THE FALLING MAN
“I can’t explain their madness, for I push them to error
And pick their brains, yet they praise me more
For each seduction. Their dullness will be sorrow,
When they lead their souls on high, unless
They learn to walk wisely, and without my help.”
— “Riddle #11: Wine,” Burton Raffel, Poems from the Old English.
The first time I fell, I felt I was still standing. That’s how the first fall makes you think when intoxicated. And it is always the hardest. You never accept it’s a fall. You live in utmost denial, thinking and believing you are indestructible- a superman, a genetic hybrid with hybrid vigor. But I fell again. I messed up when I tried to fall back into love. Then I went drinking and fell into an open storm drain after a night out with the boys. In my dreams, I do the most brutal falls. I fall off cliffs, spiral staircases, mountaintops, motorcycles, airplanes, horses, buses, speed trains, off anything with heights. I dreamt while dreaming that I had fallen off a space rocket and woke up and began screaming for the moon.
I am afraid of sleep these days. I fall the hardest in my dreams. If falling were a sport, I would be an undefeated Olympic champion. I have fallen off treadmills too. I have mastered the art of falls. When a child falls, they look forward, but when adults fall, they look back to see what caused the fall. That was how my landlord put it to me. Here is my story of how I became a man doomed to fall after I fell in love, then broke Bene’s, tender heart.
I met Bene at a party for first-year students on campus at the University of Calabar, where we were both new to university life. She sat alone at the bar, an unopened bottle of beer staring at her. She had that plump look that I wanted in a woman and wore her hair in a low cut. Large circular yellow earrings dangled from her ears. She chewed on gum while taking in all the dancing that was going on in the colorful room. She had a spotless and fair complexion and honey-brown eyes. She looked like the type of girl said to have come from the spirit and water world in local folklore.
All the stools at the bar were taken. I had to rest my elbows on a crowded wooden surface when I walked up and struck up a conversation amidst the din of the giant black speakers in the hall.
“You are not drinking?” I pointed at the green bottle. “That’s a great beer.”
“Yeah. As you can see.” Her voice was tender and seductive. I fell in love with her and wanted to hear her voice as if it were a sweet song I had placed on replay.
“Why? You don’t do beer?”
“It’s not mine.” She pointed to a girl that was going crazy on the dance floor. Men encircled the dancing machine. “It belongs to her. I suspect she will come for it when she needs more energy for her madness.” She suppressed a laugh. “Our friend is a dancing machine.” She shook her head, smiling at the way her friend loved to dance. “Those who know her have agreed that she is hotter than fire.”
I agreed with her conclusion. I had seen the girl earlier when I walked into the room. The restless spirit was the girl everyone wanted for a dance. She could turn her slim waist in all directions and with little trouble. Her faded blue jeans shorts revealed many colorful beads clapping as she wound her waist for the house. I had marked her out for a dance, also.
“This is a dynamite of a girl.” I smiled. “She knows all the latest dance moves in town. She must have started dancing from her mother’s womb. What’s her name?”
Bene agreed and told me Nikky was her name. I shook hands with her, telling her my name as our palms locked. She had the palms of a newborn baby, soft and pleasing to hold.
“Kenny is an attractive name,” she said. “Is Kennedy the full name?”
I told her she had the mind of a seer. We laughed and became instant friends, sharing our thoughts on those who were busy wearing the soles of their feet off on the dance floor. We talked about school life and how most of us hadn’t had the sort of reckless freedom we were experiencing. It was a great feeling to be away from the intruding eyes of our parents as one partied. It was also scary to be amid so much alcohol and wild sounds.
“It is dangerous. It could consume us if we are not careful.”
I was eager to cultivate her friendship. I told her she was right in her assessment of the situation. I ordered a beer bottle, drank up like I was dying from a lack of lager beer, and ordered another. I emptied it within minutes. “Another one, please.”
“Easy.” She said. “Why are you rushing? It is an all-night party. Mama is not going to come and scream: ‘Oya, get inside!'” She patted my shoulders down, taking the third bottle away from me. She emptied it. And I thought that was a sign of care and affection towards me. I dragged her to the floor, and we began to dance, moving madly to the thumping afro-pop sounds. She was a better dancer than I was. The music changed as the night went by. The DJ began playing love songs as though he wanted everyone with a lady to make a profession of love to the lady. We searched around the room and couldn’t find Bene’s friend. I was convinced someone had taken her away for the night. Her bottle of beer was no longer on the counter.
