Through part of my childhood when I was a kid, I slept on a mattress that was made of 100% foam. It wasn’t like the mattresses we see today. The ones that have seven layers of heaven – springs, padding, memory material, air pockets, water and gel. The ones that are now over a foot and a half thick. Mattresses today are really something else – something wonderful – and something very different than the mattress I slept on for a few seasons during my younger years.
I’m not sure why I remember that mattress so well. I’m also not sure where it came from. I think my parents had a good idea one day while browsing the aisles of a bedding store. They most likely tried the foam square for themselves and after quickly realizing they had made a horrid mistake, they pawned it off on their poor, unsuspecting son.
It was no bother to me. I actually happened to like that mattress. It wasn’t until after sleeping on it for a few months did it begin sinking in the middle, creating sort of a “valley” or “trough” of sorts. But really, I was a kid and kids took what was handed to them. Who was I to complain about being the recipient of an almost brand new mattress? One that was given to me simply because it didn’t meet the tastes of someone or someone(s) else.
It isn’t all too difficult to remember – lying face down in my bed trying to sleep while hearing the squeak of my bedroom door being pushed slowly open. I was only nine years old – quite a long time ago. I honestly don’t know how I remember these things so clearly, but I do. The door was squeaking and on the other side of it stood my mother. She had her hand resting softly on the brass doorknob and was pushing the door forward little by little in an attempt to sneak her head through the small space she was creating.
The mattress I happened to be lying on was terribly uncomfortable. It was queen sized and, like I mentioned above, it was fabricated of pure unadulterated foam. And as I also mentioned above, there were no pocketed coils on the inside and it hadn’t any of the firm edges we see on the more luxurious mattresses of today. If you weren’t careful or if you were an excessive roller, by morning you could find yourself crumpled on the cold hardwood floor below. It wasn’t very old at all, but it had quickly proved inadequate for my parents. After they had quite enough of it for themselves, they replaced it and handed it down to me.
There I lay, on a sunken mattress at only nine years old, being forced to listen to the noisy result of a hinge no one had ever bothered to oil. My mother was pushing the door open for a reason none other than to follow through with a belief she held – a belief that said; if she was up for the day, I should be up for the day too. In fact, once the sun began its daily rise, according to my mother, everyone on the planet should follow. Unfortunately, I was the only one my mother had control over. If I had been a factory hand who had worked the third shift, I should be awake. If my head had hit the pillow just a few moments earlier, I should be awake. If I hadn’t slept in three long days, I should be awake.
It was seven in the morning and while I was used to being woken up at this ungodly hour, I’ll tell you this – I certainly didn’t like it. Why was I being woken up? For what reason? I’m sure those are good questions – ones my mother would’ve been all too happy to answer for me. Because if I didn’t get out of bed – well, that would just be a sin.
Now wouldn’t it?
It’s a good thing I was only nine years old and I didn’t have that job at the factory working the third shift. I simply liked to stay up late, so I know it was my own fault for being so tired in the morning. I knew I was expected to hop out of bed at seven, and if I didn’t, I would hear that god awful squeak of my bedroom door being pushed slowly open, the door with those odd wooden slats towards the bottom which allegedly let the heat in during the night.
“Honey, time to get up.”
“Can you please go away?”
“Honey, rise and shine.”
“Mom, I’m serious. Please go away.”
“Honey, your father needs your help outside. It’s time to get up.”
“Mom, I’m going to say this once more. Go away.”
“Get up now.”
I eventually and grudgingly rolled off that miserable foam mattress. I moaned to myself and thought of everyone else. My friends slept in late most of the time. In fact, they slept so late that they rarely meandered from their bedrooms before noon. And they woke to the smell of bacon and eggs. Why, I repeatedly asked myself – why was I expected to rise and shine at seven in the morning while the rest of my friends had their parents sitting at their bedsides, running their fingers through their hair, quietly whispering that they should enjoy their beauty sleep. Enjoy it because they had a busy day ahead of them relaxing by the pool or riding motorcycles or going to the mall with their friends.
Why should I enjoy getting up that early and actually cooperate with the whole thing? Why should I willingly agree to something so absurd? And why was it that my mother constantly led me to believe that the whole thing had to do with some sort of a moral obligation? – a moral obligation that I would never understand. And seriously, I was nine years old. What could my father possibly need my help doing?
So I got up and walked around a bit, wandering about in my pajamas. A few minutes went by and I was heading for the kitchen to get myself something to eat when my father walked inside. He came in through the garage door like he always did and I heard those distinctive, slow paced steps across the hard playroom floor, like I always did. It made me cringe. It made me cringe because every single time, without a doubt, that my father saw me between the day I was born and the day I moved out, he would ask me to do something.
And he really would ask too. He would say something like, “Hey, since you aren’t doing anything, why don’t you go outside and stack some wood?” But then he would follow the asking with telling. He would say something like, “Hey, go stack some wood.”
You may have guessed – my father liked firewood.
As I got older, I would answer my father when he asked me to do things. He would ask why I wasn’t stacking wood and I would give him a clever response that made only too much sense – to me. I would tell him that I was finishing up my dissertation on the language barriers of Latin American immigrant households living in northern New York. I would give him reasons like that followed by a big lazy grin that, looking back, probably should have earned me a punch in the jaw.
But he wouldn’t do that. He wouldn’t punch me in the jaw. He would simply look at me with those dark eyes and that black curly hair of his and tell me to get the hell outside and stack the damn wood.
I usually complied, but I’ll tell you right now that it got tougher and tougher as I got older. I got taller and taller and stronger and stronger. My interests grew and my mind changed. I found that as time progressed, the art of stacking wood become less and less interesting. I began finding ways of avoiding my father every time he came roaming around looking for someone to bark an order at. I hid in my room, pretended I was in the bathroom or, at times, simply scrambled out the back door the minute I heard those familiar footsteps hitting that playroom floor.
My father is a nice guy. He’s not overly complex and he’s not too simple. He’s just a nice guy. If you’ve had the privilege of living near him or working with him, you’ve probably also had the privilege of benefiting from his knowledge. He knows a lot.
In explaining my father, I have to remember that people who are reading this right now may not know, or may never have met the man. So I’ll try to put it into words the best as I can.
Besides my father being nice, not overly complex and not too simple, he’s also helpful. He helps those who need it and he oftentimes doesn’t wait for them to ask. He has the tools, he has the brains and he has the ability. One can easily get spoiled by the amount of work my father has invested in other people’s lives. Being his son, at times I forget that he is the way he is. I take it for granted. But having lived away from him for a number of years now, I have come to appreciate the value he adds to a neighborhood.
But it’s not all butterflies and rainbows you see, so we shouldn’t get too carried away here. As his son, my father also made me work. And work. And work.
I swear, I don’t know why he made me work so much. Even to this day, I sit and have conversations about why he did things the way he did them. I say things like, “Why didn’t we finish all the log splitting in the summer? We could have spent a few weeks of each year splitting and stacking and we would have had a good system come winter. Why did we spend all year doing both of those tasks?”
I also say things like, “Why did we go outside in the middle of winter to fix the trucks? Why didn’t we do the maintenance during the summer so we could enjoy smooth running come winter? We could have had so much more free time.”
There are millions of whys, so the list can go on and on. As I get older though, I’m beginning to discover the answers to some of my questions. I think it has something to do with my father’s enjoyment of working with his hands – or his enjoyment of working, period. He also isn’t one to sit around waiting for life to approach him and ask what it can offer. If he isn’t outside working on something, he isn’t living. And he likes to live.
That really doesn’t answer the question of why he found it necessary to have me at his side for every minute of every day though. Not that I didn’t understand the value of the heat the wood provided or the usefulness of the trucks he had. I did. I just didn’t see the value of me, someone who had limited muscle, skill and talent, joining him to satisfy his appreciation of working.
As I get older though, I’m starting to learn the method to his madness. I enjoy working with my hands. I can fix things without asking for help. I value the enjoyment of splitting wood on a warm autumn day. If my father were reading this right now, I bet he’d have a small grin spreading across his face while thinking to himself, “See, you damn kids never wanted to listen…”
But there is something much more that I learned. Today I don’t have to warm my house with wood that I split myself. I don’t have to plow the driveway myself, or even do my own lawn care. I can find a better solution to those things, and I have. The real reason for my father being involved in so many things has to do with his independent spirit. He never wanted to be shackled to a mechanic or a landscaper or a tree company. He never wanted to rely on someone else to do the work that he felt was his obligation to do himself, the work that his sons should also learn to do themselves. I have finally learned through my experiences that my father was actually teaching us to value our own self worth.
My brother and I used to make fun of him. Fun of him when my father brought us there. Fun of him because all he was to us two kids was an old man with a big nose who wore a captain’s hat and an old torn up blue pea coat. But I think it may have been, even more so, his soft foreign accent and the way he would totter off with his bad leg right after telling my father what he needed done. We laughed, my brother and I did. We laughed at his long wisp of white hair that stuck out behind his left ear from under his hat. Every time we saw the old man, we would laugh and talk about him after we got home.
“Did you see his hair today?”
“Yeah. What’s up with that anyway? Why is that the only part of his hair that’s long like that?”
“I have no idea. We should ask him some day. That would be so funny.”
And I swear he wasn’t a pretty man either, I’ll tell you that right now. I remember leaning against one of my father’s old rusted trucks and looking at those big blue veins running through his bony aged hands. The hands with those huge worn out knuckles. I remember the tan pants he would wear virtually every time we saw him and his white button-down shirt that was now much more yellow than it ever was white. The shirt that was always untucked and those muddy shoes he used to wear. Obviously he didn’t mind his appearance because all we were to him was a man and two young boys who were there to help him out.
We were just kids who really didn’t care where we were. All we wanted to do was to explore this old man’s huge piece of land. Two kids who wanted to explore the old man’s land – the old man who would completely, totally and utterly ignore us.
I had it worse than my brother did. At least when we showed up he would get a nod or a tip of the old man’s hat, a small gesture of acknowledgement. I got nothing. I got nothing at all and it made me wonder what I had done wrong. I didn’t know why I was never looked at and never even noticed. Even after my father introduced me to him, the old man still chose to ignore me. I didn’t know what someone could possibly have against a nine year old kid he had never laid eyes on. I’ll tell you this though, it made me feel small. Smaller than I’d ever felt before.
Now, I’m not saying that my brother had it much better by any means. After the tip of the hat or the nod, he got nothing more. He would end up on the same playing field that I was on and he wouldn’t be noticed by the old man during the rest of our visit. After a while we got used to it and would either just help my father do what he was there to do or we’d slowly make our way through the land to discover what it was all about.
I do want to talk about this old man’s land though because I feel that it’s important to this story. My brother and I, we found some really interesting places on that land. Places that I think about often and places I remember well. And believe me, there was a difference between the land and the property that this old man owned. The property held his estate. The land held something I can only describe as magic.
If you were so inclined one day to take a boat ride, and decided to take that boat ride on the reservoir which was down the hill and across the road from the old man’s land, looking up you’d see his large white house sitting way up on top. The area I’m talking about didn’t really have mountains. It had hills. Fairly consistent rolling hills that held his driveway, some small cottages and buildings and the house. Now remember this, you’d have to take a real boat ride on the reservoir – you couldn’t just get in the boat for a short trip. You’d have to take that boat towards the middle of the reservoir, towards the island, to see the big white house. But once you got there though, it’d be worth it because that big white house looked beautiful up there. It really looked fantastic – almost as if someone had built that house there simply for the view from the reservoir. Which is strange because…
The reservoir across the street actually came after the house was built. Same with the road. The house was that old and had a history all its own. I could tell you that story too, but that would force me to spend more time writing and writing isn’t something I really have time for these days. I do it simply to get things off my chest. I do it because it makes me feel better.
Now, say you took the boat back to shore and crossed the road, you’d find yourself standing at the bottom of his driveway. It was a steep driveway – really steep. Far too steep to be safe driving down in the snow, which is why I always wondered why it even existed. Why it was used. But let’s forget about how steep the driveway was for a minute. It’s not important. Because I’m going to describe what was up the driveway and on top of the hill. That holds more importance.
If you started to head up the driveway on the right, just a few feet up, you’d see a small blue and white striped booth. Almost as if the property was once used for concerts or something and that booth was used for someone to sit inside and take tickets. Or perhaps it was used as a guard station. I’m not sure.
Anyway, if you continued up the driveway, which was quite long, over the crest and looked to the right, you’d see an old white shed. This wasn’t a typical old shed that you and I might use to store gardening tools. This shed was about fifty or sixty feet long and was set back off the drive, into the grass and under a beautiful canopy of trees that created a wood line. The whole entire face of the shed was wide open too. And from what I saw when I was a kid when we used to pass by this long old shed, was that it was chock full of rusty old machines. There was a lot of steel in that shed, so much steel in fact, that I wondered what it was all used for. Again, there seemed to be machines – machines that took care of some important business. To this day, I still don’t know what all those rusty old machines did. And I’m not sure that me knowing what these machines were for makes one bit of difference either.
At this point, lets say that if you wanted to see the big white house, it wouldn’t be a problem – you could. It wouldn’t be difficult at all, because by the time you reached the shed, you were on top of the hill. You could easily walk towards the shed, stand right in front of it and turn around. Of course you’d have to peek through the cluster of huge old pine trees, but you could still see the house. And if you walked about a hundred or so paces towards the house, you’d be able to get a full view of it. The house was beautiful and the closer you got to it, the better it looked. And the more you looked around from your vantage point at the house, across the large lawn and down the hill and towards the reservoir, the view was even more impressive.
I always thought this part was funny. I don’t know why. I just thought it was funny because it seemed so official. And I’m not sure where the old man got the sign from – maybe he had to buy it from the town, but a bit further up the drive was a sign that read, “Keep Right.” It just seemed out of place is all. But since the paved roads were narrow and there was really no way two cars could pass by each other, it was probably a good idea people followed the suggestion.
