The Day I Drank the Sun
by Conrad Stoltzfus
Most summers I considered killing myself. But that particular summer, I didn’t even care enough about life to want to end it. I was so incredibly exhausted.
My dad died in July. On one of those endless summer days, he just keeled over under the bright, burning orb. They said it was a heart attack, but you never know. Anyway, he died, and I had a horrible lurching feeling like when a rope in a swinging bridge gives way.
I hadn’t seen my dad in years. I hadn’t wanted to. He hadn’t even been interesting enough to beat me when he got drunk. He just sat around and gurgled to himself whenever Mom dropped a dish she was washing. She often dropped dishes. I don’t know why.
Like I said, I hadn’t even thought I cared about him. But night after night, I slumped like some bum on the same park bench at midnight as drunkards and lovers giggled in the vicinity. I was born falling. I cast my little love strings, and they caught hold on the rock face, then they broke, one by one.
I remember this one thing, so stupid. I brought a little impressionist rendition of a rainbow to my dad. Something about the way the gold and blue swirled together made my tiny heart swell. I showed it to him, and he said,
For weeks after that, I’d lie in bed and say that word over and over again to myself until I fell asleep. For pete’s sake! I still love that word.
At the funeral, I leaned over my dad’s pale corpse and whispered the only thing I could think to say.
I straightened and saw some front-row human scowling at me. Her face was more cadaverous than the corpse’s. I guess it was somewhat sinister for the son of the deceased to voice approval after a close inspection. I suppose she didn’t see the tears. I had cared for him a little after all, more than I cared for most things.
I’m fairly certain I slept the rest of the month of July after my dad’s death. Not physically—I still groped around and did various things—but I slept in my mind. I have only like two memories. I got punched by a random kid on the street. I didn’t even do anything to the bloated guy. And some woman said I was “tall”. But I somehow always woke up at midnight on the park bench. The universe awoke me just so I could know that I was asleep, I guess.
I considered starting my own cult or something. I mean, here I was with all of the nothingness of Nirvana plopped onto my lap, and I didn’t even have to do Buddhist good works for it. The thing is that once you reach Nirvana you don’t even care any more – missed opportunity, I guess.
Like a sleep walker who is consumed by a single irrelevant task, I was consumed with gathering recyclables. Many think that poor and homeless people gather recyclables because it is a convenient way to make a few dollars. Perhaps that is partly true, but the main reason is that they are trying to convince themselves that things that are used and thrown out on the street are still valuable. For me, the appeal was mostly the feeling of looking for treasure, realistic treasure that I could actually find. The monotony of life is that everything looks horribly similar: people wear the same sorts of clothes and fashion their hair in the same sorts of ways, and buildings are almost indistinguishable. The glory of trash is that it is completely and unashamedly different. Though you find 100 rotten bananas they will be squelched into 100 unique and unforgettable shapes. Maybe this is a bit macabre.
I found that on trash day (the only day I would rise early) I was sometimes close enough to midnight to catch myself still awake. It was in these early mornings that I became lucid enough to notice the world around me. I had this habit of staring at shadows instead of objects. Have you ever watched the shadows of windblown leaves on a brick wall? I would stare at people’s shadows when I talked to them. They’d eventually look where I was looking, then we’d both be gazing at their shadow. Kind of funny. I think they thought I knew all their secrets.
Anyway, I was walking home and this crazy self-help guru, a how-to-be-a-millionaire type of guy, was walking beside me, trying to rescue me from my pitiful life. He always lurked on the street on trash day. I think he was trying to fill some sort of quota for the charity organization he volunteered with, but he certainly seemed to believe the ooze he was spouting. We got to my apartment and, on some random intuition, I invited him in. I saw the hesitation on his face, and in that moment I first fully understood that these self-help types never want to go into your home. They want to poke around at you and diagnose you while the wide outdoors offers them a quick, easy escape route. But they never want to take your hand, go into your home, and see who you really are. I suddenly had the urge to grab this pale little man by the pale little hand and drag him inside, but, before I could, he agreed to my invitation. I guess I had judged him a bit harshly.
We stepped through the door as he continued his torrent of advice on “rising from difficult situations”. The word “self-made” seemed to play a role somewhere in the gab. I noticed him glance warily at the streaked stain of tomato sauce on the kitchen wall. (I had thought the wall was too black and white.)
Just as I was reaching into my fridge for something to throw at the too-black-and-white man, there was a knock on the door. My wan guest backed against a wall, rummaging for his ID. He must have thought it was the police. He probably believed it was blood on the wall.
I opened the door to a small, smiling girl.
