The door creaked open echoing into a dimly lit room. From where he stood he could not see much furniture aside from a wooden table that sat defiantly in the center of the room not too far from where he stood. On the side nearest him sat an empty wooden chair pushed flushed against the table. Opposite the chair sat what looked like a man barely visible from the doorway, catching the young man’s attention. He pushed the door open with a little more force the second time; causing it to swing hard and slam against the adjacent wall. Partially embarrassed, he reached for the door to stop any more noise and walked into the room curiously but without hesitation. He looked around, quickly trying to assess not only where he was but when he was. He saw small poorly lit picture frames hanging throughout the room, and a window that faced out into somewhere he could not make out. Although the young man’s curiosity about the room was palpable, he could not take his eyes off the table and the figure seated at it. The shadowy figure had not moved or even looked toward him during the ruckus he had caused coming in. In fact, the young man was visually bothered that the man had not reacted to his entry. Feeling childish about his expectations, he looked harder at the figure. Who was… his thoughts were quickly interrupted.
“Fifteen minutes early, I see. Always on time, huh?” The man finally spoke. His voice cutting across the room, almost startling the young man.
“Well if you’re not 15 minutes early…” the young man began.
“Then you’re late, try twenty next time kid,” the man finished as the words sneaked through a grin.
The young man raised an eyebrow, amused but purposefully holding back any other gestures. He grabbed the bottom of the chair and slid closer to the table. The sound of the sliding chair bounced off the walls screeching noisily much to the dismay of both men as they winced with similar reactions. As he finally sat at the table he was able to get a much closer look at the man and this time with some light. He could see the man was much older than him and maintained a fixed gaze on the young man.
The old man leaned forward about to speak when the young man interrupted “Good evening,” with a shit-eating grin on his face.
The old man chuckled, unbothered by the point being made by the much younger man. He had missed the rash approach of youth as he leaned back against his chair, readjusting his previous approach to the conversation mentally and physically. He inhaled deeply as he crossed his arms knowing the young man would not be able to resist initiating the conversation again.
“Well, how is it? I mean do I become some sort of bad ass? You’re not going to just sit there and check me out all day are you?” The young man spoke through a big smile on his face that brought out the dimples on his cheeks making his smile appear youthful but cunning. A light 5 o’clock shadow was sprinkled across his face defining a round but muscular jaw line with a chin that had a very shallow dimple in it. The young man’s face showed that he was no saint; but his skin had not been tested thoroughly against the elements life had yet to throw his way.
No scars yet, he must be real young, thought the old man, who couldn’t help but smile back with dimples of his own that were accompanied by wrinkles and long stories.
“How is what? Getting old?” the old man asked flatly.
“Yea, I mean... how does it feel? Is it as bad as I think it is? Does everything hurt?” The young man shifted in his seat with ease as both his spirit and bones still had a spring in their step.
“Well, yea. Getting old sucks in a lot of ways kid, for you especially. Bones and joints are really gonna hurt and all them war stories about injuries and pains you always wanted, well, they really come true,” the old man grasping his hands, rubbing aches and pain away from his knuckles while simultaneously rubbing sensation into them. The sound of calloused skin echoing across the table like dry leaves shuffling in the wind. “A lot of the things you wish for as far as hardships and battle scars come from getting older. For a long time you will let that get to you, especially mentally. To the point where it makes you regret a lot of your choices… lots of regret. Some hard years ahead of you kid and some dark crossroads I’m sure we will talk about soon, but eventually… you use those wounds and damage to help others out of that path, out of that darkness. Getting old sucks, that’s for damn sure.. but no one heeds advice from someone who hasn’t lived a hard path themselves, whether it was chosen or thrust upon them. You get lucky enough to get both, go figure huh?” The old man finished with a soft chuckle reciprocated by the young man, both of them accustomed to finishing sad statements with a soft laugh.
As the room settled back into stillness the young man took a closer look at the old man. His frame was stocky and wide like a stone, no part of his body not serving a purpose to either cause or withstand damage. His skin was grainy and hardened as if he had walked through a sandstorm for many years, although getting a closer look was impossible as every inch of the old man’s arms, neck and head were covered in tattoos. The young man had an intense urge to stare at his own bare arms but refused to show the old man his jealousy. The old man did not appear too short but he wouldn’t describe him as tall. The same damn height too, he thought to himself.
“Yea, I have a lot going on but you’ll get there. Trust me, you never stop getting meaningful tattoos but you change your perspective on them,” the old man interrupted the young man’s curious eyes.
