Older Than the Earth, Younger Than the Stars

I was only six the year that Miss Martha moved into our neighborhood.

She was from up North, but mostly people didn’t mind. For one thing, she was friendly and open from the start, and for another, she didn’t act as if God had sent her here to enlighten us poor ignorant Southerners. Finally, (and most importantly from my viewpoint, and that of my four-year-old sister Beatie), she made the best chocolate chip cookies I had ever tasted, even better than my mama’s.  I think it’s almost sacrilege for a Southerner to say that, but it’s the God’s honest truth.

She had moved into the house next to M’sieu’ Daniel’s. Daniel Landry was a Cajun man, tall, grey and imposing, but always kind.  Looking back, I would say he was in his early fifties, but to a six-year-old, that was older than dirt, as old as Papère LeMay in town.  Miss Martha was a little younger, but in my eyes she was pretty much the same as he. They had something else in common, too, in the beginning. Even I noticed it, or maybe it would be more accurate to say I was the only one who seemed to see it.  Many times when one or the other of them would smile, it never seemed to reach their eyes.

I never knew what tragedy had made Miss Martha uproot herself.  I do know I heard Mama say once that M’sieu’ Daniel had built his house for his young wife. She’d died of cancer two years after they got married, and after that, he got old suddenly and withdrew from many of the town activities. M’sieu’ Daniel and Miss Martha hit it off right away, and they raised a few eyebrows when he squired her to the fais do do in town her first weekend there.

People thought maybe they were in love, but I doubted that.  Love was for young people, like Lacey Pratt and Jacques Caissy, not for old folks. At Lacey’s and Jacques’ wedding, I watched Lacey twirl, dancing with her new husband, and dreamed of the day when I would be the bride, beautiful in lace and tulle. Old people, were, well — old, and I was sure they were past such youthful pursuits as falling in love.

Aged or not, Miss Martha was always nice to us kids, but even we thought she might be a little nuts when she bought the Wishing Rock. They dug up the foundation for a new store in town, and there was a large boulder in the site that might have  looked kind of like a big frog, if you squinted hard enough. The next day, Joe Thibodaux’s dump truck pulled up in front of Miss Martha’s house and Joe and some of his friends used a block and tackle to move the rock to her back yard.

When Papa asked incredulously what possessed her, Miss Martha blushed and said that when she was a little girl, there had been a rock just like this one in her family’s yard. She had called it her Wishing Rock and loved to sit on it and watch the stars. She took a lot of ribbing, but she held her ground and on warm, clear nights, she would go and sit on the new Wishing Rock and enjoy the evening skies.

It was one night in mid-August that year when I came to understand her and M’sieu’ Daniel a little better.  Papa said there were going to be some pursy-hids that night, better than fireworks.  He winked at Mama, and she pursed her lips in pretended disapproval, but the twinkle in her eyes gave her away.  Beatie and me, we were shooed out of the house, with the suggestion that we might want to sit on the Wishing Rock and watch for the pursy-hids.

When we got to the side of Miss Martha’ s home, we saw the Rock was already taken.  M’sieu’ Daniel was sitting behind Miss Martha, with his arms around her, and she was sitting sideways, leaning on him, her head on his shoulder. As we watched silently, he put one hand under her chin, tilted her head back, leaned forward and kissed her. I was shocked.  What in earth are they doing? I knew that Papa kissed Mama, but that was them.  They were supposed to. They weren’t old people yet, not  like M’sieu’ Daniel and Miss Martha were.

Beatie broke the spell by giggling. Mortified, I clapped my hand over her mouth, but it was already too late.  Neither of our elders seemed to mind; they smiled at each other and waved us over.

“You come here now, Annie and Beatie.  Come here and sit wit’ us.”

Beatie always preferred sitting with M’sieu’ Daniel, so I wound up on Miss Martha’s lap.

“Papa sent us to see the pursy-hids.  What’s a pursy-hid, Miss Martha?”

She laughed gently.  “It’s Perseids, my dear,” and spelled it for me.  “Look, there! See that?” as a light streaked across the sky.  “That’s a meteor.  The Perseids are a whole shower of those lights — those meteors. And tonight’s the best night to see them. Look!” as an even brighter light flashed to earth, and another and another. Beatie watched the lights in awe, a little smile on her face. And me? I looked back at Miss Martha and M’sieu’ Daniel.  In the flashes of starlight, their faces seemed of no age — neither old nor young, exactly, but beautiful and timeless.  With a wisdom I still can’t understand the source of, I suddenly realized that sharing hearts wasn’t about age.  One could be older than the earth or younger than the stars, and still love.

Six months later, Miss Martha and M’sieu’ Daniel married and moved into Miss Martha’s house.  They’re still there, twenty-some years on, a little older, a little greyer. And on warm, clear nights they still sit on the Wishing Rock, holding hands and watching the constellations together.

