Thursday, May 18, 2006

To My Health.....And Yours

He wakes up at 5:15 every morning, does pushups for forty-five minutes, then runs five, grueling miles while munching on an organic granola bar. After that, he takes a dive into his backyard pool, and does endurance laps until hunger calls him from the water. I can always smell his baked apple, plain yogurt, and bran muffin. He is a man of routine, a man of habit. After breakfast, he rides his bike twenty miles in the heat of the day. His afternoon and evening routines are very similar, though five times more intense.

I would know this because I am his neighbor.

One day I spoke to him over the fence as I pruned my forsythia. He was doing bench presses on the back patio, but put the weights aside when he saw me.

“Hi, Neighbor,” he called, sitting up. I returned the greeting.

“You should really put on a pair of running shoes and hit the road,” he recommended. “You’d be surprised – the wonders it would work on you. You’d not only feel great about yourself – you’d be looking great, living to your fullest potential; what more could you want? Running a simple thirty minutes a day could add ten years to your life!”

If I didn’t previously understand that he was a one-track minded health fanatic, I would have taken offense when he told me that I had the potential to look great.

“And, including a few fresh fruits and whole grains in your daily diet – you’ll be rock climbing when you’re 99!”

“What exactly are you doing all this for?” I asked, avoiding his challenge.

“To increase my life span. Want to live to see my grandchildren marry, that’s what I want.” He nodded happily to confirm his feelings. “Want to feel great my entire life. You know what? Never spent a dime on hospital or doctor bills since I was twenty.”

I nodded with my lips pressed tightly. He knew as well as I did that I’d been released from the hospital four days earlier. Pneumonia, high blood sugar, and a blood clot.

“Worked my entire adult life to have the health and strength I have today. Feel better now than I did at eighteen!” He laughed.

“How are your grandchildren?” I tried to change the subject. What grandfather didn’t want to talk about his grandchildren?

“Doing okay, doing okay. Emilie’s the youngest – turning six on Friday, having a big party; lots of guests and all.”

“So I guess you’ll be gone on Friday. Do you need me to watch your dog?”
No... I guess I won’t be going to the party.”

“Why not?” I couldn’t mask my surprise.

“Can’t interrupt my schedule. Three hours driving each way – waste of time – whole day wasted, actually. Have a full schedule on Friday anyway. It’s my busiest day, you know.”
“Busy with what? Something I could help with? Emilie will be disappointed if you can’t come.”
“Oh I know, I know. No, I appreciate your offer, but it’s just exercising. Friday’s my most intense workout day.”

“I see.” My voice was chilly with disapproval as I bid him good day, and turned to leave. So, he exercises in order to see his grandchildren marry, but he’s too busy exercising to go to their birthday parties. Maybe when the time came, he’d also be too busy exercising to attend their weddings.

Ultimately, I figured it wasn’t any of my business; so, for the rest of the day, I tried to put him out of my mind and work on my crocheting instead.

The months went by, and as my health failed, his only increased. He pushed himself further, higher, faster, better. I could only watch.

Then one day, he pulled out of the driveway and I never saw him again.
Head-on collision, they said.

Saturday, May 6, 2006

Stories Never Told

The sidewalks are cracked with the dry, rampant heat. Or is it age? They’ve been there for longer than I can remember, which speaks volumes. I was born before most of these shops were built; before half the parents of the children filing towards school even lay eyes upon each other, before that library was voted into existence once upon a Town Hall meeting long ago (I was first in line to cast my vote), before most everything you see now.

So, I sit on the sidewalk in the sun and hope that somebody will come ask me to tell them a story of when our town was younger – about the good old days when people were kind and took time to love their neighbors, and stop for a friendly chat now and then.

“Mornin’,” I greet Mrs. Washers, owner of Essie’s Dry Cleaning Services as she steps out behind me to beat a rug. “This town’s not what it used to be, is it?”

“Sure isn’t,” she agrees, “Busy day,” she comments before returning to the air-conditioned depths of her shop. Maybe before the door closes, she’ll stick her head back out to invite me in for a cup of tea – maybe then we can reflect and I can tell my stories, I think to myself. I’ll tell her about the time Tom Niles and I went out to Fitch Splayer’s barn raising back in the days. And let me tell you, nobody can know half of what a barn raising is, ‘til they’ve had the experience of Old Splayer’s. Can’t forget those evenings after working when we gathered ‘round the long tables bowed over with every food imaginable. Then the games, the songs, the talking ‘til all-hours. My spirits rise as the memories come flooding back…

Then Mrs. Washers’ door slams shut.

The newspaper boy, Jack, rides up on his bike, hops off, and leaves it leaning against the iron lamppost as he makes his hurried rounds. I stare at the post reflectively.
“That there lamppost’s been around since before your grandpapa even moved into this here town,” I call out, hoping he’ll ask about it.

He glances at me and shrugs. Maybe he didn’t hear me right.

“Want to know how it came to be there?” A story offer; what kid’s going to turn that down?

“Got swim team after this. We’re runnin’ late. Gotta go.” He blows a bubble with gum, and rides away, picking it off his face. I watch his retreating back with a sigh. I think to myself that I’ll never understand this new brand of kids.

That there lamppost was given in memory of old Mrs. Starch who died a millionaire and never knew it. Lived in a potting shed ‘til the end of her days, with no living relatives to her knowledge. But that’s only the beginning of the story. The best part was... Oh! here comes Keff Lawless, probably on his way to buy some food for his growing family. Last time I seen him he had a brand new baby boy.

Don’t know why people aren’t going to the Old General for groceries these days. Ever since that new place sprang up on the corner – the one with the gaudy, flashing red sign – everybody’s abandoned the Old General. That ol’ store orders their milk and eggs from another town, and has them delivered by a big truck that breathes black smoke into our clean blue air. Awful risky to me, consuming shipped eggs and milk from who-knows-where.

“Hey Keff,” I call out in greeting. “Come’n sit for a spell. I’ve got to tell you a good one about the Old General. Ever hear the one where your Pop—”

“Sorry,” Keff breathes as he jogs past, beet red, and sweating like anything. “I’m late for a meeting. Gonna be the new pool manager.”

I watch his feet kick up small clouds of dust into he fades into the scorching distance.
Pool? What pool?

I lean back in the sun, pull my hat over my eyes, and dream about my little town, and the people who are in such a hurry to forget its memories.

Ol’ Rick Selles, the new county sheriff, rolls by slowly with his window down, radio buzzing. He sees an old man sitting on the sidewalk, and calls for me to go back ‘where I belong’. “The street’s not the place for old folk like you,” he scolds kindly, but firmly. I think to myself that he probably doesn’t remember when his father, the old sheriff, used to come sit with me after his shift was up and we’d smoke our pipes and tell jokes like all get-out.

But he looks too busy to hear a story right now, so I gather my hat, and I leave, not once turning to look at the spot I’d occupied nearly every day since my high school graduation.No longer is it mine. Just like the town, it’s slipping from my fingertips.