The Old Man and the Ponytail Palm
Fall’s final days. Along the street, there were rundown cars wearing discarded leaves, parked bumper to bumper, and there were walkups, leaning against one another in their drooping skins—crumbling brick, sagging window frames, peeling paint—all looking bone-weary in the gray day. On the sidewalk, a boy watched his father lean forward in his aluminum-framed folding chair. The chair’s joints squeaked. His father’s red sweat suit bulged through the chair’s tan webbing, like fruit bubbling through a lattice-patterned pie crust. The boy leaned forward in his chair, too, holding the neck of his coat over his mouth to hide his moving lips. His father didn’t like the boy’s counting habit. His father didn’t like much about the boy.
They both studied the checkers on the board laid out on the overturned crate between them—the father calculating his next move, the boy verifying again the number of squares on the checkerboard—204 squares in total, 64 one-by-one squares, 49 two-by-two squares, 36 three-by-three squares. The boy counted them all. If he missed a square, if his count was off, he would tense and have to start again. If he counted all the squares and reached the conclusion he had come to expect, he would relax, but just for a moment. Reason told him the number of squares was unchanging, but he had little confidence in reason.
His father smiled. The boy smiled, too, even though he knew his father was ready to make his winning move. His father always won. The boy knew this was the way it should be. His father’s thick, chafed hand reached out and bounced a checker across the board, eliminating almost all of the boy’s pieces. His father laughed, his voice deep and rumbling. The boy laughed, too, and started to count again. One eight-by-eight square. Nine six-by-six squares. He started counting the16 five-by-five squares on the board when his father interrupted him with full-body, quaking coughs. When his father caught his breath, he lit a cigarette and drew a deep puff. “It is a good day,” he said in his bulky Russian accent.
The boy nodded and discretely tucked his hand under his thigh and leaned his weight down on his fingers to press the need to count out of him. It was a good day—too good of a day for the boy to ruin with his bad habit. His father was in a rare mood. There were only two tenant calls so far—a leaking faucet and an unfixable squeak that seemed to sound at whim (all in the tenant’s head, his father had said, laughing). Slow days made for happy days for his father. His father stuck out his leg to stretch his stiff knee and motioned for the boy to set up the checkerboard again. The boy shivered. His father assumed the shiver had sprung from a chill. He didn’t understand the boy was just excited to start counting again. “This weather. It is like summer,” his father said.
The boy didn’t look up. He just nodded and set a checker carefully down in a red square, the fifth square in the second row. “Pskov is much colder,” his father said. The boy nodded again. He knew this was his father’s kind of weather.
Looking at the boy, his father decided they would sit out each day to build up the boy’s strength. New York City weather was making the boy too soft. He sucked on his cigarette and watched the boy painstakingly center each piece within its square. His boy could tolerate imperfection no more than he could the cold, he thought. He shamefully wondered at times if the boy was really his. They had the same milky blue eyes. The boy had wheat-colored hair and freckles just as he did when he was young. But these were their only similarities. The boy wasn’t much like his mother either. At least their offspring was alien to them both.
The boy finally finished his precision work. His father flexed and straightened his leg again as he bent forward to make his first move. Mimicking his father, the boy stuck his leg out, too, but when he saw a young woman, bundled in a long coat, approaching them on the sidewalk with heavy-looking grocery bags, the boy pulled his leg back to give the woman room. His father, focused on the checkerboard, didn’t bother to move. Shaking her head, the woman stepped off the sidewalk to get past the boy’s father. Maybe when he was as big as his father, the boy thought, he wouldn’t need to worry about being in anyone’s way either.
“Go,” his father said.
The boy rushed to push a piece into an open space. As his father laughed and pounced on the boy’s checker, a cab came to a stop at a narrow gap between two parked cars. The cab’s back door opened and a cane was flung out. A hand, covered in a tangle of blue-green veins, gripped the cane, and Mr. Tinder, who lived in 3C, slowly emerged from the backseat. The old man didn’t bother closing the door behind him as he climbed the sidewalk curb. Muttering, the cab driver hopped out, slammed the back door shut, and sped away. The boy’s father shook his head. The boy started to shake his head, too, but stopped when he saw the old man looking at them.
The boy’s father cleared his throat and stubbed out his cigarette on the crate. “Don’t mess with garbage. Okay, old man?”
Mr. Tinder, ignoring the boy’s father, lurched into his next step. The boy noticed a paper bracelet around the old man’s wrist. A kid in school had worn a bracelet like that when he had his appendix out last year. The bracelet was proof of the kid’s hospital stay, of his right to brag about the needles, about being put under and having to face, what the kid had called, the blackness of death. The boy watched the old man move slowly up the six steps leading to their building’s door. With tottering knees, the old man paused between each step to make sure his cane was firmly positioned before moving again. He had to climb to the third floor inside. He’d be climbing forever, the boy thought. He imagined day turning to night, winter ending, and the old man still taking uncertain steps forward.
