Log Cabin Chronicles

The Old Man

JOHN MAHONEY
Illustrations by Michael Mahoney

It was early Spring before I went back to see the old man. I walked up the path he had trudged pixthrough the snow on his trips to the mailbox. Scattered beside the path were bits of cracked corn he had put out for the birds and the grey squirrel. The sun beat on the weathered clapboards at the back of the house. The ice on the porch roof was melting and dripped steadily onto the wooden steps. They would glaze over as soon as the sun went behind the woodshed.

His porch radiated the quiet beauty of a respected and long-used place. The woodbox overflowed with dry splits for the kitchen stove. The handle of the axe leaning in the corner was worn smooth.

His rubber boots were centered under the porch broom hanging next to the storm door. The small window in the door was cracked. It had been patched with masking tape but the upper corner had lifted and was beginning to peel.

A dead vine still clung to the string he had stretched from the porch to the eaves for her morning glories to climb. Even when the time came that she had to use a walker to get to the toilet, she would inch painfully across the porch to inspect her flowers.

He was very considerate, those last months. He had always been decent and correct but as he watched her die, a tenderness that I had never sensed before set in.

At the end he sat for hours beside her bed. She had always been a slight woman; by then she scarcely rippled the covers. He could only see the wide grey eyes and her terrible fear of being alone.

pixOn the day after she died he was in the garden shortly after sunrise. The cooch grass had gotten ahead of him. He started weeding in her flowers. I found him in the onions. He was surrounded by mounds of limp weeds. He was sweating.

"Hot day," he said.

I nudged a pile of weeds with my boot.

"Too hot for that. I brought you some bread. It's still warm. Be nice for lunch."

"Much obliged," he said. "Leave it in the kitchen, will you?" He grubbed out a dandelion.

"No problem." I put it on the countertop, next to the toaster. The shades were still drawn in the narrow bedroom off the kitchen. The house needed a good airing.

I called goodbye and waved, but he didn't look up.

I saw him in the summer and twice that fall, and we had a good visit before the holidays. It would be his first Christmas in fifty years without Helen, but he seemed in good spirits. He didn't mention her . When we parted I said I would be back soon but the months just evaporated.

He must have heard me cross the porch because as I reached out to knock he opened the door.

pix"Come in," he said. "Nice to see you. Have a seat."

I sat as far from the cookstove as I could. The kitchen was sweltering. There was a faded red union suit and a pair of wool socks drying behind the stove. They had seen better days.

"How are you getting along?" I asked.

"Fine."

"Guess you had enough wood this winter."

"Yes, I'm two years ahead. Don't like to burn green wood."

"Too much creosote," I said. "By the way, did you hear Chinny Buzzell burned out? Lost everything."

"Chimney fire?" he asked.

"That's what they say."

"Don't burn greenwood," he said.

"I started my tomatoes," I said. "But I'm cutting back this year."

"A lot of work," he said.

"Enough."

"Taste nice, `though ."

"Are you going to make a garden?," I asked.

"Oh, I guess so."

"What about peppers and tomatoes?"

"Started mine last week," he said.

"I should have known. Never have gotten a jump on you."

pixHe smiled, complimented."Have you tapped out yet?"

"I thought I'd start tomorrow."

"How many buckets are you going to hang?"

"Two hundred."

"Got enough wood?"

"Yes. I got some slabs last fall."

"Where did you get 'em?"

"From Albert," I said.

"Is he sawing this year?"

"As far as I know."

"I wouldn't mind some. Make good kindling."

"They'd need bucking up," I said.

"Would you have time? I can split them."

"Sure," I said. "After haying. Tell me, if you had it to do again, would you move way out here?"

"No, I wouldn't."

"What would you do?"

"I'd do something in business, make some money."

"But you don't need money, do you?"

"No. It's not the money." He leaned forward. "It's the getting of it that would have been interesting."

"Do I hear regrets?"

He shook his head. "Too late for that."

We sat in silence, then I told him there was to be a summer wedding in our family. "They're being married down east ," I said. I'll have to find someone to do chores."

"That's a long way to go."

"It's not that far. Look where you went when your daughter was married."

"We didn't go," he said.

"You didn't?"

"The wife wanted to go. I told her to."

"How come you didn't go?"

"The tomatoes were coming in," he said.

"The tomatoes," I said.

"Yes, it was always something."

"What does that mean?"

"She wanted to go when Bobby was married but it was mud season and the roads were bad. When the girl was born it was the wood. I didn't have it all in."

"That must have been a first for you."

"We had plenty for that year. I was working on the next year."

"What did Helen say?"

"She cried. She cried and said, `But they named her after me.' She should have gone."

"What about you?"

"Oh, I don't care about going places. Always too many people, too many cars. All this moving around. I don't know why they just don't stay put."

"Well, we're looking forward to the wedding," I said. "And the trip."

"You should go. If she were here she'd go."

"Will you come?"

He rocked some, then leaned back and smiled. "Actually, I'd give five hundred dollars not to have to go."

"That's very generous of you," I said. "They certainly will be able to use it."

He turned his head sharply and looked directly at me for some time. Then he nodded. "Fair enough," he said. "Done."

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Copyright © 1996 John Mahoney/Log Cabin Chronicles/05.96