VERMONT – Every evening, Darren, the youngish town philosopher, perches himself on the porch of the café after it closes and jots notes into his small leather-bound notebook until it gets too dark to write. Darren says he keeps track of the temperature, the humidity, the time, and any interesting phenomena or incidents that might occur within eyeshot during his watch. Directly across the street is the pizza pub known as The Spoke, and that’s why I think Darren really sits on the café porch: to watch the girls of the town come and go. He has crushes on five of them.
In a weak moment one night, I had begun a dispiriting walk toward the Mobil to buy a pack of American Spirits. I had quit for two years and only started up again after my second surgery turned out useless. Might as well get a little pleasure out of life, I thought. It was either that or joining the Israeli army for that apocalyptic war evangelicals are always talking about. But what I really wanted was just one cigarette. Mobil stations and delis aren’t allowed to sell “loosies,” so I always get stuck with an entire pack and then smoke it all up, stubbing disgustedly the last one out on the top of its fallen comrades. It’s as though no one has ever heard of that impossible-to-ignore urge for an after dinner smoke. So I headed for the Mobil station. And there was Darren looking over the town like a cat guarding its newborns.
“Where you off to?” Darren asked.
“I hate to admit it, but getting cigarettes.”
“Yeah, I quit, you know. I quit two years ago.”
“And you’re buying cigarettes? Why, man?”
“Because I’m smoking again.”
“Would one cigarette do you?”
“No need to go out and buy a pack.”
Typical of country philosophers, Darren rolls his own cigarettes and has become fairly expert at it. In a matter of moments he passed over a slender fag.
“There you go. Don’t completely fall off the wagon. It’s not the night for it.” It was a cool dusk, the kind of night when Vermonters think about sleeping on the sides of mountains. It was the kind of night people decide to talk in that Vermont way.
“You’ll always find trouble at the Mobil anyway. Potato chips and such.”
Darren’s almost half my age and yet talks to me as though he were a wise town elder. He lives in a cabin with no running water. He tells possibly apocryphal stories about slaughtering rabbits and making stew out of them. He once tried – unsuccessfully – to impress a visiting city girl with crystals that he claimed to have mined from a secret spot in the woods.
“I owe you,” I said. “Buy you a drink?”
But Darren said he had been out already that night. He said he’d take a rain check. He said he had tried The Spoke’s house wine and it was awful.
“Swill,” he said.
When I ran into Darren at The Spoke a few days later, I offered to buy him that drink.
“Sure, a glass of wine.”
“But it’s swill, you said.”
“Sometimes I get sick of beer.”
“So why am I buying again?” I had honestly forgotten. All I remembered was the promise. I had already forgotten that Darren had swept me off the road to perdition.
“I gave you a cigarette so you didn’t have to buy a whole pack.”
“But it wasn’t only a cigarette. It was counsel.”
“You really saved me that night.” I ordered a couple glasses of wine.
“Still swill,” he said.
“No, it isn’t great wine.”
“You know, this stuff has histamines in it.”
As usual, a small group of local drunkards had joined Darren to hear him expound.
“Yeah, wine is full of histamines.”
“I thought it was nitrates,” I said.
“No,” corrected someone, a girl he had been talking to before I showed up. “That’s sulfites.”
“Ah, the preservative.”
“See, you’re thinking of hot dogs,” said another.
Darren looked annoyed at the group’s loss of focus.
“It’s the histamines that’ll get ya.”
One of the drunkards leaned in.
“I don’t want to be the first one to ask a stupid question, but what’s a histamine?”
“Histamines? Ah, I’ll tell you.” Darren stroked his beard. “You see, it’s an inflammatory. It produces allergic reactions.” He raised a finger. “That’s what you get the anti-histamines for.”
The town’s wise elder, all of 24 or so and living in a cabin. His followers offered murmurs of respect for his encyclopedic knowledge. We all waited for Darren’s next insight, his next packet of knowledge delivered with a theatrical flourish that, whether it was true or not, bound us all to the idea of country wisdom and of the image of an autodidact reading under his oil lamp.
Darren sipped his wine.
“Also,” Darren said stroking his beard again, “histamines are released during the human orgasm.”