Now, for the sake of brevity, I’m going to give you a quick rundown on what was past that “Keep Right” sign and what was further back on the property. These remaining buildings don’t have much to do with anything so I’ll gloss over them simply to give you an overall view.
Directly behind the sign was one of the small two level cottages. The old man liked to rent out his cottages as apartments. He was crafty and he didn’t like to see anything sitting idly. Because of this, he would place ads in the local paper to entice a single twenty something to come and rent a place on his estate. They would fall for his old German charm, quickly hand over a few month’s rent, only to discover later that the cottage wasn’t the place for them. Rentals didn’t last more than a few years at the most. The cottages were simply too small.
They were charming though. If you decided to put the tiny size of each cottage out of your mind for just a moment or two, you’d be delighted with the bright white paint and the blue shutters. If, by some chance, you had a child, you’d also be delighted by the small playground consisting of some monkey bars and a swing that was situated right under another big pine tree. Again, it’s unfortunate that no one could possibly take the rentals seriously because I’m sure the kids loved them.
If you were to make your way about thirty yards farther, past the first cottage and past the tiny playground, you would see two more cottages directly in front of you, one directly to the left of you and an old factory type building even further to the left. You wouldn’t think the two cottages in the front were really cottages at all, if you want to split hairs. What the old man did, was he turned some older buildings into rental units to make more money. And to entice the prospective tenant, the old man kept them in line with his theme of white with blue shutters. But we’re not splitting hairs here and for the sake of my story, we’ll continue to call those two buildings cottages. At least that’s what I’d like to do.
Now, regarding the factory type buildings to the left. They really are another story for another time and I’m almost sorry I even mentioned them. I really am, but since I did, I’ll say that it was done to simply give you a sense of what’s going on. But keep them in mind though, because those old factory buildings may still play a small part in this story yet.
It’s almost over, so try to hang in there with me. Okay. So, if you decided to continue on past those factory buildings to the left and even past those two last rental units at the end of the driveway, you’d see the narrow pavement turn ever so slightly to the left. That’s where it ended. The pavement that is. The road turned into dirt and led to a rather large parking area for all the tenants to park. A dirt parking area, of course. This is also the area my father used to store his trucks and this was the launching pad for the explorations my brother and I used to enjoy so much.
And how we enjoyed those explorations.
Now I’m going to go back in time just a bit to fill you in on how my brother and I started to really enjoy hiking. You know, one isn’t just born with it. My brother and I, we were introduced to it at a very young age.
I’m not sure when exactly my parents bought the land, but I’m pretty sure it was before I was born. Let’s just say that I don’t remember my parents coming home one day and saying, “Honey, we bought some land.” It didn’t work that way. As far as my life went, the land was always there. Plain and simple. It was there the day I was born.
It was fourteen acres upstate. That’s what people used to call forty-five minutes north of where I used to live before the world shrank. Now, it’s not upstate anymore. It’s downstate. It’s downstate because people commute to the city from the town where the land was located. Mind you, the house I lived in for twenty-two years was at least an hour from the city, if not more. So if you take an hour and then add another forty-five minutes to it, you have yourself an hour and forty-five minutes. In one direction. That’s how long their commute to work is every day. The people who commute from the town to the city – each way. That’s crazy.
In my opinion, and even as I sit here and write, I think the town that held the land is still upstate. I don’t care how small the world has gotten and I don’t care how many people live there now. They can do whatever they want because the land my parents bought remains there today and hasn’t changed one little bit.
It was the perfect land too. Like I said, it was fourteen acres and it was perfect because it was about two acres wide and seven acres long. The front two acres were level and the rear twelve acres started slowly rising uphill, eventually to level off and then gradually slope downward again. This topography is what gave us the idea to so affectionately name this land that my parents bought, “The Mountain.” It’s funny, because I’m picturing someone from my family reading this right now and having them see those words. I’m imagining them getting shivers down their spine. Shivers because everyone in my family loved that mountain. We loved that mountain so much because we spent so much time there. Time as a family. We used to travel to that mountain at least three or four times each season and we used to all go hiking and camping and I’ll tell you right now that we all loved it. It’s just as much a part of each and every member of my family’s life as it is a part of mine. I think of that mountain so much it’s not even funny. Sometimes it even hurts when I think of it because I want that mountain back so bad.
I can’t imagine a finer piece of land either. The land we had went all the way back to a farm in Connecticut. That’s right, the land was right on the border of New York and Connecticut and if you know anything about the town the land was in, you’d know that it would have to be a beautiful piece of property. Almost as beautiful as the farm the land bordered right up against which was vast and green – greener than I had ever seen before. This is when I was a kid. I’ve seen greener farms now that I’m older, but when I was a kid, I thought the farm was the greenest ever. And it was huge – and it still is.
On the back edge of the land and right on the state border, there was a small concrete post of not more than three feet in height. It read “NY” on one side and “CT” on the other. I remember taking the long hike back to see that post every single time we went to the mountain. It was a really fun hike and I made it my duty to do it on every trip. And it was worth it, because it was a long hike and I would usually take it alone. It gave me space and time to think. Even as a little kid, I needed time to think.
One time, when I took the hike back to the border of the land to visit the post, I remember picking up a rock and scratching my name right in the concrete. I thought that I scratched my name really hard too, but I didn’t do it hard enough, because the next time we visited the mountain and I took that hike to see the post, my name was gone. It must have washed away in the rain or something. Either way, I loved standing on the back border of our land looking out over and across the farm into Connecticut. I would stare at it for such a long time, wondering what was beyond it and the rolling hills. I would just stand there and imagine what secrets lay in the land and lives of the people far beyond my lonely perch on the top of my mountain.
Oftentimes, it was warm and it was humid. If it was either summer or autumn, it was definitely warm and humid. As I used to stand there back on that border and wonder, I would sometimes have trouble seeing really far because of the humidity. It created a haze that hung in the air, but that humidity sometimes made the farm and the hills look even better. It would look better especially if it was really early in the morning with the dew clinging on the grass as the sun shone down. It would look like all the fields were sparkling. Sparkling just for me. I would stand there listening to the sounds of the season while looking at all those sparkles. I did that for a long time. As long as I can remember.
And I’ll tell you right now, it wasn’t hard to fall in love with that farm in Connecticut. I can show you pictures of it just to watch your reaction. Because I know for a fact that you would fall in love with it too.
I want you to do an exercise for me – and I want you to do this because it’s really important. I want you to take a minute or two to pretend you’re somewhere else. I want you to pretend that you are up on that farm in Connecticut, the one that backs right up against our mountain. I also want you to pretend that you’re an old man. And as an old man, you have a job to drive a big tractor, drive it through some really big fields. Driving the tractor has one use for you and one use only. That use is to cut hay. Tall golden hay that grows from beautiful green grass. Now, imagine that you are that old man driving that tractor and you are cutting hay really early in the morning. So early in the morning, in fact, that there’s dew all over it. Dew that creates sparkles – sparkles that sway back and forth in the small breeze that passes through every so often.
Now, imagine that you are driving that tractor and you’ve been driving it for some time. For a time that’s long enough for you to be getting a little bored. Imagine getting so bored that you start looking around and just by being bored and looking around, you rediscover things you’ve forgotten about. Say that you notice there is a wood line right up against your farm and it leads to a small path straight into New York State. You’ve definitely never noticed that small path before because all you’ve ever done is concentrate on cutting hay. And since you’ve become a really old man and life is becoming tiring, you don’t really take the time to notice too many things anymore.
Say that on this particular morning, you are bored and you are looking around and you happen to look straight back to the edge of the farm. Straight back past the long early morning shadow your tractor is casting and straight towards that brilliantly lit wood line. Now let’s just say that on this particular morning, as you look back to the edge of the farm, you see someone standing there.
That’s right – you see someone standing there right next to a small concrete post. Now let’s just pretend that the person standing there is a little boy with red hair, red hair that is long and curly. And he is holding in his hand a dandelion. Pretend that the little boy is just holding on to that dandelion with both hands and is twirling that dandelion around. Now let’s say that as you are looking at that little boy with red hair, that little boy smiles at you. He smiles at you and stands there and watches you cut hay. He just stands there and smiles as he watches a real farmer cut real hay on a real farm – and he’s all alone. Let’s imagine for just one minute more that you smile back. You, an old man, smile back and continue to cut that hay.
Now let’s imagine that you continue cutting and the next time you look up to see that little boy, he isn’t there anymore. That little boy is gone. That little boy has disappeared into the woods somewhere. Let’s imagine that you never see him again, ever again in your entire life. Let’s keep going here and pretend for a few more seconds. Let’s pretend that the time comes for your life to stop and you know it. Let’s say that it is time for your life to be over and it doesn’t matter to you one bit because there is something that happened to you one day that made you feel better about yourself. Better about yourself because you were sad on that day you were out in that field.
Let’s pretend that one day, you were cutting hay and you looked up to see a little boy at the edge of the field you were working on. And that little boy smiled at you, smiled at you with a beautiful smile that only little boys can give. A little boy who smiled at you and who was holding a dandelion in both of his hands. Let’s pretend that the little boy who was standing there made you smile too. Just by looking at him standing there, he made you smile. But not back at him – back at yourself. The little boy on the farm that day made you think back to when you were a little boy. A little boy who always wanted to be a farmer. A farmer who would some day cut hay very early in the morning, hay that would cover with sparkles and hay that would sway back and forth with the small breeze that would pass through.
Now let’s pretend that you are long gone. You’ve been gone for years – so many years, in fact, that almost everyone has forgotten about you. No one mentions your name anymore, but there is one person who does remember you. A person who remembers you all the time. A person who remembers you every single time he thinks of his family’s mountain that borders a big, beautiful farm in Connecticut.
My brother and I used to do a lot of hiking together on our mountain. He was the one who showed me how to do it without getting myself in too much trouble. A little kid can get lost in the woods quite easily and I was a little kid. He was a little kid too, but he had a few years on me and he was always much smarter about these types of things. I swear, you can let him go in any woods you want and within a few days, he’ll have the entire area mapped out and a complete village built. He’s amazing like that.
But I’m not like that and that’s why I needed him to teach me how not to get lost and how to navigate around the woods. He would show me landmarks and points of reference for use later on when I ventured out on my own. He was a great big brother because he taught me a lot of stuff. Stuff I even remember and use today.
One time, when my brother and I went out for a hike on the mountain, we decided to head into an area neither of us had gone before. We didn’t mind that this was uncharted territory because that’s what the mountain was for. It was for discovery and learning. If we were to ever really own that mountain, we would have to learn every single part of it.
Anyway, the area of the mountain that we were heading towards was at the rear left corner of the whole piece of property. It was the corner that went from the cleared out camp area my father made all the way back to the border that was right up against the farm in Connecticut. It was a different kind of area too, because although almost the entire mountain was made up of cedar trees, the area that we were heading towards that day was made up of oaks and maples and even some spruces instead. What I’m trying to say here is that the land we were heading for wasn’t like the rest of the mountain. It was different and because it was, there was always the potential that we might get ourselves in trouble. That’s the way I thought anyway. But that may have been because I was scared of going places I had never been before.
As we arrived in that back area of the mountain, things seemed pretty safe. There were no surprises and everything seemed quite like every other section that we had hiked in. We had already entered the rear corner of the property and were steadily moving towards the rear border. The border that was right up against that farm in Connecticut. As you may have already guessed, I was excited to see that farm just one more time.
As we were hiking towards the back, we hit a patch of tall grass, not a large area, about the size where you could easily throw a rock from one side to the other. And in this cleared out area, there was a big green pine tree, big and green and very thick. Now having grown up and all, I know what type of tree it was. It was a Norway Spruce tree, so if you know what that looks like, you know the type of tree I’m talking about. Just imagine how thick a tree like that can look when it’s growing in a cleared out area in the woods. It probably was about thirty feet tall and was really, really healthy looking. To a little kid, that was a big tree.
One of the things I was scared of in the woods when I was a kid was bears. I was never sure if we had any bears on that property or not, but I was pretty sure I was scared of them. If you are familiar with being scared of things, you know that even if you’re positive the thing you’re scared of doesn’t exist or couldn’t exist, you still have a weird way of thinking that it does…or could. And as a little kid, it didn’t matter how many times my mother told me there were no bears on that piece of property, I knew there was a good possibility there were. Especially since I had explored more of the land than she had.
As my brother and I were hiking through that cleared out area I was just talking about, I heard something, so I stopped. I stopped dead in my tracks. My brother heard it too. I know he did because he stopped dead in his tracks just like I did. It was good to see that my brother heard what I heard because otherwise he would have made fun of me for imagining things.
Now, let me tell you, my brother and I just stood there. We just stood there and we didn’t move a muscle. We were in that cleared out area and we were completely exposed to anything, especially the thing that made that noise. It was scary.
We stood there for about twenty seconds when all of a sudden the entire top of that pine tree started to shake. It shook violently – so violently that I thought there was none other than a huge bear up in that pine tree. It shook so much that my brother and I ran for our lives. He looked at me and I looked at him and as soon as we were done looking at each other, we ran like hell. We got out of there so fast you wouldn’t even believe it. To this day, I remember losing my brother somewhere on my way back to camp because I ran so fast. I ran all the way down that mountain right into my mothers arms, screaming that there was a bear up in that back corner of our land. It was there and I knew it was because both my brother and I had heard it.
The only problem was, at that very moment, my brother was no where to be found and my mother didn’t believe one thing I was telling her. If I had my brother there, he could have backed me up, but like I just said, he wasn’t anywhere around. I didn’t know why he wasn’t there either and do you want to know the strange thing? I never did find out where he ended up that afternoon when we ran away from that cleared out area and away from that bear up in the tree. That day on our mountain.
