by James Bates
The old man spent more than a few minutes at his task. Taking his time, in fact, as if there was nothing more important to do on this cloudy December day other than sweep out the garage. He used a push broom - a long wooden pole with worn, bent, black bristles that he pulled toward himself instead of pushing, making you wonder why he did it that way. And he was methodical, that was for sure, starting at the far right hand corner and working his way across the floor to the left. He had the entire two car space to sweep, getting rid of sand and gravel and grit, all accumulated during the last few weeks; weeks when it had snowed, then rained, and then been followed by this unseasonal warm-up. He called the stuff he swept "debris." There was a lot of it on the floor, and he was sweeping (or pulling, rather) the broom over the cracked and stained concrete surface with a deliberation that, after a while, made you begin to admire him for being so conscientious.
He was tall, thin and bearded, slightly bent in the back, and he seemed to carry there a lifetime of physical work and stiffness as he paused to rest and adjust the hat he wore; the wool stocking hat his wife had knit him for Christmas three years ago, just four months before she'd died. It gave him a sense of more than warmth, something closer to security, knowing that though gone from this world she was still with him in so many little ways; little ways like this treasured hat, knit for him by her knowing fingers using wool she had dyed herself, it's heathery-orange a color that he loved.
Above him, in the rafters, a red squirrel has taken up residence. And what a nuisance that rodent has been, scattering chewed up black walnut hulls and pulverized shell powder all over the place, adding to the debris on the floor. This particular red squirrel has acted like he owns the garage, or at least the space in the rafters, secreting nuts up there like it was his own private storage facility. "What a mess," the old guy thinks to himself, unscrewing the brush part of the broom from the handle and using it to sweep off his work bench, unfortunately positioned directly below where the majority of hulls seem to be strategically stored. Hulls that, as he sweeps, now come tumbling from the bench onto the floor bouncing and rolling with an entropy all their own. When he finishes he sighs as he puts the broom back together and continues with his sweeping, thinking he should probably do something about that damn squirrel. We'll see. Maybe next year. For now it's just him and his task, pulling the broom instead of pushing, stepping to the left and pulling it some more, working his way across to the left hand wall. Then, shuffling in his work boots, he slowly and stiffly makes his way back across to the right hand side of the garage to start the process all over again. Almost like a dance, it looks like, this old man and his broom.
He doesn't notice but up in the rafters the red squirrel is watching. Normally a loud, aggressive species, it is content to complacently look down on the old guy, choosing not to chatter and scold. The squirrel can wait. It has stored hundreds if not thousands of black walnuts up in the safely of the rafters. It has a whole winter ahead and lots of nuts to crack open, lots of debris to scatter. The squirrel is warm and safe as it watches, becoming hypnotized by the way the old man works, back and forth, back and forth, back and forth; sweeping and sweeping and sweeping. After awhile it's eyes grow weary. Then heavy. Then, too heavy to watch anymore, the mesmerized squirrel falls into a deep sleep.
The squirrel can have no way of knowing, of course, but It has been like this for a few years now, this obsession of the old man with cleaning out the garage. Ever since he'd lost his wife to cancer in the spring two and a half years ago he has felt compelled to keep things clean; both inside the house (the home they'd shared for over forty years) and outside. This compulsion of his is strong. This overwhelming desire, or need, really, to keep things tidy. To be honest, she had been the one to do the inside work and he the outside during the years they'd been married; a silently agreed upon splitting up of tasks and division of labor. It served them well. But now with her gone he has taken it upon himself to do both: the work inside the house and outside. One could insert the word "try" here when it comes to the inside cleaning. For he will never measure up to her standards when it comes to cleaning and dusting of course, but he has tried. He has done his best. But it is the outside work, like taking care of the gardens or cutting the grass or, for sure, like sweeping out the garage, that he has felt in his best element. Felt he really shined. So that's what he does now. And he does it with a care and a passion that, if you took the time to watch and think about, is really quite remarkable.
Remarkable maybe or, at the very least, touching; this old man, living by himself, sweeping out the garage on a mild winter's day. Watched over by a sleepy red squirrel as he moves across the floor, working with his broom, sweeping back and forth, back and forth, as if time had no more meaning to him than this. This sweeping and cleaning all the while as he remembers the past and all those good years he and his wife spent together. Those good years and their life long bond and how they had enjoyed working together and taking care of their home, both inside and out.
About the author
My website/blog is: www.theviewfromlonglake.wordpress.com
I live in Long Lake, Minnesota. I enjoy walking, gardening, bird watching, reading, writing, bicycle riding and playing with my four fantastic grand kids. I'm retired after working many years as a sales and technical development and training instructor. I collect old marbles, vintage dinky toy race cars and YA books from the 1900's. I'm also a passionate yo-yo player. Life is good. I am a fortunate man.