Old Folks

The trucks came at noon, a solemn procession of enormous, closed moving vans with great empty stomachs and deep tinted windows to shield the desert sun. There were three, identical and shiny black, with no lettering. But now, against the long empty gray-white distance, they seemed no more than flickers, a little parade of glittery bugs.

At the old farmhouse (which was the main building), Albert Bremer and seven other men of a certain age sat on the front porch, their straight-backed wooden chairs propped against the cedar wall, deep into the cool shadows, safe from the high desert sun. At the sight of them, the old men jumped to their feet, knocking over chairs and one small table along with two cups of coffee that had been cooling in the shade. They squinted out across the flat, barren landscape at the three specks that glided noiselessly along the horizon, flashing sunlight and kicking up rooster tails of dust. 

Although they must have been traveling at considerable speed, from this distance they seemed to be moving in slow motion. After a time, the convoy turned in a long looping way, as it continued to follow the faint scuff of road which led toward the farmhouse. The farmhouse and the small collection of companion buildings, which formed this remote complex, was the only realistic destination within 50 miles in any direction.

For a time, with an almost predatory stillness, the old men continued to watch as the slow-moving distant flickers grew larger as they moved along. Finally, someone groaned or stamped a nervous foot on the gray-painted floorboards and the old men stopped staring at the distance and started talking to one another. 

They discussed it and ruminated over it. At first, two of the men fervently and feverishly denied what their lying eyes betrayed. They argued with the others. But the argument petered out quickly. It was no more than wishful thinking because there could truly be no honest debate on the matter. The most recent arrivals had never seen the trucks before. But the older residents knew in their hearts that these were the trucks they had been waiting for.

Other trucks had come before, sometimes with great regularity, bringing food and various other supplies needed to run the complex. They came just one at a time. But when a caravan of trucks arrived, always three, the purpose of the visit was quite different.

The men all shruggingly agreed. Some were tearful. Some were reticent. But, none-the-less, grudgingly or not, they agreed.  What more could they do? Almost in unison, they sighed and sadly shook their heads. Then, reluctantly, slow-footed and fearful, the old men went off in several directions to tell the other residents, all of whom were men.

Now others came outside in a flurry of door slamming, slipper shuffling and quick-padding deck shoes on the wooden floors. They came wiping their mouths from half-finished lunches. They came with fluffs of shaving foam on their necks, with pool cues or newspapers in hand, or fresh from the john with their pants hiked up too high and reading matter tucked securely under their arms. They came from the other buildings as well, several of the fat, green-roofed two-stories that abutted the farmhouse.

Everyone went out to the front yard to see the trucks 

(How many times have the trucks come as a shiny surprise halfway to the horizon, churning through the dead sand like a triple-jointed black metal bug?)

As they approached, Albert Bremer thought about this. Sometimes he didn’t remember things as well as he should, at least as well as he did in the past. The trucks grew larger as they moved along, ripping out great swatches of desert with their bear claw tires. He thought about it some more as they came, glistening deep black and shiny in the sun, with feather-soft motors and dazzling chrome grills that looked like teeth.

(Six

That’s how many times they’d come before, six times, in Bremer’s recollection. He was certain. It was something very important to remember because when the trucks came the seventh time, they took you with them. So, Albert Bremer and a number of other “six timers” had been waiting with particular interest for the arrival of the next caravan (this caravan).

When the trucks finally curved up to a stop in the flat, grassless front yard, all four hundred and eleven residents were waiting in the yard to greet them. They stood silently stiff and still as if at reveille. None of this formality was required, of course. Life was quite casual here. They could be inside or outside. Nobody cared.  In the past, some of the men would stay in their rooms when the trucks arrived. It didn’t matter. But, if it were their time to go (their seventh visit of the trucks), someone (or a group of some ones) would simply retrieve them from wherever they were. However, though it was not required (most of the men believed), it was somehow better to come outside and wait with their friends. It was more dignified and honorable. Plus, the idea of waiting outside together, filled them with a kind of brave serenity, a peacefulness that somehow made this dreaded moment easier.

The man in charge rode in the first truck, next to the driver. He was white coveralled and fat, with a face of fresh pink sausage and a cluster of copper rivets for hair. He pushed open the passenger’s door, then came like a lord, ponderously down the scant two metal steps of the cab. He wore no badge of rank. He needed none.