The clever DJ gauged the mood in the room and sensed that people wanted to get close-up. He switched to songs about the first kiss, togetherness, and fidelity. Then Alicia Keys’ “Falling” began to serenade the hall. I thought this song was for me. So, I told Bene that I was the voice in the music making an honest confession to her. I had fallen into her. I kissed her on the lips with that casual grace of a gentleman. And her lips were soft like a pack of over-chewed bubble gum. She didn’t protest, and I was already high. I did it again, and she liked it. I drew her close, making sure there was no millimeter of space between us. We danced and drank, oblivious of time. It seemed I had been the one Bene had been waiting for in the hall.
By the next day on campus, Bene and I had become inseparable, holding hands at restaurants, the library, and soccer games. We would sit side by side in class. We would sit on the grass after games, when everyone had left the pitch, and begin to make promises of fidelity to each other and wish we were already married. Kissing had become a regular feature of our meetings, but I wanted to do more than that. I was getting tired of the kissing games. We had kissed at all the shadowy and dark corners of the campus. We lived on campus and couldn’t find a safe place to do what we wanted to do to our bodies. So, I suggested we take a room at a cheap motel outside school.
“It’s going to be expensive,” Bene said, waging her thick index finger in my face while refusing the suggestion with her head. “We could use that money for something else. Besides, since we are getting married after school, we don’t have to rush into anything.”
I felt she didn’t love me at that point. I pushed her further, telling her that I had just won at a soccer betting game. And that the winnings were huge.
“Congrats, but I will not support your gambling habits.” She said she was shocked to learn that I was a gambler. “Do you want to become the great campus gambler?”
I apologized, and she extracted a promise from me that I wasn’t going to gamble again. But deep down in my heart, I knew I wouldn’t keep to my words. I had been gambling before I got to campus. Gambling had a firm hold on me.
“So we can forget about going off campus.”
“That’s fine with me if you insist.” I was boiling with disappointment. I kicked the air in frustration.
“You don’t have to get worked up over this.”
“There is always another time.”
And she was right. The time soon arrived. It was towards the end of the first semester. I had a friend who lived in an off-campus apartment near the university. He was through with his exams and had left the keys to his apartment with me. I waited for us to round off exams in our department; then, I told Bene about the temporary vacancy and all the comfort waiting for us in town.
“When is he going to return?” She asked, “He trusts you that much?”
“Yeah. I am a good friend to him.”
We arrived at the apartment on a Friday. Bene had planned to travel out of town the following day. I had convinced her to have a good rest before embarking on the long and tortuous journey to Lagos. She agreed that it was kind of me to want to make her last night in town memorable.
The kitchen was well-stocked, and the refrigerator had alcohol too. I drank beer all day while Bene curled on the couch and fingered the remote control, watching romantic dramas. I went to her at nightfall. She had slept off the sofa, the remote falling off her hands. I picked up the remote. I didn’t know what to do with it as I stood there, drunk, my bloodshot eyes feasting on the uncovered parts of her body. I blinked, my eyelids restless as if looking at her had become a sinful act. I called her name. She didn’t respond but instead snored like a child in a peaceful sleep. With the remote on the center table, I knelt and began to whisper in her ears, confessing that I loved her, begging her to open the doors to her soul.
Bene woke up, stunned to find me choking her with my foul breath. She pushed me back with a gentle force in her hands. “What have you done to me?” She looked herself over. She was pleased I hadn’t ripped her clothes apart. “Are you okay?”
“I love you, baby,” I whispered again, my lips brushing her ears. They tasted salty.
“Stop. Come off this. We are alone, and I don’t want funny things to happen between us.”
“Be calm. I am falling into you. And that’s not amusing in any way.”
“You should fall out before it becomes too late.” She stood and sneaked out beneath my armpit. “You are drunk again and taking this whole falling-in-love thing too far. You had better be careful before it becomes a problem.”
“How do you mean? Is it a crime to tell you how I feel?”
“I don’t want us to go beyond this point in our relationship.” Her looks were stern. She meant every word she had uttered. “Stop. Don’t come any closer.” She insisted when I tried to circle my arms around her. She was standing with her back to the wall, a large poster of sunbathing white couples over her head.
