Old Man on an Outdoor Lounge

The old man sat with his can and his hat on an outdoor lounge that had once been a lustrous beige. But the plastic strands had long faded into a crusted white that matched the old man’s ashen pallor. He squinted at the sun’s harsh heat, warmer now in April than in previous years, and tried to find some shade beneath the olive tree he’d planted decades before during flusher times, but the branches had dried out and the leaves wouldn’t sprout back despite his best efforts at nurture. Even the tree surgeon had informed him what a hopeless cause it had been and suggested to him gently that he grow another one. But the old man retained some strange faith in the dying tree and, as he took another slow tug from his near beer, he angled his Panama tighter atop his forehead, the beads of sweat dripping into the fierce forest of his bushy gray eyebrows, finding moist pockets within the crags now multiplying faster than ever before on the dry soil of his face.

The world had changed too fast and the old man was getting tired. His candidate had won, but he felt that the victory was anticlimactic and that there was still a great deal to be angry about. FOX News’s paranoid drone had replaced the daily half pot of coffee he’d imbibed before the doctors told the old man that he needed to cut down on his caffeine intake. But the old man still needed to remain on edge in order to feel alive. This was why he often loosened molten rivulets of hot rage against anyone who had another worldview. The old man hadn’t yet learned that people two or three decades younger than him, people who didn’t share his skin color, people who weren’t him, had rich inner lives and he still didn’t know how to understand or apologize, even though he’d tell you over and over again that he didn’t need to. The old man’s lungs, once the storehouse of reliably truculent gulps, had thinned out of late into a faint wheeze. The old man could not accept that his time had passed and that his efforts to matter had been largely unsuccessful. If you caught the old man on a good day, he would hold you hostage with long tales that wandered nowhere. Even his patient wife would no longer listen to him. But if he had to be alone, he would be alone.

The old man had fooled himself long ago into believing that he didn’t need anyone, but the outdoor lounge had been there every day he had escaped outside and the outdoor lounge had listened very carefully and had observed him weeping when the old man thought that nobody else was paying attention. Outdoor lounges do not have tongues and thus cannot gossip. But if this outdoor lounge could talk, it would tell you everything it knew about the old man: the many times the old man had talked to himself, hating who he was and detesting what the world had become, and the outdoor lounge would say to you in a plaintive voice that here was a man who needed help. But the old man didn’t believe in therapy. He didn’t believe in changing. He didn’t understand why his family and his friends had deserted him.

What the old man had in this premature summer was the buffer of his paid up mortgage and the instinct of his convictions, even if the old man’s great plans had never quite panned out in his younger years. What he had was a lackadaisical resilience. As long as he was alive, his way would last. That had been the belief anyway.

Eventually the near beer was gone. The old man would not risk another can. He didn’t want his doctors to lay into him. He heard a faint rustling behind him and darted his head. The two kids next door were peeking at him through the slats in the hickory fence, a barrier built long before, one that he could not fathom reconstructing.

“Mister,” they said.

The old man refused to hear them.

“Mister, our ball,” said the first boy. “We threw it over your fence.”

“It was an accident,” said the second boy.

“We didn’t mean it.”

There had been a time in which the old man had once played shortstop. But it was too long ago.

The old man would not leave his outdoor lounge.

“Mister, please.”

“Go away,” said the old man.

And the two kids went away. Time passed and he heard a knock on the door. But still he did not budge from the outdoor lounge, even when he heard his wife’s mellifluous apologies. Even when he watched his wife slide open the glass door that led to the spacious patio that the old man had built from scratch in more pro-active times. Even when his wife picked up the ball without saying a word and the glass door rumbled and he remained alone with an empty can of near beer and a hat that seemed to grow tighter around his large head as the afternoon sweltered.

The outdoor lounge was appalled. And it decided to commit suicide. The rickety aluminum legs collapsed, causing the old man to take one hell of a tumble into the patch of lawn that was still dry even though the old man had watered it every week. The old man could not get up. He cried to his wife. His wife did not answer. The kids did not answer, but the old man could hear the pats of their baseball swooping into the brown leather of their gloves without either of the two boys risking a word. The lounge did not answer. Nobody answered.

It took twenty minutes for the old man to crawl across the desiccated grass and onto the deck before he could summon the will to pull himself up. And shortly after he climbed in bed that night, which was an altogether different but not dissimilar struggle, he asked his wife why she had not helped him. She replied, “Because you have been alone for a very long time and there was no point in intruding. Just go to sleep, dear. Tomorrow is another day.”