“How so?” The young man frowned, embarrassed to be caught admiring the tattoos.
“Well, for a long time you get more and more tattoos to keep others away. I mean, you never stop producing eggshells for people to walk on but that whole idea of ‘Stay away from me’ tattoos shifts completely. In fact, later on you are secretly amused by anyone who sits to talk to you or approaches you in general. Almost like a testing ground, and you find that some of the best friends in your life pass this test with flying colors” The old man, rubbed his hand up and down his forearm looking down at his inked skin. His eyes glistened briefly as his mind drifted to long lost eras of his life, softly tracing the old tattoos with his fingertips. So many stories, old friends..he thought somberly to himself.
The young man sat quietly, watching and listening. The old man’s words came out as if he knew the responsibility of each one. Each word expressed came with the understanding that they were being etched into time as if they carried the weight of his soul. His conversations were not labored but instead, came out rhythmically as if he knew how he said and when he said each word carried more meaning than the words themselves. Each word chosen precisely. Even the spacing between nouns and verbs seemed measured out to the millisecond, keeping the young man slightly uneasy but intrigued.
Although the young man did not agree with everything that he said, he figured anyone who put this much effort into his work commanded his respect. The presence in the room echoed of an ancestral fire encircled by seated figures listening closely to stories of old and new; and as the light bulb hummed quietly above them, so too did the young man hover over the table listening intently. So much so, he barely realized how hard he was leaning on the table, both elbows pressed hard against the wooden top, resembling a small boy waiting for his mother’s Thanksgiving turkey.
The old man sat back on the wooden chair as it creaked and moaned against his weight. He pulled a small tin flask out of his back pocket and unscrewed it gently, taking a deep sip and exhaled slowly as the brown fluid poured out slowly into his mouth. He smacked his lips and breathed in through clenched teeth, enjoying the harsh sting of his whisky.
“Care for a swig?” he asked the young man.
“It’s ok, I brought my own,” declared the young man proudly, pulling out a much larger leather bound flask from his side pocket, taking a much larger sip. “How about we switch and see whose is better?” the young man challenged the old man.
“Deal,” returned the old man, handing over his worn out flask across the table.
As they exchanged flasks and drank their allotted amount silently, they both laughed simultaneously. Two large guffaws bellowing across the silent room bouncing from corner to corner. “All these fucking years and I still end up drinking Jameson, huh?” the young man laughed harder, looking across the table.
“Some things never change bub,” the old man sneaked in a comment in between laughing and drinking barely catching his breath as the whisky made his laugh begin to rasp searching for a breath or a cough.
“Bub? Oh and you think you’re Wolverine, too?” The young man bullied his comment into the conversation, raising his eyebrow and placing the flask on the table as he leaned in hoping for a good response.
“Like I said, some things do not change. Even being an adult child has its perks,“ as they both roared into laughter again. After the initial laughter they both sat quietly for what seemed like hours, slowly finishing each other’s flasks and enjoying the stillness of the room. The old man noticed the young man was looking off into the distance as if the room extended for miles. He was wearing a tight t-shirt with a band name he couldn’t really make out. Black shirt on black jeans, of course the old man smiled to himself. The young man was much smaller than he expected but looked dense none the less. The young man looked dense but athletic, he had long and lean muscles in clothes the old man considered too tight.
The young man caught himself staring into space as he shifted his attention back across the table, his eyes carrying a troubled look. He placed the empty flask back on the table, staring directly into it as if space itself would stare back at him. He cleared his throat, briefly looking at the old man but felt his eyes searching elsewhere as if eyes became as heavy as his soul.
“What about my parents ? How… how do they go? Do they live for a long time? I mean I really don’t want to ask this… but I can’t help myself,” the young man looked pleadingly into the old man’s eyes. His words broke through his lips as if asking was not only brutal but painful to hear. The youthful cockiness slowly slipping into a well defended vulnerability that the old man may have not noticed if he didn’t know exactly what to look for. The loss of eye contact, the pounding heartbeat that pulsed through his neck making them awful card players and clenched fists all telltale signs of a young man completely and utterly hurting.
