Today while returning home from a trip north, I stopped to spend a few hours in a café in the town of X that I will not mention by name so as to protect the integrity of the story that I am about to tell.
In this particular café, they have a bookshelf full of books. The premise of this section, designating as the “Book Share,” is to “take one, leave one.”
As I was leaving the café, one book grabbed my attention. It was the collected poems of a much overlooked, plainspoken American poet from the latter half of the twentieth century. I could hardly believe my good fortune, for I had long wanted to get this volume of poetry but for whatever reason had never done so.
I left a novel that I had finished reading in exchange for this thick volume of poetry. Only when I returned to my hometown after my trip north did I, by chance, turn to the two blank pages—flyleaves, they might be called—past the index of poetry titles in the back of the book. I found a strange, cryptic note written there, as the shaky scrawl suggested, by the pen of an old man. The note was addressed to a certain Katie, to be discovered, perhaps the hope was, by Katie herself. I felt mildly bad then for having grabbed the book.
I recognized in the man’s few brief lines certain themes that have long been a fascination of my own and thus, naturally, I was quite taken by the sad tenor of his writing. The old man was grieving the lost opportunity from the chance encounter he’d had the previous day with Katie in that very café. “I went to the coffee shop today,” his note began, “where I met you yesterday, hoping, hoping, that when I returned today, you would be here.“ It was dated July 26 of the previous year.
I opened my journal to read of that time in my own life. On July 26th, I had not written anything, but on the day before, the 25th of July, I reference a “lengthy conversation” with a woman whose name I hadn’t caught. This conversation, apparently, had taken place in the same café in the town of X. This surprised me, for I did not remember this encounter, nor did I remember visiting the town of X in July of the previous year, although it wasn’t impossible. I go there occasionally on the weekends to walk the beach and think, and I often stop at the café when my travels take me in that direction.
I read how this mysterious woman and I had talked about the same poet whose volume of collected works I now had in my possession. She had been reading this volume in the café. I told her that I, too, had long wanted to read this poet, and although I had picked up and put down his collected poems several times, I had never been able to penetrate it.
All of this is as I recorded it in my journal.
“Timing,” the woman agreed, “is an interesting thing. It took me ten years to read him myself, but then one day I was ready, you know? When I opened the book, I sort of just fell into his words.” She stopped to think about that and giggled.
In my journal, I detailed every nuance of this giggle. I went on for three or four excessive lines on the tremolo of her voice, as if she was nervous or not used to hearing herself speak. Finally, after my description of the giggle, and of her voice, but not much of anything else, I recorded her as saying, “That sounds silly what I just said—doesn’t it?”
“No,” I said. “Not at all.”
We talked of other things. That was what I wrote: “We talked of other things.”
I guess I eventually returned to my own writing, and she to her book of poetry. There is no hint as to why I would have been passing through the town of X. There is no mention, most discouragingly, of a walk together along the pier after our cappuccinos. It is a shame that we did not do so (if, in fact, we did not), for the views from the pier are exceptionally beautiful—sublime, really—in this town during July. There is no indication, furthermore, of a sexual attraction or even of a brief, awkward moment of reaching over to take her hand when departing.
Certainly one of us must have lifted a hand to wave at the other when saying goodbye at the door, but I cannot now be sure. Which one of us left first? I do not know. Because I cannot remember this encounter in the slightest, I have to rely on my journal as the sole authority. And my journal is less than helpful.
Even so, from this encounter with the unnamed woman as recorded in my journal, when I returned to the note in the back of the volume of poems, Katie had taken on a more legendary, folklorish quality. Was this woman in my journal the Katie of the old man’s address? Had he met up with her before I got to the café, or after I left? Or am I to believe that I am the old man? Even if dated to July 26 of the previous year, is it possible that this note was penned several decades in the future by my elderly self? I understand that this last hypothesis is quite strange and, of course, at this remove, there is no way to tell. All I really know, finally, and without going into the details of the old man’s grief, is how at the end of his note he quotes several lines from “The Unquiet Grave.”
“The Unquiet Grave” is an English folk ballad about two lovers who loved each other greatly, and lived for each other all their days, until the wife tragically died. I do not know how I know this, or even where I first learned of this song—I am not British, nor am I, usually, much drawn to British-type things. This is not to say that I despise British-type things, but I am simply not drawn to them.
I am only right now remembering, furthermore, how in this folk song the man mourns for his wife “for a twelve month and a day.” She complains that all this grieving is keeping her from her peace and demands that he let her be. He begs her for a kiss, but she explains how that would be fatal. He does not care. He is in that much pain. He wants to die, too, if he can’t be with her. Finally, she says, and I’m paraphrasing, that death does not fit him well. He would only rot down here, with her, in this grave. He should choose, rather, to live.
And that, apparently, is all the encouragement that he needs. Live—”choose to live,” his lifelong love says, from the grave. And he does. And yes, live, he does, for all his remaining days.