Wedding and event planners would weep with envy over the way Alan’s party fell together. Circumstances and details wove themselves into tangible perfection that we carried out at the end of the night to keep forever. Many times over the years, I pulled out my pieces of that evening and considered the possibility that he had sweated over each detail and planned everything exactly as it happened. Always, I discarded those thoughts in favor of magic, or mystery.
Alan was a rambler. Nobody discussed his homeless status, not with him or with one another. It was – the same as his height and eye color – just Alan. Maybe we feared confirmation would taint our ticket to vicarious hippiedom. It could have been that we respected his privacy and figured he would tell us how or why he had parted ways with his family and their fortune if he wanted us to know. Our unspoken vow to let it be held fast.
Whatever the reason, Alan became a positive constant in our lives. I looked forward to his one-knuckle, double knock on my door, to setting an extra plate on the table for him, to adding his laundry to my load, to his silent laugh and late night philosophical musings, and to finding special places for the gifts he brought to express his appreciation. And I missed him when the circuit put too many days between out turns to have him grace our home.
The phone call itself was as much a surprise as the impromptu, come-as-you-are invitation. As far as we could remember, Alan had never called before. Suddenly, he knew our number and had a place from which to call it and invite us over. Curiosity propelled our immediate departure.
I knew the intersection well, even pictured the dry-cleaner on the corner when Alan gave directions, but in all the years of passing that location, I had never noticed a carriage house in the alley behind the cleaners. Brian trusted Alan’s word, parked on a side street, and we walked in an eerie post-spat silence--sans the spat--toward the carriage house that seemed to have appeared from nowhere.
Feet still planted in the alley, Brian reached across the flat stoop to lift a horseshoe knocker and drop it against a metal plate on the door. His eyes settled on a row of trashcans under the windows. I looked past them to admire the symmetry of the chips in the painted brick, realized I saw them through my father’s camera eye, and regretted the many times I had teased him about photographing nothing. I finally got it; nothing could be something.
When Alan opened the door, I stepped through the humble opening off the dreary alley and ended up in an amazing expanse of warmth and light, positive Alice must have felt the same when she found her wonderland. A forest of macramé-supported spider plants, wandering Jews, and ferns breathed life into the room, while reaching out to welcome us into this fine-wine-of-décor, aged-to-perfection carriage house.
Fires crackled in the double fireplace on the far wall. Reflections of the flames danced off glossy shutters that covered the ceiling-to-trash-can-level windows lining the outside walls, and left a glow on the wide-planked, worn and bowed yet flawless floor. That night, I was content to sit cross-legged in my seat and appreciate the beauty of this used but obviously loved room. Years later, I would try to buy the carriage house so I could walk on the smooth floor with bare feet, and sit in front of the windows with the shutters opened and the sun shining in on me. Sadly, that didn’t happen. I think my life would have been better if it had.
An assortment of rocking chairs, each sporting a unique set of quilted cushions, and most occupied by familiar faces, circled the heavy square table that took center stage in the room. Brian and I settled into rockers, his a porch model under a fern by the windows, and mine a bentwood with flowered cushions, close to the fire. Alan reminded everyone that he had food and drinks in the kitchen – an over-sized, copper nook on the far side of the door – and encouraged us to help ourselves before he curled into a white wicker rocker beside the stereo. No one moved.
Alan’s reference to food brought his chili to the forefront of the comforting mix of aromas. Strangely, identifying them became more important than eating, drinking, talking, or looking to see what anyone else was doing. I wasn’t sure their presence mattered, one way or the other. Burning wood, candles, and floor wax were easy. Fresh flowers surprised me. Until that moment, I hadn’t noticed them on the square table. Nor had it occurred to me that there were no ashtrays or drinks on the table.
I scanned the rockers. On any other night, these same eight friends would be smoking, drinking, laughing, and doing most anything other than sitting in rocking chairs, staring into a fire and listening to Dan Fogelberg. They all looked as willingly paralyzed in making something of nothing as I was.
I don’t know how long we sat in the magic of Alan’s carriage house, or how he happened to have access to this place that was such a perfect reflection of him. Nobody discussed it, with him or with one another. At some point, the fire burned out, the sun came up, Dan stopped singing, and we returned to our lives - at least one of us forever grateful.