Back when I was a kid, I used to haunt my neighbor’s bookstore. That’s probably the best kind of neighbor a kid could ask for, growing up. His house was a treasure trove- comics, novels, magazines, some stuff that wasnt entirely age appropriate, some completely inappropriate.. and a fellow partner in crime, a girl a few years older than me. It wasn’t enough that the both of us spent every moment not in school or doing homework, together. We’d prowl around in her dad’s store/library, reading books carefully without bending their spines, putting them back, and moving on. We were fixtures there. That’s where I met Prophet.
Prophet was a big guy. In my recollections he seems even bigger than his sizeable 6′ 6″- when you’re a kid, everyone does seem a lot bigger. But the scraggly beard and trademark flannels that would be intimidating on someone else, just served to soften him even more. His real name was Sam, but hardly anyone called him that. The name ‘Prophet’, I found out later, was a college tag that had followed him for his whole life because of his invincibility. He had been in not one, but four near fatal accidents. Two on the road, and two at the construction site where he moonlighted. Not that he was particularly clumsy, he wasn’t at all, really. Just had really bad luck. The last accident, which had totalled his car and one that hit him, killed the other guy on the spot. Prophet had crawled out and dragged himself across the wreckage, which is where the EMT found him when they came. He lived, but the last one had taken his back. He would walk with a peculiar shuffling gait for the rest of his life. When he got to know us better and realized that we weren’t a pair of squealing, squeamish teen girls, he showed us the scars around his calves, too. His calves were nothing but scars.
That, and his odd knack for telling people the right thing to do, had earned him the nickname ‘Prophet’. He was a big teddy bear of a guy, all seriousness and wry jokes around the adults, and an infinite amount of patience for two girls who asked him an endless stream of questions about anything and everything, all the while devouring every book in their reach. Technically, we weren’t the same age. I was eleven, and my best friend was fifteen. That didn’t matter as much as it seems it would, we had exactly the same interests anyway. And Prophet was so familiar a face that her dad would often leave him to manage the register and keep an eye on light fingered customers, if he fancied a chat with someone, or took a break and went off fr lunch. The only times we couldn’t badger him would be when my neighbor’s son stopped by, all grown up at seventeen and having man-to-man conversations about girls and what not- Prophet didn’t care, he treated us all the same anyway, but a couple of kiddie tag alongs aren’t good for a newly cool guy’s image, so my friend’s brother would turf us to the back.
Looking back, I can’t pinpoint what moment was so significant in the impact that he had on us. Or maybe there’s so many of them that I can’t think of one that stands out. What I do know for sure is that he was one of the most important formative influences in my young adult life – some of the lessons of which I’ve carried well into my adult life. Whether it’s his penchant for smoking Reds (which I frowned upon back then), the fact that he drank coffee black as Lillith’s heart (which I would gag on back then, but drink multiple times a day now), or that staple uniform of flannels, which I still associate with safer times, happier times. Or the fact that I learned as much about the real world from him, as I did about the world inside my head from the books around us. About honor, about courage, about morals… never in so many words, often as stories or recollections. About loyalty, about love- the value of both, and the pain of both when broken. His wife left him during a particularly rough patch with his disability, and he never really moved on. While me and my friend used the forbidden words for her when alone -the bitch- he didn’t even need to move on. He loved her, and that was enough for him. Just like he dealt with pain- every. single. day. But it was just pain, and he was master of it. We’d know on days when it was really bad, but the man never complained, never made an issue of it. He was fine, it was fine, everything was fine.
Kindness. Patience. A sense of humor that led him to tolerate out nonsense, and on whimsical days, even contribute to it. Like finding me a solid window frame from God knows where for the rickety shed I built on my roof. Other kids had treehouses. I had a room made by own two hands. I probably wouldn’t anyone’s kid come within four feet of such a dilapidated construction today, but back then it was a fortress. It would be baking hot in the sun, but I’d be up on the roof, away from the shouting that would filter through from the house, and I had a fucking window. Not even the boys had fucking windows.
Things changed eventually, though. He didn’t tire of our questions, or of the fact that his adolescent fan club had whittled down to one. My friend finally discovered guys when he hit sixteen, and boys finally separated us in a way five years never had before. While she fought the make up fight, I was still struggling along with my usual, now working through a pile of my grandfather’s books that had been shipped in from Moscow. And while I pestered Prophet with incredulous questions about Marxism and the World Wars – I always asked him. I doubt my father can even spell ‘Marx’ without asking me which exam I’m asking for – while this fabric of the bookstore bunch frayed, things were changing in his life too. His father passed away, when I was thirteen, and suddenly he was faced with the responsibility of having to care for his mum. I think he was thirty eight at the time, or thirty nine. But he was gone for a month, and then when he came back, he came back only to wind everything up from here and move away permanently. I barely spoke to him for five minutes, while dad watched suspiciously from the window as a guy a good head taller than him stood on the doorstep, handed me a box of his old comics, and told me I’d always been a good girl, and a good friend to him. And that if he was a prophet in any way at all, I’d be in his prayers. None of which made much sense to dad, but it was one the first real partings for me. I was old enough to know, and to understand. We probably wouldn’t see each other again.
This was well before facebook and social media. I never even got his last name, any way. I like to think that he did move on eventually, and had kids of his own to be a great father to, instead of just to a lost kid like me, and some others. One of the first things I ever wrote was in the diary that he gave me, and that my father later read, triggering one of the worst periods of my life- but that’s a story for another day. I wonder if he’s even read my work somewhere, anywhere. Would he know that the girl he gave a window to, shared his poisonous coffee with, has grown old enough to smoke her own Reds now, write articulately enough to miss him on the Internet, and have an obsession with Orthopedics? I do hope he knows. I also hope he knows he taught me how even seemingly indestructible people can be secretly vulnerable. How pain is just another beast to tame. And how a little sincere attention given to a growing, shaping mind, can shape an entire person. Now I’m trying to be that person for a friend’s younger sister, who’s recently begun to write poetry- quite seriously for a fifteen year old, and none of that Insta-crap either. And as I write back to her about how her sonnets work, and how punctuation fits in, I know Prophet would’ve been happy at least with some of the ways I turned out.
Fluctuat nec mergitur
I think I made it.