The Artist and the Vagabond
The weary old man sits in his regular seat awaiting his rendezvous. He has waited at this same oak table in this same musty inner-city bar many times, for it is he who has always chosen their meeting place. He is greeted by the usual fair and red haired barmaid, who has by now come to recognize the old man. As she approaches they make eye contact and she nods in affirmation, understanding that the old man will have his usual drink.
The old man waits patiently, sitting reticent, grey and grizzled, in clothes that are shabby and worn to tatters. The blue windbreaker he wears- though it is an extremely cold October- is weather beaten with holes in both of the elbows, and his blue jeans have been tainted black with stains of soot and ash and grime. Around his bald pate, rich charcoal locks grow in long airy curls hanging ever so gently over his shoulders. His beard is soft and long, though unwashed, and grows straight down in a slightly lighter gray. His eyes are insolated by deep wrinkles and his skin droops at the cheek, locking his face in a tired, sluggish expression. He sits patiently with his dry, gangly hands folded, eyes fixated on the quaint painting hanging on the wall behind the bar. The walls of the bar are for the most part bare, decorated with few no longer brightly burning neon signs and even fewer broken cheap trinkets. The painting is a watercolor, depicting, amateurishly out of scale, a patch of sunflowers swaying in a dusky meadow by a lone semi-circled hill. The old man loses himself for a moment in the painting, hanging for the most part unnoticed behind the loud patrons occupying the stools by the bar, muttering drunkenly amongst themselves about the hardships of modern life.
The barmaid approaches again, uncorking the unmarked bottle in hand, and pours its translucent liquid into the stained old bar glass before the old man. His trance broken, he turns from the picture to thank her and the barmaid notices for the first time the old man’s deep blue irises. He calmly raises the glass in toast, and takes a sip.
“Don’t mention it. You know I like to take care of my regulars. Come see me before you leave and we can work out the bill, Leeland.”
She touches the man’s shoulder compassionately.
“Thank you Janine.”
He reaches out to take her hand in gratitude, and his dry and dirty wrinkled skin has a cold, empty feel to it, like the hide of a dying lizard, rough against the youthful fullness of hers. The old man smiles, revealing his stained rotting teeth, and the barmaid wriggles her hand away gingerly, so as to conceal her disgust and save the man’s feelings.
“Really, don’t mention it. Just please Leeland do me one favor and stop staring at that stupid painting. You get this blank look on your face every time as though you’re no longer with us. It’s really distracting for the drinkers at the bar, so cut it out or I’ll have to take the painting down.”
The old man looks at her momentarily confused, then glancing at the painting once more, nods meekly in affirmation.
“Yes, yes, I will try my best not to stare, as you say.”
She smiles a thankful, serviceable smile and returns to her post behind the bar.
The old man retrieves a sterling silver pocket watch from his back pocket and realizes his rendezvous will be arriving shortly. He has come early, as he always does (for he has no better place to be), but knows his rendezvous will be, as always, punctual. The table before him is four feet across and narrow, and at his request- it is the same request every time- has been stripped bare. He sits at the table’s head facing the bar and his eyes now peruse the surface of the old rickety table. He moves his cold hands slowly along its surface, fingering its grooves and inconsistencies now filled with dust and dirt, and he thinks, quite surely, that it must once have been a clean, solid, beautiful table.
And surely enough, just as the clock struck noon, the young man, dressed today in a fine black suit and red tie under a beautiful black wool pea coat with matching black leather attaché case, came waltzing in, beaming with the vivacity and swagger of success. He flashed a radiant smile as he greeted the barmaid and ordered his usual dry gin martini, before setting his attaché case down beside the table and taking his seat across the old man. The old man had always known his acquaintance was beautiful; it was the first thing that struck him when they had met all those years ago. But it was only just now, in evaluating the young man’s face as he always did, that he realized it was the alertness in the young man’s eyes- they possessed a keenness and zest for life long lost to him- that made the young man so magnificent. Lost in the piercing blue of those eyes, the old man did not hear his greeting.
“Are you deaf old man? Have I lost you forever?”
The young man chuckled, taking off his wool coat and hanging it on a wooden coat rack. The young man looked towards the bar and smiled once more at the barmaid pouring his martini, before unfastening the black ivory buttons of his silk suit, placing the jacket behind his chair, and taking a seat. Awakening again from his reverie, the old man watched as Janine, a very beautiful woman in her own right- her beauty and kindness had in fact always been the reason the old man frequented this bar- brought over the dry martini and set it before the resplendent youth. The old man watched as her cheeks reddened in slow imperceptible increments as the young man thanked her, until Janine stood before the young man blushing in full bloom. Janine’s body language did not shock the old man, who had seen the young man’s suave self-certainty have this effect on her before. And as the youth sipped his cocktail with an elegant, but efficient ease which seemed to the old man by no means rushed, but conversely by no means wasteful, the old man appraised the beautiful brown curls that sat so comfortably on the young man’s scalp, shielding him from the harsh sun and the cold cruel winter.
