It was late of an evening and I’d run out of milk and snacks. Besides, I wanted some fresh air.
That’s how it came about I was on my way to the local Daisy Mart before it closed at ten p.m.
You don’t get fog in the city much anymore. Too much traffic. There’s an excess of thermal currents from the abundance of people, moving vehicles and general busy-rush to keep temperatures on a more even keel.
So when one does encounter it, the moment can be special. This was such an occasion.
The temperature at that time of year was ticking over from winter’s frostiness to spring’s balmier breezes.
The rain-soaked grass from earlier in the day lay under the caress of a blanketing warmth.
Particles of air that had formerly been invisible were now rendered substantive.
If I left the car in the garage, the journey from my townhouse to the local variety store entailed a short walk of only a quarter-mile.
It was usually a pleasant enough excursion.
I’d jaunt up the roadway in my complex, then make a sharp-right turn parallel to the public thoroughfare heading south. A sidewalk ran along the base of a five-foot fence marking the edge of my neighbors’ backyards.
At the bottom of the block was a crossing at a traffic light leading to a mini-mall and my destination.
I could make the trek in my sleep. In fact, that’s more or less what I had been doing of late. Ever since my former live-in girlfriend de-camped from my house.
My mood had turned sour with the continuing lack of success in my artistic career. My frustration with lack of recognition was sending my emotions on a roller coaster ride. That’s what she said.
My begging her to stay got me nowhere.
Her final words echoed. “Don’t bother pleading with me anymore. I’m moving out to get my head straight. But you know we’ll always be friends.”
In fact, in reviewing my dealings with her, the word “don’t” came up so often, I’d begun to think of her name as “Don’t.”
I couldn’t get her voice out of my head.
“Don’t start with me again.”
“Don’t you dare.”
“Don’t bother trying to explain.”
“Don’t touch me.”
It had become a compulsion, going over and over our old arguments. My mind was in a fog as thick as any literal fog.
I knew very well my bitter reflections were my way of coping. I truly missed her and was unsure I’d ever find contentment again.
I was alone, walking along the pathway in my reverie until, in the distance, a smoky shape appeared.
Embodied in the form was onrushing locomotion of questionable intent.
Within seconds it was upon me and I was able to bring the image into focus.
I could make out a man riding a bicycle, dressed in what appeared to be a Burberry overcoat.
He drew up to my position, stopped and dismounted.
Aging, scruffy of appearance, with a goatee, moustache and tangled dark hair, he had the appearance of someone with whom I might not wish to be friendly.
When he signaled a desire to talk, I was at first wary, with my guard up.
But when he spoke, his voice was mellifluous, in a lower register, and kind.
He asked me how I liked the show.
“What show?” I was in doubt as to what he meant.
Had we both been watching the same television program that evening? How would he know what I was viewing?
Was it just a guess? Or was he a peeping Tom roaming the area, surreptitiously looking through inviting windows?
He pointed down the street. “The lights. The fog. The magic.”
Of course. It was spectacular and I said so.
He smiled. “I’m always gratified to hear that,” he said.
The words slipped out. “Are you taking credit for it?”
I said the question to make small talk, in no way taking him seriously.
“Of course. I’ve been doing it forever. I should be pretty good by now,” he said.
Uh-oh, a nut I thought.
There was a six-story seniors’ home immediately behind the townhouse complex in which I lived. I knew it to be more of a residence than an institution.
Was this one of the delusional inmates out for an evening spin?
“It certainly is beautiful. There’s no denying it,” I said.
“Watch. I’ll show you something,” he said. He pulled a foot-long bow out from an interior pocket in his greatcoat. Holding it in front of himself like a wand, he started stirring.
I looked in the direction he was facing.
Maybe it was a trick of the eyes. Maybe I was tired, hungry and light-headed. After all, I was on the way to the store for nourishment.
Maybe I had a cold and my sinuses were squeezing my optic nerves in some new and sight-altering way.
Maybe it was the time of year, the hour of the day, or the stage of my life, newly separated and alone again, that was making me susceptible.
In any event, the air started to swirl. The colors that had been impressive before now leapt and flashed.
Bright greens, yellows and reds, along with ochre whites all mixed as if in a paint pot.
Try as they might, they never melded. They held their own identities.
They shot out sparkles and flares of brilliance.
Their luminescence expanded then retreated; gathered strength and pulsed harder in successive waves.
The periphery of my vision glowed with embers.
“WOW!” I couldn’t help but say it.
Had he slipped me a drug?
No way. There was still a three-foot separation between us.
Okay, I’d play along. “So what are you, the master of fog or something?”
“That’s a pretty good description, yes,” he said.
“Funny, I would have thought of you as dressed in a top hat and tails, strolling the streets of England in the 1800s.”
“That was my all-time favorite milieu, I have to admit. One thing I’ve come to learn, though, is there’s a time and place for everything. That time has passed.”
“I guess it was on account of the switchover from coal-burning stoves to other less-polluting fuels.”
