© By Brian Chee
His name was Jeremiah. I remember because it was such an old sounding name, and because the name fit–Jeremiah was very old and wiry, his skin so translucent that the entire spidery map of his veins was visible just beneath the surface. His face was small and narrow, with sharp cheekbones and shiny eyes. His clothing hung in folds off his thin build–but he looked as stiff as a metal rod. Perched on top of his head was a brown Fedora hat, and he was always, without exception, wearing an ancient but well-kept tweed sports coat, the kind you’d find in a thrift shop or an estate sale.
He would sit, just like that, on the street corner bench next to the bus stop, two streets over and around the corner from my home. That’s the only place I ever saw him. He was always there, waiting patiently for his bus to swing by and take him to his destination. It bothered me that such an old man would have to wait on a bus. Where was his family? Why was he left to the mercy of a schizophrenic bus system and its borderline psychotic passengers? And it bothered me that he was always there. Seeing him there gave me the endless guilts over whining about riding my bike to school.
There was a lot about that old man that bothered me. As a kid I had a healthy fear of old people. They all laughed funny and smelled like dust. They told boring stories, and they always insisted that you listen to those boring stories. I didn’t want to know them. I didn’t want to listen to them or learn from them. I flat out did not want to have anything to do with them. I’d ride my bike past him as quickly as I could, or saunter past, sweeping him with a quick glimpse and a shudder, never stopping to say hello or pass the time of day.
After all, he was just a little old man sitting at a bus stop, barely noticed and quickly forgotten.
I couldn’t be any more wrong.
“But M-o-m-m-m, I can’t ride the bus. I’d rather ride my bike.”
“You certainly can. And you will. I don’t have time to take you tomorrow, and the weather man said that it’s going to rain all day. You won’t catch Pneumonia just because you don’t want to ride the bus.”
“That’s enough. If you have any more to say about it, you can talk to your father.”
Case closed. My fate was sealed by a talking head on the television.
The next morning when she dropped me off, I prayed that she’d see that old man and quickly decide to protect her precious offspring from such a horrible fate. As we turned the corner, I closed my eyes and said a quick prayer for deliverance.
“There you are, honey. Now be a good boy and share your umbrella with that nice old man.”
I trudged off to my fate. Did he know I feared him? Did he know I thought he was gross? Was he going to die today, sitting there right next to me?
He didn’t even look at me.
I kept my umbrella closed.
For an eternity, the only sound was of cars rushing by on wet pavement. I kept my eyes locked on the sedan across the street as my mind whirled around for something to say. What I wanted to ask him, the questions that had been bothering me, didn’t seem to be the right thing to say. So tell me old man, why do you sit at this bus stop every day? What’s your problem, anyway? Doesn’t anybody take care of you? For a moment I thought that I might escape without saying anything to him. After all, he was probably senile, and chances were good he thought I was a lamppost or something. All I have to do is get on that bus and I can escape to the back. Just keep your head straight and stare at the car across the street.
But it was as if God himself put his hand on top of my head and slowly began turning it in the direction of that old man.
I saw only red-ringed eyes peering into me.
“Looks like we’re riding the bus today.”
“What happened to your bike? Every day, I see you ride past as though the devil himself is on your tail.”
“My Mom won’t let me ride in the rain.”
“Ah, too bad, you won’t melt. But that’s Moms for you.”
“So, you going to school today?”
“Heck, I’m so old I can’t remember what school is like. I bet it’s fun.”
“So you don’t want to go to school I guess that’s pretty normal. My kids never wanted to go either. I wish they would have, though. I bet you can’t wait to get out and be a big man, huh?
“Mister, they don’t teach anything in school you need to learn.”
“Is that so? So if you were gonna miss school, where would you go?
“I don’t know. Probably play video games or something.”
“Want to go on a real adventure?”
“No thanks. My Mom told me never to go anywhere with strangers.”
“What, you afraid of a little old man? A little old man you see every day?