“This is absolutely delicious, you’ve outdone yourself Janine”, the young man proclaimed.
The barmaid smiled awkwardly, still blushing, and shuffled back behind the bar. The young man turned to his companion, smiling.
“So, old man, what do you tell me?”
The old man looked at his youthful counterpart in awe.
“You are absolutely sublime, Joseph.”
The young man smiled.
“Thank you, Leeland. But must you tell me this every time we meet? Your flattery will not earn you any points in this arena old man!”
The young man chuckled and folded his legs.
“I… No… It’s just that you are. I didn’t realize I had told you this before…”
The young man peered across the table at the old man over the rim of his glass, examining the wrinkles on the old man’s face, which seemed deeper, longer, and more numerous with each encounter. Satisfied, the young man readjusted himself to face his counterpart directly. He reached over, yanking the unmarked bottle from the old man’s hands and waved over the beautiful bartender, motioning to have it exchanged for the finest bottle of gin in the bar.
“Your flattery has saved you from that swill. Now. Shall we take things up exactly where we left them last time?”
The old man took the last slow sip of his drink before Janine, arriving in a hurry with a beautiful black and gold bottle and two crystal tumblers in hand, opened the bottle and delicately poured each of the two men a drink.
“Yes, yes that would fine. What were we discussing? I can’t for the life of me remember”, the old man raised his glass and the two men nodded their heads in a gesture of friendship.
The young man started again: “I do believe we were discussing building and inequalities. I was making the argument for building, and hard work, and industry, as the only means of overcoming inequality, and you, very eloquently I might add, suggested that mortality was the trump card to my argument. You said mortality was the great leveler, that we all ended up dead, and that that, in and of itself, made us all equal in personhood.”
The young man leaned his head forward and pursed his lips, waiting for the old man to reply.
“Ah, did I say that? Yes, I suppose I did.”
The old man observed the glass Janine had brought him and found it to be much more beautiful than the first. He fingered it delicately, swishing the fine liquid within in deliberate circular motions. The feel of crystal pleased his fingertips.
“Yes, you did old man. And frankly, you were wrong. You see, death is not the great leveler you make it out to be, but rather it is just an arbitrary endpoint. A destination, if you will. It does not level anything, because there is nothing there to level, do you see? It is not a point in time, old man. It is the absence of time. It is nothing. It is death. It is the end!”
The old man took a sip of the gin, and the crisp taste of saffron and juniper astounded him, awakening in him memories of youth long forgotten.
“And what’s more you see, you foolish old man”, the young man leaned forward here, aggressively moving his elbow onto the table, “is that inequality is very real and very present in the world. And people are unequal. They are born into unequal circumstance and they are born with unequal DNA. And they are unequal in this way until they die, at which time equality no longer matters. You see, just because we both perish, does not mean that we are equal. It just means that we have one trait in common- mortality, the end. We are headed to the same destination, but we will all use different routes, and take different mediums of transportation.”
The young man leaned back in his chair, satisfied with his articulation. The old man looked up from the crystal, across the table at his companion, and smiled broadly.
“You have made excellent points, but you delude yourself in thinking that a different vantage point in life equates to a difference in innate value. A prince’s life is no more valuable than that of a pauper. Take the Prince away from his scepter and he is mere mortal is he not? If the Prince is only Prince by virtue of his circumstance, and if circumstance is entirely outside of our control, then are we not, in that way, all born blank slates?”
He paused here, taking the crystal tumbler in hand, meticulously sipping the liquid that seemed to fuel his thought. He raised an eyebrow, glancing at the painting once more, before continuing:
“Material riches simply cannot elevate a human life to a higher strata of existence. Material riches cannot illuminate that which is dark. Circumstance favors the few, this we know, but material riches will bring us no closer to the truth. All human life is equal, in that it must begin, and it must invariably end. All that can live beyond death is that which one contributes to mankind. A legacy. And a legacy is but an idea, living on through the aeons of time. All that is timeless is knowledge, my friend.”
The old sage leaned back in his chair and stroked his beard pensively, watching the frustration build in his young companions face. The young man furrowed his brow in aggravated search. The old man reached back for his pocket watch and recognized that half of their time had already passed. He glanced once more at the watercolor behind the bar, and the sunflowers in the sun-setting meadow seemed to him to be dancing.
“But then, young man, I suppose not even that is true. Knowledge requires a vessel, and that vessel must necessarily be mortal. So I suppose even knowledge itself is inextricable from humanity, and will all the same, inevitably die.”
