It’s almost always windy at the beach and most mornings on my walk, I see a man, about my age, flying a kite (a red and gold Chinese dragon, flapping, dipping and divebombing in the wind). Ada, when she was little, would have gone nuts over a kite like this one. She’d have been happy just watching it. I think kids might not be like that anymore. If they aren’t, I can’t blame them. They’ve got all these video games and smart phones and everything like that. Always looking down at screens. Seems like I’m always looking up, which is why I’m not very good at finding sharks’ teeth like Susie. She’ll go for a short walk, maybe a mile each way, and find five or six teeth. I’ll glance down periodically, but it’s just a mess of broken shells down there to me. But she don’t see things like I do, ospreys and airplanes and kites, because she’s always looking down. We’re opposites in a lot of things.
She’s an afternoon walker and I’m a morning walker so we don’t usually walk together. We’re too old to give a damn about doing everything together, and we do a lot together, anyway, like cooking and cleaning up around the house and watching TV and listening to music and going out to dinner and talking about things that could have happened and about things, sad things, that did. Still, seems like we’re always saying, “How was your walk?” The answer is almost always, “Fine.” But sometimes one of us will have a story. One time, on my walk, about a year ago, I watched a man jump out of an airplane. Susie didn’t believe me when I told her about it. She loves me, but she thinks I’m a liar. I’ll take a man jumping out of a plane over finding a shark’s tooth any damn day. Why in the world a man would jump out of a perfectly good plane, I’ll never know.
Today the man and the kite ain’t there. I figure it’s not a big deal, though, because that’s the way it is: sometimes he’s there and sometimes he ain’t there. I’d say eighty percent of the time he is there, always alone, boyish, watching his kite.
This kite-flying man is skinny, with a head full of short silver hair, and he has a serious tan. He’s always wearing khaki shorts and no shirt. He looks good for his age. You’d think he’d have a grandkid, or someone, out there with him, but it’s only ever him, by himself, flying this expensive looking kite. In a way, it’s kind of strange. What kind of an old guy wants to fly a kite all by himself? You wouldn’t catch me doing something like that without a child or grandchild to do it for. It’s a lot of work and it gets boring pretty quickly. This kite-guy reminds me a little of a man from my childhood who was my grandfather’s friend.
This was back in the late fifties. I forget this guy’s name, but in my memory, he looked just like the kite flier—slim, tan, silver shaggy hair, and always shirtless. He was my grandfather’s next-door neighbor. Just about everyone who lived in this neighborhood was retired military, and this guy had served in the Air Force with my grandfather, who retired a lieutenant colonel. This guy had been a major, and he still called my grandfather Colonel. Colonel Everthin. Even though I can’t remember this guy’s name, we can call him Major McQueen. He sort of looked like an older Steve McQueen, just like this kite flying fellow.
My grandfather, my mom’s father, was a bastard—at least, to a little kid like I was then. He didn’t treat me so good. He wasn’t abusive or nothing like that, but he wasn’t very friendly or affectionate. My mom loved him, but she’d have been the first one to tell you he was a bastard. He slapped her once, so she ran away. But I’ll give him this: he went looking for her, and when he finally found her, a few hours later, he apologized to her and told her he’d never lay another hand on her—and he never did. It was a mistake, he’d told her. People make mistakes sometimes. So I wouldn’t say he was horrible or nothing like that, but he was a bit of a bastard. I’d never have hit Ada. I’m a lot of things, but I never did go in for hitting anyone, least of all your own child.
Anyway when my grandad was around this Major McQueen guy he was like a whole different person. He and the major were always cracking jokes in some kind of half-assed pidgin language they must have made up in the service, and they was smiling the whole time. I liked that version of my grandfather best. He’d be laughing and carrying on and then he’d look down at me and wink, like I was in on the joke, even though I didn’t understand a word of what they were going on about.
Major McQueen. I wish that was his name. Course he’s been dead for decades, I’m sure. But this kite-flying clown looks just like him. I wonder where he goes, what he does, when he’s not out here flying his kite. Does he have any grand children? Or does he have a grown daughter or son? Is he lonely or sad? I wonder how he feels about being old. I wonder what horrible thing has happened to him in his life. I wonder what his name is. I wonder, too, if he notices me like I do him. Does he look at me, and think, “There goes that old, fat schlep.” Do I remind him of somebody? Does he wonder if I have any grown children? Does he wonder if I am bereft of child? Can he see it on me some how, that very specific kind of grief?
