In front of me an old man gets down on his knees. Underneath a reference table lined with books he reaches with shaky hands, straining, his gut bent underneath him. Plugs in a discman. There is not a sadder thing he could be straining for. He bumps his head as he rears up, in a surprisingly childish motion, and then looks at me with such heartbroken seriousness when he realizes I’ve been watching him that I have to look away, even though I was smiling.
The city outside the fourth floor window–peaked rooftops (copper gangrenous, red-tile dusty) apartments and hotels clustering rudely in high-rises behind them–changes as I sit here reading. The changes occur slowly, when I look up, to a sudden effect.
Time is witnessed via the faces of the city in the sun. In the book Envy, by Yuri Olesha: “When I settled here, a sun speck on the doorjamb at two in the afternoon. Thirty-six days passed. The speck jumped to the next room. The earth had completed another leg of its journey. The little sun speck, a child’s plaything, reminds us of eternity.”
First, the illuminated is everything but street level (it’s too late in the day for that) the copper and red-tile scoured and glittering. Then the illumination dulls, like quartz held at an off angle in the sun; the sky turns blue as a postcard.
The high rises are making their last stand, but the peaked roofs have fallen into shadow. They look abandoned. A man in a Bruins jersey is still reading his newspaper beneath those tall windows. He is dwarfed. The light filtered on the wall in front of me is a deep orange.
The old man is nodding eagerly to his discman. Staring straight forward, he’s doing nothing else. A hand presses into his chin. What could he be listening to–Dianetics? Somehow that seems likely to me. He reminds me of man who lived, flab-thighed, in the Dianetics testing facility. With broken teeth, grey stubble, he explained how, with the power of Xenu, I could see what I had for breakfast ten years before I was born, and with this power, “play golf, occasionally get laid”.
Why Scientology (for this old man, for anyone) instead of an older religion? I think I understand for the first time: the man doesn’t want to admit that he’s lonely. The secret–to everything–is out there, somewhere, but he’d rather not associate with that long tradition of probing devoutness because in humanity, impossible to separate from the Abrahamics, he sees weakness. He would rather something that has the metallic stench of unreality, something that smells like car grease and robotics. A new tradition to obliterate himself in feints and diversions.
He doesn’t want anyone to feel pity for him. He isn’t a child, he’s an old man.
The high rises are red, the sky purpling. Black peaked roofs silhouetted.
An eternity has passed. It’s time to go.