The white haired old man in the red shirt and blue pants slumped in a broken backed stuffed chair. The air was heavy, and hot, and smelled like a basement furnace room. Next to him, it's door swung wide, a coal stove smoldered. A scarred wooden counter supported an old time cash register with an open drawer. Behind the counter a fly specked map of the United States stood out like a bullet blasted sign amid a shotgun scatter of yellowing business cards. Next to it was a ragged American flag on a tarnished standard with a broken winged eagle perched on top.
“Howdy. Name's Sam,” he said. “You can call me Uncle. Ain't nothin' here to buy or sell. Them days long gone." He pointed at the map. “But we still got them spacious skies.”
“Uncle Sam?” I asked.
“It ain't a joke! Shoot! At least it never used to be.” He replied.” It's just what they used to call me.”
"What used to be here?" I asked.
"Anything you wanted." He replied, and nodded toward the business card speckled wall. "Long as you could pay the price. But that was then. Like I said, them days is gone." He paused and spit on the floor next to his feet. "Long gone."
His milky, cateracted eyes flickered with memories.
"Are you the owner?"
"Shoot! Me?" His mouth twisted in a lopsided, toothless grin. "I ain't the owner of nothin' Bub... not even my own life. Not any more." He added with a limp wave of his fingers against the arm of the chair. "Not any more." He glared at me myopically.
"You lookin' for owners you gotta look real hard to find any around here. You might say the owners are absentee."
He stroked his chin.
“Problem now days is too many people suckin' on the tit, so to speak, instead of doin' the work.”
"What do you mean?"
“What do you think?" He nodded at the flagpole, then lowered his head, and stared at his shoes, while his knobby fingers rubbed nervously at the arms of the chair.
He coughed and glared at me.
"Don't worry, I'm goin' too. I been here long enough."
"Need some help?”
"Why?" He asked, eying me suspiciously. "Eager to take my place?" He wiped his sleeve across his face. "Shoot! That was the way I was once. Look at me now."
"This!" He croaked with a swing of his arm that encompassed the room. “All this usta' mean somethin'." He gestured impatiently at his body. " Been luggin' this load too long. Ain't worth it."
"Mind if I sit down?"
"Can't wait huh? Well you ain't gettin' my chair. Not yet Gosh Darn it! I earned this chair. Even though I might not deserve to sit here any more I ain't givin' it up that easy."
"I didn't ask for it."
"Well you're here ain't you? Can't be that innocent. Next thing I know you'll be tryin' to borrow money."
I sat down next to the stove on a broken banana box.
He slumped back in the chair, and closed his eyes.
I was silent.
"I ain't sleepin' if that's what you're thinkin'." He mumbled."There ain't nothin' here worth stealin' any how, case you got itchy fingers.” He coughed.
"Don't get no funny ideas bud. I can still take care of myself!" He pounded his chest. "I wasn't always like this. Heck no! I was always the wild bunch." He snickered. " At least in my own mind I was. Didn't take crap from nobody. Wouldn't know it now I suppose, but you don't know my mind. I ain't just this wreck of a body, no sir, not by a long stretch of imagination."
"Ah... what's the use in talkin'."
"If you have anything to say."
He nodded."Oh I got plenty to say but what'd be the point? Who wants to hear about old stuff? The world has moved on. Nobody cares. Everything has to be new now. Not that it's worth much. Heck, got ten year old kids inventin' movies so gosh darn real you'd darn near believe anything was possible. Not that there's anything worth knowin' about them. All flash and no bone if you know what I mean."
"I'm not sure I do."
