Yesterday, When I Was Young
“There are so many songs in me that won't be sung
I feel the bitter taste of tears upon my tongue.
The time has come for me to pay for yesterday
When I was young...”
--- Roy Clark
Elliott finished repairing the rocking chair. The rockers had become uneven with use, and he had to sand the left one down to make the rocking motion smooth again. It was a man’s rocking chair, sturdy in all the right places. White oak frame stained a rich mahogany, leather padded seat cushion, and it was born to rest in front of a fire. He’d built it himself. And no one had ever sat in it but him
He turned off the bare overhead bulb in his small barn and strode the 30 feet to the cabin, leaving the swinging wooden doors open. No threat of crime way out here. And there was always a raccoon or a small family of deer who might find the straw he left strewn in the front left corner of the barn to be a welcome bed for the evening. You never knew what might crawl out of the forest that surrounded his little slice of paradise.
He sat on his handmade sofa built from a birch tree he’d chopped down years ago. The leather cushion creaked as he bent over and removed his boots, a pair of pointy-toed snake skin Tony Lamas. He groaned as he pulled off the left one. His feet were swollen, but he liked the boots. Life was a tradeoff.
He took the boots into the bedroom, removed his Pendleton which had flakes of sawdust on it, and put on a fresh old cotton plaid shirt, worn so fine it felt like silk, like an old friend.
He returned to the small but modern kitchen and built himself a drink. Tanqueray gin, ice, a squeeze of lime juice, and a tiny dollop of bitters. Run the lime peel around the rim of the glass. He leaned on the sink and looked out through the cutout he’d made a while back. Scanning the living room, every angle revealed a piece of furniture he’d made with his own hands. He took pride in his craftsmanship. Self taught, he’d learned from his mistakes and had become proficient enough to have sold some pieces at the local swap meet held every six months in town, about six miles away.
He grunted and placed his drink in the freezer. He slipped into his moccasins and went back to the barn to retrieve the repaired rocker.
Once back in its familiar spot near the fireplace, he built a fire and watched the newspaper and kindling go through its initial roar, then settle down to do its job. He noted with comfort the dozen or so logs stacked neatly on the hearth.
He returned to the kitchen and retrieved his drink.
He looked out at the front yard through the big window. It was dusk, but there was enough light to see the lake, which was smooth as glass and lapped languidly onto his land about 100 feet from his front door. His one outside light gave the yard an almost theatric glow. It was his favorite time of the day. It was supposed to snow later. The thought made him smile.
He tossed two cured logs on the dwindling fire and it roared to life, and then sat in the rocker, kicking off his moccasins and extending his long legs toward the fire.
He tipped his glass to his mouth, closed his eyes, and tasted the icy gin.
“Could be worse,” he said aloud, staring into the fire. His thick, deep gravelly voice sounded strange with only the crackling of the fire to compete with the silence.
Elliott Samuels was a tall, rangy man with thick, longish brown hair. His face was tan and weathered yet still retained a faint memory of youth. Two large, watery brown eyes topped a thriving but neat mustache that completed itself around his mouth and over his chin into a trimmed goatee.
He was 56 years old, and tonight he felt every single year in his bones.
Thoughts turned to Lisa Ann. He’d built the cabin for them to escape to. Upon completion, he’d never seen a bigger smile on her face. Their first night here, they made love and exactly nine months later, she gave birth to a baby boy. Exactly nine minutes after giving birth, she died of complications. Exactly nine days after being born, his son died as well.
Elliott hated the number nine.
The cabin then evolved into HIS escape, and he had lived there ever since. The photo above the fireplace showed a smiling Lisa Ann at his side, her left hand splayed on his bare lower abdomen, her diamond wedding ring winking at the flash, her smile a heartbreakingly huge one that had lit his soul every minute she was in his life.
”Twenty years now
Where'd they go?
I don't know
Sit and I wonder sometimes
Where they've gone”
--- ‘Like a Rock’: Bob Seger
He’d begun to do this recently. Sit in front of the fire after a long day, mulling over what was, and what might have been. He wasn’t feeling sorry for himself. He’d gone years trying not to think about Lisa Ann and their boy. It just seemed like his mid fifties was the time to start thinking. About everything.
He groaned as he got up and went to the kitchen to refresh his drink. Back in front of the fire, he rocked slowly, feeling the heat of the fire coursing through his thick wool socks. It felt good.