“Dmitri,” his father said. “Move.”
The boy, sitting on his hand, trying not to count the increasingly empty spaces in front of him, picked up a checker and carefully set it down in the center of the fourth square in the fifth row. His father laughed again and swooped in for his move.
The old man finally made it to his apartment door. He stood, breathing hard, leaning on his cane, digging in his faded gray pants for his keys. When he finally found his keys and got his hand steady enough to work, he turned the lock.
He stopped just inside the door. His eyes began to tear, not because of the overwhelming smells of mildew, mold, and dust that hung thickly in the air (his sense of smell and sensitivity to the allergens had faded years ago), but because of all the remembrances of her that cluttered the apartment—towering stacks of books and magazines they had read aloud to each other (or would have); the fractured mirror, with the key hooks along its bottom, that she always paused in front of to make sure her teeth were lipstick-free before dashing out; the tinsel from their last Christmas together wrapped around the refrigerator handle, its shiny silver she had loved dull now; the fan with a cracked blade that she used to set directly in front of her, the air churning through the crack sounding galvanic lullabies on relentlessly muggy nights; the moss-green couch, sagging from years of their sitting, with mismatched pillows—one creamy yellow, one burnt orange; the random hat she liked to wear donning the sturdier book stacks—all the things they had accumulated together, all the things he knew she would have loved. The four days in the hospital away from their apartment, away from her were unbearable.
He hooked his keys on the mirror and shuffled to their bedroom. The bed was made. She would have hated it if it weren’t. Her favorite dressing gown—the apple green one that came down to her knees and sat low on her chest (a little something for you, she always teased)—hung on the over-the-door hooks they had found, like most things in their apartment, at their favorite scavenging spot—the apartment building’s garbage cans in the alley out back. He went directly to the window, and his fingers automatically found the dimples in the plastic blinds where they habitually pressed. He looked at the narrow alley below where the building’s waste was collected. He sighed. There was nothing much to see, just a garbage bag a lazy neighbor had tossed next to an empty can. The bag had ripped, spilling used tissues, black banana peels, and pink and yellow Styrofoam plates stained red from the raw meat they once packaged. The rest of the garbage had already been taken out front and hauled away.
The boy’s parents talked about what they usually talked about over dinner—bills. Their Russian words sounded harsh. The boy knew, though, that his parents were more tired than angry. His mother, fed up with the circular talk of who owed what, asked the boy about his homework. In English, the boy told her he was almost done. Only English for the boy. They didn’t want him to sound like they did, like he didn’t belong. His mother commented on how much more homework they assigned in the fourth grade and served him more tuna noodle casserole, an American dish she liked for its cheap ingredients and easy preparation. His father dropped his fork and grumbled about the building’s owner, a rich man who hadn’t reimbursed him yet for the part he bought for the boiler. The boy took a big bite to please his mother, and as his father continued to complain, the boy thought about the old man. He imagined him still stepping slowly up the stairs to his apartment. At his pace, he could be snoring on a step right now. “Papa, can you time me?”
“You’re not done with dinner, Dmitri,” his mother said.
His father patted the boy on the shoulder. “It is good training.” His father leaned back in his chair and picked food from his teeth. “He is fast. Maybe he will run in the Olympics some day, no?” The boy felt the burden of his father’s smile. He knew he would never be fast enough for the Olympics (and he had no real interest in trying to be), but for his father, he smiled, too.
Leaning against the open apartment door, his father checked his stopwatch. The boy crouched down and straightened and re-straightened his laces. Running the stairs was something his father used to make the boy do to punish him for his weakness, to make him stronger. Running up and down the stairs never felt like punishment, though, to the boy. Counting the steps from the basement apartment reserved for the super to the top floor—88 up and 88 down—was exhilarating. And he could count them fast. When his father saw how fast the boy could run, the stair jaunts stopped being a form of punishment for his father, too. Speed wasn’t weak. His father introduced a stopwatch because he had finally found a competitor the boy could stand up to—time. He never grew tired of measuring what he felt was the boy’s one potential.
The boy wished he had his own stopwatch, but he understood it was good that he didn’t have one. If he had one, he didn’t know how he could keep himself from always looking at it, at the numbers always racing on. The boy could envision the seconds on his father’s watch zooming from one to the next—11, 12, 13—as fast as he could take each step. He shoved his right hand in his left armpit and pressed down hard with his left arm to squeeze the speeding numbers out of his head.
His father looked up from the stopwatch and nodded. The boy bolted up, feeling free as he counted the steps he raced over—one, two, three. The stairs leading from the first floor were clear. No old man. Thirteen, fourteen, fifteen. The boy, his arms and legs pumping, counted in his head as ran up the lackluster marble steps, the centers of them worn down by decades of passing feet. He breathed through his mouth to keep from inhaling the odors he ran through—urine, tracked-in shit, frying garlic, cigarette smoke, cat food, cat litter—the stuff that went in the cat smelling as bad as the stuff that came out. A young couple stood to the side to let the boy pass. The boy couldn’t pull his eyes up from his steps to see their smiles.
