"Once you finally make that commitment," he says, "there's such a sense of peace. It's incredible."
He smiles strangely, then gazes down at the water swirling in the cove far beneath us. The early morning sun sparkles golden off the surf. A handful of mallards bob about like tiny decoys. Fat seagulls streak across the sky, headed for the docks and an easy meal. Across the bay, a dozen or so sailboats drift along, scattered to the wind like prayer flags.
I know he doesn't see all these things in quite the same way that I do. The world appears more distant and removed to him, viewed through the prism of a rapt and febrile mind. He shifts his sitting posture, drawing his ankle up to his thigh in what Buddhists call the half-lotus position. I feel almost like a disciple, kneeling beside him, asking him questions.
"So you're content within yourself?"
"Profoundly," he says, his eyes still fixed on the water. "It's all a matter of resolve. You come to a crossroads, and you have to decide whether to continue on the same destructive path, full of guilt, fear, and regret, or make a complete U-turn and put an end to it. Unfortunately, it often takes some great crisis or trauma to bring a person to their senses. Most people grope around in the darkness forever, never seeing the light, never knowing how to put things right.
"So what exactly happened to you? If you don't mind my asking."
"All my traumas happened long ago, in my childhood," he says. "My older brother was very cruel to me, and my mother totally messed me up, so I learned about suffering at an early age. But there's nothing unusual in all that. And my younger sister and I - I called her my little "Diddy" - we were pretty close there for a while. So I think that might have helped me from getting overwhelmed with the rest of it. I just wish…that I could have protected her more. You know, from…" He stops abruptly, then quickly resumes. "Anyway, we all suffer more or less equally, each in our own way. The difference for me is that I've found a way out."
His gaze shifts from the water to the sky. He traces the smooth glide of a seagull, then begins to speak in a subdued voice, tinged more with resignation than illumination. "For me it was a simple case of exhaustion. You struggle, day by day, to find some kind of contentment, some promise of inner peace. But the weight of your past is too much to bear. Your heavy heart, hardened by countless broken dreams, gross fantasies, and petty resentments, becomes closed to happiness. You resolve to change at all costs - you will do this, that, and the other to transform yourself into that well-adjusted person you were surely meant to be. But you can't pull it off. In the back of your mind you're always hoping for a miracle, waiting for that magic day when a sudden flash of insight will turn your life and mind around, or at least help you proceed. That day never comes. Finally, realizing that perfect happiness is beyond your grasp, you declare a truce. You determine to accept yourself as you are, work through your problems, take life in stride - all that crap. But you can't, you can't. Then maybe, out of pure desperation, you seek the help of someone from the psychiatric profession. But there is no shrink alive that can change the way your mind has been wired. And in the end the compulsion toward perfection is simply too strong…"
He falls into a deep silence. "So what do you do then?" I prompt.
"You don't do anything," he replies. "Something inside just decides to let go." He turns to me, one eyebrow raised knowingly. "It's a revelation. Such a feeling of freedom. You can't imagine."
With his intense dark eyes, his long tousled hair and scraggly beard, he looks more than ever like some sort of mad prophet just back from his forty-day trial in the desert. Except that his travails obviously have not brought him the usual kind of rebirth or renewal you would expect from a seer. No veil has been lifted from his eyes.
"Actually, I did have my own brush with mystical experience once," I say, playing along. "Back in college, when I was into Eastern religions, I took this Yoga class one semester. It was mainly Hatha Yoga - just the postures, you know - but on our last day we ended with some group chanting. I remember feeling a powerful sense of transcendence, of being a part of everything. You know, one with the universe and all that."
A lopsided grin appears on his face. "Religions," he says with obvious distaste. "They're all the same - East, West, North, and South. They convince people their souls are in jeopardy, wave this wondrous afterlife in front of them like a carrot, and damn all nonbelievers to hell or a ruinous incarnation. They cling so ferociously to their narrow ideas that all the talk about tolerance and humility rings as hollow as a rotten log." He flashes me a hard look. "All people have to do is use their eyes. There you are, here I am. You have flesh, blood, and bones, exactly like mine. And the same capacity for love, hate, joy, despair. Accepting you is the only logical, right thing to do. We don't need the lure of heaven to guide our actions."