My Grandmother

Yesterday my grandmother died. I got the news this morning by email from my uncle. I didn’t get to say goodbye to my grandmother because my family didn’t tell me that she was near death and they haven’t informed me where or when the funeral services are. And I’m too shellshocked and grief stricken right now to find out. The one thing I can say is that my tears of rage are greatly diminished by a relentless sobbing that flows with the rhythm of the rain now pattering against my window. There is a fierce peace to these stronger tears, which mourn not only the majestic woman who my grandmother was and who I now celebrate and who I have also memorialized as the character Virignia Gaskell in my audio drama, but for the beauty of the human spirit. Despite coming from monstrous and unloving stock, my grandmother gave me the hope and the guidance I needed to live my life in defiance of meanness, especially in the last four years. She gave generously on all fronts. She checked in on people. She quietly helped others, whether they were people close to her or total strangers. And because of that, people remembered her. She believed in people and possibility. And despite all the hell I have been through, I still do too. I cannot seem to sour on life or the marvelous world around me. And I will always be grateful beyond words to my grandmother for imbuing me with this resilience.

I wish I could say that I was tough. But I’m not. Right now is a very raw place to be, especially when I consider my grandmother’s openness against the vile way the rest of my family left me for dead. My grandmother was the only member of my family who loved me for my totality when everybody else viewed me as evil and irredeemable. My grandmother saw benevolent qualities in me that I was too afraid to acknowledge until only recently. She taught me how to be kind and positive to others. She also taught me to be responsible. I am pretty sure that my ridiculous work ethic comes from her. I do know that my sense of the absurd springs in part from her.

I remember one time in my youth in which I didn’t have enough money to go to school. Despite being inexplicably pegged as a very smart and talented person, my education options were limited because I grew up poor and starved: a fragile kid coping with the residue of accrued abuse and trying to do the best he could. But I still went to school and I made up for any deficiencies by reading every book I could get my hands on and throwing myself into everything with all the natural exuberance I had. That scrappy and casual ability to roll with the punches despite all odds came from my grandmother. She did, after all, make her wedding dress from a parachute during the Depression. She was determined to celebrate life even when there weren’t a lot of options.

My grandmother was always baffled by the ways in which my mother neglected me and she said that I could borrow money from her. And I did, paying back the small sum each month. And when I did this regularly after about nine months, my grandmother said to me, “You don’t have to pay the rest back. I wanted you to learn something.” And I did.

People who come to know me understand that I am one of the most loyal advocates you can have. And this was because I learned from my grandmother that it was vital to be giving and not expect anything in return, even when there’s nobody in your life to give anything to you. Because of my grandmother, I do a secret good deed every day. Because of my grandmother, I have learned to love and take care of myself. Because of my grandmother, I give to others, often more than I have, when I have nothing. My grandmother would take the time to listen to everyone and she would always reframe every serious problem in a way in which it was never all that big of a deal. Had I not had my grandmother, and now I don’t have her and that not having her seems unfathomable but it is now regrettably and painfully true, I would never have landed back on my feet with a sanguine faith after a sustained period of homelessness and a series of baleful setbacks that I would never wish on anyone. My grandmother, in her own inimitable way, showed me that there was a benign way to not give a fuck and to devote yourself to living.

My grandmother always saw the good in people, even when they had severely wronged her. And she was always good for a devilish and very funny quip, which she would often mutter in a sneaky stage whisper in the kitchen, often with a glass of wine. When I lived in San Francisco, she would ask if I wanted to come up to her home in Marin County to celebrate the holidays. She was the only family member who seemed to understand that love didn’t involve a ledger, but amounted to being there for others and letting life work its strange magic.

This is the most staggering loss I’ve ever experienced. God, it hurts. My grandmother was really the only family I had. But I’m going to be kind and brave and I think that, in remembering my grandmother, I’m going to have to be more true to myself, true to the promising young man that my grandmother always saw. The rest of my family has wished me dead, but I am here, a feeling and caring and flawed and open and honest and quietly kind person who is quite happily alive, and I am now very much on my own. While my abusive and vituperative family would undoubtedly relish seeing their untrue and cartoonish vision of me confirmed, reveling in gossip and backtallk rather than listening and being present for other people and knowing that nearly every putative sully can be forgiven with enough time, I’m not going to give them that pleasure. Because that is not the way you live and love in this often hard world. And that was not the way of my grandmother.

In her own way, I think my grandmother was trying to tell me that I was her and that she was me. There was a great love and a beauty in that. There was also a great ease in the way my grandmother managed it. And I’ve been crying all morning thinking about it. And if I am her, if my heart is even one half as mighty as hers was, if that’s what she was trying to get me to see all these years, then maybe there’s some hope for me after all.