Two weeks to the day before they would meet one another for the first time, face to face, Todd and Zephyr each decided to walk up to the coffee shop in their neighborhood to pick up a paper cup of espresso and hot water, find a park bench, and sit down, alone, with a book. Just as with the graveyards, Todd was a little unsure of what compelled him to visit the coffee shop. Was there some external force propelling him in that direction? (He had long ago lost faith in any sort of deity with whom he could identify or relate.) He just knew that he had to get out of his apartment, that he’d been in there so long it had begun to take on the gloom and chill of a tomb. Outside, there was plague—but at least, he thought, the sun was shining.
A quarter-mile away from the coffee shop, with its ominous taped signs warning of social distancing, of call-in orders, of mask and glove requirements, Todd found a spot on a bench under a gentle oak tree. He burnt his lips on the too-hot (always too-hot, never just-right) beverage, then set it on the bench next to him and opened his book. He would, he decided, read three pages and then go back to trying his drink. Even still, his lips trembled at the thought of more scalding hot water.
The book was one he’d found at a thrift-store, piled haphazardly on top of fat cookbooks and skinny editions of poetry from small presses. It was Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, a brick of a book whose title leapt out at Todd.
I am melancholy, he thought. Therefore, Mr. Burton, please anatomize me. Tell me how I can live in the world. Or, at the very least, how I can endure it.
Todd didn’t realize how old the book was until he cracked it open to its middle there outside the thrift store, and was assaulted by heavy bricks of Latin text and classical English spellings and grammar.
"Their bodies that are affected with this universal melancholy are most part black," he read,
The melancholy juice is redundant all over, hirsute they are, and lean, they have broad veins, their blood is gross and thick. Their spleen is weak, and a liver apt to engender the humour; they have kept bad diet, or have had some evacuation stopped, as haemorrhoids, or months in women, which Trallianus, in the cure, would have carefully to be inquired, and withal to observe of what complexion the party is of, black or red. For as Forrestus and Hollerius contend, if they be black, it proceeds from abundance of natural melancholy; if it proceed from cares, agony, discontents, diet, exercise, &c., they may be as well of any other colour: red, yellow, pale, as black, and yet their whole blood corrupt: praerubri colore saepe sunt tales, saepe flavi." - saith Montaltus cap. 22
There was certainly a lot to unpack there. But first, a sip of his drink. There—much better. Still warm, hot even, but gentle enough on his lips that he felt confident to take a generous sip, to let the caffeine settle in his mouth while he imagined it coursing through his system, jolting his memory and spirit and perhaps even curing him, if only for a brief moment, of his melancholy.
Did old Burton have anything to say about the curative effects about caffeine? He turned to the index and tried to find out. And it was because of this that he did not see Zephyr approach the coffee shop across the street, carrying his own book which he intended to read somewhere quiet.
Imbibing whilst handling a printed paper book is not particularly perilous most of the time. Dexterity was a quality that Todd prized in himself. Of course, he would never say it that way though. He was left-handed. Todd, like Zephyr, was sensitive to having his differences define him. About this he was too self-righteous, maybe even too sinister, to handle such backhanded condescensions such as "above-average dexterity" as compliments.
Todd knew the etymology of that word. Dexterity. Originating from Indo-European roots meaning "right" (right itself being a word implying the same thing), dexterity always implies using one's right hand for tasks requiring precision, such as writing or wielding any tool. It suggests this subtly, though, which is a clever trick human minds have used for millennia to construct reality. It might even be The Trick of All Tricks, like Keyser Söze said in The Usual Suspects, "the greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist."
Hence, words mean stuff. But the more esoteric, the more brilliant words hide their significance even from their speakers. Sharp and dull minds alike repeat words all the time without noticing their many baked-in implications.
Zephyr too had his linguistic philosophy passions. The previous year he had penned a philosophy piece titled "A Write Way to Think", in which he mentioned in passing that "ALL creative writing is linguistic philosophy." This was met by PhD types with virtual eyerolls and thousand-word, poorly written blocks of pedantic, misinformed shaming in public forums. With references and links to their own publications.
