by Thomas Elson
I had driven through the bleached and battered downtown. Across the railroad tracks – once six tracks wide, now two, then the highway – once two-lanes, now four, and entered a neighborhood unseen in over fifty years. The town’s familiar acrid and mossy odors crept through the car vent. Not much had changed except the basement house on the corner was gone. A few surviving elms overhung brittle and cracked sidewalks. Recurrent winds flattened the leaves of the few remaining elms casting shadows across the sidewalk and onto the house.
I stopped the car, rested my chin on the steering wheel, and, within moments I was a young boy at this very spot squinting through the screen door of my parents’ rented house.
Memories echoed: My dog, Ikey, tail wagging running toward me. My school friends, Duane, from around the corner, and Buck, next door. The first time I saw Santa. The books in my room about John Paul Jones and Admiral Farragut. The 78 rpm spoken-word records of the voyage of Columbus. My mother’s headaches, my father’s anger, and me constantly treading water.
Is it-? My imagination? Is that him?
I called out. “Mr. Childress. Are you-? Waiting for me? Is it time?” He was an old man about the age I am now.
I heard my mother’s voice. “Your father wants you in the backyard.” My father wanted me to paint the inside of the trash can, but mostly he wanted to clamp his teeth, rip his glasses off, press his forehead against mine and yell. Even at the age of five, I had tread that path a few times too many.
“Okay,” I said, and walked out the front door straight to Mr. Childress so he could take me on another trip.
“Good afternoon, young man.”
“Hi, Mr. Childress.”
I looked straight at his face as he bent to shake my hand.
“What happened to your nose?” I asked.
“Something grew there and needs to be taken off.”
“Does it hurt?”
“Not yet.” He smiled and asked about school, my dog, and what I planned to do that day. Then he took me on trips with the Populist Party of Jerry Simpson and Mary Lease to the heady days of the Roaring 20’s, into Prohibition, then introduced me to Al Capone, and then riding on a horse with the Dalton Gang.
We talked the next day too, but Mr. Childress had to go home early. “Got a doctor’s appointment tomorrow so I need to rest up.”
I did not see him for a week. Then one afternoon he was waiting on the sidewalk wearing a wide brimmed straw hat. The bandage across his truncated nose was dotted with specks of black and dark red.
“Where’s the rest of your nose?” I asked.
He grinned and said, “They kept it at the doctor’s office.”
“Does it hurt?”
“Is it time for you to die?”
“Not yet.” He smiled and patted my left shoulder.
I did not see him after that day – until today, fifty years later, in front of that old house – his nose restored, still wearing his hat, and still with me. I waited until we turned the corner and watched as I held onto that man who took the time to talk with a little boy treading those difficult waters.
I heard myself ask, “Mr. Childress. Is it time for me to-?”
He smiled and patted my left shoulder.