Short Story: The Old Man by Marshall Armstrong
The old man held up a finger, looked at it curiously, licked it and held it up higher into the breeze. Turning it this way and that while letting his gaze wander aimlessly, he said, “The wind is coming from the South. Which means suspiciously,” he paused, as if gathering his thoughts, “that the wind is coming from the South.” I took a slow, deep breath and sighed. The old man pointed at my face and said, “I used to do that.”
“Do what?” I asked.
“Breath. I used to breath. Don’t do it anymore. No use for it.”
Unfortunately, the man had been saying things like that since I sat down on the bench next to him an hour ago. Nonsensical things to me, but to him they seemed as natural as the bulbous nose on his lined and careworn face. He stared at me.
“What?” I asked.
“I didn’t say anything.”
“But you were thinking something,” I said.
“Maybe. Maybe not.” Again his eyes wandered without lighting on anything in particular. “Why are you here?” he asked.
“Just passing through. The last job I had didn’t last too long and I thought I’d see what was up the coast. So here I am.”
“So it seems,” he said, “but it seems as if things are not as they seem. It seems, as if the seams are coming apart at their seams.” He stood suddenly and said, “Come with me.”
I stayed on the bench and asked, “Where are you going?”
He took a few steps and said, “Come with me NOW!”
The urgency and volume of his voice caused me to jump up. I took three long steps toward him and the building behind the bench where we had been sitting exploded. The sound was deafening. Glass, wood and metal wrapped in a fire ball sprayed out into the street behind us taking the park bench with it. Black smoke poured from the massive hole that seconds earlier had been the store front. The force of the blast had knocked me to my knees but next to me the old man stood as if unaffected. I got slowly to my feet and looked back at the devastation. “Don’t look back,” he said. “You don’t want to see that.” Suddenly a man staggered from the store front. Where his face had been was now a mass of blood and gore. His clothes were on fire as he fell to the sidewalk. I started to move toward him but the old man grabbed my arm.
“Shouldn’t we help him?” I asked.
“You can’t help him,” the old man said. Something in his voice made me understand that he was right. The old man stared at the dead man.
“What the hell just happened? How did you… how did you know?”
Jolted out of his reverie he said, “Things are not as they seem.”
I followed him as he turned the corner. We walked up the street and turned into the alley that led behind the store that moments before had become a smoking ruin. As we approached the back of the store the old man stopped. “Stay here a moment,” he said. “Watch carefully.” As we waited, a man came out the back door of the store. The explosion hadn’t done much damage here. The man held a satchel of some kind under his arm and as he ran for his car he looked right at me. He was about fortyish with dark brown hair. He had a full beard and a pierced left earlobe that held a small ruby red stone. He wore jeans with black shoes and a pale yellow polo shirt. He didn’t seem to notice the old man standing right next to me. Yellow polo jumped into a late model silver Impala and drove off.
I turned to the old man who was trying to dig something out from under his fingernail. “You don’t seem too surprised by any of this,” I said. “Just what the hell is going on here? It’s like you knew this was going to happen.”
“I did,” he said, licking his finger and once again holding it up to the breeze. “Ahhh just as I thought, the wind has changed. Come with me.”
“Wait a minute! I want to know what the hell is going on here. How could you know this was going to happen? And if you did know, why didn’t you do something about it instead of sitting on that damn bench. Oh and by the way, thanks for moving me out of the way of the blast but WHAT THE HELL?!”
“Come with me,” the old man said. “There is more for you to see.” I stayed where I was as the old man walked up the alley. When he got to the street he stopped and looked back at me. “Well, are you coming?” he asked. “There is more to see after all.”
This is what I thought; I should just turn around. Turn around and walk away from this. There’s some weird shit going on here and I don’t need to be a part of it. This is what I thought as I walked toward the old man. When I reached him he said, “The wind has changed son. It’s from the East now, troubled times ahead.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of. You’re going to pay for this old man. If this turns out bad, you’re going to pay.”
“Son,” he said to me, “I’ve been paying for a long time. A long time.”
I think it was the most lucid thing he’d said since I met him, but I still didn’t know what he meant. “What do you mean?” I asked.
“Things are not what they seem.” Great. Back to that again.
We walked in silence for awhile. The old man seemed to have a destination in mind as I noticed him looking at street signs whenever we came to a corner. As you might expect, I broke the silence first. “So, what more is there for me to see?”
“You’ll see,” he said.
