A bit of fiction from an election in which the truth is often stranger . . .
I had blinked and rubbed my eyes a number of times as though the repeated acts would offer some new shot of clarity. They did not, and I muddled on in confusion and in the sweat and noise of the bodies all clustered around me humming with excitement audible and otherwise, an electrical charge which seemed poised to arc between to conductive points. The man crouched over the podium raised his hands again and charged into a new tirade. I squinted as the light caught the morphing of his facial muscles. The jury was still out as they say, but my suspicions had gone into overdrive as had the crowd. Why had I been drawn out of California and halfway across the nation to, of all things, a political rally? Had it all started as a simple act of kindness and morphed into something else? Was it obsession?
About a year back, my friend Trey had asked me to look in on his uncle, an older man who lived by himself with the daily invasion of a well-meaning but beleaguered healthcare worker. Business took Trey all around the country, and his uncle was the only family he had. He had explained that he felt guilty and could pay me a little for the service, since I was between jobs. The old man didn’t live too far from my apartment, so I assented and gave Trey that superior satisfaction garnered from killing two birds with one stone. I guess he figured that he was doing his uncle and I both favors, and he was not wrong.
My first meeting with Walter Benjamin was awkward. We mostly sat at an old wooden table by a window overlooking a Santa Barbara street. I made random comments in an attempt to broch conversation, and Walt adjusted his glasses and scratched at the sides of his wild, white hair. With time, however, we both began to come around. He told me about growing up in New York City in the 1940’s, and I recounted the pros and cons of being a California beach bum living in a shit job market with student loans out the ass. Sometimes we would walk down by the beach, me in cargo shorts and flip flops and Walt always in light colored slacks and a thin button-down that caught the wind and embraced his thin form before billowing outward in retreat.
It would be unfair to say that Walter was not all there. He could take care of himself well enough, although on occasions he became confused. He became fixated at times on the unfairness of things and would rant about how the world should be a more decent place to people like him and I. One of his real triggers was Monopoly, which he insisted on playing. Walt always played as the dog. He claimed that: “Dogs have no need for money or property. Playing as the dog enhances the absurdity of ownership and the monetary system.” At one point I suggested that playing as the iron seemed just as ridiculous and he became very serious. He said: “The iron is a product of the system, and the dog is a victim of it.”
His healthcare worker, Ted, stuck around sometimes, although he rarely played the game. It appeared as though the old man had manifested him into some sort of villain in his life, a demonic thrall curse-bound to his residence and incapable of being dispelled. Walt always made Ted be the banker so that he could excoriate him simultaneously for his puppetry of our misfortunes within the game and insistence in keeping him a prisoner in his own home. Ted did not seem to have many opinions on his role and appeared to have developed some Zen ability to block out Walt while smiling and nodding, dishing out the colorful bills and ferrying glasses of apple juice back and forth. Walt loved apple juice.
Every time the old man landed on a property which bankrupted him he would launch into one of his speeches. “You see, the big banks don’t care about us. They’re all just crooks who want to make a buck!” He would shout this with some redness intruding into his wrinkled features while pointing a crooked finger at Ted’s placid face or at the empty chair if it was just the two of us. Even when I had to be the banker he would point at the empty chair. He never blamed me.
After half a year of spending time with Walt Benjamin, Trey died in a freak plane crash. A small propeller puddle-jumper didn’t jump quite far enough. I went with Walt to the funeral, and he spent most of the time looking sideways at Trey’s business friends who showed up from around the US, standing in the corner with his hands in his pockets and shrugging his shoulders when old friends approached to place a hand on his arm.
I kept visiting him, although it was now free. I did not really mind, since the visits with Walt had become part of my life. Sometimes I would sleep on his couch overnight with the window open and the warm air drifting in as he lay dead quiet in the other room. A number of changes came along in those following months after Trey died. Walt got more agitated and his diatribes grew in length and scope. I got a job offer to work at a bank, and mounting nervousness grew after the second interview. I had no idea how to tell the old fellow that I was in with the bad guys. I asked Ted one day as Walt dozed in the other room, and he just whistled and shook his head as if to say: “Now that’s quite a bind.” Fucking Ted.
Finally, after a walk on the beach on an early spring afternoon, I explained that I would be starting work in a few days and what the job was. I explained that I could still come by and see him, avoiding eye contact as I trudged through the sand. He had stopped about twenty feet back, and I only noticed after receiving no answer to the question as to whether he understood. Walt simply stood there with the fabric of his crème button-down inhaling and exhaling to and from his form. After a few minutes he simply said that he understood.
The next week I stopped by and found only Ted sitting in the dining nook and staring out the window. “Where’s Walt?” I asked, a knot tightening in my belly.
“He’s been gone a few days.” Ted explained in a thin voice. “He left a note telling you and I not to worry. He said he had a few things to do.”
“You know he gets confused sometimes.” I replied, looking over the familiar scrawl on the sheet of paper. “Sometimes he gets fixated on things.”
“I know.” Ted sighed. “Is he, well, missing you think?”
“I’m not sure.”
A few days later I received an email from Walt telling me not to worry. My suspicions flared out of control, since I had never seen him use a computer previously. When I went back to his place in the following days, there was no sign of him. The rooms were all bare and there was no sign of Ted. I spoke to the authorities and they said the place had been sold by the owner, and there was no reason to believe that Walt was missing. They said he had probably just moved on.
The monotony of work over the next few months kept me busy, although the swirling questions surrounding the old man never disappeared. I didn’t have the heart to make any new friends but kept walking on the beach alone in our old sojourns. It wasn’t until a few months after that when I was in a bar watching the news that I realized something was amiss. I had no television of my own, and the weekly steep in a few cold beers in front of the public tube was my only window into the greater world for the most part. That was the moment that I saw a clip of a political rally. That was the moment when I thought I saw Walter.
I took leave from work and flew across the nation. I followed the campaign trail and stood in crowd after crowd watching his face, trying to push my way through surging crowds to shake his hand and look him in the eye, to see if this was Walter Benjamin. A few times I was within reach and his eyes looked on the verge of catching me, but no luck. I told myself over and over that it made no sense, despite hearing the same rants about the banks, the ones I had heard levied against Ted. It was impossible. How could the old man plant himself in another person’s life or invent a history which people believed. Was I like him now? Confused and lost?
So there I was at a rally in Denver. It was June and my phone was full of voicemails from work that had gone unchecked. I doubted I had a job anymore, but this had become the sole mission. After the supposed-senator finished speaking I surged along with the crowd. I pushed with all my might in the direction of his bobbing wild, white hair. He was shaking hands. I burrowed my way roughly toward the front and suddenly stood face to face. Was it Walter? He grasped my hand and his eyes met mine for an instant. Was there any recognition? A hint of knowing? He moved on, and I followed doggedly, although losing ground. Some young people pushed ahead of me, and I fought through. The old man had reached his car and waved back to the throng. “Goddamn it. No!” I growled out helplessly. Then, nearly imperceptibly, as he sat in the backseat of the car, he reached out toward one of his aides who handed him a small plastic bottle of apple juice.