Al moves around Reno like a bank of fog, slow and hardly noticed. He’s homeless, some might even say, hopeless.
One little flaw in Al’s character distinguishes him from those around him who are gainfully employed. Al, at twenty-something, by his own admission, has never finished reading a book.
This is less a liability than it first appears in that he has never started very many books. When asked how many books he has started he thinks a moment before offering, “Three.”
“Wanna tackle number four?” I ask.
“Sure, what the hell.”
Al might have suspected I was about to hand him a Bible, but I didn’t. I handed him a hardcover copy of Huckleberry Finn.
He turned it over in his hands. “It’s a long one.”
“Yeah,” I agreed, “but it moves right along, like the Truckee.”
We were sitting on a bench on the bank of the river in the warm sunshine. Al looked at his friend, the Truckee, and almost smiled.
“What’s it about?”
“It’s about a boy who learns to think with his heart instead of his head.”
“Yeah? How do you do that?”
“You’ve got to read the book to find out.”
“Why don’t you just tell me and I won’t have to read the book.”
“If I told you it would spoil the book, like if I were to hand you a fish instead of a fishing pole.”
“Yeah. How big are the words?”
“The biggest word in there is “Mississippi.”
“I can handle that.”
“Okay, Al, can I call you Al?”
“Yeah, that’s good enough.”
“Call me Sam. You come here often?”
“Pert’near every day.”
“Then maybe I’ll stop back in a couple of weeks, and see how you liked it.”
“Better make it a couple a years.”
“That slow, huh?”
“Slow as a mud turtle.”
“That’s slow.” I concurred. “How ‘bout three weeks?”
“Yeah, what the hell.”
I stood up, stretched, and said, “There’s somebody in that book you might recognize, Al.”
“Yeah, who’s that?”
“A fellow that has it pretty hard, his name’s Jim.”
“What’s his problem?”
“He doesn’t have a home.”
“That ain’t no problem.”
“It is for Jim.”
“Yeah, well, maybe he likes it that way, you don’t know.”
“Actually, more than anything, he wants to find a home.”
“Well that ain’t me if that’s what you’re thinkin’.”
“You be the judge…I’ll see you in three weeks.”
“Maybe. Thanks for the book. Nobody ever gave me a book before.”
I walked along the river, checked my watch, and made a note to be back at 3 p.m. in three weeks to the day.
Three slow moving Tahoe weeks drifted by before I found myself back on the banks of the Truckee at 3 p.m. Al wasn’t there. I wasn’t surprised but was a little discouraged as I sat alone watching the river roll by.
Al was standing behind me, holding Huckleberry in his hand.
“I finished it.” he said.
“So how was it?”
“I knew Jim when I met up with him in the book. You were right, he had it pretty hard, harder than me. I’m workin’ at the Buggy Bath on South Virginia now. Got me a room. I’m not on the river anymore, Sam.”
I didn’t look at him, but nodded.
“Where you from, anyway?” he asked innocently; his first and last question to me.
“I live on a comet, Al, Halley’s Comet, and I’m going there now. I don’t get to visit very often. This was a special trip.”
He smiled a knowing smile, touched the brim of his cap with one finger, and drifted away. I watched him go, and noticed that he held himself somewhat straighter than he did before he finished his first book. I watched him until long after he was gone, then turned to the river, and was gone myself.
Read more about McAvoy Layne at www.ghostoftwain.org.