But I didn’t listen. I held Bene’s head in place and planted a kiss on her lips. She resisted at first, relaxed, and resisted again. She found a window of opportunity and escaped to the bedroom. I chased her there before she could bolt the door. She tripped and fell on the bed. I didn’t stumble. I leapt on her like a bedroom monkey, surprised by its acrobatic skills.
Bene spoke gibberish all through, her eyes searching the ceiling boards for some help. But she didn’t want me to stop. She gripped me with sharp nails, drew countless short lines on my back, and whispered that she loved me but was scared. I rolled away and fell into a deep sleep seconds after Bene encircled me with her tender arms.
Sleep was a nightmare. Bene bent over me in my dream, speaking like a wild and enraged wife in those chaotic movies on cable television, her eyes blazing with anger. When I woke up the following day, she was gone. And I couldn’t remember the words she had said to me in the dream. And that was the last time I saw her. She didn’t return to school when the new semester began, and she changed her mobile line. News on campus said she had gone abroad to continue her schooling. This report was possible since I knew she came from a prominent political family in the state. So, I didn’t bother to dig further into her whereabouts.
I located Nikky at her department and learnt Bene told her something terrible and embarrassing had happened to her in school. She hadn’t told Nikky what had happened and who the person was. Bene hadn’t dropped out of school but had only deferred her admission. Nikky said she suspected someone had broken her heart. I stood there, wondering if I had done that. The recollection of the events of that last night with Bene was vague. I scratched the back of my head. I couldn’t remember much. And didn’t want to remember. I was glad I didn’t.
I gambled harder and drank every day in the weeks that followed. I went to lectures with tired eyes, left, and continued my rounds at several bars outside the main university gate. The years passed like time had been in a sprint race, and I became a graduate. Bene hadn’t yet returned to school. I took on a dangerous habit as I left with my scroll in my hands. I had begun falling into gutters after getting drunk. The bars outside Eta Agbo had nicknamed me “the falling man.” My first fall was in a crowded drinking parlor after the convocation ceremony. I fell as I stood to go to the restroom, crashing bottles and glass cups and spilling other customers’ drinks on my table. I cut my arms and face in several places. I staggered back to my feet and told the laughing room that I had not fallen, that I was okay and still standing. Everyone laughed harder.
Life after school was in slow motion. Nothing good happened as fast as I wanted. The jobs took much of my time, and the salaries were never paid on time. I met a new girl at a club and fell in love with her, telling her I loved Alicia Keys’ song about falling. She fell out without much hassle because of my drinking and falling habits. What had incited her to leave was when I fell off a motorcycle as we rode home one night from Pyramids club. I had been fortunate not to have my head run over by a speeding vehicle. The alcohol in my veins had dulled the immediate pain in my head from that tragic fall. But I lived in torment for weeks after that motorcycle incident.
I kept drinking after the girl bolted out of my life. I kept falling off things, also. Once, I went to the beach and rode on a horse, hoping that would help cure my depression. But I fell off the saddle after the reins slipped out of my fingers. I returned home, thankful I hadn’t gotten more than a broken shoulder.
It was difficult to walk after drinking. Sometimes I would crawl to my door after falling in the crowded compound. My landlord had noticed my falling habits and came to my door one Saturday night. His loud pounding on the door dragged me off the floor where I had slept the previous night.
“Can I come in?” The old man asked. He wore a sparkling white singlet over a brightly patterned pair of trousers. He had his slim milk-colored chewing stick jutting out from the side of his mouth. He brushed and kept the saliva in his mouth. Now, I thought that was a rare skill!
I made space for him on the bed while I sat on the only couch in the room. He stared at me with worrying eyes. I knew why he had come so early in the day.
“I gave you a room in this compound because of your schooling. You are a university graduate?”
I told him that the day I paid for the room, so I just nodded, afraid to speak because my breath was still reeking of alcohol and the only window in the room was shut. I didn’t want eavesdropping neighbors to listen in on the conversation.
“You have a bad habit of falling every time you return from the bars.”
I nodded again.
“Look at the scars all over your face.” He pointed towards me. “You also have a missing tooth. Is that from a bad fall?”
“Now, listen to me with all your senses.”
I sat forward, locked my palms, and kept them between my legs.
