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The Old Man

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
Tony befriends a strange, senile old man and in turn receives a gift.

Submitted: November 11, 2019

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Submitted: November 11, 2019

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The Old Man

 

 

The old man shuffled begrudgingly up and down the sidewalk in front of my house.  He hardly broke eye contact with the front door. He’d look over at me raking leaves, then back at the door, then back at me again. 

“What the hell you doin’ rakin’ my leaves?  I don’t remember hiring a neighbor kid!”  The old man said in anger while waving his cane at me.

I retorted in confusion,” Your leaves?  Mister, you’ve been walking up and down the sidewalk mean-mugging me for an hour now.  Can I help you with something?”

The old man’s angry stare then became a blank look of confusion.  He turned to walk away as if we were never in conversation and didn’t return until the next day.  This continued for the next couple days.  He’d show up, cane in hand, at about five in the evening to walk up and down the sidewalk in front of my house; the routine was that simple.  Save for a few befuddled scratches to the head and many glares at me through the kitchen window.  These were times I wasn’t outside repairing and improving my nearly decrepit fixer-upper.

However, a couple mornings later, I woke to the old man breaking into my house through the sliding glass patio door.  Naturally, I grabbed the nearest blunt object and tip-toed to the living room.  And, there he was, peculiarly, sitting slumped on the floor.  A spot in the carpet had been tore open and bits of old hardwood flooring underneath were excavated into a small pile next to him.  An old metal toolbox sat on the far side of the hole in the floor.  My contempt for the old man kindled.  I held tight my make-shift weapon as I approached him.

“Mister, I let you off light, and now, I’m calling the police.”  I said as I reached for my cell phone.

The old man shook his head.  “Why the hell are you in my house?”  he asked, frustrated.

I knew the old man had some screws loose judging by our previous encounters, but I realized at that point his senility was a bit worse than I thought.

I relaxed my stance and approached the old man; he seemed safe enough.  He cradled an old strongbox decorated in dusty fingerprints.  He opened it with much anticipation.  I sat down next to him just as anxious—he paid no mind to me.

“Hey, uh, what do you got there?” I asked.

The old man’s boney, white, pruned fingers grasped the lid and flipped it open; dust plumed off the outside casing.

“There they are!”  The old man declared.  He withdrew a tightly packed wad of photographs wrapped in wax paper.

“And, there SHE is!”  He exclaimed.  A tear formed in his eye. He held up a black and white portrait of a woman up to the light.  She was wearing what looked to be a wedding dress.  “Ain’t she a looker?”

Silence filled the room.

“So, this is what all the fuss was about, huh?”  I muttered.

I realized then that the house I was resurrecting had, at one time, been the old man’s home.  However, I decided to quiz him to see if his memory served him correctly. 

“Were you the owner of this house?”  I asked.

“Were?!  I AM the owner!” he scoffed.

“Oh, and what’s the address?”

“1411 Southbend Drive.”

“What city?”

“Cedar Grove.” He snapped.

“State?”

He stole a look away from his photos and glared at me over his glasses.

I laughed, “Okay, you win.” He knew exactly where the strongbox was in my house, so the questions were more for my peace of mind.

“You mind if I stay for a bit and look at your photos”?  No response followed my inquiry.

As the old man kept spouting his musings for the life he had lived, I decided to lighten the mood between he and I.  I fetched some scotch from the liquor cabinet, but He, again, paid no mind to my whereabouts whilst I grabbed two highballs and returned to his company.  I put a glass in front of him as sort of an amends and he seemed to perk up at the strong, peaty tinge of the liquor.

” Good man!” he said, “Although, it’s the least you could do being an uninvited guest and all.”  He paused, taking a sip, “Wait, this isn’t from my stash is it?”  I let out a chuckle, “No, sir, your stash is safe.” 

I clinked my glass on his.  “I’m Tony.  It’s nice to meet you.”  I shook the old man’s hand; dust still pasted to his palm. “Private First-Class Herman Smitz” he said.  His attention was quickly drawn back to the photographs as I seemed to be more of an obstacle to their allure. 

He continued to flip through numerous eras and talked about how he loved taking photographs himself and receiving them from others as well.  He had always liked them as a child, he said--he even collected them.  But, more importantly, as he got older, he loved them because they helped him remember.  A piece of life captured in a bottle, was how he put it.

After a couple hours of him reminiscing and showing me photos of him in his military uniform and a few of him and his wife Pearl and their dog Shooter, the old man grew tired and decided to take a nap on the floor.  Most anyone would call the police on such an intruder, as I almost did, but I enjoyed the company.  I covered him with a blanket and decided I’d let him sleep for an hour before waking him.  He used his strongbox as a pillow which was a sure sign that he coveted the unearthed time capsule that held parts of his memories.

When the old man woke, he only had the faintest clue as to what he was doing in his old home.  But what he did exalt in was finally having his strongbox back in his possession.  I helped him to his feet as he clutched the box ever more snuggly to his chest.

“Pardon me, but Who are you, again?”  The old man asked.