“That’s what the scientists would have you believe. But it had as much to do with unfortunate circumstances in my own life as anything else.”
Did this guy have a big ego or what?
But he dripped charm. I couldn’t refrain from being drawn in.
“Do you want to talk about it?” I asked.
“No.” It would bore you.
“Consider me a willing audience.”
“No, I know people can’t be bothered with stories like mine anymore.”
“That’s too bad.” I tried to show consideration.
“You bet. People don’t stop and admire my work as much as they used to.”
“What exactly is it you do?”
“I’m a fog harvester.”
As if I hadn’t known before, now I was sure he was whacko.
But so what? I wasn’t exactly on an even keel myself. “What do you harvest?”
“Surely it’s obvious.”
I could detect layers of meaning in the phrase. Regret, concern, playful humor.
“No, sorry, I don’t quite get it.”
“Mood. I harvest mood.”
“Of course you do.” Indeed, what else would a fog harvester cultivate as a crop other than mood. “You’re very good at it.”
“I know. I’m a professional at distilling, fermenting, nurturing and prolonging fog-induced moods.”
Caught up in his spell, I had to hear more.
“You say people are no longer as interested in your work as they used to be. If that’s the case, why do you still do it?” I asked.
“I’m an artist. An artist has to do what an artist has to do,” he replied.
Under the streetlamps, I thought I detected some extra moistening of his eyes.
“That makes you sad?” I queried.
“No, it was the word,” he said.
Again I was lost in the conversation. Even in the gloom, it must have shown on my face.
“Dew is the love of my life,” he said. “We used to be inseparable. A natural pairing. Like two peas in a pod. I’d sprinkle her with affection and she’d spring to life in the morning.”
I’d asked for it. I was apparently going to pay the price. The story of this man’s melancholy was about to come out.
“What happened?” I wondered.
“We were together for many centuries. I always knew I had rivals. There was one in particular she’d always taken a fancy to.”
Astonished that I was facilitating the fantasy, I was powerless to stop. “Who?” escaped my lips.
“You wouldn’t believe how much I appreciate your taking the time to listen to my story, young man. Most people are way to busy to be bothered with me anymore.”
I was pleased. I admit it. In retrospect, foolish as it sounds, a modest silly grin appeared on my face even as I wondered what I would hear next.
“Not so young, really, but I’ll let that pass. So again, if I may be so bold as to ask, who stole Dew away from you? He must have been some kind of special guy to get the better of you.”
I figured a little rebound flattery couldn’t do any harm.
“She was always attracted to the sun. One day she finally made her choice. I was odd man out. We still have a close working relationship. But it’s never been the same since.”
I was touched by his loss. “That’s too bad. I can only imagine how you felt.”
“She said I was too moody. And the sun, well he’s always sunny.” That put a wan smile on his face.
This was striking too close to home. “So you had to let her go? How did you adjust?”
“There were many bad times afterwards. Reality became distorted. Touch, sight, even sound were altered. I produced fog so thick in London, even the chimes of Big Ben got bent out of shape. Ahead became behind. Auditory orientation became a shifting polarity.”
Dare I ask? “Were those the Jack the Ripper years?”
“Oh yes, I still feel terrible about that. I spent decades trying to redeem myself.”
“But eventually you did?”
“You’ve seen what I accomplished. It’s been my greatest achievement. A major building block of world culture. Manet, Monet, Degas and their disciples? I was their inspiration.”
“The impressionists?” I immediately sensed the truth in what he was saying.
That didn’t alter the fact he was cuckoo. But what an engaging spin on reality. Still, I knew time was running short.
“Well, sorry, but I have to get to the store before it closes.”
He was looking straight ahead, admiring his work again.
I turned to appreciate the view once more in a shared moment of respect for what nature had wrought.
When I turned back, he was gone.
Not gone in the sense that he mounted his bike and rode off into the night.
There was no disturbance in the air.
No sense of movement out of the corner of my eye.
No sibilant hiss of rubber tires on wet concrete.
And certainly no “good-bye.”
No, vanished. As if he’d never been there.
He wasn’t discernible in either direction, up or down the laneway.
He could have disappeared into the fog, I suppose, but surely not that quickly.
Unless, of course, the mist was his accomplice. Or his to command.
I admit to being confused. I continued on my journey, walking to the store where I made my purchases in a distracted manner.
The shopkeeper who knew me moderately well from my many visits could tell I wasn’t my usual self.
“Anything wrong?” he asked.
“No, not really.” I shrugged off my daze and returned to the present. “In fact things are pretty good.”
I actually smiled for the first time in a long while. “I’ve had a moment. A brush with a mystery. An ephemeral encounter. Do you ever have those?”
Clearly this was dialogue outside the usual I’d-like-a-lottery-ticket-please variety.
He looked quizzical, but finally replied “All the time.” He was humoring me.
“Then you’re lucky,” I said, trying to jolly him along in turn.
I think we parted friends.