I finished, and the first one I’d written that I felt was ok. Among other reasons, this style of writing worked for me because I let the poetry out to play, and found my prose voice because of it.
This story seems to fit in with the feel of the Bus Stop Adventures, though it’s more of a walking past bus stops adventure in that the character moves through the streets of the city on his way home. It also seems like this piece and “Three Portraits” will one day be parts of the same book. Actually, I’m beginning to feel that every prose piece I write will eventually be part of the one story. Maybe when all the pieces have shown up, I’ll see the threads that weave it all together and I’ll know what the book is about. I have my suspicions. Until then, here’s a possible chapter from the book that might yet be.
There’s one more thing that I wanted to say first though. In the story, I mention “Hobo’s Lullaby.” I would imagine that a lot of people have recorded this song. One of them was Woody Guthrie (also mentioned in the story) and another was his son, Arlo Guthrie. Arlo’s performance of the song is the one that was always my favourite. If you haven’t heard this tune, I thought I’d like to turn you on to what a great old song this is. I went looking for a video of Hobo’s Lullaby on YouTube and found this really nice version of it performed by Mike Sinatra. If you’d like to hear it, just click on the link above. It’ll open in a new tab so that when you leave YouTube, you’ll be right back here.
A Night in the Life
My name is Jack Devin. You might say I’m a liar who’s obsessed with the truth. In other words, a writer. If you want to classify me by how much money I make at it, then you’d have to call me something else. But what I am, to the bone, is a writer, a translator of every cruel or beautiful thing the universe sees fit to place before my senses. Show me a tree, and I’ll tell you how he feels deep in his heartwood about the warmth of winter sleep. Show me a sky, and I’ll fill it with sparrow dreams, black crow magic, and spiraling eagles. Show me a woman, and I’ll speak of sorcery and angels, passion, compassion, and the wisdom of eyes. Perceptional shifts are my stock and trade. It’s what I do, what I’ve always done. And now I do it for me. Thoughts of changing a few hearts have not totally abandoned me but, for the most part, I keep working because it feels right to do so. With or without pen and paper, I write to decode existence, to create my world from the stray scraps of old flying carpet found lying around this oh so sensible world.
Mind you, I’m not the only deviant who, dissatisfied with the zombie inclination, insists on undiluted life. I won’t take all the blame, or credit for that matter, if anyone from the normal world ever notices that we’re up to no good down here in steerage. We’re rocking the boat, looking for loose boards that might sink the complacent insanity ship once and for all, leaving the unprepared swimming for their lives which have just been sighted heading in the opposite direction. Sometimes we work alone, sometimes in groups, odd clans of word chiselers chipping away at wooden phrases till deception disappears below the surface and smoothly sculpted lifeboats for the shipwrecked appear, equipped with sails of faith and fearless open mind, a heart rudder, a wide range of hopefully accurate metaphysical maps, and enough food for thought to make it to shore. We are the agents of Her Majesty’s Secret Service and, loyal to our queen, the muse, we attempt to heal the wounded ways of living, giving, loving. Ah yes, the writing group, a home away from home for the homeless this side of heaven where dreamers come together on the shifting common ground.
One such group had just finished another night of talk and words on paper, each of us seeming to be excited by the way this gang of writing writers was plotting out past and future moves. How to win at this game of paragraphs to chapters to novels was beyond us at the moment, but we knew we couldn’t lose and that was enough.
The evening’s writing exercise had taken a surprising turn. I’d meant it to be the old poetic thing: a wild ride down dark and windy avenues, hoping lightning might light up what the wind blew my way. It had ended up starting silly but finishing serious and personal. And though no tears fell, something slowed and silently clicked inside as if a little truth had somehow found the door to daylight and was considering escape. In the piece, Christ in the clouds had comforted me by saying, “It’s all right, Jack.” I’m not religious, spiritual’s closer, but somewhere along the road home, I began to think that the story might be an unconscious prayer aimed at our source and the long walk through the late-show city just might be the answer.
Strolling along, hat in hand (not begging so much as open to the possibilities of magic), I realized that my hand was cold. I could have put my hat on, put the cold hand in a pocket like the warm one, but I wanted my head free (a good epitaph), and somehow a cold hand felt good on July 3, 1995.
