Graywolf and I walk around the cove, along the boulevard. It is brisk and windy and he has his woolen hood up. Not that anyone can see him anyway, except me. Lots of children have invisible friends. Then they grow up. I guess I didn’t. Grow up, that is, in that way. Graywolf has been with me since my earliest memories. We have been together for decades now. And it suits me fine.
There are two other people who can see him. One is Grady, the old man who lives next to the community garden where I grow herbs and flowers. He can see him as well as I can, and he talks to him. This is reassuring, in a way. It’s how I know I’m not insane. I mean, I know I’m not, anyway. But still, it’s an added proof. The other person is Bessie, a homeless woman who lives out of a shopping cart and talks about celebrities like they’re her friends. “That Tom Cruise, he’s a humdinger, we had crew-sants at Dunkin’ Donuts,” she says. I buy her coffee. She turns and says “thank you” to me and then turns and says “thank you” to Graywolf. He bows and kisses her hand. She giggles like a teenager.
Graywolf likes to curl up in the closet or on the bed at my feet. And he vanishes sometimes, when he senses I need some real alone time. But he always comes back. He goes when I need him to, and he comes back when I need him to. It’s quite the perfect arrangement. You think I’m lying. But it is the truth.
I’m no prude, I’ve been with men. The one who lasted the longest was Spice, a prep cook at a restaurant, DJ on the side. He was just a kid, with pale vampire skin and a mop of tousled black hair. Friend of a friend. Graywolf didn’t approve. Graywolf thought he was a “rotter.” He’s English, Graywolf.
One morning Spice and I were lying there in my bed and he was still asleep – wild coal hair splayed on the pillow next to me, mouth slightly open, like a baby, his scent of tobacco and kitchen and sweat mingling with the freshly laundered cotton sheets. I was awake, watching a little woodpecker circling the tree trunk outside my window and suddenly it occurred to me Graywolf was right. Spice was a loser who ultimately cared not a whit for me, nor I for him really, though we had our fun.
I saw through the whole situation in an instant, like fogged lenses growing clear. I dumped Spice. And it was the right thing to do. After all, I have the extreme privilege of not needing anyone.
Graywolf is about six feet tall, give or take. He wears mustard yellow pants and a green shirt. Also a gray velvet cape with a hood that clasps at the neck with a brass clasp that has an interwoven Celtic design on it. I’ve asked him a thousand times what it stands for, what it means. “Nothing,” he says, but I know that he’s lying, that it stands for something important and essential and if I knew what it was I would unlock his secret and perhaps that would be the end. So I don’t press it too hard. We all need our secrets.
I work in an insurance office, processing claims on a computer. I do research, make phone calls, fill out endless data on endless forms. It’s boring but it’s a job. While I work, Graywolf prowls around the office or wanders around the city. At night he tells me stories about the curious things he’s seen and I write them down in a sketchbook with cream pages and a black cover.
I wanted to be an actress. But I didn’t have the right look, or so I was always told. Too plain, too unremarkable, too nondescript. I blended in too well. OK, not talented enough, either, I guess. I’m willing to admit it. The closest I ever came to local fame was being an understudy to Carolyn Lonhurst, who played Eleanor of Aquitaine in The Lion in Winter at the Rivertown Theater Company. Perhaps you saw it? But it was awful, like being a shadow and I hated it. I was so close to The Stage, it was tantalizing, yet it was just out of reach, anguishing. After that I gave up on my dream. I still help out painting scenery and sewing costumes because I like the color and frenzy of opening night. Graywolf and I stay late sometimes and dress up in the costumes. I like watching the plays and knowing my invisible work is contained in the tiny stitches and the acrylic backdrops.
Graywolf has long shaggy fur the color of twilight with all its shades and gradations. His coat is unbelievably soft. He wears his pants long and he walks with a swagger, which is amusing, because he’s not aware of it. He has green eyes, the color of jade from a distant time, from deep within a mountain or a story. When the light hits them they are iridescent and supernatural, like a dark place being illumined. His hearing is acute. He can hear a hawk circling over the bay three miles away.
He has his own quirky personality but he rarely gets on my nerves. He is deep and flat, a bottomless well, a picture card that moves. Quiet as fog, quick as a tongue. Soft spoken. A creature of few words. His form ranges from opaque to transparent. When the sun shines through him he looks like a hologram. Yet he can also achieve full solidity. I stroke his fur, which smells like cardamom.
He was born, perhaps, from a fairy tale. As if the wish became so strong it emerged into reality, fully clothed, gentle, fur-clad and unmasked.
I love him the way you would love a cat or a dog – simply and wholly, in a way it seems impossible to love another human. Sometimes I wonder what will happen when I meet someone I want to stay with forever. How could I tell him about Graywolf? How could I not tell him about Graywolf? It would be a challenge to have a marriage containing three, especially when one of them is invisible. I admit the possibility that Graywolf is the reason I am still “alone.” On the other hand, I suppose it keeps me from falling into something that isn’t real, as so many people do, out of fear or loneliness or a bizarre sense of purpose.
I was not an only child like you might have assumed. I have two younger brothers, Isaac and Michael, athletic types, one in college, one just finished. Our parents are not divorced. My mother is a teacher’s aide and my father is an optometrist, which means I own an assortment of glasses in all kinds of fancy frames. I like gauzy skirts, fancy feather pillows, spiderwebs, dark chocolate, warm rainy days, napping during rainstorms, film noir, pasta, the moon, beeswax candles, Loretta Lynn and Jane Austen. I like hanging around with the Goths sometimes, though I wouldn’t consider myself one, despite the way I keep one long front streak of my short black hair dyed either bright red or dark purple, depending on my mood. I pin it back when I work in the office and no one seems to care. Half of them have piercings and tattoos anyway. What is unique eventually become mainstream.
