A Story about an Old Man and an Old Woman
The sound of music was so faint; it couldn’t even wake a baby. Yet the old man hunched over his fence, yelling at the neighbors to turn it down. He should have known by now, that this would only cause them to turn it up. He slouched back to the kitchen, to finish off his meal, alone. Few of the neighbors liked Walter; little of them even knew his name. He was considered to be an uncaring old man. Walter was the type of person children would avoid, and teens would target. He lived a simple, lonely life. According to his neighbors, he’s never had a visitor, nor does he leave his property.
It was a typical day; the neighborhood children harassed Walter as they biked by. A dog was digging up his lawn. “Why me, why is it always me” he mumbled. He walked inside as he heard the toaster pop, his breakfast must be done. He sat alone, reminiscing through old photos, while eating his burnt toast. He jumped as he heard a knock on the door. His hopes ran high, “who would be here at this hour” he grumbled, to cover up his excitement. As he opened the door, he felt a quick splash. Three little kids burst into laughter, he saw their mother on the sidewalk, laughing as well. “You think this is funny? You think this is right? My pictures, they’re ruined!” he slammed the door, and stormed off to his room to escape the laughter. A water balloon! It seemed as if he was becoming the victim of them more and more frequently now.
To others, Walter was a joke. He was an old grump. It all started a few years back, when he grabbed some kid that he had caught breaking into his truck. Turns out, the kid was the son of the mayor. So of course, Walter ended up looking like the bad guy. The press, the media, everyone was against him. He started to gain the reputation of being abusive. The neighborhood parents would tell their children the stories of Walter, which started to spread around the playground like wildfire. Like any story, rumors and lies began to form. The next thing you knew, Walter was being called a murderer, a kidnapper, and an evil old man in general.
Walter jumped from his bed, as he heard the sound of shattering glass. He reached for his baseball bat as he ran outside. Two teens noticed him as they crawled out of Walters truck. “Brings back memories, don’t it? Wutcha gunna do, murder me too, old man?,” yelled one of the teens. “Why can’t you people just leave me alone…” whispered Walter. The teens stumbled off while laughing to one another. Walter dropped to his knees, in agony. “Just leave! Go! Why can’t you all just go…” he screamed.
Later that night, the paramedics arrived at Walters house. Nobody really stopped too see what happened, until they pulled out the stretcher. “He had a stroke” one of the paramedics said. “Is he… gone?” asked one of the neighborhood mothers. “I’m afraid so” replied the paramedic. As a crowed started to form, more rumors started to speculate. “I heard he tried to commit a mass homicide suicide” spurted out an ignorant bystander. “I heard the mayor’s son came back for revenge” blurted out another.
Weeks later at the funeral, not many people showed up. The ones that did claimed it was only for the free food. Nobody was close enough to Walter to speak about him, and he had no known family. One of the men raided his home, and found enough information to make a slight presentation. “Walter, a man known by few, yet rumored about by many. He was known as abusive, angry, and filled with hate. Some even called him a murderer from time to time. Yet none of these rumors were true. His wife and two children passed away twenty years ago. It was their anniversary; they were dropping the children off at his parents’ house when they were hit by a drunk driver in a semi-truck. Unfortunately she and the children didn’t survive. Ever since, Walter lived a lonely life locked away in his home. He tried to fit in; he tried to be like us. Bank deposit slips showed he charitably donated large sums of money to the Save the Children Fund. Why did everyone have to be so cruel?” Once he was done his speech, people simply got up and left, as if they felt no remorse. Maybe now they’ll take time to think before they condemn and judge others, but I doubt it.
I had been teaching a small workshop at a film school. Eight rather small, one-floor medical buildings surround a large pond filled with water lilies and a stone fountain. The grounds were always bright green, well-manicured, with pecan, ash and live oak trees. I enjoyed walking through the area on breaks from class and sitting near the pond for a few minutes each evening after teaching.
I first saw her on a Monday evening. She sat on one of the wooden benches positioned half-way between the fountain and the hissing sound of the pump that recirculated the water. Mostly, she stared into the water apparently lost in thought. From where I stood, she appeared to be in her seventies, perhaps an ambulatory resident of the nursing home. Or she might have been tired from visiting a grandchild at the children's medical center.
She was an attractive woman. Tall, elegant, she wore long pants and a windbreaker, tennis shoes. That first evening I saw her; she took one shoe off and extended her foot down into the water. I enjoyed watching her. She held on to a cedar post supporting an arbor that extended over much of the pond and delicately dipped her toes into the cool water. That moment stuck with me for some reason beyond the physical act.
A few days later, I saw her again. She sat quietly near the same pond. Apparently lost in thought, her eyes looked upwards into tree limbs losing their leaves in the summer heat. She whispered something, but I was too far away to hear. After a few minutes, she stood up and walked back across the campus and into the shadows.
I sat down on what I was beginning to consider her bench. The pond was noisy: the gurgling of the water spilling over the rock fountain, the wheezing of the pump. From time to time one of the many white-tailed doves that drank from the pond would stand nearby and lower its head down to the pond to drink. From where I sat I could see the reflection of the trees, the sky, birds on the still surface of the water.
When I taught again the next night and walked out onto the quadrangle, she was already there. I sat down on a bench on the other side of her pond and pretended to read from a book of poems. She walked around the pond and stood behind me. "What are you almost reading?" she asked.
I looked up at her. "Almost?"
"You've been watching me."
"I love Yeats. Why have you been watching me?"
She had a soft voice, but not weak. The type of voice I had imagined she would have. "I don't know. I teach a how-to course in medical instruction video at the film school two nights a week and I walk out here afterwards. I happened to see you."
"Lost," she said. "We are all lost here. In one way or another. It's beautiful, but it isn't real. Why do you watch me?"
I almost laughed. This is what I would have expected of her, a kind of odd flirtatiousness, directness hinted at by that toe she had dipped into the water.
"Because you're beautiful," I said.
She laughed. "Perhaps. You've read Stevens? 'Sunday Morning'? The part about the ripe fruit needing to fall? If I am beautiful, then that's the reason."
And this is how I had imagined she would talk, moving from one thought to another, dropping poetry into the conversation.
"What's your name?" I asked.
"That doesn't matter. I'm dying," she said. "Throat cancer. Too many cigarettes over too many years. “Have you ever read the poet Yeats?”
“Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.”
"Do you remember what he said? ‘Had I the heavens embroidered cloths, Enwrought with golden and silver light, the blue and the dim and the dark cloths of night and light and the half-light, I would spread the cloths under your feet: But I, being poor, have only my dreams; I have spread my dreams under your feet; Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.”
“That's what I want before I’m gone, to spread my dreams."
I didn't see her again at the center. The term ended and the film school hadn't scheduled additional course work until the following year. But I think of her often and see her standing there stretching her foot down to the pond and quoting Stevens or Yeats. I never learned her name but she was right. That doesn't matter.
So long as we love, we have purpose. So long as we are loved by others, we are indispensable; and no one is useless while they have a friend.
Click to watch video: Happiness is an unexpected hug.