When he wasn’t killing or not killing his cat, Schrodinger, the eminent and perplexing physicist, wrote a book that defined life. A living being, he said, was a pocket of order, surrounded by chaos. What’s more: living beings grow more orderly as they evolve; in the same way that everything else gets more disorderly. Life is the exception to the second law of thermodynamics; at least as long as it lasts.
By that measure, it was not entirely clear whether the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat was a life form or not, at least by looking at him by the Epiphany Cafe’s dumpster, as he slept off his remorse.
Every morning began inside the Epiphany Cafe as they all do. The customers went about their business of re-ordering the world. They tapped their phones and drew and digested sap from the virtual tree of knowledge. They chewed pastries and converted starches and sugars into inspiration. They filled blank screens with little lines of meaning. They sloshed their drinks, saw it was good, and rested from their labors.
While, the cafe, itself, was a tiny pocket of peace; outside, by the dumpster, the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat had abandoned himself to Chaos. Beset at every turn by the hounds of guilt, the reptiles of regret, and the hissing snake of shame, he wrapped his arms around the legs of Mother Chaos. She offered a dangerous safety from the murderous, madding crowd. A forlorn foundling, he curled in her lap and suckled her shriveled, pendulous paps; not until he was full, for there was nothing there to nourish him, but till he could suck no more. She stroked his hair; not to comb it into regimented rows, but to twist it into cow licks, tangles, and split ends. She told him stories that made no sense; sightless shaggy dogs that lost their way, imparting no moral, and revealing no truth. She rocked him with a syncopated sway that had no swing and deserted its beat. She carried so much everything, that she gave nothing; but, her nothing was plenty, plenty more than he could handle.
He had tried doing it the other way, the way most recommended. He had come to the cafe, carrying his secret, and laid it trustingly at a therapist’s feet. But she handed it back to him. He tried doing it another way, a way fallen out of fashion, but possessing the authority of tradition. He brought his confession to a holy man, the most respected figure in the town’s long history, the Revered Abraham Pierson, Puritan preacher and founder of Yale. But Revered Pierson was a dead man and, when the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat kelt in front of his tombstone and told the story a second time, he heard no response from the inert rock. Therefore, he did it his way, a way that had worked before. He entered a liquor store, carrying no disclosure but what was printed on dollar bills. This offering was readily accepted. What he received in exchange was not sanity or forgiveness, but forgetfulness, and a sloppy embrace with the aforementioned Chaos.
Thus, from a confusing current of impotent thoughts that had flowed unceasingly through his mind, the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat bobbed to the surface. Unmoored from any anchor of self respect, the current took him and he was swept away, unencumbered by dignity. It may be that every ghost that he had ever known visited him that night, but nothing they could say could get a grip on him before he was pushed away by the surge. If guilt was a rock, he glided over rocks. If regret was a maelstrom, he eddied till the exit. If shame was a cataract, he took the plunge into deep pools below. When he, at last, reached the end of the mad cascade down the mountain, he was pushed out to sea and drowned himself, far beyond observation, intervention, or memorial.
His way worked, at least until he awoke. Then, he would do it again.
Inside the cafe, in the tidy pocket of order, we began to be aware of the body by the dumpster. We would never have recognized this man, but for the cowboy hat fallen from his head, tipped open like a imploring palm. We knew him as the former barista, not our favorite, the Lisping Barista, who moved effortlessly between the cash register, espresso machine, and fridge; but the other one, the one who didn’t know how to make fancy coffees, but never stiffed you in your change and gave you all the refills you wanted. We knew that man, but we didn’t know him. We only knew the hat, the self conscious drawl, the little he could do for us then, and the much he demanded now.
He was just a body by the dumpster. He had became as much an apparition as the ghosts who haunted him. We watched him intently as we averted our eyes. As the days went on, his body shrank more and more, while its effect grew larger. It spoke through the set of silent lips. It looked at us through the impertinent scorn of a blank stare.
There was much debate, within the Epiphany Cafe, over what should be done. Some counseled compassion. Through him, they said, we became human. We understood his fears, even though he never told us them. We sympathized with his refutation of everything, even though we would never do the same. It was as if we had been initiated into a mystery. We exchanged meaningful glances, pleased with ourselves, as if we had performed some trick for an eternal reward. We were a chorus of affirmations to everything we imagined him asserting. We spoke of him with the air of obsequious sycophants, so our flattery compensated his humiliation. He influenced the moral tone of our world as though he had the power to distribute honors, treasures, or pain; but he gave us nothing but distant, unuttered contempt.
Others objected to the body’s presence. It was an affront to our acceptability, a risk to our security, a burden on our property values. We looked to Kenilworth’s Town Selectman to do something about it. The Town Selectman looked to the Town Cop. The Town Cop looked to the Geeky Guy, who was the owner of the property near the dumpster. The Geeky Guy looked to the Lisping Barista, not because she possessed any authority, but because he was always looking at the Lisping Barista, and would never want to do anything of which she would not approve. The Lisping Barista looked to Chai Latte because Chai Latte was her new boyfriend and she thought he could do anything. Chai Latte, who was the ne’er-do-well son of the Town Selectman, looked at his father and felt relieved that, for once, someone else was a bigger pain in his father’s ass than he was. He said he should be left alone.
“Don’t hassle the guy,” said Chai Latte. “He’s just trying to live his life.”
“There you go,” said the Lisping Barista, “I told you Chai Latte was a nith guy. Everyone thinkth heath juth a drug dealer.”
Was it even possible to tidy the mess by the dumpster, or was the very presence of a dumpster a concession that there were some things that could not be fixed? We had it good here, in the Epiphany Cafe, everything was finally right. Perhaps the only thing that kept it in order were the walls that kept the chaos out. As Schrodinger might say, a stalwart membrane is necessary for life.
While everyone was busy looking at everyone else in the Epiphany Cafe, most failed to look at the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat and consider what he really needed. Some brought food, but with the dumpster nearby, he didn’t need food. Some tried to get him to go to a shelter, but the dumpster provided shelter. Some even tried to talk, but the dumpster’s hulking presence was all the company he needed. Its cardboard boxes became his clothing. Its decay his perfume. As the buffalo was to the American Indian, as the seal was to the Eskimo, as a Salvation Army Thrift Store is to an urban hipster, so was the dumpster to the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat. But there was one thing the dumpster did not have. It could not provide alcohol, the one thing he most needed.
Fortunately, there was one person in the Epiphany Cafe who knew what he needed. She knew because she knew how to pay attention. She knew because, by crying the tears of God, she had acquired the generous, libertarian sensibilities of God. Every day, instead of buying a coffee at the cafe for a random customer, she would buy a bottle of vodka at the liquor store and leave it anonymously by the dumpster. She reasoned: just as God provides seeds and worms for the birds of the air, and soil and sun for the flowers of the field; He made vodka for those who need it.