The Last Reader On Earth

“I know of no other advice than this: Go within and scale the depths of your being from which your very life springs forth.” -Rilke

For Richard Brautigan


1. Discovering A Lost Artifact

It’s a beautiful thing that he still reads. It is not often that I meet a person who is doing something no one else does. Sometimes, I think we have all become like ants marching in a rigid line. The word hope rambles into my mind when I meet someone radically different. I was less surprised to meet the old lady who grows flowers by candlelight in her hotel room than I was to meet Randall. I thought that readers were extinct until I had the pleasure of stumbling upon him in a park. I remember my legs being heavy like lead when I walked towards him with the hesitancy of a cat.

“Excuse me sir, but what are you doing,” I asked not sure if I was seeing something that was not there.

Randall looked up from his book and with a smile that indicated he was not disturbed by my question replied, “Sir? You are a curious young man…… I am doing something no man dares do before. I am reading………………………………….”

Sun got in the way of the final words coming from his mouth so I can’t write all of what it was he said. “Unbelievable,” is how I impulsively respond in a complete state of disbelief. I had never seen anyone reading before and I was shocked when Randall invited me to sit next to him.

“Have a seat next to me and stop staring like you just discovered a lost artifact,” Randall said.

2. Out Of Work

“My name is Randall, Randall Sokoloff,” he said to me with an out stretched hand that was looking to pull me in.

He was not wearing a shirt and the mid afternoon sun was showering down upon us. The grass was brown, tough and felt like a hairbrush under my legs. Ducks waddled around begging for spare crumbs. Geese floated gracefully through the lake alongside discarded beer cans. I introduced myself as Gio and shook Randall’s hand with a faintness that comes with not believing something you are seeing.

“I like coming to this park and reading,” Randall said just as casually as if he was talking about the blue sky.

Every man I knew was at work at this hour and the only reason I was free to be walking around, mid afternoon, in the park was because I had three hours off for sick leave.

“Wow,’ was the only interjection I could come up with to give meaning to the mystery my mind was trying to solve.

“You from around here?” Randall asked while rolling onto his side and arching his head with the help of his elbow and hand.

I told him that I did not live to far away.

“What are you doing off in the afternoon?” he asked.

I told him about the spell of vertigo that I had been suffering from for years and how it had gotten real bad at work because of the computer screens that swallow our eyes alive.

“Work now-a-days will keep you until you are on your death bed. You’re fortunate that you have an employer that gave you a break,” Randall said.

I could not help but wonder how it was that he had the afternoon off. When I was about to ask, Randall said, “I like to read to the ducks and anyone who will listen. Most people are terrified when I ask if they want to listen to me read but would you like me to read to you?”

3. The Story That Changed My Life

I felt like there was belt being tied tight around my throat and had trouble getting saliva down my drain- but I was curious.  A few deep breaths were what I needed to calm down. Something deep inside of me refused to let this opportunity go. I wanted to see something that I had never witnessed before in my life, a grown man reading from a book.

“Get comfortable. You ready to begin?” Randall asked.

I shook my head with trepidation just like I did the first time I agreed to board an airplane that would shoot me up into the heavens. Lying back down on his back and holding the book up towards the mid afternoon sky, Randall began to read:

It was after seven o’clock when he left the office, preceded by Lorenzo Daza. There was a full moon. The patio, idealized by anisette, floated at the bottom of an aquarium, and the cages covered with cloths looked like ghosts sleeping under the hot scent of new orange blossoms… … ….. ……… …….. ………… ……… .. …….. .. ………….. …. ………………….. …. ….. ………….. ……. …. …….. …. ………… …….. …………. ………… …….. ……… ….. …. ……….. ……. ……… ….. ………. ……. ……. …………. ….. … …. …. …… ……. ….. .. .. ……… …. ……… .. … …. …. …. …… ……….. ….. …. ………………. .. … …. ….. …… ………

He read on and on and on and on into the afternoon. I listened to this new language like a child who licks his first lollipop. I remember my tongue hanging out of place, arched against the roof of my mouth as I felt each word rub up and down my spine.  When Randall finished he told me that the story was made up by someone who’s name I can not remember but the title I will never forget, Love In A Time Of Cholera. The sensuality of the story, the degree to which the words inspired my eyes to open up wide was like seeing a rainbow for the first time. Even though I still do not understand what literature means, I held my breath and do not remember breathing again until Randall said, “this book is one of the greatest works of literature, ever.”