I nod at him reassuringly. He glances away, toward the sailboats and the skyscrapers beyond. I take a quick look behind us, squinting through the tall stand of eucalyptus trees that bounds the park. I'm surprised that there aren't more early birds around this morning, especially joggers like myself. Suddenly I feel a strong urge to flee, to retreat through the brush and high grass to the trees, race down the hill to my car, then tear back to the city and the warm asylum of my apartment. But something holds me back. It is the same feeling, I suppose, that led me to abandon my usual route and follow this strange rumpled man, past the signs and beyond the chains, to this lonely promontory - locally renowned as a favorite destination of spurned lovers.
I can't help staring at him now, still as a statue in profile. A chill wind has begun to whirl, and yet he doesn't even blink. I have so many questions, but am afraid to offend - or to provoke. Perhaps, if I choose my words carefully, I can learn something valuable.
"I guess I can understand how you feel about religion," I say. "But surely you must believe that something awaits us after this life. Or is it just me? I really want to believe, and it's hard for me to imagine that someone like yourself, who has experienced your brand of epiphany or whatever, doesn't believe in an afterlife."
"I never said I didn't believe," he counters. "Only that it doesn't matter. You have to understand I'm not like most people. I've given up worldly things. People who are engaged in the world, who are striving to accomplish something society considers valuable - naturally they feel they have a stake in what happens to them after they die. I used to be that way. I wanted all the usual things - wealth, influence, even fame. But I gave it up. You might say I became convinced of the futility of striving. Then, something happened…and my body just let go. Christ, what a relief!"
"Ah, so something did happen. You said nothing special happened…"
"You misunderstand," he interrupts, frowning. He nods toward the skyscrapers. "That's a big city, you know? Things happen constantly, each and every day, to everyone. Even to hermits. I said nothing especially traumatic happened to me, which is true enough, at least by your usual standards. Something happened, yes. Something inevitably happens to people like me. Not a trauma, not a crisis - call it a confirmation."
"Please tell me about it."
"Are you really interested?" he snaps. "Be honest. I mean, who cares about strangers these days? It's every man for himself, right? For all I know, you're just another phony yuppie in a fancy running suit. What makes you different?"
His sudden petulance surprises and annoys me. "I can't give you any reason to trust me," I say as diplomatically as I can. "I like to think I'm a sensitive, sympathetic person. Sometimes you just have to trust someone, whether you like it or not. You have to make a leap of faith."
"Take a giant step?" he says with a smirk.
I glance down at the water reflexively. "Why not?" I venture. "Take a chance once in a while."
"Take the plunge?"
"I didn't mean…"
"You first," he commands, his face turning sober.
"You go first. Show me you're worthy of my trust. Tell me about something that happened to you that dramatically changed your life."
"Well, I did get divorced last year," I confide. "I know it's ridiculously common these days. But it's made its mark on me, I can tell you."
"Tell me everything." He shifts back to a cross-legged position, folds his hands on his lap, and closes his eyes. "Go ahead," he says, craning his neck toward me. "I'm all ears."
My legs have begun to ache from the kneeling, so I sit down beside him - a bit farther away from the water's edge. I pull my knees to my chest to shield against the wind. "Actually, there's not so much to tell," I proceed. "The marriage only lasted two years. And the divorce was by mutual consent. There were none of the usual entanglements - no children, no major dispute over the settlement. There were bad feelings at first, of course, but it didn't last."
I pause a moment to make sure he's following me. "I see" he says like a disinterested psychiatrist.
"We met at work. I'm a college professor. Jenny is a secretary in my department. We started dating soon after she arrived about three years ago. She was new to the city, fresh from the cornfields of Iowa, and I took it upon myself to show her the sights. I tell you, we had a ball those first months. We went to the theater, the symphony, the opera, and hit all the great restaurants. We played golf or tennis on the weekends, took the occasional morning jog, even caught a few ball games. It was like we had just one speed - fast. Which was exactly the way I liked it, the way we both liked it. Or so I thought.
"After we got married, everything changed. Jenny became more domestic, I guess you'd say, more of a homebody. She wanted to stay in nights and cook, then watch TV or read or something. Well, I'm not much of a reader outside of the classroom, and TV for me is a huge waste of time, so we had a real conflict. We started to argue. I'd say, 'You're not much fun anymore,' and she'd say, 'Maybe I like to rest once in a while.' Pretty soon we were only going out maybe once a week - that is if she didn't cancel something at the last minute. Things were getting dicey, you know?"
"Uh-huh," he drones.
