I want to paint a picture for you.
A man lost somewhere in the middle of his life stands on a corner. Whatever is not brown in his stringy head of hair is white. He wears working man’s clothes, neither dirty nor clean. His hands hang by his side.
A single tear leaks from his eye and finds a home in the well of his sunken cheek.
It’s Sunday morning in New Orleans. An uncharacteristic winter chill has kept our heroine on the edges of sleep all night, that place where dreams invade the unquiet mind as it hovers between worlds. Curled into ball under the flimsy covers of perpetual summer, she remember, vaguely, the strange people she met in her dreamscape, where everything always makes sense.
The bed is so high that it requires steps to enter and exit. She climbs down the stairs onto the cold morning floor, brushes her teeth, but not her hair, and dresses for the day.
The morning before, the husband part of the bickering couple who runs the inn insisted she go to church. He’s a Brooklyn Jewish bohemian, as is his wife – two heavy heads of chaotic salt and pepper hair. There’s a full gospel choir, he tells her, and the church, used to tourists, keeps the pews in back empty for them so that they can slip out whenever they please.
So, she’s going to church. To listen to the gospel choir.
Two churches stand nearly side by side. One is a fortress surrounded by a high cement wall with a single wrought iron gate, which allows people to come and go. The other’s doors are thrown wide open. People mill outside. A sign that declares “all are welcome.” She walks up the stone stairs.
It’s a humble church and she takes a seat in a pew in the back. Just in front of her, a tired man lists to the side, another sleeps in a corner. An upright piano gleams in the corner, and on the edges of the temple more men, in recovery, homeless, or broken sit, sleep, and snore, as if they’re safe, wrapped in their mother’s arms.
A woman wearing a cross beelines to our heroine and shakes her hand with an enthusiastic welcome. She introduces her to the listing man. This woman is full of grace, unashamed of the love contained in her small frame. She moves on to another wayward soul and greets him with the enthusiasm of a long-lost friend.
It’s at this moment that our heroine realizes she’s in the wrong church.
But the nice lady with the cross around her neck knows her name. She’s in it to the bitter end.
There are days where life seems to crack open, to reveal bits of the secrets behind a chipped and worn veneer. Other days, life is like a great unfolding. Corners of an endlessly crumpled piece of paper that can only be smoothed crease by crease.
As the men in the back pews try to shake themselves awake, the piano plays, a singer sings, and a parade of oddballs testify about the lessons they’ve learned and the things they now know. The woman with the cross speaks. She, the minister, is neither charismatic nor memorable, but her unyielding outpour of love nearly lifts her feet two inches off the ground. She is magic in its most subtle and humble form.
Frenchman Street is recovering from the evening’s largesse as our heroine stumbles upon a breakfast joint. The sun fights with the clouds, sometimes winning, sometimes losing. She orders a coffee and breakfast. Alligator sausage, eggs, rosemary grits.
Anticipating worse weather at home, she clings to the romance of sitting at an outdoor table on the sidewalk.
Just a moment later, the crying man hovers by her table, swaying in the soft breeze. babbling a story in smooth, jazzy gibberish. The memory of the preacher, her congregation, the weary and tired souls sleeping in the pews is still strong. She offers him her napkin to wipe away his tear.
“I’m not crying,” he says.
“You are,” she answers. “There’s a tear on your cheek.”
He wipes away the tear, takes the napkin, and cries more.
He sits with her.
He cries, she shifts in her chair, holds the space until she doesn’t want to hold it anymore, and then she asks him to leave.
He takes another napkin.
She tells him she wants to be alone.
He cries. Blows his nose. Cries again.
She stands to leave and he grabs the fringes of her sweater.
“Don’t go,” he says. But she chastises him, slaps his hand away.
“That’s not okay,” she says and takes her coffee inside.
Settled in a corner, next to a man working on his laptop and two old wizards trading recipes or spells, she scribbles on her travel-worn yellow pad. She scrawls ideas in illegible code. If she can recognize just one word, one letter, she’ll remember what she meant to say.
The crying man stands in the doorway, then by the counter. He takes the seat at her table.
“I can’t help you,” she says.
“I don’t want nothing from you,” he mutters, but his eyes tell a different story. He babbles a story she can barely understand. He recites his bank account, his history as a musician, the names of his songs. His net worth.
“Money doesn’t make a man,” is all she knows to say.
“I’m so sad.”
The man at the laptop eavesdrops. The wizards watch. The waitress leaves her breakfast on the table between them. The crying man cries. Three tears. Four tears. Five.
“Everyone’s sad,” she says. “Everyone’s lonely.” She moves to a different table and ignores him as loudly as she can.
He stares at her a moment longer, heaves himself up, and lumbers out the door. To some place else, like a dream drifting away. She eats.
Just a little later, the sun is winning its fight, and the clubs of Frenchman Street wipe the sleep from their eyes to start it all over again. The crying man standing at a crossroads. There ‘s no direction for her to go but forward.
She bears down, holds her sweater closed and looks straight ahead.
As she passes him, he whispers in her ear.
“You broke my heart,” he says, clear as day.
Later that night, staring in the face of another night’s sleep, she wonders who the crying man of Frenchman Street is. Could he be a soulmate trapped in a broken body, like the tired men snoring in the pews of the church, waiting and wandering until someone learns to love them in the ways they need? She imagines that, as life unfolds and we lead each other from place to place and idea to idea, it’s as easy to become lost as it is to be found.
And even though for her, right now, life is a big unfolding, the crying man might be looking at reality through the last of a worn away veneer, into a magic so overwhelming, so beautiful, so sad, he forgot how to speak and only wishes he had someone to stand next to him to see what he sees. Nothing more.