Thursday, 8 May 2008

'The Odd One Out'

His name was Donald.

He sat in the far end of the tram, huddled in the corner--as far away from the crowd as possible. His work demanded privacy.

With a nervous look he hastily pulled a newspaper out of his worn briefcase. In truth, it only contained this single newspaper. His wife liked to believe it contained more--secret, important documents, for a job with the law firm that employed him, perhaps? But no.

Still, this newspaper could be called ‘important’, for it was so to him, if not to anyone else. It would be difficult to explain this to his wife, though. He was certain she would not understand the logic behind it. Besides, his work required absolute secrecy, and it was safer to let her think he merely worked in a law firm than to tell the truth.

And so he pulled out the paper and poured over it. He had been looking forward to this moment all day. It was the whole reason behind his going out, in fact. Yes, that morning he had woken as anyone would. He had lain in his soft bed a moment, refusing to admit morning had come and he needed to leave that place of comfort, and then had suddenly remembered--in a flash--he had very important, exciting things to do that day.

He had jumped out of bed quickly and hurried about his business, hardly stopping to eat. His poor wife had stared at him in half surprise as he brushed past her with a distracted, ‘Good morning, dear--goodbye, dear,’(only half surprise, because she had grown used to her husband’s eccentricities) and had returned to her own affairs as he whisked out the door to greet the world that anxiously awaited him.

He liked to greet that world with a smile, but always found this difficult to accomplish, for his attempts at smiling generally resulted in very strange expressions that seemed to suggest their possessor was more nervous and afraid than joyful and friendly. Sometimes he would stand in front of the mirror and practise his smile, but after a while felt very plastic and couldn’t muster up enough true good feeling to create any smile but a false, empty one, and so he would give up. For that moment, anyway. He would always return to the practice later.

And so that day too he greeted with a hapless expression of happiness mixed with confusion--and of course mystery, for is that not why he was there?

He had made his way carefully to each newsstand in the street. He was quite proud of himself, for, despite his eagerness, he had managed to carry himself like a man without a care in the world, like one who simply wanted to buy a paper without any ulterior motives--or at least he liked to think he carried himself this way; in fact, he had no idea how he appeared to the rest of the world, and the fear that he might have been found out made him more nervous and affected his smile greatly.

Now he sat, as has been said, in the far corner of the tram, studying that precious paper he had saved for this moment. All day long he had been waiting in agony to see what wonders this paper would hold for him, and now his desires would at last be satiated.

Quickly, he flipped through the pages, bypassing all the major articles--and even the minor ones--at last finding what he sought: the crossword puzzle.

Yes, the crossword puzzle, for this was what held so much meaning to Donald, above anything else in that paper. What use did he have with so many headlines? ‘WAR WITH IRAQ IS NEAR.’ ‘NEW REPORT SAYS JACKSON HAD CURSE PUT ON SPIELBERG.’ Gossip! All of it, whether serious or not--it was all gossip, to Donald. No, the truth lay hidden deep between the lines, beneath the surface. The truth, in fact, lay in the crossword.

Again, Donald was quite sure no one else would understand this fact. He was quite surprised with himself, even, for happening to figure it out. After all, surely he was a rarity for doing it. Perhaps he was even a ‘chosen one’. The thought often occurred to him. He was intelligent enough to understand he was different from those who surrounded him. He felt that perhaps he was marked out--marked out for something wondrous, something powerful.

What was this truth that lay in the crossword?

In honesty, Donald himself wasn’t sure. That was the point of him searching with such fervent analysis. He had done this with many others. There were messages in those crosswords--codes hidden in the answers to the questions. It wasn’t always so. Many crosswords held no meaning at all. They were empty and useless, only there for frivolous entertainment--yet then there would be one out of hundreds that would hold another piece of the puzzle he had been attempting to unravel for the last six years. He was still unsure what this puzzle was, but that only added to the excitement. After all, what a discovery it would be when, one day, he would not only unlock the mystery of whatever it was that held such a mystery, but he would understand what it was that held that very mystery, too!

