Will Peace (1)
An old man once told me something that I never forgot. Not because it was any special piece of wisdom. I wasn't much more than a kid at the time, so was used to old folk telling me stuff:
"Life's a journey of many roads, and they don't all run straight."
"A foolish man hears. A wise man listens."
"Don't fuck with a gorilla if you're out of bananas."
That kind of thing. No - the reason I remember his words especially was something that happened right after he said them.
I was working my first job at the time. Behind the register at a filling station in Iowa. It was okay. It was money. And I used to sneak some cigarettes now and then. Snickers. Cokes. Small stuff. No one noticed in those days.
Anyhow... one day, this old guy comes in to pay for his gas. Nothing special about him. Seventy, I'd guess. Jacket that didn't fit, Cubs cap with grease on the brim, paint-spattered dungarees like a Pollock canvas. Wiry hairs poking from his ears and nostrils and the top of his shirt. Other places, I guess. He paid, and I gave him his change. As he turned to go he dropped a coin.
"Leave it for the cleaner," I quipped.
But he bent and picked it up, then held it up to show me - like it was a trophy. It was a penny - brown as a chocolate drop.
I shook my head. "Okay," I sniggered. "Maybe not."
He looked at me then in a strange way. Almost like I'd insulted him.
"Wise-ass, eh, boy? Hasn't no one told you you need to take care of the pennies?"
I knew the rest. I just grinned and nodded. He turned, slipping the coin in his pocket. When he got to the door, though, he stopped - like he'd forgotten something. Then he gave me that weird look again.
"It's the small things, young fellah, that make the difference in life." He turned his head and stared out of the window at nothing. I could see the empty light in his eyes. "One day you'll learn that even just stooping to tie up your shoe lace can change everything."
Then he went out. I was stunned. I didn't know what the fuck he was on about. It sounded like some Eastern thing, maybe. Something religious. I wasn't about to write it down, anyway. But it made me curious. I watched him as he shambled towards his truck.
He was almost there when he stopped again and looked down at his feet. One of his shoe laces was trailing out. He crouched down to tie it up.
And that's when it happened. The most bizarre thing I'd ever seen, before or since.
As he was stooping there, a lump of ice the size of a basket ball fell out of the sky, like a missile, and smashed into the back of his head. Ice crystals, blood, bone, brains - everything - flew across the concrete. It was like his head had exploded. There was just this body now, lying there - legs and arms still twitching - and the rest was ice and red. I stood there with my mouth open. Some other people had just pulled in, and they'd seen it, too. They jumped out - a man and a woman - and ran to his side. The woman stood with her hand at her mouth, as shocked as I was. The man got up and ran into my booth, yelling about calling an ambulance.
I looked at him. Nothing was registering. Nothing. He came straight behind and picked up my phone. I looked back out there as he made the call. The woman was throwing up in a fire bucket. And there was this body - those dungarees, this untied shoe lace, this jacket with a penny in the pocket, and all these ice crystals, and blood. For some strange reason, all I could think of was a strawberry Sno-Cone. And then I passed out, gashing my head on the counter as I went. In the end, the paramedics were only needed for me.
Later, on the news, they said it was something called 'blue ice', though I hadn't seen anything blue in it. Only red. It was flush waste that had leaked from the toilet of a jet and frozen on the way down. An expert said the chances of it happening and killing someone were millions to one. Billions, even. You stood more chance of being killed in a plane crash or struck by lightning.
And that's why I remembered what the old boy had said.
Even just stooping to tie your shoe lace can change everything.
I don't suppose even he realised, though, that it could mean getting your brains smashed out by a giant block of frozen shit.
You may think my tone sounds harsh and uncaring. I apologise for that. It's the way I speak sometimes. I can be a nice and loveable guy. Fair, even - or so I've been told. But life, like that old fellah said that day, has taught me some things. It's taught me a healthy degree of cynicism (and yes, there is such a thing). It's taught me to trust no one until I've known them a good time - and even then, not totally. It's taught me a certain resilience and strength of character.
And it's also taught me that he was right in another way: that it usually is the small things that make the biggest difference - that change everything. A slight sideways look when you shake hands with a real estate agent. Sweat on the top lip of a crime suspect. A ginger pubic hair in my blonde ex's lingerie. I haven't been brained by a block of ice yet whilst tying my shoelaces. But a lot of my shoes are slip-ons, anyway - or the ones with the Velcro straps. Old man shoes, my ex used to call them. Fair enough. I'm forty-nine next birthday. Old man starts at twenty-five, so I guess I qualify. She's now with a twenty-year-old, so I'm sure she's happy. Hopefully, he'll be wearing Vans or All-Stars. Maybe, one day, he'll stoop to tie a lace and forget to stop his skateboard first...
Another thing - maybe related, maybe not - is there have been times when I've come close to death and escaped it by a hair. One second more, one inch further - BOOM! It's happened so many times, in fact, it almost makes me think I've been spared for a reason. Let me tell you, though - I don't go with any fate bullshit. We decide on a path and take it, and it leads us where it does. I think about things like the people who went sick, or were late in on 9/11. The people who weren't at their desks, or the water cooler, or hanging up their coats on the top floors of the Trade Center towers. After, a lot of them probably thought their illness or hold-up was part of God's plan for them. But they were just lucky, that's all.
And like with that old guy that day, too. Supposing he hadn't dropped that coin? Supposing he hadn't stopped to pass me that piece of home-spun wisdom? Supposing his shoe lace hadn't come undone?
Supposing he hadn't run low on gas?
Where does it stop? How many connections do you want to make? How far back can you go?
Some things happen, though, and you feel like they're meant. It's like they have some kind of magnet in them, pulling at you. Maybe this is what gut instinct is. Maybe it's more than we give it credit for. It's like a sixth sense. And you go with it... and it takes you to places you never thought possible.
So, all this stuff - these small things, these chance encounters and events, these gut feelings - this is what shapes our lives. That's what I believe. They're the divinity, as some great English poet put it. And we're the hewers. All the way. Nothing else.
My name is Will Peace. My whole life is a small thing, and the result of a chance encounter. It sounds like a cliché, but there it is. If the store clerk who was my mother hadn't met the travelling food mixer salesman who was my father in a bar one drunken night in Mason City, I'd never have been sitting right here today. I wouldn't have these hands and feet, or this forty-eight-year-old face that could be ten years older. I wouldn't have this heart in my chest, beating my seconds away. I wouldn't have this cough, or this ulcer, or this gut resting on top of my belt. I wouldn't have these grey eyes that have seen some things, and this grey hair, and my grey complexion. I wouldn't have met that old guy, and given him his penny, and watched him die. And maybe he'd have lived a little longer because of it.
I wouldn't have had this life I've had, and still be here to tell you about it.
(to be continued)