And no matter what happened that day, I’ll sit here and tell you right now, we loved that mountain and the times we had on it. We loved hiking too, no matter if there were some particularly dangerous areas that we were mighty sure to avoid each and every time we went exploring up there after that day.
We used to like hiking around on the old man’s land too. But I’m going to tell you right now that it was nothing compared to our mountain. The old man’s land may have been bigger but it wasn’t as diverse. My brother may disagree with me, but I’m still telling you that the old man’s land wasn’t as good as our mountain. I’ll say that and I’ll say it until the day I die.
The old man’s land did have something though that our mountain didn’t have, and that was a pond. Up on our mountain, we did have a small stream bed that we thought must have had running water at some point. I never saw the running water, but my mother assured me that we must have had a stream running down that big rock on the front of our mountain. She said she once saw the water, but I never did. I wasn’t ever quite sure what my mother was talking about when she told me that we had a stream on our mountain, because I never saw any of that water she so often spoke of. Being older now, I definitely know that in order to have a stream, you do need water.
It doesn’t matter, I suppose. The mountain is gone and I’m not going to talk about it any more. It hurts to talk about and it especially hurts to write about it like I’m doing, so I’m going to stop. I’m going to focus more on the old man’s land now, not because that doesn’t hurt too, just because it’s a different kind of hurt. A hurt that I have to tell you about. And I’m going to tell you that I don’t want to hurt anymore when I think of the old man’s land. Maybe that’s why I chose to do this.
There was a day when my brother and I were hiking around the old man’s land. We were exploring a lot, a lot more than we had ever done before. My father was working and had a big job to do, so my brother and I decided that it would be more fun to go hiking than to help him. We both knew why we were there anyway. It wasn’t a big deal. We were there just to keep my father company. Not that my father got lonely or anything, it’s just that my mother worried about him. Worried about him, especially when he would go deep into the woods with his big machines. My mother thought that anything could happen out there and that if we were there, we could go find someone to help if necessary. I’ll tell you that nothing ever happened to my father besides him getting hungry every once in a while. That may have also been why he wanted my brother and me to be around while he was working. Probably just to go get him something to eat.
Now, on this day I’m going to tell you about, my father didn’t eat. He didn’t eat that day because neither my brother nor I were around. We took off and ran away from my father early. We ran far away so that he wouldn’t be able to find us. We wouldn’t be able to hear him yelling because we ran so far away. And that made us feel better. It’s always better to not be able to hear your father yelling for you than it is to hear him and ignore him. If you ignore your father when he yells for you in the woods, you really have the potential to feel guilty about that.
Anyway, since we were so far away and alone in the woods, my brother said that he wanted to explore the whole back of the old man’s land. He said that he wanted to walk all the away around the land to find the markers that told the old man where his land stopped and where someone else’s began. I’m not sure the old man cared. His land was huge and I’m pretty sure the old man didn’t care where his land ended and someone else’s began. The exact spot, that is. Now, my brother on the other hand did care. He always cared about these things and that’s what made him a good guide that day.
I was never sure how we were going to find the markers. Since the land was so big, I wondered how we would even begin a task like that. I was worried. I was actually worried after my brother told me what we were going to do. Now, my brother wasn’t worried. He wasn’t worried at all because it seemed like he had already devised a plan – something that would tell him where to start and something that would tell him where to stop. You know, thinking of this whole finding the marker thing today makes me smile because I know for a fact my brother still does this stuff. He still does it right now in this very day and age. I know it because he told me he does – he told me not more than just a few days ago.
Anyway, I really shouldn’t have worried that day for two good reasons. The first reason was that I wasn’t in charge of the whole operation – my brother was. The second reason was because of what I’ve told you probably about a thousand times now. My brother was smart, really smart.
The way he started out our expedition was like this – we would find the side of the old man’s land. That’s right, we would find the side of it. We wouldn’t walk straight back to look for the back border. That was too far. Since we knew where the side of the land already was, we would just find that and then follow the markers all the way to the back of the land. My brother seemed to be quite confident. “This is really going to work,” he said.
So that’s what we did. We found some old markers on the side of the old man’s land. And then we followed those markers all the way back, all the way back – so far I swear we went miles. It actually took us half the day. I’ll admit that I started to worry on our trip to the back of the land. It wasn’t an easy hike through the woods, and I even stopped once and asked my brother for confirmation that there was an end in sight. He assured me there was. He said that there had to be. There had to be because the land couldn’t go all the way to China. So I believe him and we kept walking.
On our way to the back of the land, we found quite a few markers. We found so many that it was kind of like an Easter egg hunt. Actually, I really should clarify here – my brother found all the markers. I didn’t find any. I didn’t find any markers because I was in charge of the tail end of the expedition. That’s what my brother told me. My job was to make sure that everything was okay behind the leader, and he was the leader so that’s what, by definition, gave me the job of being in charge of the back. Oddly enough though, by keeping everything okay in the back, I never got to find any of the markers like my brother did.
And I’ll tell you that he found markers. He found a whole big variety of them all the way up the side of the property, all the way across the back of the property and all the way back down the other side of the property. Well, almost all the way down the side of the property.
Remember when I told you that the trip took half the day? Well, that was only half the story too, because the hike we took that day consumed almost the whole entire day. The first half took us only to the back of the land, the second half of the day took us back to the front. Well, almost to the front, like I just said.
On our way back, and almost at the end of the day, and to the front of the land, we heard my father yelling. My father was yelling so loud right then – he was yelling both of our names. I could hear him clearly because by the time he was in shouting distance, we were almost back at the big dirt parking lot that the old man had his tenants park. The woods were thicker in that area too, they were thicker because the trees were shorter and the sun was able to shine in. By getting all that sun, the woods grew a lot of underbrush, so much so that it was almost impossible to walk.
When we got to the point of almost being in the dirt parking lot and when we heard my father yelling for us, my brother thought that it would be a good idea to cut our hike short. He turned around and said, “We aren’t going any farther.” Now, I’m not going to sit here and lie to you. I’m going to tell you the truth and tell you that I was disappointed – really disappointed in not finishing our goal of finding every single marker around the old man’s whole entire property. It was disappointing, but since my father sounded mad, my brother thought that it would be a better idea to cut right across that last piece of land so we would end up in the dirt parking lot. From there, we would be able to run across and down the dirt road my father was making with his big machines. If we did that and got there fast enough, maybe my father wouldn’t seem so mad anymore.
Now, this is where the story takes a turn. It might take a turn for the worse, but you’ll have to be the judge of that. That is, if you decide to keep on reading. Hear this – up until this point in my nine years on earth, things had been fairly straightforward. After the day I went on that hike with my brother though, everything changed for me. It didn’t change overnight, but it changed. And it changed dramatically too. And I swear, as sure as I’m sitting here right now typing this story, my life changed in such a way that it consumes me. It consumes me to a point to where I can hardly think straight anymore. It consumes me to the point of oblivion.
My brother’s time is almost through in this story. I doubt I’ll even mention him more than a few times from here until the very end. He’s played a big part so far because he’s the one who brought me to the point that I’m going to discuss next. He’s the one who had been leading me and teaching me. But right after he left me in those woods that day and ran back to my father, I was through with him. I don’t mean I didn’t love my brother any more, all I mean is that I didn’t need him. Things started to change in my life from that moment on. I was on my own.
Right after my brother and I heard my father calling our names in the woods and he told me that it would be in our best interest to cut our hike short and go back to my father, he started walking towards the dirt parking lot. He navigated his way and walked right out of the woods. The strange thing, and what I still feel bad about, is that my brother thought I was right in back of him that day – he thought I was on his heels. When he got to the parking lot, he heard my father yell one last time. He must have gotten scared because right after he heard my father yell, my brother ran right towards him. He ran with all his speed – all so he wouldn’t get in any more trouble than he thought he was already in.
I remember telling you that at the age of nine, I was often anxious, probably more so than most nine year olds you’ve known. I don’t know why I was such an anxious nine year old either, but it may have had something to do with my proficiency for locating trouble. I was always good at that. And not only was I really good at finding it, I was really good at getting myself into it. The kind of trouble my parents punished me for. Probably because of this, I never followed my brother out of the woods that day.
There was an area of that old man’s land that I’m not sure too many people knew about. Now, I’m not going to say that the area I’m talking here about was secret or anything, but what I am going to say is that it was really difficult to find. It was hard to find, even in the dead of winter when there were no leaves on the trees. And because it was hard to find, it was like a magnet for little boys who may have been hiking and who may have stumbled across an area like that. Little boys who might have been on a hike with their older brother and little boys who got scared of their father who was yelling for them to come out of the woods.
The area I’m talking about here held a pond on the old man’s land – a pond that was surrounded by very thick underbrush and a ceiling of trees, even thicker than that thick part of the woods near the dirt parking lot I described earlier in this story. A pond that was surrounded by underbrush and trees so thick that even if you were flying over the pond, you wouldn’t have been able to see much of it. That’s how thick things were.
So here’s what happened. After my brother ran out of the woods, I stopped and thought about what I was going to do next. I knew that we were both going to be in trouble, so he might as well get the brunt of it. You know – the punishment – if there was one. And since he was the perfect person to occupy my father for the time being, I thought that I should probably wait things out until they cooled off. Cooled off just a bit.
So I started to wander. Wander around that last part of woods we hadn’t explored yet. I figured I could look for good spot to make a fort. If you know anything about little boys, you most definitely know that they just love to make forts in really cool woods. Especially really cool woods with really thick areas.
As I wandered around, trying to waste time and trying to look for a good spot, I found an area where the trees became sparser and sparser and where the forest floor became more and more dense. Actually, it became so dense that I had trouble walking through it. And I’ll be honest with you right now. There were times when I thought I was going to get tangled up in that forest floor.
Now mind you, this wandering of mine all occurred during a time of complete silence. My father wasn’t calling anymore, so I figured my brother had made it back to him. He was taking it like a pro, I’m sure. I’m certain my brother was telling my father all sorts of good stories and giving him good reasons why we were gone for so many hours. He was a champ at handling my father because early on in my brother’s life he had figured my father out. If you ever get in trouble for disappearing or doing something like we did that day, all you had to do is to act more excited than you were in trouble and you’d get away with it.
In other words, if my brother ran back to my father after hearing my father’s angry call, all my brother would have to do is to run to him with a big smile on his face. If he did that, and started explaining how much fun we had and didn’t give my father a chance to yell, then by the time my brother was through, my father would be all softened up. And my father would sometimes even end up on my brother’s side. Needless to say, my brother didn’t get in much trouble when he was a kid.
So, as I was struggling to make my way through this, ever so perfect for a fort, dense underbrush, I started stepping into some soft, dark soil. And the farther I walked, the softer and darker the soil got. My sneakers began getting wetter and wetter until they actually became submerged in water. Water that eventually made its way up above my ankles.
Now, let me tell you, this gave me great reason for pause. Actually pause for a few reasons.
Firstly, because I was sure I had just earned myself a whole bunch more trouble than I had from our earlier hike. Having a little boy slowly schlepp himself out of a woods with head hung low, only to stand before his father with black sneakers and saturated socks is never a good thing. That would require a lot of explaining and since my brother wouldn’t be standing by my side, I would have some real trouble finding someone to help absorb any amount of punishment that would be exacted. I was nowhere nearly as good at handling my father as my brother was.
And secondly, I had reason for pause because any really cool fort in the woods turned exponentially cooler if it had a pond in it. Because of this, I chose to focus more on the second reason for pause than the first.
I would say I explored that pond for a good hour or so. I walked all the way around its perimeter, getting dirtier and dirtier as I progressed. I walked left and I walked right. I walked so much that my legs hurt after all that walking. They also hurt because I had to keep pulling my tired feet out of that thick mud. And that mud was heavy.
But, there were times I found nice places to sit at that pond. It wasn’t all mud you know – there were some nice dry places to sit too. And the places I found to sit were beautiful. Really beautiful. I’m not sure what made the pond so beautiful that day – it may have had something to do with the weather. Because it was mid autumn, leaves were falling from the trees. Big yellow, red and purple leaves. They were falling and carpeting everything around me, especially the water. And as they landed on the water, they floated across its surface. At times, I even stood up to catch sight of leaves that had fallen earlier on and were now resting at the bottom of that pond, easily seen through the clear still water.
As I sat and as time passed by, I would at times feel a small breeze. And every time there was a small breeze, there would be more falling leaves. And like before, every new leaf to land on the surface of that pond would spend its time floating along, spend its given time and ultimately find its way to the bottom.
And I could smell those leaves. I’ll tell you that right now. As I sat there on the ground that day – gently leaning back on my elbows, I could smell those leaves and I could smell that autumn day. I sat and my eyes drifted closed. My head rolled back and my face was exposed to the tips of the forest – the place where the leaves had once hung. It was as if my senses were experiencing the final chapters of someone’s life being played out. I sat there and inhaled the scent of autumn, and as I did, I started breathing in deeper and deeper each breath I took.
You know, at the end of every good day there comes a time to say goodbye. And the time to say goodbye for me was fast approaching. The sun was setting, my father and brother were most undoubtedly looking for me and I was getting hungry. A nine year old boy not eating as long as I hadn’t eaten can get unnerved. I knew from my stomach that it was time to leave. I decided to make my way through that thick underbrush to the parking lot and then to the dirt road my father was clearing out through the woods.
I did this and it took quite a bit of time. But do you want to know the strange thing? As I was maneuvering my course through the underbrush towards that dirt parking lot, I started noticing an area that was sort of opening up into a trail. I began to wonder if the pond was as secret as I had thought it was. Maybe the pond was known about a long time ago and no one had visited it in a while and the trail to it had just become overgrown. But since I was headed back to face the music, as they say, I had to tuck all that wonder in the back of my mind to save for another day. I just continued to push myself through the trail and out to the edge of the dirt parking lot.