With that we sat in silence. With each minute of silence all I could think of was what the old man said. An adventure. What would an old man call an adventure? Would it be better than school? Heck, anything was better than Ms. Price’s history class. And there was that math test I didn’t study for. The idea of going somewhere with a stranger was pulling hard at me. He seemed like a normal person, and besides, I could probably take him out if things got out of hand.
I stole a glance to make make sure he was still alive.
“Hey mister, so what did you mean by an adventure, anyway?
“It wouldn’t be one if I told you boy. Don’t matter anyhow. You don’t want to do anything to tick your Mommy off.”
That was all too true. But he didn’t have to say it out loud like that.
“Have you ever seen an open field, boy?”
“Sure I have.”
“Oh yeah? Where?”
“There’s one…well…you know. Fields are all over the place. Besides, nature is boring.”
“That’s what I thought. And you’re sitting there thinking how boring this is, but you’ve never even played in an open field.”
“So what?” Who cares about open fields? I’d rather play video games.”
With that the bus turned the corner. Freedom was mere seconds away.
“Here’s your bus. Have a good day at school, school boy. Too bad you’re afraid to miss school.”
“Last chance to take a chance.”
Mom was gonna kill me. But the idea of an adventure was irresistible. And I’d miss a day of school. That in itself was a bonus well worth the risk of detention or restriction.
“Got a buddy today, Dad?”
“Yep. Thought I’d show this young man how boring nature is.”
“Coming right up.”
With that we were gone.
As quick as a flash we drove straight for the hills, where the old man said the land was “the way it was supposed to be,” not built up and destroyed by mankind’s insatiable and mindless quest for progress.
“Look at all these homes, boy, don’t they look ugly? Like they don’t belong? All these accountants and business people want is a nicer car and a better view than their next door neighbor.”
“They waste it like they own it or something.”
“Dad, that’s just progress, there’s nothing you or anyone can do about it.”
“Well, maybe I can’t, but you can. And that kid back there sure can.”
“When I grow up I want a big house on a hill, just like everybody.”
“And I hope that big house slides right down the hill.”
I knew right off that was the wrong thing to say. The last thing he needed was a reason to go off–and for the next half hour, he launched into a session of reminiscing about how beautiful it used to be, how he saw the hillsides change into neighborhoods with his own eyes, and how he’d never ever forget how beautiful it once was, so many years ago.
“You heed me, boy! If you and those your age don’t do anything about it, there will be nothing much to look at except someone else’s home. You can kiss your view good-bye.”
“Dad, you’re just a long way from home and getting mean about it.”
“Yeah, so what if I am. Joe, let’s take this boy to the Oaks.”
“You’re the boss.”
The Oaks was a canyon tucked away from all the homes and land development. Except for a network of trails carved out of the hillside, it was completely unmolested, protected only by the simple fact that few people knew it existed.
My heart sank. We set out on the first trail we came to, switchbacking our way through the slop and up to the peak of the hill.
If riding my bike to school was tough, climbing up the Oaks was pure torture. For each step taken, my soggy tennies took in a little more water and glommed onto a little more mud; before we hit the second switchback it felt as though I was trudging along with half the hill stuck to the bottom of my feet. Jeremiah and Joe had no such problems, or at least didn’t seem overly affected by the trail or the conditions. For every two steps I took, they took one long stride; while I stared down at the trail to ensure my footing, they moved along without a care, allowing their feet to find the right spot.
Before long they were tiny dark specks on the trail in front of me.
“Hey softie, we’ll wait for you at the top of the next switchback.”
Jeremiah was looking down at me and both were laughing. I could feel my face turn red as I looked up at them. Why couldn’t I go as fast as them? Why couldn’t I race up the hill, ignoring the rain and the mud, laughing and enjoying myself?
Why did I have to be the one laughed at?
