“Mr. Gates: The First Visit”

Fiction by Rob Stuart

A man craggy as granite rock had a habit of putting the flag up on his mailbox. He never had anything to mail, nor did the mail deliver much of anything except circulars, which he pasted to cylindrical form before burning them in his porcelain kitchen sink. Those paper stacks emitted their smoke out the kitchen window, and curious neighbors said of the eccentric that they saw smoke trailing from the man’s curling gray hair. They saw him make his trip to the mailbox every day to raise the flag, then again to check the delivery. The mailman, faithful to the upraised signal on the box, stopped each day. It was a game they played to signal to the world the old man was alive.

His name was Edward Gates. The mailman, at 42, was half Gates’s age. Gates saw him trying to catch a glimpse of him as he pulled the box open. The mailman saw him, too, standing behind the lace curtain at the front door. The distance suited the old man. Let the mailman and everyone else make their rounds, he was content to let them know he was still there, content to make flaming cylinders of useless mail and otherwise speak his sentiments to Cleopatra, his cat and only companion.

I was a sometimes visitor to Mr. Gates. As a summer resident in Clear Lake, Iowa, where my grandparents lived, I delivered newspapers to earn pocket change. The summer of 1944 when I was 10 I had the South Shore route where Mr. Gates lived. He took the evening papers, though as far as I could tell whenever I came to collect, he never read them. They were stacked neat as you please in his sunroom. I could see that from the porch when I stood at the front door while Mr. Gates rummaged around inside for the 70 cents he owed me every other Friday. It was a large white house on a hill overlooking the lake. Gates Hill it was called.

One day when I came to collect, Mr. Gates invited me to come inside. He had been sitting in a rocking chair on the porch as I approached, not without some apprehension on my part, for I had never seen him there before. I laid my bicycle down on the grass and walked up the front steps with my paper bag slung over my shoulder. It occurred to me he had been waiting for me.

“Your name’s Stuart, ain’t it?”

“Yes, sir.” I smiled, as much embarrassed by his unexpected greeting as pleased he knew who I was. “How d’ya know my name?”

“I know these things. L.C. Stuart’s grandson, and a young robber baron at that.” He laughed quite loudly. I stepped back. “Now, no offense.” But he kept laughing, chuckling softly to himself. “How much do I owe you?”

“The usual, 70 cents,” and I began to tear the receipt stub from my book.

“Don’t fumble around with them pieces of paper, they’re of no account. Come in, you’ve got time enough, all the time in the world, and your customers can wait. Give ’em satisfaction to hold onto what money they still have. Ha!” He got up from his chair and walked toward the front entrance. For a moment he stood framed in the large oval glass of the oak door. He was tall standing over me, and large himself. I saw myself in the same frame, a skinny kid in brown short pants and a white T-shirt.

The house was as quiet as a calm day on the lake, but cool and dark. All the shades were half drawn. Two small lamps with patterns of green glass illuminated round tables. As for the rest of the parlor furniture, it was draped with white dust covers. He walked into the next room where he opened a rolltop desk, from which he drew the change to pay me. A large picture hung over the desk.

“Who’s the man?” I asked.

“That’s a man time’s forgot. William Jennings Bryan. Ever hear of him?”

“No.”

“Confirms my statement.” He paused and raised an arm upward, and said, “You shall not crucify mankind on a cross of gold!” He looked down at me. I didn’t know what he was talking about and thought he might be crazy. Then he added, lowering his voice, “Here’s something more to your liking.” He pointed to a sword over the mantel of the fireplace. “Belonged to my father. Fought with General Grant at Shiloh. Do you know anything about that?” He leaned over so close to me I could see that the whites of his eyes were pink.

“A little,” I said.

“Any of your family fight in that war?”

“I don’t know.”

“Humpf.” He walked to the mantel and propped his elbow on it, pulling his coat open to reveal a silver watch chain across his vest. “What’s the earliest thing you remember?”

I thought a moment and said, “The time I got lost around the corner. I was 4.”

“Not that kind of memory! God almighty, everybody gets lost when he’s 4. I mean political memory, things happening outside there in the world.”

“I suppose the war.” I read the headlines from France and the Pacific and the lead paragraphs that went with them, and the maps. I liked looking at the maps.

“Nothing before that? Roosevelt and Willkie election in 1940.”

“I think I heard my parents talking about that, but I was only 6. Why?”

“It’s important what you first remember about the world. Were we at war or not, in a depression or good times, elections, labor fights. Now Roosevelt — some say he’s the devil and some say a savior.”

“What do you think?”

He squinted at me. “I’m the one asking questions, ain’t I? But since you ask, and you seem to be bright enough, no one should have three terms as president, and here we are going into a fourth if he gets it.” He paused. “Course it don’t make any difference in the end. Of no account!” and he laughed again.

I couldn’t think of anything to say, but obviously from his expression, and the way he was leaning forward a bit, he was going to continue.

“Of course it does make some difference, in between. Between the time you make your appearance and the time you — depart.” He smiled. “Meantime, and it’s mean all right, what’s your impression of the world, Stuart, friendly or not?”

“Why, friendly, sir.”

“Even though the first thing you know outside your home is the war?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Anybody you know in the war?”

“Two of my uncles.”

“Oh, yes, Bob Stuart. I know about him, does Iowa proud. Who’s the other?”

“My Uncle George, from South Carolina.”

“Where’s he at these days, do you know?”

“He got captured by the Germans.”

“And you still think the world’s friendly?” He said that with a disbelief that invited my own.

Nevertheless I said, “Yes.”

“I can see there’s no changing your mind. Too young and optimistic. And before you know it you’ll be too old and pessimistic, and there’s no changing your mind then, either.”

   Just then a white and black something flashed through the room. “Don’t mind her. That’s Cleopatra. Do you know who Cleopatra was?”

“No.”

“Didn’t think so.”

TO BE CONTINUED


The Rev. Rob Stuart, a Springs resident, is pastor emeritus of the Amagansett Presbyterian Church. A member of the Ashawagh Hall Writers Workshop, he will be reading another section of this piece at the East Hampton Library on Tuesday.