“I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity.”
It’s not surprising that two old soldiers would meet and start chatting about the military. He introduced himself as Ed. I had no idea who he was until many months later, after his mysterious death. I sat on a park bench, eating a roll stuffed with cheese and thinly sliced roast beef. The sandwich was one of three my wife had packed for my lunch and I was having difficulty choking down the stale bread of the first. I was about to leave when a rumpled, dark haired man stumbled toward me. At first I thought he was an older man, judging by his carriage and the deeply etched lines in his face. But when he sat next to me, uncomfortably close, I saw he was about forty–just not carrying age as well I was.
“Do you mind, sir, if I share your perch?” he asked.
“Not at all,” I replied with a thin smile.
“Thank you,” he said, draping his arms across the back of the bench making me feel even more closed in.
I stealthily tried to slide away a few inches but he inexplicably reached out and patted my leg with a gloved hand grasping my flesh gently with his thin fingers.
Odd, I thought. Gloves in the middle of summer.
“Is there an apothecary nearby?” he asked unleashing a breath of what I imagined to be embalming fluid.
I tried to hold my breath as he spoke, fearing I might be poisoned by the fumes. “Yes. There’s one on the corner…two blocks that way,” I replied, pointing up the street.
He nodded, and for a brief instant, I thought his chin might remain on his chest. I tried to ease away again, but his head snapped up. “I’m Ed,” he said.
“S.L.,” I replied.
“Odd name, Esel,” he said, his head cocked to the side as a dog might hearing an unfamiliar sound.
“Oh…right. Of course. That makes much more sense.” He nodded his head so enthusiastically, I though he might tip forward. “Lunch time is it?”
“Yes,” I said, rolling the top of my paper sack down, preparing to leave. “Sadly, I brought nothing to water the stale crust my wife packed for me.”
“Ah! Perhaps I can help in that regard.” He withdrew a small flat bottle from his coat pocket and held it out in front of him.
“Thank you, no…it’s too early for me.”
“I see,” he said, pulling the cork out with his gloved fingers. They slipped twice before he was able to complete his task. “You don’t mind if I partake, do you?”
“Why would I? It’s a free park.”
“Good, good… Some people are more puritan, or might I say, hypocritical in their responses.”
I shrugged, not knowing exactly how else to respond as he took a deep swallow. The lingering “Ahhhh,” at the end of his drink was enough to make me feel suffocated again.
“What is that? Floor polish?” I asked.
He laughed. “Just a bit of this and a bit of that,” he replied chuckling. “The proverbial beggar can’t be too choosy.”
I glanced at his attire. He seemed far from being indigent. Though his cuffs were frayed and his appearance was rumpled, he certainly didn’t look nor did he speak in a manner reminiscent of the city’s beggar class.
“Did you mention something about a stale crust?” he asked, lifting a bushy eyebrow.
“Yes, indeed,” I said, unrolling the top of the bag. “Help yourself.”
He peered into the sack before reaching in and withdrawing one of my two remaining sandwiches. Before I could close it, he reached in and took the second, stuffing it into his pocket as he crunched into the crusty loaf of the first.
“Mmm,” he mumbled through his mouthful. “Delicious.”
Bits of crumbs departed his lips like an early October snow flurry.
“I’m still parched from the one,” I said quietly, tucking the crumpled bag into my pocket.
He withdrew his bottle again and swung it in my direction in wordless offering. I shook my head.
“Maybe it was my time in the army, but I have quite a fondness for hardtack,” he said after dissolving the hard bread in his mouth with another tug of the foul brew.
“You were in the army?” I asked.
He nodded and swallowed. “Artillery,” he replied when his mouth was empty, and proceeded to take another bite.
“I was as well,” I replied. “First an engineer and then artillery.”
“Ha ha!” he exclaimed, mouth full again. “I thought I recognized a fellow brother in arms… an engineer?”
“Yes, for five years…then two in the artillery.”
“What sort of engineer?” He asked, stuffing more stale bread between his lips. “Architectural? Bridge?”
“Explosives,” I replied. “Really more of the walking engineer variety…sort of smart infantry.”
He laughed, spewing a great rain of crumbs onto the sidewalk. “Wonderful, wonderful.” He slapped my back as if trying to get me to go along with the fictional joke I had told. “But don’t let the infantry hear you say it like that…they are sure to take offense.”
“They usually do,” I muttered.
He took another long pull from his flat flask before sitting back again. “And the Artillery as well…a gunner?”
I shook my head. “Battalion operations.”
“Ahhh…. General’s Staff.”
“Sort of,” I replied quietly, not really at liberty to discuss the sort of artillery I had dealt with, it being of a unique and secret nature.
“Excellent… I always felt that artillery officers bring a certain civility to warfare,” he said, patting my leg again.
“It’s easy to be civil when you are shooting targets you can’t actually see.”
He laughed again. “True enough… true enough.”
I was actually very curious to ask him about his time in the artillery as well, but I was at odds with my strong desire to extricate myself from the chance engagement. He must have sensed the hesitation, his belly now full of something other than poison.
“Well, kind sir, I thank you for the generous sharing of your noon meal,” he said.
“My pleasure. I’m happy to break bread with a brother…even if it requires a hammer to break the crust.”
He laughed again. “That’s good…I’ll have to use that if you don’t mind.”
I shrugged and smiled, slightly confused by his meaning. “Feel free.”
“Excellent,” he said and looked down at the ground. He remained still for several long seconds, his eyes wide. For an instant, I wondered if the man had expired before my eyes.
“Ed?” I said cautiously.
“Well!” He snapped, sitting rigidly upright. “It’s back to work for me. It’s been a pleasure, S.L.”
He extended his hand and I grasped it to shake. His grip was weak and sickly and I wondered if he wasn’t suffering from some tragic ailment.
“It was nice to meet you, Ed,” I replied.
Before releasing my hand, he leaned close, the cloud of fumes enveloping my senses, nearly choking me. “Don’t let the banality of sanity lull you into false comfort, sir,” he said, his eyes wide and with an intensity that suddenly made me wonder if he weren’t possessed. “Insanity and denial are a much healthier way to live than sanity and denial. The former will not rot your soul as the later most assuredly will.”
That was dark, I thought.
He smiled, his face changing back to a pleasant spread as if a violent spell had just ended. “Be well, sir.”
“God bless,” I called to his back as he abruptly left.
He turned an glared at me. “And now you’ve spoiled it,” I barely heard him mutter.
I watched him as he turned toward the pharmacy I had pointed out earlier. When he disappeared around the corner I got up and walked in the opposite direction, pondering his strange admonishment.
It wasn’t until later that year I discovered, quite by accident that my lunch companion had in fact been renowned and disturbed author, Edgar Allan Poe. I recognized his picture in the newspaper immediately as the man I had shared my sandwiches with. For some reason, his warning to me felt much more profound once I discovered who he was. It altered my life in no small regard. I now apply a high level of awareness to my surroundings and my responses to those surroundings. It’s been an interesting century and a half since that chance encounter. I often wonder if his life would have been different if I had revealed myself to him. Would he have lived longer? Would he have asked for my secrets? Would I have given them to him?
Bah….pointless speculation. It is what it is.
Happy Birthday, Ed. It was nice to meet you.
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