“I am an African man, and I believe you have a spiritual problem. You may be carrying a curse on you, a personal or ancestral curse. Either way, you are under a bad spell.”
I spoke this time. “I don’t believe in those sorts of things. I am an educated man, sir. A Catholic Christian.”
“Educated my foot! When was the last time you even went to Holy Mass?”
I sat there, unable to speak. I just shook my head, feeling sorry that I had faithlessness. All the years at Catechism classes had been wasted.
“Now, there is a place I will take you to this evening, and we will try and find out what is wrong with you and the sacrifices you will have to perform.” There was an authority in the way he had spoken. “I will come to your door in the evening. It would be best if you had deliverance from your demons. The ancestors have to intervene on your behalf.”
He left the room, and I returned to sleeping on the floor. I was comfortable there. I wasn’t going to think of any strange-looking ancestor. I wanted to see what dreams I would have. I dreamt I fell from a cable car at the Obudu mountain resorts.
The concerned landlord kept his promise. He was at my door at around seven o’clock. He knocked as though he had come to collect overdue rent. The door shook at the hinges. I stepped out in my soiled clothes, still suffering from the previous night’s hangover. “Get dressed.”
I obeyed because deep down in my soul, I was tired of falling and the pain that arose after. So, we left for where I had been promised deliverance from my falls. We drove in my landlord’s battered Toyota Camry, whose color was only a faint imitation of white. We moved away from the metropolis and hit a dusty gravel road for hundreds of kilometers. The landlord noticed my discomfort and spoke.
“We will be there soon.”
But the journey continued for about ten kilometers before he went off the main road and slammed the brakes in front of an unpainted dwarf brick building. He walked with resolve towards the main door. My landlord was impatient. And I wondered if the owner of the place had been expecting him, and we had been running late. He rapped the door with respect. It opened, and an older adult with missing teeth and a bald head smiled at us. He was wearing a flowing sky-white robe.
“Come in; I have been expecting you.” He bowed and shook hands with the landlord, covering his right with the left palm in a show of respect. The landlord dipped his head also. I stood tall like a well-juiced palm wine tree, unimpressed by everything I had witnessed.
We sat on raffia mats. I kept changing my sitting position, folding and unfolding my legs. I was restless. I wanted to see how this ordinary man would stop me from falling. “Don’t worry. Everything will be fine. We have come to the right place.” My landlord told me as we watched the old fortune teller spread cowry shells and flawless, bright white round stones on the floor. He dillydallied for a while before bringing his face up.
My landlord smiled before the seer spoke. He was sure he had divined the solutions.
“You have offended someone.” He sounded confident in what he had revealed. His face didn’t crease into a smile; his eyes didn’t burn with surprise. “And that soul is still mad at you.”
The landlord looked at me for confirmation. “Say something, young man.”
“Of course, I have wronged people in my life. Who hasn’t?”
“Can you think of someone you have offended, a woman, perhaps? That’s what I see here.”
I drilled the floor with my eyes, trying to remember all the women in my life. It was pointless doing that. I couldn’t bring up any face. I felt I had been good to all the women in my life. I gave them countless rounds of drunken sex, wine, gifts, and a little money.
The seer hissed and shook his head from side to side. “Someone from the spirit world has placed a curse on you.” The seer revealed. “You need to beg for forgiveness. You took someone’s wife from the underworld.”
I found it tough to believe that a woman was why I fell into storm drains after a few bottles. Or was it one crazy and jealous guy I didn’t even know existed?
The landlord intervened. “Wise one, what is the way forward.”
“Let him tell me about his dreams first,” the seer said. “He has to help me if he wants me to save him from the curse.”
I looked at my landlord with unhidden surprise in my eyes. He asked me to get along with the story. I told the old man that I sometimes would see a young woman in my dream screaming at me. There were times; she would be in the company of someone else, half man, half woman. There were instances where the person beside the lady would be part human, animal, fish, or something else. I never escaped abuses in all their appearances. There was no reason to believe that these creatures were real because I often went to bed drunk and felt those images in my dreams were the effects of my drunkenness.
“Now the picture is becoming clearer to me,” the seer said. “He will have to go and place a sacrifice at the river bank. We need one white he-goat, cock, and ten tubers of yam.” The old man touched his stones, placing them north, south, east, and west before clutching them in his palms. “These spirit husbands can be difficult to appease. I pray this one accepts these gifts. And don’t forget to bring three bottles of original gin.”