4. Twist My Arm

The sun was beginning to play hide and seek when Randall asked me if I wanted to come back to his place and rest my head in his book collection. Book collection!!! I shouted silently within myself. I felt like someone suddenly dropped a heavy object inside my mind. My stomach was standing at the edge of a cliff and nerves were trying to push it over. I could not believe that a person still had a book collection. For a moment I contemplated the trouble that I could get into if I said yes. I still had an hour or so until I needed to present my body back at work. I never before had seen books standing together in one place- let alone rest my head in one.

“Don’t worry, nothing will happen to you, I will just show you my books. I promise they will not bite.” I could tell that I would be safe with Randall- no matter how strange he seemed to me. He wanted me to see something he intuitively knew I had never seen before in my 31 years of life. My arm was twisted by fate- I decided to go.

5. Falling In Love With Words

Randall lived only a half a mile from the lake.  He was much taller than I thought and it seemed like he got taller with every step. He walked with a casual gentlemanly grace that I had only seen before in magazines. As we walked Randall made no effort to hide his book from any public person that may pass bye. He could tell that this rattled my nerves.

“Carrying a book is not a crime,” Randall said in response to the way I chewed on my fingernails.

“I know it is not a crime, but no one does it. It is really unusual behavior,” I said.

“So because no one does something, this is good enough reason not to do it?” Randall responded .

I have always believed that silence is the best ingredient when you are not sure what to say. The wind wrapped itself around us like cellophane and I did not quite feel as if I was walking on solid ground when I asked Randall the one question that I could not lift off my mind.

“Why do you still read?” I asked.

Randall laughed a bit as if he himself did not know. We turned a corner that had a sign that read Law Punishable by Public Drunkenness. Randall seemed to be using up too many brain cells before he responded to my question.

” I never had the intention to be a reader. No one in my family for generations had ever read. Then one day I found a page with some strange literary words on it.” He stopped and my ears swelled, eager to hear.

Then he continued, “I re-read and re-read and re-read that page until I became a man in love with words on a page. These words built a paradise in the depths of my being. I started finding words in the strangest of places, collecting them like love affairs, striving to get them all together in one place.”

6. The Book Collection

Randall’s apartment rests upon a sloping lot that runs all the way along a deserted block. The street is covered with overgrown grass and bushes and flowers and wine bottles and discarded boxes. We walked up some old cement stairs to the second floor where his apartment sat in a darkened corner of a snake like complex. When he unlocked his front door I felt a wave of hesitation rub up against my arm.

“After you,” Randall said.

The apartment was dark. The shades were all drawn, keeping the light of day away from the books. Randall was afraid the light could cause the words to fade away, I later learned. As Randall slightly opened a few plastic blinds, what was revealed to me through a shard of light sneaking its way into the darkness, would forever change my life.

At first I thought I would loose control of my arms and feet. When Randall asked me if I wanted coffee or wine his words brought me back to earth. I was standing dead center in a temple of books and was convinced that I had fallen through a Rabbit hole. Every wall was covered with living books- as living as my palpitating heart. It looked as if the walls were made out of books.

“Feel free to walk around,” Randall said as he went to pour us both a glass of wine.

I had never had a sip of alcohol during the day but I was held hostage by a shock that I needed alcohol to defuse. I was running low on free time and I knew that whatever I was to see, touch and/or hear- it had to happen quickly. I began rubbing my sweaty palms up and down the book spines just like I was petting a dog. Names and titles that I never heard of before jumped out at me and lit up my brain like a cigarette. I will never forget certain phrases like: Grapes Of Wrath, Sun Also Rises, The Magic Mountain and Trout Fishing In America.

I have never seen words like this gathered together,” I said in disbelief as Randall handed me a glass of red wine, sat down on the floor and handed me a book.

7. Resting My Head In The Pages Of A Book

“I don’t mind if you just open to any page and plop your head right down,” Randall said as he took a gulp of his wine.  “Go ahead, do it if you want.”

I read what was on the cover of the book. It said Tropic Of Cancer, by Henry Miller. I took a big sip of wine and a deep breath both at the same time and like I was squeezing between a woman’s legs I slowly made my way in.

“When I hold the words up closely to my head a feeling of awe and freedom is released in my soul. The smell is akin to enlightenment or drunkenness. This is why it is so tragic that no one reads any more,” Randall said as I inhaled the scent of language.

