“There are too many clocks,” Richard says. We are walking up the stairs from the subway platform, the smell of cinnamon buns and Jamaican patties slamming into the brisk winter air sifting from the station doors, this sharp breeze that’s traveled all the way from the Arctic Circle on an Alberta Clipper to sting our faces.
Richard looks at me. “And too many people, Matthew. There are too many people.” A whirl of puffy cheeks and laptop bags flash before our eyes, bodies squishing their way down the stairwell. Richard usually walks very quickly, except when he is scared, so he ascends the stairs of the subway station trepidatiously, hugging the handrail with one arm, clutching my bicep with the other.
“There are too many pigeons, Matthew,” he says, watching a series of rogue birds flutter below our legs, willful inmates in the nether regions of the city’s bustling underground. “Too many pigeons.” I can’t tell which he dislikes more, clocks or pigeons. It’s always something with Richard. His brown eyes have grown sallow with time, but that’s one thing he doesn’t seem to want to pay attention to, the passing of time.
I always want to know exactly how long it will take to get somewhere, the best route to follow, as if knowing arms me with the ammunition to turn the key in my front door every day. One morning on my way home from work, I listen to an off-duty streetcar driver, stealing a ride up to the station, tell stories to the operator about how best to take advantage of the inner-workings of cities while on vacation. When bus drivers take holidays, he says, all they think about is transportation. The driver laughs and nods his head. “Always going somewhere, right?” he says, and I wish he were referring to me. They discuss the intricacies of shuttle services, aboveground travel, the proximity of major metro stations to airports, gabbing away like old ladies playing bridge. I miss my stop.
Staring out the window of the streetcar, my dark, heavy eyes squinting into the harsh winter light that’s surfing the horizon, I remember a story I heard years ago about a train conductor in Nova Scotia, who after retiring from 40 years of working the Halifax-Moncton corridor, spent the twilight of his years riding the rails between Halifax and Toronto, back and forth, back and forth on his lifetime free pass, always sitting in the same seat, sometimes never even getting off the train. Someone said he died looking out the window, location undetermined.
Richard’s hair is greying now. He is built like a boxer but hunched at the shoulders, possessing the gait of someone who looks much older. I suspect he is in his 40’s, but he’s never mentioned his exact age, which I find odd, since Richard always asks strangers how old they are when we are grocery shopping.
“When’s your birthday?” Richard says to a middle-aged lady examining cantaloupes in the grocery store, the winter fruit selection reduced to insipid-tasting melons and pesticide-laden strawberries.
“June 22nd, 1955,” she politely replies.
“Wednesday. You were born on a Wednesday.”
“Are you sure?” she asks, mildly astonished.
“He’s never wrong,” I say.
“Mangoes, Matthew. I like the mangoes.”
Later that spring, the emergence of dandelions and red-breasted robins juxtaposes against a grey, lifeless landscape. Richard walks efficiently when he’s thinking and it’s hard to keep pace, the bulge over my beltline preventing an all-out jog. “There are too many buildings,” Richard says, looking up. “Too many buildings, Matthew. There are 348,656 buildings in New York City, you know.”
“This is Toronto, Richard. Don’t you want to know how many buildings there are in this city?”
“Nobody cares about that, Matthew.”
Richard hates the sound a shovel makes scraping against concrete after a snowfall; the suction sound a hand pump makes at the ballpark, mustard oozing onto a hotdog; the tick-tick-tick of my left-turn signal. “Go right, Matthew. Go right.” Richard has no control of these dark places, the inter-cranial chasms he retreats to without me, the corners of thought he hides behind when the world outside becomes opaque. But he likes the way yellow spring flowers smear across the grass and the pump-pump motion a robin makes bobbing its head into the soil. He enjoys watching television, but has trouble focusing for long periods of time. “There are too many channels,” Richard says. “Too many channels.” He likes shows about the ocean, programs that deal with infinite spaces, and he seems especially delighted when a man catches a fish, no matter how small. “They gotta throw it back, Matthew,” he says. “They gotta throw it back.”
