THE SEARCH FOR JOY: A PARABLE
A man, moved by the state of his life and the world, set out to discover the meaning of joy. “Where should I begin, Lord?” he asked.
“The Grove,” the Lord answered.
The man hopped a bus and rode it to the Fairfax District. As the doors hissed open, loud music poured in from the Farmer’s Market. The man cringed. He stepped off the bus and stood on the fringe of the crowd engulfed by a heavy bass stomp and the raucous growl of an electric guitar badly in need of tuning. People danced, shouted, surged with the rhythm. He watched as one young woman clad in handmade cotton dress and topped with a cloche hat leaped from the crowd and weaved seductively in and out between the band members. She writhed and gyrated and jerked and flailed, eyes toward heaven, tears streaming down her cheeks. The electric guitar player doubled over his instrument, head pumping in synch with his hand. The crowd surged, the volume transformed the music into more distortion than melody. Hands waved, bodies jumped, voices screamed. The man stood still, jaw set hard. When the set finished, his ears rang. “Where to now?” he asked, heading back to the bus stop.
“Venice Beach,” the Lord told him.
The bus staggered down Washington Boulevard through rush hour. Unwashed bodies, the lurching vehicle, and the subtle odor of schwag unsettled him; he exited three blocks from the beach and walked to the boardwalk. As the sun inched toward the Pacific, street vendors packed up their wares and tourists packed up their strollers. Locals swam against the mob armed with beach chairs and surf boards. The man sidestepped a vagrant crumpled against a palm tree. Before he could edge by unnoticed, the vagrant rolled over and stared at him with dancing black eyes. He laughed. The man retched as the vagrant’s ripeness swept up his nostrils. He escaped across the beach to the seaweed line and sat heavily in the cool sand. As he pulled off a shoe, his fingers stuck to a tar ball plastered to the bottom. “Ugh!” he moaned. Teeth clenched, he rubbed the sole with sand until de-tarred.
As the sun melted from neon orange to hot pink, the man watched a matted mongrel chasing sea gulls, children romping unfazed in the frigid water, surfers skinned in black wetsuits bobbing on the rolling gray swells. He sighed, tried to relax. A petit woman dressed in white chinos and fuchsia hoodie strolled barefoot through the sea foam with her Irish Setter. She waved. He nodded. The sun ducked behind a purple line of clouds and shot out a crepuscular ragtime playing across the ocean’s keyboard.
A rustle to his right disrupted the moment: A thin man with wispy blond hair stopped three feet from him, his tanned face turned toward the sunset. Thick sunglasses eclipsed a smile. “Beautiful, isn’t it?” the thin man spoke, his voice as slight as his frame. He lifted his long cane to the horizon and pointed. “Just beautiful.” The thin man spun around and strolled north up the beach, clearing the path in front of him with rhythmic sweeps of the cane. The man watched until he disappeared into a clot of sunbathers and haze. He rose, brushed the sand from his trousers. “Where to now, Lord?”
“To bed,” the Lord spoke. “Tomorrow, the mountains.”
Exhaustion suddenly swept over him and he relented. “Yes, Lord.” He picked up his shoes. “To bed.”
The next morning dawned still and bright. He ate a bagel, sipped orange juice, and stuffed a small backpack with water and snack bars. He drove to the San Gabriels and parked at an Angeles National Forest trailhead. Perhaps today, he thought.
The morning sun warmed his shoulders as he began to hike the gravelly dirt path through the thick chaparral. He hiked for an hour then stopped to rehydrate on a wide outcropping overlooking the San Fernando Valley. Below, the yellow-brown smog line trespassed into the mountains. He breathed in the acrid scent of creosote and dried grass. “How much longer, Lord?” he asked. The Lord remained silent. The man packed up his water bottle, shouldered his backpack, and continued up the slope.
Along the way he exchanged pleasantries with a young couple hiking the other direction, and grunted as their giddiness and laughter faded into the heavy brush behind him. As he rounded the bend he stopped dead: a monster rattlesnake lay coiled before him, body writhing, tail a sudden maraca shattering the morning stillness. The snake rose up, sinking its fangs into his thigh above the knee. He yelped, fell backward. The sting of the fangs was bad; the fire snaking its way up his thigh and torso moments later was worse. “Help!” he cried. He stood, hobbled in the direction of the giggling young couple. He prayed they hadn’t gotten too far.
After five minutes a wave of dizziness swept over him. His leg gave out and he fell hard onto his side. Gravel sliced into his elbow. “Help!” he pleaded. The young man emerged from the brush, sprinting toward him. The young woman followed. Neither was laughing. Another wave of dizziness swept over him. He groaned. “God it burns!” The young man threw down his pack and yanked off his belt. The young woman yelled into her cell phone. The man screamed as the young man looped his belt around his thigh and cinched it.
He blacked out several times during the bumpy walkout strapped to a stretcher. He didn’t remember most of the ambulance ride to Pasadena. When he finally regained coherence, he found himself lying in a hospital bed, elbow bandaged, leg and head throbbing. An elderly woman lay in the next bed, surrounded by a large group of people. He caught glimpses of her before the nurse closed the blue curtain separating their beds: cotton hair plastered to the back of her head, white wrinkled face, sharp blue eyes set deep under a heavy brow. And laughter like a school girl. She chattered and waved bird-claw hands at the ends of tiny arms. Tubes emerged from those arms and the backs of both hands, held in place with layers of tape which tugged at her translucent blue skin. Another line entered her neck just under her right ear. A folded wheelchair leaned against the wall at the foot of her bed. The man frowned.
He dropped his head onto the pillow and fell back to sleep despite the lively crowd. When he awoke, the curtain had been drawn back and the elderly woman lay on her bed looking at him. She glowed. “Well, there you are, young man. Back from the dead.” She guffawed. “Whatever happened to you, my dear?” She smiled and waited.
“Got bit by a snake,” he said. His throat burned.
“A snake, huh?” She winked.
“A big one too,” he said. “Rattler.”
“Got bit by a snake. Hmm.” The room fell silent as the woman’s eyes focused on something behind him. He instinctively glanced back. A window, blinds drawn. A chair in the corner. Nothing else. When he turned back she held something out to him.
“Here you go,” she said, smile broadening. “You need to have this.” She held out an old book, brown leather cover cracked from agelessness. He hesitated. “Go on,” she said. “This’ll help.”
He took the book. Ancient. Worn. Well-used. “Help with what?” he asked. The woman’s blue eyes twinkled. She raised a trembling finger to her lips and winked again. “Thank you,” he finally said.
She rolled over. “Good to meet you.” Within moments a hacking snore erupted from the old woman’s bed. A wave of nausea and deep tiredness swept over him again. He placed the book on his food tray and let himself be carried away into the dark dreamlessness of anti-venom and exhaustion.
He awoke to a melee exploding in his room. He sat straight up. The blue cover had been drawn across the room again, but the thin material did nothing to muffle the sounds of the crash team trying to revive the old woman. After five minutes a voice emerged from the aftermath. “Time of death: 3:16 AM.”
After his heart settled down and the wan-faced nurses poked in on him, he lay back and stared at the ceiling. He reached for the food tray and picked up the book, stroking the leather cover. “Thank you,” he whispered. He cracked open the cover and began to read.
In the beginning God . . . .
The Lord smiled.
Copyright © 2013, David C. Hughes