by Christina Carson
“Do you ever feel like your life is empty, without meaning?”
Jen smirked as she pushed her coat off her shoulders and onto the back of her chair. Freed from it, she waved a waiter toward us. “Well that’s a hellavu start to the end-of-the-week happy hour. What’s got in your craw?
The noise of the Downtown Bar and Grill was still low as people were only beginning to arrive for the Friday night unwinding ritual. Jen and I often spent Friday evening here as the food was excellent and the crowd friendly. With a beer in front of her, Jen settled in her chair and stared at me like Mother Superior waiting for my confession.
“I was sitting in my cubicle today. Even that word, think about – cubicle. Like a cell or stall or pigeonhole. Well I was sitting in my cubicle at the bank keeping the numbers in the correct columns, receivables, payables, all of us trying to stay awake more than anything else, and a wailing siren screams past the building making the next moment just a fraction different than the last. I swear every head in that room lifted and stared in the direction of that sound as if paying silent tribute to it for its momentary reprieve. That’s my life. That’s why I asked that question. Do you ever feel like that?”
“Well, Abby, the harbor’s a bit different scene from a bank. There’s a certain mystique to international shipping. Besides, secretarial work there isn't so bad and there are some damned fine looking men that traipse through that office.”
“I guess you just answered my question, Jen. A little flirting, a lot of typing, that’s all you expect from life?”
“It’s not all that bad…”
“Let me stop you right there. Is ‘not all that bad’ all you expected from life? That’s my question, I guess. What did you expect? What were you hoping for when we graduated and went out into the world?”
“I think I was hoping that I’d never have to spend another night studying. I wasn't the greatest student. Not bright like you, Abby. So I think I was hoping for something that didn't tax me, something I could walk out of each night and have the rest of the time to myself.”
“To do what?”
“I watch TV. I go out to the pub. Occasionally I have a date, and I keep hoping to find Mr. Right. I don’t know, maybe I don’t have any big dreams or need much in the way of meaning.”
“Could you do thirty more years of that? What then?”
Jen sighed and let the carnival-like atmosphere of the bar and grill grab her attention. A burst of laughter came from one corner. At the center of the room, a table of ladies, who had arrived early and were now finished their meal, watched as a huge birthday cake with burning candles headed their way. It caught the eye of most of the patrons. Two waiters sang an operatic version of Happy Birthday that stopped the entire room for a moment. Everyone cheered the singers and the birthday girl, after which the crowd quieted back into talk and eating.
Then Jen said quietly, “What’s the matter with this? It’s fun here. The energy is pleasant, though it might be better if I had a happier date.” She eyed me dolefully.
“But, Jen, this is called vicarious living, sort of like leeches which live off of someone else’s blood or parasites like mistletoe that live off other plants’ resources? They are the ones whose lives are making them laugh. We’re just jetsam on their sunny beaches.”
“Abby, I think your drink isn't quite stiff enough tonight. You need help.”
The food we ordered had arrived and made the silence that had settled between us feel less onerous. I noticed that Jen had started eyeing a guy two tables over, flirting in between forkfuls of Fettuccine Alfredo. By the time Jen had finished her plate; the fellow stopped by and invited us over to his table already hosting a few of his friends. I had barely eaten my supper and decided I’d do the world a favor and spend the rest of the evening at home.
The fellow made a point to ask me as well, which I found very thoughtful, but Jen butted in and said, “Leave her be. She’s in one of her philosophical moods. Trust me she could dampen the joie de vie of Mardi Gras when she gets like this.”
I raised my eyebrows and my hands as if to say, guilty. I pushed my chair back, folded my napkin, left it on the table and told her I get the check in penance. I winked at the fellow who, as he was directing Jen toward his table, looked back at me. He mouthed to me, “Maybe another time.” I shrugged and smiled laughingly and left.
I walked out into a perfect spring evening and decided to walk home. There was certainly something bothering me, and I wasn't sure it was as simple as finding a new job. The fullness of the cherry blossoms made the trees look like low lying clouds. And the great silent forests that surrounded downtown Vancouver were scenting the night with cedar. It was a beautiful place to live, but my life didn't feel like it was doing it justice.
I lived in the attic suite of an old historic house. Four flights of outside stairs kept me in good shape. The top floor landing gave me a view west toward the ocean and included the tail end of a flaming orange sunset. I sat on the landing and let the night close down around me. What was it that was missing? I had a nice place to live, some good friends, fine health and a beautiful city, so I almost capitulated to Jen’s sentiment for it seemed I should be nothing but grateful. But even gratitude didn't fill in the emptiness I felt.
