He was smart, very smart. Awkward, hands moving in wild circles as he spoke but there was a clarity about him if you could keep up. I was older, went off to art school. I came back one Spring to take pictures of rusting trains, frozen hulks on curves of still-shining tracks smelling of rotting floorboards and wildflowers. We met at the pizza place on the corner of Main and Elm, where you could buy a draft beer and suck it down in the back if you were under age. His face was covered in pimples. He did not order anything. I had heard he was dropping acid, flunking out of his first year of college and stalking a girl we both knew, a girl that would be kind enough to say something sweet to him, but still get him to keep away from her.
He was back home now, in the tiny college town with its feeble Main Street, the string of copycat bars, the one strip club, the family department store and those old trains. He had not left his room for months. People who knew what happened joked about him being a real life version of Harold and the Purple Crayon. He folded his hands over and over, wrapping them around themselves. I came back to the booth with a plain slice and a Dr. Pepper. My camera was in my bag, and I kept it there. His eyes were cloudy, but stared at me with an urgency.
"I heard about everything." I said, quietly.
He nodded, looking for some words.
"She's a great girl." I added. "I get it."
He smiled, suddenly caught off guard.
"I have been working on a story." He began. "Science fiction."
I listened to him talk for twenty minutes straight, nodding and making my way through the slice until it was cold and sweet tasting. He would glance over his shoulder sometimes, or peer out the windows midthought then return to talking to me.
"Sounds like something." I offered, when he was done.
He stared at his hands for some time.
"Can I help you with anything?" I asked.
"I just wanted to talk to someone who would understand me." He said. "I heard you were back."
I laughed a little, mostly at myself.
"Your mom set this up." I said, leaning forwards as if someone might be eavesdropping on us.
He wagged his head to the side.
"She's worried about you." I whispered.
"She's my mother." He said, his voice growing loud.
We stopped for a moment, half-smiling at each other.
He had played a psychiatrist in a play I wrote and directed in my last year of high school, a messy string of disjointed scenes full of forced poetry. I played a young man who had slowly gone crazy after the death of his mother. He wore some thick glasses we found, crossed his legs and said "interesting" and the audience chuckled every time. He liked the set, which was made out of a series of thin plastic tubes, with working windows and doors. He called it the tinker-toy world.
It was late afternoon already and the light was looking good outside. I asked him if he wanted to come and take pictures with me on the train tracks. He declined.
Outside, the sun spread across the bricks and we shook hands.
"Don't come out until you're ready." I told him.
He nodded, agreeing with me.
"But don't wait too long." I joked, and he did seem to smile.
I could see he was in pain. He was in some kind of prison, not the actual walls of the room in the house he grew up in. He could not see any escape.
"Write that book." I called out to him, as the bag swung around my shoulder and I headed off, wondering what film to load in the camera.
He waved once.
I never saw him again.
I made a film about the trains, and the people who used to work on them, wrinkled and forgotten in group homes. One man was an engineer and said I could take his picture if we cleaned him up, and if he wore a tie. I agreed to come back a few days later, after his son had the chance to bring him one. I can remember the smell of those halls, something beyond ammonia, beyond a million pill bottles.
I brought a tie that had been my grandfather's, found in the back of my old closet. His son had never come with one. I combed his hair, smoothing it against his scalp. I tied it carefully, and he poked his chin into the air, hands wobbling on the arms of his wheelchair. His eyes were wet.
Leaving that home then walking in the street I sucked the fresh air into me holding it for as long as I could.