I stood there looking down at the ground. Down at my feet. I began to try to kick the mud off my sneakers in an attempt to look somewhat presentable for my father. I already knew I had a lot of explaining to do.
And then I looked up.
I looked up and saw the old man. He was standing there staring straight at me. Perhaps not straight at me – more like straight through me. Right through my dirty little body. With that hat and that button down shirt of his. And that wrinkly chin and that big nose. His mouth hanging open – his lips still closed. He stood there looking right at me with his light blue eyes as if he had never seen me before. As if he hadn’t known of my existence before that day.
And then he slowly and deliberately walked towards me, knelt down and took my hand in his. He knelt down so his level was par with mine and he let his knees fall softly into the dust of that parking lot. He positioned his face mere inches away so I would bear witness to his quivering lip and the tears welling in his eyes. The tears forming right above those sad, drawn cheeks. We were face to face and as we were, he tensed my hand and said, “If I ever see you near that pond again, as God is my witness, you will never experience another ounce of this land for as long as you live. So help me God.”
“Rise and shine honey.”
“Oh, not this again.”
“Yes honey. It’s time to get up.”
“Can I please just sleep late for once in my life?”
“You have to get up. Your father has a surprise for you.”
“What could he possibly have for me?”
“It has to do with you making money.”
“I’m up. I’m up already.”
The prospect of making and spending money has always been very interesting to me. The whole process – from doing something that requires work, trading that work in for money and then trading that money for stuff. I love it and when it’s broken down – broken down much more than above, it’s frustratingly magical. It’s also unique because not many people understand the process. Really understand it.
But that’s not important right now. What is important is what my mother was talking about that morning as she was trying to get me out of bed. Out of bed just one week after I had the conversation with the old man. The conversation that quickly put me in my place and the conversation I kept secret from everyone. Everyone, especially from my father. I kept that conversation more secret than I had ever kept anything else in my life. I’ll tell you why too – because that conversation had deflated me. It was like one minute I was a kid hiking through some really cool woods and the next minute I was a kid walking through a dirt parking lot I never wanted to see again. A dirt parking lot owned by a man I really, really never wanted to see again.
The thing is, I didn’t want there to be an issue between the old man and my father. My father really enjoyed going over to that land and working on it. I think it was therapeutic for him. I didn’t want my father to feel weird going over there knowing that his children were causing the old man problems. I know he wasn’t the kind of guy who wanted to worry about that kind of stuff. All my father ever wanted to do was to work on projects that allowed him to use his trucks and his big equipment. It wasn’t much to ask.
So I stayed quiet. I stayed quiet and tried to avoid anything that had to do with that old man or his land.
“Mom said you wanted to talk to me.”
“Yeah. You are going to rake some leaves today.”
“Am I getting paid?”
“You’ll find out after you rake the leaves.”
“Well, how many leaves do I have to rake?”
“You’ll see when you get there.”
“Don’t worry about it. Go get ready.”
How in the world did I know it? How in the world did I predict that my father was going to bring me back to the one place on earth I had no interest in being whatsoever? Back to the old man’s land. Back to the place I had never wanted to see again – see again for the rest of my life. And why did my father have to make everything a surprise? Why did he have to make everything a damn utter surprise all the time? It was like he enjoyed making me suffer.
I swear he knew the old man was mad at me. I swear he knew that. How could he not know? He saw me crying that day I walked back to him after I found the pond. He saw the redness in my eyes. He never said anything to me, but he saw me crying and he knew what happened. He had to have. Sitting there watching the old man’s hunched shoulders rise and fall as he slowly walked away from me in the dirt parking lot should have told him something. My father just sat there on his piece of machinery watching that old man.
“Dad, why am I here?”
“Because he wants his front lawn raked. The whole thing. The whole thing – from his house all the way down the hill.”
“But why me? Why not you, or him?”
“Because he wants you here. He said he wants to pay you to work. To make sure you work and then get paid for it.”
“So what’s more important here – me working or him giving me money?”
“I think both. He said you’ll be paid based on exactly how much you work today. But he made it very clear to me that you will be getting paid.”
My hesitancy and anger began to fade – and fade fast. The more my father used those words, “paid” and “money,” the more I had visions. Visions of the old man standing there on his front lawn placing giant green bills into my outstretched hand, all for raking his entire front lawn. And a finely raked front lawn might I add. Such a finely raked front lawn that the old man would ask me back year after year to rake it again and again. Which meant more and more money for me.
My face began to relax, changing from a look of concern and apprehension to one of willingness and desire as I continued my thinking.
I may have been thinking for too long because after a while, I realized that I was standing there staring into space. And while standing there, the desire for money became stronger and stronger, so strong in fact that I had a burst of energy that told me that I needed to start raking right then and there. The days were getting shorter and I didn’t want to run out of time. The lawn was huge and I needed to start work right away.
Now, let me remind you once more that I was nine years old. And as such, I’ll tell you that nine year olds have the attention span of a fruit fly. And that’s what I had. The attention span of a fruit fly. You would have agreed with that sentiment if you were standing there on that old man’s front lawn that day. Watching me rake those leaves. Watching me rake that small, small pile of leaves. Probably about two hundred and fifty leaves in all.
And as I raked that small pile of leaves in the old man’s front yard that day, I thought I was alone. All by myself in that front yard.
After my father left and right after I began raking, I slowly began to fade. It didn’t take long – not long at all. I’ll admit that when I first started raking, I was full of vigor and energy. I worked like a hurricane. I raked like a storm right smack in the middle of a beautiful autumn day. I’ll tell you that right now.
But then my nine year old mind set in. As I was raking, I started to imagine how great that money was going to feel in my pocket. All that money the old man was going to give me for waking up early and coming all the way over to his property to rake. Coming over to him and choosing his property instead of another. Choosing to sacrifice a day of my life for him, as opposed to anyone else in the universe. Now, that deserved pay. Big pay. I started thinking like that, like I deserved the money he was going to give me. I started thinking that I deserved that money before I even gave my work any sustained effort.
And as I raked, I continued to fade.
I started to think that if I perhaps walked around a bit with my rake in my hand, I would get paid the same amount as if I worked real hard to get the job done. I started to think that if I spent a long time on his property, inspecting the job – inspecting what had to be done, I would again get the same amount. I started to think that it didn’t matter how little I worked because I had earned so much already, so much for all those reasons I described above. Reasons like getting out of bed, making it to his property and choosing him as opposed to anyone else in the world. And that made perfect sense in my tiny little mind.
It’s a shame I had such a skewed sense of reality though because I’ll tell you that I spent a good long time over at that old man’s property that day. I spent hours and hours on that front lawn. I raked and then walked and then raked and then sat down. I took a break and then inspected and then sat down again. It took a lot out of me that day to avoid all that work. It’s not easy you know. It’s not easy to maintain that furrowed brow of concern and a sense of self satisfaction all day long.
Well, I’ll tell you one thing, and this is what really surprised me that day. The thing that surprised me the day I went over the old man’s property to rake leaves was that he was inside watching me. He was standing right there in his living room in his big white house watching every move I made. He stood there looking through that tall front window that overlooked the entire front lawn and the hill and the reservoir gazing at me for hours. The window that extended from the floor all the way up to the ceiling. And as he watched me, he saw that I did whole lot of nothing. And I came to find out later on, as that old man was standing there watching me do nothing, he didn’t move. He didn’t move at all, not even a muscle.
“How much do you think I should pay you?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Whatever you want.”
“Did you do a good job?”
“Yes. Why yes I think I did.”
The old man and I stood side by side on top of that hill in his front lawn. We stood together admiring my work. The work that I just described above and the work that took me hours to complete. We stood there together, as working men, contemplating that leaf covered front lawn – and we smiled. Smiled at the lawn and smiled at each other.
“Did you make that pile?”
“Yes I did. Do you like it?”
“I think I do. And that’s why I’m going to pay you for today. I’m going to pay you for all the work you completed.”
“Why thank you sir.”
Now I was really getting excited.
And the old man reached into his pocket. He reached in there nice and slowly – dramatically if you will – and pulled out a bigger wad of cash than I had ever seen – ever seen in my entire life. That old man had a big wad of cash sitting right there in his hand, the very hand that was no more than mere inches from my face.
You should have seen me. Looking at that cash, standing with my chin held high, so high I could smell the sweetness of all that money floating towards me. Floating through the air of that autumn day, directly towards my nose – wrapping its little fingers around its tip and making its way right up my nostrils.
My eyelids began to feel very heavy. I stood next to that money and closed my eyes half way as I waited and listened to that old man’s bony fingers flip through the dry, crisp cash. The ones, fives, tens, fifties and the hundreds. I swear I had never seen or felt anything like it.
“Well here you go son.” with his soft German accent.
I lazily held out my hand as my fingertips slowly curled towards my wrist. I couldn’t wait. I still wasn’t looking, but I couldn’t wait. The anticipation was killing me. My knees nearly buckled as I felt the weight of those bills fall ever so gracefully into my tiny palm. Was it twenty, forty, sixty…a hundred? Holy cow I couldn’t take it for one second more.
So I finally looked down. Down at my palm and down to see six dollars. Six singles. The old man had paid me six dollars for a day’s worth of work. Six dollars. And to this day, my father has yet to find a way to live this down.
When I turned fourteen years old, I decided that it was high time to get a real job. Riding my bike down to the old man’s property wasn’t cutting it. I had done it ever since that first day of raking leaves and while it had brought in some extra money, it wasn’t nearly as much as I wanted. If I was to one day purchase that house in the hills I have always dreamed of, I would definitely need more income.
Now, let’s talk about my work ethic for just a minute. I think I did a pretty decent job of describing it above, but in case you didn’t get the gist, I’ll tell you what it was – pathetic. But worse than being pathetic was the fact that even though I didn’t do much of anything in the way of hard labor, I felt I deserved more pay. Being older now, I see that my way of thinking may have been the very problem that kept getting in my way, but as far as I was concerned back then, I felt as though I deserved more.
I often thought about why I wasn’t earning any money at the old man’s house, and it wasn’t until my teenage years that I figured out exactly what was going on. And I’ll just begin to tell you about it here.
During many workable days, meaning weather permitting, I would come home from school, change my clothes and run out the back door of our house. I would jump on my bike and ride straight out of our driveway. I would pedal up the road to its end and then make a right. Now, I’ll tell you that I grew up in a house that was situated on top of a hill, a big hill. A hill so big that it was serious action riding down that hill. And that hill may have been part of the reason why I liked riding my bike to the old man’s house so often.
Anyway, I would ride my bike on that main road until I reached that giant hill. When I hit its crest, I would pedal as fast as I could so I would hit all the big bumps the hill offered. There were one or two larger ones that would allow me to sometimes get air if I was going fast enough. Now, as soon as I got air off the second bump, I would have to start applying my brakes because the old man’s house wasn’t on the road I was traveling. It was on another main road that ran parallel to it. In order to get to the old man’s house, I would have to go to the bottom of the hill, slow down a lot more, and then make a left to cut through to the other main road.
The road I turned onto twisted and turned and was really fun to ride on. I remember it being chock full of big trees and there was barely any traffic at all. Great for riding a bicycle. And even more so since no one knew I had even left my house. I’m sure none of my family would have appreciated getting a phone call telling them that something had happened to me because a car had decided to get in my way or something like that.
When I reached the end of that twisty road and with the reservoir coming into view, I would take a quick right onto the other main road and then I would take a really quick left. My father had built a dirt road that traveled from the main road all the way through the old man’s property and to the dirt parking lot I told you about before. I swear I think I put more work into getting back and forth to and from the old man’s house than I did with what he had me do there.
I would ride my bike along that dirt road, through that dirt parking lot and onto the pavement – finally towards his office which was situated in one of those old factory buildings I told you about. Finally, I would walk inside and get my list.
The old man left a never ending list of chores for me to read each and every day I showed up. It wasn’t necessary for me to find him to ask him what needed to be done. Most of the time, I wouldn’t have to talk to him at all. He would simply wander about his property on his own schedule and think of things that needed to be done. And then he would just add each item he thought of to that list.
In addition to the list that held the items the old man felt needed to be completed, there was always a few dollars as well. A clipboard holding both the list and the money was hung on the wall of the main room, directly across from the main entrance. When I walked in through the door, I could see it without any difficulty. It was a nice arrangement too because as soon as I entered, I would trot across the room, grab the money, read the list and then walk out to get to work. Well, what I thought was work anyway.
Oftentimes, the old man simply had me trim bushes and do some light weed whacking. He would jot down that he needed me to go in the garage to get paint for some small project. Either a fence somewhere needed touching up or a blue shutter was peeling. You know, small stuff like that. And I’ll be really honest with you here. There were times when I thought that the old man just liked having me around. I would see him from the corner of my eye just watching me. He would wander around with his hands clasped behind his back soaking up the situation. The situation he created and maintained right there on his property. The property that held all those wonderful things I have described throughout this story.
Now, like I mentioned above, I thought that I needed more money. I was fourteen years old and even though I had grown very fond of traveling down to the old man’s property to work and even fond of the old man himself, I wasn’t getting paid very much. I thought the grass might be greener on the other side. The day of our talk in that dirt parking lot was never spoken of and the old man seemed to have had an about-face in his opinion of me. I hadn’t found out why because we hadn’t done much talking. But there was a sort of relaxation in the old man. His belligerence had dissipated and he seemed much more accepting of me. It made life better, but still, I felt I had to move on.
My first real job paid me three dollars and thirty-five cents an hour. I worked for the grocery store out on the main road. The main road that was slowly becoming more and more of a main road every day.
