A little boy sat crying on a limb of an old apple tree.
It was a crisp autumn day in New York City. Nearly all the leaves had abandoned their home trees and lay scattered in corners or along fences where the wind pushed them into piles mixed with old newspapers and plastic grocery bags. After a long walk along the river, I took myself into a small vest-pocket park and sat on a thickly painted green bench. At the far end sat an elderly man leaning forward slightly on a walking stick. There was something odd about him sitting there on the bench where I often rested. I had not seen him before yet he looked like he was familiar and fond of the park. I noticed the wooden shaft of his stick was adorned with a dozen or so small medallions. I could make out trees figures and mountain peaks on these decorations. When he would rotate the stick, the metal would sparkle with the sun’s reflection. The man’s hair was salt and pepper with more salt than pepper. His beard was the same, perhaps more pepper around his chin. The shoes he wore were stout but scuffed. He had a small shoulder bag but there was no indication he was homeless. There was a certain sadness about him, like the clump of brown oak leaves that drooped above his head. The leaves were waiting for their time to fall to the pavement. The man’s eyes were fixed on a narrow view of the East River three blocks away.
I followed his line of sight to a few old stone buildings at the northern tip of Roosevelt Island.
“That’s where they locked up Typhoid Mary,” he said, sensing the fact that I was looking in the direction of his gaze.
I dug into my backpack and pulled out a copy of a paperback novel, Gone With the Wind, I was hoping to finish. I jolted slightly when he spoke again.
“Got time for a story?”
I didn’t want to get into a conversation or listen to the ramblings of an older guy but I politely closed my book and turned toward him. It would be nice to humor the old guy, I thought. It was getting on in the afternoon and closer to Happy Hour at Denny O’Reagan’s Pub. I wanted to catch the regulars…and one person in particular.
“I don’t get to talk much these days,” he said as he shifted slightly closer. Especially with my wife being gone. It’s been about eight months now. She never came home one day. Problem is that nobody would or could tell me whether she passed or just up and left me for the guy that handed out towels at the Senior Center.
He paused and slid closer to me. I looked into his rheumy brown eyes. Someplace deep within me told me to hear this guy’s tale…to the end.
“I grew up in a small town that hugged the outer banks of a wide river. I was coming home from grammar school in the afternoon on a fine day in the spring. I was excited because I knew that my Granpa Klotchko was up from Pennsylvania for his yearly visit. He did some outdoor gardening chores for my father. My dad let him stay busy on projects the he, my father, didn’t find interesting or worthwhile. Dad spent his days trying to get the new rotary lawn mower to start. But boy, my Granpa loved these tasks, especially clearing, pruning and tying up the small grape arbor that stretched along the hedge behind the garage. Each year, my mother would give Granpa some strips of an old pillowcase or part of an old sheet to tie up the vines.
“I ran into the house yelling, ‘where’s Granpa?’ My mother said he was finishing up the grape vine. I changed into my dungarees and ran out to talk to him. I loved my Granpa Klotchko. He was my mom’s dad.
“Before he tied off the last vine, he stopped and lit his pipe. He had an unusual lighter, not like any I’ve seen then, or since—can’t find them these days. We talked about some things, but he wouldn’t tell any ghost stories. ‘They bother me at night, Paddy,’ he would say. I turned to go back to the house to get a cookie. I stopped halfway. Something was wrong. Something I saw my Granpa do was wrong. I walked back to the vine to have a closer look.”
The old man looked off to one side and put a finger to his left eye to wipe something away. He waited several minutes before he went on with his story.
“Well…Sorry, I didn’t get your name young man.”
“Steve,” I said.
“I’m Patrick.” We shook hands.
“Well, I walked up to get a good look at the rags Granpa had used to tie up the woody thick part of the vines. I was stunned by what I saw. I pulled out a strip and looked closely.
“There it was. The entire vine was neatly secured with pieces of my pajamas…my Davy Crockett pajamas! I had worn them for years. I was the only kid on my neighborhood to own a pair. These pajamas kept me warm in a large, drafty chilly house. And they weren’t hand-me-downs from my older brother. They were made of soft white flannel and depicted small scenes from Davy’s life. There was the log cabin he was born in. There was him shooting a bear when he was a kid, and best of all was he standing like an oak tree swinging his empty musket, Old Betsy at the soldiers of Santa Ana’s army as they stormed the Alamo. I can see the date at the bottom of the scene, March 6, 1836. That was the day he died. Some historians today say that was a mythic image, and not what happened. I say ‘rubbish’ to all that revision crap. It’s legendary.
“Besides this strange emptiness I began to feel, I was angry at my mother. I went back to the house and asked her why, while I was at school, she tore up my Davy Crockett pajamas? How could she do such a thing? She explained that they were almost rags already, too small for me and, well, ready to be thrown out.
“I don’t care, I shouted. I loved them…and you never even asked me…just like when you and dad took King down to the Vets and had him put to sleep. You did this while I had the flu and never said anything to me. A friend had to tell me why I hadn’t seen King around the yard for a few days.
“The next spring I never went out to see what Granpa Klotchko was using to fix the vines. By then, the white flannel had rotted away. Granpa Klotchko died when I was twenty. He had stopped tending our grapes years earlier. It didn’t take long for the vines to begin falling apart getting overgrown with ugly weeds. The only grapes they produced were too bitter and seedy to eat. I spit out the last one I tried to eat.
“But, if my memory serves me, the grapes that came late in the summer of the year my Davy Crockett pajamas held them together were sweet and juicy.”
I looked at my watch and realized I had missed my friends at Happy Hour at Denny O’Reagan’s Pub. The old guy coughed up some phlegm into his hanky. He glanced at his pocket watch and stood.
“Hey, thanks, Steven, for hearing me. I don’t get to talk to many people these days. Gotta go. Getting late.”
He leaned toward me.
“Steven, “ he said. “Hold on to the things that you love. Don’t let anyone take those away, for any reason. Man, it could be an old pipe lighter, a book, a picture, a girl or even a pair of pajamas. If you really love them, keep hold of them, because once anything or anyone leaves your life, once you let something go, it will probably be gone forever.”
With that, he walked out of the park and turned right on Second Avenue. He looked down at the sidewalk as he moved, crossed the street and vanished from view behind some delivery trucks. I never saw him again.
I sat thinking about him and the pajamas. I thought of my own Grandfather who was buried two years ago out in Astoria. I thought of Old Betsy, the Alamo and I thought about how my parakeet flew out of the kitchen window one afternoon when I was a boy. The bird never came back. No one cried about it except me.
Then I thought about Nancy. She still might be waiting at the pub for me. Things were not going well with us. She didn’t seem that special and so that was the way I treated her. I thought I was young enough to wait until another ‘special one’ came along. I suddenly felt differently about her. I saw at once she really was different and unique and special…was I about to let her slip away? I had the feeling she was going to tell me something important tonight. Something about our future. Something I didn’t want to hear now, or ever.
I didn’t want to lose her so I ran down the street to Denny O’Reagan’s Pub hoping she wasn’t gone.