The tale of an odd relationship.
For young adults and adults.
(Mostly based on a true encounter.)
by David Drake
© 2014 The Family of Man Press
An Old Man On a Bench
Except for days of downpours or blizzards, mornings always found the old man sitting on a bench somewhere in Walker Park. It was a beautiful area with expansive, green flats for picnics, ball playing, and children’s games of chase. There were gentle, softly irregular rises for trails and trees that framed the space up where it met the blue sky and set the shadows playing as the sun crossed from the city to the east to somewhere beyond the fields and hills to the west. A pond with geese and turtles and fish eager to be fed breadcrumbs by the children sat near the center.
The old man – who preferred to be called, ‘Old Man’ when some designation were truly needed – was a writer and would work his pencil across the pages of his yellow pad until it was filled. That was his signal it was time to head home for the day. All the regulars there in the park knew him – his white hair and beard, his red cheeks and oversized nose, the veins running along the surface of the backs of his aging hands. He was never too busy to offer a smile or chat with those who came within chatting range – joggers, mothers and children, old folks, and even an occasional teenager, although they usually consumed some portion of the park in groups, significantly raising the decibel level with mostly happy sounds.
“I seen you here before,” came the opening words from the voice of a teen boy who the old man only then realized was looking over his shoulder from behind the bench.
The old man turned just enough to look up into the boy’s face – nice looking, well-tanned, uncombed blond hair, blue eyes.
“I’m usually here,” the old man said. “You here often? I don’t recall seeing you before.”
He turned back forward and patted the seat beside him. The boy moved to the end of the bench, standing there, hesitant in every movement, as if wishing he hadn’t initiated the conversation. He was fifteen – maybe sixteen – the old man figured. He wore the typical teen uniform of the day – dirty, untied, sneakers, well-worn jeans and a white T-shirt bearing the motto, ‘Life Sucks’. The back of the shirt completed the saying – ‘Bigtime!’ – but the old man couldn’t see that from where he sat.
“You’re always writin’.”
“I am a writer. That’s pretty much what writers do.”
The boy nodded.
“Figured. What do you write?”
It had been offered with a sustained smile. The boy responded with one of his own, if short lived.
“That was kind of a smart Alek response. Sorry, son. I write fiction – stories and books. Occasionally, I edit pieces other folks have written.”
“I hate to read,” the boy said.
It had been matter of fact as if just offering a piece of information to keep the conversation going. No condemnation (out down) of the old man’s pursuit appeared to have been intended.
“That’s too bad, the old man said.”
“Words have so many wonderful things to say – things to teach us, things to make us smile, thinks to make us think.”
“I think a lot without readin’.”
“Good for you. I’m sure there must be lots to think about at your age – sixteen, I’m guessing.”
“For thinkin’ I’m older.”
“You’re welcome then, I suppose.”
“You about fifty, I guess,” the boy said, again clearly indicating he was at least to some extent invested in the conversation.
“And I thank you. Closer to seventy-five, actually.”
“Really! That’s old.”
“Yes, I suppose it is. You have a name?”
“I do. I don’t give it out to strangers. You?”
“Most folks just call me, Old Man. That works fine. How about I call you, ‘Young man’?”
“Never thought of myself as a man.”
“Is it okay if I think of you that way?”
“I guess. Why you write here in the park?”
“I seem to think best out in the open like this and I like to watch people – I write about people so I often get ideas I can use.”
The boy took a seat at the far end of the bench.
“You gonna write about me?”
“Perhaps, although at this point I only have minimal information about you.”
“You talk funny.”
“I suppose so.”
“What would you write about me – from what you minimal know?”
“Well, let’s see. Hmm. Give me a minute, here.”
The old man flipped through his pad to a fresh page and began writing. The young man inched a bit closer and craned his neck to watch. It privately tickled the old man – the boy who hated to read was making a special effort so he could read.
Presently he removed the sheet and handed it to the boy who offered a strange look in the old man’s direction, but accepted it nevertheless. The meaning of the look was difficult to deduce and nothing further was offered to clarify it
“Would you read it, Old Man? I don’t read very good.”
He handed it back. The old man accepted it without any questions and began reading.
“As the old man was sitting on a bench in the park, a young man approached him from behind. He wondered if he should be concerned about the boy’s motive; was he there to cause him harm or to just pass the time of day? The latter turned out to be the case. He was a nice looking boy with long sandy blond hair and blue eyes. He was tall for his age and his shoulders had already grown broad, suggesting he had matured somewhat earlier than most. He spoke, even though there seemed to be no reason for him to do that. The old man wondered if he might be lonely or was going to ask for a favor or some kind of help. Five minutes into the conversation his reasons had still not been made clear and he had offered only one brief smile. The old man wondered if he were sad. It took some minutes before he moved to take a seat beside him there on the bench. The old man wondered if he had lots of things to be fearful of. He hoped not. Young people should not have to live with fears or sadness. For some reason that he could not fully understand, the old man liked the boy. He hoped that feeling would work both ways.”
