Monday, January 18, 2010


It's an odd thing, dusting off a piece of literature and trying to access the mindset and the emotional intent of the time. I made a few changes as I looked this piece, tried to remember what exactly it was I was aiming for ten years ago when I first wrote it. I know it was an experiment in voice - much different than the other pieces at the time.
Another short story, from the 1999 bundle.
The Old Man in this piece reminds me of this poem, written by a good friend of mine.


I had lied to the old man. Even as I had spoken the words I knew I was lying, making a promise I knew I couldn’t keep, and as I stood in the winter rain I knew there was no way could have kept that promise. I needed to come, just as he needed to ask me not to.

He was right, though – there was something in the sky. Even as low clouds drizzled miserably over us I could see a distant blue horizon, a clear sky splashed with orange and red, smeared like a finger-painting suspended between two twin mountain peaks.

It seemed as though the heavens chose this spot and this spot alone to rain, to pour down sorrow and misery on the spotty, uncomfortable crowd, but the outside world – the world just beyond us – was as clear and beautiful as the old man had promised it would be.

He had asked me not to come, but there really was no question – this was where I had to be.

* * *

He sits on the back porch, squinting in the sun, his tan skin rich and golden brown – his broad shoulders still seem strong as I approach. His long blonde hair caresses his brow playfully in the stiff wind, and he smiles gently. The wrinkles around his mouth are pleasant, yet weary, and the youthful spark that once danced in his eyes is long since extinguished.

He says the world was a better place, as we stare into the chilly late August air, but he struggles to remember the day of the week, or sometimes even the year. Seasons come and go, he said. It’s easy to see what time of year it is – just look around; look at what’s growing, look at what’s dying. Nothing is ever truly lost; it all just changes from one thing to another.

I smile as I hear his voice.

I think we were high at the time, I remember him say. I thought everyone was.

I am tired already, though it is barely mid-afternoon. The trek up the mountainside was long, longer than I remember, but beautiful. The trees are orange and brown, and a crisp autumn breeze whistles around my warm woolen coat. Already age creeps up on me, and I am barely thirty-six. My car is somewhere at the base of the mountain – the road is impractical for driving – but not impossible as months later I was forced to discover.

But the walk is part of coming home – the journey is entwined with the destination. The house on the side of the mountain – a glorified log cabin, low and wide and nearly invisible unless one knows where to look. But I spent many summers on this mountain, and I still remember where to look.

It’s always better if you get a little high, he would say. Then you see things most people only dream of.

I remember him when we were younger. I think he was always like this. He played the guitar like he was in another world. I first knew him when I was nine, maybe ten years old, and my friends and I would watch him sit on the steps of the old brick schoolhouse every summer and strum out melodies that were half-songs and half-conversations; the wind whistling through the trees provided a haunting chorus to his gravelly voice and dissonant chords. I was transported when he played – I wondered what it must have been like for him at our age, what a different world it must been. He spoke of words like revolution and war and justice and peace like those words truly meant something, like they were words worth dying for, or words worth living for. And then his finger touched those strings, and melodies resonated and reverberated through me, and I was no longer a boy in the schoolyard, I was a magnificent creature, a witness to something that words fail to describe, even now. I would sit and listen, and imagine we were sitting at the top of a mountain, watching the clouds roll by beneath us, so high that there was nothing but sky all around. Some combination of his leftover 60s dogma and my Baptist upbringing fused in my childhood mind, and I believed that if there was a heaven, it was at my fingertips, that I could reach out from the top of that mountain and touch God Himself, and that he would smile and sing along with the old man. For what is God, to a child of nine or ten, but someone to look up to for advice, someone to commune with when lonely, to seek comfort in dark times. To me, as a child, God may well have been the old man with the house on the side of a mountain, my friend on the steps with his guitar. The sky was green and yellow and blue – that much I remember clearly – all beautiful colors, and the trees outside the school yard would sway and twist in the wind, as though singing and dancing with us. The sky was on fire, and it would wrap us up in its great arms and spin us around until we were laughing so hard we could hardly stand up.

