By David Bontumasi
“Get away from that fence,” the old man yelled across the yard, as he tried to make his way from the front porch quickly, and down the wooden steps. “Goddamn it,” he muttered. He brushed his hands against each other as he hurried over the cement to the long, thin garden he had planted along the driveway. “I put up that fence for a reason.”
A small boy with blond hair was crouched at the edge of the garden, against the base of the homemade wooden fence that separated the driveway from the rows of green and red vegetables.
“Goddamn it. What are you doing there? Did you break it? Did you break my fence?”
The boy had gotten his foot caught under a fence slat, beneath a twisted metal tie. It tore into the bottom of his jeans.
“No, wait a minute. Don’t move,” the old man said, afraid of any damage the boy’s leg would do to the fence. “Don’t move your foot. Your goddamn thieving foot.”
He reached down and forced the small leg forward and then down, freeing the denim, and then pushed the leg back.
The boy sat back on his butt and rubbed his ankle, through the sock. He kept his head down against his bent knee. The old man watched the young boy, crouched in a ball, his arms wrapped around his right leg. He was surprised to see the boy was so young.
“What were you doing? Were you stealing some of my tomatoes?”
“No,” the boy said quietly, and shook his head. Tears were swelling, teetering in his eyes.
“Ah come on, don’t cry,” the old man said. “Oh Christ. Look, I ain’t gonna call the police or nothing, so just…” He stood up and looked down the street and back to the small blond boy. “Ah, to hell with this. Come on. Now don’t cry now.”
The old man watched the boy brush at the wetness on his cheeks.
“What, you didn’t want the tomatoes? You don’t like tomatoes?”
The boy shook his head again.
“Well, what were you doing on my property? Sneaking around, stealing something, weren’t you? I know you were. The whole lot of you is up to no good. I see those other kids running and yelling down the alley. They came into the backyard once but I yelled at them. They don’t climb the fence anymore but I can still hear them yelling back there, laughing loudly, shouting. Those kids are bigger than you, but they’re trouble, you gotta stay away from them. And now, I see you causing trouble too. You’re just like them, only smaller. With smaller legs, smaller feet.” He gestured back towards his garden.
“What’s the matter with you? Those tomatoes are ripe, you can see that. They are just about juicy.”
The boy looked up to the old man, standing above him, the thick body silhouetted against a vast blue sky. The boy wiped the back of his hand over his eyes.
“I like rhubarb.”
“You were stealing my rhubarb, huh? Well, what do you know? Not everybody likes rhubarb, you know, you don’t see it around much anymore. Well, I like it too.” The old man pointed at the boy’s ankle. “That will teach you for trying to steal someone’s rhubarb, for trying to take something that isn’t yours. You got what you deserved, you got caught. I should’ve left you here. Let the dogs sniff you out during the night. Or maybe the raccoons.”
The old man turned but did not move. He stared back at the porch, at the two wooden rockers that sat side by side, separated by a little table. Genevieve sat closest to the door and he sat in the other chair, nearer the driveway. He would bring her cream-colored cardigan out in the late afternoon and hook it over the back of the chair, in case she got chilly as the sun began to set. His heart still sank each time he passed her empty chair. Each afternoon, he brought her sweater out and smoothed it over the top rail of her chair. He touched the wood as if it were her knee or perhaps her shoulder. He would feel the warmth of the worn paint on the seat and on the arms, those parts that had been rubbed soft by her body. He squeezed his eyes shut and thought, Jesus, Genny, this is what I am left with. This is what I do now; I catch little people stealing rhubarb from the garden.
He bent down next to the boy.
“What’s wrong with you?” the old man asked. “Something wrong with your eyes?”
The small boy’s eyes were on fire, his lids red and the pupil like a hollow flame. The old man hadn’t noticed before, but he could see into them, their glow almost translucent, past the glint of an orange speck that balanced the iris, almost through them. When the young boy looked ahead, his mouth dropped open, his small lips soft and round, and he blinked.
“I have problems with my eyes. They hurt sometimes. I can’t see very well.” His small fingers rested on his cheeks. “I’m going blind,” the boy said. “I have uveitis and soon, my dad said I won’t be able to see anymore. But I don’t want that to happen. I don’t know what it’s gonna be like when I can’t see anything.” The boy’s blond hair fell loosely on his forehead. “I’ve never been blind before.”
The boy was small, his skin was smooth, his features soft and pure. The old man looked down at his own hands, rough and coarse, resting on his knees, the fingers bent and curved through nearly 80 years of living, reaching out, thrusting, grabbing and then desperately holding on.
“I’ll tell you a secret,” he whispered, “I’ve never been blind either.”
The old man smiled, then he reached out and nudged at the boy’s elbow, prompting him to stand.
“Do you want some lemonade? Hmmm? I have some fresh lemonade on the porch over there. You can have a glass.”
“No, I can’t,” the boy said quietly. “I have to go home now.” He reached down and unfurled his pant leg back over his ankle and started walking slowly down the driveway, his hands out at his sides. The small boy turned and followed the sidewalk north, moving deliberately past each house.
The old man watched the boy walk away, wondering where he lived, which house was his, who his parents were. Finally, he turned and shuffled back towards his house, easing himself up the front steps, his hand gripping the handrail. As he stood at his front door, he looked down at the pitcher of lemonade on the little table between the two chairs and shook his head.
“I was just offering you some lemonade, that’s all. And some rhubarb too, if you wanted it. And hell, you could have kept the rhubarb. You know that.”
The old man closed the front door behind him and went upstairs to his bedroom to lie down, for he was suddenly very tired.
David Bontumasi’s stories and poetry have been featured in several publications, including Black Mirror Magazine, ETA, The Deadline and Back to Print, as well as the collection, Prairie Avenue Writers: an Anthology. His novella “Of This Earth” was published in 2015. He is hard at work on his second book, a collection of short stories. David lives in Chicago with his wife and two sons.