Perfunctorily, the man rifled the sheaf of yellow papers on his clipboard as he leaned casually against one sun burnished fender. He was in no hurry. By now his white coveralled assistants had already put up the metal staircase to the door in the side of the truck, which was open, but covered with a heavy dark rubbery curtain. They stood now chewing gum and talking to one another in very soft, respectful tones as if they were spectators at a golf tournament. The old folks did not talk at all. They stood in careful, motionless clumps which dribbled now from the porch to the yard and fanned out almost to both ends of the farmhouse.

All eyes were on the man as he continued to study his clipboard. Then finally, with Neronian self importance he cleared the phlegm from his throat. He was regal, almost Olympian.and there could be no doubt whatsoever that this man was in charge. He was not just in charge of the trucks or the three drivers, or the weathered farmhouse with its dull green shutters, or even the old people themselves. No, at this particular point in time the man was in charge of the desert itself as far as the horizon, and perhaps the entire world.

“This…”

He said softly, patting the fender of his truck and sniffing quickly one time 

“…is the first truck.”

The man glanced up and surveyed the gathered residents, all the way to the left, then all the way to the right.  

“When I call your name…”

He said evenly.

“… I want you to come up to me, take the letter that I will hand you and proceed into the first truck”

With this, he looked down once more to his clipboard and began to read the names out loud in stentorian Standardese.

“Bremer, Albert G.”

“Yo!”

Albert Bremer, age 92, smiled through the intricate porcelain of an ancient face. His once-upon-a- time glorious waterfall of dark curly hair was now reduced to a few pitiful dry white scraps that danced spastically in the warm stagnant breeze. His brown-spotted hands (chicken hands) trembled just a bit as he raised them high above his head and ran unhesitatingly to the man. Everything would be left behind, his photo album, his clothes, all of it. These things would remain in his room for the next one to keep or discard, as he had done with the few possessions of the man who had previously occupied his room. To Albert, his predecessor was still unknown, a mysterious life reduced to a lone snapshot of a slight gaunt-faced teen-aged boy smiling earnestly out at the world in a snug-fitting blue U.S. Air Force uniform.  

There were other things aside from the neatly folded clothes he discovered in the dresser drawer and the nice leather jacket he found in the closet. The other things, the treasures, too few to represent an entire life, a Benrus watch, some old coins, a Bill Clinton for President button and other seemingly inconsequential things were all heaped together in a shoe box. Albert left the box under his bed for someone else to discard or keep as he pleased. As for the clothes, they were too small and he gave them away to several grateful residents.   

Only those few most precious things would be kept. But this time it would not be his decision. He hoped, however, that his little wooden box of treasures, which included his Vietnam medals, some yellowing photographs and several sets of cufflinks that had belonged to his father, would not be discarded. He had left a note explaining what the things were. He could only explain what they meant to him. Truthfully, they might not mean a damn thing to anyone else. But that was all he could do.

If the past was truly an indication of things to come (and it seemed to be), tomorrow morning one or two buses would arrive at the farmhouse with new residents that had been gathered up from various places. No-one would be younger than 90. Although, a new law had been passed lowering the age to 85, that law would not become effective until the next year. But it was widely rumored that work would soon begin to renovate and enlarge the farmhouse complex to accommodate the anticipated increase of new residents 

The man thumbed off one yellow sheet of paper from his clipboard. Nodding ever so slightly (out of respect?) he handed it to Bremer

                    “DEAR MR. BREMER, 

YOU HAVE LIVED A FULL AND RICH LIFE. NOW, IT IS TIME TO REST. PLEASE WELCOME YOUR REST AS AN OLD FRIEND. ALLOW YOUR CHILDREN AND GRANDCHILDREN TO LIVE FULL AND RICH LIVES AS YOU HAVE. ONLY YOU CAN GIVE THEM THIS MOST PRECIOUS AND WONDERFUL GIFT.

“THINK OF THEM AT THIS TIME. THINK OF THEM AND MAY YOUR HEART BE FILLED WITH JOY AND LOVE AND MAY YOUR SOUL BE AT PEACE. 

“ACCEPT YOUR REST WITH DIGNITY AND WITH PRIDE. DO THIS LAST   MOST HONORABLE DEED FOR YOUR COUNTRY AND FOR ALL MANKIND,AND YOU SHALL ALWAYS BE REMEMBERED AS A HERO.

“YOUR NAME WILL BE ENGRAVED IN THE GREAT MARBLE WALL BEHIND THE STATUE OF PAUL SHACKLEFORD, WHO WAS THE FIRST. 

                    “GOD BLESS YOU.