I feel so wonderful, he’d say. All the colors are so very meaningful.

He used to tell me of the mountains he would visit. He’d never spend a moment more than necessary inside – the world, he said, was not meant to be viewed from afar. It was meant to be lived in. The mountains, he said, were tall and glorious and stood out from the trees like giant monoliths watching over him, and all the world. He said he would imagine them as gods who protected him as he climbed their foothills. He said when he was younger the clouds were more beautiful than anything he’d ever seen, that the shapes were reflections of things long forgotten – of beasts and creatures no one believed in anymore.

I was twelve the last time I saw him, I think.

Now I am older, and I can see the years have worn on him as well. The glossy white smile that I remember had faded into yellow and grey, but still glows with its own rosy warmth. I haven’t been here in fourteen years, but his eyes light up like the sun when he sees me, and he reaches out to take my hand. His fingers are gnarled and rough, and his hands unsteady, grip weak. Old age has not been generous. I’ve never been able to think of him as old. He’s always been a part of my life, as long I can remember.

Now he struggles to remember my name.

I am still delighted by his company, but it saddens me to see him so feeble. The arms that used to toss me in the air with strength and confidence are thin, his tendons are visible across his forearms, and the soft flesh hangs loosely on bones that look barely strong enough to hold him upright. He takes my hand, and for a brief moment there is a glimmer of his old strength as his fingers tighten around mine, and then they soften – the last of his strength.

There is silence for a moment, and then he remembers.

“Danny boy, oh Danny Boy,” he says softly, repeating it over and over, as if he is afraid that if he doesn’t, the word will escape him and be lost.

“Oh Danny Boy,” he says, and his eyes never stop smiling as he looks me over. “It has been a long time, hasn’t it?” Yes, it has.

He takes me inside. His furniture is sparse and worn away to almost nothing. A small sofa where we used to sit is ragged and bare. The colors have faded and faded and meshed together – a collage of ash and earth tones that are barely discernable as individual shapes. There is dirt in the entryway and dust seems to have crept into every corner, and covers every surface.

He used to own a cat – a small orange kitten with bright green eyes. I don’t see it anywhere. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, but it still disorients me to see how things have changed. My memories clash with the reality of this place, and I wonder if things really were that different, or if I just believed they were.

He walks into the kitchen, and emerges a moment later with a pot of tea and two chipped clay cups. He sits down slowly on the sofa, his knees popping quietly as they bend.

“Danny Boy, how you been? You grown since I last saw you,” he says with a wink. “What you been doing all these years?” I’m six foot two and earned my Master’s Degree in Digital Media. I’m a graphic designer and I’m recently engaged. I don’t bother explaining what Digital Media is. He asks about my fiancĂ©, he asks about my parents, he asks about my childhood friends – none of whom I’ve seen in years – and he smiles again, lost in the memory of easier days. I ask him about the garden, the overrun plot of land I passed on the way up the trail. He’s tried to maintain it, he said, but he doesn’t have the strength. Old age is a bastard, he says with a chuckle, but there’s a hollow sound behind his laugh, and he holds his hand to his chest in pain a moment, unable to meet my eyes. There’s a question I don’t ask, and I think he knows it. He knows I’m here because I was asked to come. His ex-wife called my mother and she called me. I don’t mention her either – a woman who still professes to love and respect the old man, she’s recited more than once, but quickly realized she couldn’t ever live with him. I saw her when I first flew in, and she said she’d spoken to him a few weeks before, and he’d been asking about me. She met me at the airport, and I spent the night in her spare room. I don’t mention that, either.

I remind him that it’s a beautiful house he’s got, and looks around, proud. I notice that he still has the autographed Janis Joplin poster hanging on the wall. It looks as though it hasn’t been dusted in all the years I’ve been gone.

He crosses the room and starts to build a fire in the cracked stone hearth, and I quickly follow to help him, but he pushes me away. “No need,” he says. “I can still manage this much.”