To say that his communication skills were worthy of merit would have been a gross exaggeration. “I don’t think I properly introduced myself,” I said. “My Name’s Spence. Short for Spenser.”
“What’s yours?”He stopped abruptly, first looking at the ground and then letting his gaze drift again.
“I,..used to have one.” he said. “Don’t remember it now. Not much use for one now I guess.”
“Not much use for a name?” I asked. “You seem to know your way around here,” I said, exasperated, “You must know people, what do they call you?”
“What did you call me?”
“I called you ‘Old Man’ but tha…”
“Good enough,” he said.
We continued to walk through neighborhoods of single houses probably built in the 50’s. Tree lined streets, kids and dogs. Pretty normal stuff. We began to hear sirens in the distance. I imagined fire trucks and police gathering at the bombed out store. “Do you have a cigarette?” the old man finally said.
“Thought you didn’t breath?” I asked.
“Oh yeah, guess I forgot. I think I used to smoke.”
“You don’t remember?”
“I seem to have forgotten things about my, my, past.” He said the word ‘past’ slowly, as if tasting it like it was a new to him. He was a strange man and I was having trouble figuring him out. I got the feeling that the more questions I asked the more questions would be revealed. So I decided to stop worrying about it. We came to the end of the block we were on and stopped. The old man looked down a side street and nodded his head. “Look down this street and tell me what you see.”
“Well, I see houses, trees, a couple kids in a yard and a few cars. Oh, a silver Impala.”
“Lets get closer,” he said.
“Do you think that’s wise,” I asked, realizing I was asking another question.
“Imperative,” he said. Of course it was.
We walked slowly down the block until we were across the street and almost to the house with the silver car in front of it. “Go on over there,” he said. “On the right side of the house is a window that should give you a good view of what’s going on inside. Go on, it’ll be alright.”
For reasons I still can’t understand, I trusted him. I crossed the street and made my way up to the right side of the house. There was the window, just like he said. I walked over to it and stood with my back against the wall. Turning my head I looked inside. In the room was the man who had been in the store. Mister Yellow Polo. He was speaking to a women who was holding the satchel he had carried with him. They were standing close together. He raised his hands to her shoulders and pulled her to him. They kissed. A long and somewhat passionate kiss. They finally separated, said a few more words and he turned to leave. I looked around the corner of the house and saw that the old man was still standing out in the open across the street. I tried to signal him by waving but he didn’t see me. Yellow Polo came out the front door and headed for his car. I flattened myself against the house as he started the car and pulled away. He didn’t seem to notice the old man. I was just about to leave when a police car pulled onto the block and slowly made its way up the street. It stopped in front of the house, an officer got out and walked up the sidewalk to knock on the door. I took a quick look through the window to see the woman stick the satchel under one of the couch cushions and then turn to answer the door. Words were exchanged and suddenly the woman was sobbing. I couldn’t see the two of them but it was clear that the officer had delivered some sad news. And then it all came together. Suddenly I knew what was happening.
As I watched and waited at the side of the house I started to put things together. Working backward I thought; the police just came to deliver news to this woman that made her sob and cry. What just happened in this town that was that tragic? A man died in an explosion. Yellow Polo had been inside that store. Whether he had been in there when the explosion happened or ran in shortly after
I wasn’t certain. I did see him coming out however, bringing the satchel with him. He delivers the satchel to the woman in the house, kissing her passionately before leaving. If that’s how delivery people are rewarded in this town then I’m getting a job. I didn’t think that was the case so that means that Yellow Polo and the woman are involved romantically and now the woman is leaving with the police officer after being given what I presume to be devastating news.
I watched as the officer helped the woman out the door and into the squad car. I didn’t see her lock the house. As I waited for them to leave I tried to talk myself into going in. Maybe there was a motive for murder in that satchel. I looked out across the street for the Old Man but couldn’t see him. At least he had enough sense to hide when the police arrived. As the squad car turned the corner and sped out of sight I moved around to the front of the house. Still not seeing the Old Man anywhere I walked up to the front door and knocked. There was probably no one else home but if anyone were watching I wanted to appear as if I was just looking for someone. I knocked again after a few moments and when no one answered, I tried the door handle. It turned and I pushed the door open. The Old Man said, “I think you’re getting the hang of this.” I nearly jumped out of my skin when I found him just inside the door.
“How…” I looked at him, looked back at the door, looked at him again and said, “How did you do that?”
“No time to lose now. Better check the bag. Could be something important in there.”