Richard injured a man once, very badly, with only his bare hands. He didn’t mean to, he says, and he doesn’t like to talk about it. He calls it “the incident.” That’s how he arrived in my office one afternoon. After nearly a decade working as a behavioral therapist, I had never become close to any of my clients, but something about Richard was different. He was shy and withdrawn but warm when asked about the things he loved, like skyscrapers and the Latin names of things. Extremely intelligent, the paperwork explained, but hindered by layers of emotional resistance and occasional outbursts. Instead of talking, we would often play chess on a park bench for several hours, saying very little. Richard would rattle off the names of common flowers—“Taraxacum officinale are dandelions Matthew, clovers are trifolium”—before checkmating me. I only win if he becomes distracted, or if he remembers the incident, and then it’s something else altogether, and it takes hours for Richard to become himself again.
When my wife finally left me, she said I loved Richard more than I loved her. “You don’t understand,” I said. She grabbed the antique lamp shaped like a swan that we bought together at a flea market in Tweed and stormed out the front door. I drank steadily for some time—a stark difference from heavily and much worse—but there were those nights, too. What I remember most from that period is a slow, steady descent, realizing the ritualistic motions of other lonely-hearted men occupying the barstools beside me. Drinking over the dinner hours. Slurring my words and stumbling home before darkness arrived. I haven’t had a drink since.
During that time, I realized some people are like oil and water. Others, like the two of us, survived somewhere in the middle, negotiating a failing relationship over the course of many drawn-out years, begging silently for an end. She said she wanted a husband, a man, a father, as if I was none of these things any longer. I simply wanted someone who cared less about French manicures and throw pillows.
One night, two years after I’d met Richard, she walked into the bedroom and slowly slid her fake plastic nails beneath the elastic of her waistband, tugging the drawstring, her pants dropping to the ground.
“Just once I’d like you to at least pretend you’re mildly interested.”
“You want a deviant,” I said.
“I want a man.”
“You don’t know what you want.”
“Just once, just once I would like you to come up from behind me and hold me. Is that too much to ask?”
“Do you know the first time we slept together you asked me ‘Is this okay?’ three times?”
“We never should have moved to the city.”
“You’ve become obsessed with helping him. He has problems, Matthew.”
“There is a difference between love and devotion. You’ll never understand that.”
When she slammed the door to our semi-detached home, the swan lamp and her other spoils of war sticking out from under her skinny, tanned arms, I could see through the tears in her eyes that she wished for a stronger man, a convicted man, one who built things made of metal in a garage and wore the same pair of faded jeans every Sunday. Years later, I can still remember the look on her face, a pair of defeated eyes pulsing with disappointment when I told her that it wasn’t worth arguing about, that I’d rather be alone. That I’d rather be with Richard.
Richard wants to be good. He wants to be good more than anything in this world, but he doesn’t know what that means, and doesn’t know how to express it. He understands, despite the things he’s done and the limitations of his ability to empathize, that the desire to be better is something worth fighting for. He fights every day for this feeling in his own way. And it makes me want to be good, too. In our world, this shared, noble act means something. And on the days when I’m not with him, I think about how the two of us have distilled the noise of the city and reduced our lives to the simplest of things: being good.
In a bookstore he says to me, “There are too many stories. We don’t need that many stories, Matthew.” Inside a coffee shop, he hears a song on the speakers. “There are too many musicians, Matthew.” “Yes, there are a lot of musicians, Richard,” I reply. “They sold their songs to car commercials, Matthew,” he says thumbing a Norah Jones CD sitting on the front counter. “There are too many sequels and too many Panini sandwiches.”
“You’re right. They don’t need to make another Star Wars. And I don’t like Panini’s very much.”
“How old are you Matthew?”
“I’m 42. You know that.”
“I know Richard.”
“When’s your birthday?”
“April 27, 1971.”
“Tuesday. You were born on a Tuesday.”
My ex-wife, on the day we first met, told me there is something dangerous about a man with just a coat and a book. She said a man like that has nothing to lose (except the book, I offered) and nothing to gain. What about knowledge, I replied, and she smiled, and we were together from that day forward. But now I imagine myself before all this ever happened, before I met her, before I started taking care of Richard, when I was a younger man without an ex-wife, armed only with a navy seaman’s coat and a copy of On The Road sticking out from the front pocket, dreams like stars in the sky.