Through the years, the town I grew up in experienced a strong influx of people from the boroughs of New York City – people who decided that the town I lived in would be a good place to put themselves for a while. Now, I can’t really complain about all the people who moved into my hometown too much because that’s what my parents did. My parents weren’t natives of our town, so if there was someone from a generation older than me, from the same town, writing a story about the town they grew up in and decided to mention the influx of people, they would be talking about my parents.
There were only three food stores nearby. There was a small IGA, a mid-sized store called Finast and then there was the larger one called the A&P. The A&P is where I got my first official job. This was the store that gave me my first taste of real life. Life that required a time card and life that gave me a lunch break. Life that had me stand behind a cash register for hours on end and worst of all, life that said each cashier was to wear a tie. A tie at fourteen years old.
Back when I worked at the A&P, my fellow cashiers and I were directed by a manager named Jim. This guy named Jim took his job very seriously – for which I’m not sure I can blame him, because it was, well, his job. And his job was to keep the front end of the store running smoothly. He did this by using a whole bunch of tie wearing fourteen year olds to punch numbers in some cash registers. He made sure everyone showed up on time, did their job effectively and that they dressed properly.
I had applied for a job at the A&P in September. I remember it well because I handed in the application on my birthday. The minute I turned fourteen, I ran down to the guidance office in my high school to get my working papers. The very documents that gave me the permission to work in the real world. The documents that somehow also told me that there would be rules to follow out there and that those rules couldn’t be broken.
I followed the rules at the age of fourteen, so the day I applied for the cashier’s job at the A&P, I showed my new working papers to Jim. He stood there and scanned them over. After he found them accurately describing who I was, he quickly and smartly accepted them, made a copy and then handed them back to me. He then proceeded to tell me my start date.
Now, I’m going to try to make a long, and at times disheartening, story short. Jim and I had never seen eye to eye on the tie thing. While wearing a tie was of the utmost importance to Jim, it wasn’t really very important to me. It actually wasn’t important to me at all. It repulsed me and had such little importance to me in fact, that I decided pretty quickly that I was never going to wear one. Not even on the very first day I worked for the A&P. Now, Jim took notice of this. He took notice of this from that office he sat in at the front of the store. The office that was right behind the customer service desk and the office that was elevated just a few feet higher than everyone else’s workplace.
On the very first day of work, Jim saw that I wasn’t wearing my tie, so he approached me to ask where it was. I told him that I forgot to wear it – that I had left it at home. Jim replied that it really was important for me to wear a tie and explained to me that wearing a tie was one of the rules I had to abide by if I wanted to work for the A&P.
Now, you know as well as I do that I didn’t forget that tie. I had never planned on wearing it. I thought I could grind Jim down so I would one day be known as the cashier who didn’t have to wear a tie. Since I had abided by the rest of the uniform, I felt my strategy was innocent enough.
On my second day of work at the A&P, I decided not to wear my tie once more. Jim again noticed this from his elevated office and approached me to ask where my tie was. I told him that I had forgotten it – that I had left it at home.
Jim seemed quite angry at hearing this, but he suppressed his anger and merely repeated to me the critical importance of wearing a tie – the critical importance that a tie had on the operation of the entire store. He then left me alone for the rest of the day to punch those numbers in my cash register.
Now, here’s the dismaying part I’m going to share with you. On the third day I arrived at work, and after somehow forgetting my tie again, Jim hopped down from his floating office and approached me with a beet red face. He asked where in the hell my tie was and when I informed Jim that I had forgotten it once more, I witnessed the emergence of a giant vein in Jim’s forehead begin to throb. Jim wasn’t very happy from hearing this news – not happy at all.
Right after hearing my excuse and not a second after my sentence escaped my mouth did Jim tightly grab my arm to drag me through the store. He pulled me across the front-end, past each and every register and cashier, past the main entrance and down the health and beauty-aid aisle. He continued pulling me back towards the rear of the store and across the last aisle that spanned all the aisles, and slammed through the double doors that led to the warehouse – the warehouse that held the side entrance to the meat department.
Once we stopped in the darkened space, where all the grocery items were stored on pallets for distribution, Jim released his grip on my arm and quickly, with long strides, walked towards and through the meat department double doors to find a meat cutter. A few seconds passed when Jim returned to me with a cutter in tow.
Almost purposefully in front of me and acting as the meat cutter’s manager as well, Jim asked if there was an extra tie floating around somewhere in the warehouse. I saw the meat cutter’s lips begin to curl after Jim finished his question. Apparently, this wasn’t the first time a lowly cashier had to borrow a tie from this department.
The meat cutter slowly turned toward me and smiled. “Oh, sure Jim. Sure we have a tie back here. A nice tie that would look just perfect on this young man.”
Jim and I stood patiently as we watched the meat cutter make his way over to a small wooden bench that held some papers and other junk. A price gun, an apron, a roll of wax paper with neon green stickers. You get the idea.
He looked through a few drawers before he gave an audible chuckle and pulled out the most grotesque green and tan tie you had ever seen. It was about a foot wide with some holiday designs across its face. It looked as though it was a leftover from the seventies and that it may have been worn with some sort of unfortunate costume.
The meat cutter walked back over to Jim and me and handed him the tie. “Is this what you were looking for?
Jim didn’t say a word. He didn’t even turn his head. He just thrust the tie at my chest and said, “Put this on.” As he continued to needle his thumb in my sternum.
As soon as I pulled the tie from Jim’s hand, he decided to clamp on my arm once more – tighter than he had before – to swing around and face me. I could feel his breath on my cheek.
“If my manager walks in this store and sees my employees not wearing the appropriate uniform, it’s my ass. You got that?”
With that, Jim released my arm and with a huff, left through the double doors and headed back to the front of the store – throbbing forehead vein and all.
I lifted my hand to take closer inspection of the tie. I bit my lip and dropped my head slightly while turning it side to side – giving myself a bit of reassurance. I let my eyes wander, lose focus and refocus on all the junk that had piled up in the corners of the warehouse through the years. I took a deep breath in and gradually let it out in an attempt to keep my composure. I stood in place for just a few more seconds before I walked past the meat cutter and towards the desk he had come from almost a minute earlier. I held my hand up – the hand that clutched the fabric – and dropped the tie on the desk.
I turned around and again walked past the meat cutter and made my way to the double doors. I pushed them open and walked straight through them. I continued to walk straight across the rear aisle and straight up the health and beauty aid aisle from which I had come. In fact, I walked so straight that I deliberately avoided making the left turn that would bring me back to the front of the store. I walked so straight that the only place I could walk was straight through the main exit. And I continued walking. Walking so straight that I walked straight home that day. Straight home after making one small stop along the way.
I’ll tell you something – I walked a lot that day. Actually, I don’t think I walked, I think I marched. I marched because I was so angry and marching is what my legs told me I had to do.
After I had exited through the doors of the A&P, I marched past all the newly minted minivans and past the older worn out jalopies that sat outside. I marched down the main road and crossed the driveways of the bank, the car wash and the ice cream joint. I crossed the driveways of so many businesses that day, businesses that were lined up, side by side, all the way down the main road until I reached the intersection – the one that had grown through the years and was now full of traffic and traffic lights.
I made my way across the intersection, through the gas station parking lot and past all the houses that had been unfortunate enough to survive since the seventies – unfortunate enough to have been consumed by the sprawl. I continued to march along the zigs and zags of the main road until the congestion of the area slowly began to fade and until the thickening of trees became apparent once more. The thickening of trees that surrounded the reservoir – the reservoir that I mentioned earlier in this story.
Now, if you remember the reservoir, you surely remember the old man’s property, because it was located directly across the street. And the street I was walking on happened to be the only street in town that ran adjacent to that reservoir. And running adjacent to it meant there was a guardrail and there wasn’t much of a shoulder to walk on. The pavement was narrower along that section of road and it became difficult to travel on – especially by foot.
I remember this part of my story well because as I was walking on that road, the cars were whipping past me, followed by the nauseating smell of exhaust and the tremendous vacuum only a vehicle traveling that fast can create. And create they did, because those cars were traveling fast that day. Much too fast for that road.
Through the years, the drivers in my hometown had become quite aggressive and were becoming more so every day. They had become so aggressive in fact, I felt that I needed to get off the road. Partly for safety and partly for sanity. I had to get off that road because I was simmering with anger and those drivers that day were turning my simmer into a boil.
Since I had already made it to the reservoir and since I was close by, I decided the best thing to do would be to cross the road and walk right up the old man’s driveway. Right up there past that blue and white booth and past the long shed. I would walk up past the old man’s house and all those cottages until I reached the office were my list was sure to be hanging. It would be there because it was always there. And at that moment in my life, that list seemed like the only thing I could count on.
I was still mad at that stupid food store and at that stupid manager named Jim. Jim and his big forehead vein. I should have slapped that vein and then left the store that day. I should have pulled my hand from my pocket and slapped him right in that big forehead of his. If I had done that, I’m pretty sure I would have cooled off a little by the time I made my way up the old man’s driveway. I think I would have been quite pleased with myself. If I had done what I thought I should have done, I would actually be smiling when I was walking up the driveway that day instead of looking down at the ground like some lost fourteen year old. A fourteen year old who was lost with nowhere to go.
But I didn’t. So I couldn’t. I couldn’t hold my head up that day because I hadn’t stood up for myself when some worthless man had grabbed me by the arm and yanked me around. If I had, this may be a different story. Sure, I may have gotten in trouble, but you know what? As I sit here today typing, I could have been chuckling to myself instead of feeling the remnants of anger still boiling away in the pit of my stomach. And as I think about getting in trouble for it – good. I would have welcomed the trouble for something like that. Because any person who scolds someone else for fighting back when they are being taken hold of like that isn’t playing by the same rules as the rest of us are playing by. And anyone who isn’t playing by the rules of what’s right and what’s wrong, really right and wrong, isn’t worth the space they are taking up on this earth.
But I knew I was partly at fault for creating the mess I was in. Only partly though, because I’m not sure the punishment for not wearing the proper uniform at work should be embarrassment as well as the bruising of an employee’s arm. Perhaps asking the fourteen-year old employee to leave, only to return in proper uniform or having the employee call his parents to deliver a tie would be more apropos. Perhaps, but maybe I’m wrong.
But it wasn’t only Jim I was mad at. It wasn’t only him by a long shot. I was also mad at myself for turning away from something I had. Something I had that had been so good to me for so many years. I was mad at myself for thinking there was a world out there that was better than the one I had spent years living in – a world I had created for myself that I was completely content with. One that only required good honest work for good honest pay.
I needed to move on. It had been a few hours since I left the food store and it became a necessity that I find something to do with myself as opposed to simply wallowing in misery. I needed to find a way to feel better, because after I finished walking the driveway and passing all the buildings, I sat in the old man’s office. I sat there for too long. There was no clipboard that day – and no money. My list had disappeared and I thought that every chance I had at finding the world I had once enjoyed so much had disappeared as well.
I decided to go for a walk. Perhaps if I did that, I could get my mind off all the emotions of the day. I could travel the woods like my brother and I used to. I could skirt the edge of the old man’s property and maybe even find some markers like we had so long ago. Maybe, just maybe, if I got lost in the woods deep enough, I would be able to take control of my mind and stop it from spinning around and around in confusion. Jim would become a distant memory and maybe even the old man would catch a glimpse of me stumbling throughout his property and he would have pity on me. Maybe he would find me and assign me a task. Maybe he would stop me to open my hand – open my hand, but this time, to place a list in it.
I slowly stood from my worn chair in the old man’s office, took a few steps towards the window and tugged hard on the beaded chain that hung over a nearby desk. I pulled it until I heard a distinct click. It had once been brass colored and it controlled the switch that fed current to the fluorescent tubes that were buzzing just a few inches above my head.
I continued across the sealed Berber carpet that I imagined as once being totally red, but now had a worn black path through it. As if there was a layer of tar someone had poured and smoothed across its center. A path that guided countless footsteps through the years.
As I made my way out the heavily coated door, I noticed large chips peeling off its face. Chips so large that if someone were to grab one and pull, they would remove a good portion of paint. And I also noticed, for the first time, two window panes in the door that were covered with thinly torn sheer curtains. Curtains that were most surely hung by someone decades before I was born and curtains that were disintegrating before my very eyes.
The moisture and deadness of the office were consuming the threads that held the curtains together. Curtains covering the window panes on a door of an office that was once a hub of activity. A man’s life. A man who one day long ago escaped his reality in search of a different something. A different anything. A man who left everything behind in order to survive. A man who shielded who he was from almost everyone he met, simply to live his life. The very life that had kept him alive throughout his time. They hid themselves from me all these years and now I stood before them, alone, wondering what they were.
I stepped up the two crumbling concrete stairs that led outside and turned around. I stood on the blacktop driveway, under the small overhang that held a sign that read, “Office.” I rested there and tried to peek back inside, through the windows in the door, through those sheer curtains. I pushed my head forward and squinted, trying to see through the other window – the one near the desk.
I tried to envision what the dark office felt like so many years earlier when it was humming with activity. When the old man would wake from his bed and walk just a few steps away from where he lived. What the old man did to occupy himself, days before the factory and his office became an empty shell of a memory. A memory the old man needn’t be reminded of.
I left the protection of the office overhang and passed by two more doors belonging to two more dark offices. I passed by the cottage to my right, and past that, the playground. I passed by those two old buildings I told you about previously. The ones the old man turned into more rentals – rentals to make more money. I continued to walk and as I did, I stepped off the pavement into the dirt. The dirt of the parking lot where the old man had knelt down in front of me five years earlier. I stood in that very spot too. The actual spot where the old man and I had our conversation. The conversation that wasn’t a conversation at all, because it was the old man who did all the talking. All I did was return him a terrified look. A look I held until he was through and until I ran away.
