By Richard Wallace
The old man sat in his chair and looked out the window. He looked out slowly, as though looking had become something of a physical activity, like going for a walk. He did this intentionally, of course.
There wasn’t any point in looking straight out, straight through the glass. There wasn’t any hurry. He had all day and if he didn’t get all the looking all done in one day he could finish it off the next. There was lots of time.
He looked at the curtains, yellow, faded and mostly useless. They weren’t a bad shade of yellow but still useless. The curtain rod, a wire metal strip against a blue background – bad idea. Bad. Yellow curtains on a white strip, who dreamed that up? It was all bad.
The windowpane, no longer transparent in the sun, showed it’s age. Over the years the glass had discoloured, so brittle now that a bird could fly right through it.
Brittle, he thought, brittle like my old bones, but we earned the right, didn’t we old window? We sure did. You keep out the cold and let in the sunshine; a person can’t ask for more than that.
He chuckled and thought to himself, I had a woman like that once, she kept out the cold and she sure could make the sun shine, could she ever.
That was a long time ago.
The window ledge called for special attention. They don’t make ledges like that anymore; most places now just have windows and wall. No place to put your glasses or a book, nothing. You’re my old friend now, old ledge.
Ledges. I wonder if young people today know what they’re missing. It was a nice feeling to put something on a window ledge; the best place really, so a person would remember where it was. It was as simple as that.
The old man looked out the window and watched a truck turn the corner. The driver ignored an amber traffic light and headed out of town. The truck was big and new with more wheels than it knew what to do with, longer than a house and how it got around corners was a miracle. Trucks did take a lot of work away from the railroad.
I would have liked to have been a truck driver. I would have liked to have seen the country, like some modern-day pony express driver.
I would have had one of those trucks with a sleeper in the back of the cab and a pretty girl to keep me company. Imaging, sleeping in the cab of a truck. My girl would look so pretty sitting in the seat beside me and right full of the devil.
I’d get a young one. I’d pull into a truck stop and there she would be and when some trucker asked about her I’d just say, “Oh, she’s just an old friend,” and someone would say, “She’s not old enough to be an old friend,” but nobody would laugh, no need to say anything more
Truckers sure do have a way with words.
Funny how it goes, old age was never my best sport.
The old man looked at his hands. He looked at his hands a lot and wondered about that. If only those old hands could talk and he supposed in a way they did. He rubbed his knuckles and it seemed that the older he got the bigger they got.
He looked at the back of his hands, at the blue veins that sat on the top of the skin. Big hands, he thought proudly, still big and strong. That’s my life going through those veins, drop by drop.
He rubbed the back of his hands, more like a caress, and the loose skin moved like ripples on a pond. Softer than dishwater now, he thought, if only you could talk.
He watched the truck drive out of town, blend into the trees, the hillside, the sky. He thought of the girl in the seat beside him, pretty as a picture, so young.
The old man looked at the wheels on his wheel chair and wondered about who figured out such a thing. Could have been a farmer. Farmers are pretty good about figuring out how things work; two bicycle wheels and a chair would do it.
His brief escape was interrupted by activity out in the hall.
Shift change he thought, my time of day. New faces, fresh faces. The tired ones get to go home.
My special one is on today, cheerful, but she kept a lot to herself. If they would have been younger, if he’d have been younger, they would have been in love, he knew it. It was as simple as that.
She was not really young any more but not too old either, around fifty or so, just right. She must have been a looker once, she was still pretty fine, so confident.
He wondered if she had a special guy. He didn’t think so.
He watched her come into his room but she wouldn’t come right over to his chair, he knew that. That wasn’t her way. Most people would have come right over but everything was attended to first. That’s just the way she was.
He liked to watch her work, attend to the two old guys that shared his room. He was sure that they thought she was flirting with them, well not really flirting, just trying to brighten up their day, but you never know. Old guys are pretty good at knowing when somebody’s trying to flirt.
Well, thought the old man, I’m in love even if she isn’t and she can’t stop me. I’m too old and besides I’m a guest here.
A guest here, that’s a good one.
He remembered the first day his special girl came to work at the residence. She had one of those young faces, the kind that never gets old and always looks happy, one of those. He couldn’t take his eyes off her. He did his best to ignore her. Lasted at least a day and a half.
Love, he thought, why should an old man care about love? Could it really be that important anymore?
He closed his eyes and rested and remembered. He remembered how he came to fall in love with his “special girl”.
“My pacemakers shot,” he told her, “skipping a beat, probably won’t make it past midnight”.
“I’m sure it will but I’ll see to it”.
Got her he thought. He could see her in the nurses’ station looking up his file. Well, he figured, one good try deserves another.
“Nurse! This is it, get the glycerine, I think I’m going!”
“The only place you’re going is to bed.”
Just what he liked, a woman with a little fire.
Funny, that’s what started it all. He watched her work and he knew. He figured that was when he fell in love.
“How come you’re always so happy?”
“This is a happy place.”
“You do brighten this whole place up. Ever think of staying on?”
“I am on.”
“You happy all the time?”
“Sure, most of the time….good place to work.”
“But not always.”
“No, of course, not always.”
She looked at the old man with the kind of a look that’s more like a stare, sort of blank, eyes that just look.
That is when she knew he cared. She just looked at him, that pretty face and all and didn’t say a word.
That was it, funny how it goes.
“I think my pace makers’ going.”
He said this as his “special one” straightened up his nightshirt and pulled the bed sheets up to his waist. The sheets made him feel young.
