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The Autumn Leave

Updated on August 11, 2012

The life and death of Rocky Rhodes

The intrusive scream of the bedside clock’s alarm overtook the natural sounds within the room. The snoring, the sounds of traffic out the window, the faint click that the ceiling fan made every ten seconds, or so, in it’s revolutionary course, replaced now by the shriek that had awoken Richard Rhodes, who met the sound with the angry ritual of striking the clock’s topside to activate the snooze.

Richard Rhodes, Rocky to his friends, sunk his face back in his pillow and grimaced when he realized he had no need to be awoken early on this day. As he tried falling back asleep, the room’s natural concerto and diminishing darkness denied him his intention; he was up. His wife Linda lay undisturbed having grown accustomed to the daily ritual. Rocky rose, threw on a pair of jeans found on the floor beside the bed, and crept out of the room mindful of the creaking floorboards in the stealth like navigation of his way. As he sat down at his desk and lit a cigarette, he waited for the forecast of the first day of his vacation on his computer’s weather site. While he drew a hit of smoke into his lungs, he heard the words, “What’s burning?” coming from the other room. “I lit a match to light the stove… you want some coffee?” he replied. Linda said, “I’m sleeping…there’s no smoking in the house.”

Snuffing out his cigarette into an empty beer can from the night before; Rocky contemplated how to spend his time off from Eddie’s Auto Reconstruction, down the street. With the weathers forecast checked, he lumbered to the bathroom, showered, then stared into the mirror on the wall. “There’s no smoking in the house!” he reminded the reflection in the mirror, as he squinted, in attempt to recognize the unfamiliar face within its foggy frame.

Richard Osborne Rhodes was born in Chicago Illinois the tenth day of September, fifty-five years before last Friday. After twenty years of nomad life across the USA, he settled back home in Chicago just about ten years ago. He ran into the sweetheart of his teens, Linda Olson, who he dated while in school, and they have now been married for five years. They found the small apartment, were they currently reside, back in the neighborhood where they grew up as children. They had come full circle, and found the grass not always greener on the other side, and sadly, in some places, there was no grass at all.

Rocky studied the hazy image in the mirror before him. The hair was lighter than his own, its fullness faded by imposing streaks of gray. Its face was even more pronounced. Lines of time had traced a road map between reference points of experiential scars. Its beard, a contrast in its total void of tint, might have looked distinguished, had it not hid a gash beneath his chin. Its eyes were tired, they had seen too much in more than fifty years and wanted just to rest. Finally, after some hesitant surrender to his denial, Rocky faced the realization; he had aged.

The bathroom scale had been broken for some time, it’s always off by ten to fifteen pounds, and Linda had agreed, so he ignored it on his way into the kitchen. He looked up at the “stupid clock,” which had been ridiculously substituted for the belly on a figure of a cat with moving eyes and tail he had bought to prove he was, in fact, like everybody else. Then grabbed a pint of Ben & Jerry’s “Chunky Monkey,” ice cream, “‘cause the eggs are probably tainted, and the bacon’s just a pain, at least for now.”

Rocky sat down at the table, and looked around the kitchen Linda had designed to capture a retro 50’s Diner like appearance: Coca-Cola coasters, stool seats beside the butcher block extended table at the window, stupid clock, and a 50’s retro payphone hanging on the wall, complete with coin slots and elongated coiled cord that reached across the room. The smell of brewing coffee, he unconsciously had made, returned his focus to the items in his hand. Alternating, back and forth, from the ice cream to the foggy convex image in his spoon, of the stranger that had followed from the other room, again, he felt his age.

When a couple has been together for some time, they acquire a natural instinct for the habits of the other. Linda had heard no clanging pans, no clicking of the stoves ignition, and no slamming of the cabinetry doors. She knew, now, that it was time for her to rise. She opened up her nightstand drawer and pulled out a hidden ashtray, took a couple of hits off of a half smoked cigarette, threw on her robe and set out to the kitchen to save Rocky from himself.

