Awaken by a morning breeze uncountable trees wave lazily, curling extended fingers to draw me into the cold. Porch floorboards crafted from a long lost barn sigh as they absorb my weight. The air bristles with the dawn of winter as my friends, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Beech and Spruce, steel themselves for the coming onslaught. And with spring having up and left with all her warmth the trees and I stand ready to face the cold of winter.
As far as the eye can see the trees join in community, in concert, as their limbs sway to and fro.
Before finding my perch on the front porch I acknowledge my stoic friends with a tip of the hat. Shuffling, I make my way to a favorite chair. Setting fresh coffee on a wobbly end table I bend slowly, searching the cushion for morning frost. Eyebrows pull tight as I adjust bifocals. And finding the cushion coated with a delicate sheen I flip it over and give it a firm slap. The chilled pillow sends a shiver through my ungloved hand.
The effort is a struggle and I find myself swaying along with the trees.
To and fro my fragile frame sways.
Holding the arm of the chair I steady myself.
From behind cold air rubs the base of a wrinkled neck.
And with the cushion positioned just right I ease an old man’s body into the chair. Brittle legs quiver as I lower myself to a soft landing.
Starting at my ass, the cold of the chair travels up a delicate spine. “Jesus, that’s a wake-up call,” I suggest to the trees. Lazily, they nod in agreement.
Easing back I nestle into a well-worn imprint.
Content, I release a dragon’s plume of breath.
To my right steam drifts from a 40 year old mug adorned with the image of an orange dinosaur. The mug was a gift –glued back together many times – from my son. I watch as the coffee’s steam, like my dragon’s plume, is absorbed by the bristling air.
I think of my children, DJ and Gee, presently on their way to visit me in Vermont.
A tremor jostles hands wrapped in the translucent tissue paper of age.
With caution I raise the dinosaur mug to puckered lips. Gingerly, I sip at my last remaining vice.
And I dream.
Along with this morning’s French Roast I smell the earth.
This was her place; her dream.
Closing my eyes I feel her take my hand. As if slipping under cold sheets I shiver before the feeling of warmth, of safety, takes hold.
Only the trees hear me as I whisper past coffee’s drifting steam. “I love you.”
With eyes shut tight I wait for morning light to tumble over the top of my friends’ outstretched limbs. Patience is soon rewarded as the sun peeks over huddling trees to pour across my face. First my forehead, then my cheeks are soothed. Holding the mug to white lips I am bathed in warmth. My hands, my face and somewhere deep within join together to stem the tide of winter’s advance.
And I dream.
Gravel crackles and I lean forward to spy DJ’s car as it rounds the last bend in the sloping driveway.
Gingerly, I ease my now warm ass toward the edge of the chair. With a healthy shove I stand and, stiffening bent spine, wave to my son. He exits the car and returns my greeting.
“Morning, Dad. Stay there. I’m coming right up.”
I grunt and shuffle back to my chair.
I sit, this time with a plop.
Moving quickly up the steps and across the porch my son falls upon me, warming me with a long hug.
He stands tall and juts his chin to my mug. He smiles; reminding me of his mom. Retrieving the coffee I hold the cup to the sun before stealing a quick a sip. “A gift from someone dear.” I smirk.
My son nods. “And nice hat, too, Dad.”
Returning my cup to the end table I point to the hat with crooked finger. “Remember? 2007 Series. What was it 30 or 40 years ago? In the bleachers with you and Gee, right?”
DJ nods as the memory blooms. “Closer to 30 years and, yeah I remember like it was yesterday. And do you remember the leadoff hitter? And what he did?”
I look up and away, toward the trees as the memory eludes me. I stammer, “I, I, I think … oh what was that fucker’s name?”
DJ laughs out loud, “Jesus, Dad. Why do you swear so much?”
I dismiss his query with a huff.
He answers his own question. “It was Dustin Pedroia. He was a rookie and he slammed it over the Green Monster. Leadoff homer. Man, that was something.”
I throw my hands up as the memory returns in full force. I watch as the ball soars over acres of trees blanketing our front yard. “Fucking Pedroia! Oh my god, I remember! And I remember screaming and hugging you and Gee and jumping up and down and thinking this is gonna be one of the best nights of my life.” I beam. “And it was.”
