Qaal

My first observations of Rhosonny
are indelible: shaved head,
hyper, nervous energy,
black cloth eyepatch, black
bandanna tied on his head,
broken smile, an intense
awareness of every movement,
combat boots, jeans, blue cotton
shirt and an unlined denim jacket.

It was zero degrees F outside,
not like here now where a breeze
barely mitigates the heat even
in the shade of a gazebo.

You could die from it
if you fell asleep outside.
Even he could die from it,
physically powerful as he was.

I once saw him put palms out on the
walls of a hallway, lift himself up
and with both feet in one kick
knock a steel door off its hinges.

It was much colder than that time
long, long ago — it must have been
at least three or four years —
he had been dropped off on the edge
of Shasta in the middle of the night.

Later they told him the temp was 17 F.
He climbed into a thicket, found piled Leaves
and discarded newspapers and covered
himself and his guitar to go to sleep,
afraid the cold might hurt his guitar
he wrapped his arms around it and
held it close to keep it warm
the way he would a woman
if she were here now.

At sunrise, stumbling through
the branches, shaking off leaves
he stepped out onto the parking lot
of a diner, where several hunters,
their pickup trucks arranged together
stood in thick layers of flannel
around a fire in a 50 gallon drum
complaining about how cold it was.

They all went silent and stared
as he approached them. One of them
said, “were you sleeping over there?”
Rhosonny was sure they were going to
give him a hard time. On the other hand,
what if they did? What would happen?
So he said, “yeah, I slept right over there.”
“Did you leave your sleeping bag over there?”
“I don’t have a sleeping bag.”
Silence while they all made eye contact
with each other. Then the same guy,
“Would it be ok with you if I bought you
breakfast inside?”
Rhosonny, “oh, no, I really couldn’t accept.”
“Aren’t you hungry?”
“Well, yes, I’m very hungry.”
“C’mon in,” and bought him breakfast.

But here, in New York, this winter,
It was another couple of notches colder.
He never could be clear about how he first
started talking to Qaal. My guess is that he
simply doesn’t remember.

But this night,
when I was in that same gangster bar
where Rhosonny, Qaal, and Rosie
were sitting down to a chess board
on the next table,

Qaal was telling Rhosonny that he
was a very good chess player. That
nobody in this place has ever been able
to beat him and Rhosonny saying that
he didn’t mind loosing because playing
with someone who can beat him improves
his game, but that he really isn’t a very good
chess player. When he checkmated Qaal
in 10 moves, Rosie, a very large man
in every dimension, said, “what the fuck
is up with you? You playing some kind of game?”
Rhosonny laughed and said, “yeah, chess.
But I get your point. It seems that Qaal and I
are using different measurement systems,
and that they’ve never been calibrated
with each other.” Qaal just stared at him
with very hard eyes, his copious
dreadlocks barely swaying on his marble bust.
After a while, Qaal, without movement
or change in expression: “I’m from the
Bronx, and then they took me
and dropped me out of airplanes
into the jungles of Viet Nam.”

“Oh,” said Rhosonny, “I come from an upper-middle
white suburb near Los Angeles, called
Thousand Oaks.”

Rosie became very agitated.
Qaal and Rhosonny locked eyes
and looked into each other calmly
for some time for which there is no
measurement system, but even in
measurable time was at least
a couple of minutes, when Qaal…

Let me tell you just a little bit about Qaal.
One time I saw him relaxing in this very bar.
Out of nowhere, without warning, for no
apparent reason, some guy just hauls off
and hits Quaal in the jaw, knocking his
head sideways. Qaal shook his head as
though trying to wake up and said,
“You know, I don’t usually let little girls hit me.”
The guy apologized and left.

Qaal, with his eyes locked on Rhosonny,
laughed, a belly laugh, hardly able to sit
and Rhosonny laughed and they both
put out hands, and shook
and, for a while at least, they were associates.