All times are strange times for someone. Rarely, is it strange for everyone at once.
Yet, here we are.
Things had been strange for him for a while. Suddenly, to his benefit. When you operate under a different set of rules, it makes people uncomfortable. So you have to downplay it. Keep it hidden. Samuel learned early and well. He followed the rules.
Those closest to him — friends, family, co-workers — call him “Sam,” with the only exception being his older sister who never could kick her “Sammy” habit. He dislikes it, but loves her, so he quit fighting. It’s not like he speaks with her often, anyway.
In his mind, though, it’s always “Samuel.” That is where the bulk of his conversations take place, so that is his truest name.
What he prefers, however, is “anonymous.”
When most people consider anonymity, they’ll picture an ascetic recluse boarded up in a far-removed location. The best version is even more hidden. A plain house on a boring street in a small town. Keep the lights limited; the yard clean; the music off. Invisible.
Samuel has no wife, children, dogs or cats. The parts of those he may have once dreamed of evaporated when those pieces he formerly had eventually disappeared.
Community movements have uniforms. Uniforms help an individual blend, and Samuel likes to blend in. Given full control of the world, he couldn’t have picked a better circumstance than the current state of acceptance. A face shrouded behind a mask and a ball cap pulled low. Sunglassed eyes. Not a suspicious freak. A “responsible citizen.”
The mandatory five-day office weeks and social obligations “one cannot politely skip” have halted. Samuel feels like a man that has been rewarded a one-year home confinement sentence for a white collar crime, without having to bear the guilt of treachery and theft. He reads and he keeps a tidy cleaning schedule and he thinks. He’s never been more certain that he is the luckiest man in the world.
When he does leave the house, it’s primarily after dark. He knows he should get more sunshine, but is confident his Vitamin D supplements suffice. They say it protects against the virus. He’s not worried about the virus. Surely, there are better ways to die than asphyxiation, but there are also worse.
An hour after sunset, Samuel exits through the back door. No porch light to welcome his return. No risk of waving neighbors. No need for a mask — the shadows have stepped in to manage that role. Head down and into the alley.
There is no destination, but he needs the machine to work. Not his body. His mind. But the body helps the mind. He’ll think different things while moving and that’s the only goal. “What do I need to know?”
Forty five minutes of determined walking to nowhere, he begins to approach a silhouette. Shorter. A bit broad in the middle. His instinct is to pay no mind.
“If I could move as fast as you, I’d already be there,” the shadow quips as Samuel passes.
“Yeah? Where’s ‘there?’”
“Someplace with fire enough to break up this monotony,” the stranger replies.
Samuel wants to say, “bored is for the boring,” but he feels no need to play in this contest, so instead says, “I’m sure it’s out there somewhere.”
“Oh, it is. You just gotta know where to look.”
Samuel is close enough now to see the man’s features. A bit older in appearance than he himself is, but it’s hard to tell if that’s a true reflection of years, or signs of a less-than-optimal self-care lifestyle.
“I’m Paul,” he offers.
“I know the world is closed, but I was just heading over to a private space for a drink. What do you say, Samuel — let me buy you a beer? The world’s a lonely place right now and who couldn’t use a new friend? I sure can.”
Samuel. Not “Sam.” Not “Sammy.” Why does everyone think they can just change your name? Against his own rules, he instantly kind of likes this guy. And he likes experiences. Stories, even those he can only retell to himself. So, yeah, maybe he would like a beer.
The destination is neither bar, restaurant nor club. It’s a basement. The proprietor, who clearly lives upstairs and is breaking more than a few rules to earn a little cash on the side, greets Paul like an old friend. An inquisitive glance at Samuel’s new face, but no questions spoken.
The place is nearly empty. A man and a woman sit at the far end of the bar. A television on the wall airs the Patriots versus Jets game — two squads of millionaires playing to an empty stadium. Placeholders of “fans” fill the seats.
A large “Drain the Swamp” banner hangs on the wall of the establishment behind them, even though the election was weeks ago. When did we start celebrating losers?
Samuel doesn’t think about politics. It never reaches him. And he can’t reach anyone who has picked one side or the other. They are no different than the players on TV. They only care about winning a game without meaning, while sermonizing to cardboard cutouts.
Samuel and Paul sit at the bar and each orders a beer. As they make small talk, Samuel is reminded why he prefers solitude. It’s a bunch of sounds about nothing. He’ll drain his beer and exit.