“Is that all, and he will stop falling?” The amazed landlord was excited that he had found a cure for my ill fortune. I didn’t share in his excitement.
“He will also have to seek out the lady and tell her he is sorry. She is not an ordinary woman. She has a big place in the spirit world.” He paused for effect. “I can also perform the sacrifice on his behalf if he is afraid to go to the river alone at midnight because he doesn’t like a brave man to me. He only needs to provide the cash for the sacrificial items. And I think he will need to spend some days with me. I need to keep an eye on his habits. He must steer clear of women and wine.”
I smiled. I found it all strange because I had never visited a shaman in my entire life. I was convinced of nothing. I told the seer we were going to get back to him. But I never intended to see him in the few days that followed. My landlord spoke as if he had just discovered a new and beautiful world throughout the journey home. I offered him clipped replies often. We were close to the house when my landlord asked: “What do you think of Baba?”
“Everything you said about him is correct!”
“Are the gods not wonderful?”
“Yes, there are brilliant! They know everything that is wrong with me, with the world.”
“We must get back to Baba. Show him a big appreciation because of next time. Get him some bottles of Seaman’s original Schnapps for the gods.”
“Yes,” I said. But I had no silly immediate plans to get the old man, the invisible husband, and the gods drunk.
I spoke to Nikky and asked if she would connect me with Bene. I feared something terrible could have happened to her because I didn’t expect her to steer clear of me for over a decade. “Do you know where she is or the truth about her situation?”
Nikky was helpful. She called me within the hour and said her friend had called her not long after we spoke. Bene would talk to me in a couple of days. Was the seer at work on my behalf? I returned to thinking about the bottles of original gin my landlord had suggested for the gods. I felt that unseen and nameless gods must be good at what they do.
A couple of days turned into a week. A week turned to two, then to three, and then turned to forever. I stopped hoping to hear from Bene because the title of Toni Kan’s poetry book popped up in my memory like new growth on once-empty farming fields. The poet had said When a Dream Lingers Too Long. I couldn’t help but agree with him that it could turn into a nightmare.
I had experienced nightmares when my phone buzzed on one of my beer-filled nights filled with dreams of a thousand falls and aching somersaults.
“Kenny?” The voice lacked the seductive tenderness that I remembered, so I didn’t suspect Bene would be at the other end of the line. I never knew the years had kept her voice so far away, but her face was close to my memory’s corridors.
I responded in the affirmative. Silence. Crackling telephone static.
“Hello? Are you there?” I was still drunk and wished to return to sleep. I was about to press the red button on the phone. But then I heard the name I couldn’t resist.
I sat up at once. The gods are great, I thought.
“Hello, Bene.” But she kept mute. “Say something. Talk to me, please. It’s Kenny.”
“I know it’s the bastard Kenny.”
Then she was gone.
Nikky came to my help once more. She said Bene had gotten pregnant after our first night together and had to put her education on hold to have the child. The baby boy didn’t come out looking too well and was soon dead. Some people said she killed the baby and cursed the man who got her pregnant against her will. She had found it hard to return to school ever since childbirth. And Nikky said Bene was forever cursing the day she met me.
“Why didn’t she abort the pregnancy or give the child to an orphanage?” I asked Nikky. “Most university students do that. It would have allowed her to return to school without anybody noticing anything.”
“I am, too,” I said. “Bene should have let me explain things to her,” I said.
“She still can’t bring herself to talk to you. The hurt is still there, like a fresh wound to tender skin.”
“How else can I talk to her? Her line is not connecting ever since we last spoke.”
“You have to pray she calls back.”
I didn’t do any such thing that looked like a prayer. I returned to my bottles, not wanting to remember anything about my dead child and the woman who had killed him. No girl I met at the bars ever got pregnant again. Perhaps, they did and aborted the pregnancies and never bothered to tell me about it. I may never know the truth.
I was drinking one night when an inner voice spoke to me. Tell Nikky to convey apologies to Bene on your behalf. I emptied the glass of beer to its last centiliters and then obeyed the voice. I got on the phone at once. Perhaps, it was the opinion of the old seer that I had heard.
“I want you to beg Bene for me. I have not apologized for that night we had sex.”
