The following was inspired by a true story about a mean old man and his single chair.
When I was a young boy, my parents, two sisters and I lived in a mobile home or trailer as some would call them. Though, we never trailer-ed it anyplace. Villagers said we lived in a trailer park and kids at school would laugh and joke about us being “trailer trash.” I got in lots of fights with other kids over these insults.
Every day, my sisters and I would walk to the pickup site for the school bus. Back in those days, kids could still go to school without a chaperone. We even went out trick or treating by ourselves and kept any food or candy that we collected. The one house we did not go to for tricks or treats belonged to a mean old man. My parents and the older kids in the trailer park warned us to stay away from his house. They all said that he was very nasty and hated everyone.
Each day after coming back from school, school let out at about 3:15 PM, the school bus would drop us off and my sisters and a few of my friends would walk home. We would go by the old man’s house. He would inevitably be sitting on a makeshift porch in front of his trailer in an old rocking chair. We would stroll by his home and occasionally wave but he would never wave back.
As we went by, he would fix a relentlessly hostile gaze on us which could put fear in anyone’s heart. We imagined he was mad at the world and that certainly included us. Inevitably, we picked up our pace and tried to hurry by his place as fast as we could.
A few years passed and the mean old man simply seemed to grow meaner. One day after the bus dropped us off, a few of my friends and I were walking home. As we were passing the old man’s home, he was sitting in his usual place and just staring at us.
My friends started laughing at and taunting him with various insults. “Hey grandpa, what’s it like being so mean?” “Hey old man, can you help us find our cat?” I told them to stop it as he had never bothered anyone. They turned their taunts on me and said “If you like him so much, why don’t you go talk to him. We dare you to go talk to him. They cried out at me: “Chicken! Chicken! Chicken!”
I tried to ignore their jibes, but finally, I had had enough. “I am not afraid. I will go talk to him.” I started to walk down the path to where the old man was sitting. My heart began beating faster and faster. I wondered what I was going to say. Nothing occurred to me. The old man was staring at me intently. I could hear my friends laughing and hooting behind me.
As I reached the old man, he looked very angry. “Ok”, he said, “What do you want.” I said the first thing that came into my mind: “Well, I was just wondering why you don’t have another chair so someone can sit and talk with you?” “None of your business”, he answered, “Now why don’t you just run off and go back with your friends.” I could not think of another thing to say. As I turned to leave, I said “Goodbye, have a nice day.” The old man mumbled something which I thought might be “same to you” but I could not be sure.
Saturday and Sunday passed quickly and Monday we were back in school. After school adjourned, I decided that I did not want to be go home with my usual friends so I took the “late” bus from school. I got off at the bus stop and started home. As I passed the mean old man’s house, he was sitting in his chair. Much to my surprise, he had a single chair sitting right next to him. Somewhat emboldened by this turn of events, I walked up the path to his house and stood in front of him again. He looked at me and asked me “What do you want.” I said “Well, I notice that you have a single chair free, would you mind if I sat and talked to you for a while.” “OK” was all he said.
I sat down and started to tell him about all the things that I was doing in school. I told him about my classes, my teachers and my friends. I talked about my parents, my sisters and my grandparents. He listened intently to all I said and never interrupted or asked any questions. Realizing that it was getting late and that my parents would be worried, I said that I was going to go home but I would see him again tomorrow. He simply nodded and said “Goodbye.”
My trips and visits to the mean old man’s house continued for many days. The days stretched into weeks. Over time, we started to talk more about his life. I found out that his name was Bill and that he had been married but his wife had died about ten years earlier. He had not had any children. Bill was a veteran and we talked about his wartime service and experiences. Bill was always more interested in what I was doing and asked me many questions about my school and life. Bill said that he did not have any friends and no surviving relatives.
I asked Bill if he did not have any friends in our local church but he said that his wife had been the churchgoer. He had occasionally gone to church with her, but after she died, his stopped going. Bill confided in me that he had never been a social person and had always found it difficult to make friends. Most of the friends whom he once had were his wife’s friends and after she died, they stopped coming to visit. He was all alone now.
Weeks turned into months and it became my habit to routinely stop by Bill’s house on my way home from school. We talked and I told him about my day and he listened and asked questions which made me think a great deal about my choices and decisions in life. I could share things with Bill that I did not share with anyone else.
Then one day when I was coming home and passing Bill’s house, I saw that someone else was sitting in the single chair. Not wanting to interrupt, I waved and walked on by. The next day we resumed our discussions as usual but the following day, the chair was again occupied. Over time, the single chair was alternately occupied by myself and many other people.
I found out that Bill had started to go to church again and he had met people from all walks of life. Some were retired and some were not. The people who met Bill found him to be a very interesting person. They would stop by and sit in the single chair next to Bill and talk about various and sundry things.
High school came and went. Bill and I had many talks but just as often, he had someone else sitting in the chair when I came by. I went off to college and saw Bill much less except when I came home to visit my parents. Bill and I discussed writing to each other but we both agreed that we were not writers. I finished college and found a job in another city. My times with Bill had dwindled to a mere pittance of what they once had been.
A few more years passed by. My parents notified me that Bill had died. I came home to go to his funeral. It was well attended and nearly a hundred people were there. Many nice things were said about Bill. Everyone talked about what a good listener he was and how he always cared more about what others were doing or thinking. He was one of the least egocentric people you could have met.
About two weeks after the funeral, a letter arrived in my mail. It was from my home town but I did not recognize the address. I opened it up and inside were two pieces of stationary. I opened the one with the typing on it. It read, “We were going through some of Bill’s possessions and we found this note on his bedside. We thought he meant to give it to you but never got around to mailing it.” I opened the second piece of stationary. It was in rough scrawl which I recognized as Bill’s handwriting. Bill wrote the following:
You are the best friend I ever had.
I still keep this note. It is perhaps the nicest compliment I have ever received. Whenever I miss Bill, I pull this note out to remember him and the many talks we had. Bill in his rocking chair and me in the single chair beside him.
My friend Don Johnson told me this story and I have put more details into it. Nevertheless, I must thank Don for the basic outline and for the great way he told the story which as I said inspired me to write this tale. I hope you enjoyed it.
Previously Published on Aging Capriciously