He frowned. "Need it spelled out huh? Nothin' wrong with inspiration. It's aspiration that's the problem. Who in heck wants to take after some comic book hero? Or rape and kill every livin' thing, or own every gosh darn thing there is to own till there ain't room in life ta' just live it, or be one of them gol darned masters of the universe. Monsters of the universe I call 'em. 'Bout as useless as tits on a boar. Or take sex. Ain't there nothin' sacred no more? I call it crazy!" He scratched his jaw. “Shoot we got crazy, the Chinese got everything else. Now there's inspiration, and aspiration, for you. Not that they don't have their faults. Heck, I'm a veteran. I ain't much on Commies. Shoot, can't control everything. But talk about work ethic. Boy oh boy. They say this is the Chinese century. Me, I sure believe it, unless we can get our act together.”
"I see your point."
"Oh yeah. I got somethin' to say about just about anything. That's why I never had any friends. Nobody likes somebody that says it like it is. They usta say 'Sam, you got ta' get along. Go with the flow.' Shoot!”
"It's called politically correct."
"Shoot!" He snapped and spit on the floor." Politicians!" He raked at his hair, and then rubbed his stubbled cheek. "Expediency! agenda! Now those are words them politicians used to use, back when any body paid attention. Me, I used some that might have been a little bit harsher, but like I said, that's why I never had any friends. Too pushy I suppose."
He twisted in his chair.
“Sorry son. I'm just a cranky old man. You ain't goin' to find no answers here. Even
though I've been here so long I know the history of every speck of dust.” He nodded toward the business cards. “Believe it or not, that wall might look like it's covered with bird do, but I knew each and every one of them travelin' salesmen, back when there were still things worth buyin' or sellin'. Back when people still had some pride in their work. Now it's like exchangin' one load of crap for another. In my book crap is crap."
"Shoot, Don't get me wrong. Sometimes I think about openin' new doors. Sometimes I even think I see the handle. Kinda out'a the corner of my eye, you know? But you gotta close one door before you can open another, an' I suppose I don't want to give up what I got. Even though it ain't much any more. Ain't that the trouble with all of us these days?"
“What do you mean?”
"Take all these wrinkles. You don't see wrinkles any more. Not like mine. Everybody has got to be young, young, young! Now you got skin stretched tight like a drum head you'd think them folks would be afraid to tap on for fear they'd break. If you can't play it what's the point of havin' an instrument? Life ain't no art gallery filled up with pretty exhibits. You got to go out an' face the music! Otherwise what's the point? Shoot, people payin' more attention to the flavor of the week than what it's good for. An' most of it ain't good for nothin'!”
His flem choked laughter brought tears to his eyes.
"Whew! Haven't laughed like that in a long time. I wonder how I'd be classified in this allegorical gallery of mine?"
"I suppose it would depend on the contents."
"Hay, there you go now we're startin' to talk 'bout stuff that's real! Remember that poem about Chicago? Lemme see...'Hog butcher to the world, Tool maker, Stacker of wheat, Player with railroads and the Nations freight handler; Stormy,husky, brawling, City of the big shoulders'. What's it all worth now? Them days long gone. It ain't just a poem. It's a way of life. Living proof that we was really here. Heck, all we got now is reality TV. Shoot. Reality."
He fell back in his chair and closed his eyes.
"Yeah, I was a contender once."
"I gave up. I wore down 'till there wasn't energy left to climb the ladder. But It's all in here.” He said and tapped his skull. "You'd be amazed.” He sighed. "Never thought givin' up would get personal though. I always figured, you go to church an' prey an' follow the rules an' you go to heaven. Shoot! I might as well be preying to stars, or spaceships for all the good it did me."
“Just because the blind men couldn't see the elephant didn't mean they wouldn't get stomped ."
"Oh. Kinda' a poet ain't you. But I guess you got a point. Shoot, there used to be a lot of that kinda' talk. I guess now that I'm kinda' what you'd call retired I stopped hopin' things would be different. Now I just sit here in this chair and spout off for anybody that comes through those doors." He frowned, and stared at the old flag. " At least they used to back then when there was plenty of 'big shoulders. Made my bein' here mean something. Now all people come by for is a handout"
His laughter was bittersweet.
"Ah shoot! Who wants to hear an' old coot talking about the old days? Trouble is things used to mean something. There was some real values. I miss them days."
