As kids, we add new words to our vocabulary all the time. We could define them, we could spell them, and we could say we know most of them. Some words, however, are not truly known until they are experienced firsthand.
Freedom is such a word.
I knew freedom in the summer of 1968, when school let out and I spent the summer exploring near and far on my new bike. My grandfather got me a shiny new Schwinn Stingray bike for my twelfth birthday in late ’67, and as soon as the snow melted in ’68, I was out riding every free moment, strengthening my leg muscles and becoming as one with that bike.
I rode far and wide, well beyond my previous comfort zone, discovering places to explore and places to stay the hell away from too.
That house on the corner of Hemlock street, for example.
Every time I rode past that corner, no matter the time of day, he’d be there in the window, just watching.
I knew he was old, the little hair that remained on his head pure white, thin as a rail, always wearing a long-sleeved white button-down shirt, a pair of black suspenders holding up loose khaki trousers.
Today, I’d probably describe him as gaunt. Back then, he was just creepy.
Never moved a muscle, stood silently at the window watching, his face always set in a grimace.
I wondered if he might be blind, and stood there to listen to the world outside. I shared that idea with a friend and he suggested we find out by throwing an egg at the window and see if he flinched or moved away. The thought of that icy cold expression bearing down on me and grabbing my collar as I tried to run was enough for me to take a pass. I told my friend I was curious, but not stupid, thank you very much. I told him to feel free to go ahead and let me know how he made out. I wasn’t surprised that he never came over to proudly share the results of his experiment.
I never saw that old man anywhere but standing at that window, yet his lawn was neatly mowed, the yard clean, no trash overflowing the steel barrels, no newspapers or mail sitting on the steps in front of the door. If he had someone tending to these things, I never saw them doing it.
As summer made its way to fall, I forgot about the old man. He got put away in the back of the mental closet as my awareness of both music and girls mushroomed over those hot days. Then came the purchase of a new house, moving to a new neighborhood, and the passage of time we call “life” that leaves us wondering just where all those years could possibly have gone to.
I sit now in this hotel room, fifty years later, typing these notes on a device I first saw on TV in a show called ‘Star Trek’. Now retired on a disability, I decided to go back and visit the old neighborhood and see if the years had treated it well. The German deli where I used to get a soda and sandwich is now a Korean market, selling goods I can’t even pronounce, much less identify. Next door, the Polish butcher shop is now selling and repairing cell phones and tablets. The ethnicity of the area changed many times over the decades, the shops representing those changes. Last I heard, for example, that Korean market was a Bodega.
Changing times, indeed.
On a whim, I took a drive along my old bike route, the one that took me to the park, to the library, to the homes where my friends lived… and yes, past Hemlock street too. I signaled, turned the corner and hit the brakes of my rental hard enough to tip over my bottle of water in the cup holder. A car behind me sounded an angry bleat of their horn, and I pulled over against the curb.
There he was, standing at the same window.
Looking exactly the same as fifty years before, those same black suspenders holding up baggy khaki trousers, and that grimace, the mouth turned down at the corners as before. It has to have been my shock and imagination that made me think he was staring directly into my eyes, as though he’d been waiting for my return after all this time.
As I shook my head in wonder…and a fair amount of fear…he moved for the first time ever since I first saw him all those summers ago. He raised his hand and gestured toward the front door, which was opening on its own as he did.
I earned another angry horn blast as I slammed the car into gear and pulled away from the curb without signaling and waiting for the coming car to pass. I never even looked. I just wanted to get the hell away from that house and that man as fast as I possibly could.
On the way to the hotel, I found a place that still makes deli sandwiches and stopped for one, adding a six pack of beer, then returned here to my room. I wanted to eat, I craved a couple of those cold beers, and now I sit here writing in this electronic journal they recommended after the accident, to keep my mind busy and not allow depression to creep in over my condition. I had to wait for my hands to stop shaking before I attempted to type, a skill I never really mastered.
I’m debating… I’m either going to finish this six pack, get a good night’s sleep and then check out and head back home in the morning, or I’m going to get up early, stop somewhere for breakfast, and then go back to Hemlock street.
If that door opens again, I just might go in this time.