Oliver Hansen
by William Michaelian

Oliver Hansen is a poet. His body of work is extensive. Written entirely on the backs of envelopes and other scraps of paper, his poems are free of structure, yet easy to read. Oliver doesn’t believe in controversy. He writes not to teach or scold, but to learn. He wants to learn everything. He wants to learn why the mountains are where they are, and why the valley is where it is. Why don’t the stars fall? What makes rivers so peaceful? How do migrating birds know where to go? What makes a man a man, and a woman a woman? He knows the answers to these questions can be found in books. But he isn’t interested in scientific explanations of life’s beauty. And this is exactly what makes him a poet. Oliver Hansen prefers to wonder.

He also prefers to sleep in old barns and alleys, and to worship at garbage cans, and to smoke and drink whatever he finds in the gutter. Oliver is a survivor and a scavenger. He likes hot apple pie as much as the next person, probably more. But the kind of life he leads doesn’t include much pie. It includes miles and miles walked each day, and countless things considered. It includes the thoughtful study of his fellow human beings. It also includes being laughed at and being thought of as one of our town’s starry eyed drunken fools. Little does anyone know, he considers this an honor.

I first met Oliver when I was fifteen. It was evening, and I had been playing baseball in the city park with some of the boys I knew from school. My house was on the east side of the park, on Whitney Street. Everyone else lived on the west side, on streets not far from the hospital, where my mom worked part time as a nurse’s aide. She hated that job. My dad wanted her to quit, but we needed the money. Dad worked for the county, driving heavy equipment that jarred his guts and made his ears ring. On the evenings Mom worked, he’d skip supper and drink beer until he fell asleep in his chair in front of the TV. While he snored through the sitcoms, I gathered up the empty cans and put them out in the garage in a big cardboard box. It was quite a collection. Every few weeks, we’d take in the cans to get the deposit, and came home smelling like a brewery.

It was warm out. Mom was working that night, so I was in no hurry to get home. I took my time walking across the park, stopping every now and then to look up into the old sycamore trees, and to look around and see if there was anything interesting lying in the grass. As luck would have it, near one of the picnic tables, I found a Playboy magazine. That was interesting. Since I wasn’t old enough to appreciate the magazine from a literary standpoint, I focused on the artwork. I was so focused, in fact, that I didn’t notice I wasn’t alone until I heard a man laugh softly and say, “Good lord, they do come in all shapes and sizes, don’t they?”

When I turned around, I was so startled, the magazine fell from my hand. Right away, I recognized Oliver. Everyone in town knew who he was. I’d seen him myself many times. But I had never seen him up close. From a distance, you couldn’t tell he had intelligent green eyes, or that his nose and cheeks were covered with a fine webbing of veins. You couldn’t tell his teeth were yellow, or that his graying mustache was stained by nicotine. When you saw him crossing the street going from one alley to the next, you saw a bent old man talking to people who weren’t there. But Oliver Hansen wasn’t old. He was only about sixty. He was bent because he was listening.

Oliver picked up the magazine and handed it to me. He pushed his hat back into place and smiled. “Oliver Hansen,” he said, offering his hand. “You’re Ed Johnson’s boy, aren’t you?”

We shook hands, and as we did, I thought of my mother. It’s funny, the things that go through your mind. Being in the medical profession, Mom was quite a stickler when it came to washing hands. And here I was, touching what many people would consider the dirtiest hand in town — the right hand belonging to Oliver Hansen.

“Right,” I said. “Do you know him?”

“We haven’t actually met,” Oliver said. “But I know him. At least I feel like I do. Works for the county, doesn’t he? Heavy equipment operator?”

I nodded. “That’s him, all right.”

“Huh. I’ll be darned. Well, I’m pleased to meet you. Sorry to bug you while you’re reading, but I was out for a stroll. Saw you, thought I’d say hi.” Oliver took a deep breath. “Man, oh man,” he said. “It’s sure nice out this evening. There’s no time like summer in the valley.”

By this time, I’d unconsciously rolled up the magazine, until it had formed a tight cylinder in my hand. Same as now, Playboy was generally thought of as inappropriate material for a boy my age. Though I’d come across the magazine by accident, having it in my possession could have meant a lot of things to a lot of people, and none of them were good.

“Hope I didn’t scare you,” Oliver went on. “Not too bad, anyway.” He pointed at the magazine. “That’s quite a find. Never know what turns up around here. You’re not going to take it home, are you?”

