Rudy Koshar lives in Madison, Wisconsin, and has published short fiction and nonfiction in Guernica, Stockholm Review of Literature, Montreal
Review, Revolution House, Corium, Eclectica, and numerous other print and online magazines. His “Saving Hermann Hesse” was a Notable Story in
storySouth’s 2016 Million Writers Award competition. He’s won Guggenheim and other fellowships and was a Pushcart Prize nominee in 2015.
Matthew was a wood carver, homeless and a full-blooded Anishinaabe, whom everyone knew in the downtown neighborhood of a big city where I once had a pointless cubicle job. As I gained knowledge of my surroundings, I became aware of Matthew, who would strike up a conversation with anyone willing to listen. He always carried several small blocks of wood with him, which, as I learned later, he picked up here and there from people who had learned of his considerable skill as a carver. He carved with a three-blade pocketknife, which he’d inherited from his
grandfather. Matthew would carve something interesting, an animal figurine or a human face, and return the block of wood to the person who’d given it to him. People paid him money, and he always made a show of refusing payment until, with a theatrical gesture, he threw up his hands in concession and pocketed the bills. That’s what he lived on, and what allowed him to get gloriously drunk whenever it suited him.
Several weeks before I got to know him well, Matthew sat next to me at a public fountain near my office. I was in the habit of having my lunch outside when the weather was nice. At first I thought Matthew was going to ask for spare change, and I looked around to see if there was a more suitable spot. But it was a beautiful May day and the square was quite crowded with people who had escaped their cubicles and shops, thirsty for sunshine after winter’s parched darkness. So I remained at my spot as Matthew talked to me.
“Too bubbly, ain’t she?” he said.
I was new to big city life—I was raised in a small town and educated at a small Midwestern liberal arts college in the heart of nowhere—and friends had warned me not to look directly at street people or engage them in conversation. But there was something about Matthew’s voice I found inviting, so against my better judgment, I responded. “Pardon me?”
“The fountain. A little too bubbly, ain’t she? Too blonde and bouncy and cheery. Like a homecoming queen who’s addicted to exuberance. Makes you tired just bein’ around her, huh?”
I learned from our ensuing conversation that Matthew not only made lovely detailed figurines out of wood, but he also had a special relationship with ordinary objects on the street. I’d once taken a sociology class and remembered Max Weber’s concept of “elective affinity.” That’s what Matthew had, an elective affinity, or resonance, with things. In short: he talked to them, and they talked back. The fire hydrant, a lamppost, a shop window—he engaged them all in conversation.
My first thought was that the man should be on medication or even institutionalized. I asked around in the office about Matthew, wondering if he was a little “off.” Newcomers shrugged with disinterest. But the old-timers took umbrage at my suggestion. They’d developed a deep affection for Matthew, and wouldn’t hear of his being mentally unbalanced. Instead they insisted he had an insight into the world of material objects that was uncanny. Several colleagues with whom I’d discussed Matthew had a number of his wood figurines on their desks.
I became curious about Matthew, the wood carver who talked with the material world. I began seeking him out at lunchtime. Most days I found him in the vicinity, and if he wasn’t already chattering away with someone, I made a point of striking up a conversation. Soon I began bringing him small blocks of wood, which I’d bought at a local woodworking shop, and after a few months I had several of his figurines on my desk. There was a Labrador retriever’s face, which Matthew carved after I’d told him I still missed a Labrador I’d had as a kid. There was a gnome, which I thought was so artfully done I sent it to my mother, who I knew would find a place for it with her other figurines and knickknacks on the mantel at home. At times, it was frightening to watch Matthew wield his small carving knife. There was alcohol on his breath and his eyes were glassy. His speech didn’t slur—he was always quite articulate—but there was nonetheless something about him that made him both present and distant, there but not there. Still, his cuts were perfect, his dirty fingers moved with grace, and as he described what he was doing, a small elegant figure would emerge from a rectangle of maple or pine.
Matthew told me that the wood figurines he carved already existed. He was Anishinaabe, he reminded me, and he believed that woodcarving simply freed figures from their pre-life deep within nature. The woodcarver was nothing more than a liberator, he said, who through skill and determination made visible to the human world what the spirits had already created before the beginning of time. I thought that was a fascinating idea, and soon afterward I bought a small pocket carving knife much like Matthew’s. One day at lunch I asked Matthew if he would teach me how to carve, and he readily agreed. So soon I not only brought Matthew the occasional block of wood—he had many others, which he stuffed into the tattered army jacket he wore every day no matter the weather—but I also brought a block or two for me to practice on.