Sunday Will Never Be The Same …

[My first #FridayFlash.  I moved it from my “regular” blog here so all my Flash fiction is in the same place. Be gentle; I know it’s not the best thing I’ve ever done, but I’ve been working in my own universe for so long and pretty much exclusively that it was hard to break away and try something different.]

The old man bent over and dispensed a handful of cracked corn for the pigeons in front of his bench.

“There. That’ll have to hold you until Emily gets here. She’s coming soon.”

He glared at a teen who flew past him on a skateboard.  The birds scattered, flying away in a flutter of wings, and then came back to the corn quickly. They were park pigeons, too canny to be disturbed by ordinary activity, especially when food was involved.

The man leaned back and watched a young couple go by holding hands. When did young girls start getting tattooed like sailors? He shook his head and chuckled ruefully. If I didn’t know I was old before, I’d know it now. No doubt it’s entirely acceptable and I was just too caught up in my own life to pay attention to anyone else’s. He carefully folded down the top of the bag of corn and began to reach for the newspaper at his side. He stopped. There’s too much bad news in there. Maybe later. Maybe when Emily gets here. One of the best things she always brought him was a sense of perspective. “Never borrow trouble,” she’d grin. “The rate of interest is too high!”

He tried — Lord knows he tried — to adapt to her viewpoint. Only the names have changed, she’d say. It’s wars and politics and scandal — Obama instead of Roosevelt, Afghanistan instead of Normandy, today’s starlets and murders instead of the ones we read about when we were young. You put too much importance on reading about things we can’t change.

But you wanted to change them, once upon a time. You wanted me to change them, too! He had told her that once and she had laughed. “What is that song says, the one the kids sing these days? ‘I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.’ I learned wisdom, Edward, and you should, too. It’s kinder to let some things alone. My new motto is ‘help where you can change things and ignore what you can’t’. The only really important thing in my life is you.”

They had finished that day making gentle, middle-aged love and falling asleep wrapped in each other and a few sections of the Sunday Times that hadn’t gotten knocked off the bed.

He looked at the watch strapped firmly on his scrawny old man’s wrist and then looked around the park. “It’s after noon, Emily. You’d better get here soon. I’m HUNGRY!” He eyed the pigeons balefully. “Don’t tell me — you’re hungry, too. All right, then.” Edward carefully unfolded the bag and scattered another handful of corn. “You are all very greedy, you know that?”

He wasn’t sure exactly when sitting in the park on a Sunday to feed the birds had become a habit with the two of them. She’d looked at him wryly. “We’re getting to be like that old couple on Laugh-In, you know.”

That reference he’d gotten. He’d waggled his eyebrows Groucho-style and said, “Hey, lady, want a walnetto?”

She smiled at him warmly and said, “I think you’re cheating. You know you’re safe because you know I don’t carry a purse.”

“What’s a walnetto, anyway?”

“Some kind of candy. They started making them again when that sketch became popular.”

“Hmm.”

An older woman walked toward him, and he sat up, recalled to the present. But it wasn’t her. This woman was moving slowly, hamstrung by age. Emily was still vigorous, not as fast as she’d once been, perhaps, but with the energy of a much younger woman. You keep me young, too, beloved. Hurry up, please. I’m aging by the minute.

The day passed, and Edward watched. People passed by him, young and old, male and female and even a couple he wasn’t completely sure about. Several times, he began to reach for the paper beside him, and always stopped.

A youngish man with a pitiful attempt at a goatee and dressed in clothing Edward couldn’t have begun to describe, passed the bench carrying a sign: “The End Is Upon Us”.

“It used to be ‘The End Is Near’. Glad to see you’ve changed your advertising slogan.” Edward gave him a hard, wicked grin.

“What?” The younger man turned around. “What did you say?”

“Oh, look. People like you have been around for ages. The end’s not all that much closer than it was then. My Emily always knew that.”

“Scoff if you want, old man. The end is near. You’ll see, but then it will be too late.” The would-be prophet furled his dignity around himself and stalked off.

Edward shook his head. He extended his hand, and this time, he picked up the newspaper. But it was dark now, far too dark to read the newsprint, which waved and blurred before his eyes. He looked around at the nearly empty park and his eyes filled with tears.

“She didn’t come. I was so sure she’d be here today.” He put the newspaper back down.

“Sir?” The police officer was both courteous and awkward. Geeze, he looks like my grandpa. “Sir, the park is closed and you need to leave now. It’s not really safe to be here after dark.”

“I’m sorry, young man. I didn’t realize. My Emily, she was coming. I was sure she was going to show up.”

“Yes, sir. Well, that’s too bad. But you should go now, okay?”