As the conversation falls flat, they both turn their eyes to the screen. The game is down to its final seconds. New England needs a field goal to win.
“You bet sports,” Paul asks?
“I don’t follow sports at all.”
“Good. This will be like a coin flip. You pick — make or miss — $20.”
Everyone is so ridiculous. But, sure, $20 to wrap this up? Basically a bargain. “Make.” Always hope someone does well.
A moment later the ball easily splits the uprights and Paul sets the money on the bar. “For a guy that doesn’t follow football, you’re pretty lucky.”
“Indeed, I am.” As Samuel steps up to excuse himself and express gratitude for an uncommon evening, he leaves his winnings by his glass for the owner. Samuel’s already lucky, but this guy seems like he needs to work for it.
When he awakens the next morning, Samuel’s first task is to wash the smell of smoke from his hair, thanks to Paul chain smoking from the stool next to him the previous night. He shampoos twice to get it all out. The ashy fragrance lingers.
But the rest of the day is uneventful. Normal. Samuel likes normal. Lives for it, actually. And, for weeks, normal.
He forgets his encounter with Paul, because it was a “nothing.” Samuel thinks about a lot of things, but nothing isn’t one of them. He’s searching for something. He just doesn’t know what that something is quite just yet.
Even the anonymous need fuel. Food, gasoline, pay the bills. He waits until dark and then starts running errands.
“Samuel!” A voice he feels he should know. Then a face. Paul.
As they fill their respective tanks, Paul patters on about items of inconsequence with a lit cigarette dangling from his mouth. Risk of a firestorm? The man simply doesn’t care.
“I can’t believe I ran into you — this is perfect! I’m with my friend Sheila, but she brought a friend. The only way to fix a third-wheel is by adding a forth. You gotta hang out with us tonight.”
This is a terrible idea. But one thing Samuel is beginning to realize is that total isolation introduces its own problems. Lack of stimulus being one. Did the night at the bar/not bar with Paul help in some way? Maybe.
He finishes gassing up and pulls his car into the lot across from the convenience store, hopping into Paul’s back seat. Sheila is up front and is either completely smitten with Paul or high. Possibly both. In the back is Donna, significantly more reserved by comparison. The rows of alignment work.
Four people, though — maskless — in the same car. Does no one appreciate the risk? As they speed down the road, Sheila passes a bottle of vodka back to Donna, who unceremoniously takes a pull from the neck and passes it to Samuel. No. No one cares. He takes a deep drink.
Paul pulls the car into an alley and hops out, the three exiting to join him. With a gesture, he encourages them to follow and opens an unlocked side door to what appears to be an abandoned apartment building. Nervous laughter quickly turns to glee as they trespass and explore, ending at the rooftop.
“Everything looks so distant and close at once.” Donna.
Samuel likes this side of her.
“It’s not close,” Paul corrects. “You can’t exactly get to that roof from this one.”
“I can.” Samuel.
Paul’s laughter is both insulting and genuine at once. Which makes it worse. Without a second thought, Samuel takes off at a sprint, plants his foot on the parapet wall and springs to the second rooftop.
While his companions try to make sense of what they’ve witnessed, Samuel thinks, “Now what?”
Now back, that’s what.
He tries to repeat the feat, but doesn’t get quite enough momentum, barely catching the edge on the return trip. In a panic, all three grab his arms and pull him to safety, then catch their collective breath.
“You are so lucky we were able to pull you up!”
That sort of bravado might make a good tale, but it doesn’t do much for women over thirty. Their night was basically over. Paul drove the women home and was left shaking his head at Samuel. “What were you thinking?” Samuel answered with a shrug, because there is no answer.
If you put two agitated men in a room, one needs to leave. As they sit at Paul’s laminate kitchen table, neither Paul nor Samuel recognize this. Both are upset. A little drunk. And not normal.
“You could have died while we were just having fun.”
“Yes. Anyone could have.”
“Not like that!”
They stewed and grew to like each other less, while Paul lights cigarette after cigarette, then finally punches the table.
“How about this!” He storms from the room and returns with a Ruger Security Six. The old model. Stainless steel. .357 Magnum. Loaded.
Paul drops the cylinder and pushes out the six rounds, then slides the revolver plus one single cartridge over to Samuel.
“You spin this wheel, then I’ll believe you.”
Belief. One person that recognizes his sincerity. That understands. Finally. Samuel locks eyes with Paul, knowing that he is, truly, the luckiest man on the planet — even if only for just another moment.