Me and The Ole Man
Ruth Z. Deming
Luke and I became friends after the death of his son, an alcoholic whose liver finally gave out, like a helium balloon exploding. A landscaper who often cared for my lawn and taught me the names of noxious weeds, Billy had been drinking nonstop for thirty-four years. He was fifty when he died. The old man last saw Billy in hospice over at the hospital, his belly distended like one of those starving children in Biafra.
Billy was a favorite in our neighborhood. He was truly kind and asked about everyone’s health.
“How ya feeling?” he’d ask me, knowing I’d had a kidney transplant.
“Fine,” I said, smelling the alcoholic fumes that surrounded him like a bath robe.
Several days after Billy’s death, I walked up the hill to the old man’s house. In my shorts and sandals I rang the bell which chimed musically.
Luke and I had never met. The living room, with a blue carpet and a long mirrored coffee table that held family photos, was huge. It smelled from cigarette smoke and bacon grease.
The two of us talked about his late son. He showed me the death certificate, which made me gasp, and the bill for the funeral, some four thousand dollars.
Billy, he told me, would hole himself up in his bedroom with Marlboro Lights and one six-pack after another of Budweiser or Coors or whatever was on sale. I saw Billy once over at the All-Nite Deli where he lugged the six-packs home. He lost his driver’s license. One too many DUIs.
“You’ve got an accent,” I said to Luke, who sat on a plush velvet chair by the window.
“Sure do,” he said in his deep voice. “Born in a little town in North Carolina.”
“Ever go back to visit?” I asked.
“Used to drive down until two years ago. Now I take the Greyhound.”
Luke, who looked to be in his early eighties, was a handsome man who wore a plaid shirt and had a big potbelly. He wore reading glasses. I asked what he liked to read. Books, no. But all the local newspapers.
"Oh, I get all the daily papers," he said. "Read every single word, from front to back."
A little pile of newspapers sat on a black wrought-iron rack next to his chair.
I remarked on the beautiful living room, which is where he spent most of his time. Behind him was a stained glass window. He was a man of fine taste.
A chime went off and I jumped.
“Oh, that’s the grandfather clock,” he said. I turned around and saw a half-pint of a clock, filled with some sort of figurines. I got up and walked over to it.
“What are the little statues inside?” I asked.
“Hummel figurines,” he said with pride.
Of course I’d heard of them but had never seen them before.
“Go ahead,” he said, “take one out.”
“I’m not gonna drop it,” I said, reassuring myself. I carefully lifted out a darling little boy, six inches high, seemingly from the Alps, in a green Tyrolean cap, sitting in shorts and high boots on the limb of a tree.
I looked at Luke and said, “You can just imagine him jumping out of the tree.”
He nodded. He was a man who never smiled.
He explained that his late wife Joan collected Hummels and he kept it up after she died of cancer when his three boys were teenagers.
“Hummel was a nun,” he told me. “Sister Maria Innocentia Hummel.”
“Now I see why you’ve got an alarm system,” I said. “Your Hummels are worth a fortune.”
He got up from his chair, holding onto the arms to help him up, and told me to follow him into the dining room.
“These here,” he said pointing all along the wall, “are paintings made with precious jade from China.”
“Well, I guess no one’s gonna get inside your house,” I said.
“If the alarm goes off, the cops will be out in seven minutes,” he said.
I didn’t tell him but snooping around someone’s house is just about my favorite thing, dating back from when I grew up in Cleveland and babysat for the Biskinds and Hackels.
The Biskinds´ house smelled of pickles, as Mrs. Biskind made her own.
I sat back down on a couch that was losing its stuffing. Luke noticed and said he kept it that way to remind himself of Joan who had made the faded yellow slip cover.
“You ever go out with anybody since she passed away?”
“No ma’am,” he said emphatically.
A woman descended the stair case. He introduced me to Valerie, who came to stay with them when Billy got sick with his bad liver. They had gone together in high school. A cigarette dangled from her lips.
