June 21, 2020 by The Citron Review
by Jared Graham
CAMDEN, N.J., 1891
In the morning the old man could feel rain coming on, and finally in the afternoon dark clouds arrived and with claps of thunder a heavy rain fell. The storm passed and the sky cleared, and all day long the old man sat at his parlor window watching. At supper time the old man rapped the butt of his cane on the floor. His nurse, Warren, came and helped him up the stairs to his bedroom. His room was a windblown cowlick mess of books and papers: manuscripts, letters, and unopened envelopes strewn over stacks of hardcovers and notebooks, his galleys and proofs sitting under back copies and empty ink pots on the floor and furniture. In the room’s center was a small fire in the sheet-iron woodstove. The old man sat at the north window and ate a small meal of mutton broth with buttered bread sliced two fingers fat. In the street below children threw firecrackers into a neighbor’s basement window–young boys with their tongues out making full-body pitches. The whiz–a snap–and flash. Shouts came from the dark cellar, and the boys ran down the street laughing. The old man smiled and with a dry towel draped over his knees cleaned his lips.
The city was fading into the bruising light of dusk. Warren entered the room and took away the old man’s empty bowl and changed out his towel. He asked him if he needed anything from the post office, but the old man was going deaf and couldn’t hear him. He tried again, louder this time, and the old man said no thanks, smiling. The old man felt at home in the gloaming. He leaned close to the window, the fresh air teasing his nose and the whiskers of his long, white beard. All day he felt the oppression of his old body, a weathered hull tired of the ocean’s endless lapping. He was weak beyond hope of regaining his former strength, tired beyond any desire to step outdoors–to sap what little power he possessed. He was content at his windows, watching the children play, or watching the young men from the boatyard returning home from work–handsome, broad-chested men with brows furrowed and rimed with sweat. Old age was a coldness creeping in on his body, starting at the hands and feet, slowly inching toward the heart. But it had its windows, its opportunities to feel that once familiar warmth of manhood, that old adhesiveness–the heat and flow, the pluck and tally of comrades in the street.
His hearing was beginning to fail, but the old man had trained his ears to the pitch of the whistling buoy at the boatyard. The sound came to him first as a low drone, and then he could make out the rising inflection, the sound climbing to a higher pitch and holding for a half-minute before dying away. The old man waited. Only five–maybe ten more minutes. Not that the old man was concerned with time. He was only interested in the laborers, the mechanics and welders and shipwrights–sure and handy men–on their way home, and the minute details of their persons: the bulge of a hip pocket (the wonder of what sundries might be held within?), the squeak of boots clopping on the wet roadway, the swing of a lunch pale, bodies moving in leisurely strides, toned arm muscles tense and veiny and strained.
The men walked home with their shirtsleeves rolled up above the elbows, their jackets slung over their shoulders or tied tightly around their hips or bunched up and tucked into their pants at the small of the back. They talked, but the old man could hear only a faint murmur like the cooing of an owl. This was the holy hour. All was easy and light-hearted, the men coming together, the day done, and now one by one each man parting for the family, the table, the stories, the love and frolic. He missed that certain kind of love, though he knew now he’d always been misguided, doomed to heartache. He was not regretful but nostalgic–like any man who was content but whose strength and virility were gone, like any man who saw of the future only the pains and impotency of old age. True old age: where the virtue of patience becomes a necessity for enduring life, and the only recompense is but a keeping face.
At nightfall the old man turned away from the window and stretched his hands toward the heat from the woodstove. At his feet was a basket of memoranda yellowed and stained like relics pulled from a flood. He opened the feed door and threw in a log and stoked it. The old man dropped the fire iron. He picked up the scrap papers from the basket and one by one dropped them into the fire. His head felt heavy, bogged-down, his brain jelly-like–thoughts dripping tarry and sticky from his consciousness. His deafness was not a building silence but a swooshing sound in his ears that reminded him of ocean waves. He believed his soul was returning from a long, slow journey inland, and the noise in his ears brought visions of his old body walking the sandy beaches of his childhood–a boy returning to the motherlap.
The scraps in the fire now were the driftwood of an epoch, a summoning of men irretrievable, memories sacred. At his feet was kindling, a pyrolysis of stories too intimate–too surely and only his to be perpetuated. After he emptied the basket into the woodstove, he walked slowly to his bed, leaning on his desk, on the corner table, and finally leaning on the bed post before falling heavily onto his mattress. He closed his eyes. In his head the sound of waves crashing–a vision. He squinted into the sunlight and watched the seagulls circling overhead, their dark wings dipping and pivoting through sunbeams bright as electricity. A lately recurring feeling came crushing on him, as of one happiness missed, one life–one friend and companion–never made. He was falling asleep, but he was not hurried. There was only the endless rush of the ocean pushing and pulling the sand beneath his feet.
Jared Graham lives in southern Maine, where he works as a firefighter. Previous publications include fiction and poetry in The Olive Tree Review and Off the Coast. Jared lives with his wife, Melanie, and their French Bulldog, Ella Fitzsnuggles.