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Michael Sexson Man Reading

Every morning and every evening I take my dog for a modest walk around a nearby public park where, in the waning days of summer, teenagers throw frisbees or play hackie-sack. It is a small act of discipline, both theirs and mine, not requiring much, charms perhaps, to keep at bay what Conrad calls the Horror. For the past several weeks I've noticed a man sitting in a car on the east side of the park, a large black man. The car is always there whenever I pass by and he seems always inside, either stretched out asleep, or upright, reading the local daily newspaper. We have never made eye-contact, never spoken. Initially I was concerned. Who is this man and why does he never leave his car? The days are pleasant, the grass inviting. Perhaps he is a pervert, a voyeur. Should I call the police? Or perhaps, as I now tend to think, he is harmless, an isolation junkie who finds solace within the confines of his car, who considers, perhaps not consciously, his space holy. Like Wordsworth's nuns, he does not fret his convent's narrow room. Could this be true?

He reads the local paper, not hurriedly and selectively, as I do but completely, starting with the teasers at the top of the first page about sports and weather, and working through the headline features, looking at each word carefully so as not to miss anything, reflecting on its meaning, its connections to other stories and events, and then turning the page, going on to consider the weather in detail, noting the temperatures around the state, around the country, the world, their highs, lows, precipitation chances, the lunar phases, (the moon will be full tonight) taking in the color-coded national map and digesting its surface and depth meanings. From there he peruses the first set of advertisements, starting with a seemingly plain square with a black and white characterization of a woman clinching her fists in rabid excitement and saying "Yes! Wallpaper in Stock." Does he consider buying some wallpaper? Does he imagine the various patterns available? Does he note the varying sizes and pitches of type used in the ad? Does he think about doing electronic typesetting? Does he believe he could have advertised the wallpaper more forcefully? And so, in this manner, he proceeds from page to page reading as the ancient scribes must have read the holy books, with rapt, religious attention, investing hours as he moves from tale to tale, statistic to statistic, from news to editorial to sports to classified ads, seeing in the text he reads not the merely historical and ephemeral detritus of the parochial but the abiding and enduring signs and symbols of eternity.

He arrives at page five of the newspaper. He does an initial scan. The section is titled "Region" and consists of seven news stories and four advertisements. A grainy photograph depicting what appears to be two people and a sleeping bear is in the upper right hand corner. Reading clockwise, the advertisements are for a realtor, a chiropractor, an investment banker, and a boat named "Sea-Doo." The chiropractor ad carries a small photo of a pleasant, smiling woman and a strange symbol which at first appears to be a mutant insect but on further inspection turns out to be a crude representation of Leonardo's universal man, his arms and legs stretched out to suggest that he contains the universe. The photo in the boat ad shows a man steering a small boat and a woman hanging on to his waist. They are both smiling broadly as they zoom through the water. The ad says the boat is "now just $4,599."

He then turns to the news stories. One is a very short piece about an eleven year old boy, Colter Walhood, who went out to bring back a horse to the family barn but was instead dragged to death by the animal. Does he reread the line "Walhood's father, Clarence, found the child, unresponsive, near the horse" many times, noting its simplicity and starkness, its heroic refusal to succumb to sentiment and emotion, its fidelity to saying nothing more than the truth? Is his soul shaken by the word "unresponsive" fatally enclosed in commas? Is the unnamed writer of the story a hack? Or a genius of tragic understatement? Does he wonder why the article is listed under the category of "Briefs," along with tales about the recovery of two drowning victims, one 23, one 59, each in different rivers and is he puzzled by the cryptic remark from the local sheriff that the older man seems to have drowned rather than died of a heart attack as previously thought. Is something strange going on here that should be investigated further? Does he recoil when he discovers that the bear he thought was sleeping is in fact dead, being hoisted from the bed of a pickup with a hydraulic lift? Although the photo's caption identifies the man in the white shirt standing behind the dead bear as a farm supervisor, why does he look to the Reader like a Nazi functionary? Does he then go on to read about the sixteen year old girl shot in the head in a North Dakota hotel and about the folks on the state's border cleaning up after a storm that "ripped apart trees, tore off parts of roofs and destroyed crops"?