                    “SINCERELY,

                    “THE PRESIDENT

                    OF THE UNITED STATES”

After pausing briefly to read the flier, Bremer turned and walked to the metal staircase. He climbed the several steps with greater ease than he thought he would. His legs did not waver at all, let alone buckle and collapse under him like the legs of some wimpy, fainthearted old man. But then Albert Bremer had never been a coward. All his life he took as good as he gave. 

He paused momentarily at the top of the staircase, glanced quickly back to his friends. Then, with just the slightest trace of a lopsided smile, he threw one quick, boney, blue-veined fist high above his head, turned and walked calmly through the curtained doorway into the dark mysterious bowels of truck.

“Carmichael, Edward Q.”

The meager light from several corner-mounted flame-bulb lamps simmered in the brown paneled walls. There were two long storage benches topped with dark green corduroy seat cushions. Carpeting in a similar dark green covered the floor.

“Foley, Samuel E.”

In the far corner, flush against the wall behind the back of the cab was a beautifully polished mahogany bar with a gleaming brass foot railing. Above the bar was a row of half a dozen dark-stained wooden shelves. Each was lined ten deep from end to end with miniature bottles of whiskey, wine and liqueur. Every kind that Bremer could recall and many, many more were there, stuck securely in place like pegs in a pegboard. Bottles upon bottles with exotically delicious labels flickered sparkles of light in a hundred different colors.

“Goldblatt, Frederick.”

A variety of crystal goblets waited in a rack on top of the bar, along with a brass ice bucket. Beer and sodas were in a large silvery box, its delicate raised lettering blurred with frost.

“Grady, Willie L.”

Others came, Eddie, Slim, Goldblatt, who each in turn selected a glass and a miniature bottle of his favorite beverage.

“Graham, Mark … Granville, Stephen …Humphrey, Arthur J…”

Bremer reviewed the shelves several times before he settled on one particular bottle of scotch. It wasn’t the best. But it wasn’t cheap either. He was quite familiar with the brand as he had been faithfully drinking it for the past 55 years, “Dewar’s White Label”. Changing brands even for something that was supposedly better didn’t make much sense to him at this stage.

“King, Ronald S… Korwin, Samuel T…”

The long benches were almost full now and the men, some standing, some sitting, talked to one another in a low mumbling rumble of words.

“… Kotinger, Eric …”

In a few minutes, the driver of the van appeared at the doorway. His expression was carefully blank as his eyes roamed about seeming to find everything but the eyes of the old men. Without a word, he closed the door. The outside latch snapped efficiently in place. There was a certain finality about this sound, like the sharp, irrevocable click of an icebox door or the closing of a great heavy book.

Oddly, at this point there was no on-set of syrupy gloom as Bremer had imagined during those times when he thought about this situation. Instead, the men in the truck began to loosen up. Somebody told a joke. Although it wasn’t a particularly funny joke, Albert laughed so hard that he almost fell off the bench. Then, someone made a paper airplane out of his yellow flier and sailed it across the van. Someone sailed it back.

With the absence of intrusive sunlight there was a certain safeness about the truck. It took on a cozy, friendly ambience. The candle bulbs seemed almost to be actual candles, flickering soft, golden color in the faces of the men. They talked more easily now. Instead of a dozen separate conversations, there was only one. Topics were wide-ranging. But for the most part, everything they touched upon related in some way to their common situation. Those who wanted to say their piece could do so without interruption. There was no bullying for the floor. Some were more talkative than usual. Some were taciturn and sad. Some wept softly, but only a few.

They talked about the farmhouse, the place that had been their home for some months now.  They already missed it, even though the truck had not yet left the front yard.  Before night, the residents who had lived in the outbuildings would take the empty rooms that these men had left behind. The farmhouse was the most coveted of all places in this empty, neglected land. By morning, new residents would arrive, confused and tired from their uncertain journey. Then, in a month or two or three, the trucks would come again.

Some of the men were on their third drink, but most still nursed their second when the motor started, whisper soft, but definite.

Then, from somewhere, suddenly there was music. The palpable pounding bass reverberated through the benches, tingling their skin and their bones, down to the marrow of their very souls. It was Chuck Berry, himself The Father of Rock and Roll resurrected from the long-gone wonderful days of yesteryear, playing his electric guitar and singing, and “Johnny B. Goode” blared through the truck and filled up every pour of their being.

In their distant youth, this music was new. But it was not simply new.  It was a raucous, toe-tapping celebration to challenge the well-ordered, almost robotic conformity of its time. Because when this sweet fresh breeze of wonderfully joyful, non-conforming music swept across the land, it irrevocably upset the balance of things. This music was not merely new, it was a revelation. 