On the steps of Centennial Hall, not in the dark but near the shadows, a woman sat. I remember her hair as being long and black, though it may not have been. She had on a long black skirt or dress. And sandals. Her face and body were far enough away that she could have been anyone I wanted her to be. Her arms and legs were at odd angles and, though every part of her seemed placed perfectly by some invisible photographer, she seemed unconscious of the effect it created. This was the kind of pose a professional might ask of a model for art, fashion, or simply because he liked the way it looked and what it did to him. Trendy, sure, but still saying something well. Quickly, strongly, well. I don’t know, a kind of confident, earthy, independent woman with hints of Europe attached, though the reason for Europe escapes me at the moment.
I imagined her calling me over, telling me a hard luck story I’d believe, and offering to sleep with me for the money she needed. I would have given her some money, told her that’s all I could spare, and said the love wasn’t necessary.
I couldn’t see her well enough, other than the pose, to be attracted to her, other than the pose, but maybe another night, things would have been different. Who was she really? A dancer on a motionless break from rehearsal. A cellist suddenly lonely for her instrument inside. An apartment dweller, making contact with the street, adrift on some warm fantasy of cool nights waiting for a lover, the right one. The latter interested me more, but not for the obvious reason. I didn’t want her dream, just her humanity. Just wanted to stop, step into that sad space, put my arm around her and say, “It’s all right. Don’t give up. He’ll come someday.” Because they always do, you know. I moved on, never having actually physically stopped or even slowed my stride.
I passed a bench in front of the square behind City Hall. An old couple was sitting there in the dark. Beside them, a garbage can on a short pole was beyond full. Bulging plastic grocery bags were hung around it. I couldn’t decide if someone had increased the can’s capacity this way or if they were actual groceries belonging to the couple. I kept moving, feeling that if I’d stayed long enough, I might have seen the whole unit turn carousel-like and rise above its earthbound station in life. While this idea appealed to me, I was afraid my presence might embarrass the old folks if they decided to jump on and ride the refuse-go-round into the night sky, grandly spinning upward, heaven bound, smelling like hell. Such flighty behaviour, they may not have wished me to witness. I respected their privacy and was not too disappointed, already knowing that, on this particular night, there were other things in store for the likes of me.
At Dufferin, I spotted a couple of neighbours I’ve never met. They were half a block away and already appeared as odd as they always do to me and as odd as I probably always do to them. These women keep turning up in unexpected places. I can never put my finger on what’s different about them, but this unknown quality, if not specific, never fails to be obvious. It expands outward from the movable musical bubble of babble that precedes their entrance into my quiet world, affecting adjoining space with an intensity that never fails to make me smile. With these particular poets (though they may never have written a line), it’s not what they’re saying, but how it’s expressed. Maybe that’s what’s different. Small as they are, they’re just somewhat larger than normal chunks of people-picture-insights walking down the street, not trying to be noticed, but nevertheless carrying huge hidden signs that, to the trained eye, read, “The world is here, now, and full of fascinating characters. People are the point of this shadow play. Wake-up!” In short, I like them. Kindred crazies, I guess. So, although I was suspicious, in a friendly way, of the universe’s intentions in this matter, I decided to let it pass. If they end up being there every time I turn around, so what. I suppose I’d rather be spied on by strange people than normal ones. Strange people usually allow for a certain amount of eccentricity in others. I know I always do.
At Queens, a woman had left her car idling between the stoplight and the library and was checking out her rear bumper and the road behind it. I wondered if she’d heard a noise while running over a pop can or a librarian. I decided not to investigate. I’m very fond of librarians. They’re always helpful, polite, and free. The sincerity of “helpful and polite” is always questionable when you’re a paying customer. What is the man behind the counter really thinking when he’s handing you the refund that’s already paid his phone bill?
Passing the bank, I felt the peace emanating from the vault, the heart of the building. Sleeping stacks of problem-solving big bills rested quietly in hundreds of careful customers’ finally carefree dreams. Assured of their importance, they only wish they could do more. Profit’s not a fit pursuit for a thousand dollar bill, just as business does not interest the bank itself. It wants to give freely, make everything come true, till the last quarter rolls out the door and dust stops the clock from waiting for freedom. The beautiful heart of the kind old bank dreams itself a concert hall, a cool, cashless cave echoing the sound of empty. In Dracula daylight, it’s just so much cold stone, steel, and plastic. Ropes to hold the horses back. Wickets everywhere, place your bets. What will the teller tell you when the race has run its course? Can you live to tell the tale of what you meant to do? Even tomorrow’s drizzly commute may shift down deadhead work shifts to a non-existent gear. What then? Spend the future’s reward?
