The Old Man - Progeny

Friday, April 14, 2017

Elizabeth McKensie touched her toe to the wall and gently started the wicker swing in motion. Sometimes, when the mood struck her, she would slowly swing for hours gazing over the sloping pastures which fell gradually to the meandering creek that lay against the distant grey blue bluffs. If she could put on canvas one scene to ease her mind, it would be the view from her window. If she could capture in her work the simple sereneness of that sight, she would never paint again. She could quit.

She thought many times about man’s attempts at recreating the awe-inspiring works of nature through art. Mostly, she though, man had miserable failed. On a few occasions she had been moved by someone’s written words or a song, or more often, a painting. She could not decide what inner need insisted on her trying. She wanted more than anything, or so she thought, for people to view her work and gain the same feeling that she experienced while slowly swinging in her wicker chair and staring at the scene from her window.

She stopped the swing’s motion as her bare feet hit the worn wooden floor, and she moved through the screened doorway to the porch. Hanging by weathered twine tacked to a rafter, two pairs of running shoes twirled helplessly in the drying breeze. Rescuing one pair, Elizabeth sat on the top porch step and laced the shoes around her feet. She paused once again to look toward the bluffs, and the, after sufficient stretching, she started out.

After twenty minutes she began to settle in. Her thinking was not in her steps, for she no longer was aware of the motion of her legs. There was only the green in the trees and the breeze in her face. The sound of the creek off to her right grew louder as the speed of the rushing water increased. The mere sound of the moving water seemed to cool her. While she ran, she concentrated on the sound of the water, and the longer she continued, the more content she became.

John Kenton lay outstretched on the massive fallen tree like a lazy, dozing cat. It was the most wonderful place he had ever found. He didn’t come often to the tree because of its importance. He only indulged in this complete laziness when his peace of mind demanded it. The upper side of the ancient tree was covered with a carpet of moss. The pool beneath it lay deep and blue, a result of the water’s collision with the bluff some hundred yards upstream. Erosion where bank and water met had exposed a portion of the tree’s immense root system, and the resulting entanglement provided countless hide- aways for fish of various sizes.

With his arm extended full toward the water, John’s fingertips could crush the surface of the water. Tied to the index finger of this left hand was a small braided fishing line which continued to a cork float, and then into the depths of the large pool. He remembered his first fish caught in exactly this manner, and while he was now a proficient fisherman using the most modern equipment, early memories called him back to this simplest of fishing methods. With his cheek resting on the back of his right hand, his sight was affixed to the small brown float jumping lightly in the current of the slow moving water.

Cooling down, Elizabeth McKensie walked along the tree line of the creek. Her legs were tingling and she stopped briefly to wipe the perspiration from her eyes. At first she though it was only debris washed over the low-hanging tree. But as she looked closer, she could tell that it was actually a man’s back. She moved closer until she came to a sandbar that led to within five feet of the man on the tree.

He remained motionless watching the bobbing cork.

“Hello there!” she said between breaths.

John Kenton was so startled that he fell. Had it not been for a well positioned limb he grabbed just as his feet hit the water, he would have completely submerged. He swung back on the log like a western cowboy mounting his horse.

“Do you always sneak up on people like that?” he smiled.

“I’m sorry.” She was laughing. “It’s just that I don’t often see people lying around on trees...“

She stopped suddenly and walked closer to the water’s edge. “John?... Is that you?... John Kenton?

John Kenton was looking quizzically at the girl on the sandbar. There was something vaguely familiar about her, but he just couldn’t remember. And then, he knew.

“Beth?” he blinked. “What are you doing down here?”

Elizabeth McKensie was jubilant. She waved her hands as she spoke.

“Me! What about you? What on earth are you doing on that tree? What are you doing here. I mean....“

John leaned back against a large limb and crossed his outstretched legs on the tree. Water poured from his hiking boots and ran through the moss before escaping like a miniature waterfall back to the creek.

“I’m fishing,” he said as he raised his arm to show her the line on his finger.

She laughed, and instantly he remembered that wonderful laugh.

“I can tell that you spare no expense on your equipment. Must be a man of enormous wealth.”

John smiled. He reached around the limb to a stringer and raised it high for her to see. It was a fine display of small mouth, rock bass, and red-breasted sunfish.

“Enormous wealth. A richer man you’ve never met. Would you care for some supper?”

“Where?” she asked. “Right here on the creek bank.”

“Are you crazy?”

“C’mon,” he yelled, “I hate to eat alone.”

“Are you gonna do the cooking?” she asked.

“Yea, but I’ll let you help with the dishes if your femininity is offended.”

She watched as he walked farther out on the tree toward her, balancing with outstretched arms, one of which held the stringer of fish.

“I can’t believe this!” she laughed as he made the final leap to the sandbar below.

He worked deliberately at preparing supper: cleaning the fish and slicing potatoes, making hushpuppies and starting the coffee. John listened as he worked, while Elizabeth, who had taken a comfortable seat by the fire, continued with an unbroken enthusiasm. “... and after college I went to Europe to study there. You would love it there. Especially the Swiss mountain ranges. I mean, the way you love that sort of thing.

By the way, how’s your Grandfather?”

Elizabeth slipped off her running shoes. She wiggled her toes.

John dropped the battered fish fillets in the hot grease. They sizzled as they browned.

“I wish he was here. I never could make biscuits as good as he could. He’s doing fine. You know, every time I talk to him, I expect to see him, how do I say it... getting old.”

He turned a piece of fish and then looked up at her across the fire.

“I promise you he gets younger. It’s amazing, and I don’t understand it. He looks older and his moustache gets bushier, but I promise... his mind gets clearer.”

“Maybe,” she said, as she plucked a browned potato from the grease, “it’s you that’s just catching up to the way he thinks about things.”

It had been an hour since they had eaten, and she was still wonderfully content. From his backpack he had produced all the ingredients for the most delicious meal she had ever experienced. The fire popped as she spoke.

“Do you do this sort of thing often?”

He refilled his coffee cup and placed the blackened pot on a flat rock near the fire.

“Not nearly enough over the past few years. It’s amazing to me how really important parts of your life can be pushed away.” he paused. “Do you run every day?”

She was staring into the fire.

“I try. When I don’t run, I miss it.”

He glanced at her feet which were still bare.

“What happened to your toe?” He asked before thinking.

Instead of her jerking the blackened nail from his sight in embarrassment, she presented it to him with such openness that he wanted to hug her for her confidence.

“Oh, that,” she said, looking down at her foot. “My running shoes were too small and after ten miles one day, my toe nail turned black. Looks awful, doesn’t it?”

She looked across the fire at him, but he was already smiling at her.

“I can tell you spare no expense when it comes to your running equipment.”

She threw a small twig in his direction.

“The last time I remember, you were gonna marry some guy from Florida.”

She smiled. “I almost did. What about you?”

He shifted the coffee cup to his other hand. “I almost got married too, once upon a time.”

Elizabeth broke the silence. “I haven’t even asked you. How do you make a living these days?”

He place more wood on the fire as the sun completely disappeared behind the bluffs above them.

“I just finished school, but for the last seven years I’ve done everything from pipeline work to bartending.”

“Well,” she continued, “what now?”

“I guess I’m gonna doctor animals,” he concluded. “I mean it would be foolish not to after all the time learning how.”

“A vet!” Her eyes were happy. “That’s great!”

There was a pause as a creek rock popped in the fire and sent a thousand glowing sparks skyward. His eyes were following the sparks as he spoke.