The boy crested the third floor. Forty, he yelled in his head. And relieved to have not found the old man asleep (or worse—having succumbed to the blackness of death), the boy turned quickly for the next flight up. But then he heard a cry. He was on step 42. There were steps 43 and then 44 to take. A whimper. The boy gritted his teeth and shoved his hand in his armpit. Panting, he turned back. TV sounds—news reports and an explosive car chase—blasted from two of the four apartments on the floor. The boy waited. A soft sob finally seeped from 3C. He knew it. It was the old man. Maybe he was facing death now. The boy tried to hold his breath as he slowly pressed his ear against the old man’s door. At first the boy could only hear the swooshing sound of his own breath, the thump-thump of his heart, but then he could make out other sounds—the vibrations of water pipes, a rhythmic clicking, a sneeze, and a faint but clearly pained exhale.
“Dmitri,” his father shouted, his voice booming up the stairwell. Startled, the boy jerked his head from the door and sprinted down the stairs, counting the steps back to the basement as fast as he could.
“Why did you stop? I did not hear feet,” his father said, his smile gone now.
“My shoelaces, Papa. They came undone.”
“Go again.” His father looked at his watch.
“No more,” the boy’s mother shouted from inside the apartment. “Finish homework.”
The boy shrugged. His father, not bothering to hide his disappointment, shook his head and followed the boy inside. Later, the boy lay on the couch, his bed at night, and listened to the sounds of the cramped apartment: his parents still talking about bills in the bedroom, pipes clanking as the heat kicked on, mice scampering in the walls. He pulled his blanket up, making sure its corners didn’t touch the floor. He had nightmares of mice or worse, of rats, climbing up his blanket from the floor to his chest, to his face. He could feel their worm-like tails dragging across his skin. One tail, two tails, three. He groaned and turned on his stomach and stuck his hands under his chest to keep himself from counting the gruesome things. He tried to distract his counting thoughts by looking at the icon art his mother had brought with her from her childhood home. The gold leaf on the wood-cut pieces glowed green in the pistachio-colored light emanating from the control buttons on his father’s stereo. He studied the haloed faces. Always the son. Sometimes the mother. But never the father. The son alone carried the weight of his father’s plans. The boy trembled. He turned his face into his pillow and tried to sleep.
The afternoon sun was shining despite the dusting of snow that had begun to fall. The old man sat up in bed and stretched. He had a good nap even though rodents were reveling in his cupboards. When they had first moved into the apartment almost 40 years ago, the mice had terrified him, but she, being raised on an apple orchard, didn’t think twice about clumps of moving fur underfoot.
The old man went to the window and pressed the blinds open to see what had accumulated since his last survey. A bent bicycle frame. A splintered CD rack. A yellowed crib mattress. No use in those things, he thought. He peered across the heap of black and white garbage bags. He was about to let the blinds snap shut again when he saw it, the miniature palm tree in a red-glazed pot. It sat, almost hidden, by the side of the flight of stairs that extended down from the building’s basement door. The palm’s fronds were brown-tipped. Other than that, the plant looked healthy. The things people threw out. He laughed out loud like they always laughed when they found something worth cherishing. His laughter softened. His breath fogged the window, blurring the miniature plant. With a shaking hand, he wiped his breath away. She had always wanted to see a palm tree.
“I’m nothing. I’m useless,” he said. It was 1967. Mr. Tinder was 35 and had done nothing substantial with his life, nothing that would make his father proud. He stared into his glass on the bar. As he dissected his failures, as he heard himself prattle on about his fantastical delusions—maybe he was meant to be a great painter, writer, actor, musician, something—as he listened to the truck driver, the stranger sitting across from him expressing pity, a disheartening realization crept into his thoughts, a realization that there was no other future for him than his current banking job with its excessive debits and minimal credits. He took a sip and set the glass back down on the table, sloshing the potent gin over the glass’s lip. He pressed down on a spilled drop, breaking its spherical form, sending the points of its now irregular perimeter farther and farther from their counterpoints, a spreading movement mimicking the ceaseless reaches of his uncertain desires that only left an exhausted him stretched thin in the center.
“I really used to think I could be any of those things,” he said.
“It’s not like you’re an old man. You can still do anything,” the truck driver said.
He shrugged and took another drink and thought of his father, about how excited his father used to get about the things he had started as a boy—building model rockets, making the baseball team, landing a role in the school play. His father would help him wire the rocket launch controllers. He would throw fast practice pitches to him. He would even go through lines with him. But after a few failed liftoffs, a few games spent in the dugout, and the first show blundered with mumbled lines, after he had proven himself to be, over and over again, no standout, his father’s enthusiasm withered. When he got into college, there was that flicker of excited hope again in his father’s eyes, and he had started the first semester in the euphoria of his father’s faith in him, but the elation quickly dissipated with his first average report card, which was followed, semester after semester, by equally average and even below average assessments of himself.