“Why?” I asked without taking my head out from the book.

“No one knows anymore what it is like to be truly free. To be alone with words on a page and smell them as they linger up into your brain. This gives definition to the life of mankind…that I am afraid has become an empty space,” he said with a passion that might of belonged to the red wine.

I did not really understand what he was talking about and maybe this is why I asked Randall, what I realize now, might of sounded fairly dumb.

“Why is it that anyone would want to be free?” I asked.

Randall giggled a little took a cup sized gulp of his wine and said, “You have to get back to work.”

8. Pulling Out

It took effort to pull my head out from the book. The pages smelled like ink and sex and I could swear I heard people screaming in French inside. Before I left, Randall pulled a particular book off of the shelf and handed it to me.

“Here take this,” Randall said as he reached out towards me.

I was hesitant. What if I lost the book or it ran away?

“Don’t worry I have so many books in storage that one less book will not even make a dent. I would rather you have it than it spend its days in darkness. When you are done come back and I will give you another,” he said pouring himself another glass of wine.

My hands felt like jelly. It was like touching God or breasts- something I had always thought I would never see. I did not know how to read literature and when I told Randall this he said “no worries, I did not either my first time. Just keep your head in between the pages. The book will teach you how.”

I read the hard cover. On The Road, by someone by the name of Jack Kerouac.

“It is a book that forever changed my life,” Randall said.

The book felt like it had blood running through it. I stuck it deep down into my bag, just to make certain that it would not leave a trail. I promised Randall that I would read it. Try at least. He showed me to the door and I remember not wanting to leave.

“The park where you met me today is good place to read,” Randall said. “No one would suspect that somebody would be reading a book there.”

I promised that I would return when I was done with the book. When I thanked him for the wine and book, my nervous words barely made it past my teeth. Randall smiled and opened the door for me. With a smile he said, “the pleasure is all mine Gio…it gets lonely being the last reader on earth.”

Midnight Shower Man

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I like to take showers around midnight. The feeling of being naked and free before sleep calms my mind.  There is a sense of tranquility that is communicated to me through the act of taking a hot shower. I have often thought of showering around midnight as a kind relaxing prayer- a ritual that encourages the transmigration of my soul. It is a time to reflect upon all that has gone on during the course of the day and all I can do differently tomorrow. Every person must have a sanctuary that makes him or her feel like an actor on a stage- the shower happens to be mine.

However wonderful and enlightened all of this may sound to you- I can not claim that it is the real reason why I like to take showers around midnight. Instead, I like to shower at this hour simply because of one simple and routine object, a window. The window is a small square domestic window that sits about head level with me when I take a shower. However, this window is not any ordinary window to me. Instead, the window is my curtain and the shower is my stage. During the day I have to shower with the window closed because it looks out onto a busy street filled with pedestrians and noise. It is only at around midnight when the audience quiets down that I can open my curtain and be exposed to the world.

The street outside my bathroom window is a typical suburban street. Clean sidewalks, a maintained bus stop, freshly mowed lawns and a few signs that read “Please Do Not Let Your Dog Poop On This Lawn.” After midnight the street is somnolent and calm- not a sign in the air that a single person is out of bed. I like to rest my head on the window ledge and watch the tranquil world outside while the warm water rushes over me. “To be or not to be: that is the question. Whether tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or take arms against a sea of troubles,” I recite out loud as I observe the stars in the sky, the colors of the various porch lights, the wind gently pushing along fallen leaves and the occasional passing car.

Yesterday, I got my big break. I was working in my front yard pulling weeds and planting when I suddenly felt a tap on my back (being unemployed has freed up a lot of time for me to do trivial domestic chores. I cannot afford to go out into the world so I entertain myself by planting flowers, sweeping the driveway, cleaning the house and watering the lawn). Standing before me was a girl in her early twenties. She wore running shorts that revealed her long legs and a tight tank top that exposed a good chunk of her breasts. She was sweating like she was in the middle of a run. On her tanned face sat a smile that made me feel slightly at ease when she asked me for my real name. For a brief moment I felt that magical feeling like I was living in a scene from a movie where an older man is out working in the fields, shirtless and lifts his sweaty and sun-baked head only to notice a beautiful young lady standing before him (on tip toes), eager to throw herself upon him. Unlike the movies- she did not throw herself upon me and I was a bit hesitant in my insecure response. I took a deep breath and said, “Why do you want to know?” She looked deep into my eyes and replied, “I am doing you a favor mister. If you do not tell me your real name everyone is going to keep on calling you the midnight shower man.”

