The lost men - Daniel Silliman

The old guy was hard to trust, if for no other reason than he was always saying "trust me."

He was a salesman, too, and even in social situations, it was hard to tell which parts of his stories were honest and which were supposed to sell you something. Even now, years later, I don't know if I believe a word he said.

He was from South Africa and came to this country illegally to escape the forces overthrowing apartheid. The old guy sort of hedged on his own participation in oppression, setting up the story so he was an innocent bystander, who happened to be white and live on a plantation when things started to fray and fall apart. He didn't care who was in charge of the country, he said, he just didn't want to die, and when the revolters came to the plantation, he fled.

"You know how we did it?" he said. "We cut off the soles of old shoes, and attached them backwards to the soles of our new shoes -- the heel at the toe -- so, wherever we went, the rebels tracking us would be going the other direction."

That was probably a lie, though. Footprints made like that wouldn't have looked right. Besides, he was using the story of the backward soles to get us, whose souls were sort of turned around, trying to find his way home.

That part was true, though. He was lost and trying to find something. If not home, then still something. You could tell by the way he talked and wanted you to trust him. He had a need, a nameless gap inside him, and it was pushing him to search for something. He was one of the lost men.

The lost men in literature are always looking to kill something or find their way home, looking to get free or looking for some sort of success and approval. The lost men of my childhood, though, the ones I remember from being a boy and trying to figure what made a man a man, they never knew what they were looking for. It was never expressed in the clear terms actors use to understand characters, never exactly named. There was just a longing, a restlessness.

This was especially true for the found men, the ones who always talked about how they had been lost but weren't any more. In all those salvation stories, all those tales of wandering sin ending with Jesus, their tones were tainted with feelings of missing something.

I knew this one minister who always seemed bold and confident, who was successful and well respected. And he used to be a contender for the world championship of Frisbee golf. He talked about it a couple of times, telling us how he used to chase worthless things, before he turned to the pursuit of holiness. But when he talked about it, the sound of longing snuck into his voice. He was talking about being found, but he sounded like he was remembering losing something.

There are those who've reacted to this by choosing lostness, running hard in that direction and calling it freedom. But even if you're tempted to be like these men, even if you've known them, lived with them and loved them, you have to recognize that Lester Bangs, the music critic, died of an overdose of cough syrup, and Hunter S. Thompson, the writer, wanted to die for a long time before he went through with it.

Miserable isn't the same as free. Even the poet, Charles Bukowski, couldn't defy his way past feelings of failure: "There are worse things than being alone but it often takes decades to realize this and most often when you do it's too late and there's nothing worse than too late."

I was wandering around the city recently, waiting for something, and I found my way to a downtown library. In the reading room upstairs, there was an old man sleeping. He looked a little like the old man with the story about the backward soles. He was slumped over in a chair where the sun would come in and warm his back and his neck. He had a book, "No Country for Old Men," open to a random page, and he smelled of urine.

To me, though, he didn't seem any more lost than the rest of us.

Daniel Silliman covers crime for the Clayton News Daily. He can be reached via e-mail at dsilliman@news-daily.com.