“How they go is not important, trust me. What is and was, is just how much they loved each other to the very end. They never stopped loving, wanting or caring for one another until the very last seconds of their breaths. So much so that they could not live without one another, not for very long and as heart breaking as that sounds. It reminds us that in this world true love does exist and that was their most beautiful lesson. Not a single day goes by that they are not missed or loved or spoken about by everyone they knew and that is what is most important and most memorable for you to know… “ his voiced cracked and strained like a fire burning itself out as the old man wiped heavy tears from his face that traveled seamlessly down the wrinkles around his eyes to land softly on a heavily grayed beard. He breathed in deeply, feeling his heart barely holding itself together, piece by piece, as his memory traveled to family gatherings, Christmases and birthdays when life was so full… so lively. He swallowed back what felt like a thousand knots in his throat as he looked at the young man who was fighting his own internal battle.
With shoulders slumped and eyes on the ground, both men battled the urge to break down, yet found an immediate comfort in being in front of one another as old friends may do from time to time. Comfort in silence they each thought to themselves… The young man stared aimlessly at the floor wondering how long? When? Why? He found a distant solace in the man’s words of not when but HOW they went, knowing full well that it is not when you go but the legacy you leave behind that defines ones death. He pressed his lips, trying to appear older and tougher than he was but found the salty taste of tears flooding his mouth over and over… and over. The courage for words slipped aimlessly away from his grasps as any attempt to speak was stifled by deep sobbing, his mind traveling to his parents now… then… whenever…
“Cherish them. I can’t express that enough. Not only them but everyone you love. Everything ends and that is something that you will learn to be one of the most important ideologies in your life. It will be the backbone of all your efforts to persevere. You don’t win them all kid, but if anything is to be said about you is that you never give up on anyone when you truly love them…” the old man trailed off, interrupting the young man’s visual turmoil with a voice that sounded like sliding stones made grittier by the tears he fought back. He sighed deeply to himself, wondering if he spoke to help the young man or to save himself.
“Everything ends? That sounds kinda shitty… isn’t that kind of obvious? Where’s the lesson in that?“ the young man responded almost scornfully and labored, jealous of the old man’s ability to recover so fast, not knowing how hard both sides of the table were working to hold their composure.
The old man cleared his throat, his voice seemingly less seasoned this time, but remaining well timed and precise. “The beauty of that saying is in its simplicity that is often over looked. We may think we understand it but we really don’t appreciate it. If we did we would never take things for granted and the idea that we and everything from success, to love, to loss and pain all have their own ticking time clocks should make us love and live that much more passionately... forever. Knowing EVERYTHING ends is simply a way to remind us, especially you, to never take anyone or anything’s life span for granted. I know it’s easier said than done and you’re going to get it wrong a lot of times before you get it right, but it will be your guiding star for a long time, bub.”
The young man scoffed playfully still avoiding eye contact “That sounds like a lot of emotions and a lot of time thinking about small things to me, old man.” He smiled distantly at first and then a little harder, revealing one of his dimples again. He sat quietly knowing his mindset had been bested and he wasn’t used to losing in a battle of words to anyone.
The old man laughed deeply into his stomach that pushed hard against a worn out white V-neck. His stomach a little larger than his counterparts, but nevertheless looked hardened and grizzled as if the shirt was lying on an old forest boulder. The shirt used to be white but had been worn down and decorated by marks of rust and dirt as if the old man had reached into the back of a truck and found the first shirt that came into his hand. He wore dirty blue jeans that sat on muscular legs and dusty boots. He did not look disheveled or unkempt, instead, he appeared proud with his attire as if style had taken a back seat to purpose and grit.
He caught the young man sizing up his outfit curiously. “Hah,” he grumbled, “You’ll realize one day no matter what color or style or price, it will always be the man that makes the clothes,” as the old man shifted in his chair allowing one to wonder what creaked louder, his knees or the chair?
The young man looked across the table and agreed. “You got something to say for everything don’t you? But you’re right, I feel the same, I’ve never given a fuck about what people think of me anyway,“ declaring proudly, crossing his arms and sitting back in his chair.
The old man peered across the table, “You do and you always will care about what people think but you will learn to view that as a tool rather than a downfall. Too often you’ll say things like that, that you ‘don’t care or give a shit’, and you’ll say it when you’re really feeling isolated or hurt but unfortunately for you, you’ll realize that caring for others is the only reason why you never gave up on yourself.” The old man smiled bitterly, knowing what he was saying hit too close for comfort. He continued “As much as you’ve always hated it, you cannot exist without helping others and having others, even in the slightest way, care about you. That idea will save your life one day, not only that idea but others too. Their existence and love for you will inadvertently pull you out of your darkest moments, especially after you lose...” the old man trailed off, catching himself rambling and winced with a clenched fist, immediately knowing the outcome.
