A Listening Thing
A Novel by William Michaelian

Chapter 16

I spent the rest of the evening trying to figure out exactly who Uncle Leo is, where he comes from, and who his relatives are. Perhaps he is a father sorely neglected by his self-centered, materialistic children, who think he is nuts for living in a stone house in the middle of nowhere, and are embarrassed to be seen with him because he has such a big mustache. The dopes. They don�t know how lucky they are. They should be proud to have such a father, not ashamed. On the other hand, it�s possible Uncle Leo has no children at all, was never married, and has lived alone in his stone house ever since his parents died, leaving him with a big, beautiful, aching heart and a small inheritance of crockery and dented muffin pans. But there is no way of knowing for sure, because the little story I wrote doesn�t say.

How does anyone end up alone? That�s the question. We invent new ways every day, I suppose, but the result is always the same. The result is a life full of question marks, which gather by the door like autumn leaves, whispering softly and mourning the passing season. There is no new way to be alone, only an inexhaustible supply of new people to be alone � their anxious faces gazing out in pain and wonder at the streets and fields, far removed from life, or afraid of it, which of course amounts to the same thing.

The important thing to remember, I think, is that loneliness isn�t necessarily a permanent condition. It certainly can be, and often is. Once the wheels of loneliness are set in motion, they are hard to stop. For that matter, the same can be said for the wheels of bitterness, greed, hatred, jealousy, and a whole list of other wonderful things with a natural tendency to gather momentum. Our best hope is to keep a youthful heart. The best way to do that is by being around children, and watching and listening to them. It certainly helped Uncle Leo.

In this connection I am reminded of something my father once said. Upon receiving a wedding invitation from someone whose name isn�t worth mentioning, he and my mother were surprised to learn that no children would be allowed at the ceremony, and at the reception that was to follow. My father�s response was quick and final. He said, �If it�s too good for my kids, then it�s too good for me.� He tore up the invitation on the spot. I�ve never forgotten that.

It�s sad enough that we expose our children to a barrage of filth and advertising, and expect them to grow up at an earlier and earlier age. But to exclude them from what are meant to be joyful family events shows how cold and businesslike we have become. And it�s for convenience, no less. Heaven forbid if a loud-voiced, mischievous child spills his punch, or wets his pants while his mother is drinking champagne and flirting with her husband�s boss, who she finds quite attractive in his new Mercedes. What is this nonsense? Why have kids in the first place? Aren�t we all in this together, young and old alike? Why do we muzzle our children? Why do we put away our old people? Why do we persist in the notion that we do not have time to love and care for each other? Why are there people like Uncle Leo, who wait alone, year after year, for a glimmer of hope to enter their lives? I�ll tell you why. We are selfish. On top of that, we are afraid � afraid to live, afraid to die, afraid to be hurt, afraid to appear foolish � afraid to be.

The trouble is, the kids learn anyway. But what they learn is a pathetically hollow, antiseptic version of life.

I know one thing. Life is too short to spend it avoiding your children, or suffocating them with your unfulfilled dreams. And it�s too short to spend hating your father, your mother, or your spouse. Life is hard enough without making enemies of the very people you should be willing to fight for and die for. But you see it all the time. You see abuse, psychological and physical. You see neglect. You see relationships poisoned by greed and distorted by power, then perpetuated for the sake of convenience and appearance. Someday, though, we will run out of masks to wear. We will run out of excuses. Someday, there will be no place to hide. We will be like moles, without the purpose. We will rot away, and even the earth will refuse to claim us. The earth will spit us out, and the dark, boiling sea will dash us against the rocks. No great being will come to our aid, because we won�t be worth the trouble, because we knew better and weren�t willing to try.

Dear Uncle Leo. I hope the hummingbirds, at least, come for a visit. His family, if he has one, might take time off for his funeral, but I guess even that is wishful thinking. He could die and they would never know it, unless the hummingbirds tell them. But he won�t. I won�t let him.

You know, I have faith in those darn birds. When word gets out about Uncle Leo�s mustache, he might find himself becoming a regular hotel. If business is good, he might decide to expand. Then I could write another story, and call that one �Uncle Leo�s Beard.� After that, I�ll write �Uncle Leo Grows His Hair,� and follow it with something really big like �Uncle Leo�s Great Hummingbird Migration.�

I guess what I�m really trying to say is, I have faith in Uncle Leo.

I hope he has faith in me.

I hope someone does.

I hope I live long enough to see the day.

I hope, I hope, I hope.