“Luke,” I said, standing up. “I need to go home. Would you like me to stop by again? I live right around the corner on Cowbell Road.”
“Sure would,” he said in that southern drawl.
For the next two years I’d drive up to his house with a pot of soup or some chili for us balanced on the back seat. The kitchen was immaculate. For room and board, Valerie, a tough gal, pudgy with dyed red hair to her shoulders, kept the house clean.
“Do the two of you get along?” I asked.
“We co-exist,” he said.
They never ate together. She brought her meals up to her bedroom.
Luke and I had our regular seats at the kitchen table. Did I sit in Joan’s chair? I ladled out my chili into big white bowls and placed them on the red and white checkered table cloth.
“Mmm, good,” he said, wiping his mouth with a paper napkin. “Bet your husband likes this.”
“My boyfriend, Scott,” I corrected him. “He lives right next door. We’re life partners.” It was very important to make this clear. I wasn’t looking for any rich widowers.
He wasn’t much of an eater, having only a small bowl of chili to my two. I felt so comfortable I gave out a couple of huge belches, saying “Excuse me,” after each one. Afterward, he made Folger’s Coffee in his Mister Coffee Machine.
“You make delicious coffee,” I said and drank two full cups in a plaid coffee mug while he drank from a cup that said "Dad."
We enjoyed relaxing and talking about his life. He was a retired machinist with a good pension.
One time when I was leaving, he pulled me close to him and attempted to kiss me. Quickly pulling away, I was mortified and didn’t return for a couple of weeks.
A month or so later, there was a knock on my door. Luke was holding something in his hand.
“Your article in the Intelligencer,” he said. “You’re a good writer.”
I thanked him and told him I write articles on mental health.
The days passed by. At least six times a day, Luke would drive by my house in his silver Pontiac Firebird, a beautiful shiny car that Billy had washed for him. He’d stop when he saw me in my garden, poke his head out the window.
“How ya doing, Ruth?” he’d ask.
Had I become his love object?
Once I asked him to pull over and get out of the car. He never got a drop of exercise.
“We’re gonna walk, Luke,” I said.
He laughed, telling me he couldn’t walk.
“There’s nothing wrong with you,” I said. “We’re gonna walk two houses down to that beige house.”
He was bow-legged like a rodeo rider and grumbled as he walked.
He lived a regimented life and no one, not even his love object, was going to tell him what to do.
We supped on chili, bean soups, chicken noodle soup, and tomato bisque with tomatoes from my garden.
I got used to him driving past my house every day.
It brought him pleasure.
One morning the phone rang.
The husky voice of a woman was on the other end.
“I thought you’d wanna know,” said Valerie, his house mate. “Pop passed away.”
“Oh my God,” I said, “I can’t believe it. I’m coming right over.”
Luke had been going upstairs to bed when she heard him moan. Loudly. She ran upstairs to the landing, where he lay on his side. She knew he was dead but dialed 9-1-1.
He was all of 87 years old. The funeral parlor was crowded. A day or so later I went back to the house where his son, Tom, on parole from a Harrisburg prison, told me to take anything I wanted.
On his windowsill were collections of things he loved.
“Can I take this?” I asked.
“Go ahead,” said the unshaven malodorous long-haired man.
It was a lovely little basket with pearly sides that held acorns. It now resides on my own windowsill. I also took a pair of his eyeglasses, don’t really know why, but they sit in an ornate cabinet on my living room wall, near my late father’s prescription sunglasses.
I also took a small, colorful blanket his wife had knitted. Since it smelled from smoke, I aired it out on the screened-in back porch. It sits atop my red couch in the living room.
It took an entire month before I stopped looking for Luke’s Pontiac Firebird. It still sits in his driveway awaiting a new owner, whomever that might be. Luke certainly has no need for it now, now that he is being chauffeured around heaven with his beloved wife Joan and his wayward son, Billy. Idly I wondered if they allow smoking in heaven and if they provide all the free beer you want.