Knowingly or not, they intended to rebuke more than inform, while doing rather impressively at disguising their motivations, even to themselves. Academia was irreversibly coated in a hardening veneer of "actually."
In our enlightened modern times we pretend that left-handedness is essentially the same as right-handedness for all purposes except the occasional practical one, like baseball gloves. Never in (recent) history were left-handed people sought for enslavement, persecution, lynching, or public mockery. And yet, there in their ancestral forms the evidence of such legacy lurks, obvious to few.
Something Zephyr and Todd had in common was that they both embraced and celebrated their capacity for mental digression and large cognitive networks with lots of active nodes. That part was the benefit of being a (perhaps modestly) gifted thinker. It was another thing altogether to entertain a stubbornly bored audience with well-considered words.
Todd and Zephyr also both noticed that succinct, careful, charmingly smart writing was usually the most effective way to inspire and persuade under the guise of mere droll entertainment, as Homer and Ovid, and thousands more nameless storytellers had done for millennia.
"Dexterous" or otherwise, Todd’s hands were usually steady enough to slice paperthin slivers of julienned carrots tossed in rosemary-tarragon oil, or whittle a raw potato using a scalpel, all the while pouring an apportioned, properly chilled Chianti from a decanter with his other hand. Todd had once carved his entire First Name into a tree trunk in an ornate and beautiful font, over the course of nine months! His project had been interrupted by a trip to Portland, Oregon for a writer’s conference, so the inscription had read as "TOD" for months. When he finally got back to finish his work, someone had written "AY" afterward, so it read "TODAY". He hated that show. So he wrote his name another 19 inches above again, and spent every spare moment for weeks carving his full first name, followed by "FEELS CLEVER" so that he would, upon finishing, indeed feel clever on any day that he would happen upon it.
He wasn’t concerned that it may not apply on the days he didn’t actually read it, because it was not a message intended for anyone else. It was his name, his work, his counterassault carving.
Caffeine sometimes enhanced that precision and agility, but on rare occasions, it gave Todd a slight tremor for a half hour or so. This was one of those rare occasions when the tremor came, and it came at the worst moment. As he glanced at his watch to see how long he had to get to the airport, he spilled the second half of his Americano "‘with room’ for milk"—that phrase irritated him especially when it was shortened to "with room"—onto the book he had just bought, ruining it.
Luckily, he did not get any on his clothes, and there would be no time to fret anyway. He tossed the book into a nearby trash can, gathered his belongings, hailed a "COVID-compliant" taxi, and headed to the Dulles International Airport in nearby Virginia, to catch a plane to Portland, Oregon.
The flight attendant pampering the First Class passengers offered him coffee before takeoff. He accepted, added a little milk from the silver service tray, stirred, and sipped. It was just the right temperature this time. This coffee tasted much better than the swill they used to serve before flying became so expensive. They still served that in Coach.
He loved the small-batch local coffee selections in Portland. That was always a perk of these trips, but it wasn’t the only thing he was looking forward to. Conferences were engaging and interesting in their own way, but this time, he wasn’t going to Portland for a writer’s conference.
No, he was going to Portland because there was another thing that he and Zephyr had in common—though perhaps one could only say they had it in common if either of them were aware of the connection they shared through this third person: Todd’s mother.
Had Zephyr heard the name Janet, he would have thought: secretary, or personal assistant. It was one of those dated names that one rarely heard anymore; or, if you did, it was usually the name of someone’s cat or dog. So the name, Janet, meant nothing to Zephyr. But if you had set Zephyr down in the coffee shop where we last left him and told him of the woman with bright black eyes and gray hair with a single, bold stripe running down the right-hand side, with a square face lined and firm as a stone statute, he would have known exactly who you were talking about.
