Thursday, July 21, 2011

Twilight: Now That My Ladder's Gone

When he finally cut the tree swing down he was 86 years old. Before undertaking the task he spent an hour or so at his kitchen table trying to figure out how long it had hung there.

Close to 60 years, he figured. He hadn't replaced the rope or wooden seat in at least 25 years. It was dangerous, or so the city told him.

The swing hung from a huge maple tree that dominated the corner lot adjoining the house he had lived in since 1946. That full lot was worth a great deal of money, and he was taxed on it, but it had provided a buffer of sorts and had also served as a playground for several generations of neighborhood kids.

The neighborhood had gotten a good deal fancier in recent decades; a lot of the old pre- and postwar homes had been torn down to make way for bigger, more modern houses that he tended to regard as monstrosities. The new people in the neighborhood were often zealots about property values. They didn't like the airport noise. They didn't like the traffic, and had succeeded in getting speed bumps put in up and down the street. He had also gotten a fair amount of grief about the upkeep of his house and yard, and the lot in particular had been an ongoing bone of contention. He didn't spend much time out there and it had gotten a bit overgrown, which was just fine with him. The people from the city, though, had several times ordered him to clean it up, and were now threatening to do it themselves and send him the bill.

Two of his four children --all of whom had sailed into summer gloamings on that swing-- were now dead, as was his wife of 51 years.

Long after his children had grown up and moved out into the world --none of them had stuck around, and he had not raised them to do so-- other neighborhood kids had continued to use his lot for games of Kick the Can, Dodgeball, or catch. Inevitably, they would get around to swinging. All of this pleased him.

There was a long stretch where the neighborhood got old, just as he had. For almost a decade his block seemed to be home to no children at all. Recently, however, with the influx of young couples, the kids had come back, and his yard --and the swing in particular-- was a temptation. He'd recently seen a couple of young teenagers swinging out there in the darkness on one of the first truly lovely summer evenings. He'd sat on his back porch and listened. They were obviously good kids, trying out romance. He'd seen it dozens of times.

The swing didn't sound right, though; he heard sounds that were unfamiliar and worrisome: a steady whining from the ropes and a metronomic creak from the branch to which the swing was attached. It sounded like it was finally fixing to go, and that night he fretted that someone would get hurt.

The next day he went out in the afternoon --it was hot, and threatening rain-- and cut the swing down. He hoped the gesture wouldn't be interpreted as mean spirited, and wished he could explain to someone that it was one of the most painful and regrettable things he'd ever done. As he disassembled his extension ladder, a process that took a great deal of time and effort, it occurred to him that he would likely never have occasion to use the thing again. His whole life he'd been secretly pleased by his absolute lack of hesitation when ascending a ladder.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Last Dance

I used to see this handsome, elderly couple around my neighborhood. They took walks together, often holding hands, and it always struck me as curious that they were both wearing large, old-school headphones.

Then one evening my dog Wendell and I arrived at the stoplight on Lyndale and 43rd as they were waiting to cross. I noticed that both of their sets of earphones were connected to the single iPod the man held in his right hand, and upon closer inspection I saw that they had a nifty jack of some sort that made this possible.

I was curious, so I gestured to the iPod and asked where they had purchased the headphone jack. The man had to remove the headphones from one ear and ask me to repeat the question.

"Oh, this," he said, and held up the jack with its dangling cords so I could take a closer look. "Pretty slick, huh? It's from Radio Shack."

By this time the woman had removed her headphones as well. She also expressed the opinion, in virtually the same words, that the gizmo was pretty slick. They seemed flattered by my curiosity, so I asked them what they were listening to. The man examined the iPod closely. "Ella Fitzgerald is playing right now," he said. "We just have our favorites on there."

"Oldies," the woman said, and laughed.

"Yes," the man said. "Serious oldies. Our son gave us this for Christmas a couple years ago and put the music on there for us."

"Neither of us, of course, has absolutely any idea how the thing works," the woman said. "But it's like a tiny jukebox. We only have...what, honey? How many songs are on there?"

The man again scrutinized the iPod. "Eighty-nine songs," he said. "More than enough. We usually hear ten or so when we go for our walks."

"They're all good songs," the woman said. "And it's set up so they play in a random order and you don't hear the same songs over and over."

"Sometimes you do," the man said. "It can be fickle. But, yes, the songs are all pretty sturdy. We've been hearing them most of our lives, so I guess if we were going to get sick of them we would have by now."

"No, they're all good songs," the woman again insisted. "Perfect for walking. We were talking about the fall colors yesterday and then, just like that, 'Autumn Leaves' popped up."

"Jo Stafford," the man said.

"Yes, that's right." They were both grinning, and the woman had a wonderful habit of poking her husband in the ribs with her right index finger whenever she said something.

"You should have one," the woman said, and gestured to my own iPod.

I shrugged. "I guess I'd have to find a partner in crime," I said.

"Never hurts to be prepared," the man said.

This was last fall, and we bumped into each other quite a few times after that and always greeted each other like old friends.

Then we had a long, hard winter, and I didn't see them around on any of my abbreviated walks with my dog.

The last couple weeks I've seen the man walking alone on a couple occasions, but always at a distance that for some shameful reason I felt grateful for.

Earlier this evening we ran into each other less than two blocks from our original meeting place. I greeted the man --awkwardly, I'm sure-- at a stop sign, and, removing his headphones, he said, "Well, hello. We meet again." His smile was unspeakably sad.

He reached down to address my dog and give him a scratch. When he stood back up he was wearing his best stoic mask. "I lost my wife in February," he said.

It was like a punch I was expecting, and I managed to tell him how sorry I was and how grateful I was that I'd had a chance to meet his lovely wife. He patted me on the shoulder and said, "Well, it was very quick. I'll always be grateful for that."

This, as you might imagine, was an exceedingly awkward and painful encounter, and neither of us could seem to find any more words. He was headed south on Bryant and I was continuing west toward the lake.

"It was awfully good to see you," I said. "And, again, I'm so sorry."

He thanked me, and then, just as we were preparing to part ways, he fished his iPod from his pocket and held it out to me. He had that same wrenching smile on his face. The dangling headphone jack was still plugged in and one socket, of course, was now empty.

"I still expect to round a corner and see her coming toward me down the block," he said, and looked away.

We both stood there in silence for what seemed like an unbearable length of time.

He finally patted me on the shoulder again. "Take care of yourself," he said. "I hope you find a perfect partner in crime."

"I'll keep looking," I said.

And then my dog and I made our way slowly along, through swarm after swarm of happy congregants gathered around backyard barbecue grills, on picnic blankets at the park, or just strolling in laughing packs at the lake. It would be pointless to deny that it was a lovely day.