“I’m a friend of the family.  I wanted to return your strongbox to you.  I found it under the floor when I began replacing the carpet.  Since you were the previous owner of the home, I was able to track you down.”  I said.

“Good man!  Thank you!  I’ve been searching for this box a while now.  I knew I had left it here somewhere.” 

I smiled through my white lie and motioned with one hand to the front door.  “I’ll walk you home.  Keep you some company.” 

He paused, “What’d you say your name was?” he asked. 

“Tony.”  I chuckled at the monotony of the situation, but not at the old man himself.

As we walked toward the front door the old man looked back at the hole in the carpet then over at the shards of glass lying below the voided sliding back door.

“This house didn’t look like this when I lived here.  Looks like you’ve got your work cut out for ya!”  He cackled.  I didn’t have the heart to tell him he caused the damages, so I just laughed along with him.

I ushered the old man back home with a slow jaunt several blocks over.  He filled me in on the town’s history, which was nice, because I wasn’t from the area.  I had told him during our walk that I had moved to Indiana with my fiancée, but we had separated recently.  She moved back to New York and I stayed with the house.  The old man’s affinity for the strongbox full of pictures of his wife and family made me love-sick.

He led us to a little retirement community on the edge of town called ‘Emerald Spruce – An Unassisted Retirement Community’.  It’s no wonder the old man was lost.  Once we entered his home, I was agape at the hundreds of photographs strung on twine to and from each wall of the tiny studio apartment.  I then realized that the strongbox meant more to him than I could comprehend.  He took a seat in his rocking recliner in front of a lone bay window and sighed deeply.

“Stay for a drink?”  The old man asked.

We sat for a couple hours sipping more scotch and watching snowflakes pepper the ground.  The old man expanded upon his love for his wife Pearl and how he wished he could have done things differently with his life.  Maybe travel together more.  “Less time in the office and more time with her would have been the thing to do”, he said.  “She was always there waiting for me at home and I was never in a good mood.  She didn’t deserve that.  The war made me an anxious, depressed old man and working for a shit boss at a shit company with no pension made it worse.”

He paused to take a sip from his glass.

“Before I knew it, we were old and grey, and she passed.  It’s unbelievably cruel how a life can be extinguished with no memory except what’s in your head and what’s on these photographs.”

He paused again.

I grabbed a polaroid camera nearest me sitting atop an end table and knelt next to the old man.  “How about another one for the collection.” I said.  We smiled and I snapped a selfie of us-- his first one! 

“Well look at that!  Not many photos of me these days.”  The old man said.  He shook the polaroid excitedly.

I sunk back into my chair and sipped another strong gulp from my glass.  I watched more snowflakes melt into the ground.  The old man knew that something was bothering me deeply.  Aesthetically I probably looked like I hadn’t slept in days.

“You’ve been glum for an hour now…”  The old man said.

I didn’t say anything.  I didn’t want to think about it.

“You miss her--it’s evident.  I used to get quiet when all wasn’t right between my Pearl and I; couldn’t think straight. But you need to snap out of it!  Go get her back!”  The old man exclaimed.  “You shouldn’t be here with me!  You should be sitting next to her in front of a fire.  Christmas tree lit up.  Pupper sittin’ at your feet.  Glass of brandy.”  He sloshed the melted ice cubes in his glass.  We both watched the snowfall become heavier.” Maybe some little ones awaiting Santa’s arrival.”  He cackled.

He told me he didn’t need to know what caused my fiancée and I to split because it wasn’t important.  He said our relationship could be mended because if I had gone to the trouble of finding him his strongbox, then I must be a truly good person at heart.

“Be real good to yourself, Tony.”  He looked over his glasses while pointing his boney finger at me to make sure I was listening.

I hadn’t been happy in months, but the old man brought me some comfort that day.  After out heart to heart he, again, slowly drifted off to sleep.  Instead of seeing myself out I tried contacting his next of kin, but the contact numbers and addresses I had scrounged from his apartment were either no longer in use or the relative in question had passed away.  I decided that I’d set the old man up with hospice for the time being.  He began receiving medication multiple times a day which helped him retain some fleeting memories of me and with each of my visits he got the hang of it.  To him, I was Tony:  the guy who found his strongbox.  Or, rather, Tony:  the chicken-shit that needed to sack-up and get his dame back.  I had to admit, the old man was a pistol.

After several months the old man’s memory improved but the progress slowed leading into December and he eventually took a downturn in health.  With each visit beyond that point in my knowing him he forgot certain things that he had come to know about me until on my final visit he no longer knew who I was. 

Now that I am in my fifties, I can safely say that I regret not telling the old man that he was the reason why my wife and I are back together and have been happily married for fifteen years.  Tonight, Christmas Eve, we visited his grave as we had done every year since Jane and I “tied the knot”.  We’d bring a bottle of champagne, three glasses, two spoiled children, four chairs, and a battery-operated space-heater every visit.  All of this to honor an old man that broke into my house one day. 

I recently came to the realization that I, in no way, ever helped Private First-Class Herman Smitz find his strongbox.


© Copyright 2020 Ryan K. Mallegni. All rights reserved.

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