Sidestory 4 “The Ride”

The image is of an old freight elevator in a 105 year old building.

Today’s story was sent in by Rufus who lives in Frog Level, Alabama.

“I’m a young man stuck in an old man’s body,” Patrick bitched to his doctor earlier that morning when asked how he was doing.

“I hate it,” he said bitterly to the uncomfortable young intern assigned to conduct the exam, ” but what can I do about it? Nobody gives a shit anyway—why the hell should they? When I was your age I wouldn’t have.”

As he drove back to his job at the amusement park, Patrick thought of a few other zingers he could have tossed out.

“Just as well I didn’t think of them—I already looked stupid enough,” he thought as he drove the lawn tractor around the amusement park parking lot. Pulling a small trailer—his lunch pail tied to the trailer tongue—he picked up trash while absorbed in his self-piteous muttering. Since his kids left home to make their own lives he had spent a lot of time alone muttering to himself. Anymore he preferred working alone—it gave a man time to try to make sense of this whole “getting-old-shit.”

He didn’t get old all of a sudden of course. As the years advanced he’d found dozens of ways to laugh off or deny things like going bald, gray hair, fading stamina, the stubborn paunch he just couldn’t lose. What finally rubbed reality in his face was—a few years people had stopped laughing or saying things like “Aw—you’re not old,”—when he made a joke about being an old man. In recent years people just nodded or said nothing.

Patrick resented having to take 20 damn pills a day, he resented giving up stuff he loved like steak and French fries, hated worrying about his prostate, taking naps in the afternoon and fiber—when did that become one of the food groups?

What really steamed him was not being able to make eye contact with younger women. He noticed a few years ago that, if you make eye contact with any female under 40 that you don’t know, they’ll usually look away with an expression like they can’t decide between vomiting and spraying mace in your face.

Inside he was still the same old Patrick. Still the same guy that took a Kraut bayonet in the side in ’19 in France and was some how able to kill 2 Fritzies.

For almost 50 years he could not figure out where he got the pistol he shot them with. He nearly bled to death there in that stinking cow pen in the St. Mihiel Sector. He would have died lying there in the mud and cowshit except his platoon sergeant—a man he would have followed into hell—found him and called a medic.

Several days later he went back to the cowpen. The Krauts were still laying there in the mud—one face down, the other one—who was face up—was still holding the bayoneted rifle—flies crawling in & out of his nose, wide open eyes staring at the sky. The one still holding the rifle was an older man—he looked a lot like Mr. Zimmerman—his basketball coach at the Y back home. The pictures of the German soldier’s children Patrick found in his inside shirt pocket, shook him at the time and still haunted him.

Standing there ankle deep in the death and mud and shit he wept for the men he had killed and for his own soul which he knew would never be at peace again and never truly was.

At the time he consoled himself with, “Well—it was them or me—they’d have done the same thing if they could have—hell they tried to.” But nearly half a century later—when the dreams started for no reason—he realized he was no more deserving of life than they had been of death.

His surviving to be a self-piteous old man picking up trash in an amusement park parking lot 50 years later was no miracle—there was no divine intervention. He despised that incredible shit about God being on the American side and against the Germans. There was no stroke of good luck or fate or any of that crap. It was just what happened and nothing more.

Oh, yeah—God—what about God?

For many years Patrick wondered if there even was a God. If there was one “He” seemed to either not care or was simply detached from the whole human experience.

This last thought saddened him deeply. It certainly was not what he had been taught growing up—but it made sense. Salvation, forgiveness, redemption, meaning, purpose—comes from us—something we do to keep us going when life—or death—threatens to overwhelm us. It damn sure doesn’t come some old guy in robes with a beard up there beyond the galaxies somewhere.

Off in the distance, the roar of plunging roller-coaster cars and delighted shrieks of riders caught his attention. He glanced at the trestle towering against the pale blue sky—the tallest structure in the county. It wasn’t that many years ago he was up on the highest sections of trestle, tightening bolts on rails and trestle members and replacing ties.

He smiled at the delighted screams of the riders—especially the younger ones with their hands in the air—so much fun seemingly cheating death—the joy of life coming from a make-believe brush with dark eternity…

It suddenly came to him where he had gotten the pistol he shot the German soldiers with. He had taken it only a moment before from the body of a fallen German officer—the regimental patches on the uniforms of the two that attacked him and the dead officer were the same. They probably thought Patrick had killed their leader.

Their attack on him, in all likelihood was motivated by love for their leader—not to mention outrage at the vicious, bloody insanity they had all been flung into. He thought of his own platoon Sergeant—probably the finest man he had ever known. He would have done the same thing for him—without hesitation.