The very early light of the next morning found me on Third Beach. I wanted quiet. I wanted solitude. I sat on a wet log, one that had escaped from a logger’s boom somewhere up the coast and had found its way here. I was enjoying the unpeopled landscape when a stocky man carrying a length of six inch diameter iron pipe and a seven foot long iron bar walked onto the beach. I heard myself say, “Damn it.” I so wanted to be alone.
He walked purposefully and stopped at a shady spot, pushed his suspenders aside and removed his outer shirt leaving him in a long underwear type top. He pulled his suspenders back up and pushed his sleeves up to his elbows. He tucked his thermos and lunch bucket behind some driftwood, covered them with his shirt and stretched himself, first side to side, then tall. With that, like a man starting a day’s work, he picked up his pipe and bar and walked over to the closest large rock. I wasn't sure where these large rocks came from—off the jetty or in with the tide—but they were always showing up on that beach and were much too big to pick up. Between the pipe and the lever, he began to roll that rock back to a place in the jetty. I watched amazed. The rock was almost three feet in diameter and yet he moved it. The work was so strenuous that he was soon soaked with sweat.
The first couple of the day walked onto the beach around 9:00, and he gave them no notice. He was busy with his third rock. They too watched for a bit, curious, but soon lost interest and lay down in the sun. I hadn't moved. He intrigued me. Nothing I could come up with could explain why he was there involved in that activity. When he broke for lunch, I walked over to where he sat eating a sandwich and drinking his coffee.
“May I talk with you while you eat?” He nodded and I went on. “This is incredibly tough work. What possesses you to do this?
He smiled patiently as if he had answered this same question many times before. “Hit a bad patch some time back and ended up on the dole. I've never felt right ‘bout taking something for nothing, and I decided to tidy up the beach and shore up the jetty in return.”
“Is it interesting to you. I mean do you get tired of doing it sometimes?”
He looked at me as one might look at a child who had just asked a question beyond their scope to understand. “Do you mean do I like it? Does it satisfy me?
“Yeah, I guess that’s what I meant?”
“Why wouldn't it?”
His question stopped me in my tracks. “Well I just thought it might get boring, doing this every day.”
“Something so mundane and without much value to the world? Is that the rest of your thought?”
I felt my certainties slipping away. Me, the great philosopher, had suddenly met a graduate of the school of life. “That’s how I've been feeling about my work. So I guess I just assumed most people feel like I do.”
He didn't reply so I trudged on, my thoughts tumbling out with no regard to how they were embarrassing me. “I told my friend yesterday I felt so empty, and yet couldn't imagine life was meant to feel that way. The answer feels bigger than just changing jobs. And now watching you, I get a sense that job may have little to do with it.” I stopped, feeling like I had just stripped down naked in front of someone I not only didn't know but also would never have imagined baring my soul to.
The stranger poured another cup of coffee, secured the top back into his thermos and stared at the sand in front of his boots. I was almost in tears by then. Hearing what I’d been stuffing down for so long come blurting out, left a frightening sense of desolation behind.
“You are right. It isn't work that gives meaning. In fact, interesting work can often hide the fact that your life is yet empty. Touching your soul is what brings peace. We mistake peace for meaning. We don’t need meaning. We need peace. I can be very peaceful when I roll rocks. What stops you from being peaceful at your work?”
I had no answer for him, nor did he appear to want one. He put his used wax paper back in his lunch bucket, dripped out the last drops of black coffee onto the sand, folded his shirt back over both, stretched again and walked over to the last rock on the beach.
The beach was crowded now. A few people stopped to watch him, some offered encouragement, some, veiled cynicism. What I saw underlying the focus and determination on his face was serenity.
A week later, I stopped in at the Downtown Bar & Grill for some good music and a bite. I had taken to spending most of my time off from work, alone. My friends didn't seem to notice. Perhaps I had become more annoying than I’d realized. I was still working on the old man’s question: What stops you from being peaceful at your work? All week long I argued for my position. What stops me I said to myself, “The fact that it is useless, boring, non-creative, uninspiring and unchallenging. Where is the peace in that?” But those alleged answers took me nowhere.
After the waiter took my order, I sat quietly allowing a tiny crack to occur in my great wall of defenses. Then as if someone was talking to me in my head, I heard: What the man who rolled rocks was trying to explain was that it wasn't about your work. You bring nothing to it except your resentment.
I sat stunned. I had never thought about it that way. What if I treated a friend that way? I staggered mentally backward for a moment when I realized I probably had. What if I treated a pet that way? Then, I’d call them the problems preventing me from living a full life, I suspected. It was so simple. What’s there is whatever I bring.
