DIVESTINGby Irving Kenneth Zola
"How long have you been here?" It seemed like a stupid question for a prospective house buyer to ask, but I wanted to say something. Sensing and perhaps even relishing my embarrassment, he chuckled, "Not too long." And then with his back to me, letting the words slip out, he added, "Seventy-six years." Punctuating this, he turned his head, smiled through his broken teeth and hitched his trousers.
I looked down at the empty flap of his right trouser leg. Like the rest of him, it was wrinkled, angrily pinned back with a safety pin.
Knowing I'd follow him, he limped into the kitchen and then leaned against the wood stove. He made no motion for me to sit, but, even though the farm house was all on one level, this traipsing around was getting to me. So I rested my canes against the kitchen table and lowered myself slowly onto a somewhat rickety chair.
He laughed at my hesitation, "Everything here's sturdier than it looks."
At least thirty years my senior, his white stubble must have been at least a day old, but his clothes looked clean and comfortable. His trousers were olive drab. They looked like old army issue, and that made me like him even more. I'd inherited such a pair from my favorite uncle and wore them oversized, rolled up, stained, torn, patched, and footballed, till one day my mother simply refused to wash them again and into the trash they went.
But Leo, that was his name, wasn't interested in my memories. "Yep...came here with my mother, father, and five kids when I was six. I stayed on...but it's gettin' late. Too much room for me...by myself alone..." He stopped, rubbed his rheumy eyes and then with a clotted bunch of yellow tissue wiped his nose.
He took a broom from the closet. "Thought I'd sweep up. My two sisters are comin' for a visit. Gotta spruce the place up a little. They come every Summer. This'll be the last one."
I winced but he only wiped his nose again and ran his fingers through his almost non-existent hair. Catching himself, he laughed, "Wasn't always this way. Maybe I should try some of those hormones...but everything's been going since I was fifty."
I wondered for a moment whether that included his missing leg.
Hopping backwards a few steps, he let his single crutch fall against the counter and rested for a moment with one hand on the sink. "Got all the modern conveniences here...like running water." With a sort of tongue-in-cheek grin, he ran his hand fondly over the inside water pump, painted red like a fire engine. "It's a cistern system. God sends down the rain. It gits caught up there," he said pointing to the ceiling, "and then down through the pipes into the cellar, and all I do is pump it back here. Works fine. It's all I need."
Need, I thought to myself, what do you need, old man? But to him I only said, "Do you have any plans after here?"
"Yep, I plan to visit the undertaker. He's got a nice box all picked out."
His words stung me. So I ignored his future and instead asked about his past. "Did you farm the land or work around here?"
"Nope, I was a construction engineer working with heavy equipment."
"All over...wherever the jobs were...mostly airports...for the Army."
More like the freckled-faced boy I consider myself to be than the middle-aged greying professor I am, I blurted, "Boy, you must have been all over the world."
Not about to be patronized, he replied, "Lots, but I've also missed a lot."
Again I wondered if this was because of his leg, but ignoring the thought asked, "What was it like?"
"Good. You had to sign on for eighteen months. The money wasn't that much better than around here but you were guaranteed fifty-two weeks. And the conditions were good. Work wasn't bad and after that, there was time for smokin', drinkin', some fightin', and..." his voice trailed off.
I fantasized he was going to say women.
"...And so, with not much to spend it on, you could save a lot. I always returned here with more money than when I left." And then, looking out the window he paused, "I could be away a year or two, maybe more but when I returned, it," he patted the sink, "was still here. And it was in good shape. It was always home." And then to my unasked question, "But it's time to move on...before it's too late."
"Too late!" I almost shouted.
He ignored my tone and went on, "When you're my age, you don't know when it'll come. I could just die and no one would know for a month." He said it with no self-pity in his voice, merely scrunched his nose, and wiped it again.
We were now in the yard, our formal tour complete. All my house questions were answered. None of my others had even been asked.
We had more than the farm between us but neither of us seemed to want or need to acknowledge it. So we turned to the ritual dance we knew and spoke of his selling price. I mentioned that it seemed high and asked if he might come down.
"Yep, maybe I will," he answered.
When we reached my car, I placed my canes in the open door jamb and shook his hand. "Thanks for letting me in." The phrase said more than I realized.
"That's O.K....drop in again if you're around."
"I'd like to..."
As I backed out of the driveway, he remained by the big oak, leaning against it, wiping his nose. I started to wave good-bye but my arm took on a life of its own and I saluted. Snapping to attention, he returned it.
copyright Irving Kenneth Zola