FAMILY



Harry Clark had been getting into a habit of letting his mind go wandering back to the old days in the 'sixties, when he used to go out afternoons and early evenings with the boy, who was saving up money mowing lawns. He had made up a trailer out of an old Crosley axle to tow the push mower and a few tools. He was always skillful with his hands and could sharpen the reel on the power with nothing more than a sharp file and good sense of where to file and how to tighten up the setscrews. Those reel mowers cut real close if they are sharp and no need to go downtown to the man with the sharpening machine if I can do it myself. Good for the boy to see what you can do yourself with a little practice, good lesson for Sonny for in the future.

There was a crisp feel in the air but no frost yet, this would be last time to go out mowing and cleaning up leaves before fall really came in. "You ready, Pops, I'll go get the rakes and we can get going." Down to Oak and over to Cherry, a quick mow and cleanup for the old folks who live there. They always want to get things tidied up, it's on their mind to get everything settled before winter.

Sometime his school friend Joe from down the street came along. He was from a big Italian family, he liked to talk and ask questions and was always asking how you get that reel mower to cut so fine, maybe you would teach me how to file it like that, Mr. Clark, I'd sure appreciate that. But after a while when the boys got raking he would quiet down and work along with Sonny. He was a quiet boy that Sonny, always kept his mouth shut, busy with his work whatever he was doing and nothing much showing on the outside.

Those afternoons while Sonny was working, he would sometimes sit on their front porch with the old folks and talk about how things had been changing after the War, what they were going to do when came up for retirement and how their children were doing out in California. Or if the lady was still kneeling over the plants in the garden he would go over and get a rake and do a little cleanup for her while they talked about the weather. And when Sonny was done they would cruise down the avenue to the last lawn to mow, when he could just sit in the car and watch the light fading among the gingerbread houses flanked by their butternut and maples, all tokens of an easy and comfortable life from the old days. These lawn mowing evenings were good for the mind, he was content to be there with his boy, he would remember the mild September air later in the grip of February and think ahead to the coming of the next summer when they would be there again, enjoying the evening calm with Sonny mowing the lawns.

This had been an especially good evening, he thought to himself, as he put the rakes in the trailer and thoughtfully drove homewards. It had already become quite dark by the time they got there, Madge had gone to bed but left a note that she had put dinner on the kitchen table for them. He said you just go on and eat, Sonny, I am tired and want to go up and rest a little, see you tomorrow morning. OK? He must have been very tired because he went upstairs and dropped on his bed right off, falling immediately into a deep and timeless sleep.

She tried to make light of it the next morning at breakfast. "You can never guess what happened, Harry came in from his long walk last night and he must have been very tired, because he went to bed right away. But I could't find him this morning until I heard his breathing, and where in the world do you think he was? Why he was in the guestroom. Yes, the guestroom. Lucky Aunt Julie wasn't visiting, imagine her scream finding a man in the dark trying to climb into bed with her. " She was trying to see the humorous side of the situation, but in her inner mind she was troubled. What if this sort of odd behavior were to go on? What if it were to get worse?

He liked to follow the order of the names of the streets on his daily walks, it was reassuring to know they were all in the right order from Ash to Beech and Cherry to . . . . sometimes he couldn't remember Dogwood but he would see a lady with a dog on a leash and it would come back again. He did wonder what they had done with the end of the alphabet, what about the letter Z? He found Zebrawood in the Encyclopedia but he knew that was funny because there were no zebras in this country. Sometimes it was a struggle between Maple and Magnolia, but then he tried each of them out as part of the nature of the state, and there was no problem at all. Sometimes he would see a fellow hauling a large garbage can to the curb, he would call over and ask if he needed a hand. Once he helped an old lady with a cane over the boulevard, but when they reached the other side he surprised her by asking if she could point him to Cherry Street so he could find his way home. He knew things were slowing down, but it didn't bother him at all because he was having a nice time living and walking around and trying to remember things which seemed intent on slipping away. He thought of this as an exercise or as a game. Wasn't this what a well designed game was intended to be like, after all?

He told Madge about his walks and the funny things that happened to him as he went ambling about town, thinking that she would be much amused. She nodded and smiled and told him it was good he was keeping busy, and the walking was, as the doctor had said, very good for his health. But she knew he was moving away into a private world of his own, and that eventually she would lose the companionship of her husband of many years. She needed him still, she knew that when she tried to talk with Sonny who would never say anything more than "Well, that's the way it is!" before walking away. He had never been a great talker, she knew that, but she was sure he had deep feelings somewhere inside. She did hope so.

Sonny still lived at home. He had been engaged several times but it was broken off when his short temper came out at an unlikely and unsuspected time, frightening the girl but reinforcing his own notion that women were just after his salary and not interested in him as a man at all. Silent, sour and likely to become angry on the spot, he was not a good choice. Now in his forties, his life centered about long hours at the factory where he had become a foreman in charge of a rough crew of materials handlers. He had knocked one man down on the floor in the middle of an argument, the boss told him not to let into anything like that happen again, but smiled to himself knowing that Sonny was a tough foreman, the kind who could keep things in order. After work he had a few beers with some friends downtown, got a pizza to take home and eat in the kitchen alone, he watched TV until getting sleepy and then up to his old room where his highschool football trophies were lined up on a shelf and model airplanes still hanging from the ceiling, and so off to bed. His life was arranged in a small circle, he wasn't happy with it but he didn't really mind. "What the hell is life supposed to be, anyway" he would say to himself once in a while, then shrug and go on living just as before.

