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November 27, 2005

Recapitulation, Chapter 15 (p. 264-270)

A Whispering Through the Branches
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August was a frenetic month in Newport, Rhode Island, and Nathaniel liked to keep to his own less frenzied neighborhood across the mouth of the bay, where he could walk the beaches, rocky and less refined than those that the tourists tread, and wander unperturbed, without the rush of forced and expensive enjoyment. Newport in the summer felt, to Nathaniel, like a contrived amusement, with merchants willing to supply all of those trinkets that tourists were compelled to purchase (t-shirts, Irish hats, and machine-made scrimshaw), with waiters bringing dishes that were considered seasonable and comme il faut (lobster rolls, sushi tuna, and uncleaned shrimp), and with bartenders serving up the frothy iced drinks and summer brews that those old enough felt obligated to savor and those too young schemed to taste. Whether traveling on foot, more slowly by car, or even by the dinner train that punctually traversed the island, none of the village's guests, in Nathaniel's opinion, felt the impress of the ancient houses that lined the cobblestone streets — unless, of course, they were of the obscenely gigantic type, to which travelers flocked not to feel a part of the string of kindred humanity, but to drool over and pine for the means to live in so opulent a manner that hundreds each year would pay of their own meager savings to be allowed just a brief glance at the uncomfortable furniture and the real, but plastic looking, gardens.

But August was cooling, and the crowds, though still suffocating, had begun to thin as they spread the country to their offices and practices and classrooms, so from time to time, some service that only urbanity could provide or that only surfeit currency could attract would force Nathaniel over the bridges onto the cobblestone, or otherwise cracked, avenues. He found, on these trips, that Newport was becoming more and more palatable. Never the traffic nor the hurried atmosphere, but in a place that offers no pastimes save those that call for the draining of funds, having the extra supply that he was finding in more abundance after each month's bills certainly served to allay his disgusted boredom.

Nonetheless, without fail, he found himself quickly striding along on his errands as if to emphasize the fact that his use of the village was entirely utilitarian: he came for that which he could acquire by no other reasonable means and then left, refusing to partake of the inebriation of time wasted under the guise of not being wasted at all. If, for some reason, his chores called upon him to stroll the less crowded side streets, he would, it is true, slow down, perhaps even standing still and closing his eyes, and strain to feel the city as it must have been felt, even by tourists, a hundred years before; but on this particular trip, he had no excuse to divert himself thither, and so was bouncing from shoulder to shoulder along the sidewalk when his eyes met with those of a dark-skinned young man, who smiled at him from a patio table of a bustling restaurant, a disemboweled lobster strewn about his plate.

Finally managing to break himself from the flow of pedestrian traffic in front of the next store front, Nathaniel made his way back toward the restaurant and exclaimed with pleasure, "Othello!"

Othello stood and reached out a hand that Nathaniel shook enthusiastically over the metal railing that prevented walkers from overwhelming and toppling the tables. "What brings you here, Nathaniel?" Othello asked. "This is one of the last places in the world that I would have expected to bump into you."

"Oh," Nathaniel responded, feeling, strangely, a little ashamed, "I live nearby and had to do some shopping." The passing crowd jostled him against the railing. "How about you?"

"Well, I found myself with a great deal of unexpected free-time this summer, so I thought I'd come up here and see what all the fuss is about."

"Have you figured it out, yet?"

"No," Othello smiled. "In fact, I was about to ask you the same question."

Nathaniel laughed and gestured with his head to indicate the mob that fairly pummeled him from behind, "Do I look like I get it?"

"I have to say that you don't," Othello stated and suggested that he sit down. Nathaniel, finding that the crowd had congealed even more behind him, chose, rather than struggle through it, to hop the railing. He sat down in an empty, green-metal chair at the table.

"Would you like something to eat or drink?" Othello asked cordially.

Nathaniel declined and leaned forward, placing his elbows on the plastic tablecloth, noting Othello's ubiquitous telephone. Its owner ordered another drink, and they talked their way through most of those topics that acquaintances might discuss when away from their common terrain: weather, world events, and the doings of each in the uncommon land in which they had now met. They commiserated over the banalities of their surroundings. "So have you been here since..." Nathaniel began, finishing with a look indicative of guilt.

Othello smiled so that Nathaniel would know that he, at least, did not feel slighted. "What? Since you kicked us all out?"

With a timorous attempt to return the smile, Nathaniel responded, "Yes."

Leaning back in his chair, Othello told Nathaniel that he had returned to work for a few weeks before he had come to Newport and would be going back again the following day.

"I've always wanted to ask what it is that you do." Nathaniel stated, intending an inquiry.

"Wouldn't it be against the rules for me to tell you that?"

"We're in the real world now; there aren't any rules."

Othello looked around and, with a chortle, asked, "Is that what you call this?"

Nathaniel, amused, merely shrugged and replied, "I guess it's what you let it be."

Nodding a sage affirmation, Othello answered the question: "I work on the stock market. Well, not actually on the stock market, but with it and near it."

With his eyebrows raised in interest, Nathaniel informed him that he had been considering investing some of his recent prosperity.

"Money from your book?"

The corners of Nathaniel's mouth twitched ambiguously. "Have you read it?"

"Oh yes. In fact, it's become quite the topic for after-close conversation at the pub."

"Really? How great that is to hear. Readers don't mean as much when they're only numbers."

Othello nodded. "I can imagine that to be the case in your business, although in mine, of course, it's all only numbers."