I hadn’t thought that far ahead, but the answer was obvious to both of us. “I guess not,” I said, letting it unroll a bit. “Do you want it?”

“Nah. There’s nothing there I haven’t seen. Why don’t you leave it for somebody else to find?”

“Okay. Sounds good.” I smoothed out the magazine and laid it on the picnic table face up. I gave the young woman on the cover one last look, then turned away.

Oliver found a partly smoked cigarette nearby and lit it. As he inhaled, it looked like he was thinking things over. As I found out later, that was his usual expression — unless he had something to say, which he didn’t. Our conversation, as short as it was, had satisfied him. When I asked him where he was going, he only shrugged, as if to say, I’m going. Isn’t that enough? I knew it was a stupid question, but I didn’t know what else to say. At the time, I didn’t realize how unnecessary speaking was, or that it was entirely possible to carry on a conversation without speaking at all. I was fifteen and full of adrenaline. I had an imagination, but it was aimed at easier, more obvious gratification.

We shook hands again. While Oliver studied my face, I found myself studying his. But he didn’t mind. In fact, for a fleeting moment, it seemed there wasn’t a thing in the world standing between us. It gave me a calm, glad feeling. We said good-bye and headed in opposite directions. It wasn’t until I was home that I realized I hadn’t told him my name, and that he hadn’t asked.

The second time I met Oliver, I was twenty. To please my parents, Mom especially, I had made a stab at attending college. Paying my way by working in restaurants, I managed to finish my first year, but with a barely passing grade. That summer, I got a job on a landscape crew and stayed in Fresno. About all I did when I wasn’t working was drink beer and chase girls. It was nice, having graduated from the pictures in Playboy to the real thing — minus the fancy lighting, of course. For three solid months, I lived what I considered to be the good life. By the time September rolled around, I had almost forgotten school. I would have completely forgotten if Mom hadn’t started reminding me in August. For me, August had always been a lousy month. All during high school, I spent the month of August trying to think of ways out of going back in September. Again, I would have quit if my mother had let me.

When September arrived, I started another round of classes. I took geology, astronomy, U.S. history, botany, and music appreciation. I failed them all, except for music appreciation, which I liked, because I like music, and because the teacher was a sexy cellist with long blonde hair.

That winter, even Mom could see the writing on the wall. I was finished as a student, and, in her mind, as a potential success. I realize now that she was afraid I’d follow in Dad’s footsteps. I stayed in Fresno until spring, then moved home. A couple of weeks later, I got a job at one of the local packing houses, which was gearing up for another season. And that’s where I saw Oliver.

Early one morning, I was going through some pallets that had been piled by the railroad tracks along the west side of the building, to see if any were worth saving. It was cool and quiet. The soft lighting of the newborn day made it a pleasure to be out. While I was working, I noticed a man walking along the tracks in my direction, not far from the old depot. At first he was nothing but a gray shadow. Every few steps, the shadow bent over to pick up something on the ground, then it continued on.

It had been nearly five years since I’d met Oliver Hansen in the city park. For the most part, I’d forgotten about him. Like everyone else, I’d seen him around town, but I was too distracted and busy to give it much thought. That’s probably why I didn’t recognize him right away — that, and the fact that he wasn’t the only so-called hobo in town. When he crossed the street that ran past the south side of the packing house, the man that had been a shadow was struck by the sunlight peeking through the buildings that lined both sides of the street. I saw his face. It was Oliver.

Oliver came up to me and stopped. He looked much older now, but he still had the same eyes — eyes which I could now see spoke of endurance and suffering. The veins in his face were a little wider, a little more pronounced. Two of his teeth were missing. He held out his hand. I took it. For a moment, I was sure he didn’t remember me. I was mistaken. “Mr. Johnson,” he said quietly, “it’s nice to see you again.”


“What’re you up to these days?” he said.

“Oh, just working.”


“How about you?”

“As you see. As you see.”

Oliver paused to reflect. With an expression of longing and regret, he let his eyes wander down the tracks. Somehow, I couldn’t help feeling a little embarrassed. Though I had every right to be there, I felt like an intruder. The railroad tracks, the sacred early morning atmosphere, the town and everything in it, all seemed to belong to the man standing before me.

“You smoke?” he said finally.

“Yeah, some.”

“May I?”