Sometimes Harry tried to talk to Sonny. He would tell him about his walks and the names of the trees and a funny story about how he had got lost and was frightened by all the new streets and new houses, until he found one place which looked familiar and it all started to come back to him. He treated his losses of memory as a game in which he could lose a great deal more, or could win it all back if he did the right moves. By thinking of life this way, he avoided the possibility of going down into a well of depression from which he could not get out. But when he tried to talk about these things, Sonny would just shake his head as if he couldn't understand the words, and say to himself that the old man is going off his rocker. Of that he was perfectly sure, and he knew that sooner or later it would get worse. They would have to do something about it!

It went on that way for some years. But Harry knew he was losing the memory game. He had some occasional wins but the losses were mounting up and the tally was increasingly in his disfavor. He had a few shocks when he found his mind going entirely blank, it scared him badly when he found he couldn't even recall the names of the alphabet streets, so he would go to bed early and see if it was better in the morning.

One night he knew that the rules of the game had been changed. He woke after midnight with a strange jolt. Sitting up in bed he was looking around the room, he noticed that everything was different, the furniture had all been changed, the large painting of a fall afternoon in the woods had been replaced with framed photographs of family members, all looking somehow very much older. That must be me down there at the bottom, I guess. His eye was roving around the room when he saw three large suitcases standing near the doorway, as if everything were packed and someone was leaving and ready to go. It couldn't be me, I don't want to go anywhere! I am very happy with my memories and these are the best years of my life.

He was going to throw one suitcase up on the bed and see what was inside but it seemed unusually heavy to his hand so he let it stay. He went to the closet to get a robe but everything was changed, the old overalls folded on the shelf were all gone and the hangers on the rod were empty. Feeling somewhat confused, he lay down on the bed to rest and fell into an uneasy sleep again.

The sun was now coming through the shuttered windows. He sat up rubbing his eyes not quite sure where he was. He thought he heard the voice of an elderly woman calling up the stairway: "Harry, are you up now? Come down and have a little breakfast and then we should be ready to go. Sonny, would you go up and bring down those three bags and put them in the pickup. You'll have to get going soon if you want to get there on time."

Madge didn't look herself, she looked very old, her voice was thin and she seemed to have been crying. She said she wasn't feeling well, maybe you two go on alone and I'll stay here, I don't feel up to that long trip right now.

Sonny was driving. He tried to talk to him and asked him about all the things which seemed to him to have happened so strangely in the night. But he didn't understand what he was talking about, he just nodded his head as if to say a vague Yeah as he drove watching the road fixedly. Sonny never was a good talker but it seemed now his silence might have a different meaning. He really wanted to reminisce with him all about those mild evenings on the lawns as summer faded into fall and the crisp air prognosed a wintertime to come. He was recalling taking the mower off the trailer and raking the garden of Mrs. Norris, and driving the street down Oak to where you turned right on Cherry, these things were as clear in his mind as in a photograph and he wanted to talk to someone about them.

Sonny said nothing until they got to the gate of a fenced building with a sign in big letters over the entry. There were large lawns well mowed with chairs and tables at which old people with white hair were sitting playing cards. Stopping at the front door, Sonny said to wait here, he went up and talked with a man in a white uniform at the door. Then he got the suitcases out of the car and motioned to follow him into the office. He was signing some papers, he gave a gesture to his father to put his signature at the bottom twice with the date. The man in the white suit took the suitcases up the a room on the second floor, Sonny opened them and put the clothes on hangers in the closet, he brought the empty suitcases down to the car. He came back to shake hands quickly and wish him well, before going down the stairs and out.

Driving out the gate, he said to himself with a sigh of relief, that he was glad it was all done and over with. He hadn't made a fuss about it or complained with tears in his eyes that he really wanted to die at home the way his father and grandfather had. But that was in the old days, now things are different and we have to go along with the times, he reassured himself. Later that afternoon he was back home, his mother was upstairs in her bedroom where he could hear a soft sound of muffled crying through the door. Best leave her alone, she'll come out of it all right.

He was going to put the car into the garage for the night, when he noticed the little Crosley trailer with tires flat over there in the corner with a couple of old bamboo rakes and the reel mower on it under a tarp. He was about to go back the house when he thought about it again and came back for a second look. "Won't be needing to have that old stuff around any more, might as well drag it out to the the curb now and put a FREE sign by it tomorrow. If nobody takes it away next week, I'll call the man who picks up junk, might get five bucks for it."

"She didn''t even leave dinner on the table for me, she's getting addled too, can't remember things right anymore. Maybe I'll go down get a burger and see if any of the fellows from work are hanging out at the bar, might cheer me up with a couple of beers. Been a long day, really takes it out of you."



William Harris
www.middlebury.edu/~harris