He didn’t waste time reading each and every crossword in existence, though. Of course, that would be next to impossible. At first he had tried this method. However, after some time, being the clever man he was, Donald discovered a pattern to the clues. Only certain crosswords would hold any meaning, and he soon knew which papers to buy in order to find each of these puzzle pieces. This came as quite a relief to his wife, he recalled now with a laugh.

‘I can’t understand your sudden obsession with newspapers,’ she had said when the papers first began filling the house, and her face was wrought with mild despair, as though this were just one of many things about her husband that confused her delicate head.

‘I like to be informed,’ he had told her, but she wouldn’t accept this.

‘At the rate you’re going, I think you’ll be more informed than anyone else in the world. I wouldn’t be surprised if you knew more than people on other planets, as well. This is insane.’

‘It isn’t insane,’ he had said, trying not to be offended, for he knew it was hard for her to understand so long as he refused her any valid explanation. ‘It’s simply a hobby of mine, now.’

She lost her temper at that point, pulling at her hair and screaming a little, melodramatically. ‘A hobby?’ she cried. ‘A hobby? How many hobbies do you have? How many obsessions do you develop? How many useless items end up taking refuge in our house as a result of your “hobbies”?’ Donald had taken a moment to consider this, but she decided he didn’t deserve such time. To aid him in his consideration, she had dragged him about the house, pointing out each ‘hobby’ she had ‘endured’. Piles of cardboard lay in what he referred to as his ‘office’, waiting to be used for some reason or other; dozens of photographs of kangaroos were tacked onto one wall, with several of porpoises on another; some hundred pens and pencils lay in a tin box on the floor, next to stacks of books about the history of Greenland; and now boxes of newspapers filled the room as well. What was he to say? How could he explain that all these things were important?

‘Alexandra,’ he had said gently (for that was her name) ‘Alexandra, you have your own interests. Let me have mine.’

‘I do let you,’ she told him. ‘I’m sure many other women would put up with far less than I have, when you give no explanation for any of it. It’s enough to drive a person mad, sometimes, the way you come home in secret with some new piece of junk--I’m sorry, some new piece of….’ She had stopped there, unsure of what to say, for ‘junk’ really was the only word that came to mind (or at least the only polite word that came to mind) and then she had begun in a new vein. ‘When I think of the life I could have had…I was destined for something more…sophisticated. My life should have been more…exotic. I always felt I would end up with an artist of some sort--someone important, or someone who would be very passionate and…and well you….’ She had looked at him sadly then and hugged him suddenly. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘I do love you, Donald. You just…confuse me….’

He thought about this as he sat there in his corner of the tram, and he shook his head slightly with that strange attempt at a smile that so characterised him. He knew she loved him. He knew her harsh words really did only spring from her confusion and frustration, and he wished he could make her understand everything so that those harsh words would no longer be spoken. But how was he to explain it all when he hardly understood it himself?

He sighed and looked up quickly, staring out the window to the left of him, then allowing his eyes to dart back and forth between the window and the other people on the tram. A young woman had sat down next to him, at this point. He caught her eye accidentally, and she seemed to give him a questioning look. Nervously he looked away and returned to his crossword, folding the paper to a quarter of its full size and pressing it tightly and frantically, ensuring it would lie flat on his knee. He then proceeded to hurry through it with a pen and filled in any answers he knew. Every now and then, though, he would feel the eyes of the girl on him. He looked up sometimes and she would dart her gaze out the window, as though she were looking past him and not at him. Hm…did she know?

Donald began to feel anxious at this. He reached up and pulled down the edge of the dark brown hat that rested on his pale head with its thinning hair. The hat flipped up uncertainly on one side as though it were slightly crippled. He pulled at the collar of his long off-white trench coat and it hung very loosely on him--for in fact it was two sizes too large for him and almost swallowed him in its mass. In particular, he often found himself nearly tripping, for the flaps of the coat would get caught between legs shrouded in black pinstripe trousers a size too big for him.

Alexandra often reproached him for this outfit of his--he wore it often. It, like the newspapers and the pictures of kangaroos, frustrated her greatly.