My first clumsy efforts at carving resulted in several painful finger cuts and not a little frustration. Matthew would smile sympathetically when he saw me show up for our lunchtime lesson with a bandage or two on my fingers. Soon I achieved better results, and though the small figures I carved looked juvenile compared to Matthew’s work, he nodded approvingly at what I produced. I began consulting woodworking videos on the Web to learn more, and I would report to Matthew how a certain carver did a wide stop cut or used an undercut to create shadow effects in high relief. Matthew would often nod in agreement but at other times simply shrug and say, “Here’s how I learned to do it.” I always followed Matthew’s lead on such matters, and quickly discarded what I’d learned from the video if it contradicted his technique.
It was during these practice sessions that I learned Matthew’s deepest respect was reserved not for his carvings but for the ordinary things of the street with which he communicated. “Why?” I asked, offended by the idea that in Matthew’s world, a graffiti-scarred concrete wall might occupy a higher position in his value system than a beautifully executed woodcarving of a salmon or sea otter. Matthew stared at me for a moment and smiled.
“We are the Anishinaabeg,” he said with a faraway look in his eyes. “Beings made out of nothing. We have a special place in our hearts for these beings, these things, who must create their personalities on their own. The wood statues already exist. But the things of the street—these things of metal, glass, and plastic—have to be made. That’s why I talk to them, to help them fashion themselves. Help them become.”
I’d long stopped thinking about Matthew’s habit of talking to Dumpsters and streetlights. I had accepted it as a quirk or oddity, the relatively harmless effect of living without access to decent health care or medication and counseling. An elective affinity gone wrong. But now I realized that Matthew’s habit wasn’t just a colorful side effect but something he took very seriously. “So what do they say to you?” I asked.
“That fire hydrant?” he said, pointing to a red hydrant not far from where we were sitting. “He’s actually a neat freak, did you know that?”
I looked from Matthew to the hydrant and smiled. Was he pulling my leg? Giving the white college boy a run for his money? Was he playing the exotic native to my gullible, authenticity-seeking tourist? “A fire hydrant that’s a neat freak?”
“Who is a neat freak, my friend. Who is a neat freak.”
“I don’t understand.”
“That hydrant is one of the unhappiest creatures around,” he said as he carved what would turn out to be the face of an adorable child. “He likes things neat as a pin but he has dogs pissing on him all the time. College students throw up on him. He’s happiest when the fire department has to use him, but not for reasons of heroism. He likes to be used in a fire because he gets a thorough cleaning—all that water and overspray, you know? Better than drenching rain, he says, although rain’s okay for him too.”
I shook my head, not quite believing what I’d heard. “How about that streetlamp,” I said, pointing up above us. My question contained a dare. I wanted to challenge Matthew to see how extensive his knowledge was.
Matthew shook his head knowingly. “You can’t talk to him. He thinks he’s above everything and everybody. Thinks he’s the only one illuminated about the world. Stuck-up son-of-a-bitch he is,’ said Matthew, who spat on the pavement and resumed carving. Then he added, “only reason I keep him around is he’s useful at night out here on the street.”
I learned much more that day about Matthew’s thing-world. The shop window across the street was all about transparency, said Matthew, but if you talked to her long enough, “you find she’s as fake as a Hummel figurine.” Stop signs were mostly jackbooted thugs, but Yield signs had a pleasing, tolerant manner. He had great respect for awnings because they were colorful and useful and asked only to be mended when torn. And doors were mysterious beings who created borders between here and there, this and that. “You go through doors, close them and open them. They keep us apart and bring us together. Doors are what humans are about. Just ask a door some time. She knows a hell of a lot.” There were few items in the street about which Matthew didn’t have an opinion. Objects for which he had no definition or description had kept to themselves, he said, and he left them to their own devices.
My carving lessons continued with Matthew, as did my conversations with him about lampposts, windows, and benches. I soon noticed that my walking pace had slowed; it was impossible not to ponder the fate of a retaining wall or a plastic sign over the entrance to a convenience store. I found myself wondering about the emotional life of electrical wires. I ran my hand along a fence surrounding a school playground to see if it was ticklish (I couldn’t tell). When I passed a cement flowerpot, I touched not the flowers but the pot itself. I was showering mundane objects with the attention a naturist reserves for plants and insects. I had no illusion I could communicate with parking meters or windowsills, and I confess that even then I was skeptical about Matthew’s talent. But there was little doubt that as my woodcarving skill increased so too did my awareness of the everyday life of objects.