"What about now?"
"Now? What do things mean now?" He paused, and then nodded. "Oh yeah, I see what you mean. Yeah, I suppose it would be hard to find any time when things meant more than they do now. It's not them things I'm talkin' about. That's just crap that ain't worth buyin' no more. It's the things you can't buy and sell. That's whats important to me, pal. That bunch that needs TV anchors to tell them how to think, what do you think would be the first thing in their minds if I said Indians?"
"Probably cowboys, or gambling casinos, or drunks."
"Now you got it! You ain't so dumb."
"Yeah, but those are stereotypes."
"So? What do you think thinking is to people like that? What do you think they'd say if I told 'em that everything is a part of something? Or that something is a part of everything? That's what I mean by Indians. They believed in somethin' bigger than themselves."
"So what's your point?" I said and closed my eyes, sat patiently in the smoke from the stove, and waited.
“Everything is everything,” is the last thing I remembered.
I opened my eyes.
The old man was gone.
The fire was out. The room smelled of burned coal, old age, and wet wool. My neck was stiff and my body felt heavy. I felt as if nothing would ever be new again- that things would be the way they were until the end of time. It made me depressed.
I got up and walked to the door. Above the snow clogged parking lot dawn broke beyond the trees, and with it the sound of crows in the distant treetops- a raucous cacophony that seemed to mock my mood and make me feel that much worse. I went back inside.
The old man was nowhere to be seen. I went to the stove. After I shoveled out a few clunkers and piled them in a beat up bucket. I lit the fire, sat down, and listened to the ticking and clacking of cold iron as it warmed in the hopeful flames like a fitful heartbeat.
I settled back in the big chair as well as I could. Through the streaked glass of the front window I saw more crows congregating in the dead trees. Like mournful black cloaked witnesses they settled into position as if waiting for a trial that had yet to begin. I closed my eyes, but the sound of their cawing grew louder and louder. I got up and went to the window. Beyond the glass the somber sky pressed down against the parking lot, and the trees beyond with a malevolent sullenness that was made worse by the crows whose numbers had increased until now the trees seemed leaved with black flapping specters that screeched and cawed upon the branches.
The old mans voice startled me.
"Sometimes I think they must think there's somethin' dead in here. Maybe it's methey're waitin'' for."
“Yep. Why do you think they call 'em carrion crows? They's just waitin' ta take over.”
He shuffled past me, and pulled the curtain closed.
"No point standing there. They'll only make you crazy" He said.
I turned away from the window.
He was dressed in the same shapeless blue pants he had on when I first saw him, but he had changed his shirt, and now wore a red and black checked woolen shirt- what used to be called a lumberjack shirt.
"What are you staring at?" He asked suspiciously.
"Your shirt." I replied.
He looked down.
"What's wrong with it? Had it since I was a kid."
"Nothing. I had one like it once." I replied.
"Didn't everybody? In them days lumberjacks were kinda like astronauts. Back when it was OK to dream. Paul Bunyan. Shucks! I even had me a Davy Crockett hat! Shoot! Just another hero myth. As I remember, Davy Crockett wasn't all he was made out to be. Ol' Walt Disney kind'a took a lot of things that weren't much, an' made 'em larger than life. Not like now. Heck! Now the heroes are worse than the villeins! I figure we lost sight of what a hero is. Kinds like God. God lost his ability to impress me when we brought him down to earth. It was better when he was up there, mindin' his or her own business. Now everybody feels bein' God's special pal's an opportunity ta tell everybody else what to do. God's been the cause of too much chaos. Be better off if all them God folks was treated like people who smoke. Give 'em places to go do their smoking and places they can't go, like into my living room. Heck ,I can't turn on my own TV anymore without somebody tryin' to sell me some kind'a snake oil guaranteed to save my soul."
He spit on the floor.
"Now if they'd just offer to clean my floor." he added. That might get my attention.”