Two young men sit slouched at the top of post office steps somewhere in Rome, Italy. They talk about this and that, nothing in particular. Light stuff, heavy stuff. Music choices, messed-up politics, the hell that is some parts of this ugly and beautiful world. There are here for an hour maybe, sitting in the welcome morning sun, having finally come out after a couple days of trying to hide. They soak it up thankfully, gratefully, willingly.
One of them is from a distant land, Afghanistan, dark skin and hair to match. He smokes a cigarette. The other is from the United States and is probably in the top ten percent of the whitest kids in the world, complete with a bizarre explosion of apple-and-brick hair massed atop his head, flickering around in the wind like a good campfire on a quiet night. He has an aversion to smoking that he doesn’t show to his friend, besides saying no when asked if he smoked. The other tells how his cousin got him to try it and he liked it. Fair enough, thinks the red hair boy. He holds in his hand a thin notebook, writing scratched across its pages, scribbled words assembled into some story of madness and chaos, of the things we want our children to never have to think about. Yet some of them still do. Thanks be to gun powder, dynamite, jet propulsion, dirty roadside bombs, land mines, and the fueling force of man’s hatred.
They talk about how ridiculous Europe is, and Rome especially, in terms of the heights of fashion. The Afghani boy jokes about how someday soon they won’t have grocery stores, just clothing shops; have to move to a new town to buy food. They have a good laugh about that one. It’s funny because it could probably actually happen. The other boy thinks of a bumper sticker he once saw: don’t worry. when the food runs out we’ll just eat the money. It is good to laugh.
Eventually they walk off together, past the beer bottles bereft of their brew, emptied the the night before, and the lady handing out papers, flyers for who knows what and who cares anyway?
They are in an apartment now, just a few blocks away, a computer open, as well as the notebook, getting written words into digital form. The tale runs on. A convoluted network of smugglers, climbing over mountains, hiding in cars and buses, and enough mistrust and sketchy characters to fuel Hollywood trash for years. But this all really happened. That’s the sucky part. The manuscript runs out and the Afghan tells his story by memory, the white boy’s hands and fingers lightly smashing the lettered keys in a frantic race to get it all down. He stops his friend every once in a while to clarify events and converse on the best word choice. Their energy for such a task slows after about an hour, and they resume talking. They eat chips and salsa thanks to a roommate. They look at a map of Afghanistan for a long time.
Time passes. It is the early afternoon again. The red hair boy is without his friend, having left not long ago. Laundry day. A belated laundry day. He fills his back pack with his meager essentials and sets out, saying goodbye to the other roommate who will be gone for a couple of days over Thanksgiving. The metro is more crammed than ever before. He feels like a cow or a fish.
The red hair boy wanders almost aimlessly around the outside of a train station for a while, seeming to talk to himself. It drizzles, more of an extreme wetness in the air than actual rain. He hides the ridiculous mop on his head with a brown knit hat, made by a wonderful girl he knows. The rain doesn’t deter him, in fact, he barely notices. But it is just a cloud, a single growth of grey floating around, and as it rains its way west, the sun, itself moving around, cuts light through the mist of water and an arch of color appears from nothing. Somewhere deep the boy’s heart breaks. He is thinking about more, deeper things, than just a rainbow, but the timing is impeccable. He thanks the good Lord for provision and love. The colors fade, disappear. He wanders on.
At another location, the sun flares, erupts, cries out from behind a tower of cloud. Again with the timing. Again burning tears try and slime their way out from beneath his eyes. The boy is in awe. He wonders, laments, rather, at what man has done to this beautiful world. A song continues to enter his head: Father, heal Your world; make all things new. He figures we could use some of that healing.
A long stretch of road. Much thinking, talking, thinking, wandering. He realizes his mind is far too mushy to keep a constant conversation going. Too many video games in foolish days long gone, he bets. But he tries.
Again the wandering. And here, near the ancient walled stadium ruins, a great mountain mass of darkness slowly slides under the blue. An immense cloud, outer lines all blurred mist, undefinable chaos, arms disappearing in blue, brings the soft rains again, random brief pebbles of water scattered around, bouncing through tree branches. Again the bright beams of color form, rise, full-bodied brilliance. Again the fire. The boy gives thanks. He has much to be thankful for. He tries to share.
The sun shoves cloud aside as it starts to settle itself towards the sea and the endless horizon. It shines its glory and awesome, lighting darkness and shadow, over the crumbled rot of an ancient fallen city, crowded ruins on a hill, little in the fire and beauty above. It all destroys the boy with the red mass of hair. It is far too awesome and he knows not what to do with any of it. It reminds him of a time when he watched the Fourth of July fireworks in a grand festival filling the sky in a desert city not long ago. And how the next night was a violent lightning storm that swallowed them all. The show and achievement of man overshadowed by the wonders of an Almighty God. He remembers a song he loves. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0TgUGqWpvdA. The boy apologizes about the quality of the video and how you can’t hear the words as well as one might like.)
The red haired boy makes dinner and another batch of amazing salsa with a roommate when back at home. He listens to more Brave Saint Saturn and is pleased and at peace.
He and the roommate visit a train station and hang out with friends, some Italian, others, most, from Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen. Times are hard, their eyes say in a quiet unison. But they are not so downtrodden. They smile and joke, laugh here and there. They are friends, they make friends quick.
A middle aged Italian man plays guitar, the boy with the hair plays ukulele. They play some songs. It is nice to here As the Deer in a different language. The man speaks of Jesus and his words are sent through the conduit of minds, changed, and spoken again from another man so that more may understand. The boy and the roommate have been here before, a few times, but this time is a bit more awkward. The meal starts late, or the man starts early. There is not so much of a crowd. The ‘service’ is short. But it is ok. They spend time afterwards to talk with old friends about people in the world. They are like ants, or little bugs, who grab sugar for only themselves. Short-sighted, mean. This is the world. They are thankful, though, for the several men from Afghanistan who are gathered around, hearing more of the Good News, receiving the Gospels of Luke and John in Farsi. The horizon lights up with lightning. The boys stay for a while after, long after the piazza lies deserted, the rain having scared most away, and talk to friends new and old. They joke and laugh.
They walk home in the rain. It was a cold night, the first really cold night here. The sort of cold that fills the cracks in your skin, settles into your bones, finds its way into your clothes, follows you home. It sits in the boy’s toes, the cold does, not willing to leave even after an hour of being inside. But it is a welcome cold. He likes the approaching winter winds, the bitter rain, the feeling of deep autumn. He was amazed today by the numerous wonderful smells. Scents of a thousand dying leaves, of a thin smoke wafting in the air, carrying the fire breath. These are smells that comfort the boy, make him feel at home.
The mostly moon creeps out from behind the clouds every now and then, shows itself, crawls back behind its grey blanket. Night continues. Tomorrow is a celebration. There is much for which to be thankful.