I stood there in the parking lot that day gazing around. Simply gazing around, continuing to wonder where I was. Any amount of strength I had earlier on had evaporated. I had no place to hide and nothing to do, but what I did have was a bizarre feeling of something crawling through my veins. I stood there trying to discover something – anything – and it wasn’t going well, because as the seconds ticked by, I felt more and more alone. Alone, because I hadn’t seen a soul since stepping onto the old man’s property.
But there was something different about this day.
If you remember back to the time the old man spoke to me, you’ll remember the exact location I’m referring to now. The location directly at the end of the trail – the trail that led to the pond. It’s interesting because I had passed by the entrance to the trail on so many occasions through the years that I had practically forgotten about it. I never spoke of the trail or the pond to the old man, and he never to me. I supposed the entire idea of both of them had been somewhat abandoned.
On this particular day, I stood in the parking lot looking around and my eyes happened to settle upon the entrance of the trail that snaked its way back into the woods. I saw the same thing I had seen in passing the entire span of time I had worked the old man’s property. It had been five years since I had begun helping him and, believe me, not much had changed. Which made what I was looking at so much more worth acknowledging. The problem was, as I stood slumped with my head falling slightly to the right, I wasn’t exactly focusing on much of anything. I hadn’t realized that someone had altered the entrance to the trail. I hadn’t realized the trail had been trimmed in such a way that its structure had been changed. It was no longer the same trail I had worked alongside for so long. And as the minutes crept by, I drifted away – just like the day I stood before the old man as he was paying me for raking his leaves and just like I had so many previous times in my life.
It’s a shame I wasn’t paying any attention at that moment, because if I were, I would have been spared just a slight bit of agony. Agony from the clutches of my mind.
But it was getting later in the day. I needed to decide what I was going to do because I certainly couldn’t continue standing there in a trance, daydreaming about where I was and what was going on. Reminiscing about the trail or the pond or even the talk between the old man and me.
And to be perfectly honest with you, my isolation was clenching its grip on me – and the longer I remained, the tighter and tighter that grip would be.
I really want to talk to you about the time I spent in the old man’s parking lot that day. I want to tell you about it because it’s that specific incident that led up to an event that really opened something up inside of me. Something that I hadn’t felt before. And after I tell you the story of the event, I hope that you can understand, or at the very least sympathize with me about what happened. And I hope that you agree that me sitting here spending the time to tell you about it isn’t for naught. That it’s a story that’s worthy of being told.
As I stood there in the parking lot that afternoon, I continued to look around. As I mentioned above, I wasn’t feeling like my usual self – something was bothering me. I can’t pinpoint what it was because as I stood there, the same sun was shining and the same birds were chirping as they had been earlier in the day. The temperature hadn’t changed, so it’s not like the swings of mood that autumn sometimes throws at us was affecting me. Perhaps it was the stillness. Perhaps it was the loneliness.
I decided that a hike in the woods wasn’t a good idea. I knew that if I started I would probably take only a few steps and then I would quit, just like I had quit a few hours earlier the only real job I had ever had. It was a less than inspiring moment, if that makes sense.
I started walking back to the old man’s office to use the phone. I had come to the conclusion that I had failed and that it was only my mother who could bring any peace to my thoughts. I hadn’t worked at the A&P for more than a few days, and the way I had handled things promised to be much more of an embarrassment than I had anticipated. Jim would undoubtedly call my parents that night to inform them of what happened and how I had decided that quitting was a better alternative than standing at the front of the store like an adult – to do what I was hired to do. My mother would agree with Jim and scold me for walking away and for being a quitter. This, at the very least, would end the torment I was inflicting upon myself.
But not my father. I thought my father would have a very different reaction. At rare times like these, my father sided with me. He knew that working in the A&P somehow wasn’t right. He liked me working with my hands. With tools. And if my father caught wind of some stranger grabbing my arm, I think he would’ve wanted to take care of the issue first hand. After hearing the story I told, my father would’ve bent down to look straight in my eyes and would’ve told me that he’d be right back. That he had business to tend to.
At times, it was good to have my father on my side. I knew his heart was cut from the same cloth as mine and I knew that he had little tolerance for certain people in society. While he might have trouble expressing himself, I knew that he would do everything he could for me. And he would align himself with me when he knew I needed it most. I knew that about my father. He probably didn’t know it, but I did.
Both of my parents for that matter. After my mother would tell me how disappointed she was in me for quitting, I would most certainly overhear her in the other room quietly discussing with my father how she never really thought I would fit in at the A&P anyway. How she knew I was better doing my own thing and finding my own path. She would say things like that in private. I know she would. But she also faced the difficult challenge of raising me, and that required shielding me from her true emotions. It’s not an easy task to handle someone like me. Just ask anyone who has had to deal with it though the years.
But regardless of my mix of emotions, I still felt how I did and knew that the gut wrenching feeling in my belly wasn’t going away any time soon. The school would be called by Jim, because I had found the job through them and words were going to be spoken. I wasn’t particularly looking forward to that.
And that’s why I decided to tuck my tail between my legs and walk back to the office.
But the thing is, the day wasn’t over. It wasn’t nearly over and I’ll tell you something from the bottom of my heart – I didn’t want to walk back to that office to call my mother. I didn’t want her to come pick me up and for her to drive me home. I wanted to stay on the old man’s land for a time longer. If for nothing else, to bring peace to my fourteen year old mind. The constant pressure of people wanting things from me was pushing me to a place I wasn’t comfortable being.
So I didn’t walk to the office. Instead, I began walking in circles in that parking lot that day. In the sunshine. Thinking that if I walked in circles, I would eventually find what I was looking for. I didn’t close my eyes or anything like that, I simply walked in circles. Bigger and bigger circles. And the bigger those circles got, the closer and closer I walked towards the entrance to the trail that led to the pond.
Why did that pond have to even exist? Why did the old man’s piece of property have to hold a feature that brought me such misery? The old man and I had come to a quiet understanding through the years and the pond was the only issue that had ever come between us. It was the worst thing I could think of. It was something I still couldn’t understand. It was a memory I would soon rather forget, but found impossible to do so.
You know, I was never really sure if, when the old man spoke to me that day so many years ago, he meant the pond itself was off limits or the trail to it was as well. I was never really sure about that and the dismal mood I was in that day in the parking lot piqued my interest of what precisely he was referring to. I wondered, aloud at times, as I was walking in circles, if the old man had a particular issue with me seeing something in the pond, or if there was some sort of danger near that pond, or if there was some other odd reason, for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out. And I never could come to grips with the reason for his anger that day. Even though I experienced it first hand. Standing there with him, face to face, witnessing something inside him that I had never seen in anyone else. I stood there watching a man slowly fall to pieces. While he may have appeared resolute, I saw him break. Something I’m not sure many people have ever seen.
Or had the privilege of seeing. Seeing right into that old man’s mind. And to be perfectly straight with you, I wouldn’t mind enjoying that privilege once more. Because there was something in that old man’s mind that I wanted. I didn’t realize it back a few years earlier, but I did realize it the day I was standing alone in that parking lot. I realized there was something about this old man that would change how I would live my life and I wanted to find out what it was. And I hate to say this. I truly do. But I wanted to get into the old man’s mind more than I have ever wanted to get into anyone else’s. He and everyone else I had met thus far served very different purposes.
The trail wasn’t long. It wasn’t long at all. It was just as I remembered it, with only a few minor changes. At first the trail appeared wider than I recalled, then I realized it was. It was definitely wider. Someone had been on that trail as early as the very day I was walking on it and had trimmed some of the smaller brush away. I saw the clean cuts at the tips of the remaining branches. The cuts were bright white and when I say branches, I mean to say something more along the lines of thin underbrush. The same underbrush I described earlier on in this story.
I also saw small scuffs on the floor of the trail. They were from boots – I was almost certain of that. Someone had been on the trail and taken some time to carefully cut away just enough underbrush to make passage possible. I could tell they took their time too, because I was quite used to trimming brush by this point on the old man’s property and trust me when I say this, the old man didn’t like losing his privacy. He taught me time and time again how to trim just enough to keep a neat appearance, but not so much to alter the landscape. He impressed that upon me more times than I could recall. And it appeared that the same technique had been used on the very trail I was standing on.
As I continued to walk, I continued to admire the precise clearing job of whomever did the work. Mind you, I was only fourteen, but my skills had been honed through the years. I knew what something was when I saw it.
As I said, the trail wasn’t long, so when I soon reached the end of it at the entrance of the pond’s opening, I wasn’t surprised. What I was surprised at was what I saw. And what I saw made the blood rush from my face.
The entire perimeter of the pond had been cleared of the small saplings that had grown so thickly through the years. There was nothing from the water’s edge until at least five feet from it. It was spotless and where the water met the land there was a defined separation. My vocabulary doesn’t hold the words to describe what I saw. I’m not so much trying to tell you about what was there that day, I think what I’m trying to tell you is how it changed from so many years prior. And since it’s only in my mind, I’m not sure you’ll ever truly know. But let me attempt to explain this as clearly as possible – the mud was no longer there. The small trees and underbrush that had crowded the pond had disappeared. Almost as if I had never seen them at all. The larger trees above the entire area formed such a beautiful canopy – much more beautiful than the last time I had seen them. And the canopy of that day let much wider rays of sun shine through. That sun shone through those thin twigs and their golden leaves reflected off that pond as if in a mirror.
Now listen. I want to tell you this because it’s important here. I want to tell you that I’m not a god fearing man. I don’t believe in god so I’m not sure this is going to make any sense to you. And that’s why it’s going to be kind of difficult to explain. But I’m going to try. As I stood there that day at the edge of the pond, admiring those warm rays of sun shine through those trees, I couldn’t help but imagine them being cast by angels. I didn’t know why either, but in my mind, it was the only thing that made sense. I stood there with such an overwhelming feeling of peace that to me, angels could be the only thing on heaven or earth that would allow something like that. I know, it makes no sense and I feel embarrassed writing about it now, but it’s something I needed to get off my chest.
Let’s get back to what I saw at the pond that day.
The brush further back in the woods had disappeared. Everything that had been, I would say, less than three inches thick at their base had been removed. Again, it was just no longer there, as if it had never been. And large boulders were in plain sight from the pond now. Along with the lichen and moss that lay across those stones. So as you walked around that pond, instead of fighting your way though a dense forest of tiny trees, you could see that you were, in fact, in a small valley surrounded by cliff like rocks and even larger trees than ever before.
And something had been done to the rear area of the pond – the area that was farthest from the trail head and closest to the forest. Something had been done to set that area apart from the rest of what I saw that day. It had been widened slightly more than everything else and its floor had been leveled.
This is the area of the pond that curved the sharpest and is what I can only describe as its end. It was the darkest area too. An area that had behind it dense underbrush that hadn’t been removed. Brush so dense that it reminded me of tightly knit bamboo.
As I stood there that day, just gazing around with probably the most ridiculous look on my face, I forgot all about the old man’s warning. I completely forgot about it because if I had run from that spot that very moment, I think I would have been satisfied. I knew there was something strange about that pond. I knew it to my core and now I had the visual confirmation I needed to allow my mind to wander for the rest of my life. I didn’t need more than that. I didn’t need an explanation. Like so many of us experience when we have a gut feeling about something, all I needed that day was confirmation that there was something magical back in those woods. Not an explanation, just a mere confirmation.
But I didn’t run away. I began to circle the edge of the pond, and look toward its end. And as I did this, I noticed a small bench. A bench that seemed to have been carved from stone. I was too far away to see exactly what type of stone, and I was slightly blinded from the sun reflecting off the pond, but from our location in the country, I was betting on something like granite or marble or something like that. It’s just what came to mind as I looked past the sun rays over at that bench.
I also noticed something else on the bench that day. Something that made me freeze with apprehension the moment I realized what it was. It didn’t look threatening at all, but by virtue of its presence, I was startled. As I looked over towards the bench that day, through those beams of light and over the reflection of the pond, I saw something resting on the stone. It was quite small relative to its surroundings and fairly unnoticeable if one was only to give the area a quick glance. It blended well with its background, so that may be the reason I passed it by the first time. It actually looked like a large crumpled brown paper bag. Or even a slumped sack of some sort.
And I wasn’t even sure I was certain what it was. So I walked towards it, and as I did, the water in the end of the pond became so much more transparent. The sun had become blocked and the crispness of the day let itself be known. It was like anything that had impaired my sight earlier had been filtered. I could finally see.
I could finally see the old man sitting on the edge of the stone bench. All alone. All alone and muttering something to himself.
“Nothing ever changes unless there’s some pain.”
That’s what he said. I didn’t hear him at first and didn’t understand his words when I finally did hear him, but after a few instances of him muttering the same thing, things became much more clear.
“Nothing ever changes unless there’s some pain.”
That’s what he said.
And I’ll be honest with you. I don’t know how I ended up sitting on that bench that afternoon. I’m not sure at all because my mind is missing the part between me standing there in the woods admiring the beautiful sunlight being filtered through those trees and the time I sat tightly against the old man on that bench. It was almost like something came over me. Like what happens when I get really nervous and time passes me by – passes me by as an imaginary blur.
Whatever happened that day to draw me towards the old man doesn’t matter much either, because it’s history. It’s in the past and I’m telling you right now that it doesn’t matter much to me anymore.
But what does matter to me and what strongly concerns me even to this day is what the old man said to me after he stopped his muttering. After I realized that he wasn’t going to scold me for sitting there with him at the end of the pond. His threat hadn’t been followed through and by sitting there at peace with him, I realized that something had changed between us We had slowly gotten to know each other through the years. It was like a crawl – I’ll tell you that. The old man’s relationship with me. It was like a painful crawl that seemed to never get anywhere. And that kind of progression is frustrating for a fourteen year old, to say the very least.
