He first took off his hat. It was about time that he accepted that he was bald. Enough of dressing up vanity in the pretense of a fedora that was less chic than its price tag. Straggly bits of hair stood up like a buck-kneed sorry army of grey specters.
One by one he took off his buttons - little circles of bravery, that clung by their teeth to the buttonholes of composure, covering the wrinkled chest that blanketed his crumpled heart. He put a finger to his lip, as if trying to pry something from the musty depths of his brain. He slowly opened his mouth and with the deftness of a magician dragging a bunny out of a hat, pulled out his dentures. Bereft of them, his stiff upper lip drooped with the unfathomable weight of a pout. Beneath his chin, his wattle wagged an admonishing finger.
He took a moment off to indulge in a contemplative moment, a slow inhale followed by a defeated exhale. He watched his paunch furl back into itself under his dirty sweat-yellowed vest in the mirror. His belt unbuckled with the rattle of an old man’s bones and his zipper parted with an old man’s sigh. With a whisper of reprehension, his trousers slipped down to the wooden floor. Exposing varicose veins that snaked down his calves in an indigo and green swamp. His porridgey thighs shuddered like wet birds on the gnarled post of his arthritic knees.
Slowly he bent forward and pulled his underpants down to his knees, and with the precarious, unbalanced movements of a conscious three year old, he hoisted a knee and rolled it off, one leg at a time. In the mirror, he observed his vest’s vain attempts at preserving the vestiges of inhibition as it protectively hung around mid-thigh. As if his shame was still confined to an organ that could be tucked away from sight under a band of elastic. Was that an arthritic wobble or did his knees tremble a bit?
No time to waste. No time to waste. He was a man with a purpose. With the ceremony of a dancer, he took a step back and took off his shoes. While his eyes engaged his reflection’s in a challenge, he took his socks off. Brown and white stripes, he noted. Surprising, how effective a catharsis the distraction of details we otherwise overlook, can be. Tiny brown rivulets on his heels ran up to meet the indigo-green swamp and toenails that had been picked to bits like an afterthought, held on to tufts of fuzz. With the deliberate, almost demented slowness of someone trying to remember a phone number, he took his vest off.
In the mirror stood a shriveled fossil of his life. His sad little manhood sulked under the fold of his stomach. If you could call it a stomach, this bag that slouched like a truant. How it had bloomed not so long ago under the influence of prosperity and beer. There was the scar from that long ago accident, now just another fold in his skin. Lines that ran into paragraphs and paragraphs that ran into chapters and chapters that ran into stories of bitterness traversed his body. He was done with bearing the burden of their pent up sorrows; there was too much of it anyway.Today, he decided, would be the day he told the world his story. He would reveal their wounds, he would strip away the protective covering of ego and pride. Where there is injury, there would be blood; where there is sadness, tears. Today he, Pain, would go out naked into the world for all to see, and they, would see themselves.
He let himself out. Taking the stairs one at a 'old-man’s-minute' time. The railing of the banister rubbed against his skin, burning it a little, as he made his old-man’s-way down. The little girl next door, met him on the landing, forgot her manners and let out an unabashed sniffle. The sweeper with the straight line for a mouth placed a hand on her heart like it suddenly gave a flutter. By the time she could tell pain from disgust, her eyes swam with the image of his silhouette against the open doorway and the skeletons of a hundred lost dreams. Mr. Verma’s self-assured, popular daughter with her hair as twisted as the lie she was, who revealed skin to cover her soul, walked up to him with raccoon eyes and clawed her vein with her nails, confessing I Want To Die-I’m Insecure-I’m Afraid. He walked on, this stupid girl with her precious 16 years of gestating inhibition, she was barely enough. Them who told their little boys that only little girls cried, those who gritted away their urge to break down, those who prided themselves on being brave, people who could shrug away someone else sadness, those who were unaffected by someone else pain, the ones who turned the other way – they were the ones he wanted.
Everyone on the street forgot to be appalled the shamelessness of pain – of it being displayed so plainly. So public. They saw too much of themselves in his repulsiveness and they hurt too much. They had to cry. Babies sniffed silently from wounds too secret, with a sadness only innocence knows. Little girls wiped away tears of anger, rage, rejection and for not being fair, smart or good at studies and for love. Artists howled from the angst in their hearts or for the lack of it. Little boys howled with the rage of being less than their brothers, for the science project ideas their best friends stole, for not being on the football, team, for having the most unfair parents in the world, for being the kid with divorced parents and for love. Wives wept for their lost chances, for their lost loves, for their husbands’ infidelities, retorts, criticisms and passivity, for not ever being good enough and for love. Mothers wept for their sons who grew up too quickly, for their daughters who grew breasts too soon, for not being appreciated, for their girlish figures lost to motherhood, for there always being more housework left to do and for love. Husbands sobbed for their impotent careers, for their wives’ constant nagging and belittling, for their denied promotions, for the words they never said, for their failures and for love. Hearts fell onto the dusty pavements with a papery scrunch; hearts creaked with old aches; occasionally you could even hear the sound of a heart being ripped apart. Bitterness had very sharp teeth. Pedestrians unable to take a step forward from their ache, counted their sorrow litanies on the bumps of his hunched spine as he walked ahead and away from them. Drivers stopped their vehicles to sob into their hands. Recent divorcees and the recently single didn’t seek refuge in the office bathroom, but let their tears flow on to their keyboards, their decaf and their notepads. Old men held on to their walking sticks, blinded by their tears and old women beat their breasts. And this time, he looked the other way and hobbled on impassively with his one-man funeral procession for their dead sense of whatever-it-took-not-to-cry.
The skies peered down to see what the commotion was about and what a mistake that was. On seeing him bent and intent on his shriveled purpose, the clouds became heavy with sadness. The sun slipped away to cry in secret. Desolation painted the sky grey. Rain fell and mascara ran. Shame and unshame smudged together like modern art, till you couldn't tell one from the other. Everyone on the streets waded in the grey tears of the sky while those inside switched on all the lights to keep the grey from seeping into their eyelids and balling up into a fist inside their throats. But it did anyway. And no amount of water could help them swallow it down.