The young man shrugged his shoulders, exasperated:
“But then there is no resolution! Is it all a waste of time? I can’t live with that. We will both die old man, of that I have no doubt, but I will be sure to go with a smile, though you may think it false, while you will bear the frown of uncertainty!”
The old man sipped his drink, delighting in the taste of the refined gin and the soft fine feel of the beautiful crystal against his miserable cracked lips. Feeling the warming effects of the alcohol beginning to set in, the old man grinned amusedly, waiting for the young man to finish.
“You speak as though knowledge is an illusion old man. Then perhaps so is pleasure. Well, I say fine, I will work hard so that they are delusions that I can afford!”
The young man slammed his hands on the table, nicking the face of his gold watch and the old man’s face tightened to its unflappable pensive squint:
“Ah! That is one of the more beautiful tricks you have ever shown me, young man. The youthful delusion that one can control the mind! What makes you think for even a second that you have the power to abstract yourself from yourself in that way? Mind and body are but one. The world as one understands it can exist but in the mind, and must end at the outskirts of that very mind. Am I to understand that you will you close your mind, to control your world?”
The young man, removing his watch and loosening his tie, angrily retorts:
“Yes! I will, I guess I will. A mind too vast is one to get lost in! Whereas you are feeble and controlled by your mind, I am strong and in control of mine!”
The old man raised an eyebrow and, after a few moments had passed, slowly raised his glass once more, sipped the liquid, and gravely replied:
“You’ve let yourself be consumed by your ego, young man. It’s delusion. You have no integrity.”
The young man, now livid, rose from his chair, nostrils flaring and adrenaline coursing thick through his veins.
“I have no integrity?”, he shouted. “You value things you cannot see more than the tangible world you crazy old fool. And you have nothing and no one to show for it! Look at you; you’re so self-absorbed that you think your mind is a better, cleaner place than the world we live in. The VERY REAL world we live in. Are you so righteous in your little bubble of isolation? Are you untainted by human experience? Have you all the answers? Do you realize how sick you are? You think there’s righteousness in isolation? There is nothing but fear! Fear and pathetic self-loathing.”
The young man, now leaned over the table, face flushed red in hot passion, and stared down the table at the stoic old man as the latter rubbed his beard and pondered his acquaintance’s formidable speech calmly. The drunks at the bar now turned in unison to see the commotion.
“Well old man?”, he shouted.
The young man, growing impatient, poured himself another drink and took it down in one gulp. The quick warmth of the liquor calmed him, and he resumed his seated position, waiting for the old man’s reply. But it did not come. The drunks turned their backs and resumed their chatter. The old man simply sat, rubbing his beard, his blue eyes once again lost among the sunflowers behind the bar…
The young man rubbed his face and started once more:
“Listen old man. You may think that there is some sort of nobility in what you may think is the pursuit of truth. But the truth, the real and plain and simple truth, is that you and I both know that you have arrived at this truth many, many times before. The truth is that there is no truth. It’s sad, and it’s unsettling at times, but there you have it. There is only perspective. It is not something that anyone wants to admit, but here I am conceding. You win. But there’s just one thing about that truth that you and I will never agree upon. Whereas in uncertainty you may see beauty, I see nothing but chaos. And in a world of chaos, he who sells order will be king. And he who is king, is truth.”
The old man’s eyes widened as he awoke once more from his trance, with a sudden sense of urgency.
“But Joseph, what of the ethereal? There is always beyond!”
“Exactly, there is always beyond!”
“But then we must push the frontier! Drive humanity forward!”
“No. We must cultivate the discovered and prosper.”
“But prosperity exists only in the soul!”
“Prosperity exists in the wallet, you old fool. And he who does not prosper, loses his soul.”
With that the young man slipped his watch back on, repositioned his tie and his ran his fingers through his hair, finished his drink and rose to leave. The old man sat there, looking somehow wearier now than ever, and watched as the young man opened his attaché case, making sure his important documents were in order, then paid the bill, though less than half the bottle had been drunk, and left a generous tip.
“Well, this has been fun Leeland, but I have places to be.”
The young man smiled softly, and amicably at the old man still tense across the table.
“I’ll see you again soon. And hey, cheer up, there’s always next round!”
The young man chuckled.
“In the meantime, chew on this one,” the young man smiled his radiant smile, cocksure as ever, “when the great leveler does take us both, who’s going to remember how stiff you liked your bourbon, or how cold you drank your gin but me?”
The young man patted his companion on the back.
The old man smiled feebly.
With that the young man turned and exited into the daylight. The old man, still rubbing his beard, sat quietly pondering in the darkness of the bar, with his fine bottle of gin, and the curious sunflowers swaying forever careless in the breeze.