‘I don’t understand why you always wear that same outfit,’ she would say.

‘I like it.’

‘It makes you look like you’re trying to be Dick Tracy.’

‘Is that so bad?’

‘Well, if you’re trying to be a private detective, I don’t think you’re very well-disguised,’ she would say dryly. Then, ‘Couldn’t you at least buy clothing your own size? Are you trying to make yourself look like an empty suit or something?’

No, no. However, it was good for his invisibility factor--for that was something very important when your work required such absolute secrecy as his did. Although he did find it rather disturbing that she should think he was badly disguised for detective work. Not that he was a detective, necessarily, but…what was he, anyway? He puzzled over this question for a moment--for he hardly knew, himself--and then noticed the girl next to him was staring at him again.

What did she want? Was she a spy? Or did she simply find him interesting? Or strange, perhaps. If so, he wouldn’t be surprised. She wouldn’t be the first. Sometimes even he thought perhaps he was a bit strange. Here he was, doing the work he did; an ageing man with a round face hidden by glasses that had somehow survived from a dead era, dressed in a habit that stood out like a sore thumb amid the flashy shirts of shiny material so many of the others around him wore; and somehow married to a woman named Alexandra of all names, a lofty woman with high ideals and exotic tastes, dark hair and beautiful eyes--a woman he knew could have ended up with any other man in the world, yet somehow Donald, of all people, had won her affection.

He dressed oddly, he couldn’t smile properly, his work was ambiguous even to himself, yet…somehow he knew he was set out in the world! He was destined for something great--he could feel it!

He was so caught up in these reassuring thoughts that he was quite startled when he realised the doors of the tram had opened at his stop. In a rush, he gathered up his things and ran to the exit--nearly tripping over his observant neighbour in the process, not to mention over his coat--and stepped off the tram just in time. There he paused for a moment and looked about him. It was quite dark, and he wondered what Alexandra would say when he returned. No doubt she would wonder where he had been all day, why he was returning home so late, and all he would have to show for his day would be that single newspaper and an otherwise empty briefcase. She would understand none of it, no matter how hard she tried, and he would be unable to explain any of it to her.

He sighed at this and walked along the footpath connecting with the tram stop until he reached the curb of the street on the other side, where he decided to sit down for a moment. He pulled up his knees, wrapped his arms around them and rested his chin on them with a forlorn expression flickering on his face in the light of the passing cars.

What did others really think of him? he wondered. Perhaps they thought he was an anachronism--some strange messenger from another era: an era when his sort of work was considered more fashionable and was appreciated; when men were allowed to be as mysterious as he was, and their wives didn’t ask so many questions or become frustrated with them when they couldn’t provide all the answers; when others dressed somewhat like he did, and understood the value of those mysteries he was attempting to unravel--and of course this was the tricky part, for he couldn’t place which era he must belong to; he would need to know what mystery he was attempting to solve first before he could know where it belonged. After all, different eras spawn different enigmas.

Perhaps, though, Donald thought to himself on that curb at night, perhaps I’m not so strange for all of my mysteries. After all, the world runs on enigma, doesn’t it? Everyone is busy attempting to solve their little mysteries each day. Isn’t that what life is all about? Aren’t we all waiting to solve the mysteries of the universe, of life? We all search for answers, but we rarely find the ones that satisfy us. So how am I unusual for my own mysteries? Why do we all have to be the same? Why aren’t I allowed my own little eccentricities, just because they don’t match those of other people? Why do I need to be explained? Can’t I simply exist, without any rhyme or reason?

And he realised yes, that was the whole problem: people could not accept him without explanation. Everyone needed to understand him. How was it that they couldn’t see how strange they appeared to him as well, in all their attempts to make him seem the oddity?

‘My name is not simply Donald,’ he said, shaking his head sadly as he stood up again with a kind of melodrama that suggested he was experiencing an epiphany; ‘it’s Donald Quixote.’

He brushed off his coat and set off down the street, then, to meet the wife whom he loved, even though she didn’t understand him, and he pondered the new clues he had found in the crossword puzzle that night, concluding that they were very important, indeed.

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