The men who live in the woods behind my house had been getting out of hand for some time. They were all in their mid-fifties, golfers formerly, and meat eaters -- jolly men in general -- but since... [+]
The trail was cold, and the dog stopped to catch the wind. A young man scurried across the street towards a coffee shop, collar turned up to the cold. The dog bounded to the restaurant door and blocked his way.
Michael Lyman looked into the dog's eyes and drew back. The big white, chocolate eared hound regarded him coolly with its one good eye. The other was a featureless, white orb, in a star shaped patch of brown fur. " Don't let him intimidate you, son," a voice said from behind. A bronze, muscular arm took the animal's collar and pulled him clear of the door. " My name is Ray," he said, "and I'm a bum. Would you stake me to a cup a' coffee? Maybe a scrap of toast for my dog?"
Michael froze. "Coffee." he said, regarding the dog warily.
"Coffee," Ray nodded.
Michael pulled the door open. "The dog stays out here."
The old man bent his form into the booth near the door, pulled a beaten-up book from his back pocket and tossed it onto the seat. The waitress appeared. "The usual, Rita,” Michael said. “Get my friend here coffee and an order of toast." Rita scribbled on her pad, tore off the check and slapped it on the table.
"Glad to meet you, Mick," the old man said, one large hand extended. Michael gave it a long look.
"How in hell do you know my name? Have we met?"
"No, not like you mean. I saw it on that fancy briefcase. Michael J. Lyman, right?" The case sat at his feet, an airline name tag now turned in, out of view. "I read a lot,” Ray said. “Read anything and everything. Lord knows, I got time to read”.
"Aren't you cold?" The old man wore work pants and a stained white shirt, sleeves rolled up. No jacket.
"Cold as hell," Ray nodded. "You get used to it."
"No family anywhere?"
"Seattle. But family's why I can't stay put. I'm a mean, vicious drunk, son. Owned a sawmill in Seattle. Had a pretty little wife who gave me two beautiful boys."
"I'm sorry," Michael said, "this really isn't any of my business."
"Of course it is, Mick. You provide the coffee and I provide the conversation. I wanted the boys to follow in my footsteps one day. Trouble was, my footsteps led to a gin mill.”
Rita was back with eggs and toast and two mugs of coffee. Michael pushed one of the mugs into Ray's hand. The dog outside rose up on his hind feet and pressed his nose to the glass. "Get down, Star,” Ray said. “In my own good time, damn it." Ray sipped his coffee and continued. "Worked so hard I took to having a couple of drinks at night to bring me back down. Then a couple a' shots at lunch to dull the pain. Then three belts every morning to get out of bed without dry heaves."
The hound was leaning into the glass door as one of the regulars tried to pull it open. The dog scurried inside and straight to the booth, blocking Michael's exit.
"Ray, I got to go."
"He ain't lettin' either of us out of here just yet, Micky."
"Why the hell not?"
Ray shook his head. "I don't rightly know, but I do know that's how it works."
"I've got an appointment.”
Ray sighed. "I guess talkin' has sort of become my job." Ray pointed at the dog, who stared him down for a moment, then settled to the floor. "I wasn't sober much, after that. Woke up one day in Kansas City. No idea how I got halfway across the country, hung over and heaving my guts up."
"You make it back home?" Michael asked, one eye on the dog.
"Sure." Ray nodded. "Got drunk and beat Bernice again, then I left for good. Last time was within an inch of her life."
Michael looked at his watch. "Ray, look, you don't have to tell me all this."
Ray closed his eyes. "I almost killed myself then. Just the thought of my son finding his mother soaked in her own blood, under the kitchen table, where she crawled to get away from me."
"What stopped you?"
"Oh, I wanted to die, son, but I stopped fighting it that night. I never asked for this life, and it's not much in most folks eyes, but I've got it. And life's a pretty damned precious thing."
"You started drinking again..."
"Oh, hell yes. On the way home from the hospital. Mick, I never chose drinking but it sure as hell chose me. Traveling keeps people I love out of harm's way."
"He walks with me every day, Mick. But even He don’t come near me at night. Just drunks and that cursed old dog."
Michael felt a tingling in his fingers. "Why are you telling me this?"
"‘Cause you're like me," he said, pointing to the dog, "you need that one eyed hound to do your seein' for you."
Michael sat stiffly, his jaw, neck and left arm tight and tingly. He struggled to stand. The dog rose with him. "That's it, I'm outta here."
"Mick, some of us don't get it figured out till it's too late to be nothing but a bum. Some never figure it out and take a flying leap off a bridge one day." Michael slumped against the seatback to catch his breath.
"This world ain't just rock and river, Mick. It's people. Young girls, little boys, gabby old men and crazy one-eyed dogs. It's alive, Mick, and it needs every living thing that's in it. Even me. Even you."
Michael clutched his arm. "I've got news, Ray. I'm one of those guys who isn't sure he can handle his own problems, let alone anyone else's."
The old man nodded. "Along the way we get this notion we're the only ones who see that we’re working without a net. We all are, but only a few of us know it. That's why we all need each other, Mick. You think it's a curse, but it's really a gift. A grand and wonderful gift."
Michael's breath was labored and choppy now.
“Me? I turn a corner, follow Star down another damned hill and---there’s the reason I've been sent down this road. Last time I was up this way was thirty years ago, just after I got a job with the Army Corp of Engineers. They had clear cut land in the White Mountains and wanted it reseeded." He held out his hands, palms up. "I held every last one of those seedlings in these two hands before they went out to the planting crews."
Michael slumped from the booth and Ray rose to catch him and ease him down. The old man dropped to the floor, pulled the tie loose from Michael Lyman's throat, put one hand on his sweaty forehead and lifted his chin with the other.
"No breathing, no pulse!" he shouted. "Call 911!" Ray bent low and breathed two full breaths into the young man’s lungs and watched the chest rise and fall. The skin was ashen. Ray began chest compressions, repeated the breaths, and saw color surge back into the face.
A police officer came through the front door as Michael opened his eyes. "You know CPR?" the cop asked the old man.
"No, sir. Just here when it happened."
"Step back, then." Ray settled back on his haunches and smiled as Michael's gaze found him. "You needed somebody like me, son. You needed it firsthand. You got a good heart under that suit of clothes, Mick. I'm here to tell you. And you struggle every day because you can't stop everyone's suffering. Maybe not even your own. You can't solve it all, so you’ve lost the courage to try to solve any of it."
"Hey, Pop," the cop barked. "back up and give him some air.”
Ray slid back into the booth. Michael's hand reached up and Ray took it. "He’s about the age my own boy would be now," he told the cop. He smiled down at Michael. "Micky, the next time you think one good person don't matter in this world, get in your car and drive up to the White Mountains along the Kancamagus Highway, look out over those fine, tall trees and say to yourself, 'Mister Man, a bum did that. ' Then you imagine what you could do."
The old man and his dog stood in a fine, powdery snowfall until the EMTs had their patient safely on his way. Rita called from the doorway. "What do you mean telling that cop you didn't know CPR? I saw you with poor Mr. Lyman. You saved his life."
The old man pulled a dog-eared book from his back pocket. "Found it on a bench in a Roadway Terminal a few days ago," he said. "Ain't that grand? Red Cross CPR. Lord knows, a man like me's got plenty of time to read."