On her way into the kitchen, Linda wiped the ashes from the desktop, picked a towel up from the bathroom floor, and placed the cap back on the toothpaste. “Your friend Max called last night,” she said, as she took the ice cream from his hand, knowing this would confuse his train of thought while she pulled the oatmeal from the pantry shelf. As she placed the Ben & Jerry’s in the freezer, said, “This won’t fix that scale,” just as he realized his spoon had somehow left its frozen chore to find a sudsy lukewarm bath within the sink,

“I was eating that… what’d he want?”

“You’re eating oatmeal; he said to call him… get out of my kitchen.”

Linda was convinced that she knew Rocky like a book, as Rocky was convinced that he read Linda just as well, and they were right. They made it through the first tumultuous year, which only left their friends to wonder which one would kill the other first. However, as happens in nature, so happens too with people, when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object… they fuse. They had melded to become the ideal couple, attentive, with instinctive insight to each other’s wants and needs, as if they had read too many books and took on the happy ending role with serious intent.

When the breakfast plates were cleaned, Rocky went out to the porch and sat down on the steps to smoke a cigarette. He coughed, and then looked down at the agent of the only addiction in his life he could not overcome. God bless America… he coughed again, with satisfaction that as a consumer, as long as he can breathe, he will keep this country strong.

Rocky stared out at the alley, which was the Eastern view, from the porch of the palatial apartment they called home. The bakery was baking. The aroma stimulating senses stifled since his childhood visits with his father, when he gazed into the counter glass anticipating multi-colored sparkled cookies, soft and fresh, and the bakery lady’s “Shhh,” as she handed him a cookie on the sly. He would relish in the sweetness as the sugar stirred his senses, reminding him to wipe the crumbs from off his mouth as so his bakery lady tryst was not revealed.

Smiling at a memory, the reflection Rocky dwelled upon was interrupted, “Hey, Steppenwolf; phone!” As he rose up from the step from where he sat, with a song now in his head, he caught the literary reference of the statement Linda made. She wasn’t talking ‘bout the band, he thought. Still, he walked in through the kitchen door with the tune of an old song inside his head reminding him, “It’s Never Too Late.”

Max was on the phone, from San Francisco; thoughts of Haight Street now replaced the bakeries aroma with a more pungent memory.

Max Samson was a dreamer, at least in Rocky’s eyes. If only for the reason that he stayed out there after the dream proved to be a nightmare. Counterfeit imposters composed of colorblind artists, illiterate poets, and tone-deaf musicians had replaced the Woodstock generation by that time. The epicenter of the counter culture had become a skid row tourist haven for a generation looking for a cause to which rebel. They had missed their time, to Rocky, it was as if they had made it to the fair with their tickets in their hands… but when they reached the ride they wanted, they were informed they were too small.

Rocky and Max went to school together if you could call what they did going to school. It was the early seventies, and the future smelled like Napalm. Names they never knew of grew increasingly familiar as the contents of their mind’s atlas added places called Cambodia, Laos, and Bangladesh. The draft meant more than foamy beer, or gusts of wind that crept in from the crack beneath the door. The only perk the time had offered was the drinking age was lowered to eighteen, the reasoning there being, if you’re old enough to die for your country, you might as well be drunk when you do it. If one had yet to reach the draft age, a blank draft card cost just twenty dollars, and a Smith-Corona was your passport to the bars.

The alphabet was altered, the ABC’s had changed to LSD, or PCP. The public school teachers had a price, at least where Rocky went, and passing grades were bought and paid for, as the assumption was the requirements for higher education somewhere in Southeast Asia already had been met. Then, when the smoke cleared from their heads… the war was over, Nixon had left office in disgrace, but not before he gave us “Peace with honor,” which for some 58,000 unfortunates had come too late.The soldiers who returned home were met with hostile disrespect, by those from whose deferments had denied them opportunity to do it right. In the mean time, those whose education stemmed from the swamps of Ft. Poke Louisiana, and graduation came in August at Da Nang, were left screaming “Airborne Ranger wanna jump some more,” from the rafters of the ceiling where they hung their fateful ropes.The wreaths withered on four graves in Ohio, as the last of the collateral damage generation were forgotten, and after high school graduation, Rocky, Max, and a band of reprobate idealists head out for San Francisco with hopes to pick up from where a dream had turned to nightmare.