We sat there for a good long time. It must have been at least an hour of being right next to each other in complete and utter silence. I remember the angle of the sun changing dramatically during our time on the bench. It was autumn and the sun was hanging lower in the sky, which led to shorter days than what I had enjoyed not more than a month earlier. And the faster sun may be another one of the reasons I still don’t care much for the season of autumn. The autumn sun that moves so quickly causing beauty to disappear and on that day to make the area around the pond to get much, much darker.
I think we may both have been trying to gain an understanding of what was happening. I think both the old man and I were trying to figure things out, because neither of us said a word to each other for such a long time. After the old man stopped his muttering, he simply sat in silence. He sat there right next to me for what seemed like an eternity. I could sense him thinking and I felt as though he needed me there that day. Especially needed me that day.
It was getting dark when the old man asked me a question. It was in that strong German accent which had always appealed to me. But when he asked me the question, his voice held a tension I didn’t recognize. And he had yet to look at me
“Have you ever lost someone?” He seemed terrified.
I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know how to reply because he caught me off guard. I was so young and I had such little experience with the world. But even being that young, thoughts of losing those I loved had crossed my mind. I had friends whose family members had passed away, but I hadn’t felt anything like that yet. I was at a loss as to what to say. And I didn’t really want to respond, but I did.
“Come back tomorrow,” he said in a much gentler tone.
And the old man got up and walked away. He stood straight up and rigidly walked with that distinctive limp he handled so elegantly. He walked right out of the woods, leaving me to sit, all alone, on the bench next to the pond. And sat there I did. I sat there for some time longer. Even longer than I had sat there with the old man.
The next school day wasn’t a good one for me. It wasn’t necessarily a bad one either, but it wasn’t the usual day where I would excitedly hop off the school bus and run to my locker in anticipation of seeing all my friends. I remember it being much more somber.
Not a lot had happened the night before regarding the A&P. It seemed as though my parents hadn’t really cared after I told them what I had done. It hadn’t been them who had pushed me into applying for the job after all. It was me. I pushed myself in an effort to make something of myself in this world. A small world, but a world nonetheless. I think the anticipation of having my parents scold me was much more terrifying than the reality of the whole thing. I was probably basing it on the many previous experiences I had had with my parents.
Jim did call the house though. He called around seven in the evening and after he realized he was talking to me, he asked me one simple question:
“What are your intentions?”
The question that I’ll remember for a lifetime and the answer he surely forgot as soon as he hung up the phone.
“My intentions are I quit.”
I thought he knew that. I thought he had figured that out after I left the store that day, that I had quit. Quit that lousy job dealing with lousy people. What I had seen those three days I did manage to show up had been somewhat damaging to my psyche. My mundane co-workers, the rude customers – none of them were going to help my life any. Witnessing that stream of people couldn’t be good for anyone.
To get back to my school day for just a moment – like I said above, the day wasn’t anything to write home about, but it did give me a sort of perspective I hadn’t had before. And I don’t know if it was because I was exhausted from not sleeping the night before or what, but it did make me look at things differently.
I walked through those halls that day and sat through my classes. And as I did, I looked around and watched people. People I hadn’t really paid much attention to before. After all, these were people I had known for pretty much my whole life, so it would be rather strange for me to start analyzing them out of the blue, for no reason at all. But I had a reason this particular day to start looking at them more closely. I started wondering what they had done the night before, what they had been thinking of right before the moment they fell asleep. Moments after they had wished their parents a good night.
Because I knew what I was doing. I was sitting in some woods with an old man I had known for years, but hadn’t really ever known at all. I was sitting right next to him on that small bench. So close to him that I was touching him. A bench so small, so small – that it really gave me no other option.
I also know what I had been thinking of the moment before I had fallen asleep the night before. I was thinking of the old man and what he asked me. I was thinking about what the old man had been muttering under his breath the previous afternoon.
“Nothing ever changes unless there’s some pain.”
As if his mind was sifting through the events of his life that had brought him to the place he currently sat.
I was thinking about the old man, and nothing else, from the moment I left that pond the evening before and walked all the way through those woods, along that dirt road and through all the windy pathways and hills that brought me back to my house later on. Much later on. I thought of him through dinner and throughout the night, right up until the point my eyes closed one last time and until I awoke the next morning.
And I was still thinking of him as I stood looking across the sea of people crowding the hallway of my school, each one lunging past the next in an attempt to get to their locker. Each one trying to get to their destination in the easiest way possible.
I thought of him as I plodded through my day, again and again, wondering what other people’s worlds were like. I wondered what mattered to these people, what mattered in their lives because I knew down deep that something was happening in mine. Something was happening that was drawing me in, like a moth to a flame. And I was pretty sure the whole next day that not one person in my school – not one of my friends or classmates was feeling the same thing. It seemed to me that they were more concerned with each other and themselves. They were more concerned with what they were doing at the very moment I was watching them and what they were going to do a few moments after. I wasn’t able to find one person I would have been able to talk to about what I had yet to find out. Find out from that old man.
We sat together again on the same stone bench, only this time it was raining. It was raining hard – actually, it was pouring. We sat together on that bench in silence as we had the day before, but with one major difference that made the moment so much more memorable. It was raining. It was pouring.
And the old man’s hat was nowhere to be found.
I was learning from the old man as I sat with him on that bench, next to the pond that was slowly filling with water. I was learning from him as I was sitting there looking up through those huge droplets of rain and towards the darkened twigs at the tips of the tree branches. The branches that had held light golden leaves only one day earlier. Branches that gave just enough space to allow angels to cast warm sunlight all over my relaxed body the day before. Branches that were now soaked to the bone, just as the old man and I were surely becoming.
We sat there for a long time, again, before the old man said something to me. And what he said caused me to panic. Panic because up until then, I hadn’t felt an emotion that would allow me to express a response to what he had said. It was the same feeling someone experiences when they are told some grave news. News they weren’t expecting to hear. News that alters their existence.
The old man turned towards me, this time looking me dead in the eyes, with rain slowly trickling down his cheeks and over the wrinkles and without another ounce of movement said:
“I used to have a son, you know.”
It made my eyes snap back to the swirling clouds and the tips of those tree branches. It made me look up, holding a position that exposed my face to the rain. Not because of what he said, but because of who he told.
It also made me think. Thoughts I may share with you later. Later, because now really isn’t the time.
I didn’t reply. And he continued on.
“I’m not sure if this is something you want to hear. What I am sure of though, is that it’s something I need to tell you.”
And the rain continued to roll down his face as he looked straight ahead.
“I lost my son on a winter day. He was killed while outside playing. It was a terrible accident and that’s all I’ll say about it.”
I couldn’t tell if they were tears or not, because the old man’s sunken face was already wet. I was sure they were. Perhaps that’s why he had picked this day to share this with me. Because he knew it would rain and perhaps it would hide his tears and perhaps because he had wanted to see if I’d still show up. Show up to listen to him talk.
“Have you ever had something in your hands that you held so tightly – and no matter what you did, it still melted away?”
I didn’t reply.
“Have you ever loved something so much that you would willingly – not willingly – but gladly give your life for it?”
I didn’t reply.
“I would have given my life for my son. I would have died for him. But I was never given that chance. I lost him in my arms.”
And then he fell into what seemed like a trance and started speaking softly. Kind of like a hum…
“I created this pond for my son forever ago. His shadow would trace the forest as he would glide through, learning every corner. I created it for him. The pond. Where you and I sit today. Where my son and I sat together so many days of his life. Talking about his story and mine. The story for one that has come to a close but refuses to for another.”
And with that, the old man broke down in tears. He broke down right next to me and started crying. It was almost as if he needed to hear himself say the words he just said. He held his face in his bare hands – the same hands I described earlier, and so playfully, as being bony and old – the hands that now cradled his face as his thin white hair became more and more matted to his scalp by the rain. I sat and watched his back hunch forward as his sobbing continued. I didn’t know what to do beyond what I had done already – which was nothing.
We sat for a few more moments. And he finally looked up at me with lost drawn eyes. Eyes full of sorrow. A sight I had surely never seen, but one that uncannily reminded me of our conversation in the dirt parking lot so many years before.
He looked up at me and said, “He was only nine years old.”
I never knew there was a woman inside that big white house. I never knew there was a woman lying in a bed near a window on the top floor. A woman with iron-gray hair.
The old man and I talked a lot through the years after our conversation at the pond. We spent most of our time sitting on that same stone bench. Each day would be a continuation of the dialogue that I thought had ended. But I soon learned that ultimately, our conversations would have no end. They were merely parts of one long tale, broken into sections. Sections that were easily structured and absorbed by a young mind such as mine.
The old man’s wife was ill – she had been for many years. Looking back, I seem to remember my father mentioning her once or twice to my mother over dinner. It wasn’t any of our concern, so we, as children, didn’t do much listening when my father had private conversations across the table.
But she was ill. I was never told what was wrong with her either. She didn’t mention it, he didn’t mention it, but it was known through the house – the old lady was ill. So ill, that she would never recover from what was ailing her.
I did spend time with her though. I spent time with her beginning the afternoon I was visiting the old man and found him roaming around the property looking for something to do. Or, at least that was what he told me he was doing. Roaming around because he was bored.
I found him on the front lawn, the same lawn I had attempted to rake years earlier and had actually raked years since. I found the old man walking through the grass looking down towards his feet. It was as if he was simply strolling around looking for a lost piece of jewelry. Looking through the grass, attempting to peel back each and every blade.
I had parked my car and had started walking towards the office to get my list when I saw the old man’s hat bobbing up and down in the distance. A distance that led me towards him on the front lawn of that big white house.
When I approached the old man and let my presence be known, I was surprised that I had startled him. Apparently, he hadn’t heard my car travel up the driveway or the sound of the door closing. He hadn’t heard my calls past the cluster of pine trees and hadn’t heard my footsteps on the grass. It seemed that the old man didn’t hear anything that day. He only heard me when I said that we should go inside so he could get some rest.
We both made it through the front yard and up the driveway, with him holding my right arm, as if we were heading into a school dance. He was holding onto me to keep himself steady because as I could tell, he was acting strangely. He insisted that I bring him inside and to stay calm. He was all right and if I made a fuss, well, that would be it for me. I listened and kept my eye him.
Once we made our way inside and I seated him in the living room, I went into the kitchen to make us some tea. The same tea the old man had told me about so many times through the years. The same tea the old man drank when he was upset about something. The tea that would hopefully cure the old man from what was bothering him that day.
As I was making the tea, standing there in the kitchen alone, I heard a soft voice call from upstairs, calling the old man’s name. It was so soft and so helpless – and so sweet. It was almost a whisper, calling the old man’s name over and over.
As I was bringing the tray into the living room, I saw the old man stepping off the bottom step of the staircase, coming down from the floor above. The old man looked upset and continued to make his way to the couch.
He looked at me and said with a shaky voice:
“I’m going to lose her too.”
I remember sitting in the old lady’s room in that rocking chair. Sitting there with my hands tightly clutched to the rocking chair arms. My legs crossed with my right foot resting on the left. I would rock in that chair as I watched the old lady rest on her bed. As she told me stories and as she let her head swing back and forth as it imprinted her pillow. Her hands would remain still by her sides, under the covers. And I would eventually see the outlines of her fingers twitch and her wrists rise and fall as she would talk. She would laugh and tell me stories about her childhood and about her marriage and about her son.
She would laugh as I would sit there in that rocking chair looking out that great big window in that great big house overlooking the large lawn and the hill and the reservoir. The old lady would talk and talk and talk as I would clutch the chair’s arms and the pace of my rocking would increase. I would stare out the window and my toes would push against the floor beneath me, pushing the chair back and forth. They would push me faster and faster as I would watch and listen. My ankles would stiffen and my heels would lift in an effort to push that chair forward and back. Rocking myself like a spinning wheel would spin.
It wasn’t my fault. How was I to blame? No one can tell me it was my fault for spending all that time with her. She was like an infection spreading through my body. An infection I couldn’t control because once the old lady invited me into her room and began telling me things, I was powerless to stop her. It wasn’t my fault. I swear it wasn’t. Sitting on that chair with the blue cushion, the ruffles and the print of small red roses.
I spent a good deal of time with the old man’s wife through the years, sitting in the rocking chair in her room. The same rocking chair the old man would sit in when he was visiting with her. We would talk and look out that large window facing all the things I described above. Look out that window as we would watch the old man stroll around the front of his property with his hands clasped behind his back.
While the old man was upset that earlier day I came to visit, he shouldn’t have been. Perhaps he was just sensitive to the inevitability of his wife’s diagnosis. He had a right to be sensitive about her. They had been through a lot in their lives.
As time passed, I grew fond of the old man. So fond in fact, that I began wondering why I was the only one to come over and visit with him. I understand that he had fellows from the area stop by to help out with the larger projects on his property, and even my father was still making his rounds, but as time went by, I wondered why I was the only one to actually sit with the old man and talk about life.
I’m sure he wondered the same thing, but as I came to realize through the years, the old man made very little effort to find company. I didn’t see him shaking hands with others and mingling with folks from town. I didn’t see the old man doing much of anything other than walking around that property, either looking for things for me to do or just browsing around at the land that held his place in time.
There were occasions when the old lady and I would spend entire afternoons talking up in her room. She would ask me to pour her a glass of wine and I would be left wondering if I should comply. She would ask at first and then insist that I pour her a nice glass of wine. She would later insist that I pour myself one too. She would laugh at my responses and my regurgitation of the rules that told us seventeen year old men weren’t allowed to drink. She would laugh and tell me that I was missing out because the rest of the world was doing it. She would tell me that the old man was drinking wine with dinner when he was ten years old. Ten years old back in Germany. She would tell me those things and I would feel a bit dismayed because of the way she was saying what she said. She had a certain way of leaving an impression.
