When I Asked A Stranger About His Ring

Some of my most treasured moments are learning the story of a stranger and making a new friend.

When I Asked A Stranger About His Ring

The stone was the size of a small bird’s egg,
but the color of water in eddies in rivers
so beautiful you (briefly) want to sell everything
so you can stay at their ebullient edge.
Jade circled in gold,
“cheap then, back in the sixties” he said.

Forty-five minutes is a long time by some measure
to talk to a complete stranger.
A man, a solider who suffered an explosion
and near death, in the hospital for nearly a year and
a mental ward for four years following.
Unlike my father, who got out of serving in the Vietnam
because he was in college and married with a child.

“People think I am homeless because I am living in my van,
but last year I was able to follow the sun in the winter,
I want the mountains and the water.”
He did look the part, a few missing teeth,
a few days of white stubble,
high cheekbones, tall and lanky
from what could be assumed was hunger,
a soft spoken, slightly using aged James Taylor.

The clincher is I inquired about his ring to be charitable,
to practice what I was writing about,
a poem directed at young people in high school
about sitting with others who might be lonely.
We were at a coffee shop, four stuffed chairs around a circular table,
all three of us save him, slurping computer screens while we sipped our coffee.

I was afraid he would leave before I finished my work
so I glanced at him every so often and smiled,
willing him to hang out and yet I thought he might
truly be homeless and for some spare change was
spending the day in the warmth of the store and human contact.
I had an impending appointment, a weekly submergence in a float tank,
buoyant in salty water, blackness and silence
in which I pray for connection,
for heart opening, for inspiration.

He explained he read a book a day and exchanges
them at local used store, that he memorizes passages,
and will read anything an author writes,140 books for one.
I needed to hear about the video game he plays online
and teams with people around the world,
that he saw it as community and a social experiment,
not isolation as I blanketly judge.

In his late sixties, his wife having passed on recently,
his only son an email away in London,
even with steal rods in his neck and spine,
he was steadily giddy with his move out west,
there were still books to read and other veterans to coach
how to navigate the VA system, a feat he had perfected
by having multiple copies of his identification and medical files,
a task I cannot say I have even attempted.

Like children trading shells at the seaside we spoke.
I ignored the nagging feeling I was late for
my appointment, but he hadn’t yet shown me
the knot of scars under the skin on his wrist
or demonstrated that the hand he was warned
would lay limp forever, how it could clench and open.