Other than his twice weekly trip into town for provisions and building supplies, he had little contact with people. There was the widow across the lake that he’d bumped into in the market a couple of times. At their second chance meeting, she’d suggested coming over to her place for a barbecue, but he’d politely fended off her invitation.
He was awful at idle chit chat. And the thought of being alone with another woman scared him.
“Seems the love I've known has always been
the most destructive kind
Yes, that's why now I feel so old
before my time.
Yesterday when I was young”
When his son died, it was, of course, impossible to separate the boy’s death from his wife’s death. But over time, as he thought about what type of father he might have been, he would often cry alone at night in front of the fire, wondering why god would take both of the legs he needed to truly stand tall in life.
This night, he tried not to focus on the injustice. Thoughts turned to dinner. He went to the kitchen, drink in hand, and rummaged in the ice box, emerging with two frozen pork chops. He set them out to defrost and made a new drink.
It was nice to have no schedule to abide by, no rules to play by, nobody to answer to. He’d often try to quell his loneliness with those thoughts. Sometimes it even worked.
He liked to think back to when he was in his twenties. It was his favorite period of his life. Yes, even before he met Lisa. He was indestructible, or so he felt. Wasn‘t that half the battle?
Ensconced back in front of the fire after putting two more logs on and stoking the lower ones, he sank back into the rocker and thought about growing old. The process of it. The inevitability of it. The fact that when combined with being alone, growing old could be brutal.
And it wasn’t just the physical wear and tear that a life lived mostly outdoors brought on a man, it was the feeling, the very real sense, that gravity simply got heavier each year. The weight of his wife and son’s deaths was of course a cinder block that would ride on his shoulder to his grave. No getting around that. But there seemed to be other more sinister things at work to make him weary. His spirit seemed unable to spark or ignite. The widow in the market had been attractive and well put together, but he’d felt nothing. Not even a glimpse of a lecherous thought.
Had his soul died in that hospital as well? Should there have been three funerals?
Lisa would have wanted him to move on. Maybe he’d lost some of his will to live?
He checked on the chops. Not quite soft yet. He took two ears of corn from the wicker hanging basket above the counter and shucked and lightly buttered them and rolled both in cracked black pepper. He wasn’t sure yet if he was going to barbecue, or bake the chops, which would determine the fate of the corn as well. He cut up a green Granny Smith apple, coated it with olive oil and a dollop of honey, rolled the pieces around in a bowl to cover completely, and set them aside.
Fresh drink in hand, he returned to his chair. The fire was going strong. He could even feel the heat on his face as he slowly rocked back and forth. It felt good. He craned his neck to look out the window. No snow yet.
In his early twenties, Elliott was a sight to see. He’d filled out what had been a wiry teenage frame, and then stood 6’2” and 195 lbs., and the girls wouldn’t leave him alone. He was hesitant at first, maybe even a little bitter, as he wondered where these girls had been in high school. That feeling passed quickly, and Elliott took refuge in the arms of many a comely lass in those decadent first five years of his twenties. He felt on top of the world.
“My hands were steady
My eyes were clear and bright
My walk had purpose
My steps were quick and light
And I held firmly
To what I felt was right
Like a rock”
Now, sore but slightly aglow from fire and gin, he grinned when he thought about the wide swath he’d cut through the local female population. He’d been a stud. No other way to say it.
And just as abruptly, upon meeting Lisa, he never again had sex with another woman.
There had been speculation among the scorned women forced
to trail in his wake as to Lisa’s special talents in the bedroom, but Elliott liked her, and subsequently loved her, because she would have wanted to be with him in high school, before he’d blossomed. She built her life around him.
“Yesterday when I was young
So many happy songs, were waiting to be sung
So many wild pleasures, lay in store for me
And so much pain, my dazzled eyes refused to see
I ran so fast that time, and youth at last ran out
I never stopped to think, what life was all about
And every conversation, I can now recall
Concerned itself with me, and nothing else at all”
His buddies from that era of his life all faded away before he and Lisa got married. They were not missed, as he realized that it was time for him to put away childish things.
She helped him become a man.
And then she was gone.
Was he still a man? He often asked himself this.
Back to the kitchen. The chops were ready to be dressed. Salt and cracked pepper, two brief squirts of olive oil on each side of each chop, and a sliced piece of fresh garlic rubbed over the meat, imparting the intoxicating garlic smell.
Looking out the window, he saw it had begun to snow. Baking it would be.