“When I lose who? Who do I lose old man?” the young man scrambled for information. His patience had been spent at the slow pace of the day and he now was fixed solely on the old man in front of him and his foreboding words. “When I lose who? You can’t just say that...” The young man’s temper began to boil and it was obvious to both of them that the answer that was coming would not be received well.
“I promise I will get to that soon enough. I am sorry I brought it up so abruptly. Please give me a chance to get there the right way,” the old man’s tone was almost pleading but trying to maneuver the young man’s temper seemed impossible.
“No! I don’t even know how or why I’m here and you’re going to drop some cryptic shit like that on me. I deserve to know who and why and how. I didn’t choose this conversation, you can’t just come up with some…” the young man was on his feet but his rage was quickly interrupted by a swift, hard slam of the old man’s fist on to the table
The old man’s fist crashed hard into the wooden table rattling not only the room but the two men as well. “You think this is something I wanted to do!? I told you to fucking trust me and give me time to do this right, dammit,” his words roared across the table through clenched fists and watery eyes. His gaze was razor sharp and upon the young man like predator on prey as he fought agonizingly for composure and patience knowing full well the loss of either was the reason he was here in the first place.
The young man stared wide eyed, surprised by the old man’s loss of composure. He sat down reluctantly, as every bit of his body fought pridefully to stand and prove a point. He stared firmly across the table. He could see the old man was straining and shaking slightly as he slowly unclenched his fists and teeth. He watched closely as the old man strained against something much deeper than just anger and the pride of youth. The old man’s eyes glistened like a deep brown ocean of guilt and rage boiled down tightly into two distant dark spheres that burned softly. He looked more tired than ever as the dim light caught the wrinkles and scars on his face causing them to be more pronounced. Two old wounds above his eyes, one above his nose, a few on the right side of his cheek as if his face had been painted by an unforgiving brush. The wrinkles outside of his cheeks looked etched in with a chisel, whether they came from an overabundance of smiles or frowns was too hard to tell. The young man stared endlessly across the table as if he was staring at a long forgotten mirror hidden somewhere deep within a ghostly attic. The cobwebs of life not hiding the very real fact that life had so many vicious lessons to teach him.
The old man sat down, hitting the chair a little harder than he wanted. He ran his grizzled paw through his beard and exhaled loudly. “I’m sorry kid, I really am. I’m trying here and that wasn’t my plan. The way this program works is baffling to me and there are certain things I shouldn’t talk about. It’s just a hard subject and there are certain guidelines I need to follow, you know?”
“I want to say I get it but I have no idea how we got here. I got the letter in the mail, which I’m assuming came from you or whoever the fuck put us here, but you can’t just say something like that and expect me to sleep on it,” the young man, much calmer now, worded his statement carefully understanding this was not easy for either of them.
“I know kid, you’re right. I’m wrong and you know how hard it is for me to say that,” both of them chuckling softly as the old man shuffled in his seat.
The old man fingered around for his flask finding an empty pocket as both flasks sat empty on the floor having been rattled off by his outburst. He stared across the table at the youth sitting impatiently. He smiled softly as his mind flooded with lost memories and perpetual nostalgia of younger days. He had promised himself he would sit here quietly and listen to the young man but he could not help himself. He had to try with every ounce in his body to warn, teach and prepare the young man, right? So much to tell him and yet not revealing too much because life needs to remain an unpainted canvas of uncharted prairies and tundra for a young bear to become an old wolf. The old man smiled so deeply he might of added a new wrinkle to his cheek as he spoke, “They call you bear don’t they?”
The young man’s eyes lit up with unapologetic fire. “That’s my fighting name, it will be forever… I hope,” he stared at the old man wondering if he was declaring or asking.
“No, you’re right, that never changes but you get some other titles, too,” the old man’s eyes drifted to his hand, unknowingly rubbing his tattooed fingers.
“’Old Wolf’, huh?” getting a chance to read each letter finally.
“Yea… that comes later on and not for free, but that bear never stops fighting kid... ever,” the old man’s eyes smoldering in return.
There was a pleasant silence and then…
The door behind the old man creeped open, letting in a soft gray light. A slender figure stood at the door, mechanical in its approach and voice. “That is all for today, 11784,” the female voice cut through the room like a knife, cold and void of emotion.
The old man grunted softly and he stood up as both his knees and chair creaked in unison. He looked across the table the way you would look at an old photograph, grunted with a soft grin and grumbled “Bear.”
The young man returned his gaze without missing a beat. “Old Wolf.”