I was shocked. No, humiliated would be more like it. I was exposed. Deep down I knew that I had gotten exactly what I wanted (a cute woman watching me while I performed), but I was surprised by how embarrassed I felt. I made up a fake name because I was worried that this information could get back to my wife. I tried to play the you got the wrong guy routine for a while but my bluff was already called. She told me that she knew my face like the cover of her favorite book because night after night her friends and her watched me standing there in the shower staring up into the stars while talking to myself. She tried to reassure me that her and her friends all thought I was very romantic and cute……… and that she was my biggest fan.

I have no plans to stop taking my midnight showers. Nor am I going to close my window now that I know that there are eyes out there in the darkness watching me. Instead, I will give them exactly what they want- a naked man, a naked romantic man taking a shower and reciting lines from Hamlet. This may seem like no big thing to you- but being unemployed and living in a small town where I do not know a single soul, has made me yearn for an ounce of fame. Even though I know the academy will never acknowledge this role- I am determined to play it out the best I can. Now when I shower I am sure to look good. I comb my hair and sometimes do pushups before, in order to make my muscles look more defined. I am aware of the angle that I use when resting my head on the window ledge so that I will look just right under the moonlight. Now, somewhere out there in the darkness I have an audience to whom I must perform. It is not the biggest role that a man can play, this is for sure– but I am a man who is broke and out of work and “Midnight Shower Man” at least has a few adoring fans. This is good enough for me.

Island Fever

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1.

There is a small lake not too far from where I used to live. I often went to this lake, sat upon a bench beside the waterline and watched the afternoons float by. I would read from the collected works of Thoreau or observe the landscape, which was filled with birds, dogs, joggers, cyclists, strollers and lovers. My sitting became a kind of meditation, where I was able to distance myself from the bothersome thoughts that chronically invaded my mind through out the day. Over time, I became an ornament upon that bench. I spent every afternoon there. My present life was stuck in a quagmire, my future life uncertain and the only thing that made any sense to me was sitting on that bench and watching the world unfold.


One afternoon, for some unknown reason, I began to pay more attention to an island that sat in the middle of the lake. It was almost as if, on that particular day, the island had suddenly decided to float right before my eyes. I had never noticed the island before and still swear that it was not there before that afternoon. However, I have always been a man who is open to the miraculous possibilities in life, so I immediately started to observe the trees and tall grasses that grew all along the island shore. I watched the ducks and geese happily congregate on the summit of a small dirt hill. The island was the size of a tennis court or a lap pool and it was covered in blooming lilies and flowering wisteria trees that I assumed someone had planted there. Why I suddenly became preoccupied with this island I will never know and where the idea came from that it was upon that island that I needed to be– I do not pretend to  understand.


After much examination I concluded that it would not be difficult to make it over to the island shore. The only life swimming around in the small lake was a family of brown ducks and a dozen or so geese that stuck together like a tightly knit team. From what I could see, there were no large fish or predatorial creatures living deep within. The water appeared to be knee deep and maintained a continuous dynamic spirality in the way that is flowed. The only risk was communicated to me through rusting signs (that I had never noticed before) that read “SWIMMING IN THE LAKE IS FORBIDDEN TO THE GENERAL PUBLIC AND PUNISHABLE BY FINE.” For the past few months I had been spending so much time alone and isolated from the world that I no longer felt like the title “GENERAL PUBLIC” applied to me. I was different and estranged. I existed in some sort of foggy limbo in between “GENERAL” and “PUBLIC” that was hard to define. With an unquenchable desire to make it to those solitary island shores, one sunny September afternoon I put on my bathing suit, ignored the warnings and decided to wade my way across the lake.


The ducks did not mind my presence in the water. Neither did the wind, the sky, the muddy lake floor, the algae or the afternoon sun. I felt like a long lost member of the natural world who was gracefully being allowed to pass on through. At a certain point the water became so deep that I had to breaststroke my way across. Once I made it to land I suddenly felt like a man who had just been set free. There was an impulse in me to shout out loud- but I controlled my celebratory whim. I had finally left behind the mechanical, political, business, Disney world that I felt so detached from. I was now on another shore, where steel and concrete did not exist and the industrial revolution was yet to hit. The few geese that were perched up on the dirt hill quickly flew away as soon as they saw a human being. I smiled into the afternoon sky and thought about how I was now free to indulge in the primordial grandeur of the universe that was all around me.


