The Old Man Next Door

It happened quickly it, no more than a flash, and it would’ve been forgotten but for a spur of the moment decision for a seemingly random thing. It was evening, the day before a pre-test for mathematics and Indonesian. I had a sore throat that resulted from an afternoon filled with amateur practice at primal screaming and guttural growls, primarily to vent my frustration at the load of fumbling bananas called mathematics.

I stood up from my little desk and felt my butt ache after sitting for a while on the cold ceramic floor. I went and took a cup of warm tea and lemon that my mother made me, presumably after seeing the poor condition my vocal chords was in; mothers notice the little things, don’t they?

I love wind, and my favorite places are ones that usually have quite a bit of a gust running through them, and so I popped out to the front terrace for a bit of air.

As I came out I noticed that there was someone on the opposite side of the road. It wasn’t a large road. Only two meters wide, it was the sort of road that usually runs through small housing, and creating a cozy feeling. So it was, the old man stood on the road, opposite me; me on my terrace, and he on the driveway of his house. We were separated by my fence -a half meter tall affair of beige concrete, more a symbolic show of private space than a practical one- and the road, which made it about four meters on the x-axis.

He was short, shorter even than my 165cm of modest height, and his hunch accentuated it. The top of his head would come up to my nose, supported by the frail body characteristic of old age. His skin hung from his bones, with few worn muscles to add any firmness into it. I remember his neck more like a valley with steep intermittent cliffs, tendons and whatever anatomical thing they were that connected the head to the body. He dressed simply, a dark maroon striped shirt and matching dark cloth pants, both draping over his thin body.

There was little hair on his brown head, and in the balding centre was the occasional specks of white, mismatched skin that often grace the more venerable. His large eyes fought with the many wrinkles that crisscrossed his face for supremacy of his age. Teeth have fallen out, probably out of poor dental health, endowing him with a gap-toothed mouth that we cherish in children, loathe in adults and once again begin to put a smile to us in elders.

He saw me, slowly craned his head to that he faced me, and then he smiled. His bright eyes seemed to sparkle the way a friendly invitation warms you up. Wrinkles realigned themselves to gentle curves reminiscent of the face your grandparents would make when you did something cute. I did what I had always done when I met him –usually when I was hurrying myself out of the garage to get school or whatnot-, I smiled and greeted him. I bowed and cocked my head slightly, and he returned the gesture, his smile growing as he did so.

I took a few deep breaths, threw a handful of food pellets at my pond, smiled the old man good bye and went back inside. P.S. I Love You by The Beatles was playing when I went back, but not loudly enough. So I walked over to the desk where my hand phone was connected to the speakers and turned the dials a few notches up.  I looked outside and saw the old man standing. He wasn’t smiling nor frowning, and seemed only to be observing the world around him.

The rumbling of a motorcycle grew and I saw the old man growing warmer and friendlier, as if preparing to greet the motorcycle. As the bike rumbled past carrying two girls, the old man followed them with his gaze and he smiled, and the two girls greeted him back.  And off the bike went with the girls, to wherever they needed to be, and still the old man stood on his driveway.

He looked around, slowly, deliberately. I heard no rumbles of a motorcycle, or rhythmic footsteps of any kind, and I guess the man didn’t either. Those large eyes looked sad, as it scanned left and right, seemingly hoping for another soul to smile to. About half a minute passed, and I stayed put and kept my gaze on him, and finally he gave up. He started turning, with movements that suggested that any attempt to go faster would probably have left him with a sprained tendon. It took him a full seven seconds to make a 180 degree turn, and he carefully took his first steps back to his house.

As he shuffled away, I imagined what emotions he might be wearing behind his back. What kind of a person am I to take away what little pleasures that man might have left? And I was stuck watching the seconds it took for him to cover the distance to his front door, open it, and closed it behind him. In a snap he was inside his house, leaving me standing, cursing myself for my cowardice.

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