What Neither of Us Wanted to Hear, but What I Knew Already

I followed the hearse in. And then, I drove around until I found him. He was feeding pigeons popcorn in the park across from the big stone church on North Second. He sat on a park bench in the sun with his back to the street, but I knew it was him. If you grow up with a person, see them every day for the first 20 or so years of your life, you know them when you see them. Even if it is just their hunched back feeding pigeons popcorn.

I parked the pickup on the church side of the road and shut it off. I didn’t feel like getting out of the pickup and walking across the street to tell him what neither of us would want to hear, but what I knew already. I sat for a while watching him feed the pigeons and eating some of the popcorn himself. He didn’t have to be a bum sitting on a park bench. But here he was. Nothing I could do about it. We all tried. But here he was.

We tried to get him home for holidays, but he only came for the holidays once: for a Forth of July. He didn’t eat much, and what he ate he rolphed into the trash can. Mom thought he was sick, but he said, “no, no, not the way you think. I’m fine. It’s just more than a decent man can handle,” he said. The next morning he toasted some bread, wrapped the left over hot dogs in a sack, and started walking into town. I went after him to give him a ride.

Sometimes he would walk or hitch a ride the twenty miles out to see us. He just showed up, twenty miles, and he just showed up. He’d stay a night, visit with mom and me, eat a little of her good supper. Even even getting older, her suppers were better than any you could get at any café. He always asked to take some of the leftovers. And of course Mom always said take it all. In the morning she made French toast and sausage. And after he ate he kissed her on the forehead, shook my hand, and started walking back. I always followed him out and said I had to make a run into town, hop in. She stood in the door and watched us drive off, I could see her in the mirror

“Why do you do this,” she said the last time. She had never said anything about it before. But maybe it was time. She was lying in bed. She tried to get up to make us supper, but she finally just lay there. So, maybe she had reached the time when she needed something more than just accepting.

“What else is there to do?” he said. He didn’t even think about it. He knew exactly what she meant by ‘this’.

“Any thing,” she said, “Anything. Your art. Teach. Anything.”

He shrugged and looked out the window, which I have never seen her get mad and she didn’t then but she was eighty-four years old and frustrated.

“That eight hundred Dad put in trust was for you to. . . .” She stopped because she had already said more than she wanted to.

“I don’t need it,” he said. Which is why she stopped because she had already said more than she wanted to. Neither she nor me wanted to think about him without that eight hundred a month from the trust. We weren’t a posh farm, but we had enough and it was frustrating to see him just. . . . I don’t know just what, ‘just being a bum’ is hard to say. But here he is.

I cooked us supper, which I am not a bad cook, but he only pecked at it and then asked if he could take the left overs.

In the morning, he toasted some bread, took the leftovers out of the fridge. He went into Mom’s room where she lay waiting for the energy to get up one more time. “I’m going now,” he said. He leaned down and kissed her on the brow. “Sorry to wake you up,” he said. “I’m not sure you did,” she said.

I always caught up with him and took him in, even when we were haying and could hardly afford the hour and a half of me gone. I took him in and tried to buy him a good breakfast; he would only let me do it if we invited one of the other bums. Then he would pay fifty-fifty from the money the trust sent him every month. Like I say, he didn’t have to be a bum on a park bench. But here he was.

I sat in the pickup and watched him feed pigeons and eat some of the popcorn himself. I didn’t feel like getting out of the pickup and walking across the street to tell him what neither of us would want to hear, but what I knew already and couldn’t even say aloud to myself.

I finally got out of the pickup and slammed the door shut behind me. I felt a little ashamed of slamming it shut like that. I knew why I did, but I still felt like I shouldn’t blame him. I couldn’t even blame anything else. He was who he was, and the universe is what it was, and life and death were what they were, and if I didn’t tell him, he’d see it in the paper in the morning. He didn’t deserve that; and Mom wouldn’t want that, and I couldn’t have it happen that way.

I walked across the street and across the grass to the park bench where he sat. The pigeons were cooing and strutting in and out of the shadows of the old cottonwood. I sat beside him on the bench.

When I looked at him, he was weeping, great tears falling on worn patch of earth in front of the bench. “She’s gone, isn’t she,” he said.

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