Circumnavigation Leads to a New History
You have to sit on an old guy’s porch for a long time before he understands that you’re not just trying to humor him. I’d stopped by to sit on Ben Bow’s porch three or four times, each time spending a few hours reading or working on my next blog, and he always sat in that lawn chair on the west side of the screened-in box that seemed to serve as his living room, his bedroom, and his mausoleum. Believing firmly that my musings about geriatric life were right on target — mainly because I didn’t know what to do if they weren’t — I said little more than “Hey, Ben” each time I entered and little more than “Take care” when I left. One time I asked him where his bathroom was, and he told me. Ever since then I just tottered off down the hall whenever I needed to. It didn’t seem to bother Ben any. From time to time, I’d make him a sandwich. He never ate it. I think that eating had fallen on his list of priorities and now moldered somewhere below breathing and making sure he is wearing pants.
But one afternoon, as the sun set fire to the tops of the pine trees on the mainland to the west, I decided it was time to find out Ben’s story. I pretty much had it figured out, it seemed to me, but the Journalist’s Handbook clearly states that we’re actually supposed to ask our sources questions from time to time. As I saw it, he had spent his life working his way up through the ranks of some drab business that sucks the life out of its workers in exchange for keeping profits for itself. I was thinking the coffee-cake industry, maybe, or vacuum cleaners. Maybe the manufacture and sales of three-ring binders. Something like that. And then, one day, his wife died — and he realized it was all over. Any chance of adventure, daring, excitement, thrill, danger, and passion was gone. No more naturally produced adrenalin for Ben. Not any more. At a certain age, life shrinks down to tedious, patient waiting for Death to provide some change of scenery.
And nothing to look back on. A slow, steady stream of promotions at the office, from batter-mixer through crumb-topping-application all the way up to Packaging and Delivery. Yawn. A tidy house that could boast of no ghosts, no eccentricities, no dastardly crimes committed within its walls. A neat life of coloring within the lines, filing the weekly reports every week and the monthly reports every month, and careful flossing before bed each night. And then the wife dies. And then the widower waits on his porch.
I had it all figured out, and I was betting my imagined version wasn’t far from the truth. So I asked him. After all, we had shared almost five “Hey, Ben”s and the same number of “Take care”s, punctuated by a smaller number of “Where’s the bathroom?”s and “Want a sandwich?”s. He had upheld his end of the interchange with responsive “Hello”s and “Goodbye”s, ad libbing with just the right degree of “down the hall on the left” and “I hate bologna” banter. We were well on our way to establishing a solid verbal foundation for our burgeoning relationship.
So I just outright asked him. “Why do you sit here and stare at the sea all day?” I blurted. “What happened to you?”
At first, I didn’t think he had heard me, although his hearing hadn’t failed him when I inquired about the bathroom. I thought that maybe he had dozed off — which he does often and without any outward sign of change — or that he was lost in some reverie about the girl from Ipanema or whatever it is that old men dream about when their eyes are open and their bodies don’t work. Then he turned toward me, his head barely moving in the gloom of the porch, and he sighed.
“You think this is depressing,” he stated. It wasn’t a question, or even a reproach. It was a simple, declarative sentence. “You see this little cabin, and you see this dark porch, and you smell that dank air, and you think that I sit here all alone and feel sorry for myself. You think that I feel as empty and hollow as I look.”
Even through the dusky air, I could see his eyes begin to gleam.
“Wrong, boy,” he said. “As I sit here, with my feet gnarled and lumpy, with my chest thin and flabby, with my teeth tasting like rubber and my crotch damp from dribbles I can’t control, I’m the happiest man on the face of God’s blessed Earth. And the saddest. All at the same time.”
In the moments of silence that followed, I realized that I had made a tragic miscalculation. I just didn’t know which one. Either I had miscalculated because old Ben Bow was actually nuttier than squirrel shit, or I had miscalculated by assuming that at some point, when a person becomes old and the compass of his world shrinks around him, his story shifts from the present tense and the future tense to an irrevocable, unyielding past tense, as though one stark winter morning a person’s dreams and musings begin to dry up faster than they can be replaced, and imperceptibly at first and then with increasingly insistent velocity his secret stash of fantasies and hopes dribbles out in ways he can’t control, until at last there’s nothing left but history.
I figured that Ben would continue when he felt like it, so I waited in silence. I also figured that this was some kind of test, an attempt to see how willing I was to take an old man seriously. So I sat there, staring out at the crashing sea, and listened to him breathe.
“Her name was Lily,” he said abruptly. Caught me napping. Scared me half to death. Even though he didn’t change expression in the semi-darkness, I think he found that amusing.
I knew that this would be the beginning of The Story, the tale that would shatter my miscalculation with a single stoke of colorful truth. That Lily had somehow enchanted Ben for a lifetime and then vanished into the night, perhaps. I pictured the propellers starting up at the end of Casablanca. “We’ll always have Grand Seal Island, kid.” Doesn’t have the same ring somehow.
Once I had dragged my dozing body into a semi-alert position, I took a deep breath to infuse oxygen into my bloodstream, and then I asked what had to be asked.
“Who was she?” I said. “Who was Lily?”
I dreaded the obvious. That Lily was Ben’s high school sweetheart. They met in church, and after six long months of exchanging shy glances, one Sunday they dared to sit next to each other. Five Sundays later, they were holding hands — hers carefully sealed in white gloves — while her mother beamed and her father scowled. A decade later, their first kiss. Then marriage, of course, followed by three immaculately conceived children. Then the —
“She was spectacular in bed,” Ben said, maybe a bit too loudly. “It was like she could weave the patterns of the universe into one intense buildup and a potent delivery. The ripples on the sands of a beach, the wisps of clouds on a November morning, the synchronized movements of a school of tiny silver minnows. She could control them all, and she could orchestrate them into the kind of sex that’ll make your teeth spark.”
I think I liked the conversation better when he was sitting over there in near-total silence. There’s something seriously creepy about listening to Dear Old Gramps talk about getting his rocks off. So I reached into my bag of Clever Interview Tricks and pulled out the tried-and-true “Steer the conversation toward the topic you’re interested in” approach. You have to do this one gently. If you’re too abrupt — listening to him talk about sparking with some hot babe he met during the French and Indian War, and then suddenly asking him about Mount Rushmore or something — then you’ll turn the interviewee cold. He’ll know that you only want certain pieces of information, and he’ll clam up just to spite you. So instead, you have to be subtle. You have to seem like you’re following his lead, when in fact you’re getting him to follow yours.
“So tell me,” I said, “how did you meet Lily?”
— Donovan Graham, “The Shadowless Writer”
Comment — BinoMan211: Hey, she’s not Eliza, but she might be all right. Let’s hear about Lily — and what she does in bed!
Comment — WomynFire982: i’d like to hear about lily, too — but perhaps we can learn about all of her, rather than just the few parts some people are interested in.
Comment — Gemstone: I had no idea an old man like Ben could be so alive and in love. You just never know sometimes.
Read previous blog entries in the Island Wars story by clicking here.