We Ain’t Jitterbugs No More
An old man sits down on a park bench next to a slightly older old man.
The slightly older man, busy looking out over the horizon where the sidewalk ends, extending 25 yards or so out to a fine point before dropping off into an endless pit of bright blue nothingness like Columbus’ worst nightmare, doesn’t seem to notice the old man sit down next to him. He’s too deep in thought, enjoying the cool peppermint wind blowing into his skin like the good morning kiss of a loving mother who just recently brushed her teeth, as well as basking in the sun as it polishes the day around them with just the perfect amount of vitamin D.
“How you doing?” the old man says after the slightly older man doesn’t acknowledge his presence, his voice sounding like a can of beans in a bomb shelter leftover from The Cold War if a can of beans in a bomb shelter leftover from The Cold War could talk.
“Slow…” the slightly older man replies in the tone of a rusted saxophone solo that, back in its prime, could’ve brought John Coltrane to tears.
“Slow?” the old man repeats.
“Slow. Everything’s in slow motion. Everything’s…”
The slightly older man makes weird, outer space-like motions with his hands.
“And what does that?” the old man asks.
“What does what?”
“What makes everything go in slow motion?”
“Life, man. Life.”
“Ahhh…” the old man says while slowly rotating his neck back and forth, as if trying to stretch the “old” out of it somehow. “But that’s better than fast motion, no? That’s better than crazy and hectic and everything being all…”
The old man makes weird, sped up, outer space-like motions with his hands.
“I don’t know. I’m just sitting here trying to think what my next move is gonna be.”
“Any ideas yet?”
“Not to make one. To stop being so calculated for once. You can’t ask for a lot, man. So much is lost. Nothing is guaranteed.”
“Every day’s gift.”
“Every day is a gift. I mean, we ain’t jitterbugs no more, ya know? Some days I’ll glance up at the sun and feel it smiling at me like the nice, bright fool he is, and I’ll think, Hoooooo-wee, I got me another day. I’d be 75 in January.”
“75? Now that is some time right there.”
“That is some time, man. That is sommmme time. 75 years… I can’t be jitterbugging around no more. Ya know what I mean?”
The old man nods at the slightly older old man who picks up his coffee cup from beside him on the bench and takes a sip.
“Whatcha got there? Coffee?” the old man asks as he picks up his own coffee cup from beside him on the bench.
“Water,” the slightly older man says. “Water in a coffee cup. I’m trying to drink more water, trying to be healthier. I can’t have my coffee without cream and sugar in it. Too bitter, ya know? So water it is.”
“A cup of coffee is all you can ask for if you ask me.”
“Or a cup of water.”
“Or a cup of water…”
They cheers their cups together and both take another sip, long & arthritic-looking. Then the slightly older old man drinking water out of a coffee cup smacks his lips together as if he just drank sweet and sugary coffee. Then the old man refreshingly goes “Ahhh...” after his sip like someone who just took a swig of ice cold, refreshing water. They put their coffee cups back down on the bench. The slightly older man looks down the sidewalk into the park.
“Think we’ll see any action today?” he asks.
The old man cranes his head, looking down the sidewalk along with the slightly older man.
“I don’t know. I— Wait a minute… Is that someone? Is that someone coming?”
“No… No, that’s just a garbage can.”
The old man squints his eyes then looks disappointed.
“Dammit… I do that every day. I always think that garbage can is a person. You think I’d know better by now.”
“Don’t feel bad. We ain’t jitterbugs no more.”
“Stupid place for a garbage can if you ask me…”
“Where were you earlier?” the old man asks the slightly older man. “I came by around ten and you weren’t here.”
“Oh…” the slightly older man says and then pauses for, what feels like, a very long time. “I had some things that needed tending to,” he finally comes out with, but carefully, cautiously, like each word is a card he’s precariously stacking into the shape of a house.
“Yeah. I know that all too well,” the old man says. “There’s always this thing or that. Stuff always keeps coming up. And just when you think you can relax, boom, something new to take care of. Especially the older you get.”
“Ain’t that the truth if I’ve ever heard it,” the slightly older man says. “Ain’t that the truth…”
They cheers their cups together again and take another sip.
“Today’s a good day,” the slightly older man says, looking out over the horizon where the sidewalk ends. “A nice day.”
“A good day for me is when I don’t get up two dozen times to pee because of my prostate problems. And when I get a dry newspaper,” the old man says.
“A dry newspaper?”
