The old man sits in an even older swing which he himself had repositioned on the porch when he was first married so many years ago. He'd used loop-ended steel screws anchored into the rafters securely and he knows it. As a boy he had been goofing off on a swing much like this one, swinging madly with another boy, now forgotten, and it had pulled from the ceiling above and launched him and the forgotten boy across a patio scraping his knees and making him bite his tongue. He never wanted that to happen to anyone else, especially a little boy.
The porch itself was just a slab and a few posts to support the roof when he and his wife had moved in. He had added posts and cross pieces at waist level, "beer can height" he had once joked, and screened it all in, finishing with screen doors that slammed shut with a big long spring. He could hear the slams echo in his memory; he smiled when he realized that each door banged uniquely and he had always been able to recognize which door it was, the one to the backyard or the one into the garage, an important skill when wrangling toddlers or teenagers.
Looking around he realizes, perhaps for the first time ever, that none of the screens need replaced. None are pulled out around the edges where a child or a cat had leaned against them like a wall; none are dented in the perfect hemisphere of a baseball or, worse, a soccer ball; none punched out where a log had fallen from the winter firewood pile when a boy had tried to grab the perfect log from the middle of the rick.
He tries to think how many screens he has replaced over the years and remembers the summer he repainted and re-screened the whole porch, which was necessary every ten years or so, with the help of two soon-to-be-first-graders. What a fiasco that had been; a wonderful, chaotic, messy fiasco which brings tears to his eyes as the smell of paint on blond boys comes back to him. They'd been so painfully bad at it but had worked so earnestly at it and he'd been so proud of them.
He realizes that it has been about ten years since he last did that job. Helped then by capable young men in their late twenties who did most of the work as the old man watched and answered questions. He smiles remembering the time before that when they were in their teens, screening and painting to earn enough money to buy a car between them. He nearly laughs out loud at how different the questions were; simple questions about girls and music and girls when they were teens; more complicated, unanswerable questions about hopes and dreams and fathers and love, when they were young men.
He sighs and shakes the memory from his head and looks out over the long backyard where two grown men stand, grinning idiotically as they stare at a dilapidated old shed.
"Boys," he will forever call them that even though they are grown men with boys of their own now, "that stuff isn't going to move itself."
"We're on it, Dad," Nick says, and, the old man realizes, has always said, with just a touch of attitude.
It will soon be the old man's eightieth birthday and his family is giving him a new shed for the backyard. Secretly, he doesn't know why, probably because the old one doesn't look very good, but, it still stands, the doors still shut, the roof still keeps out the rain, sort of. Actually, he realizes, it does need to go, and yet...
The years flip back calendar-like and he watches the two men get younger; first, confident, strapping young men; then less confident strapping teens; then gangly, hormone-ravaged tweens; momentarily they become bewildered ten year-olds; and then finally his mind stops screechingly on an image in his memory that makes him choke up, a memory that makes his heart ache, a memory that he had long forgotten.
Sometimes, he realizes, the aching melancholy that is memory is so heartbreaking not because of the event remembered, but in the sadness that comes with realizing you had forgotten it for so long. He lets it flood over him although he knows it will lead to another flood of tears down his tired, wrinkled cheeks.
It had started innocently enough, with a wooden pallet a friend needed to get rid of. The old man, maybe fifty-one then, had thrown it in his truck and taken it home. He'd initially planned to cut it up for kindling but, soon realized the wood was too green and moist as it was. He'd dragged it into the backyard and leaned it against the shed where he knew the sun and wind would dry it out.
He also knew, the moment he put it there, what he'd done: it was a perfect ladder leading up to the only slightly raked top portion of the shed's roof. He had hesitated, but only for a second, recognizing the wildness that ladder represented, seeing it through his still boyish imagination for the stage, or castle, or ship, or plane or lookout or... all those things he knew it would, should, become. He left it where it was, knowing.