So I sit down and refill the teacups. He joins me – a popping, crackling flame now dancing in the fireplace – and we talk about our lives, how we’ve changed, how many years it’s really been. My big sister is married, and has a beautiful daughter, who just turned five and is starting school. He’s pleased and he reminds me of how shy she was, what a timid child with her mousy features and quiet demeanor. She’s a middle-school teacher now – she evidently overcame her childhood shyness. We reminisce; he recalls with great glee the six months he owned a motorcycle, and the ill-fated trip – the first three days of the Glorious Cross Country Ride – where he woke in the hospital with a dislocated shoulder and three cracked ribs.

He fixes us a drink – he has a decanter of Scotch on the counter. I remember trying a sip once or twice as a child and I laugh to myself as I recall the unpleasant shock as it burned my throat and tickled my head. It’s a fine Scotch, and I savor the taste, inhaling deeply and letting the aroma wash over me with each swallow. I’m certain he's not supposed to drink; just as I’m certain that he doesn’t care. He pours himself a second – I shake my head when he offers me another.

There’s a small wooden box on his battered coffee table, a small decorative case with a single drawer and a hinged lid, ornately carved and stained in deep cherry and dark brown. From the drawer he pulls out a half-empty pack of rolling papers, from the top, a pinch of dried greenery. His fingers are surprisingly quick and nimble; muscle memory being what is it – this is, after all, a familiar task. The flash of a match on the edge of the table and the air is filled with pungent smoke. He winks at me and offers some in jest, knowing I’ll refuse. The old man coughs as he inhales, but the cough is deep and wet and violent. He looks helpless – like drowning man – and I reach to him but he pushes me away. He heaves, and catches his breath, and I know that it’s not the smoke – that was the heavy, hacking cough of something terribly wrong, of a deep sickness a secret and a failure somewhere inside. After a moment I fix myself another drink, savoring the aroma and the tickle down my throat. I wonder what he must be feeling – if he is embarrassed or ashamed he does not show it. He smiles, and the sparkle in his eyes returns. He is still charming as ever, and ever defiant against the world.

The stories continue; we laugh about bright summer days at the lake, about flipping his canoe upside down and dragging it to shore, about fishing and hiking and all the pieces that are so easy to recall from childhood – all the experiences well suited for memory. We stay in the past because it’s safe, because the past doesn’t change. But there are questions I don’t ask, and there are questions he doesn’t answer. Then he’s suddenly very quiet, and I can hear nothing but the occasional popping of the fire. He stares out the window, as if he looking for something that he knows is lost. Then he puts down his glass and pulls himself to his feet.

“Come on, Danny Boy,” he says. “I have to show you something before it gets too dark.” We used to wander his property late at night, in years past, but the nights seemed warmer and more inviting then.

I stand and take a last look around – still hoping against strange, unrealistic hope – but I see no sign of the orange-haired cat.

He wraps himself in a sweater. “It’s colder than it used to be,” he says.

We pass a small mound of dirt just beyond his porch. There are two dried roses lain across it. I think I know what it is, as the thought sends an involuntary shudder through me.

“Poor little Tiger,” he says softly. “She’s scratching a sofa somewhere in heaven now.”

We walk out from his back porch to the stream that divides his property. He used to take me here every day when I was younger, when it was always summer and the water was warm and clean. We’d go wading and catch frogs – we never kept any of them, though. We always pick them up, look them over, and return them to the mud along the stream.

Nothing grows in the stream now. “There’s a paper mill about a half a mile upstream,” he says, “and since they built it, nothing has been the same. The world is changing faster than I can keep up.”

We walk to the edge of the stream, and I bend over to test the water. It’s icy cold, and flecked with oil and grease. An old tire floats lazily through the murkiness before lodging itself in the roots of a dying tree.

I’ve come here to talk, and I’ve come here to listen, and I wonder what made him so distant. I think about his ex-wife, and why she asked me to come, and all the questions I want to ask, but can’t. His mouth opens, then closes again, like there are great volumes waiting to be told, but the more he struggles to tell me the more foggy his words.