“Yeah, sometimes the damn paper boy leaves the paper out on my lawn. Now why would anybody do that? Why would anyone in their right mind leave a newspaper on the lawn when the house has a front porch? Then it rains and I have a god damned wet newspaper.”
The slightly older man makes a Tsch sound.
“Laziness,” he says.
“That’s what it is. Laziness. Laziness and stupidity. You think I can do my crossword puzzle with a wet newspaper?”
“No one can do they crossword puzzle on a wet newspaper.”
“Plus I can’t be walking all the way across the lawn just to get my paper.”
“We ain’t jitterbugs no more,” the slightly older man interjects.
“I had the damn mailbox moved to outside my front door. It’s there, hanging on the house for just that purpose, so I don’t have to walk all the way across the damn lawn.”
“Laziness,” the slightly older man says.
“Stupidity,” the older man says.
“You got that right.”
Their cheers their cups again and both take a sip.
“Hey,” the slightly older man says, looking down the sidewalk, “we got one coming.”
A young man dressed in a t-shirt and basketball shorts approaches, walking down the sidewalk with his left thumb in his mouth and his head miles deep in his mePhone’s ass.
The young man walks past the old man and the slightly older man sitting on the bench.
Then, with his thumb still in his mouth, and his head somehow miles deeper in his mePhone’s ass, the young man walks right off where the sidewalk ends.
The old man and slightly older man shake their heads and pick up their coffee cups.
“He didn’t even scream,” the old man says before taking a sip.
“Probably didn’t even realize he walked off the damn edge of the world,” the slightly older man says, and then takes a sip.
“Thumb probably stuck too far into to his mouth to scream even if he wanted to,” the old man says.
“All that youth, wasted,” the slightly older man says.
“Shame…” the old man mutters.
“Damn shame…” the slightly older man mutters a little bit louder.
They put their coffee cups down. The slightly older man lets out a long sigh (Or was that a moan? the old man wonders), and then shifts in his seat, trying to get comfortable.
“You okay?” the old man asks.
“Yeah,” the slightly older man says. “Just trying to get along… Just trying to get along.”
“It never got any easier, did it?”
“Trying to get along? No… No, I guess it didn’t. At least not for me.”
“When I was younger, like the fool I was—although I guess maybe we were all fools back then, weren’t we?”
The slightly older man gives a slow nod that seems to say, “Amen to that.”
“Anyway, when I was younger—”
“When you was a jitterbug.”
“When I was a jitterbug,” the old man emphasizes, to which the slightly older man nods, “I thought I’d eventually reach a point when I could stop worrying, when I could actually relax. I never did, though. Even after I retired.”
“I hated retirement. I was bored outta my damn mind. Felt like I was crawling out of my skin.”
“Me too. I need to keep busy. Come out here with you. Do a crossword puzzle. Something. Don’t have money to do much else. House is falling apart but I can’t do anything about it. Gutters are hanging halfway off the roof. Just thinking about now it drives me crazy.”
“I know it don’t seem it, but those gutters ain’t important.”
“They’re gonna fall off, though.”
“They ain’t important,” the slightly older man repeats, but this time sternly unlike the time before.
“Ahhhhhhh…” the old man says and waves the slightly older man off.
After a minute or so of coffee-sipping near silence, the slightly older man motions down the sidewalk with his head.
“We got another one.”
A woman, late 20’s or early 30’s, walks down the sidewalk. She, like the young man before her, has her left thumb in her mouth and her head miles deep in her mePhone’s ass.
The woman walks past the old man and the slightly older man sitting on the bench.
Then, with her thumb still in her mouth, and her head now miles deeper in her mePhone’s cavernous ass, the woman walks right off where the sidewalk ends.
The old man and slightly older man shake their heads, almost in unison.
“Shame…” the old man says.
“Damn shame…” the slightly older man says.
They take sips of their respective beverages and then, contemplatively, and with his eyebrows furrowed, the slightly older man asks, “Where you think they go?”
“Who?” the old man asks as he brings his coffee up to his lips again, but very slowly and very carefully, like he’s been burned by this coffee before and he’ll be damned if he lets it happen to him again.
“The jitterbugs,” the slightly older man says. “Like you think they just fall for forever or what?”
“Gotta hit something sooner or later,” the old man reasons.
The slightly older man thinks this over for a second, and then; “I know we usually just sit here and shoot the breeze, that we never really get into anything too deep, but do you think it’d be alright if I asked you a question?”
The old man thinks this over for a half-second.
“I don’t see why not,” he says.