DJ smiles at the shared memory. He traces my line of sight as I follow Pedroia’s ball on its 30 year journey over the Green Monster. My son furrows his brow as I stare past the trees wondering where the ball will land.
And seeing him grow concerned I pull up my ratty MIT sweatshirt to expose an ill-fitting concert tee shirt.
Cold air tickles a sliver of milky skin as it peeks between the edge of my tee shirt and well-worn sweat pants.
“Hey, DJ. Check this out!”
DJ bends forward. As he squints the first signs of crow’s feet make themselves apparent. He looks just like his mother.
My son stands, clapping hands together. “Ringo! Oh man, those were some of my first concert memories. Seeing Ringo with you and Gee and Mom.” He nods at my aged concert shirt. “Which one was that?”
“Huh, you mean which year? How the hell am I supposed to know! Look at the damn shirt and see what it says!”
“Nice mouth dad.” My son leans forward to inspect the faded tee shirt.
“2006. Man, that was over 30 years ago.” With a pink finger he taps his chin. “You know, people are blown away when I tell them I saw Ringo and Paul McCartney all those years ago.”
Grunting agreement I lean forward. And looking past the porch railing I listen as the crowd below swells to join the trees in the chorus of Yellow Submarine.
DJ scratches the back of his neck as I begin to sing along, my voice raspy with age.
He clears his throat. “Well, anyway, how are you Dad?”
Nodding, I stick out my lower lip. “Me? I’m great. Woke up with a boner this morning! Imagine that! At 75 years old the old horn still works.”
DJ begins to speak but stops. He shakes his head before giving up a smile. “Jesus, Dad. Why on earth would you tell me that?”
“Hey at my age, that’s news!”
I wag a crooked finger at my son. “I remember the first time I heard someone say ‘the old horn still works.’ I was in Lowell. At the Rainbow Club. Worst and best bar in the city.”
Pulling up a chair DJ takes a seat to my left as I settle into a story. He prompts me to continue. “And…”
“Oh yeah, the Rainbow. The Rainbow was on the other side of the projects in the Acre – a dicey section of town. The projects were kinda rough but except for when we were screaming or dancing on the picnic tables at night no one there bothered us. Maybe they’d yell out the windows to tell us to shut up, you know, threatening us, but we’d move along pretty quickly when we saw the lights go on.”
I shake my head as I continue, “We were pretty loud; me and Jeffrey.”
I look to my right as Jeffry gives me a sad-dog smile. “Jeffrey,” I whisper. Like DJ he prompts me to continue with the story. Again DJ traces my line of sight as I reach out to take the hand of my long gone friend.
And again my son’s brow furrows.
“Go on Dad. I mean, is that it?”
Returning attention to my son I stick out an ugly tongue. “No, that’s not it! Jesus Christ, let me think. Oh yeah… well you could get three beers for a dollar and three hotdogs for a dollar at the Rainbow! The place was a total dive. And I remember the front door had a sign on it saying ‘No college students allowed’ but me and Jeff looked so awful they just assumed we were poor. Well, we were! And they welcomed us with open arms!”
I slap my thigh as the smell of smoke, boiled hot dogs and stale beer fills the air. I breathe deep, luxuriating in the stench of a drinking life.
“We’d hang out in the back of the bar with the prostitutes and senior citizens – they were in their 70s and 80s just like I am now – and we’d get them stoned outa their minds in exchange for them buying us drinks with their social security money!’
DJ lurches forward, incredulous. “What? Are you kidding me?”
I cock a bushy eyebrow. “Nope. And we taught the old coots the game quarters and we always made up rules like if you got three in a row you could make two people kiss each other. They loved that shit! (DJ winces) There were old men and even older ladies and they’d be so fucked up (again, DJ winces) they’d be singing and falling into each other and spilling drinks left and right. And so, anyway, this old timer and me were drunk as skunks and he leaned into me and whispered in my ear ‘make a rule so I haveta kiss Matilda over there. Then he nodded to some old bird. And he told me, ‘ The old horn still works you know’ and he grabbed his wang and started howling at the ceiling. I was laughing so hard I peed my pants!”