When he got the job at the small bank in his college town, his father, a mediocre salesman himself, had said, “Good job, son,” but the words, completely vacant of hope, had sounded as hollow as his eyes had looked. The root of his father’s hopes had been extirpated. The son was no better than the father. They were both nothing but ordinary men. His father cleared his throat and left him and his mother at the restaurant table to grab matches at the bar. His mother patted his hand and said, “We’re so proud of you.” Her smile subsided when she watched her husband toss money on the bar in exchange for his now habitual stiff drink.
“Man, I don’t know why you’re just sitting around here, wasting time, and talking shit,” the truck driver said, running his hand through his long, stringy hair. “Why you think I’m driving? Ever heard of Kerouac, man? Gotta be on the road. I’m smart, though, see. A lot smarter than those hippie freaks.” The driver tapped his forehead. “I’m on the road. Really living life, but I’m making dough, too. That’s the high-life, man.”
Over the next few days, as he worried over loan originations and maturing CDs, he thought about what the truck driver had said to him in the bar that night, and as he pounded on his calculator, listening to the machine chew up paper as it tirelessly counted on, he finally began to understand that his life would never change unless he changed it. He was ordinary because he never forced himself to be anything but mediocre. The truck driver was right. He could do anything. He just needed time—to think, to come up with a plan. So he became a truck driver, too. He didn’t tell his parents about his job change because it was going to be a temporary one. All he needed was time to figure things out and spending time alone with his thoughts on perpetually forward-looking roads seemed to him like the fastest way to get to his uncertain destination.
One night, he reached the top of a steep mountain in his semi-truck, and as he descended the other side, pumping the brakes like he was trained to, he saw tall trees bordering the narrow mountain road, their leaves turned silver by the moonlight. The silver leaves reminded him of the shiny underbellies of the trout swimming in the murky pools of water his father used to take him to when he was a kid. His father used to joke with him about the whopper he just knew his son was going to catch some day. Like usual, even after six months on the road, nothing even nibbled. He still had no idea what great thing he could accomplish in life. He stopped for dinner that night, trying to convince himself that he was still going to catch that whopper someday, and when he returned to his truck later, a slip of paper was stuck to his window.
“I’ve already given you another chance, Tinder. If I were following company policy, you’d have been gone after your third ticket,” his boss said when he finished his haul.
“I need this job. I need to be on the road.”
“Me letting you go doesn’t mean you can’t be on the road, buddy. Now get.”
“On the road,” the old man mumbled. He zipped up his jacket, gripped his cane, and stared at the stairs he needed to balance his way down and somehow scale his way back up again. He didn’t care about the time it was going to take him. He didn’t care about the fresh stitches in his abdomen where they had gone in to unplug him, to let loose the shit he had been accumulating for who knew how long. He didn’t care about these things because he never had trouble with the starting of anything. A young man, wearing headphones and a backpack, brushed past him. When the young man’s effortless footsteps faded down the stairs, the old man began his descent.
The boy, like usual, trailed his friends as they walked home from school on the crowded city streets. The boy liked to count the sidewalk squares between school and home. Like at home, he counted in his head and did his best not to seem distracted when the other kids chattered on about video games and motorcycles. The boy knew the other kids thought he was odd, but he didn’t flaunt his oddness, and the kids didn’t pick on him. The boy was grateful.
There were 339 sidewalk squares on his path. There were more squares—so many more—but like how he knew owning a stopwatch would cause him nothing but trouble, he knew better than to let the sidewalk squares bordering his delineated path distract him (he would never get home otherwise). He had picked a path on the sidewalks between school and home with the fewest squares broken by metal grates and fragmented concrete. The broken squares—there were 14 on his route—always made him hesitate. He had to force himself to accept the pieces as a whole. Sometimes, if he had to think to respond to a question, he’d lose count, and there wouldn’t be 339 squares, and then he was left to wonder until he walked the route again if the squares existed at all. Today was a good day. He had reached the final block, and his count was on. He managed to say goodbye to his friends without losing the alleviating predictability of the numbers—293, 294. Feeling the comfort of being in control of what came next, he smiled and ran to his building, finishing his count as quickly as he could.
He had no idea how long he had been walking since he lost his job, how many steps he had taken. He walked through small, Upstate New York towns and down desolate stretches of road. He called home periodically and told his parents that his banking job was going just fine. His mother wanted to know when he’d come home for a visit. Soon, he told her. Always soon.