Does it then occur to him that mayhem, death, carnage, destruction, are the topics of each of the news stories on this page? And does he ask himself why, in the face of all this horror, do the man and woman in the photo-ad for a five thousand dollar boat grin so gleefully? Eventually, after examining various stock market reports and clothes specials from the Bon Marche´, he comes to the obituaries. There are five fresh deaths. He reads each carefully, but is struck by the account of the demise of Homer "Skinny" Thigpen who passed away yesterday at the local nursing home. He is held captive by the skeletal information of Skinny's life, that he was born in Texas on March 11, 1912, that he married Marjorie L. Jones in 1936 who preceded him in death along with a daughter, Peggy, age 5? Does he think about Peggy and why she died? Was it an accident? A disease? Does his chest begin to heave thinking of five year olds everywhere who, in the solemn, formal, and precise language of obituaries "precede" their parents in death? Does he think how unnatural for a parent to bury a child? Does he picture the terribly maimed body of Colter Walhood lying, like Euripides' Hippolytus, unresponsive, in the woods? Does he think about Hecuba's great speech over the dead body of the tiny Astyanax in The Trojan Women? Does he hear her saying, "you are dead; and all was false, when you would lean across my bed, and say: 'Mother, when you die I will cut my long hair in your memory, and at your grave bring companies of boys my age, to sing farewell.' It did not happen; now I, a homeless, childless, old woman must bury your poor corpse, which is so young"? Does he wonder how he can go on in a world like this, on a senselessly spinning planet where Peggy and Colter and men aged 23 and 59, cannot be saved from unwarranted death?

And does he think it odd that so much in the text he is reading seems to be intimately connected with the dark dramas of an ancient Greek tragedian?

Does he regain his composure and continue the obituary, filling in the lacunae, imagining when and where Homer was given his nickname? Will he think about going to the funeral in Henderson Texas and then reject the notion because it would hard on the tires, the brakes, the transmission? Will he send flowers? No, for the obituary explicitly states that in lieu of flowers, memorials may be sent to the local Baptist church. Does he consider that perhaps he and Skinny might have been friends? Would people have called them Laurel and Hardy? Unless of course Skinny was not skinny at all but fat, like himself, the nickname a cruel joke. Does he think long about that possibility? Does it make him laugh? Does he peruse the Police Reports on the same page, noting the boy who stuffed a package of cigarettes down his pants and was caught by the supermarket detective? Does he linger over the account of the finding of an active 81mm artillery shell in a vacant field, wondering how it got there and what would have happened had it gone off? Does he grieve for the woman who was transported by ambulence to the hospital after being administered oxygen by firefighters? Does he wonder why oxygen is always "administered" in the language of journalists and physicians? Does he read the "correction" item which says that the newspaper had incorrectly reported that Holly Hausman was convicted of trapping cats at large when in fact she was convicted of simply owning a cat but not of trapping the animal?

Does he work methodically through all microscopic sports statistics, noting for future reference that the Chicago Wolves named Brian Pitts assistant director of media services?

Does he turn the last page, exhausted from his massive hermeneutical efforts, and place the paper over his face and fall into a deep sleep? Does he then dream that he is wandering through a vacant lot, bearing a bouquet of flowers which he had bought for Skinny's funeral, stepping lightly lest he chance upon an active artillery shell, rehearsing in his mind the line, "Holly, my dear, you have been cruelly maligned?" And in this dream will he find himself in a small room in the Baptist Church? Will he then hear from the slightly opened solitary window the sound of galloping hooves and the terrible music of lapping water?

Will he awaken from his dream to find that while he slept, the sun had disappeared and been replaced by an immense full moon just as was reported? Will he look out the window of his car and see the night sky as a vast vaulting wall decorated with undulating animals? Will he notice how these infinitely complicated replicating patterns appear to revolve around the central image of a dying bear? Will he be terrified at the spaces between the stars? Will he realize that he must preside over this Wallpaper as its Interpreter, its Reader, without whom no one would know how to live or what to do? Will he be undaunted by the enormity, the huge impossibility, of what he has to do, to begin again, the next day, and the day after that, with a new paper, new stories and new pictures which he must scan and sort, digest, connect, relate, understand?

And as, the following morning, he begins to Read, will he notice the man walking his dog stopping and bowing slightly in his direction, as if before something abiding, something enduring, something holy?

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