The young man turned to the old writer.
“Can I keep that?”
He handed it back to the boy.
“You really know a lot about people, Old Man.”
“After all these years I should hope I have developed some skills in that department.”
The young man nodded, but didn’t comment.
“I don’t have no friends.”
“How has that come to be – you not having friends?”
“People hate me.”
“I suppose that would be a good reason. What is there about you to hate. I haven’t seen anything like that.”
“I fight a lot and hurt people.”
“Do I need to be afraid of you? I’m quite certain you could easily have your way with me. I’m old and no longer very strong.”
“Oh, no. I won’t do nothin’ to you.”
“What makes me okay and others in need of being beaten up?”
“You ain’t put me down. You said nice things about me in what you wrote.”
“I see – well, no, I guess quite honestly I don’t see, but then I’ve never walked in your shoes.”
“You never done what?”
“Walked in your shoes – it means I haven’t lived your life – I don’t know how things have really been for you. I believe that I don’t dare criticize or make judgments about another person until I have taken time to get to know him and his situation – how life is for him.”
“I think you are really strange.”
Only a moment passed until he adjusted his comment.
“I guess that’s because I ain’t walked in your shoes, neither, huh?”
“In response to your first observation, many people think I’m strange and that’s alright with me. I would never want to be just like other people. If I were, there would be no me. As to your second observation, I agree with you. I just imagine our lives have followed very different paths and we have experienced very different things. That probably makes us believe very different things about life and people and how to best get along in the world.”
“I bet your way works good, huh?”
“Usually, I’d say it does. Yes. I’d like to ask you a question, but of course you don’t have to ever answer any of my questions of you don’t want to.”
“Shouldn’t a boy your age be in school? It’s late April.”
“Got expelled for puttin’ a kid in the hospital during English.”
“I suppose that answers my question.”
The boy felt the need to offer a brief explanation.
“He laughed at me when I was readin’ out loud.”
It had been offered as full justification for his action. He seemed to believe the old man would understand why his action had been both necessary and warranted. The old man avoided the issue.
“When will you be returning to school?”
“Never, I’m guessin’. It was my third time being expelled. Like I told you, they hate my guts.”
“Well, then, I hope you’ll drop by again sometime – often even. I’m seldom in the same spot two days in a row. I like to view things through various perspectives, but the park isn’t that big.”
The boy nodded. It wasn’t intended to suggest he would seek out the old man again, merely that he understood the offer. He changed the subject.
“I assume you mean do I have lots of money.”
The young man nodded, a puzzled look setting on his face as if asking what else could it mean.
“This will probably only prove to you that I am even stranger than you already think I am. I don’t have lots of money, but I consider myself very rich. I suppose you would need to get to know me better in order to really understand that.”
“If you mean it don’t make no sense, you’re right.”
“Let me try a simple explanation. It may not really help, either. I have pretty good health for my age. I have friends. I find that the people I meet and the friends I have are mostly kind and helpful. The thing that I love to do most in life is to write and I get to do that every single day. My life is rich in those ways – and that’s what I mean when I say I’m rich without actually having much money.”
“But you write books. You must make money from that, don’t you?”
“Are you ready to receive more ‘strange’?”
The hint of a smile briefly turned up the edges of the young man’s lips indicating he grasped the old man’s meaning. He nodded and shrugged.
“For most of my adult life I worked at other jobs part time in order to earn money, and I used a large part of that money to have my books printed so I could give them away to kids and teens and old people who couldn’t afford to buy books. Now that I’m living on my social security, I can’t afford to do that anymore, so now I mostly publish them as e-books and let people download them from my website for free or from online bookstores for a few bucks apiece.”
“I don’t get it. Do you know the people you give your books to?”
“I’d sure never give stuff to people I didn’t know.”
“Are you sure of that?”
“Yeah, I’m sure of that!”
“And yet, here you are giving away your time and conversation to me and I’m pretty much a stranger.”
“That’s different. It ain’t stuff.”
“I see, well, again I suppose that I really don’t see.”
“What’s a word that means stranger than strange, Old Man?”
“Bizzare, outlandish, weird, crazy – there are others. The one I prefer is eccentric. It tends to mean somebody who lives his life the way he thinks life should be lived even when it may be very different from how other people live theirs.”
“I guess I’m that, too, then.”
“One difference, I believe. Eccentric folks almost never set out to hurt anybody.”
“That’s not me, then. It’s like if I don’t hurt somebody everyday I’m not me. Do you get that?”
“Not really, but a person like that would certainly make a fascinating character in a story, don’t you think?”
“You’re askin’ for my opinion?”
“Yes. Of course. You do have opinions, don’t you?”
“Yeah. Lots of ‘em, but nobody never asked me for one before. I usually get in trouble when I say ‘em.”
“I feel privileged to be the first to ask, then, and I feel so sorry that is how your life has been. Just think what everybody else has missed out on.”
“I think you mean that.”
“You will find I only say what I mean, young man.”
