Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Remembering Quist

"I read a book one day and my whole life was changed." So begins Orhan Pamuk's novel The New Life. I wondered if it had ever been true for me. I listened to a song once and everything about you and me became clear. I didn't believe it then and I don't believe it now.

I was taking Quist for a stroll on the boardwalk at Jones Beach. Robert Moses' good deed. It was late in the year but unseasonably warm, a dead fish of a day. I got him situated in his wheelchair and wrapped him in a brown wool coverlet that Aunt Martha had made for L. when L. was dying. In the last few weeks of L.'s life it was used to cover her cold legs. She was barely in the ground when Quist laid claim to it. By November, he wouldn't leave the house without it. "It's my security blanket," he'd say. "It comforts me."

We made our way from Parking Lot 4 through the pedestrian tunnel past the main bathhouse and restaurant. Quist was silent. We came out into the sunlight -- the breeze was wet and salty. A tattered American flag flew out toward the east above columns of colorful pennants, its line whipping against the pole.

We headed west into the sun and the breeze. The city shimmered in the distance behind a yellow veil. Teams of gulls hovered above their skeptical colleagues perched on the boardwalk railing. Quist straightened his back and raised his chin. He closed his eyes and let the sun shine on his face. There were plenty of others out taking a stroll -- elderly men and women, young fathers carrying children, a few teenagers horsing around, an occasional family cluster. In the first hundred yards, I must've counted eight or nine different languages being spoken in addition to English and Spanish: Russian, German, one of the Chinese variants, Creole, Polish, Arabic or Hebrew, it's hard to tell them apart at a distance, and one or two indistinguishable others. It was easy to imagine being a member of a brotherhood. I pushed Quist slowly along and closed my eyes too for a few moments. Then someone walked by us carrying french fries -- the smell was overwhelming. All of a sudden I was starved. Quist looked back at me, grinned and said, "Everything tastes better outside. Let's grab some grub."

Our routine meal at Jones Beach was clam chowder, franks, and a shared Coke. The chowder was sandy but hot and it came with oyster crackers, a few of which we left for the gulls. We sat outside near the glass partition that separated patrons from passersby. Quist couldn't raise the plastic spoon to his mouth. I had to feed him the soup and watch that he didn't choke.

"I wish we could get out here more often," he said. "Today is a gift." I wiped his chin. There was nothing spiritual about Quist. He was just happy to be alive. It was the sixteenth anniversary of the Kennedy assassination and Carter was in the White House. "Things'll get worse before they get better but I won't be around to see it." He squinted at me. "I hope you will." He swallowed the last of his soup and watched me cut his hot dog into little pieces. "Thanks for bringing me out here, bud. Cripes that tastes good."

I asked him if a book had ever changed his life. He took his time looking around and then he cackled. "Only book that changed my life was The Holy Bible. Remember Mary?" Mary was his deceased ex-wife. "She started taking Bible lessons at an evangelical church in Babylon. Pretty soon she was there all the time. I found out that she and the pastor couldn't keep their hands off each other. A silver-tongued Southern boy -- Jake something-or-other. By the time they got to the New Testament they were screwing like rabbits. She divorced me and they moved to Tennessee. Damn bible." He was winded.

We sat there for a few minutes and listened to the ocean while he regained his breath. "Books are okay," he said, "As long as you don't believe them." Then he winked. "I'm only shitting you. I wish I'd read more when I was young. I wasn't like you -- you're always reading. I wouldn't know what I'd've done with all that education." It was true. I was a bookworm -- but at that point in my life it had done no good. I was more confused than I'd ever been, having settled into a featureless post-adolescent funk broken up occasionally by drunkenness and foolish romance. Quist had lived without books. Like every self-made man he was a botch job but he'd learned enough along the way to fashion a decent life for himself and his kids.

I looked over at him. His eyes were closed and he was breathing through his mouth. There was something ferocious and clever in there that could never have come from a book. You could tell even though he'd fallen asleep. I lit a cigarette and kept watch over him as the shadows lengthened.

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