Susie don’t mess around. She thinks I’m daft. Can you believe she says that—like she’s a Brit or something? She’ll catch you off guard with that sort of thing. It’s her one concession to whimsy. She’ll call things “brilliant” and says “ta” and “cheers” and “no worries,” and all kinds of other things along those lines. But it don’t drive me nuts. I actually like it. I’m almost jealous of it, to be honest. Why didn’t I think of that? It’s better than all the other things people around here say. At least she tries to be interesting. I just say all the regular things you’d expect a seventy-year-old American to say—and I don’t say much of it, either. I don’t really care for talking. At least, the kind of talking most people do don’t interest me. I’d like to tell people to go straight to hell most of the time. It’s not out of hate or anger or whatever. I just don’t know why people feel like they got to fill the quiet with their nonsense all the time. What’s wrong with quiet? Quiet is where the truth grows, and you can hear it if you can just shut your mouth. People are goddamn daft.
When I get home from my walk, Susie is gone, but she’s left a note on the fridge:
Went to the grocery—be back shortly.
She has to keep herself busy, I get it. We both have our ways of coping. I grab a Heineken out of the fridge and go sit out on the back porch. The great thing about being an old retired guy is you can do something like that. You can drink a beer at ten in the morning and no one really gives a shit. I mean—don’t get drunk. I wouldn’t recommend that. But you can have a beer or two in the morning if you want. You can take a nap at noon. You can eat dinner at three in the afternoon if you feel like it, and you can go to bed at seven. People make fun of old people for eating and going to bed so early, but I think they’re actually kind of jealous—not of being old, but being able to do whatever you want. No one wants to be old. People don’t mind the age, per se. Being old isn’t the problem. It’s an old person’s proximity to death that’s the issue. He’s right there next to you, too close, like someone at the movie theater, slurping his Coke too loud, with his feet up on the seat in front of him. Hell, though, it’s not like we old bastards sit around thinking about death all the time. Not all the time. And young people die too. You can die at any age.
Something funny about that Steve McQueen—not the old guy with the kite, but Major McQueen—is that he came to Ada’s funeral, and I didn’t even recognize him at first. I hadn’t seen him since I was a kid. I was thirty-five at the time. He must have been well over eighty years old. Still had a full head of hair too. He took up my sad, limp hand, squeezed it, smiled at me, and let it go. Didn’t say a word, this guy. Gave Susie a hug, I remember, then he walked away and I don’t think I ever saw him again. Susie must have wondered who the old guy hugging her was. She’d never met him. I bet she thought he was just some old angel, trying to comfort her, and I suppose he was, in a way.
I finish the beer and doze off on the couch on the porch, and maybe I dream of kites and movie stars, or maybe I see snippets of memories that can only be recalled in dreams, but not for long. Soon enough the front door’s deadbolt snaps back, wakes me, and I hear Susie set a grocery bag on the kitchen counter. She calls my name and I slowly, hinges creaking, get up off the couch and go see what she wants.
Steve Lambert’s writing has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Saw Palm, Chiron Review, New World Writing, New Contrast (South Africa), The Pinch, Broad River Review, Longleaf Review, Emrys Journal, BULL Fiction, Into the Void, Cowboy Jamboree, Cortland Review, and many other places. In 2015 he won third place in Glimmer Train’s Very Short Fiction contest and in 2018 he won Emrys Journal’s Nancy Dew Taylor Poetry Prize. He is the recipient of four Pushcart Prize nominations and was a Rash Award in Fiction finalist. He is the author of the poetry collection Heat Seekers (CW Books, 2017), the chapbook In Eynsham (CW Books, 2020) and the fiction collection The Patron Saint of Birds (Cowboy Jamboree, 2020). His novel, Philisteens, will be out May 2021, and his second full-length poetry collection, The Shamble, will be out in October. He lives in Northeast Florida, with his wife and daughter, where he teaches part-time at the University of North Florida.