Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Gray Man

He came frequently to the library. The gray man.

He was of average height but well above average weight. His hair was missing except around the edges and it was a lighter gray than his skin.

The man’s color always looked bad to me. I thought him on the verge of heart failure. At least for a while. But for four years I saw him at least once a week, often more, and during that time he scarcely changed physically except for losing a few pounds here and there.

When I arrived at the library as a grad student, people spoke of the gray man with an intense dislike. He was retired from the university. An ex-professor. But he seemed not to have recognized the “ex” part. I had heard that he would pontificate and exasperate. He was said to demand services, in a loud voice. He sent staff members scurrying to fetch the articles and tomes he sought. And he never said, “thank you.”

People watched the gray man with clouded and hooded eyes when he walked in. It was those eyes that made me ask about him. And I was told. I got an earful. No one liked him. They wished he’d retired to Florida. Some said, “to Hell.”

The thing is, I rarely saw him speak during the time I was at the library, and then only in a monotone, almost a stale whisper in passing. For four years I saw him come in, saw him remove papers and volumes from the small black satchel he habitually carried and spread them out around him on a library table. I saw him rise ponderously on occasion to fetch more books and journals from the library shelves.

For four years I saw him scribbling notes on the various legal pads he owned. I saw him transferring snippets of information from one place to another. I never heard that he published an article from it, or even that he’d put the material together to submit. I thought, perhaps, that he was working on a book, but the research materials he used were too varied to reveal a subject. During all that time I scarcely saw him interact with the library staff; he spoke only when spoken too, and then not at length.

Over the years, the clouded looks the staff gave him changed, from irritation, to resignation, to tolerance, to pity. Even after I left that school I sometimes thought of the gray man. He might have a lost a few pounds outwardly, but he seemed to have lost a great deal of weight inside.

And I wondered. Did the looks of pity dissipate too? Did the gray man finally become as gray and ephemeral as a passing rain? Did anyone in the library notice when he stopped coming?
---
---

42 comments:

sandra seamans said...

As I read this, Charles, all I could think of was a ghost of lost dreams. I know that probably sounds stupid, but that was the feeling I got while reading.

Jo said...

Oh, gosh, I have seen people like that -- folks who retire and their whole identity is gone, so they continue with the activities they did while they were employed. They are ghosts in a way. Perhaps when The Gray Man passes on, people will continue to see him in the library for years to come, scribbling notes on the various legal pads and transferring snippets of information from one place to another.

G said...

Wow.

Its a little sad when you see people like that, continuing on with a comfortable routine just so that they could have that hold, however tenuous, to the present day reality of the day.

Kind of experienced something similar with my dad about a year before he passed away. It can be devastating to one's psyche when you're forced (or not, in the case of my dad, who was given a great latitude in making that decision) to retire before you're really ready to do so.

Charles Gramlich said...

Sandra, that's about the thoughts that occur to me in such a case too. Doesn't sound stupid at all.

Jo, I almost think it is from such folks that ghosts appear. They seem almost ghosts as they live.

G., I know. I sure hope I don't do that. I don't think I will. But when one lives a live doing certain things it must be hard to give them up or change your routine.

Ty Johnston said...

It sounds like a lonely life, but I didn't necessarily feel sad for the fellow. Sounded to me like he was doing what he wanted to be doing, and that's far better than some of us end up with. And at least he was getting out of the house; I've seen far too many seniors just sitting at home watching the tube all day as if waiting for their time to be up.

Perhaps he just liked to study different topics, or perhaps he was indeed working on a book or collection.

That's the kind of guy I would have wanted to talk to. He would have interested me. If he'd brushed me off, then fine, I'd go about my day. If not, he could make an interesting friend, at least a library friend.

Deka Black said...

To me is sad and strange. looks like the type of individual who, if is put away from his work, die slowly of to not know what to do.

David J. West said...

Interesting Charles-I especially liked your comment to Jo about ghosts. They all have a reason for doing/staying/being whatever. Living or not I find motivations fascinating, must be the writer in me.

Ron Scheer said...

Nicely told.

The academic world provides a home for a lot of eccentric behavior. Scholarship can be an isolating routine that feels comfortable to someone who is by nature anti-social. It can also encourage obsessiveness. Hard to tell then when that kind of eccentricity verges over into forms of dementia.

ivan said...

So many pigeon-grey men in pigeonhole Dilbert cubicles.

I left that set 32 years ago, but it seems by Murphy's law or something, that ones quest can take forever.
Mebbe I should have stayed grey...And solvent, boring bastard, but able to pay the bills instead of of "brilliant but broke."

Steve Malley said...

I'm not going to comment; I'm just going to sit here and think about what I read and smile... You done good! :)

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

That's a sad thought that he might've just faded away...

Charles Gramlich said...

Ty Johnston, it’s definitely hard to know. I felt kind of bad for him but who knows how he felt inside. He might have been perfectly satisfied with his life. Maybe he published that book. I guess I’ll never know since I cannot remember his name.

Deka Black, that was definitely what it seemed like, although it’s hard to know what was in his soul, of course.

David J. West, Me too. Motivations are the most interesting of things. I often wonder about them.

Ron Scheer, it’s good that there is a home for such folks. Sometimes I wonder if I’m one of them, but I know I’m not completely.

ivan, there always seem to be tradeoffs, with no guidebook to help you make decisions.

