When I was little, there was an old man who lived down the street from me. He was the last old man living on Odds Parkway, and he clutched onto his house as flocks of spring chickens flew in from north, south, east, and west. He never left his house, just sat behind his window like a character in an art film, watching with scrutiny. On the sidewalk in front of his house, conversations were hushed and laughter stopped. Even joggers slowed down in reverence.
Around Christmas, when I was seven or eight, a new family moved in up the street. Their youngest kid was a nine-year-old boy named Seth and their oldest was a teenage guy named Charlie. Seth and I became fast friends and we used to play explorers throughout the neighborhood, turning the trees into spies and driveways into rivers of lava that would kill anyone who stepped on them. We played this game everywhere except for the old man’s sidewalk, where plants were plants and pavement was pavement. The old man would look out with eyes full of scrutiny as we tiptoed by, judging us like God might.
“Where’s your mitten?” my mother would ask as I came back home. “You had two of them when you left. Oh, here it is. Why do you always put it in your pocket? Doesn’t your hand get cold?”
The reason I put my mitten away every time I went out to play with Seth is because of something Charlie once told us. “People always take one of their gloves off when they’re at funerals,” he’d said, “but since you don’t have gloves, your mittens will do.”
“But Charlie,” Seth had whined, “we’re not at any stupid funeral.”
“The old man is always at a funeral,” Charlie had replied. “and you have to respect his funeral.”
Seth and I took in the words like they were from the Bible. We went out of our ways to respect the funeral; on top of removing one mitten each, we bowed our heads, walked in a polite line, and I think once we even brought napkins to use as handkerchiefs and dabbed them at our eyes. None of our attempts were sarcastic, although I’m pretty sure even Charlie said the napkins were over-the-top. Every day, for those five-to-ten seconds when we walked in front of the old man’s house, we would stop our pew-pew-ing and shouting and jumping and walk like a couple of kids who come from a military school.
Sometimes Charlie would walk with us, sometimes he would ride his bike in the street alongside the sidewalk, but he would always join us in our moment of respectful solemnity. At least, usually. There was one day when he brought someone with him who I’d never seen before. When I asked Seth about it, he said, “That’s Jeffery Braker. He comes over sometimes and makes Charlie do bad things.”
“Like what?” I asked, curious.
“Like say bad words,” Seth whispered like a teenager saying bad words was the secret of the century. I gasped.
“Dude, check this out,” Charlie guffawed to his friend, diving his hand into the foot of snow that had fallen the night before.
Seth’s jaw dropped. “You’re not even wearing gloves!”
“You’re not even wearing gloves,” Charlie’s friend mocked back, “Oh my freaking god Charlie, what are we gonna freaking do?” The two teenagers cracked up in a way that stabbed emotional knives deep into Seth. I could tell by the way his shoulders tensed up that he wasn’t going to let this one go.
“I know what I’m talking about!” Seth yelled. “I’m ten! His hands are gonna get cold and then he’ll be sorry!” I thought this was weird because Seth’s birthday hadn’t passed yet. But I didn’t say anything.
“I’m ten,” Charlie’s friend repeated like a half-witted parrot.
Charlie took a wad of snow and smoothed it our for at least twenty seconds until it formed an almost perfect sphere. Then he bent back his arm and threw the ball.
Before either Seth or myself could turn around to see where the snowball had hit, we knew by the look of horror on Charlie’s face.
“Dude, you’re a freaking idiot.” And with those words, Charlie’s friend ran away from the sidewalk in front of the old man’s house.
Somewhere a dog barked. The one street lamp that was illuminating the purple dusk started flickering. Seth stated whimpering under his breath and I grabbed his hand.
The old man was not in his window.
The place where he would usually be glowering out at the world was blotted out by a perfect spot of snow.
“What have I done?” Charlie muttered.
The doorbell on the old man’s door started to twist around.
“Stay in place,” Charlie demanded. He didn’t have to; we were too scared to move.
The old man’s face peeked through a crack in the door. As the crack grew wider, more of him was exposed, down to a walker we’d never seen him use. His winter coat was bright red and his pants were khaki. As the door opened even more, he pulled a blue hat with a sports logo down over his ears.
“I thought people wore black to a funeral,” I murmured to Seth. He nodded. Neither of us took our eyes off of the old man.
“Look, I am so sorry,” Charlie pleaded across the lawn. “We were just screwing around, I never meant to–”
The old man said nothing in reply as he hobbled down the stairs. Tennis balls left round marks in the snow on his stairs that had previously gone untouched. The old man got to the bottom of the stairs and stopped walking, then, leaning heavily on one arm of his walker, bent over.
“I am so sorry,” Charlie tried again.
The old man, wearing chocolate brown mittens, reached down into the snow and carved a perfect ball out of what he pulled up. He pulled his arm back in a pitcher’s stance and, regaining his balance, whipped the snowball right into Charlie’s face.
And then the old man laughed.