There’s an old man who spends a lot of time on our street. Across the street, actually, at house in which he does not live. He has a friend there, another elderly gentleman, the father of the fellow who actually owns the house. Last summer, they spent the entire summer, the two of them, on the verandah, old and gnarled and batshit crazy, singing loudly along to songs playing on their transistor AM radio, pausing in the choruses to drink coffee and beer and growl at each other like old, toothless pirates.
The second gentleman, the one who lives there, doesn’t come out much anymore; he recently spent some time in the hospital and now just sits at his window, looking out at the street, watching the children and the squirrels and the birds. And his friend, the old man that comes to visit.
That old man still comes every day.
He comes every day, but he never goes inside. He turns up at dawn every morning, regular as the newspaper, and sits on the verandah with his transistor radio, listening to summer AM oldies, everything from Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey to Paul McCartney and Wings and, sometimes, Katrina and the Waves. He doesn’t sing anymore, but he hums along, loudly, and growls his pirate growl at the stray tomcat that lurks near the verandah steps, and at the random ghosts that, it seems, appear and disappear and reappear to him throughout the day. Some days, he paints – he has painted and re-painted the verandah steps, and has painted and repainted the verandah railing, which itself has come up and down at least three times this summer. One day, he set up a tall, spindly birdbath on the front lawn – constructed, it seems, from random bits of scrap metal – and then, the next day, took it down. He is always puttering and pottering – futzing is the word that my mother would use – and talking to himself and humming and drinking and never, ever glancing toward his old friend in the window.
This is, I suppose, how he mourns – for his old friend, not yet gone but already, it seems, lost, and, I expect, for some long-disappeared family, some long-lost love, some yesterday that lives on only in paint fumes and AM radio. I don’t know, because he’s never told me.
We don’t speak, not really. I wave and shout hello across the street when I open the door to collect the newspaper, or the mail. WonderBaby waves and shouts hello when we pass the verandah on the way to the park around the corner. Hi! Man! she shouts. Bye! Man! she hollers and he waves and smiles and growls – aaarrrr, aaaarrrr! – and she laughs and shouts, delighted at the fanfare. Bye-eeeee!
The other week, he spent hours on the lawn across the street, scrubbing some heap of pink plastic. Then, as I watched from our front window, he carried the heap across the street to our drive, and set it down. Then he picked it back up again, and carried back to his adopted lawn, and scrubbed it some more. Then he sat back on the grass, and contemplated it. It was a big, pink, battery-operated toddler car, no doubt purloined from someone’s recycling pile. He seemed unsure what to do with it.
I opened the door, and went across the street to where he was sitting. That’s a nice car, I said, gesturing to the battered pink monstrosity.
Yep. (mutter mutter mutter) Found broken fixed (mutter). Cleaned it. (mutter) Broke it. (gestures to our house.) Little one?
She’d like it, I said. He smiled, and picked it up (‘good good good aaarrrr’), and carried it to our yard. A strange and lovely and isolated gesture, or so I hoped. I didn’t really want that ugly pink car in our yard.
Then, last week, I opened our front door, and saw these:
The trucks, not the bathtub. My husband is responsible for that bathtub, former resident of our BATHROOM. Take it up with him.
Two toy trucks. Battered, but scrubbed clean, and lined up neatly behind the bathtub that should really not have spent two whole days on our verandah. Later, when I mentioned it to my husband, he said that he had been out on the verandah talking to contractors about finishing our bathroom, when the old man had rambled across the street and up our drive clutching a toy monster truck. He pressed into my husband’s arms, saying nothing, and then growled and retreated across the street. The truck was left on our front steps by my distracted husband when he left for work, abandoned to be tripped over or kicked aside. I noticed it when I bent out the door to pick up the newspaper, but didn’t give it a thought. So there it sat.
By the time I opened the door to check the mail, an hour later, there were two trucks. And now, they were lined up neatly by the door, tucked safely against the wall, the better to not be tripped over, or kicked aside.
WonderBaby was delighted. She loves trucks, and big ugly plastic things, and when she saw them she scooped up one and took it out back to put in her big ugly plastic car, which she also loves. Then she scooped up the other, and pushed it through our house, shouting vrroooom vrroooom! to the backyard where it, too, was giving pride of parking place in the front seat of her battered pink Jeep. Then she got in with them and shouted car! car! tuck! and honked the (still functional) horn.
They’re ugly, these toys. They’re big ugly plastic things, the sorts of things that I turn away from in the toy store. And they’re battered and broken and – despite the labours attended to them – a little dirty. But they delight her. They make her smile. She sees beauty in these old, misfit toys, and watching her love them fills my heart to bursting with an inexpressible, ill-understood pain-tinged joy. A happy hurt that I can’t quite explain.
That she would fill the heart of this crazy old man, that she would move him, inspire him, I understand. She is breathtaking, and that she smiles and waves and calls to him every morning (Hi yooooooo! Maaaaan! Hy-eeeee!) must be like a fresh, forceful breeze, blowing the ghosts away – or, perhaps, pressing them more closely to him. I don’t know. Whatever it is, it is something good. Something beautiful.
That she has so embraced his gifts, that she so loves these dusty, battered tokens of affection, that she so delights in his incomprehensible growl and in the salutory hoisting of his beer bottle – this has taken me by surprise. But why should it? There is magic in dust and wonder in what is old and endless mystery in all that is strange and different and misfit. He is no less amusing and interesting to her than seagulls and goats and the sweet Portuguese baker lady who gives her cookies, and his gifts are no less delightful than anything that my credit card can buy. Perhaps more delightful, because they are scavenged treasure, delivered by a pirate.
She sees beauty and magic where I see age and dementia. She sees treasure where I see junk. She sees friendship where I see loneliness.
She sees far, far more and far, far further than I do, and I love this, and I envy this. From deep, deep in my heart, I envy this.