he was a ghost:

someone gone ten years or more, someone so buried in memory they had become themselves near fiction, just a few dusty memories in a growing mausoleum full of them. and yet there he was, real as the paint flecks still stuck to my skin, throwing frisbees with friends fifty feet down the park.

it was almost too far a gap to cross, like Orpheus entering the underworld. not only had we not spoken in ten years, the time we'd spent together was the low point of my life, and i a person so different from who i am today as to practically only be sharing physical features with my past. maybe he was the same, Ross. it was worth the risk to find out.

i told my mom and brothers to folf on without me, and jogged the fifty feet to where he stood, a grin welling up as i remembered him telling me about the worst christmas present he'd ever gotten, a box of second-hand clothes from his grandma. 'Ross!' i called over. he turned, and looked, and a for a second i was as stranger as he'd been to me seconds before.
then he said, 'Holy shit dude, Levi, what are you doing man?' and we were the same high school kids we'd been, or at least older people wearing those old clothes. mine hardly fit; it seemed he could still wriggle into his, but had grown out of at least some of the parts i'd shed as well.

he'd never left the area; we were 25 miles from the small town we'd lived in a decade ago. i was almost embarrassed to tell him where i've been and what i've done, because i didn't want to sound outrageous or make him feel like he hadn't done much in comparison, but he'd already heard about some of it, so i let the rest out. we had a nice little catch up, both happy to see each other and see that we were doing well.

then a silence came, and i saw that my family had in fact not folfed on without me, and that we'd run out of things to say. what do you say to a stranger you once knew? you can only wish them the best, only speak from a personal distance so great you're reduced to good intentions, like strangers who share only a few words of the same language.

then i turned, and we stepped out of those old skins, pinned new photographs to the old, discolored ones of mind, and forgot each other again in the flow of everything new.


albeit glowing

it is the last day of painting, my last day in south dakota, and i am working like a mad man to get everything done. in the space of these last three days, worked around presentations given here and there, i have tried to paint four rooms, mask and tape another, seal and paint it, then get it all stripped and the equipment cleaned up before i go. at 3:05, i am almost done. it's down to the wire: thirty minutes left before i absolutely have to be in the car driving so i can be back in time to throw all my belongings in a suitcase and get in my little brother's car so we can drive the eight hours down to my mom's place.

twenty-five. getting there. the rooms are stripped, the equipment cleaned, now i'm trying to get it all back where it belongs. twenty. i half-run from the north to the central building, a bundle of tools to put back in the office there, hoping there are no residents in the rec room to stop me.

i open the door: no one. phew. i get the tools put away, come out ready to get in the car and get home in time to pack, am walking through the lobby and--there she is. the quiet old woman i met my first day here, who was then only thinking of moving in, who is sharp as a tack but not so quick on her feet, doesn't hear well and speaks very soft, from what you can see is a good heart.

phew. i don't want to blow her off: i learned enough in Uganda about making time for people, saw the value in it. especially these people who have so little human interaction. i want to make time for them, want to brighten their day and to understand their lives as best i can. so i stop. she starts talking, in a thin wavering voice, telling of how she moved in, how her grandson came over, how she had broken her ankle trying to answer the door, how he'd taken her to the hospital and the case they'd put on and...

by this time i am well past my limit for leaving. i will come home to an irate younger brother who can't stand delays to leaving, and i know in any case we won't arrive before two in the morning; i'm also anxious to leave. but i can't leave her.

she is still talking about her ankle, about how her grandson said maybe he shouldn't come over because he makes her break her ankle, and this just about breaks my heart. out of time as i am, something in me goes out to this lady, who lost her husband and would really rather be back in her house in Reeder but just couldn't manage to keep up such a big place, and i don't want to break off the conversation early. she keeps talking.

i am really past my limit now. i know my little brothers won't understand why i'm late, why i'm still packing as they sit in the car waiting to go. i think she senses it. she says she will let me go, and as i'm turning she says one more thing i can't understand.

i turn, "what?"

again, i can't understand it. "what did you say?"

she plucks up all the volume her little voice has. "you have a nice smile. don't lose it."

there is something about a compliment from an elderly person that carries so much weight. you know it is beyond all calculation for gain or manipulation, it is something that's seen and said through generations of experience in life. i don't know what to say. "thank you," i manage, and i am walk-running to the suburban to get on my way, albeit glowing. i haven't had a chance to say goodbye to all the people i met working here, but somehow i feel like i just did, feel this is a fitting last line to a chapter of my life.

so i get in and drive 100 miles an hour into the next.