“She’s not angry over sex. Did she say you raped her?” She chuckled over the phone. “She liked it and said you were the first guy. And that’s why she was a little childish and stiff.”
I heaved a sigh. “Then what’s the issue?”
“She didn’t expect to get pregnant.”
“She was a big girl and should have taken care of herself. I can’t teach her how not to have a child.”
Hissing sounds. “Is that all you wanted to tell me?”
A sigh. “No.”
“Was your friend ever married to someone?”
“I don’t get it. I don’t think so. Wait. Did Bene tell you she was, or you heard something?”
I didn’t know how to tell Nikky that my landlord dragged me to a diviner who said I had slept with someone’s wife in the underworld. I let some seconds pass, and the words flew out of my mouth like a jet of racing semen. Nikky began laughing.
“Wait.” She said when her fit of laughter had left her. “Are you saying my friend has a spiritual husband? You believe those things as well?”
I told her I wasn’t the one who said so. “I don’t believe in those invisible husbands or wives. Pagan beliefs.”
“Then why are you telling me about it?”
“I don’t know what to believe anymore. Life’s not getting any better with me. Everyone says I am cursed or something close to that.”
Nikky promised she would get across to her friend. And she did because Bene called me not long afterward. She was spitting fire when I answered the call, the number hidden from me.
“Don’t call me that.”
“I am sorry.”
“I want to say I am sorry for getting you pregnant.”
“Do you forgive me?”
I repeated the question, wanting to be sure the curse had flown away from me like an impatient fart in the early morning.
“You never offended me. Who said you did?”
I was silent. I didn’t want to talk about the diviner.
“I have no issues with you. We had sex I got pregnant. And that’s it. I am learning to forget the past. I got careless with you. I should never have followed you to that cursed apartment.”
I didn’t know when it happened, but the message of the diviner flew out again, blistering like semen from a man that is tough to satisfy in the bedroom.
“I give you my forgiveness if that’s your ask. Go and sin no more. Say your act of contrition. But I don’t know about any invisible husband. I have to go now.”
She reminded me of a Catholic priest at the confessional. “Wait,” I said, rocking forward, acting as if she stood before me, and I would grab her hands, preventing her from slipping away. “Tell him I am sorry. Beg him. I never meant to take his wife.”
But I don’t think Bene heard that. She was gone. That was when I decided I would return to Baba if I didn’t stop falling. I needed to erase that sad, depressive mood that overwhelmed me after the abrupt way Bene had ended our conversation. So, I went drinking, mixing homemade ogogoro gin with cheap beer. It was inevitable that something terrible was going to happen. But I didn’t care about falling and then standing back up again. Lurching from the bar to the door, I landed outside, a cold evening wind blasting my face as I tried to grab a nearby street light pole. But I keeled over and landed on the ground instead. And then the lights went out all around me.
Baba hadn’t lost hope of seeing me when I knocked on his door with twitchy fingers, my heart unsure how he would welcome me. There was a smirk on his face, with that unspoken satisfaction that he was right about his divination.
“I knew you would return to the gods,” he said. “They are more potent than you care to admit. You must learn to respect that which we inherited from our fathers.”
I kept an inscrutable face.
“You are alone today?”
I nodded. I didn’t see the need to return to the seer in the company of my overbearing landlord. He would have laughed at my initial refusal to believe some ancestral spirits needed a fix of original gin. The gods would also offer some to the invisible husband at the river bank. My landlord would have asked me, “what snapped in you? What broke through your defenses?”
I would have shrugged my weary shoulders and stared at him with blank wide eyes.
“My condition hasn’t changed,” I would have said instead. “But I am tired of falling.”
“Sit down. I will be back,” Baba said and left the room with urgency, a little twinkle in his eyes, his lips melting with a smile. He reached the door and turned to face me: “Did I say you would sleep here the last time we saw each other?”
I nodded, deciding I would stay with him for as long as he asked.
“We will go to the riverbank at midnight together.” He fixed me a bold, questioning look. “Do you have any objection to that?”
“Anything you say, Baba. Anything to change this life of painful falls, dreams of angry creatures, Bene and her goddamned husband.”
“Just a moment. We will start at once.”
The seer left the room. He returned within seconds as if someone had chased him back into the room. He began arranging his divination stones on a bright white piece of cloth he had brought along. I took a learner’s keen interest in what he was doing, unlike when I first saw him.