The old man remembers that day in winter, early February, it was warm, not too muddy and they'd been out throwing a ball. Smiling now through tears he recalls how wonderfully predictable they always were. He'd known that the instant they saw that pallet they were on their way up there, and ultimately they would fall off, or, far more likely, jump off. That first time, they just climbed up and down a few times, and, oddly enough, they had asked for their writing journals and were collecting stick-swords, and stick-guns, and stick-spears and arranging them on the roof. The journals, he'd later find out, were for battle plans and equipment inventory.
The next time they found themselves on the shed, they asked the old man to help them remove some of the low hanging branches from a tired old Catalpa which hung above them dripping beans. Under their careful direction he lopped off several that were in their way or in their sight lines. The old man had been sure not to cut off too many knowing the giant leaves of the old tree would shade them. Finally they had room to dance and move and stretch their dreams.
Memory is difficult to explain, even to ourselves. It so often seems out of focus, jumbled. Sometimes it seems to almost accost us, coming so suddenly and powerfully. The old man reels and he lets the images roll over him.
He remembers several more adventures on the roof, quick images which slow as he remembers that they got it in their heads to jump off, as the old man, once a boy, had known they would.
He is watching then, as now, from this porch swing as the process began. He urges the memory to show him more of itself and in so doing it becomes so real. Nick, perhaps the wilder of the two, is sliding down to where the roof pitch is more of a steep slide than a slightly-off floor as the very top of the roof is. About all that is holding him there is his jeans clinging to the shingles. He shouts something, lost to memory or the wind, or both, and Zack's head pops up and Nick slides down.
His face is terror and freedom, shock and joy. He lands, softly in the mud. Zack shouts something, Nick seems to nod and down Zack slides and plops into the mud beside Nick. They rejoice. Like a slide show, the old man sees them jumping, at first from the lower spots and then, finally, a wild, unbridled leap from Zack from the roof's very peak.
"Awesome" sings on the breeze like a chant or prayer of thanksgiving.
They old man cries now. He cries because he is old and can no longer jump from a shed roof. He cries because he was once young and had jumped from a shed roof, free for a second in the wind. He cries because little boys will always jump from a shed roof; they have to. He cries because up until a few moments ago in time, he'd forgotten how important jumping from a shed roof is.
He is crying because, as his old eyes focus away from the memories, through the tears and out over the yard, he sees two grown men, hands in the air like wild boys jumping off the shed, laughing in the mud. The whoops come riding on the breeze and the real present hits the old man.
The real present where he is eighty, where men are acting like boys because they learned that was alright, the present where sheds are replaced, shifting sweet memories out of neglectful isolation. The real present where a little blond-haired seven-year-old looks up at a crying old man and says:
"What's wrong, Grampa?"
"They boys are jumping from the shed again, that's all."
The child follows the old mans' gaze and sees his father and his uncle jumping into mud off an old shed.
The old man waits, knowing what the boys will say, what all boys will say, what he'd say if he could:
"Can I jump off the shed, too, Grampa?"
In an instant he remembers one more overlooked detail about the shed and the jumping. He, as a father, had hesitated. When they asked to go on the shed he almost said no. He'd nearly run and caught Nick as he began his fateful slide. He'd been afraid for them, afraid they'd be injured, perhaps more afraid that they'd be reckless, worried the most that they'd like it too much. They'd been fine, though. It was the year they jumped from rooftops and dreamed of being knights. And that was right.
"I am sure you can, son. Run on out there. And tell your Dad I said it was alright."
He dries the tears as more boys and ghost-boys and man-boys and dreams of boys and hopes of boys leap joyously, inevitably, perfectly through time and space as they must.
He stands up and walks slowly through the screen door, smiling as it bangs behind him, and approaches the jumping madness.
"How are you all getting up there so fast," he asks of no one in particular.
"We found this old wooden palate underneath these leaves and sticks, Dad. Look, good as new." His sons stand on the roof, happy boys.
"Yep," the old mans' voice cracks again, marveling that the wood is still so strong, "that's how it all started..."
If you enjoyed this story, you might also enjoy the first one called The Future Perfect Post in which I imagine some old oak trees. In The Future's Still Perfect Post I find some old costumes and in Juxtapost (A Future's Perfect Post) I remember a Christmas yet to come.