|Photo by Carrie Sue Barnes, Location: Rabbit Bay, Lake Superior|
The old man only visited the pier at sunrise, when the lake’s surface was smooth as a bed sheet and the sky was edged in tangerine. Later, the lake would be speckled with white caps. The din of the waves would crescendo with each tide. He used to love the noise, but now his tired ears treasured silence. So, he only came at sunrise.
Bare footed, he stood squinting at the ascending sun. Another day. The fibers of the wood were cool under the leathery soles of his feet. He wrapped his fingers around the rail, pressed his stomach against it, and inhaled the stillness. He willed it to stay stored in his chest. Peace.
“Do you come every morning?”
The bird-like voice startled. He did not, at first, turn to see its bearer.
“Mamma says you do.”
“Bit early for ya’, isn’t it?” Being his first words of the day, they rolled out full of gravel. He cleared his throat. “Why aren’t ya’ sleepin’?”
“Because I’m awake.” The girl’s answer was clipped with the childish annoyance at silly questions from adults who ought to know.
The old pier stood between his house and the girl’s. He gazed down at the crown of honey blonde hair, feathery and uncombed. The wisps carried him through decades to his tiny daughter hugging his leg here on the pier, midday waves licking their toes. Affection stole through his wiry limbs and he reached out to smooth her hair. He stopped himself; placed his hand back on the rail.
“It’s my birthday,” she whispered.
Brown eyes widened. “Ooooh,” she breathed out the sound. Her pink lips remained in a tiny O, then, “How old are you?”
He stifled a chuckle at the reverent hush of her voice. “Old.”
“But how old?”
He rubbed at the whiskers in the crevices of his weathered face. “Eighty-four.”
“That’s old.” She bobbed her head at him. “I’m five today.”
The sky was losing its accessory colors. Blue prevailed above the still sleepy lake. Pelicans conducted an aerial parade inches above the water; six in a straight line headed north, then a turn and back south.
“Are you having a party?” he asked.
“I am!” Her feet danced a two-second jig. “Are you?”
“Oh, no party for me.”
The kids would call, of course, sometime before night fell. He did not begrudge them anything more. Yesterday, he’d picked up roast beef and fresh cheddar from the deli for his favorite sandwich. It was enough.
“You can share mine.”
“That’s kind of you, but I don’t need a party.”
“Every birthday deserves a party,” she said. She pushed her hair back from her cheeks. “That’s what my daddy says.”
He didn’t argue, hoping she’d believe it for all her years.
In the afternoon, he watched cars pull up to the neighboring house. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends; all come to celebrate the girl. Through open windows, the party carried its sounds to his home. Laughter, shouts, rumbles of conversation from the men on the back porch, and finally the traditional singing while they huddled around a lit cake. Hours later, the people returned to their vehicles after hugs in the driveway.
He sat on the red bench on his front porch, reading last Sunday’s newspaper, when the last of the revelers departed. The sun he’d watched rise was leaving too, dipping below the tree line behind them. Ribbons of pink and yellow light wrapped around from there to the horizon over the water; another day.
The neighbor’s back door creaked open and out trotted the girl. Her purple party dress swung about her knees. He lifted his hand in a wave at her parents, who watched from their kitchen window. The father waved back; the mother smiled while she continued to wipe a plate dry in her hands.
“I made them save this one,” the girl called when she reached the steps of his porch. She waited there.
His hips stuck and knees creaked when he stood. He paused to let his joints settle into place, then walked. She’d brought him a piece of cake. It was two layers of chocolate with pink frosting. The scents of cocoa and sugar filled his nostrils. His mouth watered.
“Well, you’re a sweet girl, I must say.” There was a catch in his voice to go with the moisture in his eyes.
“Do you like chocolate?”
“It’s my favorite.”
He accepted the plate.
“Momma says I have to get back. I have to help clean up.”
“You best go and do that.” The old man nodded. “Thank you for the birthday cake. I’m sure it’s delicious.”
“You’ll eat it?”
“Of course, I will.”
“Can I watch the sun come up with you again?”
“If you’re awake, you’re welcome to join me.”
She nodded, her features drawn together in thought. He waited while she formed her question. “And if I’m not awake tomorrow, can we watch the sun come up another day?”
“Yes,” he smiled, “another day.”
Her concern was gone. She skipped back to her house, already talking to her parents before she opened the door.
The old man walked to the pier. He leaned against the soft wood of the railing, listened to the song of low tide kissing the sand, ate his chocolate cake, and hoped for another day.