Rocky had hooked up again with Max by way of social network sites. The computer was new to Rocky. He had acquired one some four years earlier, and as he found his way around it, for the past few years, it seemed to fill a void within his life. A computer was a business tool, and Rocky’s business was only to remain off the grid. After tiring of playing blues off Broadway years ago, in some San Francisco dive Max moved to Seattle, and Rocky went to Washington D.C.

Rocky saw the White House, but the sandblasting skewed his view, so he went to Arlington to see the Kennedy’s, they were the only ones he knew. He wept at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and wondered what wars were about, until he found the Iwo Jima Memorial outside, and thought, “How things have changed.” He went to see the pandas; they had adjusted by now, so he went home, enrolled in college, met a girl, and dropped out of college to raise a family. Max became friends with Jimi Hendrix’s father, Al. Met Jimi’s brother Leon, married a Cherokee girl named Sue, and continued working on his rock opera for the past thirty something years.

Rocky had now caught up with the world around him. He found a number of lost friends with his computer, and was astonished to discover how many of them heard that he had died. He wondered how many of them made an actual attempt to show up at his funeral, but then resigned himself to the fact that even “he” himself had failed to show, so he really had no reason to be hurt.

Max wished Rock happy birthday, and apologized for not calling until now…but he left a note on Facebook!

“Are you going to my dad’s today?”

Rocky had to think,

“Huh, who…where?”

A couple of weeks prior, Max asked Rocky if he would stop in on his father while he had time off work. Max’s father Harry had lost his wife at the beginning of the year due to Diabetes complications. Rocky had agreed, but inside hoped that Max would forget about it, as sometimes happens when Max makes requests. After all, Rocky had never met Max’s father, and he thought it to be rather an unusual request.

The reality that Rocky did in fact agree now encroached upon his plans of relaxation. He had worked for three years straight, full time, without any more than two days consecutive days off. He had no plans, he couldn’t afford them. Where he had lived for twenty years since he divorced his wife in the freedom of a vagabond’s delight, he now, was married once again, and had responsibilities to meet. Whatever the first day of his week off might have had to offer, was now, at least temporarily, on hold. Max told him that his father had a book that he had signed for him, and asked that Rocky ask his dad to play him a couple songs as he was accomplished in his command of the Hawaiian guitar. He said that it would mean a lot to him, so Rocky took down the phone number and guaranteed that he would call his father as soon as they got off the line.

Rocky called Harry, and they arranged for him to be there between two and three that afternoon. Linda, having heard the conversation, laughed, assuring Rocky that it’s not really all that bad.

“So you go over and spend fifteen minutes with the guy, it won’t kill you. It’d be a nice thing to do… the old man would appreciate it.”

Linda had a way of making sense of things. That is to say, she always found the bright side when things like this came up.

“But this is my vacation.” Rocky said despondently.

“Then just pretend you’re in Hawaii.” said Linda in reply.

Harry Samson, Max’s father, was 87 years old. He was in the Navy during World War II, and had been at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked. He had put together writings he had compiled in his life, and had them published, by his self, into a book. Aside from the revealed fact that he played the Hawaiian guitar, this is all that Rocky knew of the man who he was on his way to see.

Rocky sat around the house, killing time, waiting for the time to come for him to leave. He went into the kitchen with intent to make a sandwich, when Linda followed saying that she’ll make it for him, she didn’t want a mess. He looked up at the stupid clock, and asked if they had chips. She told him to go get dressed, and she will bring it to the living room.