"I guess it was around the end of the first year when Jenny started to get more and more moody and depressed. By now we'd supposedly reached an agreement about our schedule: dinner and a show on a Saturday night, then tennis the following weekend, Saturday or Sunday morning, weather permitting. Not exactly the road to burn out. But even that became too much for Jenny, and before long doing anything at all seemed like a trial for her. Even tennis. She was - she is - a terrific player, and she used to get a real bang out of beating me, which she did more often than not. But when even the tennis lost its flavor for her, I knew we were in trouble. She was plainly miserable in her life, and I was too stubborn to admit it.
"Then one night I saw her in the bathroom taking some pills. Xanax. She'd always been opposed to taking any kind of medication - except for pain, of course, and even that as a last resort. I asked how she got the stuff. A psychiatrist, she said. It turns out she'd been seeing a shrink for a good three months. Well I was floored, of course, absolutely floored. And I admit I wasn't very understanding about the situation, not with her keeping something major like that from me for so long. The thing is, she wouldn't even tell me why she was seeing this guy. So I'm afraid I didn't show Jenny much sympathy. In fact, I made her cry that night, for the first and only time. But she lied to me, after all. Maybe not technically, but that's how it felt. It seemed to me I had good reason to be upset. Wouldn't you say?"
He wags his head noncommittally. Maybe yes, maybe no.
"Well, that was pretty much the beginning of the end. Even though I made a concerted attempt to be more supportive from then on. I'd try to sit down with her, find out what was making her so unhappy. But she was never comfortable talking about her feelings, and for that matter neither was I. So I placated myself with the thought that I was trying my best to iron things out, but I knew deep down that it wasn't enough. Obviously by this time Jenny's troubles had very little to do with our lifestyle. She simply didn't love me anymore. I continued trying to feel her out, and to glean what in the world I could do to turn things around, but she would push me away. And disappear into one of her books or TV programs.
"Finally, out of pure desperation, I called her psychiatrist. Big mistake. Not only did I strike out with him, but Jenny found out about it. And that creep told me he wouldn't tell her about my call. Guess that's shrinks for you… Anyway, a few days later, when we were driving home from the university, she totally lost it. I mean, she really blew her stack. 'What the hell gives you the right…' etcetera. I told her I just couldn't take all the secrecy anymore. I couldn't endure her silent suffering. Then she finally got down to it, laid it all on the line.
"I won't recount the whole long diatribe, can't even remember half of it. So many of her complaints were so trivial. Of course, the big things - the really personal stuff - just knocked me for a loop. It sounded like she was describing a completely different person. She said I was a control freak, and I had to have everything my own way. She said I treated her like a child, said it wasn't enough that I was the lofty professor and she was the lowly office drone, but that I had to dominate and manipulate her constantly. She said I was so insecure that I had to judge everything she did, like make sly comments about her cooking or wardrobe, or turn up my nose at the books she read or the TV programs she watched. She called me self-centered. She called me conceited. She called me several colorful names I'd rather not repeat. Then she asked for a divorce."
I pause once more for confirmation, but receive none.
"Anyway…I gave Jenny the divorce. Right then and there. I didn't even bother to argue with her. It didn't seem to matter whether she was right or wrong. I know I'm not a callous person. But what was the use in fighting? It was over. It had been over for a long time."
I wait for some reaction to my story. But he doesn't speak, doesn't move a muscle. His eyes are still closed, which, along with his hard rhythmic breathing, makes me wonder if he has actually fallen asleep. Presently, though, my companion heaves a long, deep sigh - of empathy, of disgust, of sheer boredom? "Care to comment?" I query.
"No," he says flatly.
"Oh. I just thought…"
"Divorces are hard. A bitter pill. But you're tough, no doubt. A hard-headed academic. You'll survive."
"I don't know how hard-headed I am, but yes, I know I'll survive. And yet, life is more than survival…right?"
He looks down at the water intently. "I was at the grocery store one day last week," he says, launching right into his story. "It was early, like now. I couldn't sleep, as usual, so I got up with the first light, headed down to the supermarket for some breakfast goods. Eggs, instant coffee, a box of doughnuts."
He shakes his head slowly - almost hopelessly, it seems to me. "So I'm standing in front of the doughnuts, trying to decide which kind I want. Suddenly a noisy cart comes rolling down the aisle. Behind the wheel is a big, surly-looking young man in army fatigues, with a pock-marked face, a sparse goatee, and a nose ring. I figure he must be in a militia or something, or maybe he's one of those oath keepers, because the closest military base is a hundred miles away - and anyway, since when does the Army allow nose rings? Sitting in the cart, in the fold-out seat, is a little towheaded girl, about three or four years old, I figure, though I can't see her face yet. They rattle past me then stop at the cookies, maybe ten feet away. Now I can see the girl's face, so beautiful it would make you cry. Because you know she's probably done a lot of that herself already in her short life. She has big blue eyes, rosy cheeks, a button nose, dimples. She's as white as can be - the Aryan ideal, you might say."