“Even a serious question?”
“Sure. Go ahead.”
The slightly older man leans all the way back against the bench, his posture becoming very straight and serious, and he places his hands palms-down on his thighs as if bracing himself for something.
“I dunno…” he says. “It’s just… You ever wonder about stuff?”
“What kinda stuff?”
“Like big stuff… Like why we’re here, where we go afterwards. That kinda stuff.”
“I try not to,” the old man says. “I’ve never been a big thinker. Never had the brains for it to be honest. I could take an engine apart and put it back together again with my eyes closed, but big thinking? Politics? Stuff like that? It’s never been for me. I just tried to keep to my head down and work hard and go through life as honestly as possible, and then hope that whatever does come next, if anything at all, well…” He pauses. “I just hope it’s a little bit kinder, ya know? That it hurts a little bit less than this all has.”
“Yeah…” the slightly older man says. “I understand that.”
For fifteen minutes, they sit in silence.
For fifteen minutes, they don’t touch their drinks.
For fifteen minutes, they barely even move.
And then, like a nauseous and sun-drunken sledgehammer, the slightly older man shatters the silence.
“I got cancer…”
The silence quickly collects and rebuilds itself. The old man squirms around in his seat like he can’t get his old bones comfortable. He looks straight ahead at nothing in particular.
The slightly older man takes a sip of his water and then, looking down at the lid on his cup, he says, “That’s where I was this morning. At the doctor’s. I’ve got a tumor on my pancreas and the doctor says there’s nothing he can really do about it either. He says—”
“He can’t operate on it,” the old man interrupts. “The pancreas, it’s too sensitive to be operated on.”
“Yeah…” the slightly older man says.
“I lost my oldest sister to pancreatic cancer,” the old man says. “Gloria.”
“Oh… Well, I sure am sorry to hear that,” the slightly older man replies.
The old man nods.
“I’m sorry too, man. Ya know… about you.”
“Mm…” the slightly older man says. “Thank you.”
The slightly older man closes his eyes and takes a deep breath, filling his lungs with the fresh, clean, peppermint air, and then lets it out slowly. He stands up and holds his coffee cup out toward the old man.
The old man looks at it for a moment, then takes it.
“Don’t worry about them gutters too much. They just gutters, ya know?”
The old man nods.
The slightly older man gives the old man a little salute with his hand then turns around.
With his thumb nowhere near his mouth, and looking exactly where he’s going, he walks right off where the sidewalk ends.
After his friend disappears from sight, the old man looks down at the now-dead man’s water in a coffee cup.
He takes a sip, winces.
He takes the lid off the coffee cup, holds it up to his nose and sniffs.
The old man cracks a sad, little smile as the peppermint wind rushes past. Somewhere he hears birds even though there aren’t any in sight, which doesn’t say much, he knows, considering how much his sight has gone to shit over the years.
The old man looks down the sidewalk with his shit-vision.
He thinks sees someone coming with about an 80% certainty it’s not the garbage can trying to make a fool out of him again.
As his old eyes adjust, he sees a teenager with her left thumb in her mouth and her head miles deep in her mePhone’s ass approaching him, completely oblivious she’s on track to walking right off where the sidewalk ends.
“Hey,” the old man says to the teenager as she passes by him on the bench.
The teenager stops. She takes her head out of her mePhone’s ass and looks at the old man.
“There is a place where the sidewalk ends
And before the street begins,
And there the grass grows soft and white,
And there the sun burns crimson bright,
And there the moon-bird rests from his flight
To cool in the peppermint wind…” the old man recites.
“Whuh?” the teenager says with her thumb in her mouth.
“I said, you need to look where you’re going,” the old man says and points ahead at where the sidewalk ends.
The teenager follows the guidance of his crooked, twig-like figure and her eyes widen in “Holy shit...” shock.
“Dank oou,” the teenager says with her thumb still in her mouth.
“What? Take your damn finger out of your mouth.”
The teenager takes her thumb out of her mouth.
“Thank you,” she says, clearly.
The old man gives a grumpy, little nod. The teenager puts her thumb back in her mouth, sticks her head up inside her mePhone’s ass, turns around and walks back down the sidewalk.
“Jitterbugs…” the old man says, and pours the now-dead man’s vodka into his coffee.
He takes a sip. Something about it makes him feel young again as he sits there alone, his mind chugging along like a Model T down the countryside of his thoughts.
The old man thinks about this.
He thinks about that.
He thinks about a lot of things.
None of which, however, involving rain gutters.