The Old Man
Finding Some Cool
The salt whitened drop of perspiration clung briefly to the Old Man’s right brow before finding a dust-furrowed path that led quickly to the corner of his eye. Sam Kenton closed it tightly in pain, rubbing his eye with the back of a sweating right hand. Four other drops fell from his forehead and darkened the trouser leg above his right knee. He paused before opening the truck door, enduring the pain that he knew would only briefly last. The chrome door handle of the old truck was hot against his calloused hand, and as he opened the door, his left foot felt the heat of the sun-baked ground. He closed the door of the truck and squinted through his salt-burned eyes toward the tin-roofed country store. The sun’s heat waved the air above the tin roof, almost setting the entire store into a quivering motion.
He climbed the age-worn concrete steps to the covered porch. The shade from the porch roof eased the burning on the back of his neck, but the humidity was so high that the shade only made his skin stickier. He paused, wishing for a small breeze or any hint of moving air, but here was none. It was not easy to breathe, and the Old Man noticed that he was walking with the slowness of an old man....
“How are you Pete?” asked Sam Kenton.
Pete was seated on a knife-scarred wooden bench at the other end of the porch. He sported a white straw hat and a long-sleeved, green shirt, buttoned at the wrists and collar.
“A bit warm, I’d say,” answered Pete in a shaky voice that reflected his age. “Never seen nothing like it. Hundred and two underneath this roof.”
The Old Man smiled and leaned against the painted steel column supporting the corner of the porch roof. It burned his shoulder through the sweat-moistened shirt.
“How do you reckon a man could find some cool?” asked the Old Man.
“Can’t!” exclaimed Pete. “Ain’t none to be had... ’til they get the power back on, leastways. Can’t even run a fan.”
The Old Man smiled. He looked out across the pastured field in front of the store. A buzzard circled high, and Sam Kenton wondered if he would find the squished turtle that lay fly-riddled at the road’s edge.
“I wonder...” started the Old Man.
“What’s that?” asked Pete.
The Old Man watched the flies working the broken-shelled turtle.
“I wonder about squished turtles, Pete... it has always bothered me. They seem more broken than dead.”
“What?” yelled Pete.
“Nothing... Pete... nothin’. You have a good day.”
The store was dark except for the light from the front windows that fell on the counter and the first few feet of the grocery stocked aisles. Cecil sat behind the cash register fanning himself with a paper plate.
“Hello, Sam. Got a battery operated air conditioner in your pocket?”
The Old Man checked his pockets. ”Sorry, Cecil... fresh out. Heard you were running a special on popsicles today.”
“Might as well,” the grocer replied. “If the power company doesn’t get the electricity fixed pretty soon, they’ll all melt. Heck, I may melt.”
The Old Man went to the ice cream cooler and placed his hand on the glass door. He quickly opened the sliding door and retrieved a cherry popsicle. He could feel the frosty air clear to his elbow, and he wanted to leave the door open, but felt guilty about letting all of Cecil’s semi-frozen air out of the dying freezer.
“You know what’s caused this heat wave, don’t you, Sam?” asked Cecil.
The Old Man tore off the popsicle paper and dropped it in the half-full basket by the counter. The colored ice was already melting down the stick toward the Old Man’s fingers.
“The sun, I reckon,” answered Sam Kenton.
“Nope...” said Cecil as he wiped his forehead with a damp handkerchief. “It’s that Russian nuclear accident... screwed up the ions in the stratosphere.”
The Old Man smiled. “Cecil, now you know that the poisoning of the whole world is a small price to pay for electrical power. We must have out electrical conveniences, or surely we will die. We must use poison on our crops or we can’t grow food. We must empty our chemical wastes into our waters or we can’t produce products.... I wonder how the thousands of generations of people survived all those years without all these poisons?”
One side of the melting popsicle collapsed from its man made-stem and fell to the floor. The Old Man picked it up and made an underhanded toss to the trash can.
“And besides all that,” he continued, “lack of electricity ruins a good popsicle.”
Cecil laughed and continued fanning.
“So what are you gonna do today, Sam? It’s too hot to work.”
The Old Man wiped his sticky hand on a paper towel. “I am going to find me some ‘cool’, Cecil. The rest of this day I will devote to finding some natural ‘cool’, provided free by my local Mother Nature Power Company. Want to go?”
“I’d love to , Sam, but I better stay and watch my popsicles melt.”
The Old Man could hear the tires on the oozing tar on the road. It stickily slapped gravel against the underside of his truck. He turned off the old paved road onto a gravel lane that led through a shaded hollow toward the creek and parked the truck at a wooden bridge. Grabbing his fishing rod from the back of the truck, he started down the footpath toward the water.
The trail led along the creek upstream. The sight and sounds of the water made him thirst to get wet, but he withheld the urge. He walked for thirty minutes, brushing the large-leafed plants from the path with his legs.
The blue-green water of the pool lay against a moss-covered bluff at a bend in the creek. The Old Man walked the sand bar across from the bluff, where he sat before slowly removing his boots and socks. He eased his feet into the water, digging his toes into the loose sand. The relief was immediate, cleansing his lower legs from the sticky heat. Glancing high at the shaded bluff above the pool, he watched the seeping earth water fall in droplets from one moss covered shelf to the next, forming a shower of a thousand cooling fountains. They all fell to the lowest rock shelf at the water’s edge, above the deepest part of the pool, creating a permanent shower of wonderful rain sounds and smells.
The small cave opening was just above the lower shelf, and a trickling stream of water emptied from it into the pool. Wet-green ferns grew along the rock shelves and were in perpetual motion from the falling drops above. The Old Man emptied his pockets on the sand and waded into the water toward the bluff. When the creek was waist high, he smiled before diving head first into the depths of the pool.
The Old Man stayed under, feeling the curing of the cold water. He surfaced at the bluff and climbed onto the lower shelf, allowing his legs to remain in the water. The cave entrance was at his back, and he almost chilled from the moving air in the cave. Showering drops from the bluff rained upon his head and splattered against the shelf where he sat. His breaths were no longer labored, for the air was crisp and cool. And even the sun against his upper legs and chest felt wonderfully clean. Sam Kenton stayed on the shelf for two hours, gorging himself on the purest of nature’s gifts. The Old Man had found it, and remembered it, from fifty years in the past as a boy looking for some ‘cool’.
Twenty-two miles upstream, a corroded blackened pipe snaked through a patch of stinging nettle to a pool of lifeless water on the creek. It ran underground eastward to a collection pond behind a factory at the town’s edge. A hollow growl gurgled from its mouth, before vomiting its darkened bile into the moving water below. The stench of its poison swirled in the current before beginning its trip downstream toward an old man who sat peacefully on a rock shelf, bathing in nature’s pristine glories.