The voice was the most appealing thing of all. It had a pureness about it, the unselfconscious joy and sparkling clean simplicity of a long-ago (much more pleasant, much more innocent) time. And as these insistent lyrics rode the air currents and bounced happily off the walls of the truck, Chuck Berry was right there in the front of Albert Bremer’s mind in a light-colored tuxedo from a black and white movie, playing his guitar and duck-walking across the stage. 

Some of the men began to dance around, drinks in hand. Others sang along with the music mouthing the lyrics perfectly from a thousand years ago and Johnny B. Goode never sounded so wonderful.  All at once, it was 1958 and not a single one of them was older than 16. 

At this moment, Albert suddenly remembered everything about that time. The memories came galloping up, bumping into one another, pushing and shoving as they vied for attention (Me! Me, Remember Me?) They all came back, rushing back, flooding back through the long corridor of years. So many things: day trips to City Island; Stevie Spacarelli’s new  turquoise Impala (GOD how we hated him);  the day Bernie and Buddy beat up that kid that everyone always beat up, and put dog shit in his cap; the late-night pop and clatter of  the El heading up to some mysterious place called “Dyre Ave” (nobody we knew had ever been there); long walks to Carvel’s in Parkchester (one time Neville got a nose bleed in his custard and mixed it up like strawberry,  and we laughed and laughed); sounding wars near the Van Nest Bocce Club (“your mother carries a couch on her back for curb service”); So many things, sights, smells, sounds all colliding together: Alan Freed’s Rock and Roll Party; The Moonglows; Dion and the Belmonts; An icy Nedick’s orange drink on a blistering hot day; The Dell Vikings on the stage of the Brooklyn Paramount; and Carol…Carol Martin,  Carol Martin…”

Albert’s wistful smile melted briefly away in that moment as he recalled things lost but never truly forgotten despite his life-long efforts to keep them out of his consciousness.

“… and those long, slow summer evenings on her front porch, hidden in the sweetshadows behind the rose trellis, A feel, a gentle kiss, the anxious liquid scent of her. And Chuck Berry was there on Albert’s brand new two-tone blue Motorola Roto-Tenna radio along with all the others, The Penguins, The Chantels, The Cleftones. And the music stroked and caressed them and carried them off with its magic.

At the end of summer, Carol and her family moved away to California, never to be seen again.  The day she left was the worst day of his life. Alone in his room, Albert grieved over the unbearably painful loss of her. He cried long and hard into the night, his face buried in his pillow, his mind brimming with thoughts and pictures of her. He struggled to remember her scent, and the special way her soft, warm face felt against his. Sadly, this interminable night of mourning was only the first of many, throughout the fall, deep into the winter.  Albert expected to die, wanted to die, but he didn’t. Curiously, life just simply went on, one foot after the other through the long march of years. Now, despite the gaping 76-year chasm that separated him from that wonderful summer, despite two marriages, three children, seven grandchildren and eleven great grandchildren, the memory of that long ago time was as fresh now as a brand-new unopened pack of cigarettes. Albert remembered everything, the curve of her face, her wide blue eyes, the gentle touch of her hand, the incredibly painful sweetness of those long-ago moments that he had spent with her. He remembered it all now and suddenly, tears ran down his face as he grieved for the loss of Carol all over again as if she had just died in his arms.

Albert Bremer poured himself another drink. This time he hesitated when he reached for his usual brand. Instead, he selected a bottle of Johnny Walker Blue (the really, really good stuff)and had a tall, neat drink of Blue in a perfect crystal glass  

The old men, tired from their dancing, now just bounced their heads and sang along with Chuck, adult beverages of choice sloshing over the rims of their goblets as they moved their hands demonstratively to the music. Their eyes filled with tears of the painful pleasure and the innocent fire of youth.

The more they drank, the louder they sang and as the whiskey and the music and the painful sweet honey of remembered youth poured over them, the truck picked up speed.

Outside, in the front yard, those who remained (the first through the new six timers) stood in quiet groups, watching as the trucks drove away. They could hear singing coming from inside of each passing truck, one then another and finally the last. There were different songs, but all of the men in the trucks were singing. It was a loud, discordant concert of drunken old men riding off to their final rest. But to the gathering of those who waited outside, the singing was nothing less than heroic. The sound of it was sweet to the ear as the breath of angels.

The black trucks moved steadily along, kicking up great clouds of dust as they headed out toward the horizon. Shining bright silver in the desert sun, they sped off into the distance like a fast train.

And the singing could be heard for miles.


Story by Leonard Henry Scott

Art by Fabrice Poussin