by Jos O’Connell

There is an old man that comes and sits in his car on the hill top overlooking Lake Alan every Tuesday night.  I know this because that overlook, up the hill, by the power lines is where I like to meet Jennifer when everyone else has fallen asleep.  Lake Alan is a beautiful stretch of water, but by moonlight, when the wind dies down and the groups of distant voices reveal themselves by the popping fires of the shoreline; it becomes mesmeric.

I swore this spot to myself, but the night that Jennifer finally let me kiss her, I broke that promise in an instant boyish daze.  I begged her, with her wanting eyes and effortless glances, to come spend the night with me up at the power lines.  She knew that I had a spot that I kept for myself and the instant that I let her in her eyes grew and she smiled big and kissed me on the forehead.  Since then we have met up here almost every night since.  It was when our meetings grew so consistent that I first noticed the old man each week.

One night in October, as the leaves were just starting to drop, I found myself in conversation with the old man.  The night was chilly and he invited me into his car to sit while I waited for Jennifer.  I was hesitant at first as I worried that Jennifer may not see me and turn back, but he assured me that it would be okay, and for some reason I believed him.  We spoke for a while.

“If you had three wishes, and you could wish for anything, what would it be?” he asked me after some time.

I was hesitant to answer such a question to a stranger, but I felt a peculiar comfort in the company of the old man.  After some thought I answered him; “I would take all of the sickness and all of the pain that my younger sister ever felt and I would destroy it, and I would bring her back so that my Mother could feel whole again.”

I looked over at the man but he continued on his cigar as if I had said nothing.  He continued to scan the dark horizon of Lake Alan with a half-smile, studying each bend and break in the distant shoreline; as if he were recalling memories from a time long since passed.

“And your third wish?”

This one I knew instantly, for the thought had wrapped my mind like a plague for the past few weeks; “I wish that I could take the feeling that I had on the first night that Jennifer gave herself to me, and I wish that I could know it each time that I ever loved a woman ever again.  I don’t know that Jennifer will always have me, but I want that feeling, I have to have that feeling.”

The car was still and smoky and the wind rattled the leaves around us, if you listened close enough you could hear the hum of the power lines overhead.  The old man pulled the cigar from his mouth and brushed his palms across his eyes; this time he turned and faced me.

“I know that I am just an old man to you, and I trust that you have been hearing me as we have spoken, but for what I am about to tell you I need you to listen.”

He went on, “Jennifer will love you and relish you like a prize.  She will be so intrigued and absolutely captivated by you, that she will begin to beg your Mother to teach her how to treat you as she does.  She will even think of putting off school and following you as you go off to play ball at State—which you will do, just like you and your Father always wanted.  She will want to change her life to make it your life, but you will ruin this.  By giving into weakness and temptation you will lose Jennifer, and that feeling that you wished so badly to have back; you will never have again.

“And your Mother; the only woman who ever truly understood you, your best friend, and your biggest supporter—you will lose her too.  When you are twenty-one, while you are bombed off in some bar hundreds of miles away, her heart will stop and she will lose life and fall to the ground, and in an instant, everything will change.  Just like she always warned you of when you treated her wrong.”

However grand these things were, it didn’t feel wrong to listen to this old man.  My heart wasn’t racing, and I was not scared—I was rather peaceful–not questioning or panicked.  It hurt to hear these things said aloud, and I couldn’t bear the pain of imagining them as true, but I listened on and stared forward onto the surface of Lake Alan as it played back and forth with the moon.

“Go on, please go on, I am listening,” I reassured him.

“What do you think of the world, boy?  How old are you?”

“I am seventeen.”

“What do you think of the world right now?  What does it mean to you?”

“I think that I am meant, I mean I have always kind of felt that, I am bound for something higher—something bigger and better.  I think that I am well-grounded and motivated and that if I keep myself centered and stay out of trouble then I can really dosomething special.”

The man exhaled and then pulled back in on the end of his shrinking cigar, “I did not ask what you think of yourself, did I?  What do you think of the world?  Of us here?”

The question troubled me and I struggled to keep my sense of comfort.  I sat up in the seat and rubbed my hands down the legs of my jeans; “Well, um, I don’t know why we are here, but I know that, well I have been taught that, if you show the right Faith, the right Love, and the right Gratitude, then the grander plan can work out for you as it should, as it is all happening for a reason.”

“If I told you that you were going to live beyond sixty, and then I put this car into gear and let us roll down off of the big hill into the Lake, would you let me?  Would you stay in the car?”

My palms grew sweaty again and I sat up as tall in my seat as I could and tried to peer down the steep hill.

“Um, you know, I . . . I don’t know.  I mean would I get hurt, what if I got hurt and then what if I couldn’t play in the Fall, I mean I don’t kn–.”

“Fear,” the old man said cutting me off, “Fear of falling, fear of death, fear of affecting this existence that you think is so well planned—you will lose that.  Just as you will lose all of the faith, love, and gratitude feelings that you now imagine are so near and dear to your happiness and health.”

“Six months after you lose your Mother, you are going to find it hard to breathe some nights.  You will drink until you don’t wake up during the daylight and your friends will try to care at first, but they will all forget.  Seven months after, you will start to stop calling family and every time you get into a car you will pray the one passing you the other way smashes you into a crumpled pile of steel.  Eight months in you will start to thank God for each day that ends because it will be one more day closer to the imminent conclusion of, what you will come to know as, wanting-death.”

“Listen to me,” he said looking me square in the eye, “If you can get through this, if you can manage to keep your head above water in this time,” He took one last pull from his cigar and mashed it into the ashtray, “I promise you that things will get better, I promise you that you will change.”

“Just hang on.”

Jos O’Connell is a man and these are his words.  He writes for his Mother and he writes for his Sister. It is his hope that if he writes enough, they will hear him, wherever they are.