Old Man

as published in West/Word

The old man was hiding behind the wind. It was only when I closed my eyes that I realized he was there. “Oh,” he said. “Oh,” like that. Soft. I pictured him looking out slightly, to see what effect, if any, he was making. I pictured him neglected, having recently lost his wife and not knowing what to do with his time. “Ohhhhh,” he said, the sound longer now, thinning out and slipping under my door. The arbor above my window rustled and something pinged against the glass and fell, sliding down and plunking onto the dirt. Leaves rattled, branches scraped.

I turned the light on for a while and read, and he became silent, as though comforted by the presence of another consciousness in the night. Perhaps he was sleeping, his head fallen to his chest, his weight slumped against the wind, suspenders bowing. I pictured him unshaven.

Three-quarters of an hour passed and I grew tired, the words on the pages of my book blurring and dancing until I reached again for the light. I lay within the blankets and the heat of my body, imagining the sequence of events in the story, imagining sunsets and landscapes and train rides through snow; soldiers running and fields of birds rising; imagining boots, swastikas, and rushing rivers, as thoughts began to merge into harsh dreams and I began to be aware of only my interior-world self and the envelopment of my pillows.

Suddenly the old man howled, his voice seeming to shoot up, then loop and fragment off into all directions of the darkness, seeming to lash out against far and heavenly injustices. I lay, jarred awake, as parts of it rushed out over rooftops and through tall trees. The moments following felt to me like breath intake, like a re-gathering of sorrows. I jumped out of bed quickly and stood, and I knew that he was waiting for my next move. And I did something in answer to a summons I didn’t understand.

I waked to the closet and stepped inside, allowing myself the privacy to make my selection. The door was left slightly open so that the overhead light was able to line out into the room, and the shadows of my movements stay visible. Outside beyond the walls of the house, there was only a stirring, as though leaves were circling. I let what I was wearing fall to the floor and I slipped into the selection I had made. It was green. Deep, dark green. And satin. Its straps were very small and there was nothing to it, except that it was made to slide along the contours of a body. It stopped just at the knees. The shoes I had decided upon were platformed and suede and very high-heeled. Platformed and suede and very high-heeled, and I was admiring the clusters of small metallic pearls holding the centers together when there was a flash of force against the house, slamming shutters and knocking over terra-cotta pots, leaving some of them rocking on the tile of the patio.

I strapped the shoes around my ankles and edged my toe just outside the door of the closet, testing the darkness. Something seemed to shift in the weight of the air, as though drawing back, a tide lifting up against the rocks on one side of an ocean, sudden air in the lungs. Everything ceased moving. No leaf dropped, no board creaked. I stood full outside the door for a moment, feeling a sense of calm fall over and around me.

And then I climbed the stairs and went out onto my balcony to shine in the moonlight and pass the night with the old man.