It was this face, this woman, who five years ago had plucked Zephyr, shocked and mute, from the wreck of a car along a coastal road. He had been driving late at night, not drunk but certainly not thinking about the curving road along which he drove his rented Honda Accord. He had been thinking, perhaps appropriately enough of his mother—or rather, the lack of a mother figure in his life and what this said about himself as a now thirty-five-year-old man. His mother had left their family when Zephyr was only 10; he had been raised, exclusively, by his father. He had been staring at the road, blitzed by memory and the possibilities of what-could-have-been, and reached absentmindedly for the carafe of coffee (more milk than coffee, admittedly) when he slid on a patch of rainwater and his entire world turned upside down in a rage of screaming metal, hissing glass, and burning coffee.
The world went dark, and when he next opened his eyes the strange woman—whom he had no idea was named Janet, let alone was Todd’s very own mother on her way home from a late shift at the hospital where she worked as a nurse in the ICU—was reaching in to the sunroof and dragging his limp and shaking body out. She consoled him until the police and the ambulance came. She offered him a sip of coffee from the carafe she kept in her car. Immediately, Zephyr said no.
The sight of her crisp, pristine white, starched Tommy Hillfiger overmask with a small red cross embroidered next to the word "Tommy" would make him curious about the name Tommy ever after. He even had assumed at some point that Tommy was the name of her husband, or even a nickname for her. Tommy, short for Tommika maybe? Or maybe some literary reference he was too young to know about?
In some versions of his vivid and accurate recollections, the mask said "Tammy" — probably he remembered it that way to help him avoid confronting the importance and incongruence of the detail. Onomastic scholars don’t treat names as trivial matters — not usually anyway. Not in good conscience.
Troubling was that in other equally vivid and accurate versions of these same memories, there was no name on the mask at all. But there was definitely red on white. Well, probably - but maybe it was blue on red? Or red embroidery on a powder-blue-gray canvas fabric. Maybe it was even just his own blood that he had seen. Maybe the woman had gotten his blood on her normal, non-couture overmask.
Donny? Totty? Jammy? Tummy? Toddy? Mommy?
This detail didn’t seem to matter, but that fact of seeming insignificant was itself significant to him. If the name on the mask were unimportant, why did he keep remembering it being there? Or sometimes not being there, notably absent?
Those memories may all be true, but for sanity’s sake, they could not all be true at once.
Whatever her mask embroidery and its significance, Janet worked with the confidence of someone who knew well what she was doing. She did not show the slightest hint of fear or indecision as she cleared broken glass, sliced seat belt remnants, and consoled Zephyr without making eye contact while checking his vital signs. She spoke to him as if he had merely been bruised. That face of motherly care that he had never known would imprint indelibly into his psyche as she used her "command voice," the authoritative tone that first responders are trained to use specicially to keep patients conscious and turn any bystanders into obedient orderlies, grateful that someone else was in charge. She repeatedly asked Zephyr to tell her what year it was, where he lived, if he had taken any illicit drugs in the last 24 hours, and most memorably, her final question and Zephyr's response.
Janet’s final question — her final words to Zephyr ever since — were these: "Who are you?"
For the first time in his life that night, maybe because of the circumstances, what with the nearly fatal accident on a road without cell phone coverage, Zephyr gave the question quite serious treatment. It was as though the question itself had nearly killed him. It was a question posed by Janet, but also by fate: ‘Well, who are you?’
If the question killed him, his response resurrected him.
Zephyr did not have an answer, but he had a response. His response was that he had finally come to "instantly, unwaveringly ‘agree with the question’ itself" as he later described it. (What a navel-gazing, bombastic jackass he could be sometimes.)
"Who are you?" he had whispered back. That he said this, we know with certainty. What he meant by it is far more open to apparently competing explanations. They’re not competing, though; they’re all true.
It was clear to neither Janet nor Zephyr whether he was posing the question to Janet, to himself, to fate, or to the imaginary narrator he always called upon to give him emotional distance from what was too traumatic to process directly.
He might even have been merely parroting the words he heard in a spasmodic fit mentally unaware of anything at all, as the Paramedic administered IV ketamine to ensure he would neither experience nor, even more importantly, remember any physical pain. Who knows what he was thinking? We can’t know, and Zephyr likely doesn’t know now what he was thinking then either. The whole memory, the whole mental account, was a palimpsest of conflicting facts.