A Very Old Man
By Dawn O Watson/CNBNews Contributor
Written in 1993. Winner of several literary awards.
He shuffled along the street trying to make out the forms moving about him through his thick glasses. The bag he carried was heavy but too precious to set down, even for a moment. He waited for the light to change, suspicious of every movement around him.
The old man trudged on, head down. Only a few more breathless feet ahead lay the familiar outline of his tiny row house.
He set the bag of day-old bread and dented cans of vegetables down on the stoop and with trembling hands, attempted to insert the key into the lock. One, two, three stabs and the reassuring sound of metal crunching against metal. He entered, pulling the bag behind him.
Immediately he flung off his coat and straightened up. He pulled the glasses off his ears carefully and set them on the nearest end table. He stretched every muscle now, savoring the unshrinking of limbs.
The house was as he had left it this morning, everything in its place. He reached down to pet the kitten which curled around one leg.
“Miss me, Alex?” he asked soothingly. He reached down and scooped the gray feline up with one hand and headed for the kitchen. There were mirrors everywhere, part of the reason why it was his favorite room. He observed the poetry of his youth and was enormously pleased.
The young man sat Alex down on the counter as he poured a cup of coffee. He wished he had bought some cream cheese, but his limited budget allowed only for bargain bread and a few cans of this or that. He reached for the softness of his companion and pulled him close.
“What shall we do today, Alex? Shall we shoot some hoops? Lift some weights?” There were many possibilities, but whatever he decided to do within the confines of the house, Alex would stay by his side.
He gazed longingly out the kitchen window. There were things he missed, all right. His garden and the feel of the sunlight on his face, the way the grass smelled when walking behind the lawnmower. But it would be madness to attempt to do those things now.
Finishing his coffee, he stood up, sending Alex scurrying across the floor in kittenish abandon. He could hear the scritch-scratch of the mailman’s hand as it opened his metal box and deposited the junk mail he received every day at about this time. He walked the length of the living room quickly. “Hope that pension check is here today,” he muttered.
He peered through the peephole. No one was there. Slowly he unlatched the door and pulled it open, reaching his hand out to grasp the envelopes held in the bowels of the rusted container.
His hand ached with the effort, his disjointed fingers barely able to claw through the pile to grasp them, the blue-gray of the veins almost transparent in the sunlight. Finally, after several minutes of arguing with every joint in the shrunken appendage, he managed to grasp the bundle and drag it over the edge toward the door.
Gingerly he surveyed the envelopes, fingers flying through the pile. At last he found the one he’d been waiting for. The government check lay nestled between his straight fingers. He tore open the envelope.
“Alex!” he called. “It’s here! We can pay our rent now, and I’m going to buy you a special treat!” He looked down, searching for his friend. “Alex?” he called, more urgently now.
In the end he raced up the stairs, lifting the edges of the furniture up, peering into dark places, all the while crying out. At last he sat in the living room, still clutching the check tearfully.
He gasped. The check. He had opened the door to get the mail, taking longer than usual because of his arthritic fingers. As the truth washed over him, he grew weak. He turned to look out the front window, brushing aside the lace curtains and the shade that kept intrusive eyes from peering inside.
There in the distance a form grew smaller and smaller as it lurched down the middle of the street. It was Alex. As he staggered along his legs trembled with the weight of his feeble, shrunken frame.
The young man made a quick decision. Placing the envelope in the pocket of his shirt he shrugged on his worn, camphor-scented coat and reached for the eyeglasses abandoned on the end table. He took a deep breath and unlatched the door.
Sunlight streamed into the house as he stepped outside. Sounds of distant cars sounding their horns dimmed as his spine caved in. He shuffled toward the direction he had last seen the old cat, blinking as cataracts cruelly crusted his eyes.
“Alex!” he called. “Come back!” But his worn-out vocal cords had lost their elasticity and the plea came out a croak.
He shuffled on, taking care with every step that he not tumble forward and be stranded, helpless, in the street.
At the end of the block the old man paused and looked in both directions. Alex had completely disappeared from his dim field of vision. He did not become aware of the two youths until they were upon him.
They approached from both sides at once, the sound of their laughter surreal in his ears. There was no time to even lift a gnarled fist in retaliation. Within moments they had him laying on the sidewalk, his mouth bleeding where the larger of the two had slapped him down. They did not even have to use their fists, it was that easy. He made not a sound, afraid that the slightest provocation would cause them to double their efforts.
One of the boys reached down and began searching through his coat pockets, turning them inside out so roughly that soon the old coat was shredded. A savage kick made him forget his anguish about his only winter coat.
He curled up on his side and lay completely still while the boys stood over him, discussing the situation. Finally deciding he had nothing worth stealing they adopted a nonchalant air and strolled off.
“Wait!” cried the old man. “Come back!”
At the sound of his voice the youths returned to where he lay helplessly. “Could you help me to get home? I’ll pay you for your trouble,” he said shakily.
They looked at one another, bemused. They yanked him to his feet, wrenching his arms as they dragged him toward the house a block away. They had seen this old man a hundred times, all bent over and decrepit with age. He was an easy mark but rarely left his house. It would be a pleasure to rifle through his belongings and pick and choose their treasures.
He was gasping for air as they stepped up their pace, laughing at his bandy-legged shuffle. At the door they watched impatiently as he fumbled for the key which hung on a spiraled key ring around his wrist. The familiar crunching sound was followed by a creak as the door swung open. The boys pushed the old man aside and stepped in, looking for trouble.
The old man smiled to himself as he followed them inside and shut the door. He straightened up, pulling himself to his full height, and stretched luxuriously. Carefully he unfurled the heavy metal eyeglasses that encircled his ears and laid them back on the end table. His ribs were sore from the vicious kick and he rubbed them in remembrance.
The house guests were in the kitchen now, but there was no sound of breaking glass or drawers being ransacked—there was no sound at all from that part of the house.
The young man strode through the living room and paused at the doorway. The two old men stood looking into the mirrored walls of the kitchen, touching their reflections in disbelief. Gone was the arrogance of youth, the straightness of limb, the sureness of grip. They faced one another, stepping closer to get a better view. The larger of the two tried to see his friend but his muscles were so atrophied it prevented him from moving his neck.
They knew they had been searching for something but had forgotten what it was. Or who they were. Perhaps the young man in the doorway could help them.
The young man cocked his head to one side, recognizing a faint scratching sound at the front door. He strode through the room, leaping over the tattered remains of the coat he had shrugged off and thrown in a careless heap. He grinned as he patted the pocket of his shirt where the pension check nestled against his strong chest.
He peered through the peep hole and whooped for joy. Hastily, he opened the door a crack to allow the old, half-blind feline to enter. Alex stumbled up the single step and with his last ounce of strength pulled himself into the musty coolness of the inside of the house. The door closed and was latched against the curtained world.
The kitten licked his paws, purring contentedly. His coat shone with vitality, his bright eyes danced with mischief as the man lifted him up into his arms. “Hi buddy! Where’d you go? You missed all the excitement. We have guests! Come and meet them,” he said excitedly.
And the young man and his kitten headed for the kitchen to make some tea for their old friends.
published Gloucestercitynews.net (Nov. 3, 2020)