After he had dressed he ate the tuna fish and coleslaw Linda had prepared (he had only planned on bologna and chips), put on his boots kissed Linda before saying “this shouldn’t take too long.” As he checked the time while he walked out the kitchen door, he walked down the steps, thinking to himself, “I hate that stupid clock.”

While walking towards the alley Rocky hardly noticed that the bakery aroma was now gone. The sun had reached its peak, and was starting its descent as its beams fell upon the refuse dumpsters of the Fish House on Devon. He lit a cigarette, remembering that the doctor said that walking would prove as beneficial, as his lungs were feeling the constraints of their abuse. A black cat crossed his path, but it wasn’t there for him. It was on its way over to the fish store dumpster for its afternoon buffet. Rocky coughed, and after finally noticing the alley stink thought, “I should have stuck with the bologna.”

The walk to Devon Avenue, about one city block from his apartment had seemed to satisfy his need for exercise. He paused in front of the Kosher deli on the corner, and looked across the street at the Zabiha Halil meat mart mystified. Pakistani Kabob restaurants and Indian veggie café’s filled out the rest of the block’s storefronts passed on Rocky’s way. The Croatian Center and Russian boutiques inhabit storefronts on the block that lay before him, surrounding Casey’s Corner Bar, where he wished that he were going at that time. It appeared to Rocky, that every nationality that could not get along in their own homeland, moved to Devon Avenue and live in peace…strange. Passing by a store in whose window was a sign that stated, “We have Baba Ghanoush,” a Janis Joplin song popped into Rocky’s head. But, the rhythm of the song was not enough to speed his gate, as the bus he hoped to catch had just passed by.

Rocky had calculated the distance of his trip to be about a mile south, and close to a half a mile east, by which he had hoped to negotiate the latitudinal portion on a bus. It was a nice cool day, the sun was shining bright, and the doctor said a walk would do him good. So with Joplin in his head, he walked south on California, wondering about the man he was about to meet, and laughing to himself when the song played in his head came to the chorus line of “Me and my Baba Ghanoush.”

He walked familiar steps, as he had walked some forty years before. Max’s father lived close to the high school where they both had gone. As he reached that ancient spot, he saw the ghosts of past acquaintance in the park that sat behind the school where he and Max had spent their youth. He remembered how they pitched a tent out there, and wondered how they were found out, when with music blasting from inside and smoke hovering above, they were arrested. But they were minors so the charges all were dropped, and they were all sent home from school, which truth be told, they rarely made it into anyhow.

Reaching Thorndale Avenue meant head east and head toward Rockwell Street. He walked down Thorndale, and his thoughts were now his own, he lit a cigarette and spit up blood. He cursed the doctor just for saying, “There’s nothing we can do.” Rocky knew there was nothing they could do. Even so, he could have lied! He could have told him vapor treatments, leeches, bathe in chocolate pudding, anything to give a glimpse of hope. Unfortunately, Rocky’s limited insurance didn’t cover lies. So the lab rat diagnosis sent him on his way with the reassurance that if he quit smoking he might have another year. Another year, it’ll take that long to quit. Besides, if it was caused by smoking he could sue the manufacturers for putting poison on the street for his consumption. He threw down his cigarette, and went back to taking in the abundance of dioxin in the outside air.

When he was finished with the argument inside his head, he found himself in front of Harry’s house, a bungalow. A Beatles song went through his head as he climbed the steps and rang the doorbell.

Harry came to the door accompanied by Delilah, a Springer Spaniel. Rocky, at that time failed to make the connection, Harry…Samson and Delilah. When he did, it made him smile. Harry looked remarkably fit, for a man of 87. He greeted Rocky, saying” “It’s nice to meet you.” and asked him to come in. They talked a bit and Harry said, “Max tells me that you like to read.”

They talked of favorite books and authors, and of how they both detested certain types of poems, the kind from Someteenth century, where one had to be, as Harry put it, “A freak to understand.” They did agree on Chaucer. Harry then excused himself, went in the other room, and came back with a hard covered volume he had authored. “I just put this together, just to pass around to family and friends; it’s a collection of my writings through the years.”

