To Love & Be Loved
Do you get the feeling that everything is connected to everything else?
A while back I was estranged from my father. We didn’t talk for twelve or so years. I reached
out to him when I turned 30. I think I was feeling a bit lost. He suggested meeting for breakfast
at a McDonald’s restaurant on a stretch of road known as ‘Takeaway Mile’. It was a Thursday.
I was regularly reminded of that fact. I’m not sure why he thought the golden arches were a
suitable setting for a reunion. Maybe he was hanging on to a memory he had of me as a child?
He was already there when I arrived. He’s nothing if not punctual. When I sat down he handed
me a collection of Charles Bukowski’s poems called The Pleasures of the Damned. He told me
he accidentally bought two and thought I might like a copy.
I’d actually just got back into reading after a long spell of only watching movies. I worked out that
I watched over 3000 of them in the span of five years. I should probably add that I was working
in a video store at the time. It was a dream job. And the store was only a short walk away from the inner-city apartment where I lived.
We had such a diverse customer base. One of our regulars was the president of the local chapter
of the country’s most notorious gang. I was often surprised by the films he and his associates rented. Lots of festival films and documentaries. There were so many fascinating people that came through those doors. I learnt a lot about them from their viewing habits.
One day on my way to work, I noticed a new piece of graffiti had popped up on the concrete retaining wall beneath my apartment. It was an empty heart with a neatly furled banner through
the middle. It looked unfinished, like someone got spooked while painting it. It stayed that way
for a long time.
I kept hoping I’d wake to find it filled with a name. Why was no one seizing this opportunity to make
a public declaration of love? Randomly this came up in conversation with a customer. She was studying to be a journalist, and as it happened the retaining wall beneath my apartment stood tall above her campus carpark.
We talked about a lot of things: love, loneliness and alienation. She said she’d just finished a novel written by a then 23-year-old woman named Carson McCullers, and I must read it. The following week I arrived at work to find a copy of the book waiting for me. It was called The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. She must’ve brought it in on my day off. I never got a chance to thank her.
It’s an extraordinary novel. One of my all-time favourites. I was halfway through reading it when
my father gave me the Bukowski book. I met some kind people through the video store. Generous people. It was a fun job, with plenty of perks, but we dealt with a lot too. During the time I worked there, the store was robbed at gunpoint, twice. Eventually I moved on. And a couple of years after
I left, it went out of business.
My father and I kept meeting up for a Big Breakfast every Thursday for a month or two after our reunion, until I moved back to Tauranga and it was no longer convenient. Years have passed and
he still messages me every Thursday — and only on Thursdays. Sometimes I reply, sometimes I don’t.
The other night I pulled The Pleasures of the Damned from the bookshelf and placed it on my bedside table. I’d never actually made it past page 81. I’m terrible with anthologies. But there it was, on the following page, just as it had been since the day I received it, a poem titled Carson McCullers.
And in it, Bukowski wrote lyrically about McCuller’s tales of terrified loneliness and the cruelty of loveless love. And how, after her death, everything continued just as she’d written it...
THE PLEASURES OF THE DAMNED
Author: Charles Bukowski
First Published: 2007 (Ecco)
THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER
Author: Carson McCullers
First Published: 1940 (Houghton Mifflin)
By Elric James
Illustration by Christopher Duffy