He spent all the money he had earned driving on food and motels, and he walked, hoping that his every step was taking him closer to what it was he was meant to be doing with his life. One day, when his money had run out and his stomach was grumbling, he came around a bend and saw rows of glossy green treetops dotted with red gems. An apple orchard. His stomach cramped with sudden imaginings of the fruit’s crisp sweetness, its tart, grainy texture. Unable to stop himself, he picked an apple, bit into it, and as its juices saturated his parched tongue, he heard a deep growl that locked his jaw mid-bite. He couldn’t move. He was too hungry to drop the apple, too tired to run, too weak to climb a tree. Maybe this was it. His fate coming to bite him on the ass. His legs crumpled, sending him to the grassy orchard floor where he waited, with the still-cool apple between his teeth, for the unseen watchdog he could feel darting between the columns of perfectly lined trees.
Smiling, the boy stepped toward his apartment door, lining up one foot perfectly in front of the other as if he were walking a tightrope. He heard the old man before he saw him. The thump of the cane. A slow, rasping step. The old man, ignoring the wetness on his shirt where his blood seeped from a torn stitch, passed the boy. He reached the door leading to the alley behind the building, their treasure trove.
He saw sharp teeth and snapping jaws, but the pain that hit him when he looked up was nothing like he had expected. His heart winced. He almost choked on the forgotten piece of apple in his mouth as he beheld a woman standing in front of him, her thick black hair hanging to her waist. The sun seemed to be swathing her in a cloak of gold. He had never seen anyone so perfect. Even the large pit bull, the fearsome watchdog, was awed by her. It quieted quickly in response to her command and sat as close to her as it could, leaning against her leg, panting with its wet, pleading, black eyes looking up at her. She laughed, and the dog barked. She petted the muscular animal, and her lips, which were as red as the apples hanging above them, turned up in a teasing grin. “Stealing my father’s apples. He won’t be too happy to hear about this.”
He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Sorry. I was hungry.”
She cupped her hand over her eyes and searched the road bordering the orchard. When she looked at him again, his throat went dry. “You walk here?” she asked.
The girl laughed again. The dog pushed its nose into her hand. He couldn’t help wishing he were the dog when she bent down to scratch its ears.
“Plattsburgh. You’re kidding, right?”
“I would never kid you.” He blushed when he realized how serious he had sounded. She blushed, too. He cleared his throat. “I lost my job,” he said to change the subject.
“Sorry,” she said.
“I’m not.” And he really meant it. Being there in the apple orchard with her felt like the most certain thing in his life.
“What kind of job did you lose?”
“I was a truck driver.”
“That must have been nice. Seeing lots of places.”
“That’s partly why I lost my job, I think. Spent too much time sightseeing.”
She laughed. The dog whined. She kissed its head. “You really walked all the way here?”
Going as slowly as he was, the old man must have started walking this morning, the boy thought. He gripped his backpack and watched the old man open the door leading to the garbage cans. The hospital bracelet, looking more frayed now, was still on the old man’s bony wrist. The boy hoped the old man would speed up. His father wouldn’t be happy if he caught him rummaging through the garbage and making a mess.
He wanted her. Although he still didn’t know what he was supposed to be doing with his life, he somehow knew she was a crucial part of his figuring things out. She made him feel important, like he could do anything, so he stayed. He found odd jobs—doing yard work for a blind woman, cleaning gutters for a man with a bad back, moving sacks of soil from one corner to another at the local hardware store. He found a small room to rent in town, and he found ways to be near her whenever he could—sneaking into the orchard on moonlit nights, timing trips to the grocery store just right. Like his own father, her father didn’t think he’d amount to much, but she had faith in him, and her faith made everything seem possible.
The old man made it down the steps out back. He took a deep breath and felt the burn from his split stitches. His legs ached. The muscles in his arm trembled from his tight grip on his cane. He suddenly panicked thinking that he wouldn’t be able to make it back up all the stairs, but then the wind picked up, sending its reinvigorating chill down his hot back, against his exhausted legs, swiping cool snow across his sweating forehead, and he knew for her, he needed to finish this.
Moving to the city was his idea. He had said it jokingly. He kidded that maybe with the city’s energy and her faith in him, he could finally figure out how to do something great. Although he had suggested the move in jest, she responded in all seriousness. He was right. Creative energy crackled in the city. If he was going to find inspiration anywhere, it would be there. She had money saved. He had a little bit from his odd jobs, too. They snuck away late one night to spare themselves from having to argue with her father, her only living parent, who, unlike them, had no faith in potential.
They stayed with one of her old high school friends for a few weeks. They got married at City Hall. They found their apartment. They were buoyed by love and confident hope. The dead mouse rotting under the fridge, the neighbors whose fighting and lovemaking shook the walls, the foul and strange cooking odors that floated through the vents, the stairs they had to lug things—laundry, groceries, their own tired feet—up and down—all these things were only temporary nuisances. When he eventually found what it was he was meant to do, they knew their lives would be changed.
She got a job waitressing. She didn’t want him to work. Not at first. He needed time to focus. She took on an extra shift to buy him oil paints. He never had formal training, but he would lay awake at night thinking about the feel of the brush in his hand, the texture of the canvas, the smell of paint thinner. Maybe he was Van Gogh in a past life, he used to kid. She didn’t think of his musings as jokes. She knew he could very well be the next Van Gogh, so she got him his supplies, and she waited, but nothing worthwhile ever came from him.
