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This was written in the spring of 1995 and published later that year in the Chicago Reader--after the death of Mary Virgina Pekin ("Klem") who was my wife for 45 years, who was the mother of my sons, who was the grandmother of my granddaughters.
In the Light of the Full Noon Sun
by Paul Pekin
I can only cry if I let myself cry, which comes perilously close to saying I only cry if I make myself do it. Because of this, when I woke up crying in the dead of last night, I was once again filled with that sense of having come face to face with my own hypocrisy.
Already my sleep had been going poorly. It was not dreaming that brought this on, simply a state of mind in which the thoughts of the day and the days before it, persisted in the place of dreams. There had been a problem with the dog who is becoming old and dangerously incontinent, and there was my wife's latest X-ray which the doctor had shown me, delicately referring to the shadow that would not quite go away as "the disease," and there was my own growing sense of helplessness before the stern hand of fate, and so, whether for the dog, or my wife, or myself, or simply because it felt good, I cannot say; I was crying.
I soon stopped that. What I couldn't get rid of was the bad feeling the crying left behind. This feeling carried over into my dreams when finally they did come. In one, I was back behind the counter in my store. A customer had just purchased 2 packs of cigarettes and a few other items, and when I went to total up the bill it occurred to me that cigarettes probably cost more now than the thirty cent a pack figure that immediately came to mind. I took a wild guess, 32 cents, this business of undercharging customers for cigarettes has been in my dreams before and in them, always, (it carries over from dream to dream) is the feeling that my wife, who worked many long hours in that store, is becoming more and more irritated over my inability to get such a simple matter right.
Were this not bad enough, I soon discovered I could make the adding
machine work. Our store had one of those old fashioned mechanical
adding machines that very reliably totaled things on a roll, but, in the
way of dreams, the paper now somehow twisted up and got stuck. In
despair I tried to total the bill with a pencil and paper. This was
when I discovered I had forgotten how to add.
Lately, I find I have to force myself to do things that I really want to do. I suppose this is a part of growing old, watching all the old passions dry away, until at last there is little left of the person you once were, merely an empty and ugly shell. There are magazines meant for older people, and numerous newspaper articles and television features addressed to the older generation as well, but I do not recall any of them ever taking up this problem, or even admitting it exists. Instead we see color photographs of vigorous white haired men and their slim post menopausal wives bounding off to the tennis courts; presumably they will make lusty love later, if they have not already done it. This is what is called putting a positive spin on a situation everyone will get to experience sooner or later-- unless fate steps in and provides an unexpected alternative.
I've been going to these concerts at the Cultural Center for a very long time, at least a dozen years, and weekly since I retired, and I always go alone. It's a wonderful civilized way to spend not just the noon hour but the entire day, knocking around the Loop, visiting the library, sifting through Rose's Records and all the book stores, stopping for coffee and a muffin. But it hasn't been quite as much fun lately; I find it harder and harder to concentrate on music, and the rest of it-- all those pleasant leisurely things--must be done in a pleasant leisurely manner, which was not going to be possible today.
I would have time to visit the library briefly, walk the length of the Loop, quickly eat my muffin, take in the concert, and hurry home in order to get my wife to the clinic by three. Were this not enough, a classical guitarist was scheduled to perform, and in all probability his efforts would be amplified. I might as well stay home and play a record as listen to that.
There was no escaping the truth. I was going downtown for one reason and one reason only. Because my son had urged me to get out of the house.
I certainly had no business at the library, no books or records to return, no material to research, and no time to research it in, but for reasons too complicated to include here, I decided to see what they had on World War 1, and Big Bertha, the German gun that shelled Paris in 1918. I went straight to the computer which promptly informed me that the Chicago Public Library, one of the largest in the nation, has no books whatever on World War 1. So much for those who expect great things from the information highway. By the time I had this straightened out--with the aid of a librarian who seemed only slightly less befuddled then myself--most of my hour was gone, and the uneasy mood that had begun with my nocturnal depression had deepened to something slightly darker. It suddenly seemed imperative that I succeed at something, if only to find a book I had not wanted until today. Certainly an event like World War 1 must have inspired enough books to stock an entire library! This may be the case but what I finally turned up was several shelves of dusty volumes printed many long years ago, and when I began searching through them what I mostly opened seemed to be field histories of various American regiments--not one single word about Big Bertha. My time was almost up when I came upon a history of the Battle of Verdun, a killing field so horrific it is said that French soldiers on their way to the trenches bleated sardonically, like sheep. I have never forgotten the stories my father told me about that war (none of which I entirely believed since they so obviously contradicted what we saw in the movies). According to him certain French regiments had been decimated by their own commanders when they refused to enter battle, literally decimated, which is to say that every tenth man was singled out and stood before the firing squad. I made a quick check, found a chapter titled "Morale" and after fifty years of doubt, finally determined my father had not only told the truth, but even understated it. Some rebellious regiments, it seems, were simply marched into open fields and shelled with their own artillery until no one was left. Young men who only wanted to live, had been given the choice of one death or another.
This was not a very cheerful note on which to continue the day. 600,000, a million, a million and a half, no one knew for certain how many, dead in the cold and blood soaked mud for a cause they could hardly have understood, and with no way to escape. What an evil world this was. I would have been better off to stay home.
But then, walking north from the library on State Street I noticed an attractive young woman about a dozen feet ahead of me. Most men, I am sure, know that sensation of walking behind an attractive woman and wondering if, when we come even, her face will match up to what we have seen from behind. It was her hair, more than anything else, that attracted me, although there was nothing unusual about the color, black, or the texture, straight and soft, or the cut, not even shoulder length. She might have been oriental, I thought, and I quickened my step, determined to see if I this were so. It was better than thinking about Verdun.
The closer I approached, the more clearly I saw that there were highlights in her hair, secret colors, hints, suggestions. No, she was not oriental, but certainly that no longer mattered. She had the most beautiful hair I had ever seen, and it did my heart good to see it, and I wished that there was some polite non-threatening way to tell her this. Then I realized that her companion, whom until now I had hardly noticed, had equally beautiful hair, and that was when I became aware of the bright noon sun.
It was the sun that was making this young woman's hair beautiful, and it was the sun that was making her companion's hair beautiful as well. The sun was absolutely overhead, and the sky was absolutely clear, and the light on busy State Street had absolutely turned magical. It had turned into the kind of light artists and painters travel far to find and treasure greatly when they do find it, and somehow, if only for this moment, and if only for me, it was here in the darkest and weariest month of our big city winter, and on this busy dirty downtown street. When I looked around I saw that it had touched everyone and everything, not just the hair of women but of men as well, and the clothes people wore too, and the packages they carried in their hands, and the very shoes they walked in, every fiber, every fabric, every hair, every color, mysteriously illuminated, every person, man and woman, young and old, rich and poor, beggar and banker and for all I know thief. Silently, softly, almost secretly this special sun had made us all beautiful.
I must find a way to thank my son for getting me out of the house.