The night bank speaks to me: so much peace, so many dreams, so much money not in my pocket. Pennies for my thoughts will not pay the rent but may give my son something to read someday. So the pen moves again.
As I rounded the corner onto Dundas, I could hear drums. No fanfare mind you, but drums are nothing to sneeze at. A few nights before, I’d written something about a character’s dream: “It always starts with drums.” And now it was happening, and the magic of the dream was really here. A simple yet intricate beat, repeating over and over, woke spirit body rhythms within me. Primitive joy bounced off city canyon walls. Young women danced odd, exotic shapes, shadows in shadow, singing high howls against and for the night. No, that’s wrong. Not against the night. I couldn’t see their faces, but I knew their hearts. They were for the night, being the night themselves, and at home with the mysteries as all women unconsciously are.
Drummer and dancers. Such a wild beauty. Such a heartbeat vision thundering. Such a recklessness down the right road. Drummer and dancers, not wasting one second on what the world might think, spinning with sound and movement a web of life lessons before your very eyes, ladies and gentlemen. Watch closely as inhibition disappears in the free fall to flight we call art. Confidence turning gold to golden, life to light, forging children in the fire of passionate dream till they are all that all of us were always meant to be.
A police truck was parked on the next cross street, its tail almost poking out into Dundas. A cop in the phone booth wrote in his ticket book while talking on the phone. Part of me wanted to leave before finding out if drumming was illegal. I looked at my watch. 10:30 p.m. Whose sleep could it be disturbing? Cleaners perhaps, ten minute catnapping in the board room.
A man, kittycorner to me (though I suddenly realized I’d never seen a cat downtown), waited with an incredibly large bowl in his hands. Possibly for a very large cat. He stood for a minute, looking beyond me to the sound of the drum, paced a while, then got in a car that pulled up. I pictured him thinking, “What overflowed here tonight, I can never collect in a bowl, no matter how big.”
I stayed, enjoying the suspense. The cop truck pulled out, went north on Clarence, and seemed to turn right on Queens – a one way, wrong way. I waited for him to circle the block, back to the scene of the crime, but only a garbage truck appeared. I laughed. You can’t stop music that way. The garbage man passed me by, my disguise had worked. He got out, crossed the street, and grabbed a can that sat next to a burger place. Dragging it back across the intersection, he made a din of old dinner tunes that was loud enough to drown out the percussion section of a symphony orchestra. Soon after, the drummer’s rhythm speeded up, then slowed, single beating to a stop. I said a whispered thanks to him (or her) and the young ladies, and headed for home. I even said goodnight to the Native cartoon woman and “all eight movie toys” on the burger joint’s poster. After having seen natives of this city drum and dance on its sidewalks, it seemed the right thing to do.
Half a block away, I passed a gift shop. Here, to the sound of pan pipes, you can buy souvenirs of mysterious countries you’ve never been to, while romanticizing about that perfect combination of spiritual quest and cheap vacation that may, in reality, be neither, either, or both. In the window, a stone statue portrayed four little men who seemed to be pissing into a large bowl. I wondered if the other three were in that car that picked up the guy waiting for the cat. I try to keep up on strange religions, but this was a new one on me.
Across the street and up a ways, in the bottom of an otherwise empty display window, a red light revolved, its beam drawing an arc out in the street. It looked as if a small, neat, police car crash had very cleverly happened there without leaving any evidence of a collision with the store. Thinking about distortions in space and what might have materialized in another dimension, exchanged for the cop car, I pictured a mannequin, dressed in the latest fashions, chasing bad guys down the highway of a parallel planet. I wondered if anyone there would think it unusual.
Turning south on Richmond, I saw that there were face statues in a possible store. It was probably just a temporary artistic space meant to add culture to the wasteland we call downtown. I’ve always found empty buildings to be much more interesting than full ones cranking out cash, but I suppose a former tenant’s haunting spirit doesn’t do much for the tourist trade. The faces, caught by the corner of my eye in passing, became an Easter Island nightscape looked down on from a hill. I didn’t get a good look, feeling for some reason that I should keep moving and that I’d catch them later. I never did.