“Everything’s so different now,” he whispers. “I don’t know how to keep up. You’re a lucky fellow, Danny Boy – you know why?” No, I don’t. “You’ve still got your youth. You’re still a young man, and you’re doing things I never dreamed of. You’ve been to college, you’ve got a good job – you’ve got someone who loves you. I didn’t do any of that when I was your age. All I wanted was to be free. I wanted to go everywhere, to try everything. And I did, Danny Boy, I traveled more places and did more things than you’ll ever know. I did a lot of things I shouldn’t have. Spent three months in a county jail for some of those things I did. That was a long time ago, though, and I guess it was all right back then. But now… sometimes I can’t even remember where the light switch is. All those years I’ve spent running wild, and then old age comes along and –”

He stops suddenly. There’s a pain in his chest – he coughs heavily and spits up onto the ground. I reach out to steady him, but hesitate. He’s a stubborn old man – he’s always been – and I’m afraid I might hurt his pride.

“Hell, son, I’ve been retired since the day I was born. But now, time is running thin, and these old bones…

“You’re going to die a happy man. You know that and I know that, Danny Boy, but me…”

He looks up at me with what I’m sure is supposed to be a reassuring smile, but the thought sends a cold shiver down my spine. I’ve never let myself think about how old he really must be, but now that I look at him…

His blonde hair is tainted with silver; his once bright eyes have sunk back into his skull. The smile that in its day could have lit the world aflame seems now like a feeble cry for help. He was a man who stood in open defiance of the world, proud and strong and rebellious and charming. Now he carries himself as one who has lost his way, whose faith has been tested until it finally cracked. He walks with a burden, a heavy weight that slows his body as it confuses his mind. The outside world changes quickly, I know, but what’s inside changes as well. I wonder when it began, and when he began to notice. I wonder if there was anything anyone could have done.

I notice a gnarled twig caught in the water in such a way that it sticks straight up in the air. A stick in the mud, I think with a laugh. Anyone can change the world, he used to say, if they stood long enough. If they had faith and strength and really believed. We’re so caught up in the big race to the finish, it’s hard to stop and look around. But we have to sometimes, to remind us where we are.

Don’t get caught up in the big race, Danny Boy. Don’t let them beat you down.

I watch the stick sway in the current for a moment longer, before the force of the water catches it and carries it downstream. I stand, and turn to see where he is.

He’s been watching the water just like I was, and I feel a little sad, but as I turn he lifts his head to the horizon. “The sky used to be so beautiful,” he says. I look at and see the hazy smog drifting from the mill. “It used to be so blue and warm. I used to come here and do nothing but watch the white clouds roll by. Now it’s cold, and it’s time to go indoors.”

I look once more at the water, hoping to find any sign of life, but there is nothing.

The walk back is slow, and I can see his strength slowly ebbing away. “I don’t usually walk this much,” he says. “I don’t have the energy I used to. You’re still young, and your legs still carry you places without complaining. I could climb mountains too, once.

“Do you know that feeling, Danny Boy? Standing on top of a mountain and reaching your hands out to the sky, because there’s a point where the sky isn’t up anymore, it’s out. Forward. You can feel the sky surrounding you, lifting you up. Do you know that feeling, Danny Boy?”

No. There’s no time these days. I think about saving for the down payment on a house. I think my fiancĂ© taking on a second job cleaning houses when money was tight. Then I think about the sky, and how things are much simpler things are here. I think about the old man, and the pain in his chest, and all the things we don’t say.

“You see that mountain over there, Danny Boy?” he asked, his voice swelling with pride. He gestures to the horizon, the twin sister to the mountain he resides at the base of. I’ve seen that mountain a thousand times. “That’s my mountain. I’ve climbed that mountain more times than I can remember. I have shared more secrets with that mountain than with anyone I’ve ever known. The mountain never says a word, but I know that mountain as well as I know myself. I’m as much a part of that mountain as it is a part of me. There’s not a mountain in the world quite like that one, Danny Boy, and believe me, I know.”

I believe him. I really do. And I know what happens next, even though I don’t admit it too myself.

His hands have reached out to the mountain, like he’s reaching for a piece of his past that’s just beyond his fingertips. I can see his yellowed skin stretching, barely containing his yearning to touch the grassy mountainside, to stand on the hills again and taste the cool mountain air. His arms are thin, wasted away to almost nothing. He looks as though he wants so much to return to a place where time didn’t matter.