Rocky started reading some pages from the books beginning, while Harry had to tend to Delilah’s famished call. He liked what he read. When Harry had returned, Rocky mentioned to him that Max had told him of his passion for the Hawaiian guitar. Harry told him that he picked it up when in while in Hawaii, and there was something about the sound that seemed to grab him. Rocky asked if he’d mind playing something for him.

Harry went to the other room, and returned with a Gibson steel guitar. Now Rocky wished that Max had just said it was a steel guitar, or slide guitar. He had spent time trying to picture some kind of pineapple ukulele, when all along he was familiar with the instrument already. Harry plugged the guitar into the amplifier and began to play the type of music one associates with when thinking of Hawaii. Hula girls came to mind, with that slow and peaceful music in the background. Harry then told of how, when the war was over, he had come back to Chicago and was friends with members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He showed Rocky pictures on the wall, and pointed out the referenced friends. Harry than said how they had always wanted to do a version of Johann Strauss’s Blue Danube on the Hawaiian guitar. Rocky thought about it, and concluded that on the steel guitar, theBlue Danube would probably sound cool, and asked if Harry could do it.

Harry smiled, and as he obliged, Rocky pictured hula girls dancing to the great waltz. As Harry went on playing, Rocky closed his eyes. He now envisioned Harry in his navy whites in 1941. The music in the background flowed as hula girls danced until it reached crescendo, and Zero fighter planes and Kate dive-bombers broke on the horizon. The music played as inside Rocky’s head the California and West Virginia were on fire. American P-40’s ablaze, sitting at their base, no chance to take off from their runway’s in defense. Then the finally, the Arizona capsized in the harbor as the vision of the infamous attack subsided.

Rocky sat in awe. Whether it was the fact that Harry had been there weighing on his mind, the instrument of choice, or just fatigue from a long walk, he was impressed. He wondered if anybody else, after hearing Harry’s performance would have had the same reaction. An hour had now passed, as after the Blue Danube, Harry played a little more and then they spent a while talking. Rocky thanked Harry; he was genuine in this respect. Harry just sat and smiled. Rocky had walked in feeling old and beaten, and an 87-year-old man, who had been through Pearl Harbor, had shown him, somehow, that surrender’s not an option.

Rocky smiled as he departed; he no longer had a need to take the bus. A waltz played in his head, and he pictured an old man sliding on guitar strings, dodging bombs around him, and overcoming life’s hardships with something as simple as a song. In Rocky’s head now, his hair was back to blonde, no longer washed with strands of gray. His beard was full with streaks of dark defining tint. His eyes, now clear, focused on the future, with an optimistic viewpoint, the likes of which he had never held before. The wrinkles on his face, exaggerated in his mind, he wore as a badge of courage gained by time. Rocky Rhodes no longer felt that he was in the twilight of his life. He was at a new beginning. Instead of basking in his problems, feeling sorry for himself, he now remembered how his presence used to lighten up a room. The cheer he spread when things were looking down, the smiles that he’d put on strangers faces, now came back to mind. As he walked on, the road before him brightened with each passing step.

A black car pulled up in front of Harry Samson’s house. Two men got out, walked up the steps, and rang the bell. “He’s over here,” the voice said. “I don’t know what happened, he was sitting there; he looked so happy!”

Linda Rhodes was making dinner when the phone rang. Skinless chicken, the only healthy thing that Rocky seemed to like. She hung up the phone, turned down the fire on the stove, and went into the living room, she thought, Max will probably be calling pretty soon, she tried to hold her tears as she sat down. She told herself, I know that he’s in heaven.

Rocky Rhodes had died. He had passed away on Harry Samson's couch from a massive heart attack. But the smile he was wearing when the coroner arrived gave cause for him to comment, “I’d have to believe, judging from the look that’s on his face, he really has gone to a better place.”


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