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A novel inspired by true events.
The most powerful part of life comes in the seizing of any opportunity, which has the potential to touch our soul!
If we are truly blessed, opportunities of this kind can surface more than once, or they can visit us weakly; touching our lives only lightly and limply. Such moments may come in a left turn when we intended to turn right, or in a misspoken word or, perhaps, an overheard phrase. They come to us by chance, and are fleeting and then gone. It is incumbent upon us to act in these times; to act with what strength and resolution we can muster to justify the vision we have experienced.
When my moment came, I nearly missed a meeting that forever changed my life; a meeting with Benjamin Ridge.
I awake one late September Friday morning with no expectation that such a day will be of any significance in my life. I am wrong.
I have begun my sophomore year in college. As with each school day, I eat a quick breakfast of toaster waffles. Dad has all ready left for work; mother has yet to rise, and brother and sister are still asleep.
As the eldest brother it’s my responsibility to admonish, “Hurry up, you’ll be late for school!” before I fling a backpack over my shoulder and leave the house.
Wind blows cold on the four-block walk to the city bus stop. Forefront in my thoughts is an inventory of class assignments due today and completed last night before bedtime.
I approach a familiar quaint, gray painted house. A single light illuminates a room toward the rear of the home. The kitchen, I imagine. As usual, the porch rocker sits vacant in early morning hours. I don’t recall when I first saw the man who lived in the house and I can’t say I’d wondered after him until now.
Over the years, I have seen him often while walking home from school. I know him only as ‘the man in the porch rocker.’ He is large despite obvious advanced years, and stocky and tall. His gray hair frames a weathered face that seems Native American.
A curb mailbox reads “Ridge.”
Though I’ve never seen anyone work the yard, the lawn is neat; trees and hedges are trimmed, and a small strip of roses withers in front of the house. Contrary to our yard with misplaced bicycles, roller skates, garden hoses, or lawn equipment, the man’s lawn never changes. Everything has a place.
I seem to remember children at the house, but not for the past few years. The children I recall were older and I never knew them. Despite the memory, I’ve never seen his wife. The man always sits alone in the rocker, sipping what I imagine is tea from the same faded white coffee cup. Some days he isn’t there but most often, he is. I wonder where his children are. Have they grown and moved away?
A 1939 Packard is parked in a narrow two-lane drive alongside the house. It is always in the same place, as though never driven. I’ve always admired classic cars, particularly the Packard. Built heavy and low to the ground with an engine that announces its approach long before the car comes into view. The automobile’s paint color is evocative of the character the house conveys; dark green or perhaps faded black. Why would a person keep such a car for more than sixty years? Through World War II, the Kennedy assassination and men walking on the moon? As well as buying a new car, it once occurred to me the old man should buy a dog to keep him company. I never once saw a dog or cat on the property.
With a last glance at the kitchen light, I continue my trek to school, doubting the old boy breakfasts on toaster pastries as I do. He might prefer eggs and bacon; maybe oatmeal or pork and grits are more his fare.
After a short wait alone at the bus stop, I board the next bus and slip into an empty rear seat. A white exhaust cloud billows as the bus pulls out onto a quiet street. As the bus drives up Washington Avenue, I enjoy watching the sunrise over mountain peaks.
Campus hallways bring the noise of life. They bustle with students shedding winter coats and slamming locker doors. Cold weather stirs energy in students. Classroom heat counters the outside cold, but is not conducive to stimulating drowsy minds through dry lectures.
As always, I watch the door as students enter the lecture- theater. Finally, Delanna Demasi appears and sits just two seats away from me. Laney, as her friends call her, sits close enough to provide an unobstructed view if no one splits the space between us. Long dark curls brush shoulders as she opens a backpack and stacks class books on the desk. She glances my way and flashes a winning smile.
“M-Morning.” I stammer.
My palms moisten and my heart thuds against my breastbone. I smile and imagine my embarrassment should I pass out right there. I’ve seen pretty girls before, but there is something about her. To be honest, I realize I know very little about her. She comes and goes each day from class, but where does she come from and where does she go after school? I’d never seen her with a boyfriend. I’ve noticed her talking with girls in the hallway, but I’ve never seen her with a constant friend.
Professor Van winger enters to disturb my thoughts with his typical greeting, “Morning everyone. Fine day isn’t it?”
Van winger’s sociology class isn’t my preferred way to begin a Friday, or any day, for that matter. Sociology, defined as ‘the scientific study of human social behavior,’ bores me. How could this possibly serve my life beyond satisfying course requirements?
I doze during class, remembering little of the day’s lecture until a single word wakes me from a dream to which I’d retreated.