The old man wasn’t even short of breath. Indeed, he looked more tired sitting on the bench back in the city. I thought about the dry warmth of history class–they’d be calling role right about now, and my seat–right next to Cynthia Schaefer’s–would be cold and empty. As I felt my toes go numb, I thought about how stupid I was for missing school and how someone else–probably that jerk Billy Blanton–would be asking Cynthia to the school dance.
That was my date. But instead of Cynthia Schaefer, I had a date with Mud Hill and a cackling old man.
Some adventure this turned out to be.
Then it hit me. I was completely alone.
There was no sign of anyone. Not at the top of the switch back and not as far as I could see.
“Hey! Where are you? Hey!”
No answer. I could feel the wind begin to claw its way under my jacket.
“Heyyy, you guyyyys, this isn’t funny!” Come on–where are you? Hello!”
No answer. Now that I knew it, I felt surprisingly calm. I would have to make it down this hill and find a phone, then call my folks–or worse yet, call the police.
If I didn’t make it down, I was doomed to die cold and alone, torn apart by mountain lions and gophers.
If I did make it, my life wouldn’t be worth living.
“Come on you guys, where are you! Don’t do this to me! What I ever do to you? HEY!”
Nothing but cold rain came back as an answer, and it felt as if it was coming down harder by the minute.
“Shit! Shit! What am I gonna do now? Shit! Hey come on you guys!”
I sat on a rock and let the rain trickle down my face. My calmness was fast losing ground to desperation; I could feel it welling up inside me, pushing for a way out. I just did not know what the fuck I was gonna do. I sat on a rock and sobbed. How could I be so stupid to come all the way out here with total strangers? How could I be such a nincompoop?
Dear God, please get me outta here. I promise I’ll be good, I’ll do anything. Just let me get back home. I looked up, half expecting to see a sign that He had heard my prayer but saw nothing but rain and mud.
And I was in it way too deep.
“Hey boy! Up here! Come on now, don’t dally! Suck it up and get to the top.”
“Hey! Wait! Wait up for me!”
“Hurry up! We’re already at the top. Come on, we won’t wait all day.”
I didn’t know what to do–keep crying, or start laughing. So I started runwalking up the hill, ignoring the pain in my gut and thinking only about how if I didn’t get up that hill, they really would leave without me. I was mad. I was humiliated. I had never, ever experienced a worse day in my life.
Then I cleared the last rise and saw the reason Jeremiah sat at that bus stop bench every day.
The entire valley–rolling hills and fields kissed with hues of green and brown stretched out as far as I could see. Because the rain clouds had followed us up to the Oaks, the valley was clear and sparkling–new and clean as if for the very first time. My home, my school, the major roads, everything looked like toys.
I had never seen anything like it.
“So you like it, eh? Beats video games.”
Video games were the last thing on my mind. Forgotten was the pain and agony, replaced by awe and a feeling of immense accomplishment.
“So what took you so long to get up here, anyway?”
“I’ll tell you what it is–you’re soft. You can’t even hike up a little hill like this in a drizzle. Geez. You ought to get a whippin’ for being so soft.”
“I’m not soft.”
But I was soft. He wasn’t so much making fun of me as he was simply pointing out the truth.
“Ah, don’t worry about it boy, we’ll toughen you up quick enough.”
The old man was true to his word. We went up Oak hill a bunch of times that year–on the first Saturday of every month, I’d meet him at the bus stop, and we’d wait there for his son to take us to the Oaks. By the end of summer, I was tan, fit and quite a bit tougher than I was before. Eventually, it was I who waited on top of the hill, teasing the old man to hurry up and stop wasting time. Sometimes we’d stay and have lunch at the top, but more often than not we’d head right back down again, stopping just long enough to take quick drink of water and a long drink of the view.
I never did find out where he lived, never even learned his last name. But that was okay. I knew Jeremiah better than names. To me, he was just an old man with a young heart teaching a young man with an old heart about the beauty and simplicity of nature–and through that, the beauty and simplicity of a life well-lived.