Eventually, I would stand up and walk down to the kitchen to pour ourselves some wine. I would listen to her and she would try to yell in that sweet voice of hers,
“Make sure that you give yourself a bit less than you give me. I don’t need you getting drunk now.”
I would listen to her. I would listen because I knew she was just trying to wake me up to things I had never paid much attention to. Opportunities in this world. I knew what she was doing to me. She was trying to teach me lessons – almost as many as the old man tried to teach me.
There was a day when the old lady and I were sitting in her room looking out the window when she became very quiet. She continued gazing outside when she simply stopped saying what she was saying. She froze and I wondered what was wrong.
So I asked her. I asked her what was wrong and she told me. She told me all about the time she was standing in her warm living room, watching her son play in the front lawn outside. She described to me in the most vivid way, how her son had begged to go outside and how he explained to her how careful he would be on that stormy day. She told me about how she let him go, but not before he pleaded and begged. All he wanted to do was to run around the front yard with his arms wide open and his face held high. Run around like he was an airplane gliding in the wind.
She let him go. She let him go and continued to watch him run outside. Run around like he was the airplane he wanted to be. And as she was watching, she was joined by her husband who watched as well. Watched their only son play in the wind.
And as he was playing, the limb from a very large tree broke. It just cracked. It may have cracked because it was weak or it may have cracked because of all the wind, but nonetheless, it cracked. And it landed on their son. It landed on him and it covered his tiny body.
She stood there and watched as her husband rushed outside to get a clearer picture of what happened. One minute her husband was standing at her side, the next he was in the front lawn pulling a tree limb off of her son. And the limb came off too. The old man had pulled the limb off of his nine year old son and cradled him in his arms. His son was alive, but not for long. Moments after the old man pulled the limb off his son and held him in his arms, his son died. And the old lady watched with her hands covering her mouth – paralyzed.
She continued on telling me about that day. She told me in between breaths. I could see she was getting very upset, which was getting me just as upset. I was upset because I had already heard the story so many years earlier. I had gone through the emotions already, but I suppose those emotions never disappear because every time I think of this story, much less am forced to listen to it by someone who experienced it, it kills me. It absolutely kills me.
She told me how she – frozen in time – couldn’t do anything beyond stand there and watch her husband bury her son’s head close to his chest as he knelt on the lawn in the wind that day. Knelt like a broken man. Like nothing she had seen before. She told me about how she watched as her husband’s head fell the moment the child died and how he wailed that day in the front yard. The sound that penetrated the tall window she was standing before. The scream of her husband. She told me she didn’t know what upset her more, watching her son die before her very eyes or watching her husband become a corpse. On that front lawn with his head tilted back. Watching the old man’s silhouette scream towards the dark gray sky.
Things were never the same.
Over the years, and after I left the town I grew up in, I would call the old lady on the telephone. She was much better at talking on the phone than the old man ever was. My visits with the old lady had become visits through the telephone and my visits with the old man were still in person, although they were less frequent. Which got to me. Because as time went on, I missed those visits.
My phone conversations with the old man’s wife were good ones. We talked about so many things from such a variety of perspectives. She and the old man had such wonderful conversations, many of which she would share with me. Each and every time I called her, I would look forward to what I was going to learn. And this went on well into my twenties.
One thing she impressed upon me rather strongly was how I could learn something from whomever I chose to spend my life with. She told me to trust my own judgment and once I had, to listen to the person I decided to be with. She had and she was thankful for learning about many of the old man’s experiences. Experiences which I tried to pull from her, but which were never shared. I was told that I’d have to wait for the old man to discuss certain things with me.
I asked her on a number of occasions why the old man was keeping secrets. I asked her why he would do that to me, especially since he – they – had told me so much already. She said,
“Son, he has a way of doing things. He has his reasons. There are some things I haven’t learned until recently and I’m his wife. There are some things I’m glad he waited to tell me.”
I never knew what to think when she said things like that. I never knew what to make of her double talk and at times I wondered if what she was telling me were true. But, I would always come around to remind myself of my trust for these people because these were the very people who helped influence who I had become.
We talked a lot, the old lady and me. We talked a lot on the phone.
But there were times when my calls weren’t taken, either ignored on purpose or for some other reason. A reason I know now, but didn’t know at the time. There were times when I would call and the phone would just ring and ring. It would ring and no one would answer.
When I did get hold of the old lady in the days that followed those unanswered calls, she never mentioned why she didn’t answer. We would just talk as we always had and neither of us would mention anything was amiss. She started, however, to say things I didn’t want to hear.
“You know son, I’m getting ready to leave you now. I’m getting ready to leave you. You need to believe me, because I’m ready to leave you.”
I would get quiet and tell her that she wasn’t going anywhere. I knew what she was talking about and I didn’t want to hear any more about it. I had grown a deep affection for this woman and to hear her talk like this hurt me. It hurt me deeply.
But there were times when she wouldn’t stop telling me she was going to leave the old man and me. She told me that he was ready for it, but I wasn’t and her job was to get me ready. I never wanted to hear her talk like this, so I usually tried to change the subject, but she would end up changing it back.
She told me that she wanted me to trust her and that things would be okay. She told me that she had been ready for what was waiting for her for a long time now and that the only thing holding her back was me. She needed to know that I would be all right.
And as the old lady and I talked, a sort of desperation grew in her voice. I heard the cracking on the other end of the phone. I heard her voice breaking into something I hadn’t yet heard from her. She kept asking for me to trust her. She kept asking for me to let her go, which I couldn’t do. As you can well imagine.
My calls were being taken more sporadically than ever, probably about half the number of times they were when I had first started calling her. I knew why, too, which drove me nearly insane.
There were times when I would call and the phone on the other side wasn’t answered – it would ring twenty to thirty times – and I would slam the phone down and scream at it. I would hammer that phone down and lose myself in tears because I knew what was happening. I would slam the phone down and sit for hours wondering how things would change in just a short time.
I continued to call. And eventually, my calls weren’t answered at all.
There were two occasions when I found myself living back in my home town because of the old man and his wife. I cared for them and I cared about learning more of what the old man had to teach me. After his wife passed away, he was only too happy to see me again.
Now, just to let you know, this went against every fiber of my being. Moving back home. To me, returning to the town I grew up in was the most mortal of mortal sins. Birds were meant to fly, not to remain in the nest.
But, as I hope I explained to you throughout this story, there was something special about this old man, and as his wife alluded to, there were things he wasn’t telling me. I had hoped that by moving closer to him and spending more time with him, we would develop a trust stronger than anything we had built up through the years.
So that’s what I did. Like I said, twice. And the second time was the time I got what I wanted and with his permission, quickly became the impetus for this entire story.
There was a particular afternoon from my late twenties I remember well. It was an afternoon I decided to visit the old man at his estate. He wasn’t expecting me, which was fine. I rarely announced my visits and by judging on the look on his face each and every time I did arrive, I thought it was a good idea.
Like so many times before, I pulled up the long driveway, past the blue and white booth and past the long white shed. I continued to drive past the pine trees and past the big white house on my left. I followed the advice of the sign that read, keep right, and drove by the small cottages and past the tiny playground. I followed the blacktop path until I made my way to the dirt parking lot. Which is where I stopped.
I placed my car in park, shut it off and opened the door. I lifted both legs, swiveled to the left and placed my feet softly on the ground. And that’s where I stayed for a good long time. I haven’t any idea why either. I just sat there with both legs hanging out of my car door and rested the left side of my head on the rear of my seat – looking up at the tips of the trees. They were swaying slowly in what was shaping up to be another beautiful autumn day.
As I sat there, I thought back to the time I had stood in that parking lot for all that time, the very first time the old man and I talked. Talked at the pond. I thought back to how much I had changed that day and how much that conversation had altered my perspective on who people were. I thought back to how just a few sentences could mold my outlook and how impressionable our conversations that followed would be. A different kind of appreciation I suppose.
I may have sat in the parking lot alone that day even longer than the day I had walked in circles the time before. I’m not sure, but what I am sure of was the feeling I had that day I sat in my car. I had the same feeling I had the day I entered that trail and found the old man sitting on his stone bench. Sitting on the stone bench – which is where I was sure he was right then.
I couldn’t stay in my car all day. Actually, I could, but I knew the old man wasn’t going to wait forever, so I slowly made my way out of the car and started heading towards the trail that led to the pond. I passed by the very spot where the old man had scolded me, and I passed through the entrance to the trail, which was now more groomed than it had ever been, and again, I walked and noticed the tallest sections of the shrubbery leaning towards the center of the trail, creating an arch of sorts. I once again made my way through, until I reached the opening that held the pond.
I looked across the water of the glistening pond – across the pond, to see the old man sitting on his side of the bench.
“Nothing ever changes unless there’s some pain.”
That’s what he said.
I sat down next to the old man on the bench and waited. I waited like I had always done. I waited for the old man to think about what he wanted to say and I waited for the first words to leave his mouth. I wondered if this day would be one where I replied or if I would just sit and listen.
At least an hour passed. The old man had gotten older and I felt as though perhaps times were changing. For so many years, I had relied on him to lead the way, to teach me and to initiate the conversation. I wondered, almost out loud, if the old man had run out of things to say when I finally heard the words leave his lips.
“How are you young man?”
It wasn’t exactly what I had wanted to hear. I had become accustomed to the old man beginning our talks with something much more profound. I was used to his wit and his habit of trying to startle me with something I could think about for at least a week or so. I couldn’t, for the life of me, figure out why the old man seemed as though he didn’t want to talk that day.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“I’ve been wondering that most of my life.”
He just didn’t seem the same. He was hunched over more than he usually was and I could see by the way he was holding himself that he was getting tired. I felt as though I needed to initiate our exchange more forcefully than I had before.
“Who are you?” I repeated.
He only kept muttering the same thing over and over.
“Nothing ever changes unless there’s some pain.”
I had seen him like this before. I had seen him slowly lower his aged face into his waiting hands. I had seen him lose interest in everything around him to disappear to a place only he knew. I’ve seen him get up and walk away – leaving me in the woods alone. I’ve seen him like this before.
But today was slightly different. Today, he began to speak and to tell me things about his life.
That moment, the very moment the old man and I sat in the woods at the edge of the pond, he told me, very slowly and quietly, who he was. Or who he thought he was. He described his childhood in Germany with the most drawn out but vivid detail. He told me about the challenges he faced as a young man, the pressures he found himself up against and about how his view on humanity had changed because of things he experienced personally. One minute he was a young boy awaiting the world with wonder and excitement and the next, he was nothing more than a nonentity standing in line, waiting for who knows what, amidst strangers.
He told me of the horror, the darkness, about the friends he lost. He told me of his separation from his family and the nights wondering if he’d make it through. He told me about how he used to count the minutes and hours backwards to what he thought might be the end. He told me all of this and all I could do was to sit and listen. I suppose this is what I wanted to hear.
He told me of the boots, the mud, and the trenches. He told me of the concrete floors and of the bitter nights. He continued slowly but hastened his pace as he became less uneasy with what he was saying and with my reaction. He spoke more quickly as he described the smell he’d never forget and the memories of his inhumane treatment that continued to haunt him every minute of every day. He told me of the dragging of bodies and the screams, and about the people he never saw again. He told me everything. Or as much as he could remember.
But one thing he told me lasts with me to this day. One thing he whispered as I watched the back of his head shiver. In the woods that day.
He told me his soul had been stolen from him. He told me it had been whipped and battered, and he had been turned into the broken man I sat next to. He told me his soul had been stolen from him.
There was a day, much later than the one I just described when I was sitting alone in a place nearby. I was sitting by myself doing the things I used to do. I was sitting alone when my telephone rang. It wasn’t a long distance call, because during our goodbyes after our conversation in the woods, at the pond that day, I promised the old man that I would I would never be too far away. As we stood together at the edge of the pond that afternoon, I held the old man’s shoulders in my hands and looked him square in the face.
“I will never leave you here alone. If you need me, I’ll come.”
I said it to him and I meant it. And I hadn’t.
When the old man called that day, I was quite surprised. He didn’t call often unless there was something he urgently needed help with or unless he wanted to sit and chat. And while I was talking to the old man on the phone that day, I heard neither the urgency or the concern in his voice.
He simply invited me over for some tea.
To which I kindly obliged.
His living room was just as she had left it. He hadn’t moved a thing. It was set up long before I ever arrived and I’m sure it will stay that way long after I leave. It was the way things were on the old man’s estate. That’s the way he chose to live his life – in memory of everything.
We sat across from one another that day. He on one couch and me on the other, directly across from him. We hadn’t said a word to one another. I merely handed him his tea and we sat facing each other in the living room that day.
I knew what the old man wanted.
To which I kindly obliged.
We sipped our tea and I continued to watch the old man. I watched as he moved his lips, pressing them into one another in a fashion as if he had something to tell me. He would move his jaw in such a way that led me to believe he was going to sigh. Neither of those things happened that afternoon.
We sipped our tea as I watched the old man look around the room at everything he had collected through the years, at the memories he had created with his wife. I watched him as he scanned the wallpaper – the wallpaper he had hung a few years after he and his wife had married. The wallpaper he had hung that evening as his son played with some toys in the corner of the lighted living room. I watched him as he fixated on the collection of photos, their frames collecting dust while resting on top of the piano. I watched him as he fixated on those photos. And I watched him as he let the tears roll down his cheeks.
I sipped my tea and watched the old man place his cup back in the saucer. I watched the old man as he pushed himself up by resting both hands on the coffee table so he could sit up straight on the couch. I watched as he held himself as high as he could and then he gave me a smile – a smile I hadn’t seen very often, but a smile that shared a lifetime.
And I watched as the old man sat back on the couch and lay his head to rest on the pillow. The pillow I had fixed for him earlier in the day.