Pushing back into my chair I grab myself through loose fitting sweat pants and howl. DJ stares open mouthed at his father’s ability to entertain himself.
I rock gently in my chair as the old man at the Rainbow bumps my shoulder. I lean over as he whispers a secret request. And as his warm breath fills my ear I give him a thumbs up, just as I did nearly a half century ago.
My eyes are moistened by the memory of my friends. Inhaling slowly I compose myself. I whisper to no one in particular. “OK. All set.” My hands shake as I reach for my coffee. And seeing me struggle DJ leans over to nudge the cup into my grasp.
“Thank you, buddy.”
We grow silent.
I close my eyes as Liz surprises me with a visit. She leans forward to give me a gentle kiss.
Startled, I open my eyes. My heart skips as I delight in the thought of my wife’s tender touch.
Turning to DJ I see he’s missed the visit. I give him a content smile. In return he scratches his chin, curious. “So, Dad, whatcha doing out here on the porch anyway. It’s kinda chilly this morning.”
I hold up my mug. “Drinking coffee. And thinking.”
“Oh, you know; memories.”
Crossing his arms, my son leans forward. “Uh-huh. Anything in particular? Besides the godforsaken Rainbow Club, I mean.”
I nod as my voice floats up to join the swaying trees.
Turning a stiff neck I face my son. “I’m thinkin’ about how I spent time with you, you know when you had a hard go of it when you were a kid.” I smile. “I was thinking of how we’d go to the Deluxe Diner every Tuesday before guitar lessons and talk and talk and talk. And then I was thinking about when I taught Gee to drive and how we’d always end up at Dunk’n Donuts.” By now my eyes are closed. “And about going out to dinner with you and Gee and Mom and how sometimes I’d try to embarrass you guys in front of the waiters by saying Gee just got outa prison.”
“Sometimes?” DJ tries to interject but I continue, as if in a trance.
“And of giving when I didn’t have much to give.”
I stammer, “Ya know, it’s a little thing but I’m proud of that.”
“Of when I helped people before I was flush. I mean, when you have money it’s easy to help. It’s your responsibility then. It’s good that I helped when I had more than I needed, but that’s not the giving I’m proud of.” I swallow hard. “When you’re poor, well, that’s when it means something. To give when you don’t have much to give. That’s hard. And after spending time with you and Gee that’s one of the things I’m most proud of.”
Silently my son nods his head.
DJ’s phone chirps. He looks toward his wrist and then to me. “It’s Gee.”
I compose myself. “Well, put her on speaker.”
DJ presses the band on his wrist. “Hey, I’m here with Dad. You’re on speaker.”
The voice of my daughter washes over me like a riverfront christening. “Hi, you two!”
I bend toward DJ’s wrist and yell for all the trees to hear. “Love you Gee! Everything OK?”
“Yeah. I’m in town and I’ll be there in like five minutes. Do you guys want anything at D&D?”
DJ looks to me, prompting me to answer.
I thrust my arms high into the air in victory, causing DJ to burst out laughing.
“Gee, you are truly most excellent. I’ll take a small regular and a large decaf, two cream, one sugar. Thanks, Wonderful! Love you!”
DJ chimes in, “And I’ll take a medium iced latte, with mocha. Thanks, Gee.”
“Got it. Love you guys. See you in a bit.”
As she hangs up I jut my chin to DJ. “Iced? I mean, what the fuck? It’s winter!”
DJ cocks an eyebrow as if wondering if my swearing will offend the trees. He shakes his head. “Jeeze Dad, you are truly a piece of work.”
I shrug. My son looks at me, as if taking a measure of his aged father.
Now I cock an eyebrow. “You know something? I knew we’d be here today.”
“Huh? What do ya mean?”
“I mean on the porch. Sitting on the porch, that’s what I mean.”
Smirking, he rubs the back of his neck. “And how’d ya know that, Dad?”
I wriggle myself out of my chair. “Wait here.”
And seeing me struggle to raise myself DJ stands to help an elderly man find his footing. I teeter but my son steadies me. I bristle at my own feebleness before tugging my arm away more forcefully than I’d intended.
“Thanks. I got it. Wait here, OK?”
