Old Man Brown

One afternoon I was in the kitchen practicing a fiddle tune. A woman’s boisterous chatter arose suddenly in the back alley. I went to the window. It was neighbor Helen shooting the breeze with Old Man Brown. Long, thin, bent, Old Man Brown with his earflaps down, bundled against the spring chill. Toothless, near deaf, standard-issue cane, he was well into his 90s.

Later, I noticed him poking about in my pile of carpenter’s scraps. I went out for a visit.

“Hi, Mr. Brown! What are you looking for?”

“You got a triangle piece of wood?” he rasped.

I yanked out a good-sized corner sliced from a sheet of plywood.

“Too big,” he said.

One by one, I presented him my three-sided scraps. All were scrutinized and rejected. “Thanks,” he said, and he shuffled off to his tiny stucco cottage.

When the strawberries began to produce, I saw a lot more of Old Man Brown. I would come home and find him sunning his face at the picnic table. He sat half dozing with his head cocked back. His cap had slipped off, revealing the mottled hide that covered his skull.

“Oh?” he exclaimed.

I had said nothing. I handed him his cap. “Want some tea?” I yelled.

“No. I grew up in Kansas.”

“Want a strawberry?” I caught myself rising from my seat laboriously like he did. Together we hobbled to the strawberry patch and I bent to pick him a few.

“Thanks,” he said, and headed for home with his mouth full.

I invited Old Man Brown to dinner. He came dressed in a brown wool Eisenhower jacket with his machinists union pin on one lapel and on the other a red plastic United Fund feather.

“I used to live here,” he said. “I built that bathroom.” He pointed out the window. “See them trees? Planted them 45 years ago.”

“Want some wine?”

He grinned. “That spaghetti sauce smells good,” he said. “Reminds me of a stew. Me and my friend were camping. We had a cabin and made a stew. With deer meat and bear meat. Everything. We went out to hunt and when we got back there was a shoe in it.”

We ate and drank. I asked him about his union pin. He talked about the work he’d known, about a car he was fond of, a LaSalle, and he showed me a shapshot of two black bears mating beside a shed. “On government property!” he laughed.

“In 1913, I lived in a tent. My job was to catch wetbacks. I supplied my own carbine . . . had me a Mexican girl. She always had money. Should have married her… we’d float through El Paso on opium. Jab a pitchfork at the straw bed to scare out the gila monsters… got fired ’cause I didn’t catch no one. Forty dollars was what they gave me. Hopped me a freight. Albuquerque freight yard, yardman says, ‘What you ridin’ on, buddy?’ And I slip him fifty cents. At night, in the desert, rattlers hug them rails to keep warm. Was times we’d all jump down, bums and all, throw sand on the tracks t’ keep from slippin’ on them snakes.”

A week later I heard clomping and banging at the back door. Old Man Brown was struggling up the stoop and into the utility room.

“I came for my potatoes.” I led him into the kitchen and pulled back the throw rug. “Get a knife,” he instructed.

With a butter knife, I pried open the hatch to the root cellar and climbed down the steep steps. I brought up a medium-weight burlap sack, set it on the table, and replaced the hatch.

“You got any potatoes?” he asked.

“No! Yes!”

He didn’t hear me. He handed me red potatoes one after another, with long sprouts like tails dangling from their rubbery skins.

“Just soak ’em in water, it’ll take them wrinkles out.”

He turned to leave and I motioned for him to wait. I had something for him. Why did I think it would be easier to tell him about it in writing? I reached for the note pad by the telephone.

I wrote a poem about you. Would you like to read it?

He raised a finger to his cheek thoughtfully. He set the cane and sack against the wall and pointed to the note pad. I placed it before him and he sat down to write. After a minute he handed me his message.

On the sea
shore
Just an old beer
bottle floating
on the foam
many miles from
Who ever finds
this old beer bottle
will find all
the Beer
all gone–Al

“I’m a poet too,” he said, and he rose to gather his things.

I lifted the sack to his hand and opened the door to the back room and the door to the stoop. I held him by the armpit and lowered him two steps to the ground. When he felt balanced, he looked at me and recited, "Now I lay me down to sleep, over me ten thousand bedbugs creep. If I should die before I wake, I hope to God their jaws will break."

In the kitchen I glanced at my note to him. At the bottom he had scrawled Yes.

Reprinted from Kinesis, December 1995.

UTNE
UTNE
In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.