He tried his hand at writing next. They both just knew the next best American novel was going to be born and nurtured through to maturity in their apartment. Months passed, and he created nothing but superfluous ramblings they both knew failed in greatness, failed even in mediocrity. He was crushed. She was undeterred. Photography. Audition calls. Open mic nights. It was so apparent to him—everything he tried, he failed. She disagreed. She never looked at him like his father did. She never lost faith in him. She convinced him that the timing just wasn’t right. Inspiration would bite someday. She was sure of it. He believed in her faith.
The extra money she had brought with them eventually ran out, and her waitressing job couldn’t cover all of their expenses. Maybe he could work while he waited for inspiration, she gently suggested.
The boy nudged the door open a crack to see what the old man was after now. The old man clasped the stair railing outside to steady himself. He stood for several minutes, looking at the palm tree collecting snow. He took a step, and his foot slipped a little. He caught himself with his cane. After he settled himself, the old man tucked the cane under his arm, reached down, and slowly picked up the heavy red pot with the miniature palm tree. Lifting the tree, like most things he started, turned out to be much harder than he had expected.
Even with his job, they didn’t have much. He interviewed at banks. None of the managers seemed too keen to take on a man who had given up a perfectly good banking job to become a truck driver and then a chaser of dreams. Finally, he found a branch that needed to fill a teller spot, and although his banking experience warranted him a more senior position, he took the job. The branch changed hands several times, its signs going from blues and reds to reds and whites to whites and yellows, but his place behind the bank window never changed. He couldn’t compete with the younger people flowing through the doors with tailored graduate degrees.
They had wanted to move to a new apartment, but moving took money, and they didn’t have any to spare. They knew they should have felt lucky that their rent was controlled, but they had to put up with so much as the building aged—falling plaster, bed bug infestations, pipes that burst regularly, mice that were overrun by rats. No matter how bad it got, though, neither of them mentioned the possibility of contacting their parents for help.
Shortly after their move to the city, they had confessed to their parents their whereabouts. Her father was angry and didn’t want to hear about her excited hopes. He hung up on her. His parents were surprised, but pleased, when he told them about her. They had worried, they admitted, that he would end up alone. When they asked him why the city, he told them he had been offered a better banking job, a lie that revived his father. With excitement, his father asked him if he were a Titan of Wall Street. Hearing the hopeful pride through the phone, he couldn’t say no to his father. He had tossed in his sleep for weeks after that phone call. She hushed him, kissed him, told him he shouldn’t worry, that when he eventually found inspiration, the great thing he was going to do would make all sins forgiven.
“But when is it going to happen?” he used to shout at her. “When?”
She told him he just had to keep trying—try painting again, writing, acting, anything. He just had to keep working at it, she told him. “If you keep trying, when the time’s right, inspiration’s going to bite big. You’ll see,” she always said. He wanted to believe her, but he was too tired of failing. He lost faith in her faith. He knew his only success was his lie.
His parents wanted to visit, but there was never a good time with his important job. They wanted to know when he would bring his new wife home to meet them, and he would tell his parents soon. Every passing year, he told them soon, and although he could hear the disappointment in his parents’ voices, he could also hear understanding in his father’s. His father knew it took exceptional sacrifice to be exceptional.
They went home for the first time for his mother’s funeral. They continued his lie by using the one credit card they were able to qualify for to buy stylish clothes and a designer suitcase. They rented a luxury car, too. Despite his sorrow, his father was charged with pride. At the funeral, he reintroduced his son to the people his son had grown up with as if this man before them was not the boy they knew at all.
When their fathers died, they grieved, too, but they also felt, although they never said it aloud, relieved. The pressure of having to redeem the lie evaporated. Even though they were completely stuck, they felt free, and to celebrate, they began playing games they knew would have made their fathers hang their heads. They’d peer each day into the garbage alley and survey the day’s waste. If they saw something interesting—something shiny, something not-so-used looking—they’d hurry down the stairs and grab the eye-catching object, all the time laughing at how silly people were to throw away perfectly useful things. This was their favorite game, finding discarded treasures. Their second was daydreaming about exotic destinations. A place with palm trees was the ultimate journey’s end she had decided years ago when they had come across a pile of old Travel and Leisure issues in the garbage. In the bathroom, she had pinned up an outdated magazine cover with a palm-tree-studded beach to gaze at when she soaked in the tub on cold winter days. She said she imagined the ocean water felt just as warm as her bath water with all that bright sun. She said she could hear the palm trees rustling in a tropical breeze. On wine-filled nights, he’d sometimes succumb to believing in her faith in him again, and he’d promise her then that she’d see palm trees someday.