Richard has a difficult time ignoring things. This is especially true with the ubiquitous TV screens hanging above the subway platforms, a rolling 24-news channel complete with hockey scores, headlines and a clock. It’s too much information for Richard to process, and he gets impatient en route to his doctor appointments.
“There are too many clocks,” he says.
“I know, Richard.”
“I know what time it is already, Matthew.”
“I know you do.”
“I know what day your birthday was.”
“I know you do.”
“April 27, 1971. Tuesday.”
“Do you want to get on the next train, Richard?”
“Not yet, Matthew. Not yet.”
Richard likes to look out windows, even on the subway. He doesn’t like to thumb a cell phone, or scroll through a handheld music device like teenagers do instead of just sitting there, instead of just thinking. Richard doesn’t like to read while traveling, either. He leans into the window, face pressed against the glass, processing a cacophony of sounds and myriad blurred images. Richard has never flown in a plane—he prefers viewing the countryside—so we take train trips together in the summer, north of the city, Richard in the window seat, myself in the aisle. He never understands where we are going until we get there, or how far we’ve traveled. He likes watching sunsets and dipping his feet off the dock into the lake. Richard sits there, his lumbering frame wiggling its toes, singing songs under his breath, holding a fishing rod, never catching anything. He never speaks of the word happiness, but I often wonder if that’s exactly what this moment is for him—late summer sun catching his neck, water stretching for miles, the thought of a small minnow on his line—happiness.
Richard is always looking back, remembering something, unable to envision the future. Most people can picture a spouse or children, but Richard retreats deep into a set of numbers and objects, dates and events when asked where he sees himself in five years. There are no other people in Richard’s imagination. It’s as if they don’t exist at all.
A butterfly lands on a bicycle in the middle of the city on a bright spring morning and Richard gets excited, because he knows the average lifespan of a butterfly is 20-40 days. This is how he classifies beauty. He doesn’t grasp the ugliness of the world. He doesn’t know about pancreatic cancer and car accidents, oil spills or sleazebag landlords on trial for raping female tenants. He doesn’t grasp good and evil as moral questions to answer. He doesn’t know the greed involved in building pipelines through endangered habitat, or broken love. He simply knows things and doesn’t pass judgment, and sometimes that is what I wish for, too, for all the noise to dissipate, for all the regrets to disappear, so it’s just Richard wondering aloud about things in the world, and me answering. And sometimes, just when I think he is wandering off into some unfamiliar place, he looks at me and grabs me by the arm.
“You can’t drink oil, Matthew,” Richard says.
“No, you can’t,” I say.
“We shouldn’t harm anything, Matthew.”
“We have a hard time forecasting the implications of our choices.”
“There’s too much noise, Matthew.”
“The whales you mean. The whales we kill using sonar equipment. Do you think we need acoustic sanctuaries, Richard?”
“Do you think they know?”
“I think they do.”
“We should love more things, Matthew.”
“There’s a difference between devotion and love, Richard.”
“I know that. You do too, Matthew.”
When I was seven years old, a blind man was killed crossing the street outside my parent’s home. I heard the shrill shrieking of tires from my bedroom, and I raced to the front door. I could see the man’s lifeless body on the pavement. It was hot that summer, too hot to stay outside for an extended period of time, but the guide dog stayed there, in the searing heat of a country summer, refusing to leave his owner’s side. Neighbours brought water, trying to coax the devoted animal away, but the dog stayed there, even when the body was removed, licking the ground.
When Richard died of a brain aneurism last fall, it felt like a black emptiness had ripped itself open in my chest cavity and everyone could see the details of my dark heart. The world feels bigger now, noisier, like a racetrack in the dead of July. But I carry him with me, like a book in my coat pocket. I sit on the aisle, even when the train is empty. And there are days when Richard’s voice grows soft, barely a whisper, and his face blurs into the fading light of the day. Often I sit graveside with a chessboard, waiting for Richard to make a move. And I think about how there are too many clocks and not enough time.