He was no longer amazed by the rippled codger with the wavy walking stick who peered back at him from the surface of the pond, and he’d stopped caring about how his clothes smelled.
He felt old today. One of his grandkids would be celebrating her 16th birthday in two weeks and he had never seen the child. He tried to tell himself it didn’t matter as he crunched through the meadow toward the treeline.
The cabin was somewhere beyond the firs, he didn’t always remember the exact direction, still he never worried about losing his way. Big rocks and twisted ravines, their edges softened by falling needles, served as the landmarks he would recognize once he was up among the trees.
It was humid today and the air felt uncomfortable around him. A tiny stream of sweat surged in droplets down his sides, soaking into his loose fitting flannel shirt where the tail met the waistband of his trousers. May was making venison chili for lunch, but it wasn’t chili weather. When he had asked her to make a pot for him last night before bed it was crisp and cool on the back porch and the breeze promised wonderful things as it wafted the first scents of autumn from the valley. Funny, he thought– how the good weather seemed to work it’s way upward to this place, but bad weather always descended from the summit.
A chipmunk scrabbled over a squat rock and dove into a dark recess. He cursed when he thought of the peanuts he’d had May buy at the store. He wanted to carry a few around in his pockets to toss at the chipmunks.
The sticky air made the climb toward the house unpleasant. I left my family and moved here with May so I’d never have to experience this discomfort again, he groused. Just as he made it to the trees he felt a stab of scarlet pain creep up his arm and cross over to his chest. He switched his stick to the other hand and continued hiking at a slower pace.
May would worry if he wasn’t on time for lunch. She never liked him to go on his daily trek alone. “Faw down, break hip someday maybe,” she would scold in English that had not improved in the seven years they’d been living together. The chili will wait. You don’t have to eat it right away like that stuff she cooks in the wok, he thought.
What breeze there had been in the high meadow did not blow in the trees and beads of sweat began to form on his upper lip and on the back of his neck. He ran a bony hand up under the long hair that fell past his collar. The last time he’d seen his son, Bill, he’d overheard the boy tell that fat wife of his that dad was turning into a hippie. “Screw him.” He said it out loud and the forest around him absorbed the sounds. It was all right for Bill to go off to college, smoke dope and take whatever, screw around with women and then have to marry that chubby one, but when his dad met May and had taken her in, he was a “dirty old man.” Another fifty or sixty yards would find him at the dry creek bed that ran past the back of the cabin. He was tired and winded and made himself sit down on a rock he recognized.
He had gradually stopped seeing Bill and his family even on holidays. It was easy enough to become estranged after giving up on Bill’s big sister, Emily. Emily mistakenly thought that she’d been supposed to stay behind and take care of poor old dad after her mother died. The withering cancer that took her mother so slowly that you could almost watch her death arrive like the second hand on a clock coming full circle to point straight up on New Year’s Eve, was also strong enough to kill any scraps of love that father and daughter once felt for each other.
He’d urged Emily to move out and she’d taken up with that sculptor. He’d seen the bruises and heard her excuses regarding how they’d gotten there, but never confronted the battering bastard. It wasn’t his business. She could’ve left at any time. If she’d swallowed her pride and asked for help or a place to stay, he’d have given it to her. He had offered her money. It was the one thing he had plenty of, and the one thing he knew how to give his children. She’d told him to go to hell.
That October she moved away and got married. It was a civil ceremony and nobody had been invited. The grandchild had been born the following spring. She sent a note telling him she had named the baby Elizabeth, after it’s grandmother.
After he rested the pain should have gone away, but it was worse and his breathing more labored. So this is what it is like, he thought. It had come to his grandfather and his father and now it was his own. He’d done his best to postpone the arrival, eating the right things, and exercising with the same faithful regularity that others reserved for church. It had become his religion slowly over the years. The early morning walks refreshed him and served him well during all the years he worked. He’d always been proud of the shape he kept himself in.
When May came into his life, at first just to cook and clean, he could tell she found him attractive. She liked his shock of white hair, the broad shoulders, and she told him that a handsome old man with no belly was a rare thing. She tried to fatten him up, but he just increased the number of miles he walked each day. Always the kind of man people got out of the way for, he strode fearlessly from one end of Central Park to the other and back each day.
His son, Bill, had been outraged when he learned of his father’s plans to close down the apartment and move to New Mexico. Bill called him a fool, said it right to his face. Later, the wife had the effrontery to call long distance and inquire if they might move into the empty apartment. “Bill would never admit it, and he’d kill me If he knew I were asking this,” she said, her voice like a faraway hacksaw cutting through a nail, “but commuting all the way in from Nelsonville is really hard on him.”
He was renting the cabin, but his attorney was working on selling the apartment and once that was handled, he could use the money to buy the cabin and a lot of the surrounding land. This gentle place was where the two of them would spend the rest of his days.
He tried to get up and go home, less than half a mile now. He thought he could smell chili cooking. The sounds of the land went tinny and he had to pee. Suddenly he doubted if he knew exactly in which direction the cabin lay.
October, November, December, counting out the months on fingers which were numb now, he resolved to bring Emily and Bill and their families up for Thanksgiving. The harder he breathed, the less air he seemed to get. Feathery grey clouds, the kind that hold a little bit of rain, scraped the western summit and the breeze freshened. He wanted to lie down, but knew if he did, he would never get back up.