I would’ve missed him except for the bachelorette party. I don’t spend much time down on Broadway. Too many people. Way too many people. The beacon lights outside of Bridgestone Arena draw the tourists like bugs—swarms and swarms of them.
I was fighting my way up toward the intersection at 5th when the girls came pouring out of Tootsies. Jean shorts, check. Tank tops, check. Boots, check. Official Nashville bachelorette party attire checklist complete. The one in front nearly ran me over—the maid of honor I guessed by the way she was shepherding the poor girl sporting the lacy BRIDE sash. She managed to redirect at the last second after ricocheting off of me.
“Mscuseme! I am sooo sorry!”
Two blonde girls bringing up the rear found this whole thing uproariously funny for some reason.
I took it in stride. Considering where I was, I deserved what I got.
“It’s fine,” I said.
Bachelorette parties. On Broadway. Like shooting fish in a barrel—you couldn’t miss ’em if you tried.
The blonde twins laughed even harder. It was nice to see them enjoying themselves since they probably wouldn’t remember much the next morning judging by their complete lack of pacing.
It was only 8:30 in the evening.
I left them there, a pack of dizzy minnows fighting the river of life flowing around them.
At the crosswalk, I lost the light and settled in for another wait. Something red to my left caught my eye. Turning I saw an elderly gentleman. He was wearing a sunny yellow polo shirt tucked into neat blue jeans. The starched jeans sported razor-sharp creases breaking over blindingly white Nikes. On his head was a scarlet baseball hat with USMC VIETNAM VETERAN stitched in gold lettering above the Eagle, Globe, and Anchor crest. It was his hat that caught my attention, but what held it was the look on his face—a look of calm, the kind of look you’d get while staring out across the gulf at sunset while the sun bled away . . . a look of tranquility stumbled onto after years of searching. It was completely incongruous with the mayhem around us.
He turned and looked at me, and I saw his eyes coming back, coming back from wherever that peaceful place had been, and for a moment I wished I hadn’t spoken. I wish I’d left him out there . . . wherever there was. But the smile he offered put me at ease—a smile that all those mall variety Santa Claus’s would kill for, full of thrumming warmth and vibrant humanity captured in an old soul.
“And same to you.”
His voice was quiet, but it cut through the tinny cacophony around us.
I stuck out my hand, and he shook it. Before I knew what was I was saying, my mouth took on a rare initiative.
“Buy you a drink?”
He cocked a furry white eyebrow at me then nodded.
“No. Let’s go someplace where we can hear ourselves think.”
We tucked ourselves into the corner booth, and after the waitress dropped off our drinks I made my confession.
“Don’t take this the wrong way, but I have no idea why I offered the drink. I know this sounds weird, but there was something about you that I saw, and . . . well . . . I wanted to know your story.”
He took a sip of his beer, “That’s good.”
“Told you. Locally brewed too.”
He raised his glass, and I clinked my bourbon against it.
“So what do you want to know?”
“I . . . I don’t know how to say this . . . when I met you, you had this look on your face—this look of peace that I rarely see in anyone, much less anyone on Broadway on a Saturday night.”
He smiled, “Nashville was a special place for us—my wife and me. I was remembering our last time here.”
“I’m sorry. Is she—“
“She passed away two years ago.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“Thank you. We had a great life together.”
“I’m sure she was a lovely woman.”
His eyes got that far-off look again, “She was. We loved to travel. We went all over the country.”
He pulled an old Rand McNally map of the United States from his pocket and spread it on the table. It was creased, worn, and covered with pencil marks: cities circled here, notes jotted there.
“This was our bible. After I retired, we took this map and made our wishlist of all the places we wanted to go.” He ran his fingers across the map touching city after city as he told me stories of where they’d been. When he touched Charleston, something in his pale blue eyes sparked.
“One of our favorites. Spent our honeymoon there, and when all was said and done, that’s where we settled down. That’s where—“ he trailed off. His eyes were wet and bright.
“You know what’s great about getting old? You can cry whenever you want and no one’ll say anything about it.”
I raised my hands, “Nothing to fear here.”
“It’s just . . . sometimes memories come back all crystal clear like you’re actually re-living them and not just remembering them.” He glanced out the window, his voice fading away. “We made love on the beach. The night was perfectly black, and we just lay there after . . . . Wrote our names in the sand, then lay there looking up at the stars and feeling like we’d never get old.”
He traced the X, “Charleston was always my favorite.”
Looking back down at the map, he touched a few more X marks, and when he turned his face to me again, it was the face of a man haunted by ghosts of pain I knew I did not fully understand; I only knew that it was awful.
