The Old Man and a Lionel Train
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Youth fools us into believing in something bigger than ourselves. A future full of hope that only fades with experiences that a young boy of sixteen can not even imagine. Warmth of that late summer day on the edge of fall that had been fresh in a new school year shrank with the cool dusk air that sends a signal of seasons escaping us. Hallelujah Joe made it walking past Highland Park elementary to Meadowbridge Road and once on Laburnum, he started hitch hiking.
An old man sat in a wingback chair admiring lovingly a small plastic Lionel Train caboose. The inanimate toy was alive with memories. Once again another late summer afternoon aged into chilly fall nights some call martini weather. To the man with the rounded face and thinned hair, it would be better to distill memories of times both bad and good from years past into a warmer more comfortable nostalgia brought on with the sweet taste of hot cocoa or warm apple cider. A warm blanket of memories fits snugly as if squeezing into last years plaid flannel shirt.
Hallelujah Joe had become this old man.
Sounds from a car pulling to a stop in the driveway start the big black dog barking, “Easy,” the man coaxed the animal. “That’s just Little Joe.”
The dog ran tail wagging to the man coming through the unlocked door. With one hand on a suitcase behind him, he stopped to rub the dog’s ears.
“Hey,” the old man said, “Glad you made it.”
“Can’t believe the traffic. Who would have ever thought Mechanicsville would be so populated?”
“What’s with the train set?”
“Got it out of the attic. Thought you might want to take it home after your mom packed it away all those years go. Been saving it for you.”
“Well,” the younger man said, “Never get too old for a train set.”
Joe Sr. chuckled, “Never thought I’d be old enough to see my boy sprout gray hair. Old dogs and trains remind us of what could have been and what is.”
Parts of the toy set rested along side of the family Bible on the coffee table, “You been reading the Bible?”
“Read it, hell, I wrote it.”
“Your grand father thought it would be a good idea to beat that book into me, so as a punishment for something, I don’t remember what, he had me copy word for word everyday after school.”
Little Joe smiled at the thought, “You remember any of it.”
“Never made much sense. When I got to the part about who begat who, all I could think about was there must have been a lot of screwing going on to have all those kids.”
Old Joe could always phrase anything into a joke that made Little Joe laugh.
“I ever tell you what happened when I ran away?”
“Well, that day I ran away when I was a teen, I figured I’d hitchhike up to New York and get on Major Bowes radio show. That was the first amateur hour. Some big name like Sinatra got their start on the show. So, I thought why not.”
“Did you get on?”
“No, bunch a people ahead of me and to audition I’d have to stay a week or so. With no money and no place to stay, I headed back south.”
“How’d that work out?”
“Damn near starved. Once I stole a bottle of milk off somebody’s front porch. That was some adventure.”
“That’s an understatement.”
“Funniest thing happened on my way up. I told you about my father’s religion killing me. Well, when I was hitching north, the first guy to pick me up tried to save me and gave me a Bible.”
With a chuckle, “He probably didn’t know you wrote it.”
The next morning fall weather had a tighter grip. Enough cold air to make breath visible as Little Joe packed a keyboard and sound equipment in the back of a pick up truck. Old Joe came out, “Let’s hit it. Have to be at the lodge early enough to set up before lunch time.”
Since retiring after years at the Post Office, old Joe had taken up his passion to be an entertainer. Senior citizen homes and civic clubs loved his off color jokes and songs that were popular long enough in the past to remember for some in his audience that could not remember breakfast. Little Joe had become his father’s roadie. He’d set up the mic, check it out, be sure the keyboard was plugged in, and the take a seat to watch old Joe do what he did best. Once in a while, some up tight old woman could get offended at the suggestion of something off color and would say, “That’s disgusting.” But, for the majority, they loved it. One of his favorites was Room Full of Roses. He’d say, “Mickey Gilley sang that song once and made a million dollars. I sang it a million times and never made a dime.”
The crowd always loved that and would fill the tip jar. Some old guy in the audience shouts out a heckle he thinks is funny, “That tip jar part of your retirement fund?”
