“Mr. Gates: The First Visit,” Part Two

Fiction by Rob Stuart

Read "Mr. Gates: The First Visit," Part I

Part Two

I had become interested in the old man in spite of his gruff manner. His words were like the newspapers reporting things that were important.

“Do you have children?” I asked.

“Didn’t your parents ever teach you manners, asking a question like that! I’ve a mind to speak to your grandfather. I know who your parents are, too, don’t think I don’t. Out there farther on the south shore in those Indian cottages. Who decorated them like that?”

“My mother.”

“She likes Indians?”

“Yes.” I looked up at him. My question hadn’t been answered.

“Well. Wife died here 10 years ago, Emily. My son, Robert, and all his family live down to St. Louis. He’s a bigshot in some company, another robber baron just like your grandfather here in real estate.”

“My grandfather isn’t a robber!”

He looked at me, his gray eyebrows lowered down to his eyes. “Oh, I don’t mean he’s a robber. Now look, here you are still standing with your papers. Put them down, and while you’re at it give me mine.”

“Oh, sorry, sir, here it is.” I pulled one from the canvas bag, happy now to set the bag on the floor. I hesitated before asking but felt bold from our conversation. “Do you read them, sir, I mean the newspapers. I noticed — ”

“All my papers in the sunroom?” He burst into the loudest and longest laugh yet, tears rolling down his face. “You noticed that, did you?”

“It wasn’t very hard to see, from your front door.”

“Looking around, were you? Ha! But you’re right, I don’t read them. No need to, it’s all the same you know, the news one year to the next. If we’re not in a war we’re gettin’ ready for one, with a Depression in between. What news I want I get from the radio.”

“Then why, pardon me for asking, but why do you get the newspaper if you don’t read them?”

His blue eyes sparkled, clouded though they were. “Come, Stuart, I’ll show you something. Follow me.” He led me from the living room through the hallway to the kitchen, toward the basement steps. I saw black marks in the kitchen sink that looked like something had been burned there. “Watch your step,” he said, “and watch out for Cleopatra. She has a habit of walking between your feet. Damn near trips you down the stairs.”

His basement was dark with low beams, lit by a few lightbulbs strung by loose-hanging wire. We passed racks of canned goods. “Emily’s work,” he explained. “ ’Nuf for a lifetime.” By the look of the cobwebs draped through them I doubted he ate any of it. “Here we are.”

“The furnace?” I had a sinking feeling and in a flash thought of Hansel and Gretel. What was I doing in the basement of an old house with this strange man, standing in front of his furnace?

“You look like you’d seen a ghost,” he said. “Ya ain’t afraid are ya?”

“What did you want to show me?” I said with a brave front.

“You wanted to know about the newspapers, so here we are.” He cackled, and I wondered again if there were such things as witches. “What I do, Stuart, is I save up all them papers, all year long, then I bring ’em down here each December 31, and guess what I do with them?”

“Burn them?”

“That’s right. Burn ’em. Them papers is no account, neither is the time they represent, so I burn the year up.” He poked me in the ribs with his forefinger. “ ‘There goes time,’ I says to myself, ‘up in smoke, and I’m still here.’ Course one day it will be the other way around and ol’ Edward Gates will go, circular-like, up in smoke, and time will be here still grinding out papers with more of war’s alarms. But for now, I’m here. Let them other fools celebrate the New Year if they care to, just another excuse to go the same round again. Round and round, like the mailman and his delivery.”

“Those black marks in your kitchen sink.”

“What about them?”

“You burn things there too?”

“Circulars from the mailman! Of no account, either, so I paste ’em round, stand ’em up in the sink and burn ’em. Down the drain the ashes go, which is what I want done with me. Who wants people picking over your bones, trying to decipher what your life amounts to? Cremate me and throw my ashes on the lake, or at the outlet where the lake washes over, down the stream.”

“But you have the picture of that man over your desk. You didn’t burn him.”

“Persistent fellow, ain’t ya? William Jennings Bryan. No, I keep him because he fired the earth, burnt the prairie over with his words. He was for the little guy, the farmer, which is what I was before I ended up here in this old house my father built.” He paused and said in a voice that sounded angry. “He was no farmer, my father. He helped put the railroads through the country. A robber baron along with the rest of them.”

“Mr. Gates, I have other papers to deliver, and to collect too.”

“Why so you do, so you do, don’t let me keep you,” and he escorted me upstairs.

But in the parlor I stopped and said, “Mr. Gates, you asked me what my earliest memory was. What’s yours?”

“You’re a whippersnapper, you are!” He slapped his side and tipped his head back with another chuckle so that I could see the silver inlay in his upper teeth. Then he grew silent like he was thinking. “Well, since you ask, I recall my mother taking me to town one day, and all the stores were draped in black, and I asked her who had died, and she said, ‘The President. President Lincoln has been shot.’ ”

“You remember that?” I said, in awe of the time long ago. “How old were you?”

“Just old enough to remember. Five.” He looked at me straight on, saying nothing more.

Standing before his front door, my bag of papers back across my shoulders, I had the odd sensation looking through the glass that I was in another world, with the real world outside. And felt relieved with the door opened to smell summer and see my bike on the front lawn.

“What time is it?” I asked, wondering how long I had spent with Mr. Gates.

“Time? Time did you say,” and he laughed so that I began to laugh too. “Why, I expect it’s time for you to get along, but come back, don’t forget.”

I folded the next paper to deliver, the headlines with news from France and the pending election in the fall between Roosevelt and Dewey.

Nor did I forget, then or now as time collapses into itself with age. I didn’t know such things then, nor how a life might be written down on more than newspapers burned in fire. And when I walked by the outlet that day I thought of ashes floating by and laughed just a little, as though, after all, Gates already was from another time.

The Rev. Rob Stuart, a Springs resident, is pastor emeritus of the Amagansett Presbyterian Church. He is a member of the Ashawagh Hall Writers Workshop.