For whatever reason, the word drips of importance. In my short college career, I’d learned from each professor when a stressed word or phrase would resurface on an exam or assignment to keep me up until wee morning hours. Thesis is such a word. I snatch a pen from my pocket and write, “Thesis” as Professor Van winger continues.
“I require a thesis which is thoroughly researched, analyzed, and concluded. Proper analysis requires time. To provide as much time as the course will allow, your thesis is due two weeks before the end of this school year. According to my calendar, the date will be promptly at the beginning of class on May 17, 1991.
I jot on my paper, “due May 17, 1991.”
“The subject of your thesis will be a person, living, or dead.” The Professor continues, “You will choose a subject whom you do not know well. When choosing your subject, it’s important to consider that each person has a story. Some stories will be remarkable, others ordinary. The impact of the subject’s life will not affect your grade. Rather, I will grade your thesis based upon answers to three critical questions.”
The Professor scribbles on the blackboard, “Question number 1, Did this person live? Of course, your subject is or was alive but did he or she truly live? Did they enjoy life? Did the subject take advantage of their years? Did he or she live fully?”
I write, “Did this person live fully?”
“Question number two. Did this person love? I believe love is self-explanatory. Any clarification required?”
When no one responds, he continues, “The final question, Did this person matter?”
Mine isn’t the only furled brow in the room. I scribble the last two questions while Professor Van winger rambles on.
“When all is said and done, did this person’s existence make a difference in the grand scheme of humanity? Now, I know you’re all thinking of writing on some notable person, Edison perhaps, or Freud, Einstein or Rosa Parks.” He shakes a finger, “Don’t. Others have tried and failed miserably. We all know the contributions of the aforementioned. Your challenge is to seek out a relative unknown, someone who, on the surface, seems ordinary. Then dig. Delve into their life and emotions. Find out what gives their life purpose.”
Sickness gnaws my stomach. I imagine Laney Demasi’s horror if I were to empty breakfast on her fine Italian shoes. Sounds of closing notebooks echo from classroom walls.
“Enjoy the rest of your day.” The Professor ends routinely, “We’ll see you Monday morning.”
Laney packs the book bag and asks, “So, who will be the subject for your thesis?”
When I look into her dark inquiring eyes, my stomach churns. “Uh… I have no idea. How about you?” It’s always good practice to throw the ball into an opponent’s court.
She zips the pack and lifts the strap over a shoulder. “I think my Great Grandmother Demasi. I don’t know why but her name just came to me. I’m named after her, Delanna, and I’ve never known as much about her as I’d like. Do you think she’d be a good choice?”
I rise and follow from the room, “I’m sure whoever you choose will be honored.”
On the bus ride home, I remember Laney’s words. A name had occurred to me all right. Mr. Ridge. An odd choice since Mr. Ridge is all I know of him. Try as I might, I can think of no one else. No one else seems to interest me. I suspect Mr. Ridge’s story is unremarkable but perhaps enough to satisfy the thesis requirement.
I formulate a plan. If I’m to do this, I’ll approach the house today. At least I’ll say “hello,” and feel the old guy out. I don’t expect he’ll care for a lot of questions for a college paper, something that likely means nothing to him. Maybe he’ll trade his story for some yard work. I suppose I could whittle out a few hours a week to help the old guy. No, clearly Mr. Ridge is a bad idea.
Brakes hiss as the city bus grinds to a stop. “Thanks.” I mutter to the driver before stepping off.
Breath forms ghostly clouds as I walk. Perhaps a better choice is right in front of me. I imagine approaching Laney Demasi to be my subject. Her story would fascinate any male for hours. It’s a lame idea but worth the time to consider.
I wave as Mrs. Anderson drives by and honks her car horn. Widowed for ten years, she might provide an interesting subject. The woman is busy enough, active in the local church. I know she’s an avid gardener; enters roses in the County Fair, and wins first prize each year. Roses, seriously? This is where I choose to base my education?
What is Mr. Ridge’s first name? Buck, he looks like a Buck. More of a nickname I suppose. Artemis… Artemis Ridge. The thought draws a smile.
From one house away, I look toward the porch. The rocking chair sits empty. I sigh in frustration and pause in front of the house. Windows are dark. The rocker sways in still air. Something seems out of place. Then, I spot the faded china coffee cup shattered on porch floorboards.
I hurry toward the house. A sense of dread reaffirms that something is wrong. Everything has a place. The coffee cup, previously seen only in the wrinkled hand, is out of place. I bound up concrete steps and wonder if the man will startle when I knock on his door.
I stumble over a foot before noticing it. Mr. Ridge lays sprawled on the porch. His breath comes in struggled gasps. His face is blue and his limbs twitch.
After turning Mr. Ridge onto his back, his eyeballs roll upward. “Mr. Ridge? Are you okay?” A stupid question I realize. I look to the street for help. It’s he and I and he’s in no condition to offer help.