Graywolf and I walk along the quay in a warm autumn drizzle. It is my favorite time of year, soft and vivid, confetti leaves drifting down from the passionate trees. Scarlet and copper. Still, warm, humid. His soft paw clasps my hand. There aren’t many people about except for a few indomitable joggers, a couple of bicycles whirring past. The day passes into dusk and the new faux old-fashioned black streetlamps come on and the colored lights sparkle in the black water. The sky clears a bit and Venus peeps out from behind the clouds, white on gray. It is a dream. Even though I am an insurance claims clerk and a failed actress, I have never felt ordinary. Nor have I ever experienced true loneliness. Some sadness and some gaps perhaps, but never the piercing kind of absence I think most everyone in the world feels at some time or another.
What is Graywolf? Is he a spirit, a phantom conjured by my own imagination? Yet two other people are able to see him, perhaps more I haven’t met yet. Did you ever read the poem “The Tables Turned” by Wordsworth?
“Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Misshapes the beauteous forms of things–
We murder to dissect.
Enough of Science and of Art,
Close up those barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.”
My theory is this: there are portals in this world that connect us to other worlds we know nothing about. Occasionally we glimpse these other worlds, even in science, but because our methods are inherently flawed, because our thoughts are inherently flawed, we dismiss them. We deny. We do not see. Once in a blue moon one of these portals slips open, something passes through, and someone is born with the ability to see it, to feel it, to know it. When we get older, “reason” takes over and the portal closes. I am blessed. For whatever reasons, this particular portal has never yet closed.
It is Saturday morning and we go to brunch at Humdingers, the vegetarian restaurant on Temple Street. The irony that I am bringing a wolf to a vegetarian eatery is not lost on me. But of course Graywolf doesn’t actually eat. I love this place. It is crowded today but we manage to get a tiny table by the window, a table for two. I slide the other chair out with my foot so Graywolf can sit down.
I order coffee and a spinach and mushroom omelet with rye toast and home fries. I wonder why they are called home fries. Humdingers consists of a large room with red booths and tables, potted plants and huge seashells from tropical seas lining the window sills. The walls are bright yellow with pumpkin trim. It is bright and chaotic. There are striking new paintings on display today, a series of small 10” x 10” acrylics in pale birch frames. They are landscapes and cityscapes with one element in common – there is a small red fox in each one.
I sip my coffee and scribble in my sketchbook, designs for an opera about Graywolf’s imagined childhood and transformation into a “spirit guide,” for I’ve decided spirit guide describes him more accurately than wolf.
A flash of orange-red. Baroque. The smell of burning food. The ruddy waitress with a large tattoo of a spider on her upper arm, her blonde hair pinned in a turvy on her head, rhinestone nose ring aglitter, scuttles over, bearing my steaming turquoise plate. “Who did these paintings?” I ask. She nods towards the kitchen. “Dishwasher. Busboy. Jarrod.” She vanishes back into the steaming kitchen. I eat my heavenly eggs laced with fresh fungi and spinach doused with ketchup, staring at the small painting over the table of downtown buildings and passersby, including one red fox dressed in an old-fashioned black suit. I am in love with this painting.
We start going to Humdingers for brunch on Sundays, though it is an added expense I can scarce afford. We spot Jarrod, the dishwasher/busboy. He is medium-height, thin and lanky with a shock of black hair that flips over his eyes, which are dark, darting and intelligent. Pale skin, rose almost girlish lips, delicate nose, something shy and jittery yet affable in his manner. He glances at me, I glance at him. I guess you could say we are flirting. Graywolf stays mum, stroking his beardish chin fur and humming along with the pop tune on the radio. A flash of red from the kitchen, the smell of burning toast.
We’ve been brunching for about a month and a half and it’s winter now, approaching Christmas. The streets are lit with lights in the shape of tangerines, lemons and limes. The store windows are filled with driftwood trees, red ribboned rocking horses, negligees and calendars. Humdingers is packed. Jarrod is running around bussing tables and helping set them up. His paintings have come down and been replaced by photographs of indigenous Guatemalan children dressed in bright woven clothing. I am sitting at my regular table, my crumb-and-ketchup strewn yellow plate empty, sketching in my sketchbook. There’s a line outside the door on this overcast Sunday, but I’m taking my own sweet time. I’ve earned my spot.
Jarrod approaches the table, whisks away my plate.
“Wait!” I command and he stops, stands still, waits. I’m at a loss what to say next.
“I like your paintings,” I say. “Do you have a studio?”
“Can I come visit sometime, see more?”
He nods, looks down, looks to the left, toward the clattering kitchen. Then he moves quickly, bearing his heavy plastic bin of plates and silverware. I sit frozen, staring into my empty cup. I don’t dare look up at Graywolf. I can feel the blood in my face. Suddenly Jarrod reappears. He is standing there in his splotched apron, his black sneakers. He hands me a wrinkled card from the restaurant. I turn it over. There is a time, a place. I nod and he is gone.
Next Saturday afternoon Graywolf and I walk through a freezing drizzle to a grim brick building behind a faltering white Church of God. The front door is unlocked and we slip inside and go up the wooden stairs to the third floor, a varnished hallway lined with doors. We go to the last one and I pause until my heart slows to a somewhat normal rate, then knock lightly. The door swings opens. A tea kettle whistles on a hot plate. Jarrod walks over, ushers me in. “Hello,” he says, his face brighter today, not so pale. “Welcome,” he says to Graywolf, shaking his paw and grinning. It dawns on me that he has been able to see Graywolf all along, throughout those many brunches.
The room is dim, but in the corner I immediately notice something curled up in an old green armchair — a red fox in an old-fashioned black suit, his piercing black eyes glittering like mica.