“I lost her before I lost her. Her mind, you see, it went early. I think that was the worst because she was still there, and when I looked into those hazel eyes of hers—those eyes that made you want to walk into fire and kill dragons for her—and I didn’t see her in there anymore . . . it was almost more than I could handle.”
He took another drink then whispered, “Sometimes it was.”
He looked up and I saw a desperation in his eyes that didn’t touch his voice, “Do you understand what I’m saying?”
I took a deep breath then knocked.
Stepping into the room, I fought the claustrophobia clawing up the back of my throat. Grandma sat in the small chair to the left of her bed. Through the two windows, the late afternoon sun warmed the gold walls above her dresser—one of the few pieces of furniture she’d brought when she’d left her house to take up residence in the assisted care facility.
“Hi, Grandma, how are you?”
For a second I wasn’t sure if she remembered me, but then she lit up, and I saw the shadow of the woman I’d always known—the razor-sharp mind behind the English professor, the prolific reader, the only one in my family who read faster than me. And for a few minutes we got to talk, and she was there, really there. But then I saw the light go dim as something in the back of her mind reached up and pulled the blinds.
She sat silently twisting her hands in her lap.
“Are you married?”
There it was.
I said no. I said no to my grandma who’d sat at my wedding in her flawless green dress, fur stole, and diamonds. The lady who exuded effortless class. The lady who now looked at me with empty, childlike eyes.
She pointed her finger at me—the timeless way she had of demanding absolute attention—and said, “Well, you find a good girl. Okay? You find a good one.”
Somewhere in my chest my heart crawled away into a dark corner.
I told my head to nod.
“Okay, grandma. I will.”
“She would write poems.”
He was swishing the dregs of his beer round and round in his glass. “She would write poems when she had her clear moments. Sometimes not more than a few lines, sometimes she’d fill a page . . . it all depended on how long she was there. Once, she’d been gone for almost a week, and I was losing my mind, just losing it you know? I needed her . . . I needed her.”
He touched the map again almost as though the memories captured in the pencil scrawls gave him strength. “I came in and saw her with the pen in her hand. I could tell she’d just finished writing. I ran. I ran to her, but when I turned her around her eyes were already empty.”
He pulled out his wallet and extracted a tiny piece of yellow paper. Once he unfolded it, I saw it wasn’t yellow; it just looked that way. It had been folded and unfolded countless times until the original white paper had faded into a dusky yellow. The fold marks were nearly translucent.
He placed it on the table between us. Even though it was warm in the bar, I felt a cold hand slide down my spine as I read the beautiful, looping cursive—
For it is in those moments
Of deepest silence
I often scream
His hands trembled as he slid the paper back into his wallet then gulped the rest of his beer. “I almost went crazy when I read it . . . think I would have if she hadn’t written another one.”
“So she did write another one?”
“Yes. One.” He pointed at his wallet where he’d replaced the slip of paper.
“She wrote it three weeks later.” That horrible ghost crossed his face again. “Those weeks . . .” he trailed off.
“But we don’t need to talk about that. What matters is the last one.” The smallest hint of a smile touched his eyes. “But that one’s just for me.”
He faded off. Away out there again. I hated to interrupt, but I wanted to know.
“So why Nashville?”
He looked up, and I could see the young man deep inside him—the one lying on the beach tangled together with his hazel-eyed girl watching her eyes shift to green in the darkness. I saw the iron-edged strength at the pale edges of his blue eyes.
“When she wrote her last poem, we had a couple hours together—a couple hours where I had all of her. And she held my face like she’d do when she wanted to make sure I was paying attention, and she got real close—almost nose to nose—with those eyes of hers pulling me in, and she said You go on out there; you take our map, and you go way out there, and when you’re ready—when you’re really ready—then you come on home.
And so that’s what I did. I’ve been all over revisiting our favorite places and waiting for something—I’m not sure what. I just knew I’d know when I finally found it.”
“I found it tonight.”
Folding the map in his cracked hands, he caressed it—a lover’s note that had whispered in his ear for maybe a little too long. As he slid it into his pocket, a weight seemed to slide from his shoulders. The last tiny cog in the maze of his soul fell into place, and with it, a small piece of himself that no longer needed chasing.
“I think I’m gonna go on home now.”
He nodded to himself, “Yeah. Yeah, I think so.”
He stood, and I watched him go, a small, hard man pushing through the door and out into the big night.
*Author’s note: I saw this man while I was driving through downtown. I couldn’t get his face out of my mind, and that’s where this story grew from.
Written while listening to Augustines “Walkabout.”