Just at that moment the fellow that had invited Jen and me to his table the week before was there at mine asking to join me. I felt idiotic for a second as I tried to get out a simple reply. I was still so immersed in what I had come to understand, I couldn't get my mind to focus on much else. He looked at me, his face a question.
“What’s happening here, Miss tongue-tied? Was the philosopher in you deep in thought or were you just trying to remember my name?” His smile was kind so I trusted his sense of humor.
“I never knew your name?”
“Ah, so you didn't. Peter Sonntag”
“And yes I had just stumbled onto something I had been thinking about all week, Peter.”
Peter sat down and joined the conversation, saying, “I hang out in bars because I get lonely, but truth be told, I like exploring ideas. My father was a professor of philosophy, and he and I talked about baseball, but we also talked about what he called the big questions. While he was still around, our dinner table was an interesting place. If you would, I’d like to hear what you were thinking about that so miffed your friend.”
I stared at him for a few moments wanting to be sure he was sincere. I was exposing something as intimate to me as lace lingerie. It was his quiet patience that convinced me to go on.
“I wanted to know why my life felt so empty. I felt my job was the culprit, but I wasn't sure. Then I met this man down on Third Beach. He was doing the most peculiar thing. He was rolling rocks; clearing off the beach by relocating those huge rocks that keep ending up there. I couldn't imagine how anyone could do that day in, day out so I asked him.”
Peter seemed caught in his own thoughts for a moment. Then he asked, “What did he say?”
“He said peace was what we needed, not meaning. Then he asked me the question I couldn't answer: What keeps you from being peaceful at your work? Just as you arrived at the table, it came to me. Nothing comes with its own meaning. It’s what we bring that creates our experience of it. And to my job, I bring only resentment. So simple yet so profound. Think about it. The man rolling rocks, his work I tagged as mundane and boring, I believe, has changed my life.”
Peter’s face was a collage of emotion. I had no idea what was going on and didn't feel I knew him well enough to ask. So instead I suggested, “Why don’t you meet me at Third Beach tomorrow morning about 7:00 AM. I’ll introduce you, and you can ask him about whatever is going on in you right now.”
He stared off into space for some time. Then he swallowed hard and looked at me squarely. “I’ll do that,” he said. “Tomorrow at 7:00, Third Beach.”
I was there a tad before 7:00 as this had been their first morning in years I had wanted to get out of bed. I sat on the same log, dried out a bit but wet with dew this time. Seven o’clock came and so did the man who rolled rocks. He nodded at me and then went about his pre-work ritual. Eight o’clock came and went. No Peter. Then at eight-thirty, the old man traversing to his next rock, looked toward the walkway and stared for a few moments. I turned out of nosiness and saw Peter up there staring back. When he saw me looking at him too, a shudder of resolve went through his body. Slowly he began his walk down the sand toward me. He sat down without a word, turned and nodded at me, looking unsure and nervous. We sat there until it was lunch time for the man who rolled rocks. “Let’s go over to him. I want to tell him what I've learned.”
I walked the short distance with Peter trailing behind. The old man saw me coming but continued unwrapping his sandwich and pouring some coffee. I squatted down to be at his eye level.
“I got the answer. There is nothing there except what I bring. I've brought resentment. I've brought anger. I've brought pity, even. But I never brought peace.” Realizing even more profoundly what I owed him, I choked up, and my thank you rasped out as a whisper.
He said quietly, “Now you understand.”
It was only then his gaze shifted to the man standing behind me. He asked of him, “Now do you understand as well?”
No answer followed that question, and I rose and turned to see what was happening behind me. Peter stood steadfast, his face tense. Rather than the self-assured man of last week, he was now a man summoning courage. Finally he replied. “I do, yes finally I do.”
The old man crumbled his used wax paper and once again put it in his lunch bucket, drained the last drops of coffee from his thermos, and packed them both under his shirt. Then he stood and stuck his hand out to Peter who took it in both of his. They stared at each other, their eyes bright with unshed tears.
I wasn't sure what I was witnessing, but it appeared another life had just changed.
We spent the rest of the afternoon watching the old man finish up on the beach, then pack and leave.
As the Pacific sky began embellishing itself shamelessly in the searing colors of twilight, Peter turned to me. “I’ll tell you my story if you’ll tell me yours.”
His smile had come back brighter than ever. I laughed lightly and nodded. And so he began.
His smile had come back brighter than ever. I laughed lightly and nodded. And so he began.
For more short stories, check out the right –hand columnon this site for a listing.