Joshua D. Isard, of Philly, published the short story "Mr. Bones" in The Broadkill Review Volume One, Number Six, November, 2007.
Walking North on 17th Street in a misty rain: coffee in one hand, bag over the other shoulder, and glasses slowly collecting water vapor. The steel cloud line, foreboding an eventual downpour, provides him a great comfort. It seals people on the ground—no gazing at the sky, pondering the azure color, or marveling at the sun. An overcast forces one’s thoughts back to the street, but it’s still hard to see a tableau’s details with the collective droplets of a ten-minute walk in the rain on already small glasses. Details don’t usually matter much in a daily ritual walk, anyway. When they’re in plain sight, no one notices them. It takes an event to bring out the details.
17th and Chestnut, Northbound. Black coats avoid him on his way, everyone’s hair slicked back by default in a ubiquitous wetness which seems to surf on the wind rather than fall from the clouds. Dark pants emerge below the coats, ending in dark shoes, everything covered with a black umbrella. Designers should bring out colors in the winter fashions, it’s when people really need them. His dark overcoat coat remains open, revealing a blood-red oxford shirt, the top two buttons undone and exposing a black t-shirt. That’s at least something, the presence of a color. Not the happiest color, but a presence none the less, keeping the light reflecting off the humans on the street just above absolute zero.
He carries in his backpack The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Oxford Edition, and a legal pad. In four places on the book its binding is broken-in: Hamlet, Henry IV Part One, Richard III, and The Tempest. Who would fardles bare...
I guess I would. Grad students rehashing Will Shakespeare for the tenth time in their lives, it’s a weary life for me today. After all, who remembers the long diatribes Hal and the King have, the whole story revolves around the tavern scenes. The feign of indolence and shining of erudition in a young prince, no one cares for his acquiescence to his father. Falstaff, an achievement of literary genius in the public house, brings the thing to fucking reality, where we can think—
“Hey, Mr. Bones, spare some cash?”
His head snaps to the side, then down. Against a wall of Liberty Place, between 16th and 17th on Chestnut, sits a middle-aged man with a green cloth hat, fedora style, denim jacket and jeans, and a beard bushy enough to match a thick head of hair which must have been growing for two years before this interaction. This old man could have come up with “Mr. Bones” several ways, none of which matches his present audience. I’m not skinny, I’m not indigent, not carrying meat from the butchers, he’s got money in his cup, I can see it. But Berryman… how could he know The Dream Songs? I barely understand The Dream Songs.
“Where’d you come up with Mr. Bones?”
“Oh, you prefer Dr. Bones? Well, no time for love, Dr. Bones.”
“Ok, fuck it, just asking.”
When he turns to regain stride the beads of water resting on his hair stir, and one falls between his glasses, into his eye. He gets a clear view of a single drop approaching his eyeball, but can’t blink fast enough to prevent a collision. Not exactly saline solution what falls from the sky, and mixed with hair wax now. “Ah, shit,” he says to himself, but the pain eliminates his volume control for a split second as he bends over, peels his conveniently malleable frames off his face, and begins trying to get tears in his eyes.
“Well, pretty huffy now, aren’t we Henry.”
Who is this guy? Not one other person on the street knows how queer this situation is, except me. We’re the only two people here right now. It took ten seconds to remove a world and enter a poem. The only bridge we have is Henry Pussycat, and everyone else’s ignorance of our connection. It’s like saying a word too many times, suddenly it breaks down a thousand different ways, none of which are the way the word normally sounds. Removal from real life, from the absurd of my even talking to this tatterdemalion at 11:00 on Tuesday morning, and into our own worlds, via Berryman. The look, an epoché, becoming a knight of faith if I can keep in it. Here. If he’s what I think he is.
If this kid’s what I think he is, yeah, maybe I’ll land lunch today.
“What’s in the bag kiddo?”
Lie to him, walk away and get to class. There’s ten minutes for a three minute walk. He considers the options of arguing with graduates or arguing with a strange homeless man... Arguments with graduates happen every other day. Ok, a penny for the old guy, and off to class, on time today.
“Yeah. Hey, here’s a quarter, I gotta get to class.”
“Wait. Just one more question. You read Dickie the Three yet?”
“Richard the Third? Yeah, I read it last night.”
“That was the best part for Burbage. But no one ever thinks of him. After all, William the Conqueror came before Richard the Third. He!”
You spend 25 years in school, and actually enjoy the reading. Teaching has become a means for your own creation, instilling ideas and possibilities, and having time to produce new material. A cross between academia and freelancing. A quarter century and Master’s degree later you’ve proven to yourself that you comprehend the greats, and have earned the right to at least try and join them, live up to them, say something they would accept or think about. Your heroes become your audience because you understand them, and you think they’ll understand you, and in the circle of understanding the major thoughts of the world you’ll gain not fame, not greatness, but significance. Exactly the significance this guy on the street understands.
“How do you know Shakespeare?”
“There’s a reason they call it the Free Library of Philadelphia.”
He stands before this person whose sharp mind utterly contradicts a tattered body. He, a man who studies words, now lost for words, does nothing but stare at the block of Liberty Place’s wall directly to the left of this anomaly’s ear. Eye contact means a continuation, if he doesn’t look at the man sitting before him, he can leave at will; without some sacred connection between the eyes to break, the experience will remain no more personal than depositing a check or buying a sandwich.
But the old man springs up and grabs him by the collar of his red shirt, looks each pore of his face over in a matter of three seconds, and locks contact with his pupil, dilated from the dominant clouds.
“When you read about King Richard you think of Shakespeare, you remember ‘My Kingdom for a horse!’ but as a phantom image in your mind. Will’s audience never did that, they heard Burbage. Burbage was Shakespeare, and the actor held the power of the words. It’s the same now, at the movies, like when you think of Tyler Durden, do you think of Brad Pitt or Chuck Palahniuk? What you have to ask yourself boy is how will these people hear your words? Will they abstract them off paper or will someone speak to them? You think you have power because you move the pen, but the power lies in the man giving the words. So who do you leave that up to boy, the editors, your pedantic classmates, the average reader? Remember who has the power over your work, or the whole process is a moot point.”
The old man throws him back two feet, turns West down Chestnut Street, never looking back, taking no risks with salt. He watches the old man’s hair flail out the back of the green hat, and watches the stained clothing blend into a single uniform of dirt and cotton about two blocks away. The man answers no cry to remain, and the last image he leaves is of the finger, high in the air, given from the corner of l9th and Chestnut. Where’s the coffee? Spilled, and no change left. Black on the sidewalk, slowly mixing with mist, draining down the street, but into nowhere. The direction I have to go. Just try and keep my head in the air, try and get a hold of my body first, of my actions.
Happy birthday, Tom Waits - On December 7, 1949, Thomas Alan Waits was born to Jesse Frank Waits and Alma Johnson McMurray.
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