“Nah, every penny goes to the Shriner’s Hospital for Children.”
Every show ends with the song, Brighten the Corner Where You Are.
On the way home the truck’s heater breathed on the two as they inched along Brook Road leaving the Westminster Retirement complex behind where most of Joe’s audience would be taking their afternoon naps. The route north targeting Mechanicsville showed scars of times passed when the empty asphalt and concrete lot that used to be Azalea Mall came into view. Once, young Joe’s schoolmates bought Weejun penny loafers and Madras dyed shirts to fit in with those kids from Ginter Park. They strutted the halls of John Marshall High adorned in the multicolored plaid shirts with button down collars and short sleeves that fathers who made more money than a postal employee could afford. Many of those with so much promise were now old enough to be left stripped of their popularity.
“You ever hear from any of your friends from then?”
“Didn’t fit in with the cool kids back them, probably not so much now. I saw some pics on Facebook and they are all old farts now. Funny, how those athletic football players got so fat and lost so much hair.”
They stopped at the traffic light where some brilliant city planners changed the name of the intersecting road from Dumbarton to Azalea Avenue. The right hand turn signal ticked and clicked like an old clock, then died when the turn was made. The corner where Wright’s Town House Chicken in the Rough Restaurant one cooked Sunday meals in a family pack for two-ninety-five. Old Joe mentioned the memory of the to go box shaped like a house with a handle, “Now that was a happy meal long before the fast food guys.”
The corner now has a sign that promotes Coke on sale to get Walgreens customers in the door at the new landmark. Their drive filled with memories goes east past Pony Farm Road where young Joe fell off a pony for the first time when he was a kid and amusement parks were dirt tracks where farmers made a buck or two letting city kids ride a pony. That too is long gone. Cheap Monopoly Board apartments stand where ponies once ruled.
“I remember that,” said Little Joe. Then he asked, “Why do you always close with that song?”
“Brighten the Corner Where You Are.”
“Well, back when I was a teen going place I’ve never been that seemed really important.”
“You wanted to be a singer?”
“I am a singer. Just didn’t become a star. That’s all.”
“True, but you did follow your passion when you ran away.”
“Let me explain something. Your age thinks passion is all there is. Just got to love what you do. That’s bullshit.”
“How do you mean?”
“First thing, the most important thing, is to find out what you can do that makes money.”
“What if your passion is the thing that makes money?”
“Good for you, I guess. The thing about being hungry and the only thing between you and a meal is two ninety-five, you get a job that pays.”
“Take care of the wallet first and do your passion on the side. That’s not so bad.”
“What’s all that about?” Little Joe asks about a long line of traffic bringing them to a stop.
“Up on the left they have a flea market.”
The traffic light backs up a line of cars at the intersection where Azalea Avenue at one time was a dead end. Times change. With time, the road has been extended. All those thick tall pines and oaks once called ‘the country’ are gone with the scar of new pavement and Azalea Avenue changes names to Carolina Avenue around some curve with no demarcation landmark. The change occurs just past curve with no real reason for a name change.
“Lot of traffic at that flea market.”
The turn signal clicks impatiently as both Joes can do nothing more than observe the crowd meander from one table of junk to another. Some have pitched small square tents. Old Joe chuckles, “Makes me think of Daddy.”
“People pitching those tents to sell stuff they don’t want anymore. Old stuff made new again. I can’t tell you how many times I pitched much bigger tents for your Grandfather’s prayer meetings.”
“Harry was a nice old man,” offered Little Joe.
“Yeah, he mellowed a lot when he got older.”
“You two seemed close, as I remember.”
“Your grandfather was raised in a different time. Life was tough and people had to be tougher. People change. It takes time for some. Every once in a while, somebody will have some big ‘aha’ moment that instantly changes their life. Sometimes a pitchfork gets smacked down for no reason.”
The light changes green as they turn onto Richmond Henrico Turnpike, which changes names to Meadowbridge Road for no real reason.