"What do you think?"

"About investing?"

"No, about my book."

"Well, I think that it's a very brave argument that you've put forth."

"Oh? How so?"

"Mind you that I speak from a very limited intellectual sphere, but it's a risky, albeit minor, stir that you've been causing in the world of money and finance."

With a look of mild disappointment, Nathaniel asked, "So what do you think?"

"I disagree with what some are saying, that you're a communist, or even just a socialist, as others are saying. But I do think that it's dangerous to be confused with either in our society. It's a modern world, Nathaniel, and being known as somebody who even tangentially espouses philosophies that the world sees as defeated is as good as being called a simpleton. Those who are superficially sympathetic will applaud without understanding, and the rest will dismiss you out of hand.

"And there's little doubt that the money machine has won. Just look around. You know what all these people are doing here? Some of them are doing what they enjoy, maybe, but more are trying to live up to what they consider their station. Still more are putting themselves in debt in order to pretend that they're better, or at least in a better position, than they really are. I don't know why, but then, as you've said, neither do you. Maybe nobody knows why. Do you think it's some inherent human longing?"

"To an extent," Nathaniel had to admit, not interested in this particular inquest at the moment and not positive that it was relevant to his book, anyway. "But what did you think about my book."

Othello leaned toward him and said, in all honesty, "I thought it was brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. I thought that your ideas are of the kind that might actually be able to save the world from itself, and I can't wait to read the next volume. But I wonder if you realize that you're dealing with humanity here — a group that doesn't seem to want to be saved and that will find some way to mess you up no matter how brave or brilliant you are."

Nathaniel's smile was inexplicably broad. "Of course I realize it, and of course they will! But you liked it. And even if people are buying it just so that they can see what all the fuss is about, then at least they're reading it. The ideas are getting in their heads anyhow. Maybe they'll eventually forget me and think that they've thought of these things themselves, which, of course, would make them think that they're good ideas, and that'd be exactly what I want."

"Come on, Nathaniel, I know you're not that naďve. I've heard you state the exact opposite."

"But I have hope now. Since I've gotten that book out there, I've been thinking that perhaps my job could be no better performed than by giving people each a common question, a common friend, a common enemy if necessary, a common anything. Something to discuss after work at a bar or at a restaurant on vacation. I have hope that people want to speak to each other's experiences, especially when those experiences are shared."

"Well I hope so, too, if only for your sake. But I guess we'll have to wait and see."

Othello's phone rang and jittered on the tabletop. He answered it and scattered what seemed to be random "yes"es and "no"s into the mouthpiece, while Nathaniel tried to look as if he weren't listening, which was true to the extent that he was more concerned with guessing who was offering the questions than divining the meaning of the answers themselves. Othello hung up with a short "G'bye," and Nathaniel asked if it had been important news.

"Oh, you know. It's always petty and inconsequential, and it's always of dire importance."

"I know what you mean. It's all a matter of perspective, I guess."

"Yeah. Guess so."

The conversation lapsed, each man sinking into his own thoughts, until the waitress brought Othello his bill as if by some invisible signal.

"Why don't you come over the bridges with me and meet my fiancé? You and I could discuss the possibility of my investing with you. We're going to a great burger place for dinner; why don't you join us?"

Othello stood and threw back the rest of his drink and slipped his phone into his pocket. "I'd love to, but I've got to get ready for my trip home tomorrow. I've been away too long, and as that call just showed, there are minor emergencies popping up every day that I can't control over the phone any longer. They're starting to pile up. I hope to come back this way before the end of the summer, though. Or maybe if you're down in the city, you could look me up."

Nathaniel looked at the interlocked fingers in his lap, then stood and shook hands with Othello. "Yes, I think I'll do that."

"Great! Here's my card. Call or email me with your address, and I'll send you all the information that you'll need to get started investing intelligently."

Nathaniel read the card. He didn't recognize the name that was raised in black ink across it. He looked up as Othello threw some money on the table. "It was good to see you," Nathaniel said.

"Same here," Othello reciprocated and, smiling, wove his way through the crowded tables, calling back from the edge of the patio: "Nathaniel. Hope's a good thing, probably the best of things, but don't let it blind you."

Then Othello nodded reassuringly and was swept away in the human wave on the sidewalk.

Jostling and plodding our way through the crowd, we follow Nathaniel through the streets, losing him just once, but catching him again as he slips into a car. Now, riding along with him, we watch the passing rush of adults in sandals and children with eager, but tired, faces. We pass through the traffic lights and past a shopping center and a hotel to another traffic light. Then a cemetery on both sides of us, and we wonder if we are the only ones who question whether it was by some conscious design that all those who would escape their lives by means of a brief vacation must pass through the final drudgeries of the dead. Or perhaps, if it was meant at all, it was meant to frighten those who would leave and make them think that it might be best to stay. A nasty trick of mercantilism if it was meant for such a reason, but not surprising nonetheless.

And after the line of cars has passed through the final traffic light (which has given us time sufficient to consider the meaning of all this exploited death), we reach the highway and the bridge and shudder at the daring maneuvers of the middle-aged in their expensive cars. But the toll is paid and a more tranquil island calms the racers as they approach yet another bridge, the crossing of which seems to lead into an entirely different world altogether, rather than just the mainland. With Nathaniel, now, we travel into the country, and into life as it should be, or, at least, as it really is for a larger portion of souls.

Posted by Justin Katz at November 27, 2005 8:26 AM
A Whispering Through the Branches