On my way home I would pass a modest house with a narrow, floor-to-ceiling living room window facing the street. In an easy chair, I could see an old man reading by the light of a brass lamp. Nearby were two cats who I named Port and Starboard.
And so, in 1985, began my relationship with this man that stretched nearly 18-years. I never said one word to him.
I DID create a life for him and would share the daily installments with Ruth, my wife, who thought I gone quite mad.
I figured his life was built around habits. For instance, I decided at precisely 8:45pm he shuffled to the kitchen where his cats would be waiting. The man pulled out a carton of ½ and ½ from the fridge; pour some into a saucer; put the saucer in the microwave for 10-seconds … to knock off the chill … and then set it down on the floor for the cats. Then it was bedtime.
The man became part of my ritual. Bad day or good day, as long as I saw him reading in his chair, the world was okay. His presence provided a rhythm which I counted on.
Occasionally I would see an unfamiliar car in the driveway. Once I caught a glimpse of a man in his 50’s. I assigned him the role of son … and not a very nice son.
In real life, I happened to see the son with a cat carrier. I was upset. How could the son take a cat away? And that’s how I violated the Prime Directive. I mixed The Real World with the Make-believe one.
Turns out, he was not the old man’s son … he was a kid brother. He was taking the sick cat the vet. I saw it was Starboard and he looked OK to me. I sensed something was wrong. I was right.
A few days later, the second cat, Port, disappeared. The old man died right afterwards.
I suffered from a vague sense of loss for weeks. I had lost a man I never knew yet he was a visible confirmation that despite change swirling all around us, he, at least, was always there … quietly reading while his cats waited patiently for the saucer of ½ and ½ .
The day before we moved from California, I drove past the house one final time. There was a crowd of people lined in front. A sign jammed into the lawn declared an estate sale. I immediately parked and got in line. In the living room it looked so weird to see the chair, the table and the lamp from this angle. A woman was unplugging the lamp. To my shame, I went up to her and said that the lamp belonged to me and I pulled it out of her hands. I paid $20.
It sits on my reading table now. It sits on my reading table now. I’m content to have this lamp in my world.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.