Three or four years ago the park management put him on the ground—probably scared of a workman’s comp claim. Better put the old man somewhere safe—where he can’t fall—yeah, put the old fart on the ground picking up trash and mowing grass.

Patrick kept wondering when the day would come that young pup—the new park manager—what was his name—Striver?—would call him into the office and tell him they’d be sticking him in a ticket booth. After all—wouldn’t want the old guy mowing his foot off or getting a hernia picking up hot dog wrappers.

But he’d be damned if he’d join those nursing home candidates like Bertha & Eddie who, because of age and infirmity, were only capable of making change and dispensing tickets.

He’d heard a slot was open and suspected Striver might try to put him in that position.

Oh yeah—if that day ever came he had his “go-to-hell” and “stick-your-tickets-where-the-moon-don’t-shine” speech all ready. He’d rehearsed it hundreds of times as he patrolled sullenly around the park on the lawn tractor keeping the park safe from tall grass and hot dog wrappers.

His wife Maria, God bless her—what a saint she was to love him and put up with him all these years. She had these pictures of him on the wall when he was in the Army—yeah—he looked pretty good in the old doughboy uniform, strong chin, sharp, clear blue eyes the girls really liked. Lots of ‘em back then said he was a dead ringer for Bogey. Now there was a man—a man’s man—yeah, he never took any shit off anybody—his old platoon sergeant was the same way.

Patrick teared up a bit as he thought about the actor’s death—what was it—10, 20, 30 years ago? Bogey didn’t live long enough to become an old man—neither did his platoon sergeant who was killed—not in combat—but when a truck turned over on him. He wondered how Bogey or the old Sarge—would have handled old age.

God what men they were—you don’t see men like that any more. Both of them could have had any girl they wanted. Looking down at the gray, cracked asphalt he sadly thought about what those “girls” he knew back in the day looked like now—fat, white-haired, wrinkled up old bags wearing too much bright red lipstick—probably stumbling around getting in their kid’s way—feeling sorry for themselves—like him.

Patrick didn’t like to imagine what they would look like now—better to remember them as they were. Driving the lawn tractor slowly back to the maintenance barn he thought about the old days after the war—hitting the clubs—parties at the homes of Army buddies—getting shit-faced—going on fishing trips with the guys. He choked up remembering reunions with his old unit. My God those guys were pals you could depend on—most of ‘em gone now. How many years did he have left before he would be meeting up with his old friends—and perhaps the two men whose lives he ended?

A waft of fragrance on the afternoon breeze from honeysuckle growing on the chain link fence that separated the southern edge of the parking lot from a cow pasture. The sweet perfume of the vines sparked images of girls with pretty eyes, sweet smiles, thick, fragrant, flowing hair, cupid-bow lips, the feel of firm smooth thighs. He could feel the burning anger rise in his heart as he thought of all the joy and pleasure that time had taken from him.

Then, mixed with the honeysuckle, he could smell fresh cow manure in the field beyond.

Suddenly he could see again the faces of the men he had killed in that cowpen in France—and was struck with the realization of what a pathetic old butt-head he was.

Patrick was softly stunned. He stopped the lawn tractor and cut off the engine and sat listening to the distant death-defying, life affirming shrieks and absorbing the blended odors on the warm afternoon breeze.

It was bad enough, he thought, he felt screwed but he was doing the screwing. And he burst out laughing.

Sitting there alone under the endless sky that was both indifferent and yet pervaded with love—he laughed until his stomach hurt and tears filled his eyes.

God it felt so good. His heart felt lighter. Patrick marveled at the little bit of peace he was feeling for the first time in years.

For several long moments he reflected on the 2 men whose lives he had taken from their children—who grew up barely remembering a father who proudly went off to die a stupid, useless death in a shitpile a thousand miles from home. That could just as easily have been him facedown in a pile of shit.

Tears trickled down his cheeks as it dawned on him he had lived another half-century to raise his kids, make his little contribution to the world, follow his path to the inevitable dead-end—and to know this moment of peace and love and mystery.

The big sliding door on the front of the maintenance building was being opened by Carl, the park mechanic—a good guy whose company was always a comfort to Patrick. Carl waved him into the building and closed the door behind him. As Patrick parked the tractor and cut off the engine, Carl was standing nearby waiting for the roar of the engine to stop so he could speak.

“Striver wants to see you as soon as you can get over to the park office,” Carl informed him. “Maybe a promotion,” he smiled.

Patrick nodded silently. With a resigned smile he untied his lunch pail from the trailer tongue and, with a calm stride, headed for the office.

“Who knows,” he thought,  “maybe it is a promotion.”

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