By Steven Wenick
He was my next-door neighbor but I never knew his name. When I was a child he terrified me—and all the other kids on my block. I’m sure he had a name but we us knew him only as “the old man.” The name suited him well because he had reached the incredible century mark, according to some of the locals. I remember him vividly to this day for he looked like no other person I had ever seen during my first seven years of life.
Bare bones skinny, gnarled and wrinkled, he was a haberdasher’s nightmare. His advanced age engendered the local legend that he had fought in the Civil War, and to this seven year old he could just as well have served under General George Washington.
Sometimes I watched him as he sat on his wooden slatted folding chair, strategically placed on the sidewalk directly in front of his corner house. From that vantage point he could watch the neighbors as they acted out their lives on the pavement in front of him. That corner of our block was his theater and he gave himself a choice orchestra seat. No one could set foot on his stage without his scowling and growling about one thing or another. No mere spectator, he resembled an uncompromising director or critic, relentless in his dealings with those who dared set foot upon his stage.
The old man lived in the basement apartment his daughter made for him in her house after he became a widower. Her name was Mrs. Miller and she lived alone the old man, after her husband died.
In her late sixties, she was a pleasant lady with kindly blue eyes set like sapphires against her pink skin and grey hair. She reminded me of an angel, and I assumed that when she was not sitting in her rocking chair on the front porch or tending to her roses, she was in the kitchen baking cookies, or canning peaches. Given my young age, I guess it was understandable that I thought she was the old man’s wife. Although, even at seven, I wondered how such an angelic being could actually live in the same house with such as irascible old man.
There wasn’t a day that the old man didn’t wear a hat. In the winter it was a scruffy tweed cap. In the summer, a tattered straw boater reclined on the back of his head. The shape of his thin frame could barely be discerned beneath his ragged, baggy clothing. Shabbiness, however, was not his most notable feature. That distinction went to his mouth. Below the bushy white mustache stained brown from the tobacco he constantly chawed on, his mouth was constantly in motion as he coaxed a wad of tobacco from one cheek to the other. When he began to accelerate the rate of his tobacco juggling it appeared as if he was winding up to pitch a wad of tobacco juice into the oiled glove of an imaginary spittoon.
He was territorial and protected his corner with the ferocity of a lioness protecting her cubs. I would walk more than a block in the opposite direction just to avoid encroaching upon his lair and to circumvent any confrontation with him. If an unsuspecting kid unwittingly intruded upon his turf he would raise his knotty wooden cane, point it at the youth and shake it wildly. Then, he’d give a frightful hiss, punctuated with an unintelligible grunt.
He had a daily routine that, as far as I could tell, varied only on Sundays. Every weekday morning, wearing his red plaid shirt, he would plop his hat on his baldhead, and leaning on his cane, vacate his chair on his corner and slowly shuffle off in the same direction. I wondered where he went and learned, after many years that he walked to the nearest taproom some five blocks away, as we had no saloons in our section of town. On occasion he would be too unsteady to make it back home on his own and his daughter would have to back her Buick out of her garage (the only garage on the block), and rescue him from his over indulgences on morning tonics.
Sundays Mrs. Miller drove to church with her father propped up in the front seat beside her. His necktie hung askew, as if it didn’t belong. That was his protest for having to wear it. His expression was that of someone who would rather have been five blocks away at his favorite watering hole. But one Sunday was very different.
On that Sunday, the old man was on his corner as the somberly dressed crowd gathered on the steps of his daughter’s house. A hearse had been parked close by for almost an hour. The morning air felt sad like when the leaves turn brown and tumble to the ground. The respectful murmur of the attendees fell silent when the minister arrived and took Mrs. Miller by the elbow as he guided her from her porch to the highly polished black limousine parked in front of her house.
It was many years before I learned that it was not age that claimed the old man; it was one too many tonics. On his wobbly walk home, he stumbled off the curb, and before he could regain his balance, a car hurled him into eternity.
Even now, so very many years later, I think from time to time how unfair it was for him to come to such an inglorious end, and I occasionally wonder how the passage of time selects which memories it will fade and which it will preserve. Why I cannot tell you, but I’m certain that the curmudgeon next door, whose name I never knew, will always remain a cherished memory.