By Wayne Allensworth
On Palm Sunday, I took a walk. It’s the first day of spring and the sky shows china blue, decorated with small cotton-like puffs of clouds. Flowers are blooming and the ducks at the pond have laid their eggs. The beaver are back—I can tell by the trees that have been gnawed down by them near the pond, though I have not yet seen any dams being built. I stop at a neighbor’s yard to play fetch with his dog, a black retriever called Shadow. He spots me as I approach and runs for his tennis ball, sitting obediently, waiting for me. It’s become an almost daily ritual, the kind of ritual that can lend life a sort of rhythm, even in these harried times, a familiar companion in these days of isolation.
I look at my watch and decide to ignore the time, something that seems like a luxury, or even a violation of an unspoken ordinance, but somewhere in the recesses of memory, I can look back at a period when days like this seemed endless and time moved more slowly, like a lazy stream, not a cataract in a raging river. It was a kind of lost Eden, or, with the imposition of experience, seems so, though it was a garden we took for granted at the time, never knowing that there could be some other way, some other place, and growing up seemed distant and dreamlike, far away like the stars in the constellations. It was our secret world of childhood, each mind’s eye its own, yet of a piece with the others.
I’m walking again, the game of fetch complete for today. Rounding the corner near the pond, I see an old man, a familiar wanderer on these paths. He is a small man, balding, slightly crouched over, making him seem even smaller, a fringe of short white hair encircling the crown of his head, dressed as he usually is in a black nylon warmup suit. He looks vaguely Eastern European, or maybe Southeastern European, shuffling along at a deceptively rapid pace, smoking like they do, the cigarette placed between the two middle fingers, smoking arm cocked in front of him, his other arm held behind his back. On particularly bright days, he dons dark glasses, but not today. The old man squints and puffs.
Sometimes, I see him urinating on the brick wall near the neighborhood, seemingly oblivious to passersby, one hand bracing him against the bricks, the cigarette dangling from his mouth.
When I first began seeing him around our neighborhood, he did not acknowledge me, then he began lifting his left hand (his smoking hand is the right) at the elbow, then, later still, he would say “hi” in a squeaky voice, and as we grew used to each other, he began crossing the street to greet me before shuffling past.
On this day, other neighbors, by now also familiar, if also completely unknown, drive by, a man steering the vehicle stiffly, a woman in a hijab in the passenger’s seat. The man sometimes nods and sometimes doesn’t, the women—there are two of them who live with him down the street—never. I’ve never even seen them walking about, as I do many others who live nearby. And the little man? I don’t even know which house he lives in. Maybe he lives near the couple behind us I sometimes hear speaking Russian. I often hear the sing-song cadence of Vietnamese next door, or the totally unrecognizable speech of somewhere on the Indian subcontinent from the women I see in their saris.
On Palm Sunday, the little old man sees me coming and crosses the street, waving his left hand in greeting. Today, he smiles weakly, but does not speak. I don’t even know if he is a Christian, and have been entertaining the notion that he is Albanian, like the men who run a pizza parlor near old town.
As alien as he appears, knowing we can’t speak, my imagination wanders and I think that this little man, foreign, practically mute, has a family, too, a daughter, say, who has brought him to live with her. His wife is gone, perhaps, and he lives out his days wandering the streets of a neighborhood in Keller, Texas, a prospect neither of us had ever envisioned, nor could, in other years.
I pause, stopping to watch the little man shuffle around the corner at the Stop sign, going off to that place all people disappear to when they are no longer in sight.
My father, who lives nearby, walks, too, though less than he should. The neighborhood seems strange to him, strangely empty, the people distant. My mother died last year and his world has shrunk accordingly, for it was my outgoing mother who was the maker of friends, the one who never met a stranger, or so it seemed.
Daddy’s been ill, so I’ve been spending time at the hospital. It’s a new one that has not yet acquired the vague, hospital smell of antiseptic decay. He seems to be in good spirits. He has a male nurse, a cheery African named George who jokes that he is charging the patient in the currency of Zimbabwe, then laughs and says that’s a joke, sir. Now you must hurry and get out of here, George snaps, then hesitates before asking whether he has offended the patient. Not hardly, George.
Daddy says he likes the people here, but he sometimes cannot understand them, which makes me think that could present a problem in a hospital, but what do you do? Take that little Mexican (or whatever she is) girl, he says, she made sure I had breakfast this morning, first thing. Awful nice of her. He adds that he thinks her shift is over, which is too bad as far as he is concerned.
Daddy tells me a story. It’s weird, he says, but this morning he glanced out in the hall and a man was standing there, looking in on him. The man asked if he could come in, so Daddy said come on, and the man entered, donned a white hospital garment and began reciting the story of how he and his wife divorced. A good woman, you understand, but they couldn’t get along. But now they are living together again—and Daddy shakes his head and wonders just why would a person do that? Get divorced, then live together? What kind of sense does that make? Then this man asked Daddy if he would say a prayer with him and Daddy said why not? Be my guest. So they prayed. Daddy shakes his head, laughs, and notes that there are a lot of weirdos out there. I’m here to tell you there are.
He rambles on, telling me a story I’ve heard many times before, but don’t mind hearing again. It was like this: Uncle Jack had a man from his platoon go AWOL. This was during the war, you understand. They were training in Louisiana. Jack knew where he had run off to—he was a Mexican boy from San Antonio. So Jack went down there to bring him back. The two of them came through Houston and Jack called his commander, claiming they had missed the next train to Louisiana, but that wasn’t so. He just wanted to visit with my grandfather and his family in Houston. They lived in a house off of Bob street. Anyway, my grandmother was having a fit about Jack bringing a criminal to their house, but Granddad and Jack just laughed it off—he was just homesick, Velma, they told her, he’s not no dangerous criminal or anything. Jack brought him in in handcuffs, which he promptly took off. They sat down to dinner and Daddy snuck off with the handcuffs, then cuffed my grandmother to a chair, which did not suit her at all. Jack and his prisoner ate a hearty meal and spent the night.
The doctor, thankfully someone both of us could understand, released Daddy from the hospital the next day.
After watching the little man disappear round the corner, I turn to make another circle at the pond and notice a wooden cross on a knoll nearby, so I walk over and have a look. The cross is covered in pictures of a woman with her children. She appeared to be middle aged, but there are pictures of her in her youth stapled on along with the pictures of her and her grown children and I know she’s gone. I don’t know who she was.
The longer I’ve lived here, the stranger it seems. As the town grew and the new houses sprang up, we got neighborhoods without neighbors, but each person, foreign or not, a little universe unto themselves.
It’s been fourteen months since my mother died. It’s Palm Sunday. The sky is blue and the flowers are blooming.
This article originally appeared in Chronicles seven years ago.
Chronicles contributor Wayne Allensworth is the author of The Russian Question: Nationalism, Modernization, and Post-Communist Russia, and a novel, Field of Blood.