As I sit here at my desk trying not to give in to the despair threatening to invade my soul, I find myself thinking about Hanz. Or "Hantzee," as he was referred to by Mrs. Lipka.
When I was a little girl, I could be seen everyday either riding my bike or – if I was lucky enough to have a pair at the time – roller-skating up and down the road. I had a certain circuit I would follow with imaginary stop lights and traffic signals and "cars" to honk at or swerve to avoid hitting. I went around and around and around my circuit on our little street and grew to know every detail of it intimately, including Hanz.
Hanz was a German immigrant, ancient in my childhood. He was a little, shriveled up man with filthy, ill-fitting clothes, a rarely shaven face with permanent tobacco stains trailing down his chin from chewing tobacco drool that had never been wiped off when he spit. His few teeth did nothing to help to make his stuttering, heavily-accented speech comprehensible to people. Few people other than the Lipka's could interpret his speech. As such, he had no friends, and no one talked to him.
He lived above the Lipka Drug Store in the little town of Montague. He always seemed slightly dazed as if his brain was always about two steps behind everything that went on around him. His job was to sweep the sidewalk in front of Lipka's Drug Store. I have no idea what the financial arrangements were, but that little job was the only thing elevating him above bum status.
For years I assumed he was single, but I was wrong. The townspeople rarely saw his wife, a short stocky little woman with wrinkled ankles and a flat-brimmed black hat with a cheap, red plastic flower adorning it. On the rare occasion she would be seen outside the apartment, it was always with Hanz shuffling beside her struggling to keep up as she strode brusquely along. There did not seem to be much love between them.
The reason I am thinking about Hanz today is because he would frequently appear with cuts, bruises and abrasions on his face and hands. I have a clear memory of him sitting on the sidewalk with a jagged hole in his knee and blood poking out, him looking up at me with a vulnerably imploring expression. It was announced by Carol, a long-time employee at Lipka's, when people would inquire that he had fallen down the stairs again or fell down in the street. Everyone knew he drank continually by the tell-tale paper bag and zigzagging gait lilting up and down the sidewalk. He was rather an object of scorn.
As I began to grow up, Hanz fell off my radar. While I had always observed him with a slightly repulsed interest as a child, my life became busy and I forgot about him. One afternoon when I was in my early teens, I was in Lipka's Drug Store buying a chocolate ice cream cone. They had the best hard chocolate ice cream. The absolute best. Carol was talking about Hanzee.
"Oh, yeah, he hasn't had a drink since the wife left. She used to kick the tar out of him, poor guy, knocking down the stairs and everything. With his medication he was taking, he never should have been drinking anyway. And now he isn't taking that medicine, he isn't so confused. That was how he was finally able to learn to read. I always thought it was sweet of the librarian to help him out like that. Now I guess he spends most of his time reading. Opened a whole new world, he told me the other day. He's doing so much better. I'm happy for him."
As I began to contemplate Carol's words, I realized he was a human being who had been living under an immense shadow for all those years. What had he been thinking, as he sat there staring at the world with his small, vulnerable blue eyes? Was he thinking that if he went upstairs his wife would knock him about the apartment? Was he wondering how to get out of the trap that had become his life? Was he wondering how it was that the rest of the world moved by, never really taking notice of him, except to move to the other side of the sidewalk so as not to smell him?
His life must have been a lonely one. He lived years an isolated, lonely, cast away in the midst of a thriving town. But once the dark shadow of his wife was gone from his life, suddenly he blossomed. He quit drinking. He cleaned himself up. And he learned to read. His speech wasn't so slurred, and his accent smoothed out. Life had finally begun to include him.
Thinking about Hanz, I realize what a dark shadow hangs over you when someone in your life abuses you. I've been living under the dark shadow of someone who hurt and decieved me, culminating in an act of betrayal which finally woke me up to the fact that what I thought was love was not love at all.
I wonder what my life will hold now that I'm no longer under his shadow?