He laughs loudly, a cackle really, full of irony and anguish. A crooked smile lingers on his face, then abruptly disappears. "The guy starts checking out different kinds of cookies. He takes one bag down, notes the price, then puts it back. When he reaches for another bag, the girl cries out, "No, daddy! The other kind, remember? I like the other kind of cookies."
"'Too bad,' the man growls. 'They're too fuckin' expensive.' He snatches the cheap bag down and tosses it into the cart.
"The girl's face turns bright red. I can see her face go from cranky to furious in a matter of seconds. 'No!' she shouts, squirming in her seat. 'The other kind! You promised!!"
"'Don't start up,' he warns.
"'No!' she wails, her face full of rage. 'I want the other cookies!'
"'I said no. What are you - deaf?"
"'No! No! You lie! You liar!!' She turns around in her seat, grabs the cookies, and casually tosses them onto the floor.
"The guy just stares down at the bag at his feet, his shoulders slumped over. Then, hissing a stream of profanity, he swoops down and picks up the bag, returns it to the cart. He turns toward his daughter, hovers over her menacingly. Then, so quickly I can barely follow it, he grabs her by the hair, raises his hand above his head, and slaps her hard across the face.
"The picture of that little girl's face, just after the blow - the wide, astonished eyes, the contorted mouth, the rising patch of crimson on her cheek…" He stops for a moment, his mouth hanging open in empathy. "I didn't witness the scene for long - the man whisked the cart on down the aisle. Before rounding the corner, though, he stopped and looked over his shoulder at me. He just stood there, challenging me to do something. Then, with a smirk on his face, he disappeared.
"I did nothing. In fact, I did less than nothing. I fled. The girl's shrieks drove me away. You could hear them resonate through the whole store, drowning out the muzak. I dropped my carton of eggs on the floor and rushed out of the building. Outside, you could still hear the screaming. I got away from there, walking at first, then breaking into a full run. I ran all the way home. I'm a good runner, you see. Always have been." He looks me up and down. "Maybe even better than you." There follows a long pause. "Later on that night, I had my revelation. My body and my mind let go. And I made my decision. Then I made my plans. Where and when."
He remains perfectly still for what seems a long time, his eyes glued to the water surging below. "Why did she have to be so beautiful?" he says at length. He searches the water for an answer. Finally, he begins to nod his head, as if having received some sort of affirmation or directive. Slowly, deliberately, he positions his arms on either side of him. Then he rocks forward and pushes up to his feet. He stretches a bit, then steps up to the very edge of the cliff.
"Please don't," I say.
He turns sideways and glances at me. "You can leave now," he says in a hollow, almost disembodied, voice. "Thank you for your indulgence. You tried to make contact. It's more than most people would do. Perhaps you thought you could help. But you can't. So I suggest you leave."
"No," I hear myself say. "No, I won't."
"Up to you," he shrugs, then starts to turn back.
"No! Wait!!" I blurt out, my composure slipping away. "Look…look at that sun," I stammer, groping. The sun has risen completely now, burning hard and furious on the horizon. "Isn't it beautiful? So warm so golden… It's a bright new morning in the world. A new morning brings hope. I mean, there's always hope, isn't there? There's always a new morning. Isn't there?"
"Morning for you, midnight for me," he says, then turns swiftly around to face the water.
He looks down for a time, then straight up, into the blank blue sky, where no sign of life exists - not a sea gull, not an airplane, not even a cloud. Only heaven, if that. A mad motion seizes me. I could lurch forward, pull him back, wrestle him to the ground if need be. I stifle the impulse almost as quickly as it arises. There is no way on God's green earth I am going to risk my neck for this man.
Just then he lowers his head, and whispers something to himself. Was it…"Sorry, Ditty"? Then he jumps.
Eric Morlock is a 70-year-old prose writer and playwright from the Seattle area. His most recent fiction appeared last year in Fiction on the Web, and a one-act comedy received an honorable mention in the 2023 ThinkingFunny radio play outreach.
In his retirement, Eric has been actively trying to resurrect old stories and plays for new and reprint publication and/or production. He enjoys his quiet writerly life on cool and beautiful Puget Sound.