My Old Vagabond

 

The day I finally started to grow up I woke up grumpy and irritated. Nothing could make a fifteen year old boy as angry as being forced to get up before the stroke of noon on a Saturday, but the Arapahoe County Courts had made it very clear that they could not care less about putting me out. More than a hundred hours of community service would apparently make me even for breaking into the local mall after hours to have a look around.

Mechanically I got myself ready to face the day, still asleep for all cognitive purposes. I doubt I bothered to wash my hair, or even bothered with digging out clean clothes when the wrinkled ones from the day before would do

just as well. Thankfully my laziness was often taken for a fashion statement.

I watched dumbly out the window as the suburban streets flashed past, failing to ignore my mom's lecture about growing up as she drove me to my doom. Like most places built up since the fifties the suburbs of Denver were a model of sameness. Architecture that barely varied along streets that used the same dozen names repeatedly, it was sanitary though, you had to give it that. She dropped me off with a sigh; giving me that look that only a mother can give that is equally disappointed and unconditionally loving. She pulled away slowly in that old red Blazer, wanting to make sure that I went.

The Porter Nursing Home was blazoned over the doors but this was no retirement community, this was our sleepy suburb's hospice. Why had I picked this place to do my time of all the places I had available to pay my debt to society? I couldn't really say. I relished a bit of the macabre but always the artful posturing of death, sensational dark fiction. There was something vogue in the idea of the fast life and the good looking corpse, always has been I think. Real death, in the real world, where you don't come back to talk about your trauma, scared me terribly.

I walked through those double doors with an attempt at a swagger but was humbled and nauseated by the smell, disinfectant and rubbing alcohol trying to smother out the stench of death and defecation. The long wide entrance hall culminated in the nurse's station, a supposedly organized chaos. The florescent lights were buzzing, their horrible fake pale light made the place feel cold. The nursing staff wasted no time with any kind of formal orientation, just a quick tour telling me that I should clean out bedpans and trash bins, and most horrifying of all that I should talk with patients.

"Don't get too personal," the austere nurse warned me, "most of them are looking for a friend and you won't be here that long. I don't need to console them when your hours are up and they never see you again. Just try to be nice to them." (She looked near fifty; imagine my surprise when I later learned she was just over thirty.)

I flashed my crooked smile that I thought made me look charming and debonair, "I'm always nice."

My youthful illusions about being tough or smart enough to handle anything were shattered in the first room I visited. An aged woman, how old she was I never found out, laid there withered away to a skeleton, a thin wisp of white hair crowing the crone's skull, crinkled skin hanging off her jowls. She was working painfully hard for every rasping shallow breath. I forced out a pathetic greeting, selfishly only thinking of what it would be like if I were the one trapped in that bed.

Each room was much the same as the last, some closer to death than others, and an odd feeling was clawing at me, a need to vomit and run away crying. I never particularly cared for children but now I wanted to see them playing, see the start of life rather than the ugliness of the end. I tried to do what my heroes always talked about, compartmentalize, shut off my emotions, but I was a monumental failure at that.

In the last room of the east corridor something was wrong, the bed was empty. As I looked around stupidly under the bed and desk, thinking that I would get blamed for loosing the old fart, the toilet flushed. I stood bolt upright; a guilty conscience can make you think some silly things.

He walked in slowly, leaning heavily on his walking stick, gangly but looking surprisingly fit. His white hair was trimmed short but it was still there. He looked me over with bright blue eyes and he laughed a deep full throated laugh that shook his whole body. "I come here to die and you're the one who looks dejected."

I had no idea what to say to that so I went about emptying the trash and mumbled a hello. He dropped himself onto the bed and giggled as I worked. I was just about to make my escape when he caught me, "Are you in that big of a rush to Mrs. Greene's bedpan? Last I heard she had a bad case of the runs. I'd put that off a spell if I were you."

I leaned on the doorjamb, still not sure what to say but grinning myself at the old man's joke. "Give me a bit of conversation boy. If I talk to myself much more they'll toss me out of here and into the nuthouse, anything to keep the feeble out of sight right?"

"I guess."

"John Taylor," he said extending his hand out to me. I shook his hand without a thought and introduced myself automatically, "Jeremy Lee, but everyone just calls me Lee."

"Well in that case Lee everyone calls me Teddy."

"Why do they call you that?"

"Born in eighteen ninety-nine in D.C. to a diplomat who was in love with the president. He would have actually named me Theodore but mother put her foot down. Through my whole childhood I only ever wanted to be Teddy Roosevelt, no matter what me and my mates were playing. Cowboys and Indians, Civil War, the Revolution, whatever it was I wanted to be Teddy. I guess it stuck." He saw me doing the math in my head and giggled again. "Ninety-Six and I don't feel a day over ninety. I'm the second oldest codger they've got in this place, Mitchum's a hundred and two but he lost his marbles a decade ago so I think I win."