Then one day Matthew didn’t show up for our regular lunchtime session. At first I assumed it was a temporary absence. I guessed he’d spent the night in the drunk tank at a nearby police station, or he’d tied one on and had slept late on a park bench in another part of town—and God knows how he’d ended up there. But then three, four days went by, and Matthew’s uncharacteristic absence became more worrying. I asked a few of Matthew’s homeless friends, but they knew nothing of his whereabouts. I asked co-workers, but they too knew nothing and didn’t seem concerned. “It’s happened before,” said Jeannine, my supervisor, a woman in her fifties who gave Matthew’s figurines to her grandchildren as stocking stuffers at Christmas.
I was unconvinced. It seemed to me that Matthew’s absence this time was different and more serious, but when I tried to think logically about the matter, all I could come up with was a vague sense that street life had changed. Even then, I was skeptical of my feelings. A green and white striped awning in the neighborhood seemed to sag more than usual. Was I crazy to think it looked depressed? I thought I saw the haughty streetlamp flicker a bit when it shouldn’t have—at lunchtime on a bright summer day. Could have been nothing more than an electrical glitch, I told myself. Was that shop window looking haggard? The fire hydrant more anxious than usual? I pushed away such thoughts as I sat and ate my lunch in the park. When I pulled out my piece of wood and began to carve, I looked up constantly, expecting Matthew to appear. I know now I should have trusted my instincts and recognized how darkness had descended on Matthew’s thing-world.
Months crept by, and I began to feel Matthew would never return. Then, as I left the park after another lunch by myself, Edgar, an old man, homeless and with no front teeth, grabbed my arm. “Edgar,” I said a little cautiously since I had never been comfortable around him in the past. “What can I do for you?”
“He ain’t comin’ back,” said Edgar, drawing a bony finger across his throat.
I gulped hard. “How do you know?”
“Heard it from somebody who’s in the know.”
“Are you saying he’s dead? He’s been killed? How did it happen? Who told you this?”
“Never reveal your sources,” cackled Edgar in a malevolent laugh that made his toothless gap look deep and black. “And I don’t know the circumstances. Only the outcome.” Edgar stood there, swaying a bit, acting as if all he’d done was to report on the weather.
“Got some spare change, there?” he asked after a few moments. “For an old pal. And for the info.” Edgar held out a gnarled filthy hand.
I took out my billfold and saw I had only a ten-dollar bill. I shrugged, and gave him the money, and saw him straggle off. I felt dazed, and for a moment anger welled up inside me. But soon it passed, and I was left with a feeling of loneliness deeper and blacker than Edgar’s gaping mouth.
Should I trust his information? The question gnawed at me all afternoon. Edgar was about as disreputable as you could be in the rough honor system that governed street life. Matthew himself had told me so. He said Edgar lied and cheated and did whatever was necessary to ensure a steady supply of cheap red wine. But the two men seemed to share a bond. One was a sinner, the other a saint, and each needed the other for definition and contrast, like chiaroscuro in a painting. And if Edgar showed a lack of concern over Matthew’s passing, that was consistent with the thick-skinned codger Matthew had described to me. I was inclined to believe the old wino.
I had to conclude Matthew was no more, and his passing affected me deeply. I shared what I’d heard with people at the office, and everyone expressed their sadness. But no one felt as sad as I did, or at least it seemed that way to me. Yet still I remained hopeful. Out on the street I asked other homeless people if they could confirm Edgar’s story and if he had family or friends who needed to be informed of his presumed death. No one could help me. After several days of asking around about him, I was ready to give up. Then something truly surprising happened. I started up a conversation with a mailbox, thinking it would be a sure source of news or gossip. To my utter amazement it was. She had a pleasing voice reminiscent of a kindly woman in her forties who had been my fourth-grade teacher. She told me it was true, Matthew was gone. Stabbed by a gang member who mistook him as a police informer.
“Will you miss him?” I asked the mailbox.
There was silence for a few moments, and I assumed the conversation was over, but then I heard a sniffling sound, barely audible but unmistakable. “He will be missed by us all,” she said, her voice cracking. “We are all desperate with grief.”
