The Old Man At The Pub
The old man said to me “you’ve got to be careful” and he gestured with a slash to his throat and up his cheek. Might be he was reliving his navy days, 1963 Devonport, before houses hit seven figure prices and while it was still a rough and tumble fighting town of sailors, drunks, and alley rats. It sure doesn’t have the look of trouble on its face now.
I had just sat down with a pint at a window seat overlooking the roundabout where the main drag meets the strand. Another pub kitty corner, a bookshop directly across, and a franchise lunch bar at the far side. All the folding windows were open, benches and stools in front of them overlooking the tourists and high powered barristers and students surfing through summer holiday. The old man walked by and glanced at me and he came in and stepped up to the bar and ordered a house white and a water and the bartendress said she’d bring it to him. I gathered he would sit with me by the window on the next empty seat.
When Melissa walked in, all heads turned except for the gentlemen, but you could see their eyes strain in their sockets. Hot pink spaghetti strap top, blue denim shorts cut above the thigh, four inch black heels, sun-bleached brown hair pulled in a casual knot, and a half moon jewel at the tail of her left eyebrow. I imagine there were more treasures to be found. Her voice was husky, brash, American, and she introduced her purpose before she introduced herself. She’d been in Auckland six weeks and was ready to work “anywhere on the North Shore.” Food and bar service interested her and her service interested the patrons, but not the pony-braided bartendress who kept glasses full just fine thank you very much. The owner asked her name.
“Pleased to meet you. I can make some inquiries.” But he wouldn’t. She knew and everyone in the place knew because we all listened and watched and wondered with her and about her. When she thanked him for his time and walked out, it was forever.
The old man shuffled against his cane. Overweight, underdressed, marginally groomed, tidy hair but a few days scruff on his cheeks. He looked the sort of bloke you’d expect to be clean shaven. Back when.
I felt him moving toward me and when he arrived next to me he gestured to the open space and I waved my palm face up, handing him the seat, and I said aloud “please sir.” He leaned on his cane with his left hand and slid the stool away from me and toward him with his right. He steadied himself, hung the cane on the bar, and leaned his belly forward over the stool and spilled into a seated position looking out the window as if he’d been there all day already watching this world from the inside out. As he sat, the bartendress brought his wine glass and water pint and a few dollars change, and he turned to me raising the wine glass and asked, as if toasting the possibility, “you live here now?”
“Just down the way. Devonport.”
He paused. He thought. He dreamed and imagined and pushed out a memory. “I was a navy man there. 1963. Before it was ——” He gestured upward with his empty hand and swirled his glass with the other. Took him a while to say “wasn’t like it is now.”
“I’ve heard that. Was pretty rough before the bridge, they say.”
Another pause. I sipped my pint and he his wine and we both stared at the girl crossing against traffic away from the pub in her hot pink and spike heels. I wondered about her past, her family, how she got here cold-calling pubs and eateries for jobs, her future, and how long she’d hold out before moving on or moving back. And how long will I? As long as the old man has and might still?
He told me “I’ve been trying to remember the old places. There. That corner. The Pita Pat — Pet — Pit — Pen —— what they call it. Used to meet the boys there, get fancy meals. Girls.” I found myself struggling with his accent. He was of the age that his Kiwi was still mostly English, and an older English than we hear these days, only flashes of modern inflection. He mistook my accent, asking where in Australia I was from.
“American. Only been here two years.” Just two years, I repeated. I found myself repeating. Repeating sentences as he repeated questions and memories. He asked what I do with my time. “Words. I’m a writer. Father too. Mostly I take care of my boy. He’s in school across there just now.”
“I’ve got three sons.” Animated, he articulated with his glass and his empty hand, pointing north. “But we lived them — moved them — Brown’s Bay and ——” He stammered, searched, put his glass down and used both empty hands to shape a sphere of energy in front of himself, crackling, and he stretched out his arms nearly through the open window into the crowds walking by, casually, not aware of this moment — his lucid moment of memory and family and joy.
He caressed the energy ball, studying it. I watched his eyes, cloudy as soapy water, sagging at the edges, and wet.
He looked at me and he tried to speak.
He looked back at the ball. Then back at me, and he pursed his lips and blew the sound pughooo, his hands exploding and his fingers nimble and young waving the energetic debris into the air around us. “They’re gone.”
I sipped my pint quietly. I thought of this man’s life outside this moment, back to the navy, on the carrier attending to planes taking off and landing and living through it all. The shore leave in the rough seaside village now a millionaire’s seaside paradise. The girls. The beer and scotch with which he’d toast his ancestors as a younger man. The fights. I imagined he punched another man or two at The Masonic before they shut it down in favour of waterfront luxury flats, defending his wife’s honor. And his wife, in America now, South Carolina he said, writing a book without him, and he without her, but not split up they both insist. His kids — gone — calling one another at Christmas, talking about dad. Have you seen him? How’s he doing? I haven’t the patience since mom left. I haven’t the time these days. I think he’ll be alright.
And I know that conversation well — the conversation that says “I’ll be alright,” the old man a metaphor, a vision, a living premonition. I won’t be him, they imagine. I’ll be my own man. This life is mine.
But it isn’t. It is his as much as theirs. They are his shape, his inflection and accent, his gestures and articulations, his desires and hurts and whatever dreams remain, dim as they might seem. The old man didn’t want to become his father either. Yet here we are.
I set my pint back down. Watched the beautiful people in their beautiful clothes and their beautiful bronze skin, coming and going to the beach, to the shops, to their jobs, their favourite cafés and bars. This life. This beautiful life of commerce and conversation. This quiet afternoon beer with an old man savouring what might be his last walk through his town, changed. Grown up. Moved out. Beyond recognition. Left behind, not making new memories so much as bleeding out the old.
I think to myself: This is my world. This is who I’ve become. Here.
But no. This is who I have always been and ever will be. I didn’t choose this man any more than he chose me. Yet in this moment, we are one another.
The old man picked up his glass, drank his last sip of pinot gris, swirled it to be sure this was the end. He looked at me. Looked a few seconds too long. We watched each others’ eyes and saw each other clearly and he said:
“That’s a good job you’ve got there. Good job with that boy. You go take care.”