“Excuse me, can you feed me?”
The sudden picture of a mother bird thrusting worms down the throat of her chirping infant sped through my mind.
“I don’t have any food,” I replied abruptly.
“Everyone has food!” She laughed and pushed past me and into my apartment.
The self-help man, attached to my wall like a fly, gazed vaguely at the new guest and turned to me.
“Is she your daughter?” We both looked back to the glowing, raven-haired child. Clearly a rhetorical question.
“Do you have a stream I can drink from?” the girl asked.
Self-help guru grimaced knowingly, holding tighter to the ID he’d been clutching the whole while. He must have thought “stream” was some sort of euphemism for drugs or something. Even I found the question a bit unusual.
“I have no streams,” I said.
She walked toward my kitchen cabinets and Self-Help Guru and I watched her. Opening a cabinet, she plucked out an aluminum foil pan I had bought for a cake I had never made. She took it to the sink, placed it at an angle in the bowl of the sink, and began running water through it. I didn’t know I had approached, but I found myself looking over her shoulder at the bubbling, sparkling water swirling in the dappled light from the window.
“A stream!” she said happily, then burrowed her face in the cool water.
After she had drunk her fill, her gaze rose to the window sill where I had placed some tulips. She clapped her hands in joy. I had found them in a pile of trash I had been rummaging through a few days before. I couldn’t really just leave them there, you know. Every time my eyes fell on the curled, crimson petals, a single word would flit through my mind. “Nice.”
“You said you didn’t have a stream, but you do. And you said you didn’t have food, but you do!” She looked at me reproachfully.
“Oh no, look here,” I asserted. “You can’t eat tulips. They are verrrry bitterrrr.” I drew out the final words as I knelt and patted her on the head patronizingly. Supposedly kids understand that sort of thing, but it’s sickeningly awkward.
“Silly.” She laughed. “You don’t eat the flowers. You eat the fruit that comes from flowers.” Now I felt patronized. But Self-Help Guru came to my rescue.
“Although it is true that some flowers become fruits, it is unfortunately false that tulips become fruit.” Strangely, he appeared less certain of this than the trash he’d been gushing about earlier.
“Oh,” the girl said, unfazed. “Where I come from, all flowers become fruits.”
Without thinking, I plucked the three red tulips and dropped them into the sparkling stream. As I watched the deep red swirl in the silvery water, my heart jumped just a little, like when I had seen the gold and blue in my rainbow. The girl smiled in approval. Self-Help Guru had no reaction at all to the event. His mind was elsewhere.
“Where…” His voice wavered. “Where are you from?”
“I am not from here.” She giggled. “What is that?” She indicated the ID clutched in his sweaty hands. His dull eyes brightened slightly with the thought of something he understood.
“This is an ID which is an acronym for ‘identity document’. It tells others who I am.”
“Who are you?“ the little girl asked.
He stared at her blankly, then mechanically thrust out the ID. She studied it, then looked up again.
“Are you [Male]?”
“Very good. Are you hungry, Male?” she asked sweetly. I laughed out loud as he nodded like an idiot.
She dug around again in my cabinets and produced some rather nice looking dishes that I had forgotten about. I began to wonder what else I had. She walked to the switch near my front door and stretched to turn off the fluorescent light above my kitchen table.
“I can’t see a thing,” Male muttered.
“That’s because you have been blinded by that horrible, unnatural light,” the girl said. I wondered if I had been blinded.
Male and the girl sat down at the table, and the girl looked up at me with shining eyes.
I almost tiptoed to the stream and looked in at the tulips, now tulips no longer. Although…maybe now they were true tulips, what tulips were really meant to be. I should have been shocked. I should have said, “No! No, it can’t be!” like they would have in a movie. Rather, I just pulled the dripping, rubescent fruits out of the water and carried them to the table, placing one on each of our plates. I sat down in a sort of daze, like a man freshly awoken.
Wrapping my hand around the firm fruit, I lifted it to my mouth. It wasn’t at all like the flower-flavored candies and drinks I’d had in the past. This had a fresh, delicate taste. It was the fulfillment of that hunger that used to ache in me when I was a child and would smell flowers. I had sniffed again and again because sniffing could not satiate my hunger, but this both filled and reawakened that hunger.
“I’m afraid I’m allergic to bell peppers,” Male murmured after a polite cough.
“Oh you silly, silly man!” the girl chided. “Tulips never become peppers.”
Male carefully took a nibble of his tulip and yelped.
“Peppers! I’ve eaten a pepper!! I knew it. You’re trying to kill me!” He rushed out the door, leaving his ID sitting placidly on the kitchen table.
