Miles to Go Before

I can’t say how long I’d been held in a trance by the neon and mercury vapor which create the bright colors peculiar to Birmingham at night before I was startled by a discreet cough. 

I turned from the window to find one of the club’s familiar faces regarding me from across the library.

“Pardon me, sir,” Emsworth said almost sheepishly, “but I wanted to ask if you are all right.”

“Of course I’m all right,” I replied with a forced smile.  “Why would you think I’m not?”

He shifted uncomfortably.  “The stain on your shirt, sir.”

I glanced down, seeing the still-wet splotch on my garment for the first time.  I sighed.  Sarah Miller?”

Emsworth nodded.  “She spilled a Screaming Viking on you, and you obviously didn’t even notice.”

“And from that you deduce something’s wrong?”

“Not just that, sir.  You walked past the table at which Mandy Shunnarah could be heard berating the tropical sounds of Jimmy Buffett for being, as she put it, ‘old geezer music,’ and you failed to rise to Mr. Buffett’s defense.  And then there’s Wade Smith, sir.”

Mandy doesn't know what she's missing.

“What about him?”

“I believe you are familiar with my rather strong feelings about t-shirts, sir.”

I nodded. “That they should not be worn except as undergarments.”

“Exactly, sir.  And Mr. Smith has paraded around all evening wearing the shirt he purchased at the…” Emsworth’s face contorted as if it pained him to say the following two words. “Poke Salat Festival.  While your view of t-shirts is more liberal than mine, I am aware that you take a rather dim view of those promoting the virtues of certain edible vegetation.  Yet you said nothing to admonish him.”

I sighed again.

“And that’s not to mention Kat Hilton and the bag of Chow Town” – two more painful words – “takeout with which she entered the dining room…”

“All right, Emsworth, you’re right.  There is something bothering me tonight.”

“If you would like to talk about it, sir, I should be only too happy to listen.”

I was silent for a moment.  I knew I needed to talk about it.  I just wasn’t sure how.    “Let’s have a sit down, Emsworth.”

He settled into the octopus chair as I selected the new blue Eames the club had obtained at Joy Richardson’s recommendation.  I perched on the edge and stared down at the berber.

Emsworth waited patiently before finally asking in a quiet voice I’d never heard him use before, “What’s bothering you, sir?”

A 1992 photograph of Richie Havens.

My eyes stayed on the floor.  Richie Havens is dead.”

He nodded sadly.  “I am aware. Almost three weeks ago.  I also experienced some melancholy moments when I heard the news.  I enjoyed his music very much.”

I knew he was prompting me, but I fell silent again. 

“Were you personally acquainted with Mr. Havens?”

“Of course not.  I always wanted to interview him but never had the opportunity.” I looked up at him.  “Why did you ask if I knew him?”

“It just seems to me, sir, that you’re unduly upset about the death of a celebrity.  You never met him, so I have to wonder why it bothers you so.”

“I don’t know,” I said with a turn of my head.  “I just can’t shake it.”

“Hmmm,” Emsworth said, steepling his fingertips together.  He said nothing more for a moment before asking, “When did you first hear Mr. Havens’ music?”

I smiled at the particularly vivid memory.  “Late one Saturday night in February, 1992, on Channel 8, Georgia Public Television, during a broadcast of the Harry Chapin tribute concert at Carnegie Hall.”

By now, I had shifted to the back of the Eames. “Harry Belafonte was the emcee, and a lot of the singers whose heyday was the ‘60s and ‘70s were on the show:  Graham Nash, Judy Collins, Pete Seeger, Oscar Brand, Peter Yarrow, Bruce Springsteen.  Richie Havens sang ‘WOLD’ with Harry Chapin’s brothers, Steve and Tom.”

“One of Mr. Chapin’s finest songs. I’ve no doubt Mr. Havens did it justice.”

“Oh, you know it, Emsworth.  I’d never seen anyone play guitar the way he did, and that voice…it was so unique.  It commanded your attention.  Whatever you were doing, when Richie Havens sang, you had to stop and listen.”

“How old were you at that time, sir?”

“February of ’92, I was about three months away from 21.”

“Interesting.  So that means you’ve just turned the calendar on another year, correct?”

“I don’t see what that has to do…”

“Am I correct, sir?”

“Yes,” I said with a trace of irritation.  “I just turned 42.  What’s your point, Emsworth?”

“My point, sir, is that you’re not upset because Richie Havens is dead.  You’re upset because you’re equating his death with the death of your own youth.”

My brow creased.  “I’m not sure I follow.”

"Now the years are rolling by me, they are rocking evenly/I am older than I once was and younger than I'll be." -- Paul Simon.

“You were 20 years old when you first became acquainted with Mr. Havens’ music.  You were young, unlimited opportunities were available to you, and you had all the time in the world to contemplate the things you wanted to do and accomplish them.”

I smiled again at the memory.  The faces of old friends appeared, frozen in time, as I recalled us doing what Emsworth had just said:  planning the future with the uninhibited abandon peculiar to the post-adolescent still naïve enough to believe it might all come true.

“Mr. Havens’ music has not died,” Emsworth continued.  “It’s still here.  But the artist isn’t.  And his passing has caused you to realize your own mortality.  We don’t choose to recognize it, but that’s the real reason we are saddened when celebrities of whom we’ve always been aware die, whether we were their fans or not. We are reminded that we are not as young as we once were.  That certain opportunities – spiritual, secular, or otherwise – are no longer available to us.  That we only have a finite amount of time left in our own lives.  And that often fosters the desire to use that time to do something meaningful, something that really matters.  That, sir, is what is bothering you.”

He was exactly right.  Had he not connected the dots for me, I don’t know that I’d have ever seen the picture on my own.  There was so much I suddenly wanted to say that I could barely say the next three words.

“Thank you, Emsworth.”

“It was my privilege, sir,” he said with a smile as he shook the hand I’d extended.

The octopus chair (minus Emsworth).

He extricated himself from the tentacles and adjusted the lapel of his ebony jacket.  “Now, sir,” he said after another discreet cough, “I believe you need to change.”

I looked down at my stained shirt, then back up at Escort with a sideways grin. 

“Quite right.  After all, I won’t be 42 forever.  I’ve got work to do and stories to tell.”

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4 Responses to Miles to Go Before

  1. Paula says:

    Ouch. How right you are. Well said, even more so than normal.
    But ouch.
    The Woman 3 Days From Her Own Birthday

  2. May 24th baby here. 🙂 Happy birthday!

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