The old man took a deep breath of the evening air. The sun had not quite set but the woods were beginning to come alive with night sounds. He sat near a small fire and looked out over the lake. He had driven up here, to the trailhead, and then hiked in 7 miles to this spot that he knew so well. He also knew it would be deserted; late October was not high tourist season in the North Woods. Not even hunters would hike in this far.
He was exhausted from the hike, but content and the only thing missing was Sam…he would have liked to have his dog here with him…especially now, but in the end he decided it would be best to leave him with Patti, she loved the dog and would know what to do. He was lucky to have Patti come into his life, at 23 years old it was strange that they got on so well, but she had taken a liking to him after he’d come in to pay his rent and made a point of checking on him almost every day. Even when she wasn’t working she would text him a funny picture or video the way young people like to do.
What really cinched it was the time he talked her into taking him skiing. It wasn’t that he couldn’t drive himself, he certainly could, but he knew if something happened his daughters would swoop in and take away his skis, his car, his freedom. For some reason, they thought he was hard of hearing…a misapprehension he used to his advantage. So he knew he needed to watch his step. They meant well, but their attempts to “protect” him meant losing his independence. Even Sam was a risk…he’d overheard one daughter saying something about a “rescue”. So what he needed was a wingman and Patti was up for the job. It took some talking, but after assuring her that he would stay on the green hills and throwing in gas money, lunch and dinner, and setting her up with a private ski lesson she agreed.
Everything went fine although he’d fibbed about the green hills, but as he explained some people can ski well into their 70s and even 80s. Once they arrived and Patti saw the large number of seniors on skis, she relaxed and went off for her lesson leaving him to do what he liked best; enjoying the peace and quiet of the snow covered trails and the occassional rush of doing something a little risky. Patti had refused to take any of his money even though her ski rentals and lesson had cost her a pretty penny. They had taken his car and he’d let her drive down but on the way home he drove…he wanted her to see he was fine driving alone, and in any event his daughters had insisted he upgrade his car to the lastest safety features which didn’t hurt any. During that three hour drive he’d come to regard her almost as a daughter…she had shared a lot with him and he began to understand that she was a special type of person. He loved his daughters beyond all measure but he understood that they had thier lives to live and so he felt fortunate to have someone like Patti in his life.
“Daddy, I don’t think you should be living alone”. That was Gracie, his youngest and the one he called Princess. She more than anyone knew that he would never be able to stand losing his own place. He kissed her on the cheek and promised her he would think about it. They both knew he was lying and Gracie wouldn’t push the issue but her older sister was another story. She had been checking out “nice places” and kept sending him brochures which he promised her he would read. “Would I get to keep my car?” “Now daddy…”. It all came to a head the day he fell, both girls freaked out a little and both came to town to take him to his doctor. He had to give permission but they came into the exam room with him. Finally, to get out of there, he’d agreed that he must have gotten a little light headed. They went home and the girls had the opinion from his own doctor that he should probably “be around people”. He explained about Patti looking in on him, but they objected saying “and what happens when she gets a new job?”
The irony of the situation was that he had actually tripped over Sam; no spring chicken himself, Sam was half blind and had taken to being underfoot all the time. If he had admitted that though, they may have taken Sam away. His sister called him; she never called with happy news. All she had to say was “how do you think your daughters would feel if they found you laying on the floor dead?” Thanks Phyllis. He said she was absolutely right and he would do something about it straight away. “Thank God I was able to talk some sense into you” she said before announcing that she had to go watch her favorite TV show.
Something his daughters did not know about was the followup call he’d gotten from his doctor’s office. His steadliy declining kidney function was reaching a critical stage. Telling his daughters would mean he had seen his last day of skiing, his last walk in the woods alone, his last drive to the ocean to watch the waves crash on the shore while he sipped beers from his cooler. He HAD confided in Patti, told her he wanted one last trip to the North Country, and she had given him a tent that she never used. His daughters wouldn’t like it and they would feel betrayed, well maybe Gracie would understand after awhile…she was her father’s daughter. Patti wouldn’t like it either, but she would immediately understand and that is why she was watching Sam.
He took the three notes, one for each daughter and one for Patti, put them in plastic bags and pinned them to the tent wall. They would find the car first so there was a note in the car pointing out his camping site. He told all three girls he loved them and asked Patti to take care of Sam, although he already knew she would. And then he thought about his late wife for a few minutes…would she understand? Of course she would; she knew who she married.
He watched as the sky turned orange, then red, then purple. He watched as the stars appeared and found Polaris, Orion and Ursa Major. There was no moon and that made him a little sad but he was able to make out Venus and Mars. He had carried in a can of beer and left it to chill in a nearby stream. He got up and grabbed the beer…it was perfect. He sat back down just outside the tent entrance, pulled the bottle from his pocket and without hesitation swallowed it’s contents, washing it down with the ice cold beer. Then he sat back and breathed the pine air and he could smell the Balsam and he could smell the Tamarack and he could smell the Jack Pine. He could hear a fish striking at a mosquito and his daughters crying in their cribs and he heard his wife saying she was waiting for him.
© Glenn R Keller 2020, All Rights Reserved
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