I nodded and waited for more, but the mailbox had fallen silent. As I walked away I caught myself and stopped. What had I just done? I’d been talking to a mailbox. Commiserating with her. A mailbox. And she had given me the sad information I’d wanted. I couldn’t sleep that night, and I felt scared. Was I going crazy? Or had this really happened? Had I somehow picked up Matthew’s affinity for speaking with things in the same way I’d learned woodcarving from him?
Soon I began extending my lunch hour and returning to my cubicle late. After I ate I carved, and I was becoming quite good at it. I started giving figurines to anyone passing by, especially to young mothers with children. I made whimsical designs that appealed to youngsters—a laughing seal, a goofy tiger, a dog with a toothsome smile. Sometimes I made an effort to carve Matthew’s face on a block of wood, but I wasn’t satisfied with these attempts, so I threw them away. On my way back to the office, I chatted with the objects Matthew had known. My favorite was the mailbox, not only because she had sadly confirmed my worst fears, but also because of her sweet, soothing voice—a balm to my mourning.
One day, I walked over to Jeannine’s office and gave my two-week notice. She didn’t seem upset, and I wasn’t concerned she wasn’t. She knew I was bored, and I knew my performance had gone from merely adequate to less than satisfactory to piss-poor. I had a bit of savings, not much, and I could always call my younger brother, who was doing well as a slumlord. But I refused to sink that low. Instead I used my savings to pay my rent, and when my account reached zero, I closed the door to my apartment and left. I took a backpack with some spare clothes and toiletries, my carving knife, several small blocks of wood, and one of the first figurines Matthew had carved for me, a sea eagle in the abstract style of Pacific Northwest native art.
I was on the street. I started sleeping on park benches or heating vents or under Interstate overpasses—wherever the homeless pieced together their precarious lives. A lot of homeless people I encountered distrusted me at first. I was too educated, too new, too scrubbed looking even after several weeks of living outdoors. Some may have thought I was with the municipal drug squad or I was a journalist gathering material for a story. I tried my best to avoid confrontation. At first I stayed away from alcohol, but soon the deadening effect of cheap wine and whisky became something I appreciated and sought out. I made a point of avoiding violence, though that was difficult when interacting on a daily basis with people who had an addiction or were mentally unstable. A fight might erupt, a guy high on whatever would start slashing with a knife or a shard of glass, and someone, often a bystander, would get hurt. The scar over my right eye, which I got several months into my new life on the street, marked my introduction to such danger. But I escaped the worst, and it helped that some folks recognized me as Matthew’s friend. People remembered him fondly, and spoke of him with a certain reverence. I even learned that several homeless men and women carried a figurine or two Matthew had given them. I often felt I lived under a kind of protective aura Matthew had conspired to leave for me.
When the weather was nice, I sat in the park where I had met Matthew, not far from the office where I once worked. When I could, I sat on the same bench Matthew and I had shared. I usually chose the spot I had occupied, thinking it would be presumptuous to sit where he regularly sat. But soon I slid over and I surveyed the park from his perspective.
It was an education to watch my former colleagues’ reaction to me as they came into the park to have their lunch or just to escape the stifling monotony of their jobs. At first, they would strike up a conversation, ask me how I was doing, was everything okay. Some would joke about what they called my little experiment away from work. Others looked at me with a pitying expression. Some looked angry, as if I were questioning their work and lives by the life I’d chosen. I felt no hostility toward them and no desire to return to my cubicle. I was happy to sit in the sunshine or find any shelter necessary to escape the rain or snow, and I was willing to put up with the numerous discomforts of street life. I sat and carved. I walked around a lot. I read discarded newspapers or spent time in the public library reading books. I got an occasional meal or night of sleep at a homeless shelter.
And I talked to the streetlight, which turned out to be more accessible and less full of himself than Matthew had assumed; to the mailbox, who would convey juicy bits of information about neighborhood goings-on in a voice that never failed to please me; and to the fire hydrant, whose anxiety I came to realize was partly street theatre. I developed a special affection for a nearby newspaper kiosk whom Matthew had liked because he was the neighborhood curmudgeon. He was gruff in an entertaining way, and unerringly rude. He trusted no one, and scoffed at each new automobile style or clothing fashion. In all these things I heard Matthew’s voice, felt his presence, and so they became my only true friends.