A Short Story by Scott Semegran
I filled the coffee machine hopper with coffee, poured the water in the reservoir, and turned the machine on. I woke up a little earlier than usual and fought the urge to try to go back to sleep. So I got up, making sure not to wake the kids, and headed downstairs. After five minutes of staring into space, I snapped out of it while the coffee machine wheezed and hissed and dripped the last of its fresh batch into the carafe. I poured myself a cup and walked to the front of the house, peeling open the curtains and standing in the window, sipping my coffee.
I was mulling a list of chores through my head, things to do around the house. Looking at the lawn through the window, I knew I was going to have to bust out some lawn equipment in the next couple of hours and manicure the shaggy grass. I knew I was going to have to cut down some dead bushes in the backyard. I knew I was going to have to do a number of other mundane tasks on my mental chores list. I knew this. But I continued to sip my coffee slowly and didn't move.
My neighborhood was a quiet suburban place in north Austin. Typically suburban in many aspects but it also had some idiosyncrasies that it inherited from Austin's reputation for being weird. And I liked both qualities. Two houses down from my house was a small lake, home to hundreds of ducks and, especially at this time of year, ducklings. It wasn't unusual to see ducks cruising in my front yard, honking and quacking as they either were trying to get shade under one of my oak trees or trying to have duck sex with each other. But this morning, a small family of ducks marched across my front yard, the plump mother in front, and about a dozen yellow ducklings followed closely behind her. When she would stop abruptly, the ducklings would stop, looking up at her for direction. And when she started up again, they would follow behind closely. They waded through my shaggy grass and formed a line on the sidewalk. They were headed for the lake, no doubt, for a dip in the water. But as soon as they were organized for their march, they quickly scattered in a frenzy, the mother flapping frantically while the babies scurried in every direction. An old man, with a cane in one hand and a newspaper in the other hand, trudged into view in front of my house. He was wearing a bathrobe and a pair of house slippers so worn out, he might as well have been walking barefoot. And jutting out from his robe, like a bowsprit on a massive sailboat from the 17th century, was something that I had never seen displayed in public before: an erection.
The old man marched lazily, sliding one foot forward, then the other. But he did it with a sense of purpose, his old feet heavy underneath him. I could hear him grunting a cadence, nothing I could make out clearly, with sounds that seemed to match the rhythm set by his pace. And front and center was his boner, pointing to the sky at a 30 degree angle, and as bright a color of maroon as I had ever seen. It was a strange sight.
'What the hell is he doing?' I thought to myself. I thought of stepping outside and saying something to him. But then I thought, 'What would I say to him?' Seriously, what would you say to an old man with an unsheathed erection marching in front of your house?
But then I heard some rustling upstairs and I knew my daughters were awake. So I sat my coffee cup on the dining room table and rushed upstairs. They knew something was going on outside because they heard something from the yard.
"Daddy?" my oldest asked. "Are there baby duckies outside?"
"Can I see them?!" she asked.
"Because... you need to brush your teeth first."
"Ooooh," she moaned. She rolled out of bed and sulked to the bathroom. I peaked out her window, slightly opening the curtains a couple of inches. The old man was gone. The family of ducks was gone. The only thing out front was my shaggy grass. And I moaned and sulked too because the yard work was waiting.
I pulled the cord and the lawnmower roared to life, belching grey smoke and dry blades of grass from underneath. Should I mow vertically or horizontally today (that was the question)? I decided horizontally. Why? For two reasons: 1) Because I mowed vertically two weeks ago 2) If I mowed horizontally, then I could keep an eye on the sidewalk, just in case the old man appeared again. My youngest liked to watch me cut the grass from the front window, knocking on the glass, and waving at me from inside the house. The last thing I needed was my youngest witnessing a slow-moving senior citizen with a rock-hard appendage shuffling past our house.
I aligned the mower at the front of my yard and got to mowing. The vibration and loud rumbling from the mower was soothing to me and often helped me slip into a pseudo-meditative state. The old man was not in sight. The only other person around was my neighbor across the street. He was piddling around in his front yard, doing something. He smiled at me. And after I finished one pass with the mower, he was already in my driveway, his hands on his hips, and a big shit-eating grin on his face. I turned the mower off.
"What happened to your San Antonio Spurs last night?" he asked, the shit-eating grin stretching wider across his face.
"Fucking Lakers," I replied.
"Fucking 'A' the Lakers is right."
"At least I'm not a Knicks fan."
"I know! We've been sucking ass for over a decade. What is up with that?"
"Idiot owners, maybe?"
"Maybe. Maybe. There's always the draft." His head sagged a bit. His foot tapped impatiently. The draft could not come soon enough.
"Hey, I saw something weird this morning."
"An unidentified flying object?"
"Sorry, just kidding. Go ahead."
"I saw an old man in his bathrobe walking in front of my house earlier."
"Right. Right. That's probably Debra's father. He was in a home until recently. He's staying with her now." Debra was our neighbor a few houses down. She and her husband were quiet folks. We didn't see them much outside. But they were nice enough and had two quiet teenagers that I would occasionally see walk to the bus stop early in the mornings. "In his bathrobe, huh?"
"Yeah, and he had his..."
My neighbor's wife bolted into their front yard and yelled for him to run home, waving her arms frantically. Something about their kid flying off the trampoline. It seemed serious.
"Shit..." he said, running off.
"Shit..." I said to myself.
My youngest knocked on the window and waved at me. I waved back, nervously. I started the mower again and continued where I left off.
