The old hermit was finally dead, laid out quiet and still in a diminutive wood casket. The stark, sharp-cornered pine box was now three quarters filled beyond the body of the hermit with trinkets, baubles, and the kind of scented weirdness you only find in backwater palm reader shacks, abandoned fairground concession booths, or the tailgating fringe of a Jimmy Buffett concert.
The room felt disjointed, two strange worlds painfully, awkwardly collided. The windows were hidden, draped in heavy black velvet curtains, and red candles burned too long on a corner table. There was a simple wooden cross nailed off-center on the back wall. Any mood set by the darkened windows or candles was offset by yellowed neon lighting, worn tile flooring, the smell of septic cleanser, and a flickering “Exit” sign above a door with a push-bar and peeling paint. Your high school algebra classroom meets gothic teenager with limited imagination and options.
There was an old fold-out card table, long -- enough for caskets longer than what the hermit needed -- covered in the same black velvet.
The folding chairs, not draped in black, stood in silent, crooked rows, a single path down the middle, lonely, worn with time and grief. How many black shoes had shuffled awkwardly down the aisle towards the casket of a loved one. How many knees had rested on the slick tile, bended in grief or prayer.
In short, it was everything you might expect if you could possibly care to conjure a small-time, half-forgotten funeral home on the border of an out-of-the-way beach town and a trailer park that stretched out like silver millenia.
The only thing out of place in the room was the hound. I called her Topaz -- always had -- but who knew if that was her name.
Topaz. She had a collar, green but turned black and hard with years of grime and wear, flea powder, and drips from the dog bowl. Hooked on the bottom of a small, sliver setting was a topaz stone the size of a quarter, ice blue and cut so many ways that it shimmered, even in the palest moonlight.
The hermit hadn’t paid a damn bit of attention to her that I ever saw. But with him, it was hard to tell.
When I entered the room she didn’t move from below the table, the black velvet kicked around her like a sad blanket. Her eyes, up at me, then back down, disinterested, were all I got. Maybe she didn’t remember, but I doubted it.
I’d gone to the place of the hermit not too many years before expecting the usual. Dusty brushes with horse hair at the end of a stick, ash from an old cigar and some crushed shell thrown around the room, the Ace, the Queen, the Five of Hearts and Two of Spades on the table next to a glass ball and a chicken foot.
I endured it. The hermit hadn’t been any better than any others. He wasn’t worse, really -- certainly not the worst -- but I had seen much of his act many times before. It worked for the little old ladies shuffling off tour buses, high college kids rolling along on spring break, the Midwest tourist set looking for authentic Florida. Their next stop would be the Fountain of Youth, maybe Disney after that.
I came to him with the same problem I’d brought all the others, not so much embarrassing as intractable, a curse. But like every curse, it came with just enough benefit on the other side to leave a nagging place in my heart as I considered its complete removal. I’d wanted to be able to understand again, or if not understand, to at least decipher the voices of women.
It is the defining struggle of our species: that blurry, unreadable nexus of communication between men and women, an abysmal, bottomless vortex sucking away even the faint ghosts of common sense and understanding. What do women want, men have asked since man had the ability to articulate wonder. What, wondered everyone else with any sense whatsoever, including women, is broken in the code that allows men to perpetually default to a state of chaotic malevolence? Why are they such goddam barbarians?
For me, the wonder had literally become lost in translation. When women spoke, for my ears, it was only a dull hum, a low, meaningless noise. Kind of a cross between a swarm of bees and a piston misfiring in an engine. Their lips moved, but the words -- in any language -- I could never possibly understand.
The nag, though, that opposite benefit, was that the very souls of men were made clear to me, big print on the pages of an open book.
It’s the only way I ever knew to describe it.
And it has made police work a whole lot easier.
I’d thrown money at the old man when he was done, could tell -- could feel that nothing had changed. I bent over and patted Topaz on the way out the door of the old shack.
That’s when something happened.
The curse was still with me, the wall of sound, the inability to understand still haunted me.
But the benefit had blossomed. It had grown. I’d gone from the equivalent of reading and comprehending children’s nursery rhymes to absorbing quantum physics in a blink. A light speed acid trip forward. Just a look in the eyes, the briefest of glimpses towards any man, and everything he was, everything he’d ever been -- it was mine.
And it was easy.
I bent over and petted Topaz, scratched her behind the ear. She looked up at me, like she knew.
And she did know. I picked her up without a fuss and we turned to go. I’d be feeding her now, she knew that.
I didn’t look in the casket.