Postcards from the Porch on a Maine Island
Hanging with Ben Bow is not exactly like spending quality time with Eliza. For one thing, Ben is three hundred years old, all creaky and shaky, while Eliza is young and healthy and amazingly flexible. For another, Eliza smells like seawater and clay — earthy smells that inspire lusty thoughts. Ben smells like Depends. Comparing Ben with Eliza is like comparing a sun-slaughtered crustacean to Venus herself.
But I’ve spent time with Ben anyway, mainly out of curiosity and a desire to diminish my haunting fear of an evaporated life. After a while, I began to understand some things.
Cory and some of the other Townsfolk feel this enormous pity for Ben, and a thin, steady stream of casserole-carrying neighbors keeps trundling up to his house on the hill like ants bringing crumbs to the colony. They sit with him for fifteen minutes or so, chatting about the weather or some of the latest gossip in The Town, and then they make their way back down the hill toward home, a slight skip in their step betraying the sense of virtue that comes only from the delivery of green beans in mushroom soup to the old guy who’d lost his wife. In one corner of the porch is a teetering tower of Tupperware, each tub washed and matched with its lid, waiting for the day when the rightful owners would reclaim them. No one ever did. It was as if the townspeople are uneasy at the thought of reusing plastic food-storage containers that had spent time in the compass of Ben Bow’s gloom.
So I sat there on the porch a while back, moving the vinyl-covered frame of the glider back and forth, and I tried to think of something to say. I eventually came to the conclusion, after listening to Ben breathe slowly, in and out, in and out, a few dozen times, that when I’m old and relegated to a crumbling vinyl lawn chair on a dark porch overlooking the timeless death of the sea, it will be just fine if people want to come up and sit nearby. I think I’d rather have someone make the hike up to my old and musty house, plant themselves on the glider, and creak it back and forth for an hour, not saying a word, than have people try to fill the silence with chatter and chaff about the weather, baseball, how little Billy’s getting his two front teeth in, how little Karen is learning to ride a bike, how Mrs. Johnson’s bursitis is acting up again, and on and on and on. That kind of conversational Musak fills the time so tightly that no sorrowful words can trickle in, no sentimental ideas can break the sound barrier. Poor Ben must consider it the price he has to pay for a tub of turkey stroganoff. Let the wound-up little people spew words for a quarter of an hour, then I’ll get something to eat.
But when I’m old, I’ll welcome people to my porch, inviting them to just sit, or play solitaire, or play checkers if there’s more than one of them. Just let me sit in my chair and be me. It’ll be nice to have the distraction of happy activity on my little porch, but everyone will be under orders to talk to the old man in the corner only if they really feel like it. Conversation might feel essential to the young and the vivid, but it won’t necessarily be required on my end. And it won’t really do anything to erode the reality that there is a major difference between my old self and the youthful, dutiful people who scale the hill bearing buckets of easy-to-chew pasta. The difference is that I’ll be dying, and they won’t. Barring some tragic misfortune, they’ll live another few decades, going for boat rides and taking long walks, visiting the grandkids and contributing time and money to the library. But I’ll be dead soon, and even at my advanced age I won’t really know what that means. I’m about to cross over into nothingness, or into God’s warm embrace, or into the cosmic realization that life itself is some kind of grand prank that eternal, spiritual beings play on each other, like tying the youngest camper up tight in his sleeping bag. I’m about to do That, and they don’t expect to follow my example for quite some time. So all the witless verbiage about Susie’s skinned knees and Freddie’s trumpet recital and Nancy’s third divorce really won’t serve as a diversion from the fact that I’m next in line to shed this mortal coil. It’ll just be a pain in the ass.
So come and sit with me, enjoying the view over the water and maybe reading a good detective novel. Bring your knitting. Leave the kids at home. And just exist on my porch for a while, content in the understanding that your very presence gives me pleasure. Your existence on my little porch underscores the beautiful reality that life will go on long after my cold body has been slid out from under the flag and into the sea. Your wholesomeness, your sinfulness, your pounds of extra fat, your charming uncertainty over what to wear to an old guy’s porch, your tolerance of the smell, your sexual urges, your fatigue at the end of a long day on the fishing boat, or at your desk, or on top of a ladder with a nail driver in one hand and a two-by-four in the other — all of that reality will make me happy enough. Forced words won’t help any, and they might get in the way. Just rap on the door once or twice, in case I’m snoozing in my chair, then come on in, toss me a wave, say nothing more than “Hey, Van,” and then get on with what you want to be doing here. If I have any questions, I’ll ask.
That vision, anyway, helps me face the inevitable path this carbon-based body is going to follow. I guess that the knowledge that I’ll get some kind of pleasure — any kind of pleasure — at that age makes it a little easier to accept the fate that awaits me.
That was what I was thinking, anyway, as I sat there on that glider and tried to come up with something intelligent or chatty to say. I failed, so I twisted that failure into success by manufacturing an entire reality and set of beliefs for my future, porch-bound self. I’m clever like that.
After a while, I asked Ben if I could get him anything. Something to drink, a sandwich, whatever. I hadn’t yet introduced myself — somehow my name seemed unnecessary in the presence of a man who is so busy staring mortality in the face that changing his socks becomes unimportant — but I thought I’d offer to be helpful.
He said, “No. I’m fine.”
And so we sat.
— Donovan Graham, “The Shadowless Writer”
Comment — Edith5545: What a nice boy you are. It’s so very sweet for you to visit him.
Comment — Gemstone: It really is great of you. Not many people are comfortable doing that.
Comment — BinoMan211: Enough of the old-man stuff. Get your ass back to The Village and tell us what Eliza’s doing. And what she looks like when she does it!
Read previous blog entries in the Island Wars story by clicking here.