This is a short story from the collection In a Northern Town.
Now an old man, he was once a young man and in love, and that’s what he thought about as the breeze carried his small fishing boat toward the sandy shore.
His hair was grey and thin and his beard was now sparse and pathetic, the stray hairs clinging to his tanned, wrinkled skin like lint on leather. The sun ducked behind the occasional passing cloud and when it shone his skin was warm and when it hid he felt he needed his jacket.
Once he knew the craft had enough momentum to take him to shore, he killed the engine and listened to the water and the wind and the trees as he glided. That was the most calming moment of his day, every day, and he treasured it. At times he’d close his eyes and become part of the waves that lifted and dropped him in rhythmic motion. And he always thought about Eleanor. She’d had the type of personality that lit up a room, made the crankiest person sing, and a mesmerizing smile that would empty a man’s wallet but fill his soul. She had been a better person than the old man knew he’d ever be, and he had spent his entire life trying to catch up. Even in her final days she’d had it. She never lost it. It was a gift. The old man sure never had it. He just had her.
His eyes were still closed when he felt a startling thud beneath him. He jolted himself aware and seized the side of the boat. There was a strange sound also—a scraping sound—and the old man looked down and saw an aggressive spurt of water begin to bubble up from below. Shit, he thought, but the impeding water didn’t have much effect on slowing the momentum of the craft, and the old man watched a puddle—small at first but growing—begin to fill at his feet, slowly submerging his leather sandals as the boat calmly slid into shore. It made a smooth crunching sound against the heavy, wet sand as it stalled to its final stop. Then the old man climbed out onto the beach and took hold of the boat. He yanked it a foot further onto the sand and watched the water sloshing around inside. As he dragged it, he looked at the normally untainted beauty of the beach carve into a damp, flattened path. A certain sorrow began to fill inside of him, much like the water in the boat, but as if plugging the hole, the old man refused to allow the feeling to completely overtake him. He liked to think of it as owning his feelings, rather than letting his feelings own him, and he’d gotten good at it over the years.
The trip from the lake took everything the old man had, but he managed to drag the boat to the edge of the tree line, some forty or fifty feet from the water. He was sweating like he hadn’t sweat in years and he took a brief moment to catch his breath and wipe the salty drops running down his forehead before finding one last oomph and flipping the boat so it capsized beneath the shade of a low-hanging tree. He collapsed and breathed hard, leaning over the underside of the boat for a moment, and then he stood and looked at the old, reliable craft. He examined the hole. It was a sharp puncture, surely a difficult fix. He ran his finger around it and felt the blade-like texture. It was wide, too, much worse than he’d originally thought. There was little hope for patching a hole of that nature, he knew that much. Certainly difficult to justify on something as old as this. And so the old man made the difficult choice. He looked at it one last time and then turned to head home. And that’s where he left the boat to reside until the sand enveloped it or a scavenger came to claim it as his own.
The old man’s house was little more than a shack built on a sandy foundation some few hundred yards from the beach. Where he kept his boat was state land, though it was land so seldom used by others that he mostly considered it all his own. The path to his home was narrow and winding through the woods, but well maintained with few ruts and the sand was little more than smooth, black dirt from all the years of his walking. The cabin itself was about halfway between the road and the lake, nestled tightly in the forest. His son had discovered it for him shortly after Eleanor had passed, and the old man, reluctant at the time, decided to make the move and has never once regretted it. It was a peaceful living. In the summer it remained warm, even on mild days. When the lake brought a chilling breeze to shore, the trees would keep the air still and comforting. In the winter the snow was typically measured in feet, not inches, though still not nearly as burdensome as the type of accumulations they got on the west side of the state. He didn’t mind the snow either; rather, he welcomed it. It gave him a sense of isolation, even more so than in the summer. The spring was wet and cool and he dealt with it the best he could, and the fall was breathtaking. Absolutely. He always told himself he wanted his last breath to be of crisp, fall air in northern Michigan. That way he knew he’d be going straight to heaven, because anything that pure was sure to lead to the Promised Land.
On this particular day as the old man—who was still panting to a certain degree from the boat incident—reached the end of the path and laid eyes on his cabin, the first thing that caught his attention was the shiny Cadillac in the gravel driveway. Not only was it far out of place, but it was unexpected. He walked cautiously up to the porch and climbed the few steps and then twisted the unlocked knob and pushed the door open. Standing directly in the middle of the room, staring back at him, was his long-lost friend.
“Walt,” the friend said to the old man, who was still standing on the porch. When the old man didn’t flinch, his friend waved him in. “Come inside, Walt. Come in. I let myself in, I hope you don’t mind. Please, come in.”
The old man blinked a few times to gather himself. Just when he thought his heart rate was beginning to slow. He stepped inside and walked past his friend to the kitchen and took a glass from the cabinet and filled it at the sink, and then he walked back into the living room and stuck out his hand. “Ronnie,” the old man said. “What a surprise.” Ronnie was a thick, white-haired man with a grip that could break your hand.
“It’s been a long while, hasn’t it?”
