Old Men

Old Men

Old Men

It was evening when I first noticed them; three old men standing over the culvert watching the spring runoff guttering through the culvert below them. Six old shoes shuffling back and forth on the gravel, looking upstream over the full lake and then down toward the twisted miles to the river. They looked like three old ganders, dark shapes against the western light, one of them spitting tobacco strings into the wet dust.

The must have come to fish. The way the light was, anyone could have seen them and might have recognized one or the other. Arthur, the one with the wide stance, wore bib overalls under a worn denim coat. Orville was the one talking loud because of his poor hearing, and the other one with the cane. They spent a lot of time looking at the water running beneath them, like they had lost something. As if they could find it in the spring flood. From time to time, the soft honking of wild geese rose up and just as quickly faded away from somewhere out on the lake. The wind that was blowing to them must have been damp on their faces, still cold from the winter.

Standing in the fading light they looked like scarecrows, out in the open past the last leafless oaks on this side of the creek. They moved so slowly, sometimes an arm came up to an old face, a bent step followed by another long stare into the blackening water in front of the red-orange sky. Long after dark, I heard a car door shut and I looked toward the road, thinking I would see the lights come on and hear the car drive away.

Another time they looked as though they had just been raised from sleep. Arthur again with his feet pointing outward, his watery eyes almost bloodshot. It is like they were out there smelling for rain or listening to hear the wind in the grass. It had been above freezing day and night for more than a week. The maple sap had soured and the snow had mostly melted from the open fields and the south facing wood lots. Silhouettes of the oaks and basswood stood against the late sky. Returning blackbirds that had settled along the lake were clicking and screeing. Other birds that had been gone for the winter, could again be heard. Again, geese were calling from the lake where they stood on the black ice the wind had blown onto the far shore leaving the open water along the west side of the road that leads up to the house.

I had heard the sound of a car door shutting and, when I looked, the three stood watching the water leave the lake under the roadway. Looking lost, untied shoelaces, unbuttoned shirt, and one of them holding open a half-empty can of tobacco as though he had meant to take a dip when finished looking around. There was winterkill, some dead pike floating on their backs near the outlet, gray and white spotted, their sleekness bloated away. 

That was the last time I imagined I saw them. Summer was coming. The sweet smell of mud-grass and the pike already turning into sand allowed it. I was sitting at the window, open to the west and the road. I heard scraps of voices coming over the water and I’m still curious about what could have brought them. In the grove behind the barn, there is an old threshing machine struggling to stand while slowly sinking into the plum trees and gooseberry bushes. It has been dying for more than twenty years, holding out its rusty apron neck and gathering teeth, mastodon-like while enduring its extinction. I saw them standing next to it in the near-darkness, looking at the pully wheels, reminding each other of how it once operated, asking where the belts had gone to, again I heard scraps of their voices as they walked back to the road in the dark to their car.

In the place where I was young, there are fields and woodlands. There are towns and farms and people pretending nothing will ever change in the world. Separate from all of that are the lakes and swamps that, in the springtime, become a seeping baptism of spirits floating in the darkness among the willows and tamaracks. It’s these fringes that make the real world visible, like the beautiful shapes of flying crows or that part of God that is the turtle where it swims, putting her black head out of the water to look at me.