The Old Man in the Woods

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
An unexpected teacher is born...

Submitted: October 17, 2011

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Submitted: October 17, 2011

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The old man sat rocking slowly in his chair.  The dusty, wooden floor of the shack creaked louder than the rockers on the chair.  The old man solemnly stared out the window.  The gray, November sky looked as lonely as the leafless trees.  The long, massive branches of the oaks appeared lifeless to the old man; much like his soul.  He remembered back to a better time and how he wound up here.

The old man was a third generation farmer.  He learned everything about farming, livestock, tractors, and motors from his father and especially his grandfather.  His grandfather had retired from farming when he was a boy.  Therefore, his grandfather had much more time than his father did.  They would spend warm summer days tearing down tractors and rebuilding them, inoculating cattle, and talking about what they would plant the following spring and why.  He loved his grandfather so.  By the time his grandfather died, the old man had learned everything he needed to know.  He and his father farmed the land together for a few years and then the old man took it over by himself.  

The old man did a wonderful job with the family farm and made it more profitable than ever before.  He met a young woman, fell in love, and got married by the time he was 25.  His life seemed full to those around him, but the old man never felt that way.  At least, until he had his first drink of whiskey.  Life instantly seemed full.  It stayed that way for awhile.  He and his wife had a couple of kids, the farm was doing well, and the old man kept filling his empty soul with whiskey.  This didn't last for  long.  The old man started drinking earlier in the day, the chores got neglected, and the family got neglected.  The old man was becoming violent during his blackouts.  The farm hands quit.  His wife threatened to leave and take the kids.  The old man would sober up for a few days.  Followed by an even bigger binge than before. 

He woke up one morning and he was alone.  His wife left him a note telling him what he had done during his drunkenness.  He recalled none of it.  The note said he had smacked her, broken windows, and cursed at the children.  Flashes of his kids crying flipped through his mind and painful cuts on his knuckles assured him it was true.  He dismissed it.  If they would have just let him be, it would not spiral out of control so bad.  He was alone now so he could get things back in order and assumed his wife would then return.  First, he needed a drink to get rid of his headache and calm the shakes.  He woke back up to the sound of sirens and people screaming.  He had set his barn and house on fire in yet another blackout.  His farm burnt to the ground.  He was 35 and had no future.  The old man decided the thing to do was to build a shack in the woods near the back of his property.  He would build a still, plant some corn to feed the still, and stay away from people as much as possible.  That's what he did for the next 25 years.  He had been granted his wish; no one would bother him.

On one cold November afternoon, the old man was warming some beans in the fire and sipping on his moonshine.  His days blurred together, but he thought it was Saturday.  Suddenly, there was a rap on the door.  The old man nearly dropped his jar of moonshine.  He never had any visitors.  He opened the door expecting trouble.  Instead, an eight year old boy stared up at him.  The old man snapped, "What are you doing bothering me boy?"  The boy shyly said, "Please sir, I am lost.  My family just bought the next farm down the road.  I went off exploring and got lost."  The old man briefly felt sad for the boy.  Then pointed to the west and said, "Just walk that way towards that row of Poplar trees.  That will get you back to your farm."  The old man then slammed the door and stirred his beans.  The little boy on the porch began to cry.  The old man had another pang of sadness for the boy.  He opened the door again and asked, "Why are you crying boy?"  The boy mumbled through his sobs, "I don't know what a Poplar tree is sir."  The old man said, "What?  A boy your age doesn't know a Poplar tree?  Mercy son.  Let me get my coat."

The unlikely pair trudged across the harvested fields towards the boy's farm.  The old man said nothing.  The boy said, "I'm Jim.  What's your name?"  The old man blurted out, "George."  The boy politely said, "Glad to meet you George.  Thank you for helping me."  The old man wanted to smile but didn't.  They came to the edge of the boy's farm and the old man pointed to their farm house in the distance.  He said, "Can you make it from here?"  Jim nodded and thanked the old man again.  The old man nodded back and returned to his shack for beans and liquor.

A couple of days later, the old man had another knock at the door.  Once again, he opened the door to find Jim.  The old man snarled, "Surely you are not lost again."  Jim laughed and said, "No sir.  I was bored and came back to see you.  What are you doing?"  The old man said, "Nothing that involves having a little boy around.  Now you better head home."  Jim replied, "I thought maybe you could teach me about trees George."  Something in that statement made the old man choke up.  It reminded him of being with his grandfather.  To his own dismay he said he would.  He set down his moonshine and walked out into the woods.  The two walked around for hours looking at all the different trees.  The old man loved teaching the boy.  Jim seemed to enjoy learning.  A friendship was born that day.  For the next few years, the two met several times a week and the old man shared his knowledge of the land.  The days they were together the old man stayed sober.  The days they weren't he usually didn't.  However, his life seemed better than it had in a long time.

One summer afternoon, Jim and the old man went fishing.  The old man told Jim, when he was a boy, he and his friends would throw a rope over the walnut tree branch that hung over the creek.  They would swing way out into the creek and jump off.  Jim thought that sounded really fun.  After they were done fishing, Jim went home and the old man went back to the shack.  A few hours later, the old man heard some commotion.  He saw an old truck race across the field.  He walked in the direction of the truck.  It was headed towards the creek.  The old man walked that way too.  When he got close enough, he saw Jim's father pulling his lifeless body out of the water.  The large walnut tree branch had snapped and evidently hit Jim in the head while swinging.  It had killed him.  The old man went home and picked up the moonshine.  He sobered up long enough for the funeral.  Some folks even said they noticed tears on the old man's cheek as the lowered Jim's body in the grave.  No one saw the old man after that.  Most people figured he got drunk, wondered off somewhere, and died.  No one knew for sure, until one day many years later.

Twenty years after the accident, Jim's father got a letter in the mail.  The letter was from a boy's orphanage in a rural area down the south.  The letter stated that an old man named George had been volunteering nights and weekends to help teach young boys about farming, livestock, tractors, and motors.  The old man worked in a machine shop during the day and saved nearly every penny of his earnings to donate to the orphanage, after his death.  The money was to be used to buy new tools and educational materials so that the program, he set up, could continue.  He had only one request, that the classroom and shop area be named in Jim's honor.  The old man had remained sober since Jim's funeral and dedicated the rest of his life teaching other kids like he had taught Jim.


 


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