Outside a bar, a woman with a long, body-hugging sweaterdress stood beside a guy who appeared to be thinking about that very thing. Another woman, sitting on the step, wore a very low cut dress. Such a strange power we’ve given to human milk bottles. Seeing her boyfriend’s face, I knew with a genuine certainty that he was not, at that moment, thinking about milk. A cow jacketed time traveler from a fifties motorcycle movie moved carefully through the crowd. Power car clones screeched from stoplights for a car length or two, or trolled by, catching nothing but a turned head. And maybe that’s all they’re ever after amen anyway.
I turned onto York, walking west, and managed to make it all the way to the bridge without anything special happening – other than the fact that I’m here on Earth and walking around in this body. The river looked like black oil and might have been. A train rumbled over the bridge upstream like Woody Guthrie might have been sitting inside one of the open boxcars, putting the finishing touches on his version of “Hobo’s Lullaby,” strumming softly, looking out on a night where justice seemed as elusive as work, money, and a full stomach. Where Wortley Road becomes the Old South, I sang, not too loudly, about home. Then, hearing leaves underfoot for the first time that night, I listened to their song for a while. Later, I wondered why they’d fallen so early. Maybe the wind had told them what was happening, and they wanted to join in the celebration.
On Byron, I realized my hat had been off all evening because I’d been walking in church. Reaching the porch, I turned and bowed to the night. A sign of respect.
Climbing the carpeted wooden hill to our apartment door, I fumbled quietly with the keys. Looking down, I found a stamp on the top step. A merry-go-round ram. I got the message and vowed, “No more going around in circles. No hard-headed man will ever live here again, and anyone resembling such a person will be immediately mailed to the Himalayas.” Sarah, as usual, got up to hear the words, written and spoken. There’s love for you. I kissed Will goodnight, looked at him for a long time. Watching sleeping angels is Mother Earth’s gift to parents. I saw, once again, his perfect potential, no past to limit him in any way. Saw love flow between us, the strength of it blurring my sight. Saw how beautiful a child is, the soul spark glowing brightly at the beginning of the search, the small heart beating back darkness with a pure rhythm of light, like a tiny drum heralding the entrance of a greater power: another life’s chance. We are born for reasons we hide from ourselves.
I remembered the drummer, the dancers, and thought of how those brave young people, against all odds, hadn’t lost the spark. It still flickered and sometimes flared within them as it did on the day they were born, as it did in their first few years. I don’t know much, and I’m sure of less, but if I had a thousand years of old man’s wisdom, I’d trade it in a minute for the light that shines from the eyes of small children. Because they know, they simply know what’s real. They live love and magic everyday, like birds flying and dogs running. For them, it’s just how it is, how it’s supposed to be. The doubt comes later, and we give it to them. The reality lie softly trickles down from the tall ones: a cautionary tale of survival that tells what must be done to fit into the body suit that walks you to work that pays the wage that buys the dreams that live in the house that Jack built and died in alone, sometimes with others, but always asking for more time. Do not listen, little ones, though the sound is sweet. It will fill you with honeyed half-truths of what you might own or someday accomplish by following the rules of this unnatural game. It will fill every part of you until you are empty. The frightened money prophets mean no harm but their ranks are thinning and what they need from you is proof that there is no other way to the promised land. You see, they were caught by the lie themselves and don’t want to feel wasted. Steel yourselves against their talk of security with the sure knowledge that there is none. Don’t let them catch you. They may have caught your parents. They may be your parents. Forgive them, children, for they know not what they do.
But I know. And anyone who tries to take the magic from my child is going to have to get past me to do it. My words trained to follow the poet’s path, my fingers full of spells to coax the sleeping strings, my eyes always ready to seek out nature’s wisdom, I will weave for him such magic as even love has never seen, till all lies fall before me, and all hardened hearts will simply walk away, knowing that this man’s son, at least, is far beyond their reach. And he may never know the battles I’ve fought for him. It doesn’t matter. A wizard’s work is not done for thanks, but for love and duty. For it is our duty to defend their little dreams. To defend, some would say, to the end of our days. After all, we did invite them with promises of love and protection. Yes, my boy will escape to become the man I might have been. I see him as drummer, dancer, or some other crazy, beautiful soul teaching another passerby in another time to let go, live, and to hell with the disapproving eyes. It’s a fine future, and I mean to have it for him, if it’s what he wants. Either way, the chance will be there, a shining possibility well within his reach, or my name ain’t Jack Devin and I never wanted to fly.