The boy held the alley door open for the old man. The old man nodded at the boy when he stepped past him, tracking in snow and dirt as he went. A palm frond came loose and fell to the floor. The boy looked at the old man’s dirty footprints, the discarded leaf. His father had just mopped the hallways and stairs last night. He wasn’t going to be pleased.
The old man, moving even more slowly now, walked down the basement hall and began to climb the next set of stairs. He stopped after three steps to unzip his jacket, and when he started again, he tripped. He caught himself on the railing, and the pot tipped in his hand. Black soil, made muddy by melting snow, spilled out. The boy looked at the mess and felt his father’s anger. “Mr. Tinder.” The boy realized he had shouted when he heard his voice blast back at him from the stairwell walls.
The old man stopped. He squeezed the large pot to his hip and looked back at the boy, flinching slightly when a frond scratched his cheek. His jacket shifted open. Blood. The boy saw it on the old man’s shirt. The boy couldn’t speak. The old man waited. When the boy still didn’t say anything, the old man started moving again.
The boy knew it. He was dying. It was just a matter of time. The boy dropped his backpack by his apartment door and trailed the old man, maintaining a steady two-step distance between them. Not being able to count at all was unbearable. Nearly as unbearable was not being able to count as quickly as he wanted. To calm himself, he pressed his arm down on his hand in his armpit. Maybe he could mop up the old man’s mess himself, he thought. If he timed it right and his father saw him, maybe his father would be grateful. A middle-aged woman taking her terrier out for a walk passed the two of them on the first floor. The old man nodded at her. She didn’t pay any attention to him. She smiled at the boy, though, but he didn’t notice.
The old man didn’t let on that he knew the boy was following him. He made it to the landing between the first and second floors without dropping any more dirt or leaves. When he turned the corner to start up the next set of stairs, his cane, still tucked under his arm, caught the railing. He stumbled. Without thinking, the boy pulled his hand from his armpit and grabbed the old man’s elbow to steady him. It felt so thin and frail, not like an elbow of a man at all. It was like the elbow of a skeleton. Dirt fell on the floor again, hit the boy’s shoes. The boy shuddered and let the old man’s elbow go. The old man looked at the stairs still rising before him. He looked at the plant, at the large mess he had made, at the boy. He couldn’t help the tears that started in his eyes, that smudged his vision of the plant into indecipherable patches of yellow, green, and red. The boy took a step back and put his hand in his armpit again. Although he had heard the old man’s sobs the other day, he had never actually seen a grown man cry.
The old man set the pot down on a step. “It’s too heavy,” he said. He wiped at his eyes, trying to clear his vision. “But I promised her.”
The boy nodded even though he didn’t understand. He didn’t know how else to comfort the old man, so he smiled. “I can help,” he said.
The old man licked the sweat from his thin, upper lip. He looked at the young boy, and he remembered how they had thought about starting a family once. The idea of children, their cute, round faces and innocent proclamations, had given them tinder for excitement in their lives again. But their enthusiasm had quickly burned up. They tried and tried, but even with this, he had failed. She told him it was just timing. She was sure they’d get it right someday. Even when it was too late, she smiled and told him they could find meaning in other ways. There was no use in losing all hope.
“No use,” he mumbled.
“I can help,” the boy repeated. Frustrated, wanting more than anything to be counting quickly again, the boy took the old man’s silence as consent. He released his hand from his armpit and moved to pick up the palm tree, but before he could lift the pot, a pair of familiar, scuffed-up work boots appeared a few steps above him. The boy swallowed hard and looked up. His father, gripping a toolbox, was standing before them with his eyes fixed on the spilled dirt.
“You make this mess, Dmitri?” he asked. “I cleaned stairs last night, and you do this?”
The boy didn’t answer. He knew no matter what he said, his father, frustrated with always having to clean up after everyone, would still be angry. He looked down at his still feet, wishing he could just count the next steps. His father looked from the dirt to his fidgeting son, who pressed and re-pressed his arm against the hand sandwiched in his armpit.
“What is wrong with you?” his father said. “Stop,” he said sternly, but the boy couldn’t. His father yanked the boy’s hand down against the boy’s side. The boy bit on his tongue. If he didn’t squeeze the need to take the next countable, controllable step out of him, he knew he was going to explode.
The old man was nervously looking down at his feet, too. “He was just helping me,” he said, his voice trembling.
“Helping?” the boy’s father said. “Did you get this from garbage, old man?”
The old man didn’t answer. He leaned his cane against the wall and moved to pick up the palm tree. “I’ll get it out of the way,” he said.
The boy’s father grabbed the pot by its rim, spilling more dirt and fronds. “If you get this from garbage, it belongs in garbage.” The old man pulled on the pot, but the boy’s father easily kept his grip.
“Please,” the old man said, tears welling again in his eyes. The boy’s father tugged the pot free from the old man’s hands and continued, stomping and grumbling, down the stairs. The boy swallowed the blood that had pooled in his mouth from his hard-bitten tongue, and before he knew he was saying anything, the words were out of him. “Stop, Papa.”
