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In Other Words

The Passing of Arthur

Wesley Callihan

Turning the corner at a fast walk, knowing I had taken too long over lunch again, I nearly stumbled over the old man. He sat with his back to the bricks of the only auto parts store in the downtown district, ignoring the passersby on the noon sidewalks, stretching his legs in the sun. His khaki pants were tattered, and his coat was stained and faded, but his hair was neatly combed. All this I noticed as I awkwardly tried to step over him; this and the words he crooned as he rocked himself gently against the warm brick -- "Rex quondam, rexque futurus." The phrase didn't actually register until I was halfway down the next block, and then it made me suddenly stand still in the middle of the busy sidewalk. Someone jostled me --"Watch it, guy!"-- and I saw my supervisor hurry into my building, late too, so I ran in, up my two flights, and to my desk.

But I kept thinking, why did he say that? I recognized it. I hadn't read all of Malory, but surely that phrase is the most well-known part and the most significant. Why would an old bum on a downtown city sidewalk be quoting Malory to himself? I thought about it as I ran my programs, as I leaned against the wall at the coffee machine, as I waited for the computer to spit the forms back at me for another round of programs. I thought about it as the hour hand hit five, and I locked my table.

I hoped the old man would still be there, although I didn't know what I might do if he were. Walk up to him and say, "Hey you! How come you're quoting Malory?" That wouldn't do. In the first place, people would think I was as touched as he probably was. Then too, you never knew how these old winos might react if a normal person spoke to them. All city people know the rules -- look straight ahead, never speak to them, do not acknowledge their existence. But I wanted to know. But why was he quoting Malory?

Was he an ex-English professor? I knew the stories: half the bums on the streets were former high-powered financial execs or some such thing, had hit a streak of bad luck and chucked it all. Maybe this guy had been at a hot-shot college, got fed up for some reason and thumbed down here. On the other hand that was hardly likely at all. Where would a man have come from who quoted Malory? I managed to become so thoroughly intrigued that I planned to sit down next to him, when I found him, and get to know the old fellow and his secret.

But when I saw him, still sitting there near the now-shady corner moving his lips, I lost all my nerve and swung wide of him, heart pounding at the audacity of the thing I had planned for myself; I told myself I was a creature of habit, not a bold man.

All evening, in my little apartment, I was bothered. Why did this old bum have the nerve to sit unconcernedly on a street corner and quote English literature? Why didn't I have the courage even to ask him why he did it? Here was a break in the monotonous routine of my normal schedule and something that fascinated me all in one package -- the intrusion of poetry into reality. Bums were real, English professors were not. Computer programmers were real, fifteenth-century knights (in jail or out) were not. But now, without any fanfare worthy of the name, Arthur and Malory had shown up on the third-to-last street corner of my route to a workplace housed in the world's second most nondescript building. Why?

Late in the evening, I dug into my box of old school texts and found it, and read:

Yet some men say in many parts of England that King Arthur is not dead, but had by the will of our Lord Jesu into another place; and men say that he shall come again, and he shall win the holy cross. I will not say it shall be so, but many men say that there is written upon his tomb this verse: HIC JACET ARTHURUS, REX QUONDAM, REXQUE FUTURUS.

The longing that had swept me the very first time I read those words as a boy now washed over me again, and I wanted to find the old man and ask him why he was saying those words and tell him how he made me feel the ache again and not be afraid to talk, and maybe say thanks to him.

Instead, I made sure I had enough in my savings, then called my supervisor and told him computers were destroying my soul, and quit my job. He was even more surprised when I told him I was going back to school and maybe become a teacher, and so was my landlord when I told him five minutes later that I'd be out when the month was up.

The old man slumped against the bricks. He was pleased with himself, so he took another swig of cheap wine and decided to try sounding out some different words. He laboriously shifted his attention from the bookstore posters to a city sign: "Bus Terminal, Two Blocks."

Wesley Callihan is a Contributing Editor of Antithesis.
Copyright © by Covenant Community Church of Orange County 1991
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