I stared at him and he said, “Go on now, check the bag before someone comes. I don’t think you have much time.”
I didn’t move. Thoughts were twirling around in my head that I couldn’t make sense of. “You check the bag,” I said.
The Old Man looked at me in a peculiar way. A soft smile touched his lips and a sadness came into his eyes. “I don’t think that’s possible,” he said.
A chill touched the base of my spine and traveled all the way up to my scalp. I just stood looking at him for a moment. Things he said came back to me. He “didn’t breath anymore,” had “no use for a name.” He didn’t get knocked over from the bomb blast like I did, and no one seemed to notice him except me. The signs were all there but I didn’t want to see them. Didn’t want to believe the impossible. Everything I had ever thought about life and death just crumbled away. “Who were you,” I whispered, “when you were alive?”
The sadness had not left his eyes. “I don’t remember. But I feel a kinship to the man who died in the store. That’s all I know.” He looked up and held my eyes in his. “That’s all.”
“Okay, I’ll check the bag, but you should know that the creep factor here has just went off the scale. Just saying.”
“As I imagine it would. Just think how I feel,” he said. I hadn’t thought of that.
The satchel was under the couch cushion where the woman had left it. I pulled it open to reveal bearer bonds worth a lot of money. I pulled them out and leafed through them. Looking around the room I noticed pictures of the woman at her wedding reception, in a canoe with a man and other normal stuff of everyday life. A picture on the mantle caught my attention and I moved closer for a better look. It showed the happy couple in front of “Jacobs Jewelry” with a “Grand Opening” banner across the front. In front of the store was a nice little park bench. The very bench we had been sitting on that morning. “Okay,” I said, I think I know what happened. Yellow Polo killed the guy in the store so that he could have his bearer bonds and his wife. Since he brought the bonds to the wife, she has to be in on it.”
“I think you’re right,” the Old Man said. “You need to go to the police.”
“Oh right, and what am I supposed to tell them? That a… a… whatever you are, led me around town showing me all these clues until I figured it out? Yes officer,” I mused, “a dead guy helped me out. That’s just great! They’re really going to go for that one aren’t they?
The old man stared at me for a moment, looked around and sighed. He acted kind of sheepish like he didn’t know what to say.
“Well, that is what happened I guess, however I see your point. You could tell them that after the bomb blast, you took a walk around town to clear your head and came upon the sliver car, recognizing it from the store and your curiosity found you looking in the window.”
I thought about that for awhile. “It just might work,” I said.
“I can’t go with you, you know,” the Old Man said. “I…I think I’ll sit here awhile.” He gestured to the pictures in frames around the room. “Something about this man is familiar. I feel…I don’t know. I feel something. It’s hard to say.”
“There must be a police station downtown,” I said. “I’ll head there now. Will I see you again?”
Preoccupied with looking at the pictures he said, “Could be, could be.”
I put the satchel back where I found it and left the Old Man in the house. Considering that Yellow Polo had given the satchel to the woman I didn’t think he’d come back for it. If I was right about what happened, I didn’t think he’d want to be seen at her house or with her. Upon going back downtown I found the local police station and told them my story, leaving out certain “details.” They had questions of course and I spent the rest of the day there. Because I was a witness, they said I couldn’t leave town and put me up in a hotel with an emergency cash fund they had set up for that purpose. It took a few days of investigating but in the end the woman confessed to the crime. Yellow Polo turned out to be a business partner of the woman’s husband. He tried to run but they caught him. I picked him out of a line up and the whole thing was done in a couple of weeks. During that time I didn’t see the Old Man anywhere. Just when I thought I may not see him again I found him in the local park which looked out over the bay. “I wondered what happened to you,” I said.
“Me too,” he replied. He was silent for awhile, looking out at the ocean. “I found a picture in the house after you left,” he said. “It was a photo of me with the woman’s husband. Someone had written ‘Me and Pop’ across the bottom. We were standing by the ocean. I think, I think my name used to be Pop.”
I smiled at that. “Yeah,” I said, “Pop. That must have been it.”
We stood together watching the waves roll in. The breeze was light and the day promised to be warm. The Old Man licked his finger, and held it up in the wind. He turned it this way and that and finally said, “The wind is from the West today. Good times ahead.” He turned and walked down to the beach. At the edge of the water he stood just where it began to touch his shoes and looked out toward the horizon.
I said, “I’m going to miss you Old Man.” He waved casually and turned to walk down the beach. I watched until I couldn’t see him anymore.