He looks so tired now. I can see it in his eyes. He knows he can never return.

“That place, Danny Boy… That place is a lifetime away.”

His arms hover in the air a moment longer, then fall back to his side. His eyes drop back to the ground.

“It’s getting darker, Danny Boy, and I don’t see as well as I used to. You’ve got to get moving soon, too. You can’t wait your whole life for a tired old man to catch up, you know.” I try to laugh, but I find I can’t.

A cold wind whispers from somewhere, sending shivers down my back again.

The stream has disappeared into the distance as we come upon his porch. A warm light glows from inside. The remains of the fire are twinkling out.

He sits down as motions for me to join him.

“I want to ask you something very important,” he says quietly. “Something very important to me.” Anything, I tell him. Anything at all. “My time is running out, Danny Boy.” This is the first time we’ve even come close to talking about this. “Soon there won’t be any time left, and when that day finally comes…” No, I want to tell him. Don’t talk like that. You’ve got all the time in the world. But the words hesitate before reaching my lips, and I know – as I look deep into his pale eyes – I know that they couldn’t be farther from the truth. “When that day comes, Danny Boy, I don’t want you to be here.” I don’t understand, I find myself whispering, and I wish I hadn’t. “You will understand, Danny Boy. You will. When you leave today, I don’t want you to return. I want you to walk through the fields, over the hills, and leave me here. Time takes its toll, Danny Boy, and I’d rather you not see me waste away to nothing. I’d rather you remember how we used to be, how the world used to light up for us.

“And when my days finally end, I don’t want you to come to any funeral. I don’t want you to watch them put my body underneath the dirt. Here’s what I want, Danny Boy, my boy, my wish for you. When that day comes, I want you to climb that mountain – you know the one – I want you to climb to the top and reach out to the sky, because that’s where I’ll be. The mountain’s more a part of me than anything you’ll find here. And this–” He raises his hand to show me grey and wrinkled skin. “This body… I’m going to make some little worm very happy. But they won’t bury me in any little box. I’ve never let anyone bury me, and I’m certainly not going to start now.” He chuckles quietly, and I let myself laugh a little with him. “That won’t be me in any coffin, Danny Boy. I’ll be up there on that mountain, too.”

He reaches his worn hands to my shoulders, and I step closer to him, wrapping my arms tightly around him, as if I can keep him alive and healthy by just holding on long enough. Warm, wet drops slide down my face, and I hope he doesn’t know that I’m crying. But he finally releases himself from me and I see silver streaks down his face, too. He smiles gently. “Danny Boy, oh Danny Boy. You’ve been a better friend than anyone could ever wish for.”

I can’t help it now. My chest heaves; I’m almost sobbing. My face is drenched with tears. I want to tell him how much he means to me, how much I don’t want to lose him, but my voice catches in my throat as I try to speak, so I just look up at him and hope he understands. “I know, Danny Boy,” he says. “I know.”

He puts him arm around me and we walk slowly to the door.

The embers in the fire slowly vanish.

As I drive from his house, I look out at the mountain – his mountain – and the sky seems to open up for me. The clouds part for a moment, and last remaining sliver of a glorious sunset fades into almost nothing.

* * *

I had lied to the old man. Even as I had spoken the words I knew I was lying, making a promise I knew I couldn’t keep, and as I stood in the winter rain I knew there was no way could have kept that promise. I needed to come, just as he needed to ask me not to.

This is how people mourn, I told myself. This is the way it is done.

But as I stared out into the horizon, the rain suddenly stopped, and the sky opened up, just as it had the last time I saw the old man. The small crowd had dwindled to nearly nothing – my mother and the old man’s ex-wife were the only ones remaining, and I smiled and both of them and we exchanged embraces, but my mind was already elsewhere.

I drove to the foothills, where the road becomes unmanageable for a car, and from there I walked - breathing heavily, sweating under my heavy winter coat – but I walked on into the cold late-morning sun, where I knew the old man was waiting.