Steve Malley, thankee, man.

Alex J. Cavanaugh, better to burn out, than fade away. Or so they say at least.

Vesper said...

I think he did, Charles, I think he finally disappeared into the all-encompassing greyness... but, at the same time, this is probably just our perception. We might feel sorry for having ignored him, or having despised him, but maybe he was content with his reading, with his research... we'll never know...

This post is very touching, it has a good story in it. The writer in you, Charles, is never asleep...

laughingwolf said...

i was waiting for the big switch, something like: i have become that gray man :O lol

jennifer said...

Makes me think of Eleanor Rigby.

Gaston Studio said...

How sad that he was so set in his ways, he didn't seek out friendship in is old age. Perhaps life would have been kinder to him if he had.

Charles Gramlich said...

Vesper, thanks for the kind words. I appreciate that.

laughingwolf, I'm already thinking how I could turn it into a horror story, man. :)

jennifer, you know it does. That hadn't occurred to me.

Gaston Studio, Yes, I just can't see him living a life of partys outside of his grayness.

laughingwolf said...

no doubt you will, bud!

jodi said...

Charles, Don't you wonder what difference a few basic manners could have made in his life? Seems like the gray man just faded away...

Travis Erwin said...

Now you got me wondering and I never saw the fella.

ArtSparker said...

Sad to your own ghost while you are alive.

Charles Gramlich said...

Laughingwolf, indeed.

Jodi, I think he didn't learn manners because he always felt dominent over others, and by the time he needed them it was too late. That's my thoughts anyway. I don't know for sure.

Charles Gramlich said...

Travis Erwin, I wish I knew his name. In the modern age I might be able to google him.

Artsparker, truly so.

BernardL said...

All of us should have a little 'Gray Man' in us if we're lucky, where we can enjoy what we have available and the hell with what other people think about it. :)

cs harris said...

Wonderful vignette, Charles. Haven't we all had people like that in our lives, people we saw every day, who looked sad and apart, whose stories we never really knew, and then who passed out of our lives, still largely a mystery?

Charles Gramlich said...

Bernardl, I've got plenty in me. I think he pointed a mirror in my direction.

Candy, I guess we writers have to be glad for the mystery. Glad for the "wonder."

pattinase (abbott) said...

There are familiar faces at my library too. I think they live there and in fact it turned out a bunch of people live at our college library.

Jess said...

What a sad story. Sad that he was so unkind to people and sad that they didn't like him. I wonder what he had to share... that he didn't. I wonder what kind of professor he was? I wonder what all those papers were and what happened to them? Did he have kids? A family that felt about the same way the library staff felt? If you know more about this man, Charles... tell us!

Charles Gramlich said...

Pattinase, interesting. You'll have to tell us more.

Jess, I don't know anything else, and that is in itself a bit sad. I was so busy with grad school then that I let the opportunity to find out more about him slip away.

Barrie said...

My favorite line: "He might have a lost a few pounds outwardly, but he seemed to have lost a great deal of weight inside."

the walking man said...

I know you were much younger then but did it ever occur to you to simply ask him about himself or his work? It may have been a person of great wit and humor and the gray was a simple by product of his laughing at the loathing his presence inspired because he knew himself well enough to know how foolish that hate was,

Charles Gramlich said...

Barrie, glad you liked that one. I think it has a bit of resonance.

Mark, Today I quite likely would do that, but he did not seem terribly approachable, and I was, of course, very busy with graduate work. I always had time constraints so it was easy to ignore the urge to find out more.

X. Dell said...

Your narrator sounds like he goes to the library often enough to become the gray man.

Fascinating story setup. Then again, you are quite masterful at that.

Charles Gramlich said...

X-dell, if I rewrite this into fiction that might very well happen. I worked for a couple of years as a library floor supervisor. Almost 3 years.

Merisi said...

Somewhere, The Gray Man is in all of us. Depends on luck and circumstances if and how much he takes over.

Charles Gramlich said...

Merisi, I believe you're right there.

Travis Cody said...

Wow. This is true observation...first being open to seeing something, then describing what you see, and finally making an interpretation about what you see.

Erik Donald France said...

OH man, this seems like several "regulars" I've observed, and in some cases spoken to. Some of them are "out there" with said man.

Looking forward to the next cycle . . .

Lana Gramlich said...

As I librarian, myself, I have to say that I DO miss people when they stop coming. It might take a while to sink in, but I'll notice. I'm most saddened about a pleasant woman we used to see regularly. Her husband had come in the last time, quite a while ago now. I asked how his wife was doing, just making small talk, & he must have thought I'd known...Her cancer was progressing, quickly. <:(

Carole said...

This is a very good post. It makes me feel deep down. A host of emotions but mostly lonely,sad, and a something else that I can't quite put a name too.

Charles Gramlich said...

Travis Cody, thanks. I don't do a lot of memoir kind of stuff but I do enjoy it on occassion, even when it doesn't relate speficially to me. As in this case.

Erik Donald France, there's more than one person in all of us, maybe.

Lana Gramlich, ouch. I'm sorry to hear that. I'm sure some folks did notice the guy missing. Some probably didn't.


Carole, that's kind of how this situation left me feeling too, and that kind of emotion is very interesting to me as a writer.

Kate Sterling said...

Wow, Charles. This made me so sad. It was beautifully written.