Meanwhile, the world is a busy street, and I don�t know which way to turn. Maybe it doesn�t matter. Or maybe it�s not a busy street, but an intricately woven fabric of thought instead � a fabric that exists simultaneously in billions of minds � or in one mind, simultaneously, billions of times. But it doesn�t have to be anything. It can be everything. Or nothing. It can be an ancient dream, dreamed by an ancient dreamer we no longer recognize but still remember, but forget anew each moment, much to the amusement of the dreamer, who herself forgets occasionally, because it is fun, and because she�s an old bat who�s seen better days. Or he. Don�t get me wrong. Or right. Just get me up in the morning. Ignorance isn�t bliss. It�s a pain in the � I am what I am, in other words, but for the life of me I can�t figure out what that means.

I hope it�s not too late.

If it is, I hope no one tells me.

If I�m already dead, kindly disregard this message. I�ve had a long day. Week. Month. Life. I�ve had it up to here, but here keeps growing, and anymore it takes a ladder just to find out where I�ve had it to. Jack in the Beanstalk thought he had it tough. At least he had the golden goose � or was it the golden fleece? Actually, what he had was beans, and a mother who didn�t understand the possibilities. But it wasn�t her fault. She didn�t know life was a fairy tale. She believed the government, who said she wasn�t really poor, just financially challenged. �Why not rent a video,� the government said. �Order a pizza, and maybe have a few beers. Leave the beans to Jack. The kid�s not too bright anyway.� The government is always saying things like this. Millions of people can be starving, or dying of gunshot wounds in gutters of crime-infested, drug-depressed neighborhoods, and the government will still send some poor fool a letter telling him to buck up. �Your son is dead,� the letter will begin, �but don�t worry. We�re on it. In the meantime, you have other children, so don�t feel bad.� In my opinion, the government � any government � has a lot of nerve. It also has bad breath, from telling so many lies. And it�s ugly, for the same reason. �Dear Citizen: It was very nice of you to participate in this year�s funding drive. Thanks to you, and to hundreds of millions just like you, we will be able to keep you distracted and entertained for the next twelve months while we conduct business as usual. Your tax dollars do count. During the coming year, we will finance several small wars, and set up, oh, say, half a dozen puppet governments. In order to better serve you, your health care options will be limited to one tongue depressor and one grape-flavored throat lozenge.�

I don�t know. Maybe it�s just me. Maybe I take things too seriously. Or not seriously enough. Most likely, I am missing the point altogether. Good intentions aside, I still feel pretty dumb. I want to help, but everyone says, �Mind your own business.� What is it they know, that I don�t know? Does money really make the difference? What is money, anyway? I can�t figure it out. You spend it and you get stuff � that much I understand. You don�t spend it and you get something else. But what? If you don�t have it, you don�t spend it, and you don�t get stuff. You get discouraged. Why? If you don�t have it and you do spend it, you get stuff you have to pay for later. But sometimes if you get stuff without paying for it they call it stealing. What�s that all about? Does this mean we are a nation of thieves? And what about people who pay for stuff but don�t get it, because the stuff they pay for isn�t really stuff at all, but a lie dreamed up by some generic albeit savvy businessman who produces nothing, calls it something, and then sells it for a profit? Since it�s so confusing, maybe we should do away with money altogether. As an experiment, we could replace it with honesty and see how that goes. It�s worth a try. Anything is worth a try. The only thing not worth trying is lying, because we�ve already tried lying, and it doesn�t work. Lying stinks. Lying makes everyone unhappy. Even happy people are unhappy, because they are afraid their happiness won�t last. They lie about it, of course. They claim to be happy, but I know better. Saying so doesn�t make it so. It makes trouble. If lying is so convenient, why are there so many lawyers? If contracts can be broken, why are they written? Money, that�s why. Money, and lying. What everyone needs to remember is that you can have all the money in the world and still have nothing. You can have a palace full of gold and still grow old. You can get stuff, but it won�t be enough. The face in the mirror may appear to agree, but deep down is a frown that�s really me. How else can it be?

As I suspected, Uncle Leo, being the shy type, was reluctant to reveal his past. We did enjoy a quiet cup of coffee together. I think in time, if I don�t push it, he will confide in me. He�s certainly a good listener. I�m afraid I talked his leg off. He did consent to sit for another drawing. I took this as a good sign. If I do say so myself, this time more of his noble character showed through. But in no way did I come close to capturing who he really is. There is more to a man than his mustache and the way he holds his head. There is the way he looks off into the distance when no one is watching. There is the sound of his voice, so difficult to hear over your own, and over the busy nonsense going on inside your head. It takes time. A lot of time. It takes an eternity, each and every moment. Getting to know someone is an ancient art that will never go high-tech. It requires patience. And it�s ongoing, because we are ongoing, and because life itself is a work in progress.

Getting to know Uncle Leo also takes something else. It takes a lot of paper. I went through a good fifty sheets by bedtime.

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Also by William Michaelian: Winter Poems and Another Song I Know

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