Saturday, July 16, 2005

Man Versus Himself

It’s 7AM and I’d like to be somewhere else. Instead, I’m standing behind the geology building on the campus of a Big 10 University. It’s Saturday and a few of us are drinking coffee or eating donuts. Almost everyone is grumbling about the apparent waste of a perfectly good Saturday. It’s only late spring, but the morning is muggy and I can feel sweat on my forehead and upper lip. As I listlessly pace up and down the sidewalk I wish I was back in bed. At one point, I’m at the far end of the walk, just about to turn around, when I see a man on the other side of the parking lot. Our eyes meet for an instant and he immediately begins to shuffle toward me, not quite limping, but not walking with complete ease, either. I stop and wait; I’ve got nothing else to do.

“I’m Richard,” the man says as he approaches me. I can see that his faded blue eyes are watery and pinkish and a bit clouded. “I lost half my penis in Vietnam, but that doesn’t make me any less of a man than you.” He offers me his hand, as if to affirm his manhood, and I take it, if only to hide my sudden alarm. Richard clasps my palm, squeezes, and shakes it vigorously. “You ever read Dostoyevsky? Fyodor Dostoyevsky.” I reply that I have, and yank slightly on my arm, trying to extricate myself from the man’s grip. “Good. Good. Which of his novels do you like most?” Another tug and Richard lets go of my hand. He makes no sign to acknowledge our brief struggle, just stares at me intently, waiting. For a moment it occurs to me that he looks too old to have been in Vietnam. Then I reply: “Crime and Punishment, I suppose.” “Ah, yes, of course. It’s common to hear that, but the book is indeed very fine. Very fine. Have you ever read The Idiot?” “Yes,” I say. “Where the prince loses his mind at the end? I have read that.” “Ah,” sighs Richard. “Prince Myshkin wanted to save his friends and it drove him mad. The impulse to save is not of love, but foolishness. No one has ever written about the conflict between man and himself as well as Fyodor Dostoyevsky.” He pauses for a moment, straightens himself, then looks me square in the eye: “I lost half my penis in Vietnam, but that doesn’t make me any less a man. No, not at all.” Again he offers his hand and again I take it. I notice my classmates are staring. Again Richard won’t let go.

“Have you ever read The Demons? You may know it as The Possessed.” I tug but his grip is stronger this time. “Um, no. I haven’t.” “Politics, you know. Politics is horseshit. It makes liars out of men. And worse. I’ve seen it. Know it to be true.” I’m concerned about my hand and give a hard pull. Richard finally releases me, but is quiet for several moments. “I’d like to ask you to buy me a cup of coffee,” he eventually says. “We could talk for awhile,” “I’m sorry,” I reply. “But I have to go on a field trip. The van will be here any minute.” “I see. That’s too bad. I’ve enjoyed our talk.” Richard holds out his hand and I’m reluctant to take it, but do. “I lost half my penis in Vietnam, but I’m a man. Yessir, a good man.” By way of getting loose I turn abruptly to where the van has just pulled up, saying, “Take care,” as I do. Halfway to the van I look behind me. Richard is about to go around the corner of the building, but sees me and waves. I wave back. At the van a classmate asks me, “What was the deal with that crazy guy?” “He just wanted to talk about Dostoyevsky,” I reply. The student is puzzled: “Talk about what?” I climb into the van, the instructor already beginning a monologue about karst topography and limestone sinks. I close the door and the van pulls away.


Smoove D said...

Nice shots, where did you find so many abandoned vehicles? Also, I really liked the story as well.

matt said...

Wonderful story. My hat goes off to you for even shaking his hand (three times, no less). These days we have distanced ourselves so profoundly from one another, that even this simple gesture of brotherhood has become a rare occurence between strangers. And what is your reward? An impromtu and unexpected brief discussion of Dostoyevsky, and the struggle of man against himself, no less.
I like the top shot at a metaphor for you and your classmates standing around, grumpy and wanting to be elsewhere.
Excellent composition in both word and image.

luz de la luna said...

Excellent story. I was entranced. I don't think I am going to offer my interpretations to the story. I have a mind to, but there seems so much to say and it's just a intense story. Let's leave it there :-)

Again, nice photos. I always love the ochre of rust and it contrasts starkly with the green.

Lastly, thanks for the comment on the owl shot. Great site. Keep going :-)

Best Wishes
- Martin

Doug Sterling said...

Also a great story. Probably my second favorite. Great writing!

jmhouse said...

Many thanks, Doug! The City of Dust book will also include this one. I'm editing the proof right now and hope to have the book available within the next month.