The boy froze. He had never commanded anything of his father before. His father, fuming, turned. The boy’s heart raced. His hand started to move to his armpit. His father gritted his teeth. The boy slid his hand to his neck instead, and he could feel his speeding pulse. He tried to count his heartbeats to calm himself, but the throbbing was too unpredictable. The more he thought of his heart or his father, the more erratic the beats became.
“Get the mop, Dmitiri,” his father said, his voice pounding the walls. “You will clean.” He grunted and started down the stairs again.
Watching the palm tree swaying in his father’s arm and hearing the old man next to him struggle to hold in his sobs, a frustration the boy never felt before, or at least had never acknowledged before, swarmed through him. His hands fell to his sides. His fingers curled into fists. He didn’t understand why the old man wanted the tree, but he knew the old man needed it. He could understand that need no matter how irrational it seemed. Why couldn’t his father? “Stop,” the boy shouted this time. His father turned again, and the boy stood, facing him with his fists squeezed against his thighs and his round cheeks burning red. “I will clean up the mess,” the boy said firmly. “After I help Mr. Tinder with his tree.”
For the first time, the boy’s father saw something more than the wheat-colored freckles and hair that said this boy was his son. He saw in his boy’s milky blue eyes the same stubborn tendency he, too, had sometimes when he had to do what he thought was right. That tendency had grown weak in him, was almost dead, he knew, from years of having his worth measured only by the garbage he cleaned, but here it was raging strongly in the boy.
The boy, his temper still flaring, walked down the steps to his father and took the pot from him. The boy staggered. He adjusted the pot against his waist to better handle its weight and saw, through the fronds, an unfamiliar look in his father’s eyes. He swallowed hard again as his outrage receded into fear, the more common emotion he had around his father.
His father cleared his throat. “You will clean up,” he said, his voice soft now.
The boy, unsure of what to make of his father, managed to whisper, “Yes, Papa.” He waited a moment. When his father nodded, the boy started up the stairs, looking back as he went to make sure his father was still letting him go on and to make sure the old man was following him. His father, unable to hide his pride, smiled and watched the two of them—his brave young son and the fortunate old man—slowly turn up the next flight.
When the boy made it to the old man’s door, he set the pot down, wiped the sweat off his forehead, and waited for the old man to take his final steps. Steps. The boy trembled. He realized he had climbed the remaining stairs without even thinking once to count them. He should have covered 28 steps from where he had taken the tree from his father. How could he know for sure, though, if there were 28 of them?
The boy forgot his growing panic when the old man, leaning heavily on his cane, made it to the third floor. He looked so pale. Sweat shimmered on his face and on his bald head. His jacket had shifted open again, and the boy saw that the small stain of blood had blossomed into a large one. “Do you need a doctor, Mr. Tinder?”
The old man, trying to catch his breath, shook his head and managed to say, “Just a lot of stairs is all.”
“Forty,” the boy said, his head feeling suddenly light. “Forty stairs,” the boy said again, the number seeming absolutely right even though he hadn’t counted them all. He held his breath, waiting for the anxious reflex to verify the count to overcome him, but it never came. “Plus, you did the ten stairs out back,” he said with the beginnings of a smile. “That makes 50 steps all together that you did, Mr. Tinder. Up and down.”
“That is a lot of steps,” the old man said. “And carrying the tree. It was much harder than I thought it was going to be.”
“The tree is heavy,” the boy agreed.
“But not too heavy for you,” the old man said, wondering if he ever had the boy’s strength at any point in his life.
The boy grinned. “Do you need me to carry it inside for you, Mr. Tinder?”
The old man shook his head. “I would hope that I could at least manage it from here.”
The boy, still grinning, turned to leave. He hesitated. His smile slipped. “You sure you don’t need a doctor, Mr. Tinder? You’re bleeding pretty bad.”
The old man pulled his jacket to the side and saw his blood. He smiled at the boy. “This is nothing,” he said. “Just a loose stitch is all.” The boy nodded. The old man’s eyes grew wet again as he watched the boy start down the stairs. He dried his eyes, and hoisted up the heavy pot. Feeling his blood-drenched shirt tug at his skin, he opened the door and stepped inside their place. “I know it’s not what you hoped for,” he whispered to her familiar things, “but I finally got you a palm tree.”
Growing up, Deborah S. Prespare lived in South Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Kenya due to her father’s Foreign Service career. She majored in economics and philosophy during her undergraduate studies at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa. After graduating, she worked for the federal government in Washington, D.C., and pursued, on a part-time schedule, a Master of Arts in Writing at Johns Hopkins University, which she completed in May 2006. She now works and lives in Brooklyn. Deborah was a finalist in the 2008 Iowa Review Award in Fiction contest and received an honorable mention in Glimmer Train’s October 2009 Family Matters contest. Her work has appeared in Cadillac Cicatrix, Diner, The MacGuffin, North Atlantic Review, Potomac Review, and Red Rock Review.