The Hidden Songs of a Secret Soul by Bob Greene
Are there any people in your life who remind you of Boo Radley? The following essay is a modem-day song of the self, a profile of a person with a surprising, and secret, leisure-time pursuit.
Lenny was the loneliest of dreamers. No one knew; we wouldn't have known, either, except for the fact that the afternoons got long, and the only way to make it through was to talk. After a time we even talked to Lenny.
He worked in the shipping room of a bottling plant. It manufactured soda pop. Lenny was a thin, slight man in his middle forties with a stammer and a sad face. We worked at long tables. Lenny was the only full-timer at our table; the rest of us were in school, and we came in whatever afternoons we could spare and picked up pocket money for the weekends. For us, the job was a dreary way to kill time. For Lenny, it was his sustenance.
The other full-timers in the room liked to kid Lenny. Most of them were in their twenties, and they passed the day with talk of women and late-night intrigue. Lenny had no wife or family, and he never spoke of a woman. So when the full-timers became bored with their own talk, they would call over to our table and rag Lenny some. They would ask him about his romances, and when he would become embarrassed and turn away and try not to answer, they would not let up until they became bored with bothering him. They didn't mean anything by it.
He never said much, and for awhile we didn't say much to him. We would come in after classes, nod hello to him, and start loading boxes. Lenny had spent most of his life being invisible; we sensed that without really thinking about it. He just seemed happy that we didn't rag him like the others did.
One afternoon, though, he started to talk. He didn't slow up what he was doing, but as he worked he began to ask us about the classes we took in school, the courses we were studying. He asked if any of us were studying English as a major; he wanted to know if any of us were studying the great poets.
None of us thought much about the questions at first; I know I didn't. But after that, a couple of times every week, he would ask the same things. It was always about the poets. On the way back home in the evenings, we would talk about it and wonder what he meant. One night we determined that we would find out.
So the next day, at break time, we asked Lenny to sit down for coffee with us. We had never had coffee with Lenny before; usually he would disappear on his break. One of us asked him about the poets.
"I just wondered," Lenny said. But we pressed.
He avoided it, and so we dropped it and finished our cups. just before we were due back at our table, Lenny said, "Sometimes I write poems."
We went back to work and tried to make him tell us more. It was so unlikely, the idea of Lenny, who seldom had the nerve to speak and had trouble when he did, spending time committing his thoughts to paper. When we attempted to question him further, he became uncomfortable and flushed.
"Don't talk so loud," he pleaded. "The others will hear."
We asked him that day if he would let us see his poems, and he said no. We kept it up, though; we wanted to see. Finally he said that he would like to let us see them but that he was afraid that if he brought them in, the others would find out and make fun of him.
We told him we would go with him to see the poems. He said he would think about it, and we did not let him forget. One day he said that we could come home with him if we wished.
After work we rode the el. He lived in one room. There were. not enough places for us to sit. He brought out a large scrapbook. The poems were inside.
They were written all in longhand, with a fountain pen. Even before we started to read them, they looked elegant. Lenny's hand moved with strokes full of flourish and style, confident and strong, while Lenny was timid and quiet. And when we did begin to read, the poems were beautiful. The verses were long, and rich with imagery and detail. They told of love, and of spiritual triumphs, and of life in faraway places. They were music. We must have sat and read for an hour, saying nothing. When we finished and looked up, there was Lenny, in his rented room, staring away from us.
"Please never say anything to the others," he said.
We tried to tell him how good the poems were, how he should be proud of what he had done, and not ashamed to let anyone know, but he cut us off.
"Please," he said. "I have to work there."
We went home, and the next day Lenny let us know, without a word, that we were not to talk about the poems again. For a few months we continued to work, and Lenny continued to take the joking from the other full-timers. Then school ended for the summer, and we left the job, and Lenny. We never went back.
The reason I am thinking about this is that I saw him the other day. There was no mistake; it was he. It was on a crowded street, and there was Lenny. I motioned to him, and called his name, and started walking toward him. He saw me; I know he did. He turned around very quickly and walked away, and I knew that I was not supposed to follow.
Reprinted from "To Kill a Mockingbird: The Screenplay and Related Readings" published by McDougal Littell, é 1997
Copyright 2002 é Tri-Rivers Educational Computer Association
Last edited: April 8, 2002