He remembered when he was a young man, sheets up around his waist. He was big then, big and strong. Sometimes he wished he was young again, but not really, being young was a lot of work.
“Pacemakers’ going down for the count….I’m done for.”
“Your pacemakers’ not going down for the count, you don’t even have one.”
“Sure I do, just listen.”
“Can’t hear a thing.”
“Biggest pacemaker in the whole world in there, temperature controlled, the works.”
“98.6 degrees, every day, rain or shine. Bet you can’t top that.”
“No,” she laughed, “no I can’t.”
The old man looked at her. He looked at her and he knew. He wondered about this business of falling in love.
He wondered why a person couldn’t just say, “Hi, I’m an old man and pretty much harmless and you’re not as happy as you pretend, want to fall in love?” But no, falling in love isn’t done that way. There are rules to follow….unspoken contracts.
“Ever been in love?”
“How many times?”
“Were you a rascal?”
She laughed, “A little I guess.”
“Was it worth it, being in love?”
“Oh, yes, of course it was.”
“I love you.”
“I know you do.”
She looked at him, looked at his face….his old face…. and smiled. “I know you do. I guess I should say something, but, you know I can’t”
“No, no you don’t have to say anything at all. Are we old friends or what”
“Old friends for sure. Tell me old friend, tell me a memory.”
“Sure, I had a girl once. She used to rest her face on my hand. I could touch her nose, her ear, her hair….all with one hand. It felt like all the world you know.”
“I’m sure it did.”
“But the best one….do you have time?”
“Of course I have time.”
“When I was young I was a truck driver. I had one of those big rigs; more wheels than it knew what to do with and longer than a house with a sleeper in the back of the cab. I saw a lot of country, a lot of it, and always had a pretty girl in the passenger seat to keep me company. Pretty as a picture and right full of the devil.”
“I’d pull into a truck stop and some trucker would ask about her and I’d say, ‘Oh, she’s just an old friend’ and someone would say, ‘she’s not old enough to be an old friend’. Those truckers, they sure have a way with words, don’t you think?”
“It sure sounds like they do. You must have been so proud.”
The old man could see out the window from his bed and he could see that the evening was coming to an end.
He imagined himself in his truck, blending into the trees, the hillside, the sky….and the pretty girl. He was so proud.
Dark clouds had gathered on the horizon, dark and black, the kind that get so low it looks as though the earth just reached up and grabbed the sky, grabbed the clouds and pulled them right in.
He could see it all. He looked at the window, the window ledge and the white strip of curtain rod that held the faded yellow curtains in place.
As he drifted off to sleep, he thought to himself,….yellow…. yellow is such a dumb-ass colour for a curtain.
This really is very good. Well-constructed, well thought out, and connecting deeply with ‘The Human Touch’. (A very good choice of image, Fiona).
“The old man sat in his chair and looked out the window. He looked out slowly, as though looking had become something of a physical activity, like going for a walk.”
This is also how it can feel when you’re very ill indeed. Everything is such a huge effort – looking out the window, looking at anything, trying to pull your brain together to think about the slightest, easiest things. I was in that state for some time, and I recognize it. I thought at the time ”This must be what it’s like being very old”, and decided that I don’t want to be. I know, I won’t have much choice in the matter, but, seriously , having spent some time like that – I really, really don’t want to go through anything like that again. It’s hard – very hard. But, in my case, I did recover – I got so that I took a delight in watching the neighbour’s ducks on our pond, through the window – then the first time I walked down the garden – indescribable. I recovered, but, if I’m like that later on in my life, well, to be brutal, I know that I won’t ‘recover’ from getting old – it will just progress.
You mention his “brief escape” – that’s why I started to ‘go for walks in my head’ – which led to my writing them down, which led to my ‘Orkney Walks with Stories’ in TON.
The other thing about this piece is …people tend to write off old people, as not being……. people. For one thing, as, somehow, becoming sexless – or de-sexed. I don’t know, yet, from experience, but I doubt that to be the case. Old people, are still …people….they’re just …old people. I often thought along these lines, when we used to visit a very elderly friend in a local ‘home’. To the ‘guests’ ( clever choice of word there, Richard – clever choice of word – Guest? Resident? Doesn’t change their situation) in there, it can’t seem long, since they were young men and women, getting dressed up for a night out with their ‘best boy ‘ or ‘best girl’, then, next thing you know, you have young whipper-snappers talking to you like you don’t understand anything. I accept that many folk in those homes, have lost their grasp on a lot of things but the other thing I observed, was that they could still surprise people, with what they still did have a very clear grasp of! And the memories, and the stories, whether, as in your tale ‘true’ or ‘untrue’……….still worth listening to, and maybe learning something from.
They are still people, just old people. They don’t become ‘things’. It’s something that touched my heart – the idea of folk, getting ready to go out, working, to pay for their lives, having families relying on them, then………….treated as though they’re hardly human.
You write of him “blending blending into the trees, the hillside, the sky….and the pretty girl.
And that’s what happens, we blend into the whole again. I’m not sure, I think you’ve purposely left it ambiguous at the end, whether he dies, or just goes to sleep, either way……..it works.
So much there, Richard, in a short story. I don’t know what to say – so, sending much appreciation, that’s what occurs to me to say.
Mike’s Dad spent the end of his life in a ‘home’. The owner of the ‘home’, apologized because his room didn’t face onto the garden, it faced onto some waste-land. Mike’s Dad preferred the waste-land, as he saw it as a wildlife reserve, which it was. Much more interesting, to him.
Old people, aren’t, and won’t be, standardized!