I found a soft spot on top of the dirt hill upon which to sit. Nestled in between tall grasses, weeds and blooming lilies- I sat stoically composed in the lotus position. In that same spot I passed magical afternoon, upon magical afternoon in nothing but a bathing suit. I left the island only after the sun had set and the water had begun to grow cold. My wife was curious about what I was doing all day. My skin had become tanned and my hair bleached by the sun, but I kept my adventures all to myself and told her I was out looking for a job. Upon my boat made out of earth that was drifting through time- I watched the birds fly, the ducks quack, the flowers unfurl, the trees shimmer, the turbulent structure of clouds, and the sun slowly set. I felt the joy of a man who was living in the moment- navigating his way through distant seas far away from the declining human world. Day upon day I experienced feelings that gave my life a meaning and purpose that previously was not there. I was no longer looking at nature. Now I was finally living with her. The song of crickets, the fissures around the tree bark, the fossilized rocks, the inherent patterns in the plants all became apart of me.


2.

Summer came to an end and it was time for me to expend more energy in my search for a job. My savings was not immune to the ravages of time and I had worldly responsibilities that needed to be attended to- but I still found the time to sneak away to the lake. When no one was looking I would strip down into my bathing suit and breaststroke my way through the frigid water. Once on the island I would perch my shivering body upon the small hill of dirt that seemed to me to be frozen in time. I watched the last wrinkles of summer unfurl, break apart and get ironed out into the slumber of fall. I watched as the fall turned into ice-cold raindrops that left imprints in the sand. Everything on the island was influenced by the wind, rain and cold and as I sat there, still and silent upon my hump- I studied the ducks wading in the water and the many formations and patterns that were composed as the seasons changed. It was as if each event in the natural world was a poem, a painting, a drama and a celebration that was helping me to see something that was buried very deep down in my soul.


3.

In the depths of winter my island of sanity grew a bit confused. I was no longer experiencing the same peace and purpose that I had felt for so many months before. I noticed that as I interacted with the natural world I was growing impatient with what I saw. My frustration turned into accusations and before I knew it I was yelling at the ducks, messing up the natural patterns that I observed in the dirt and making fun of the annoying geese that seemed to me to be suffering from indecision. When I would be sitting in my office searching for a job I felt resistance when it was time to return to the island. Like a man who is putting off going for a run- I would often skip days. When I pushed myself to make it to the island I would be perched upon the dirt hill as restless as someone who had been contained for too long. I felt like a castaway miles from the shore. My attention would not remain focused on the things I saw or the sounds and smells that at one time were such a delight for me. Instead, I was upset by this nagging feeling that there was some place else that I was supposed to be, that there was this big world out there that I was not getting to see. Little did I know then that I was suffering from what psychologists often refer to as island fever. As the seasonal cycle ran its full course and summer returned, I realized that I was no longer comfortable hiding out, far away, on another shore.


It is ironic to me that on the day I decided would be my final day on the island- I was discovered by a park ranger. He was walking by as I was taking one final walk around the island shore. I was saying goodbye and trying to inscribe various patterns and plants that I had come to love into my memory bank. Upon hearing his yell I bent over and tried to hide behind a bush- but it was too late. “Hey you! What the hell are you doing over there?” I looked up and said “who me?” as if he was talking to someone else that could have been hanging out on that uninhabited island. Since I had already planned upon leaving for good that day I felt no need to put up a fight when he demanded “you are in violation of the law and need to get over here now!” I knew that it was my time, time to return for good to the human world of rules, recessions, battles, mechanization, injustice, toxicity and regulations- for good. However, now I was returning to the world with the knowledge that it was time for me to take responsibility for not only my life but also the life of everything else around me- even the park ranger.  I knew that somehow I was a part of the whole and not just an isolated part. I knew then that I would end up radically changing my life as a result of the impressions and realizations that island life had given me- but at that moment in time how I was going to do so was a mystery. With this deep insight in the front of my mind- I smiled, waved at the park ranger, put my foot into the lukewarm water and began swimming back to shore.