Delbert always thought his name lacked strength. More than once he wondered why his parents had chosen it. If they had lived longer, he might have asked them. But they didn’t. They were both killed in an automobile accident when Delbert was twelve, and an uncle, who was a peddler, raised him. When his uncle died ten years later, the only possession he left Delbert, unclaimed by creditors, was an old horse named Prince.
Even later, when people simply called him Del, he remained convinced his name lacked the power to inspire confidence. And his belief became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Not only did others lack confidence in him, but Del lacked it in himself until by his late forties he seemed to be suited for nothing better than driving a horse and wagon down the alleys of Chicago’s near north side, occasionally yelling “rags-a-lion” (actually, rags and old iron).
During the early years of World War II, Del earned good money collecting scrap metal and used paper. But, good money or not, Del lost interest and slowed down. His dozing horse and empty wagon, standing idly behind someone’s shed or garage, became a common sight. Where Del might be no one asked. They just took for granted he’d gone off to buy a beer, take a pee, or find scrap.
I knew most of Del’s story because he lived down the street from me, and we met at Dimple’s Tavern over on Halsted Street from time to time. He often told me about his childhood and how much he disliked his name and sometimes, even considered it a curse.
One night I was sitting in Dimple’s, drinking a beer and reflecting on the events of the day when Del came in. I hadn’t seen him in awhile. The few times I had crossed an alley and noticed his horse and wagon standing idle, Del was nowhere around.
I knew Del was generally low on funds so I invited him to take the bar stool next to me and ordered him a beer.
Del didn’t seem moved one way or the other by the drink I bought. He just accepted it as one of nature’s unpredictable windfalls.
He did, however, appear to be depressed…worse than I had ever seen him. He began rambling on and on about being a failure. How he wasn’t going anywhere. How he was wasting his years. How tomorrow was sure to be worse than today, etc.
From his shaky voice, I knew Del had swallowed more than a few beers before he arrived at Dimple’s. He also had firmly planted his left arm on the bar to hold up his head.
Del took a long swig of beer, which he seemed to enjoy as if it was his first of the day, and continued telling me about his life. Being a captive audience, I listened.
Suddenly, switching subjects, he said he had just come from the stable next to Rosenthal’s drugstore where he kept his horse and wagon. He had cleaned the stall, fed Prince, and was on his way home when, passing Dimple’s, he saw me sitting alone at the bar. “People like you, shouldn’t be left sitting alone at a bar,” Del said. “You’re not the loner type. So I came in.”
“Really,” I said, a little surprised. “Well…”
“No, don’t tell me you think you’re a loner. Because you’re not. Everybody knows you like people.”
Before I could think of a response, Del continued. “I know a lot about being a loner because I’m one. That’s why I drive a horse and wagon. I’m alone.”
He paused to sip his beer. Watching him, I thought over what he said.
“But loners are good listeners,” he went on. “They’re so used to remaining quiet, their silence encourages other people to open their hearts. There’re a lot of people who need help opening their hearts. But they don’t know who to talk to, who’ll listen, or who they can trust. Take Rosemary for instance…
“She’s a very nice but unattractive woman in her forties whose husband probably wouldn’t have wed her if he hadn’t been forced to. Yet they’ve been faithfully married for seventeen years. Now all of a sudden, her husband has to work twelve hours a day, six days a week in a defense plant. So when he comes home, he’s too tired to do anything. I visit her once a week. We talk, drink coffee, and do other things when she wants. I forget most of what she tells me. She smiles and thanks me when I go home. Then there’s Joan…
“She lives alone and has never been intimate with men. And she doesn’t want to be. Yet, she finds my views on politics, finances and family matters entertaining and useful, even when she doesn’t agree with them, which is more often than not. I don’t particularly care if she disagrees with me, so we never argue. Instead we have a Scotch-on-the-rocks or two and laugh a lot. We’re both usually laughing when I leave. As a matter of fact, I had two drinks with her just before I went to the stable. And I can’t forget Debra…
“Everything about Debra is small. She’s small, but pretty as hell, and her apartment and everything in it, except the shower, is small. Oh, what a wonderful thing a shower is. In all my years, I never had one. She was married only a few months before her husband was drafted. I know she’s not the loner type because she talks constantly while I’m there, even when I’m in the shower and I can’t hear her. We just drink coffee and talk. Sometimes she reads me her husband’s letters, and I often suggest loving ways she can answer them. Physically, I have never done more than hug her a few times. Now Betty…she is one of my favorites…”
“Wait a minute!” I interrupted. “You regularly visit four neighborhood women, and there’s more?” I said incredulously. “What are you a local Don Juan or something?”
“I don’t visit them for love,” Del said, surprised at my outburst, and a little offended. “I provide them companionship and affection. If they should happen to need or want more, which occasionally happens, well…”
He was looking at me when he paused, with a face searching for approval and understanding. And in a strange, inexplicable sort of way, I was ready to give him at least understanding.
“Del, what you just told me is remarkable. You say there’re others?”
“Well, there’s Louise and Nora and Eleanor and…”
“Ok, ok. I get the idea. And you call yourself a failure? I’m not so sure that’s true. Think of the private moments of happiness you’ve been giving the women you visit regularly. Maybe in your own way, without realizing it, you’re as much a success as most other men are in theirs. Look at it this way. It could be, without knowing it, you’re a part of the war effort.