"You win because you can still use the bathroom?"

"I win because I can still remember to use the bathroom." He let out another of those barking cackles at his own joke. I couldn't help but think of him more as a kid than an old man, he found everything exciting. "Tell me this Lee, why are you spending your Saturday here looking after a bunch of old windbags when you could be looking after some pretty young girl's? When I was your age I couldn't blink without picturing a girl naked, didn't really matter which girl, still doesn't to be honest."

I know I blushed and suddenly found the floor very interesting but I managed to stammer out, "I had to come here."

"Ah, so you're one of our Juvenal delinquents, no need to blush about it, I've been called a lot worse I promise you. It's not what people call you that matters, it's what you call yourself that counts. Besides, I bet you won't get caught again."

That took me off guard; Teddy was the first proper adult who hadn't felt a need to scold me in the last few weeks. "No, I won't get caught again."

"What was it, egging a car?" he was giddy, almost bouncing up and down on the bed. "I never got to egg a car."

"Me and some friends broke into the mall in the middle of the night."

"A proper adventure," he nodded approvingly. "We need our adventures Lee, how else do we know what kind of person we are?"

"I guess I'm the kind that doesn't run fast enough." (I'd thought of that line when my dad had asked if this was the kind of man I was going to be but hadn't dared to say it then.)

"A good thing to know," Teddy seemed restless, like he wanted to pace the halls or spring into jumping jacks. "Tell me something, if you weren't trapped here where would you be?"

"A bunch of people were going camping."

"Camping! If I close my eyes tight and concentrate I can almost smell the fresh air." (I didn't have the heart to tell him that our camping trips consisted mostly of getting drunk and trying to get laid if we tricked any girls into coming along.)

"I was about ten when I had my first camping trip." Teddy was going on while I was thinking of Summer Tyler and whether or not she'd gone on the trip. "I'd been in the woods before and pitched a tent and all that but this was going to be the first time I was really in the wild."

Something about the loving way he said ‘the wild' made me forget all about Summer's legs and pay attention. "It was a school trip, first and last bit of learning that place ever gave me. Stuffy old place you see, father had dreams of me living up to my would-be namesake and a would be president needed a first class education. I did well enough for a kid who could think of a thousand better things to do, I managed to always just stay on the cusp of getting kicked out. This was different though, this was better than prowling the streets of D.C. like an urchin."

Teddy fumbled with the pitcher trying to pour himself a glass of water; he was bubbling over with energy and couldn't settle himself down. My mom's voice in my head commanded me to go do it for him.

"Thank you Lee, I'm getting all a twittered and I can't do anything with myself. There were maybe a half-dozen of us going; the school got an old horse drawn wagon to cart us off to the backcountry. I was about to write the trip off as another colossal waste of time when things took a turn for the interesting. Teacher had us tying knots, telling stories, tidying up camp and a bunch of other rubbish nonsense. Then teach lost his footing and went tumbling down the hill head over arse. We heard a pop and went running." Teddy popped his thumb inside his mouth to give me the sound effect.

"When we got to the bottom of the hill teacher's leg bone was sticking right out of the skin. Couple of us got ill right there." (I know how they felt; I was getting sick just picturing it.) "There are three ways a ten year old is going to handle something like that. Half the others were terrified, tears streaming down their faces wailing for their mamas. The other half had been raised to think of themselves as the leaders of men and saw this as their chance to prove what manly men they were. I was the only one in the third group; I saw the whole thing as a chance to have a bit of fun."

"Fun," I interrupted, "Your teacher was lying on the ground with their bone sticking out of the skin." I shivered all over just thinking about it again.

"And there were plenty of others that were ready to take the situation by the horns so why get in the way? I figured that I might as well take advantage. There was a big chap, Thomas, or Travis, or something like that, he wanted to be master and commander and started dolling out duties and I just volunteered to go scout around." He was still pleased with himself, looking out the window at the shabby tree that there was to look at. It took me awhile to realize he wasn't seeing the tree at all.

"I made my down the mountain into a little valley, in my mind I was crossing virgin territory like a pioneer. I could hear the Potomac winding away somewhere close by, I could smell the water it was so close. Down there a fox sprang out of the grass just a few feet away from me. I froze, having no idea what to do. The little cur had its hackles up, teeth bared; I could see the muscles tensing up for a pounce. A little pup came to greet the fox and I knew that I didn't want to be there. I backed away a step at a time; I don't think I inhaled a breath until I was back up on the ridge." Teddy looked back at me, those ridiculously young eyes shining even in that horrible florescent light.