I got out my pack of cigarettes and gave one to Oliver, along with my matches. He lit the cigarette and inhaled. A few seconds later, he released the smoke through his nose and handed me the matches.

“I have more,” I said. “Keep them.” I held out the matches.


I asked Oliver if he wanted my cigarettes too. He declined.

Much to my regret, I could see our conversation was over. Oliver took a step forward. “Maybe I’ll see you again,” I said, holding out my hand.

We shook hands a second time. “Maybe so. I’d like that.” He reached into his shirt pocket, took out a folded piece of paper, and handed it to me. “Here,” he said. “This is something I wrote.” Before I could ask him what it was, he added, “Good luck to you,” and started off down the tracks.

After he’d gone, I unfolded the paper and found a poem. I still have it. It says, I go into the wilderness, but not very far. I go to the edge of time and find you weeping. I am the journey you’ve read about in books, far more real than I myself can stand. This moment isn’t yours to keep. It does not belong to you, anymore than you belong to me, or I belong to myself. And yet all we have is this moment, and each other. Hurry. Shouldn’t we make the best of it?

I was married the following year, and divorced the year after that. I was lonely, foolish, and miserable. But I lived. What else could I do? I lived, and worked, and drank, and tried not to care. The more I tried, though, the more I cared. Life is funny that way. You do what you think is best, or what you think will keep you out of trouble. You try to take the easy way, only to find it harder and harder, until you throw your hands up in despair and say enough. Or you don’t reach that point, and the voice crying inside you is drowned out by the noise you are making, and the things you are chasing, and the worries that you create.

I traveled some, and did a lot of hiking in the mountains. I felt more at home in the Sierras than anywhere else. Three years later, Dad died of a heart attack. Mom kept working at the hospital, switching to full time. On hot summer Sundays, she’d take flowers to the cemetery, then have lunch with friends from work. This helped her keep her sanity. I won’t say I gave up on mine. Over time, sanity just seemed less important, less valid, less worthy of my effort and attention. I began to read. I read everything I could get my hands on. I liked poetry the best. A lot of it was rotten, but I still liked it. It might sound a little grand, but Walt Whitman changed my life. At the same time, so did countless other poets — major poets, minor poets, poets whose names and writings have long been forgotten. And then I made the best discovery of all: everything was poetry. And I began to understand what it means to be alive, and that life is best understood not through words, or thoughts, or actions, but by being. At the same time, I understood that I didn’t understand anything at all. To put it another way, I knew I was stupid. Thanks to poetry, however, I could live with this state of affairs.

About that time, Oliver Hansen and I became friends. I still preferred living in a house, but that didn’t come between us. We’d walk together, or stand and talk on one of the street corners in town. I knew what people thought of Oliver, and by extension what they thought of me, but I didn’t care. They were the ones who were missing out. They were the ones wearing ties and cheating each other in business and worrying about their next car payment. I had a roof, that’s all I cared about. Rent, food, books. Beyond that, I didn’t see much point. I still don’t. My present wife will attest to that, bless her. Good old Bonnie, in her barefooted, enchanting glory.

Oliver is old now. He trusts me well enough that he allows me to keep his writing for him. He used to throw it away. When I told him the world needed his poetry, he laughed so hard that he ended up coughing for five full minutes. At the time, we said no more about it. Then, little by little, he started giving me his scraps of paper, each with a sincere apology. Now he leaves them on my back step, weighed down with a rock, or a can, or with whatever is handy.

He’s crazy about Bonnie. Once when I was gone, he came to the house and they talked for three hours. “You’re a woman,” he told her bluntly. “I miss women.” When he saw that he didn’t bother her, he relaxed. It was Bonnie he told his wife about, not me. Long ago, Oliver Hansen was married, but his wife died. That’s when Oliver lost interest in his sanity, and became more involved in life by stepping out into it and trusting it to take care of him — which it did, in ways most of us could never imagine. Of course, it has been slowly killing him ever since, too — the way it kills all of us, sooner or later, one way or the other.

William Michaelian’s newest releases are two poetry collections, Winter Poems and Another Song I Know, published in paperback by Cosmopsis Books in San Francisco. His short stories, poems, and drawings have appeared in many literary magazines and newspapers. His novel,
A Listening Thing, is published here in its first complete online edition. For information on Michaelian’s other books and links to this site’s other sections, please go to the Main Page or visit Flippantly Answered Questions.

Title Page & Copyright      E-mail Your Comments      Top of Page      Previous Story      Next Story