Judith Kelly Quaempts
It’s trying to snow, mayfly-sized flakes drifting from a white sky, melting before they reach my windshield. I shift into second gear for the turn onto a narrow dirt road and drive almost a mile before I pass through the willows that screen Jim’s house from view.
When I pull up pale smoke is rising from the chimney. In the cold afternoon light, a single lamp shines in the window.
He comes onto the porch before I step from the car; a bent old man with silver hair, a dried apple face, and the brightest, most intelligent blue eyes I’ve ever seen.
Brown corduroy trousers are held up by red suspenders. A checked flannel shirt is tucked into them. On his feet are green, high-top sneakers, and on his face the excitement of a child.
“You’re late,” he cries, beckoning me forward with both hands. “Get in here, it’s cold.”
I can see that he’s lost more weight, though it’s been only six days since my last visit. Jim’s skin is like parchment held up to the light. Last week, when I helped him into a sweater, he said, “I feel so light, like I might float.” My arms embrace that lightness now. It’s like embracing air.
Inside, I remove my jacket and hang it on a peg near the woodstove.
He leads me to the kitchen where he takes a pot from the stove and pours steaming coffee into two waiting mugs. I’m hoping today’s coffee is on its first boil, but the bitter aroma when I pick up my mug says otherwise. Jim uses leftover grounds for two days so as not to waste them.
We carry our mugs into the living room. Jim sits in his rocker near the stove. I sit on the faded sofa covered with a K-Mart acrylic blanket. The arms are dimpled with old cigarette burns.
I take a tentative sip; try not to make a face. This coffee could bend a spoon.
A photograph of Jim’s great-grandson, Owen, sits on the end table. His pictures are scattered all over the house, some taped to the refrigerator, others in frames on the wall. They run the gamut from toddler to high-schooler, to this serious young man in Marine blues who has six months left in Iraq. Jim’s leaving this place to Owen, says he’ll need the quiet after that war.
“I never asked what you did in the army, Jim.”
Jim’s face grows solemn. “Remington’s Raiders,” he says. “That was my outfit.”
I’ve never heard of them but I nod, impressed.
“Hee, hee, hee.” He actually laughs like this, his face growing red. His eyes are bright with mischief, the eyes of a boy, not an old man nearing ninety. His fingers begin tapping on his lap. “I sat behind a typewriter,” he says. “I never saw action.”
I laugh too, as much for his enjoyment in the telling as for the joke itself.
I marvel at the simple accident of time and place that brought him into my life – a day three years ago when I found him walking on the side of the road and stopped to see if he needed a ride.
Like me, he was headed for town, twenty miles away, to buy groceries.
I’d stared at him in amazement. “You walk to town?”
He smiled. “Never more than a mile or two each way.”
I’ve come to know a lot about this man – about his wife who died thirty years ago, about his grown children who live in distant cities, his favorite books. I know he makes cornmeal mush for breakfast every morning and covers it with dark Karo syrup, that he fries potatoes and eggs and deer meat for supper and heats Campbell’s tomato soup everyday for lunch – with plenty of oyster crackers. I know he reads with a magnifying glass held to book or paper, and that his hearing is compromised, though he still recognizes the cry of coyotes on long summer evenings, the squeak of bats feasting on an abundance of insects at dusk.
We sip our coffee, the silence between us comfortable as flannel pajamas. A log pops and breaks apart in the woodstove. I notice the snow has started for real, falling past the windows in rapturous abandon.
Jim smiles. “Remember what I told you.”
His eyelids flutter, then close. Within seconds, I hear soft snores.
“I’m shutting down,” he said last month, his voice matter-of-fact. “I won’t be here come spring.” He told me not to interfere with nature. “No hospital,” he said. “I want to die at home.”
I get up, remove the mug from his hands and carry it to the kitchen with my own. I rinse, dry and put them away, then take my coat from the peg and let myself out the door.
On the way to my car I stop and raise my face to the snow. The silence is infinite.
I want winter to last forever.
Judith Kelly Quaempts lives in rural eastern Oregon with a cat who thinks he’s feral. Her poems and very short stories can be found in several on-line journals, most recently Pemmican and Camroc Press Review. She is an active member of the Internet Writers Workshop and a poetry reviewer for the Internet Review of Books.
Motivation: Love for three people - an old man with a love for learning, my father's words during his battle with Alzheimer's, and a sister in law who wanted Frank Sinatra's, I Did it My Way, played when her body was taken from the church to be buried.