"It's funny the things you think about Lee, I hadn't thought about that fox and her pup in eighty years or more and now I can picture them just as sure as day."

I wasn't sure what to say to that, or if I should say anything to that. I compromised and smiled, tried to nod sagely and pretend that I had any idea what he was talking about. He looked like he was about to let the story go so I prompted him, I was captivated, "How do you get back down?"

He went on with a shrug, "Oh, when I got back Thomas, or whatever his name was, had things well enough in hand. He'd done a piss poor job hitching up the horse to the wagon."

"Did you fix it?"

"I didn't know any better at the time myself, didn't learn how to ride or tack a horse until a few years later. But I clambered up on the wagon with all the rest."

"Where did you learn how to ride a horse?" I sounded like a little kid hanging on his grandpa's every word. "Was that when you moved out here to Denver?"

"No, I learned to ride a horse in Arabia." He said it so matter of fact that I was struck dumb. "We took a bunch of wrong turns trying to make our way back to the city and had to camp out there one more night. I pitched my tent and helped with the fire. Even did what I could to make teacher comfortable. There were noises in the night that had most of the others frightened out of their wits but I was playing in heaven. I thought seriously about staying out there, being the guy who lived in the woods. I fancied myself becoming a mountain man like Davey Crockett or Buffalo Bill. Thomas gave me a big pretty, obviously prepared, speech about how he wasn't going to leave anyone behind. I'm pretty sure he went on to be a congressman or senator or some stupid job like that. We made it home the next day, parents having kittens with worry came running out to meet the wagon and Thomas and a few of his trusted lieutenants were heroes for weeks on end. Teacher died of infection a few days later which only made their gallant efforts to save him and the others more epic in the telling."

"Wow," I was looking at this frail old man, his nightgown covering up a body that was slowly wasting away. "So mom and dad took you home and gave you a good hot meal eh?" I don't know what made me say it, probably that teenage desire to picture everyone's life as better and more wholesome than your own.

"No, father met me there, looked down at me and quietly asked what happened. After I'd told him he grumbled something under his breath, probably about how I should have been the hero rather than wandering off on my own, and told me to get home and pack. He'd been reassigned to the embassy in London and we were to leave straight away."

"Harsh," I almost hugged the little old fellow. "I thought my dad was a hard ass."

"Sorry," Teddy was all smiles again; he seemed blessed with a gift of finding anything amusing. "I think I just broke the old codger code. We're supposed to pretend like the dysfunctional family didn't start plaguing us until women's rights, or civil rights or gay rights, or whatever the politicians are bleating on about now. Pretend like I gave you some lecture on how you should eat more meat to make you more American or something stupid like that."

"How did you end up in the Middle East?"

"That's another story all together kid." Teddy gave me a wink. "It was fun, though all things considered it would have been easier to just break into a mall, we just didn't have them yet." We both broke down in absurd giggles together, He fell back on the bed and I sank to my knees laughing so hard my lungs hurt.

A harsh voice shot down the hall and sobered up our fun at once, "Mr. Lee you are here to work." The hawk faced nurse was barreling down on us.

"Yes miss." I managed to strangle out as I hastily gathered up the bedpan and trash bags.

"You're in deep shit now Lee." Teddy chuckled, earning his own nasty stare from the nurse. "Oh leave him alone you great harpy, he was keeping me company which is more than you and your witches ever do."

"We might spend more time with you if you didn't pitch every single one of my nurses on the butt." She snapped at him in no mood to play any games.

"I'm dying honey I ain't dead." Teddy blew her a kiss as she shot me another evil glance. "Best part about getting old kid, you can loose your temper and hit on the women and everyone just calls you eccentric instead of a bastard."

"John we call you worse than that when you aren't listening."

"Nancy don't you tease an old man if you want a real kiss you just come right over here and take it like a woman."

"I'll see you later man," I put my head down and went about my work. There were a few more hissing words waiting for me at the nurse's station and Mrs. Greene did indeed have a bad case of the runs that was delightful to clean up after.

By the time mom picked me up hours later I was still turning the story of Teddy in the mountains as a little boy over in my head. Mom wasn't too sure what to make of me smiling like an idiot all the way home. I didn't talk much, never did with mom and dad, but I guess there was something different about me. I made a note that the next time me and the guys went up into the mountains for a camping trip I'd make sure to hike off on my own, even if Summer and her rather amazing body decided to come along.

That was the day that changed my life; I just didn't know it yet.

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