He preheated the oven, set the timer, and returned with a replenished drink to his chair, not before adding another log to the fire.
Once Lisa was gone, he was a shell of himself for over a year. He felt guilt over such silly things as having not given his baby boy a name. They had decided not to name him until he was born, and after her sudden death, he simply never thought about it. He was too distraught.
Once he sold their condo and moved to the cabin, things settled down for him. A routine was established, and that helped a great deal. Keeping occupied was paramount, and he began to really hone his carpenter skills. Every time he finished a piece, his feeling of pride was almost immediately dashed on the rocks of reality, as he had no one to share his creation with. A craftsman needed an audience, eventually, other than himself.
The cabin filled up with the results of his handiwork, but it soon became clear the furniture was only there to remind him who was not sitting on it. He considered stopping, but finally realized that he was being overly maudlin and almost silly.
He’d gone from an indestructible 25 year old, to a hunched over and defeated 40 year old. Something had to break the pattern.
Man’s best friend came to the rescue.
Boris was a German Shepherd puppy who wandered onto Elliott’s ½ acre of land one afternoon, standing in the doorway of the barn, staring at him, tail wagging.
He had stared back. Then he crouched down and the puppy sprinted over to him and immediately sprawled on his back between Elliot’s knees, staring plaintively up into his eyes.
He scratched the puppy on the belly, and love was born.
To do the right thing, he’d placed an ad in the local rag, but got no response, and a week later, he named him Boris, after the famous German tennis player.
The buzzer on the stove binged and he went and twisted the knob to ‘broiler’ and put the chops in under the gas flame. He wrapped the corn cobs, with an extra pat of butter, in individual pieces of foil and set one on either side of the broiling chops. He set the timer again for 8 minutes, and took his drink to the front door and opened it. Through the screen door, he could see that the snow had begun to stick on the ground. It was now dark and there was a faint path of light from somewhere up above, splashed onto the lake and spilling directly toward his cabin, like a runway.
The snow had turned heavier, but was still light enough he could go out without a jacket for moment, which he did.
The flakes fell on him as he turned his face skyward and opened his mouth. He took a sip of his drink and realized he was crying.
“Yesterday the moon was blue
And every crazy day brought something new to do.
I used my magic age as if it were a wand
And never saw the waste and emptiness beyond
The game of love I played with arrogance and pride
And every flame I lit too quickly, quickly died
The friends I made all seemed somehow to drift away
And only I am left on stage to end the play”
As the snow melted slowly in his drink, he returned to his rocking chair.
The tears had surprised him. Come upon him like a Cherokee Indian in the night, stealthy and lethal.
Not waiting for the timer, he checked the chops and flipped them, and rotated the corn a ½ turn and closed the oven, resetting the timer for 5 minutes.
With drink refilled, he returned to the fire.
The tears had ceased almost as quickly as they’d appeared. But their impact lingered.
Lisa had died 20 years ago. Boris had died last year, accumulating 16 years of dog life, an admirable trek through a kingdom that man knows so little about. Boris was buried out near the lake, with a simple head stone that stated: “Here lies this man’s best friend”,
The gin was not having much of an affect on him. He’d lost track of how many he’d had. Who counts his own drinks, anyway? A little slice of manly freedom, drinking was. Nobody to nag, nobody to count, and nobody to share it with. Life was a tradeoff.
As much as he tended to romanticize his twenties, he realized he was not a happy or complete man until Lisa loved him. And had not been one since she died.
He missed Boris on nights like these.
Dinner was served. He unfolded a TV tray he’d made out of oak and placed it in front of the rocker. Retrieving the corn and chops from the oven, he plated them and brought it out to his tray. He’d put the apples in the refrigerator so they wouldn’t oxidize.
He opened a bottle of red wine and poured himself a glass. He noticed the snow had begun to fall much heavier as he went past the window to his chair.
The fire needed an assist, so he tended to it and got it roaring again.
He often ended evenings like this with the simple question: Where do I go from here?
He was no closer to an answer.
Outside, the silent shroud of snow covered up all sound. But he wouldn’t have heard it anyway.
Near the lake, through the falling snow, a female voice said softly, “I love you, Elliott”.
As he went to bed, Elliott glanced at the digital clock on the mantel.
It blinked at him. 9:09.
“And sometimes late at night
When I'm bathed in the firelight
The moon comes callin' a ghostly white
And I recall
Like a rock”