It was January and cold and the beginning of a new term. The class was Early Shakespeare. Early because we were reading the bard’s first works, early because the class summoned us at godawful 8:00 a.m.
A tall, muscular fellow walked in, easy. His navy flannel shirt opened to a grey thermal and fell over weathered denim. A scuffed leather bag hung from his shoulder, and he carried a coffee mug from O’Sullivans, the Irish pub on the other side of town. The females in the room watched his movement, furtively, with faint suggestion of their newfound interest in Taming of the Shrew. Several had an empty seat near and were glad for it. The women were, suddenly, wide awake. I noticed how the room’s energy perked. I noticed my sharp edge of envy. But what I noticed most was his grin, like he’d finished a fine meal and was ready to prop his feet up and enjoy a smoke. He didn’t arrange his smile at the door. He wasn’t selling anything, certainly not himself. He simply eased into a room the way he eased into life, with curiosity and a heart that harbored no guile. I know these things because I’ve come to know this man who walked in on Shakespeare. We became brothers. A package of brawn and genuine goodwill had just entered my world.
After college, we spent a spring and summer tramping West. We slept outdoors and ate canned beans warmed on a single butane burner. We spent two days in Vegas, which is more than enough. We spent a week in the backcountry of the Canyon, which is barely enough. Late July, funds grew sparse, and we stopped in on a family friend who owned a gas station a few miles outside of Jackson Hole. Sven Diedrich gave us the guest room in his house and odd jobs at the station. We ate well and padded our wallets and then hitched a ride into Idaho.
Wherever we arrived, folks watched Ben. The women, of course. Some would talk silly or act scatty. Some were downright bold and made him blush. But even the classy women noticed Ben. Men took notice too. Some sized him up. Shifty men grew louder or coarser in his presence; but good men welcomed him. Most every man who shared words with Ben quickly dropped his shoulders and began trading stories.
Don’t misunderstand. His name’s Ben, not Gabriel. He didn’t sprout wings or glow. Once, in a grimy alley, I pulled Ben off a whimpering 300 pound railroad worker. The blustering drunk, threatening and cursing, made the mistake of throwing the first punch. If he’d known Ben had buried his mom a week before, perhaps the whole evening would have happened differently. The beating was thorough, ugly. Once, Ben rang me from jail in Hattiesburg. There was a girl involved – and a dog, but the affair concluded with one phone call and a couple nights pissing in the corner commode of a cinder block cell. Every man has his vice, but few men have a friend who will carry you four miles into town, slung over his back while you’re puking, because your fever rages and he’s worried. On our summer trek, Ben did exactly that.
Together, Ben and I figured out what kind of men we wanted to be. Better, we helped each other get some of the way there. Ben would have to tell you what I offered him, that’s his story. But Ben gave me a vision for life generous, trusting. To live strong and wise, but not careful. To live with laughter. And a grin.
image: Michal Zacharzewski