“Yes, of course, officer. I’m leaving.” He took the empty bag, screwed it up and tossed it in the nearby trashcan. Moving slowly, he walked off into the gathering dark. “I was so sure …”

The policeman watched him and shook his head. Poor old guy … As he started to walk further down the path, he saw the old man had left his newspaper behind. He picked it up, and called, “Hey, hey, mister!” Too late. He’s gone.

The officer glanced at it. The obituary section. Man, I hope I never get that old that that’s what I spend my time reading. One of the entries was circled.

POWELL, EMILY

Emily Powell, 85, passed away today
at St. John’s Hospital. She was survived
by her husband Edward. There will be
no public services.

“Aw, gee. Aw. Poor guy.” The officer tossed the paper in the trash and continued his patrol.

Boarding Call

boff

The little boy sat with his great-grandfather and waited anxiously. He saw a soldier coming through the terminal and started to jump up and down. “Papère! It’s him!” When the man got closer, he realized he was wrong. “Darn.” He plopped back down and sat, chin in hands, disappointed.

“Paulie, I told you that when he comes, he’ll come from that way, ” said his vieux-papère, pointing in the opposite direction. “Now sit down and be patient, cher.”

Papère, I don’t know HOW to be patient.”

“I’ve noticed that,” the old man said with a grin. “But try, anyway.”

“Okay.” Paulie leaned against him and sighed. “Papère, can I ask you something?”

“Maybe.” Paul surveyed his namesake with concern. T’is little fellow has no off-switch on his curiosity and one day he’s going to ask the wrong person the wrong question. Just that afternoon, Paulie had been puzzled by the appearance of a very large man with multiple piercings and tattoos. Before his great-grandfather could stop him, Paulie started with the questions. Fortunately, despite his fierce appearance, the big man was quite kind and had handled the child’s shower of interrogatives with patience, to the older man’s relief. My elephant’s child, he thought, shaking his head with amusement. Oh, Paulie, what are we going to do wit’ you?

“What did you want to know?” Just then, his cell phone rang. Dratted technology. He reached for it, and was bemused when Paulie grabbed it first and stared at the caller ID. He recognized the number and sagged in relief. “It’s just Mamère Amelie”.

Paul took it from him and answered it, quizzically surveying the little boy. He explained to his daughter that no, her grandson had not yet arrived, and yes, Paulie was fine and he was fine and that she should just quit worrying. “I’ll call you when we see him; just go on and help Cherry get dinner ready for when we get back.”

He chuckled at her pretend-meek “Oui, Papa” and hung up.

“Paulie, what was that all about? Why did you grab t’e cell phone?”

The little boy sat on the edge of the plastic chair, legs kicking, staring at the ground. “Well …”

“Well?”

“Denis said you were old.”

Paul nodded. “Yes, I am. Your big brother is right about t’at.”

“And he said old people die. But Papère –, ” he said, all in a rush, “I don’t want you to die. You — you haven’t taught me everything you know!” He finished, still not able to meet the old man’s eyes. “And I’d miss you. You’re my vieux-papère. Mine. I don’t want God to have you yet.”

God. Ah, I t’ink I understand. “Did Denis tell you that when God calls me, I have to go?”

Paulie nodded earnestly. “Oui! So I t’ought if I answered t’e phone first, I’d tell God he’d just have to wait because Paulie LeMercier needs his vieux-papère. And t’en I’d hang up. So t’ere!”

If it had been anyone else but Paulie, the older Paul would have thrown his head back and laughed until he cried. But he knew this was deadly serious for the little one and he wanted to help him understand.

Cher, it’s not t’at kind of a call.”

“Oh.”

“One day, when it’s time, I’ll die, yes. But I don’t believe dying means that I end. I think we continue, only differently.”

“But I won’t see you. You won’t take me shrimping or show me how to whittle,” the little boy said earnestly, eyes screwed up against threatened tears.

The old man put his arm around the little boy. “I understand, Paulie. I miss my Papère aussi, and my papa et mama, and my Nonc Pierre, all of them. It’s okay to be sad when it happens. But you must go on. A little bit of me will always be wit’ you. Did you know you look just like me when I was your age?”

“I do?”

“You do. And one day very long from now, you’ll sit with your great-grandson, and maybe he will be named Paulie, too, and you’ll tell him what I just told you. And he’ll carry on for me and you, and my Nonc Pierre and his uncle — all of us will live through him. And until that day, we live through you.”

Paulie looked at him. “When you go — wherever you go — will you remember me?”

“I promise, cher. How could I ever forget you?”

“I won’t forget you either. I promise, too.”

“Good.” Paul tapped him on the shoulder. He gestured down the concourse. “Look who’s here.”

“Andre!” The little boy jumped up and ran to his brother.

Paul glanced up and saw the departure board. One day soon, Bon Dieu. I know t’at. But not today, eh? He stood carefully and headed slowly toward his great-grandsons.