“When an old person dies, it’s a library burning.”
By Doug Elwell
I hadn’t seen Mr. Peck in many years. He seemed an old man then because in the eyes of the young all grownups are old. When I was a child, he lived two doors west and when I passed his house on my tricycle and he was in his yard, he would wave and call out a hello. I mostly picture him with a hoe scratching weeds from the cracks in his sidewalk. He was a tall, thin man who was missing his right arm at the shoulder and I was not afraid of him. As far as I could tell from the seat of my tricycle he seemed to get along quite well without it. The weeds were always cut short. I hadn’t given Mr. Peck much thought in at least thirty years after I left Pinhook. For the young, old people often simply disappear with little or no notice. One day they’re there and the next they’re gone.
The day after I graduated high school I left town. My last stop was the post office where I mailed a letter to Addie, a girl I loved and of whom I was afraid. I met Mr. Peck on his way out. I held the door for him. We talked in the morning sun. I was about to say goodbye when he tapped my shoulder and asked if he could buy me a cup of coffee. One for the road he said. I begged off. I told him I would catch him the next time I was in town. He smiled in the bright sun. A puff of air caught wisps of silvery hair and they danced a step or two in the light.
Be sure to do that Mick. I’ll be here.
He patted me on the shoulder again with the letters in his hand and our eyes met. You’ll find your way son, I know it—might take a while, but I know you’ll find what you’re looking for.
After I left Pinhook I didn’t really think of Mr. Peck or of the old folks I had known as a boy. I lost touch with people who once stood large in my life. It was thirty some years later Mom told me Mr. Peck lay dying in a nursing home. I remembered him as a good and gentle man because he took time to talk to me when I was a child. Adults who give time to children are not forgotten. The last time I saw him was on the sidewalk in front of the post office. His smile, blue eyes bright in the morning sun and glistening wisps of silvery hair. I was moved to go back to see him. It was a way to tie up a loose childhood end. I didn’t know why I was so moved except to follow up on a long ago promised cup of coffee. It was important I see him.
At the nursing home, he told me to stop by his house and pick up a trunk from is attic. There were journals in it he wanted me to have. I took them home and began to read through them. His stories and letters were written with a keen eye and ear to the world in which he lived. In each story I was hooked in the first few lines. Each an impressionist painting. They captured moments in his daily life from the turn of the century to the mid-sixties. His words and phrases were short, quick brushstrokes. His subjects ranged from the nearby woods to fields of shocked wheat shimmering in summer sun and daily life in the village. His prose was poetic in places. In one story he called Morning Walk, he described a spring walk through the village:
Aunt Mertie’s tidy house and side garden were drenched in golden sun.Before the heat of the day, wrens warbled their bubbling exuberance across the village while cardinals called ‘wha-cheer-cheer-cheer’ from telephone lines overhead. As I passed, I heard her broom scratch softly across the red bricks of her back walk, then the tired creak of a screen door as it thumped softly leaving her calico cat basking in the sun on the wooden porch floor. The tip of his tail twitching. At Barnett’s across the street, his old brown and red rooster crowed from atop his coop. A car, somewhere in the distance, backfired.
When I felt the late sun burning the back of my neck, I realized I had spent the day immersed in his stories. Words began to blur on the page. It was time to quit. One more thin binder of stories to read would keep until tomorrow. I put everything in the trunk and sat back in my chair. Bright new leaves were emerging on the sycamore tree above me. Lilac wafted from the parsonage next door. The images Mr. Peck created in his stories flowed smooth through my mind no doubt aided by the effect of a couple slowly sipped glasses of bourbon. I had traveled almost a century back in time—his stories were that vivid. And through them I got to know the tall, kindly thin man with one arm who took time to talk to a little boy on a tricycle those years ago.
A day immersed in his stories stirred something in me that had lain dormant for years. In my long ago flight from Pinhook I left everything behind. Over the years, when I thought of my childhood and youth at all, it was like looking at random black and white images lit by the flashing of a strobe. A surreal quality to them. Mr. Peck—my sister—school—the town square—brick streets—tractors pulling wagons of corn to the elevator—Addie who I loved and feared. For years shattered images like those flashed through my mind only rarely. They always left me wanting more. There was something, some vague thing missing in me and I mostly ignored it until I heard of Mr. Peck—spent and dying in a nursing home. His memory surfaced and wouldn’t let me loose. I felt like a salmon swimming upstream to a remembered place. I believe it was the memory of him; the man who showed kindness to the little boy on the tricycle. He had time for me and when I heard he was near death in a nursing home I made time for him. It was a small payback I was privileged to make.
Children often lose their ability to plumb the souls of people when they grow up. But when I saw Mr. Peck I became a child again for those minutes we were together and for a while I could look at the soul of that kind and gentle man through the eyes of a child once again.
© 2019 Doug Elwell
Doug Elwell grew up on the prairie of rural east central Illinois. His stories feature the characters, lore, and culture of that region. He explores the depth and richness of the inner lives of its people and communities. He is an occasional contributor to The Australia Times. His work has also appeared in The Oakland Independent, Ignite Your Passion: Kindle Your Inner Spark, True Stories Well Told, Every Writer’s Resource, Writers Grapevine, Ruminate and Midwestern Gothic literary journal. He has a Kindle novel, Charlie, available from the War Writer’s Campaign at www.warwriterscampaign.org. Proceeds from purchases go directly to the campaign, a non-profit that helps re-integrate veterans into society following their deployments. Doug can be contacted via email at: djelwell@ .