|Channel Marker (The Big River at Milestone. Photo:. R. Snyder)|
These are times of signs and omens.
I've posted before in this space about the end of the world (see here, and here), and I've always done so tongue firmly placed in cheek. But now it's February when one's thoughts turn to the color gray, the fact of death, and the seeming pointlessness of it all, and I would have to say that if the tectonic plate supporting Milestone is doing a mambo, the end of times may be closer than I had originally thought. Tongue firmly removed from cheek.
Nor was it good news a few days ago when R. shot us a series of evening emails from Milestone to us here in Piedmont to report a suspicious and grim situation unfolding across the street. The first message announced the advent of a old, beat-up ambulance to the Milestone front door of our elderly neighbor J.; the next one reported the arrival of police who drew on their rubber gloves in a disconcertingly unhurried way. And the final report declared the exit of a body -- fully draped -- from J's domicile.
Here's the thing: I already knew something was going to happen, because I had seen it clear as day in his eyes two weeks before. It was a night just past full moon when my husband and I found him sitting alone in his car with the motor off, right there in the parking lot with the windshield angled so that he had a clear view out over the broad, black, moonlit waters of the Big River. No radio, no light, no company, no nothing. And as he wearily lowered the car window to greet me that night, offering a barely audible "hey", I saw eternity right there reflected in his smudged bifocals. The message pinged my brain pan clear as digital, "This man is dying."
That night, my husband and I walked in silence up the three flights of wooden stairs to the Lighthouse. We were both thinking the same thing, and as soon as we closed the front door behind us, we spoke almost simultaneously: "I'm worried about him." We agreed he seemed depressed, and we couldn't figure out why he was still in Milestone, since he had told us he was going to leave for the northeast a week ago. We agreed between us to keep an eye on him. And the next day when we saw him, he remarked that he felt exhausted. "Left my heart medicine in the car last night," he sighed, sitting there on the front steps as if he had gotten stuck there going either up or down. "Getting old is the worst," he added, "It's. Just. The. Worst." My husband agreed, playfully moaning about his tennis elbow and creaky knees. "You? You have no idea," chuckled J. bitterly, "You have no idea. Not yet, you don't."
Two weeks later we returned from Piedmont to find J.'s car still there, parked almost diagonally between two parking spaces. Suspicions aroused, we knocked on his door, because by now his departure was seriously overdue, and when there was no answer, my husband went around to look through the windows of the house. But he saw no one, only the usual confusion of semi-packed moving boxes, a old left-over mop, and some scattered construction materials and paint cans. J. was supposed to rent the place out, or sell it. I write "supposed to" because he didn't want to, he said, but his wife and his daughter wanted him to. They also wanted him to get a new car, so they "made" him sell his beloved old Toyota, and he didn't like the new car, he said. Didn't like it at all. Missed his Toyota ("that was a good car, a quality car.") They had made him give up his boat, too, he had told us, and he had handed the boat over to his daughter. She has it somewhere, he said, but he didn't know where. One got the feeling that everything familiar to him, everything he loved, everything that defined him to himself, was peeling away like objects scattering in zero gravity, and that what he recognized as his life was irretrievably disappeared. He was lost.
The next day we were leaving the Lighthouse to return to Piedmont when J. appeared, perhaps just returning from a lunch out, and he drove into the parking lot as we threw our bags into the trunk of our car. We're headed out, we said. Remember, if you need our help with anything here, you just let us know, okay? We'll do whatever we can, we said, reminding him that he had all of our contact information -- and did he need us to write it down again? Nope, I've got it and will do, he said with a crooked smile, standing there on the gravel of the parking lot, his arms limp at his sides like an old teddy bear with stuffing missing. He looked gray, dazzled and lost without his glasses -- where were his glasses? -- in the stale, unflattering winter light. He had no coat on, and it was cold. I felt that pull, a pull I've had before, that starts somewhere in my chest and that makes me open my arms and say, "Hug?" So I walked over and I hugged him, and asked him to please take care himself. And then we said goodbye.
I guess we weren't surprised to hear that J. died there, alone, in his house by the river a few days ago. Snowstorms happen, earthquakes happen, and every minute of every day somebody's world comes to an end. J.'s wife called us a few days ago to thank us for trying to help. Our numbers, she said, were the only ones he had kept in his "file".