“It’s, Del, short for Delbert, the worst name ever saddled on a kid if you ask me.
“Del. How nice you shared that with me. Is that what you’d like me to call you?”
Del shrugged as if needing to avoid the answer.
“Well, then, it will be Del until you say otherwise. I rather like that. You know, in all of my seventy-five years I don’t believe I’ve ever before known anybody with that name?”
“It’s eccentric?” Del asked.
“I think a more precise word would be unique – it means . . .”
“I know what it means – like one of a kind.”
“Yes. Exactly. I apologize for assuming you wouldn’t know. That was unfair of me.”
“’Cause of the not walking in my shoes thing, huh?”
“Exactly. Do you realize you’re a pretty smart person?”
“No, I’m not. Always been dumb and made bad grades.”
“In my experience, grades often don’t reflect smarts.”
Del turned his head and looked the old man directly in his face for the first time.
It was an inexact question, but the old man figured he had the connection.
“I’m going to guess you often have not done the assignments the teachers gave you. I’m going to guess that you never really took tests very seriously, maybe often didn’t even read the questions. I’m going to guess that during class your thoughts are often elsewhere or you are sleeping in the back of the room so you couldn’t be a part of the discussions so the teachers could come to understand all the things you really had learned.”
“So? I can’t see your point.”
“If you didn’t try to answer the questions, how could you know if you knew the right answers or not? If you didn’t do the assignments how could you expect to know the material in the first place? I think the proper term might be unmotivated or uninformed instead of dumb.”
“What if my answers was wrong?”
“That would be wonderful!”
“Huh. Now you’re soundin’ more crazy than eccentric, old man.”
The old man chuckled into his hand.
“Whenever I make a mistake I say, “How wonderful.” That’s because I just learned something truly important – how not to try it next time. Mistakes are like signposts along a road that direct you toward your destination. Instead of letting mistakes tell you, ‘Your wrong, loser’, let them tell you, ‘Nice try, but you need to look into other possibilities, pal’.”
Del stood and faced the old man.
“So, you gonna write a story about me?”
“Here’s an idea. Why don’t you write a story about you?”
“That’s crazy, too.”
“Answer me this: Who knows more about you – you or me?”
“I do, of course.”
“So, which one of us could put together the most accurate picture of you?”
“But I can’t write. I’m a terrible speller and my English teachers give my papers F’s for grammar – or at least they did when I tried writin’ stuff back in grade school.”
“Have you ever tried to make up stories?”
“Sure. Lots of times. When I can’t sleep I do that sometimes. I’m usually the hero and do stuff I never really could do – like Spiderman or Superman.”
“Here’s an idea then. Since your schedule seems to be free, how about meeting me here a few times every week. You can make up a story – something that relates to your life – and I’ll take notes and later on I will write it up in story form. Then you can look it over and make suggestions – like a book editor would do. When we get one chapter whipped into shape we can begin a new one if you still want to continue.”
“Then give it away when it’s done?” he asked, perhaps sarcastically - perhaps not.
“When it’s done it will be yours to do with whatever you want to do with it.”
“It will really be yours – you’ll have really written it.”
“It will be completely your story – one you came up with – created inside that fascinating head of yours. Only the words used to tell your story will be mine and I’ll use as many of yours as I can.”
“I don’t know; it sounds like cheatin’.”
The old man had to wonder how the concept of cheating could possibly provide any guidance for him considering the way he had described himself. Here was a young man who admittedly seemed to take pleasure in hurting other people. He had been expelled from school for his intolerable behavior. And yet, part of him was concerned about cheating. The old man realized that he had a lot of miles to walk in the boy’s shoes before he would come close to understanding that one. He would try providing one more explanation for the boy.
“Let me try it this way. Are you familiar with the story about the Elves and the Shoemaker?”
“Yeah. I know it.”
“If you were to tell it to me, right now, who would the author be – the man who created the story originally, or you because you just retold his story?”
Del nodded and offered a rather genuine smile.
“Okay. I get it. Thanks. I’d like to give it a try, I guess. Why you doin’ this? You don’t know me. You don’t owe me nothin’. You aint’ gonna make a dime from doin’ it. Why?”
The old man’s eyes twinkled.
“Because I’m stranger than strange, remember?”
Del’s face blossomed into a full out, ear to ear grin.
“Eccentric! Maybe I’ll learn some things about you, Old Man, just like you’ll learn some things about me.”
“Wouldn’t that be wonderful!”
“We’ll see,” Del said. “I doubt if you’ll like what you learn about me.”
“If it’s the truth, I will treasure it.”
“I don’t have any idea what you meant by that, you know,” Del said.
“Give it time.”
“There seems to be a lot of that with you.”
“I do hope that’s right, Del. I do hope that’s right. One of the things I treasure most about writing is helping others to think about things in ways they may not have thought before. I never tell anyone how they must think, understand, just nudge them to think about new information and new options.”
The Old Man nodded.
Apparently they had a deal.