Sitting in rush hour traffic on the way home from a long day at work was the worst, kind of like getting kicked in the nuts after getting a root canal. But I tried my best to stay positive as I merged into traffic, thinking it was better than the alternative, which was sitting in rush hour traffic on the way home from the unemployment office. I turned on my favorite radio station and took a deep breath, whispering under my breath, "Be cool. It's OK. Be cool. It's OK." It was my mantra; my sitting-in-rush-hour-traffic mantra.
As I settled in my lane, I thought of the old man. You know, THAT old man. My curiosity had the best of me, dozens of questions rolled through my mind. Was something wrong with him? How old was he? Did anyone else see him? Should I say something to my neighbor Debra? Is she embarrassed that he walks around with his pecker out? What was he saying to himself? What will I say if my daughters see him? Should I say something to him? But more than anything, I wondered if he cared or not. That one got me the most.
I pulled into my neighborhood and once I got to my street, I slowed the car down to a crawl. I could see my driveway a few houses down. And I could see my neighbor Debra in her driveway, putting some things in the trunk of her car. I didn't really know her all that well but I knew her well enough to say hi. And I felt I knew her well enough to ask her some neighborly questions. So I parked my car and walked over to her house.
"Hey Debra, how's it going?" I asked, extending my hand out to shake hers.
"Fine, I guess. How are..." she paused, shaking my hand.
"I live right back there," I said, pointing to my house.
"Right. You have the two cute girls."
"Yes, yes I do. Thank you."
"They are cutie pies."
"Oh, yes. Thank you."
An awkward silence settled in for a moment as she continued to load some things in her trunk. But I was curious.
"So, I saw an old man in front of my house this past weekend..."
"And one of the other neighbors told me it may be your father..."
"Was he wearing a bathrobe?" she asked, still loading stuff.
"Uh, yeah. A bathrobe and slippers."
"Yeah, that's my Pops. He's old and stubborn and not very cooperative. He was in a home for a while but he got to be too much for them to handle. So I brought him home with me."
"Did he say something to you?"
"Was he mean to your girls? Sometimes he says strange things but he doesn't mean any harm. He's sick. He doesn't know any better."
"No, he didn't say a thing. I just saw him, that's all. I was just curious, you know?"
And just then I saw him out of the corner of my eye, shuffling out the front door, bathrobe on, slippers on, pecker out, his round belly covered in white hair. He seemed pretty perturbed, mumbling something, ranting under his breath. Debra saw him and sighed.
"Dad, dinner is almost ready. Where are you going?"
She walked over to him, sliding her arm around his, and attempted to maneuver him back toward the direction of the front door. But he yanked his arm away and continued shuffling across the driveway, heading somewhere. I could see the frustration in Debra's body language. So I stepped over to her dad, patting him on the back.
"Hey Pops," I said, pulling his bathrobe together at his belly. "Let's get you together here."
He angrily slapped my hands away, letting the robe fall open.
"Get your fucking hands off me!" he barked. "I can take care of myself!"
Debra walked back to the trunk of her car and I could see she was defeated. Or maybe she was taking a quick break from responsibility. But I imagined him shuffling his way to the front of my house. And I still wasn't prepared for that. So I leaned down again to cover him up. And he grabbed my wrists with his hands and squeezed, hard. Really hard. He was really strong. He pulled my hands up and looked me in the eye, pissed off. But as he looked at me, his eyes twitching back and forth, left and right, something clicked in him, and an easy smile slid across his face.
"John?" he asked me. "John, where you been?"
"John, you old goat. When's the last time I saw you?" he asked, patting me on the back.
"I'm not John. I'm..."
"Are you kidding me, John? You always were a joker. Want a beer?"
I looked at Debra and she nodded and smiled at me, a look of relief on her face.
"OK. One beer."
"Good. Come in my house. We have a lot of catching up to do."
"Can I help you cover up?"
"Whatever makes you happy, John."
I pulled his bathrobe together and tied a knot on the front. Pops put his arm around my neck and pulled me toward the front door.
"John?" he asked.
"Do you have that $50 you owe me?"
I filled the coffee machine hopper with coffee, poured the water in the reservoir, and turned the machine on. After five minutes of staring into space, I snapped out of it while the coffee machine wheezed and hissed and dripped the last of its fresh batch into the carafe. I poured myself a cup and walked to the front of the house, peeling open the curtains and standing in the window, sipping my coffee. I realized, with the morning sun penetrating my house through the glass, that I had morningwood. I chuckled a bit, giving myself a shake while I bounced in place a couple of times. It was just one of those things that happen sometimes. You know? I then sipped some more coffee.
Like clockwork, Pops shuffled in front of my house just like the day before. He was mumbling his cadence, sliding his feet beneath him. His robe was open. His cane tapped on the cement as he supported himself. Then he stopped in front of my house, cupping his hand to the side of his face.
"John?" he yelled. "John, come out!"
I opened the front door and stood on my front porch.
"Yeah?" I called back.
"Willie's little brother?"
"Yeah, sure," I acknowledged, not knowing who he was talking about. His disease, at some point a few years ago, completely obliterated time and space for him, and his past and present now intermingled in his mind without the structure of history. And I knew he shuffled up and down my sidewalk in hopes of finding the many friends and acquaintances that appeared to him in his lucid thoughts. If he thought I was an old friend named John, then what did it hurt that I appeased him and played along? I didn't mind at all.
"He owes me $50. Come help me get it and I'll give you $5."
I stepped back in my house, poured my coffee in a travel mug, put on a pair of shorts and a t-shirt, and joined Pops out front. I patted him on the back and sat my travel mug on the sidewalk. I leaned over to pull his bathrobe together.
"Can I help you cover up?"
"Whatever makes you happy, John."
I tied a knot at the front of his bathrobe, picked up my travel mug, and we shuffled down the sidewalk together, off to Stevie's house. Or wherever.
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