|| It must be agreed upon, at least on one level or another, that our lives are made up and counted down by days. Most of these days will normally prove to be meaningless spans of time, filled and consumed by the typical routines and rituals that help us get from one moment to the next. Some are more exceptional than most in the effect they have on our emotions and feelings, and will tend to stay with us for awhile, materializing amidst memories and dreams to motivate us in their own small way. But there are also the rare few, those unpredictable points in our lives that hit us with such force and intensity that the impact burns them deep into both our consciousness and the underlying regions beneath. Those are the days that we find ourselves living over and over again, whether we wish to or not, accidentally wandering into them as if they were as real and tangible as a crack in the sidewalk or a seldom ventured attic. Those are the days that make us who we are, and show us what we want to be.
The actual date escapes me, as most of them eventually do, but the day itself was one of those warm and comfortable ones that tend to scatter themselves with reckless abandon between the scorching summers and blustery falls. A young man lost in a city far bigger than his hopes and fears, I wandered the streets of this incomprehensible metropolis in what was slowly becoming a hopeless search for a job to pave the way to a career worth staying there for. I was still at that enviable age where optimism runs long and deep, and was therefore convinced that this day would bring about either change or direction, and indeed it would. It would grant me both.
It was during this endless quest for a place and a purpose that I happened upon a small group of people on a busy street corner amidst the mid-day rush, huddled around something that had garnered their attention. Their attentiveness had formed them into a tight circle of bodies and heads through which I was unable to spy the source of their attraction, but the apparent lack of movement or laughter amongst the crowd belied a lack of urgency or amusement within. I can not say when it was that this had begun, or how long of a time the crowd had gathered before my appearance. All I can attest to is my own eventual involvement, as an overwhelming curiosity drew me towards and then into the captive audience.
When I finally made my way through the transfixed crowd, I was greeted with the peculiar site that had drawn these people together at such a busy and frenetic time of the day. At their center stood a middle-aged man of unremarkable height and build, dressed in a once respectable suit that now appeared well worn and beaten. His hair and skin spoke of a man with concerns more pressing than public appearance, and his shoes were more scuff than polish. He stood with eyes and fists clenched ever so tight, and perspiration beaded across a tensely crimson face as he set intensely about the task that had drawn him his audience.
He was counting. Counting backwards. Counting down.
The relentless progression of age will not allow me the memory of the number in the countdown during which I joined the crowd, yet I can say with all faith that it was higher than I would care to start with under such conditions, and yet for him it was just one of many numbers on the path to none. The passion and urgency with which he spoke them in a forceful timber was enough to convince me of his desperate need to complete the sequence, yet the cause for it was only a mystery, an unnamable enigma lurking at the end of a string of integers. I dared not ask one of the other spectators the purpose of the countdown, as their uncharacteristic silence was enough to scare me into a similar role of silent observer. But their expressions told me that they also were uninformed of the purpose to this act, as there was no universal behavior amongst the onlookers that would convey a prevailing attitude. Most of the crowd simply stood and stared, emotionless expressions hiding inner moods. Quite a few would occasionally glance about them as I so obviously did, taking in the others around them, perhaps in hopes of attracting a knowing wink or comforting nod. Some attempted to reassure themselves with curios smiles of confused puzzlement that did little to mask the uncertainty within. Two elderly women had taken to sobbing gently, the hands not clutching handkerchiefs hugging them to one another as they watched and waited. One individual in the confines of his wheelchair had gone so far as to spin himself around, as if to present his back to the man in a testament of defiance or refusal to acknowledge. Yet even he was noticeably attentive to each uttered syllable, his head taught and rigid with nervous anticipation. All of this transpiring as this stranger, this man who looked as if he had been through much more than we could care to guess, this paradox of reason and lack thereof, this unlikely cause of a desperate movement of blind faith, continued to count down to something we could not comprehend.
And so I remained, and so there we stood, transfixed by this mystery made flesh, as he kept up this passionate countdown, oblivious to us and the world around him. And so he counted, and so he continued to do so as we stood by and waited. The time elapsed during this countdown is still as unknown to me now as it was then, but I can say with conviction that it was far longer than I would care to admit, far longer than one would expect a group of jaded city dwellers to devote to such a meaningless spectacle. And yet, the very fact that this time and attention was devoted gave such a meaning to the event that my head still swims at the mere thought of the importance this strange man demanded.
I could not possibly begin to relate all of what entered and resided within my thoughts throughout the corresponding time, nor would I wish to if I were indeed capable. Such feelings and notions were a shock to me then, and still are whenever I relive the moment in my head. The questions that I presented to myself during this time, queries involving mortality and existence, purpose and role, fulfillment and despair, necessity and desire, were all more than I would ever hope to contemplate throughout the full span of my lifetime, let alone in a single afternoon. Yet the dreadful uncertainty of the rapidly approaching moment that we now all faced had driven me to confront these angelic demons of the human soul, strip them of there self-imposing taboos, and come to terms with what I both thought they had been and expected them to be.
It was then, as this strange man's countdown came to its conclusion, that all was revealed. Those fortunate enough to witness this event, myself amongst those counted, arrived at a destination far more mysterious and illuminating than we had expected. For it was a final moment that engulfed us all and stripped us bare, forcing us to inspect ourselves as if we were one of the others huddled around in anticipation, and question our own involvement. For the fears, thoughts, hopes and speculations of what the end would bring forced us all to gaze questioningly through the narrow, shade-drawn windows of our inner selves, discovering exactly what it was we had come to be.
Despite the harrowing emotional bond formed by the witnesses of that fateful scene, there was no attempt on anyone's part to acknowledge the group's existence. Everyone involved, myself included, simply wandered away under the hard and watchful gaze of the strange man that had brought us all together. No hands were shaken, no eyes were met by others, and no names were given or offered. There was no need, for we now knew each other as much as we had once known ourselves and ourselves far more than we cared to.
I revisit that day often, in as much as I revisit it now, not out of nostalgia or longing or bitter remembrance, but out of an unyielding presence of ennui. For how many people have faced such a countdown, seen it through to the unfathomable end, and then lived on knowing full well that they had invariably experienced an end to something to which that had never witnessed the beginning? I might be one of the few, but on occasion I fear that our numbers swell with the ages, for while that unremarkable man has come and gone, I have no doubt that somewhere, somehow, the countdown continues once again.