“Perhaps,” I said, “streams can’t make tulips into peppers, but men can.”
“Yes,” the girl said simply.
She lifted her empty glass as if for a toast, and I chuckled, lifting mine as well to clink our empty glasses.
“Careful.” She giggled musically. “You might spill it.”
It was only then I noticed that my glass had become substantially heavier. She hadn’t been lifting her glass for a toast. Rather, she had been lifting it to the sunshine flowing in through the window, and as I had lifted mine, they had both filled with liquid sunshine.
The girl smiled and raised the warm cup to her lips. I followed suit and was stunned by the sharp flavor. It was strong like wine, with a delicate sweetness. “Rousing” is the word to describe it. Each sip of the sunshine awoke a sort of wildness within me, the wildness of being alive. I heard a laugh that I hadn’t heard in a very long time. It was my very own.
After we had dined (we shared Male’s tulip) and I had filled my cup again and again with sunbeams, we leant back in our chairs.
“Do you have a throne?” the girl asked.
“Yes.” I smiled.
We walked to my living room which was the home of my majestic throne. The girl tugged open the blinds which I had never thought to do before. I guess it’s because I used to not know how sunshine tasted. I slouched in my chair then straightened; this was, in fact, a throne. It was inexcusably childish, I know. I think I had drunk a little too much sunshine.
“Look!” the girl cried in delight. “You have a wonderful little parrot.” She was pointing to a carved wooden parrot that I had picked up from some thrift store.
“What beautiful colors, and it’s all your own! You’re a rich king,” she said with a strange sparkle in her eyes. There was something unnerving about her. She seemed old, yet very young, both sardonic and guileless.
I studied her as she exclaimed over all the flowers on my wallpaper. She said that I had my very own garden and that her favorite flower was the one in the corner by the doorway. All of a sudden she seemed out of place and foreign. So real, yet so awkward. I began to wake a little from the intoxication of the past hour.
She looked up and saw me watching her and smiled sadly. No. She didn’t smile sadly. She smiled beautifully, and that was sad.
The girl walked up to my chair where I sat looking down at her.
“You are rich, not because you have sunshine and a parrot, but because you have people to share sunshine and a parrot with.”
“You don’t understand.” I laughed harshly. “That’s just it. I don’t have anyone.” But even as the words left my mouth, I knew they weren’t true. I thought of the middle-aged lady next door. She always told me good morning while she tended her flower bed. Also, there was that guy that washed the windows at the business across the road; we talked sometimes. Maybe we were friends. There was also Male. I smiled to myself.
“You are rich because you have purpose. You have been given things so you can give. All things are created for friendship.” She laughed musically. Her laugh was so awkward. I didn’t know what to do with it. But it was beautiful.
“Will you come again?” I somehow knew it was time for her to go.
“The question is, will you come again?” Her eyes pierced mine. She laughed abruptly and gave me a hug, a little girl again. Then she was gone, mid-hug. It felt as if she had left everything unfinished, like I was supposed to carry it on.
I cried the rest of that day, sob after racking sob. I hadn’t felt so alive in years. After I cried all the tears that I had to cry, my eyes seemed to be washed, and I could see more clearly than I had in months. I could see beauty. (She was right. The flower in the corner by the doorway was the nicest.)
I know this story is crazy. I don’t really believe it myself. But I do know that something changed me, and when people change, something has happened.
Since then, I’ve made it a point to talk to people on my street. The lady next door is old enough to be my mother, which she has almost become. (She loves flowers and also thinks that the flower in the corner by the doorway is the most beautiful in my garden.) The man who washes windows across the street is not a friend. Apparently, I once threw dirt on a window he had just washed. I don’t remember (it must have been in my Nirvana state) but the business owner offered me a job. It’s a bookstore.
They say that you don’t truly appreciate those you love until they’re gone, and that was true for my dad. Although my story is sort of upside-down. I had to die and rise again to appreciate the little things in the world that make life lovely.
The evening of the day the raven-haired girl left, I sat on my throne and held an empty glass to the rose-golden sunset light streaming in through the window. It filled slowly, and I watched the gold tossed with blooming red in my cup. It was as if the clouds were being whirled by the wind in my very hands. I took a deep sip of it and was surprised to find that it was cool rather than warm, with a smooth, rich flavor. It was also slightly tangy, like goodbyes, but with a fragrant sweetness I can only call hope.
Conrad Stoltzfus is a writer and photographer who lives in the rolling North Carolinian country side. He aim in life is to find in every moment what is wonderful and share it with others.