“That’s the truth. Let’s head outside.”
The old man walked back out the front door and stood on the wooden porch that wrapped several feet to the left. It was a quaint yet sturdy porch that the old man had built himself some fifteen years ago when he first moved in, with just enough space for two patio chairs and a side table. He took a seat in one of the chairs. Ronnie followed him outside, closing the door behind him, and then sat down in the other chair. He pulled a carton of cigarettes from the breast pocket of his shirt and slipped one out. He held out the pack toward the old man, who held up a hand to politely decline.
“No?” Ronnie said.
“I quit those long ago.”
“Glad someone has the strength.”
The old man didn’t say anything. He was thinking about his boat.
“How long’s it been?”
“Not sure,” the old man said. “Ten years?”
“I think I’ve seen you twice since Eleanor…” Ronnie had the sense to cut that comment short.
“Yep. I think so.”
“Walt, you look good.”
The old man, again, didn’t say anything. He took a sip from his water and looked out at the trees.
After a short moment of silence, Ronnie said, “So you still like this? Living out here in the middle of nowhere like this?”
“You don’t get bored? Miss the city? Miss people?”
That made the old man smirk. “That’s never crossed my mind.”
“What about your friends, Walt? Do we cross your mind?”
He knew he had to lie and say they did. “Of course you do.”
“Just not enough to pick up a phone and call, or a pen and write?”
The old man looked at this friend. “Is that why you stopped by, to accuse me of not caring about you anymore?”
Ronnie sensed that the conversation was about to take a negative turn and pumped the breaks. “That’s not what I’m saying, Walt.” He flicked his lighter and lit the cigarette, taking a strong first drag and letting the smoke pour from his mouth without much of an exhale. “It’s good to see you. That’s what I came here to say. Damn good to see you, is all.”
“It’s good to see you, Ronnie.”
Ronnie smoked and the old man drank from his glass, sitting side-by-side in the patio chairs looking at the surrounding woods that were green and lush and thick and alive. It amazed the old man every spring when the vibrancy of the forest returned, finding it hard to believe it was made up of the same lifeless limbs that poked through the winter woods. Must be God, he always told himself.
“So how have you been holding up?” Ronnie asked.
“Hanging in there. No complaints. How about you? How is Betsy?”
Ronnie looked a little sullen. “Betsy passed.”
“I’m so sorry, Ron.”
“She was sick for a long while. It was time. She’s in a better place now.”
“I’ll say a prayer for her.”
“That’s nice of you.”
“And Ronnie,” the old man said, making eye contact with his friend, “I’m sorry I wasn’t there.”
“I understand. No hard feelings.” Ronnie was looking in the other direction when he said that and the old man watched the smoke trail off of the cigarette propped up in his friend’s hand. He knew Ronnie was genuine when he said that, because he’d been through the same thing. He knew what mattered wasn’t who was standing by your side on that gloomy morning as you lowered the casket. What mattered were the sixty years before that when you stood by one another’s side through thick and thin.
“I actually left our town. Moved to a nice condo near Ludington.” And then Ronnie said, “Can I ask you, Walt, why are you still living in this shack in the woods?”
He thought for a moment. “I guess I like watching the sunrise.”
“Honestly? You get up early enough to actually see the sunrise?”
“Yep, fish every morning. Or used to, anyway.”
“What do you mean?”
The old man thought about his boat lying upside down beneath the tree on the edge of the beach. “Boat hit a rock a little while ago. Think it’s kaput.”
“Sorry to hear that, Walt.”
The world had gone crazy. That was obvious. What the old man had the foresight to see was the rate at which it was going crazy and get the hell out of Dodge. He thought for a brief moment about that decision, and then he thought that maybe he was just running from something. Then he thought about Ronnie moving away from home as well, and that nearly confirmed it. Running away. Maybe it was a trait of those people who are too weak to deal with the truth. Or maybe it is the strength of the people willing to move on. Maybe it was just their contribution to the insanity in the world. Mental illness—it can’t be explained, regardless of how hard the so-called experts try.
Then Ronnie said, “You should move out to the West Side with me. Ludington is a nice town.”
The old man shrugged. It’s not only in good and bad moments, but also in the ordinary moments that the memory of the people we love come to us. And in that moment, Eleanor suddenly came back to the old man, and ignoring Ronnie’s comment he said, “Time just gets away, doesn’t it?”
“Damn right, my friend.” Then Ronnie added, “What are you going to do now that you’ve lost your boat?”
“I haven’t lost it.”
“You know what I mean.”
“I’m an old man who’s lost just about all my worth.”
“Knock it off. You need to move to Ludington. Enough of these sunrises—catch a sunset for a change. Ever gone sunset fishing on Lake Michigan?”
“There’s a time for moving on, that’s for sure, but it’s not here yet, Ronnie.”
“Is that so? How do you figure?”
“There’ll be time for watching the sun set. It’s not going anywhere. But to tell you the truth, I think I just need to keep watching the sun rise. Maybe just to remind myself that I’ve made it to a new day.”
And then he thought about Eleanor.