“Mr. Ridge, I need to use your phone… to call an ambulance,” as though expecting an answer. The backpack lands with a thump.
I rush inside and notice a neat house, everything in its place. I search the quaint living room for a phone and recall early morning light from the back room kitchen.
A phone sits on a wall situated between living room and kitchen. When a 9-1-1 dispatcher answers, I guess at the address, assuring the woman I will flag down the ambulance on the street.
The following moments are a blur before paramedics arrive. I like to think I offer words of encouragement. I slide the pack beneath his head for comfort. His facial blue tone softens. When paramedics crowd the porch, I stand back.
Working together like meshing gears, two men and a woman organize the tools of their profession. The woman wraps a band around his arm and attaches electrodes to his chest. Then, she injects solution into a limp muscled bicep.
Professor Van winger’s words echo in my head, “Did this person live?”
A gray haired paramedic tears open Mr. Ridge’s shirt, baring the soft chest. He wipes substance from a tube onto a pair of steel handheld devices, then presses metal to bare skin and shouts, “Clear!”
Mr. Ridge’s lifeless body convulses. I smell singeing flesh.
“Did he love?”
A small electrical box shrieks an irritating tone. “C’mon, c’mon!” The paramedic coaxes, then presses steel to flesh again, “Clear!”
Mr. Ridge convulses a second time.
The woman says, “We’ve got a pulse.” Mr. Ridge sucks air in a gruesome wail.
In less than a minute, they strap the old man to a gurney while asking questions for which I offer meager answers, “No, I don’t know his medical history, he’s just a neighbor… I just happened to notice him lying on the porch… No, I don’t know who to call,” and “Yes, I’ll lock up the house.”
With Mr. Ridge inside, the ambulance speeds away with flashing lights and screeching siren.
I lift the backpack and step inside. After crossing the living room, I flip off a hallway light and trail a scent of cooking meat to the kitchen. The oven clicks. Inside, a roasting pan with a well browned chicken on a bed of carrots, potatoes, and onions. I lay the roaster on the stovetop to cool and flip off the oven. A cupboard search yields Tupperware and tin foil that I set alongside the stove.
The home has an easy feel. A single place setting arranged neatly on the table, plate, knife, fork, and spoon. A bottle of name-brand whiskey centers the table.
I remember the broken coffee cup and retrieve pieces from the porch. A sniff reveals the spilled contents, “Well, that old coot.” Mr. Ridge isn’t all he appears. All these years I had imagined him sipping tea. I lay cup shards on the kitchen counter. “So the old guy likes his whiskey.”
While chicken cools, I inspect the living room. Unmatched furniture arranged for convenience rather the design. A lamp and end table vaguely complement a worn green sofa adorned with a knitted afghan of similar color. Carpet needs replacement. Oddly, I notice an absence of dust or clutter. Everything has a place.
On the fireplace mantle, I find six framed photographs of what appears to be seven people at various stages from around ten years to adulthood. The most recent photo shows grown adults and young children seated at a long dinner table. An uncut roast turkey hints at thanksgiving, or possibly Christmas. Mr. Ridge, appearing no younger than he had that day, sits at the far end of the table.
Along the wall that faces the front window hangs an oil painting of an eighteen-wheel semi truck. A gossamer thin depiction of Christ spreading protective arms, towers over cab and trailer. Below the painting the caption reads, “Jesus savior, pilot me.”
A dated Packard photo flanks a mantle centerpiece, an odd glass sculpture with no apparent rhyme or reason in design. I lift the glass for inspection. The artwork, heavier than it appears, is formed of pure unflawed glass. Transparent fingers reach this way and that, mostly upward, around a thick main shaft like frozen clear lava. I replace the sculpture, uncertain which direction it had faced or if it matters.
On a lamp table, alongside a well-worn rawhide recliner, a framed photo of a dark haired woman, mid thirties perhaps, though the photograph is aged. The woman’s dark eyes speak lovingly. Although the black and white leaves color to conjecture, I imagine a flower over her ear had been yellow and orange. Her facial features are delicate, set firm, reminding me of Laney. A stinted Mona Lisa smile conceals a secret. A twinkle in her eye raises the question, “What were her thoughts when the shutter snapped?”
Above the chair hangs a mirror with an etched picture. I hold the photo alongside. Given the absence of background, an etched image of the woman is an exact likeness. I replace the picture carefully.
I wrap chicken in double tin foil and place the package and vegetable container in the refrigerator.
With the house secured, I lock the rear door and pause to inspect the room before closing the front door. The house feels lonely in Mr. Ridge’s absence. Would friends or relatives check on the place?
On the porch, I peer toward the street to imagine his view from the rocker. Professor Van winger’s final question beckons, “Did he matter?”
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