DJ remains standing on the porch as I enter the house. Making my way to the desk I retrieve a short story printed in anticipation of my children’s arrival. Collecting the papers I gently tap the edges to align 10 pages before rolling the story up to form a tube. I putter back toward the porch where I hand my son the scroll.
“Here. For you and Gee. I wrote this over twenty years ago; back in 2016.”
DJ takes the papers in his right hand. He taps the roll against his left palm, wondering what I’m up to.
I throw out my arms. “Well, read it numb nuts!”
Unrolling the papers, DJ begins to read. As I slowly lower myself into the chair my son steps back. He leans against the porch railing. I monitor his progress as the story unwinds.
His eyes dart from the story to me and back. His voice is quiet. “Dad, how’d you…?”
I wave him off. “Just keep reading. Jesus, you are some piece of work.”
And finishing the story my son’s hands drop to his sides. Shaking his head he steps forward, hovering over my chair. His eyes shine. Silently he smothers me in a hug.
He whispers, “I love you, Dad.”
“And I love you, buddy.”
He steps back, staring. “I mean there’s a bunch of different stuff in here but how’d you know what was gonna happen here today? I mean this is fucking crazy.”
I wag my finger, “Where’d you learn to swear like that?”
I smile the smile of a satisfied father before leaning back. I sneak a sip of coffee before continuing, “My entire life I knew I’d be sitting on a porch – if not this porch then some porch somewhere at some time when winter fell upon me – and I knew my kids would either be visiting me or not visiting me.”
DJ covers his mouth as I move forward with my explanation. “And I knew I’d be sitting here thinking back on what I did when I was young. And I figured I wouldn’t be thinking about how much money I had or what my title was or how much of a big swinging dick I was way back when but that I’d wonder whether I was a good person or a selfish prick.” I rub white whiskers. “I knew when I looked back from this seat (I tap my chair) on the porch I’d know if I was a good father and a good husband and friend and if I helped people.” I sit up straight. “I just knew when I was on this porch it would all be clear.” I stamp my foot. “I’d know the truth … about me.”
I shake my head as if to clarify my thoughts.
“And all those years ago whenever I didn’t know whether to do one thing or another I’d put it through ‘The Porch Test’. I’d simply ask myself what I’d think of my decision when I was an old man, sitting alone on a porch with nothing but my memories to keep me company. And I’d say to myself, ‘Now Beasley, when you look back will you be proud of what you decide to do today?’ And then it’d become clear and I’d know what to do.”
“Whenever I had a chance to spend time doing one thing or another I’d ask myself, ‘Which one is gonna pass the Porch Test?’ and that would tell me what to do.”
My son purses his lips. He tries to speak but words catch in his throat.
“And I gotta tell you, son, when I was younger I busted my fucking balls so we – you and Gee and me and Mom – could have a good life and go after our dreams. And in the end, spending time with you and Gee and making sure I left work early to coach your hockey team or go to Gee’s swim meet or pick you up from school or just see you and Gee for a couple of more minutes always won out. That’s the stuff that passes the porch test.”
I’m surprised by the quiver in my voice and, catching myself, fall silent. And as the morning breeze drifts through the listening trees I follow the cadence of my raspy breaths. Short dragon’s plumes mark my labored breathing.
And in the silence DJ leans forward and kisses my forehead. He lingers and I smell his toothpaste and shampoo. I wipe my eyes with a translucent knuckle.
Without a word my son sits next to me. And scooting close he takes my hand. I squeeze his thick fingers, now much stronger than mine. Softly he squeezes back.
I close my eyes as we wait in silence for Gee to make her way from D&D to join us on the porch.
And as we wait my son and I enjoy the sound of the breeze and the echo of my words as they slip through the outstretched limbs of my friends the trees.
And when the breeze subsides we enjoy the sound of silence.
Gravel crackles and I lean forward to spy Gee’s car as it rounds the last bend in the sloping driveway.
Gently I sip my coffee.
Time passes slowly.
From my perch on the porch I dream of years gone by. Of decisions made.
The air bristles with the dawn of winter as my friends, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Beech and Spruce sway to and fro.
Only the trees hear me as I subtly tip my mug and whisper past coffee’s drifting steam. “To the porch test.”