Catching the Old Man's Cure
by Nick Ostdick
For three weeks, an old man in Brooklyn has been trying to catch the sun. He is not crazy; he is just desperate, and sometimes, when out of hope, the two can look an awful lot alike. He waits until the sun starts to set, until, when he squints one eye closed, the sun looks to be resting just above the streetlight at the end of the block, an illusion, to be sure, but something the old man feels is just within his reach. When the sun is in position, the old man sprints after it, sawdust-like legs moving him through the street, arms wide open ready to receive it, his heart thumping inside his secondhand body. He always stops at the end of the block, coughing and wheezing, the sun just barely slipping out of reach. This old man is sick, afflicted by some disease the doctors can't diagnose, something vicious that runs like a ghost over his organs until they disappear. Maybe, the old man thinks, the sun will have healing powers that no one has thought of. Maybe, the old man hopes, the sun can cure despair.
A man in Arkansas lives in a K-Mart. He does not work there. He sells homeowners insurance. He goes to the store after work and hides out until it closes, disables the alarm, and then comes out and lives his life. Tonight he is getting ready for a date. He picks out a nice new shirt and tie and microwaves two chicken dinners. He sits in a lawn chair reading Golf Weekly while the pre-made brownie deserts rise in the microwave. This man is happy in this house. The perfect home, the man thinks. Fit for a king. This man's old house was much different this before it burned down. He used to live in a big house with two sons who he played foosball with and a wife who he kissed and a dog who peed on him who he hated. One night he came home from work to find his house crumbled and smoldering, everything in his life--including the dog--turned to ash. Now the man pours two drinks. He always pours two drinks, gin, his wife's favorite. He makes two ice-cream sundaes and puts them in a freezer. He putts a golf ball down one of the aisles. K-Marts, the man thinks, do not burn down so easily. The man's date is late, like always, and he turns on his TV and waits.
There is a hummingbird in Chicago that is going to commit suicide. He cannot find a mate. His beak is bent like the number 7 and he is widely considered unattractive. He is very lonely. He plans to fly headfirst into a window.
The Scientist is upset. He is sitting in a laboratory surrounded by test tubes and beakers and books on different scientific formulas. He is wearing a white lab coat and an ID badge that has his picture on it. He is bald. His nose is shiny. He is not horrible looking. The Scientist needs to cure something. His girlfriend has lost faith in his intelligence and thus has not slept with him in many weeks. She has become unimpressed with him and told The Scientist she will not have sex with him until he finds a cure for something. To prove himself, The Scientist decides he will try and cure HIV. He quickly skims through a few books and finds that much too difficult. He thinks about curing Parkinson's but quickly gives up on that too. The Scientist, thinking about his girlfriend's sugar-white legs and how her lips curl when she comes, lies down against the desk and catches his reflection in the window. He has a revelation: he will cure baldness! He will improve the lives of men everywhere! This, The Scientist thinks, will be quite simple. He goes to work.
In some faraway place there is a war. This place is some place that many people have never heard of. A recent poll shows that 56% of people cannot spell the name of this place, and that, had they known how to spell it, how many letters repeat causing mass confusion and mispronunciation, they wouldn't have voted for the war in the first place. A majority of people find the double consonant at the end of this place's name excessive. It's greedy to have that many consonants, and we should be conserving everything, including our letters.
Tattoos are no longer fashionable; they are functional too. A middle-aged woman in Florida is getting her name and Social Security number tattooed on her arm. She lives alone. The waves outside her beach house have been looking quite ominous lately. She has noticed this. Hurricane season is coming, she tells the moppy-haired tattoo artist. Just in case, I want them to be able to identify my body. I don't want my children never knowing what happened to me. The tattoo artist asks the old woman where her children live. I don't know, she replies. They don't talk to me anymore. I guess I wasn't a very good mother.
In Brooklyn, the old man is standing behind a chalk line the neighborhood children drew, lacing up his dime store running shoes. The sun is almost in position now, hanging off in the distance. The sidewalks have been filling up all day with people who have come to watch. Now full, the street is lined with people, police barricades holding the crowd back. Word has spread about this old man and his chase. People find this fascinating; they find this strange old man inspiring and hopeful. Some onlookers are holding up signs made of construction paper and permanent marker and glitter. They read: YOU GIVE US HOPE! Or: CATCH IT FOR ME! Katie Couric is standing next to the old man ready to go live. Other news crews are there too. She tells the old man what a wonderful thing he is doing. He doesn't say anything, and crouches down in a sprinter's position.
The man in Arkansas has been flipping through the TV channels while waiting for his date. He's been watching CNN and their coverage of the old man in Brooklyn. He finds the old man to be quite stoic and admires him. He checks his watch anxiously. He knows his date is not coming, that she is never going to come, because she is dead. He knows this now, tonight. His steaks burn on the grill behind him until they are nothing but charred and blackened lumps. The drinks he has made have gone stale. He loosens his tie and unbuttons his shirt and looks around him. The man cries a little while watching the old man interviewed by a newswoman. He misses his wife's lips. Then the man gets up, walks to the front of the store, and grabs the classifieds. He looks at the real estate section, at many beautiful houses. He thinks they are all going to burn down very soon, but thinks he might like to own one anyway.
In Chicago, the hummingbird is flying toward a coffee shop window. He closes his eyes to make his death more dramatic and memorable. He crashes into the glass and slowly slides down to the sidewalk. He is not dead. His beak is still bent. This hummingbird is now even more depressed. He flies to the park and sits in a tree and thinks about hanging himself, about how he would do it, when he hears crying. It's a wet, slick sound. He looks over and sees a bluebird sitting on a bench looking at a newspaper, tears making her feathers look glossy. The hummingbird flies over and asks her what is wrong. I feel so useless, she says. I can't read. The hummingbird feels bad for her, and offers to help. He reads to her, an article about the old man in Brooklyn. Your beak is cute, the bluebird says later. She stares at him. Her feathers become puffy, a sign of intense attraction. Thanks, the hummingbird says. It was a birth defect. His feathers puff up too. The hummingbird forgets about killing himself.
The Scientist is having sex now. The radio is on to drown out the moaning so the neighbors can't hear. He hasn't cured baldness yet, in fact, after some research he doubts he will actually be able to do so, but his girlfriend doesn't care anymore. She wants him. She tells him how intelligent he is during sex, how among other things, she loves his brain. Afterwards, the Scientist, lying in bed smoking, asks his girlfriend why she gave in and slept with him. Well, his girlfriend says, I was at the market today and some people were talking about this old guy...The Scientist stops listening. He doesn't care why. He is happy.
No coverage of the war on the news tonight. All the cameras are in Brooklyn. Maybe, just for today, the war is put on hold.
The old woman in Florida has a message on her answering machine. It's from her daughter. She lives in New York City. She misses the old woman. She asks the old woman to come see her and stay for a few days after things settle down. She's says she is pregnant, and that she could use some advice. She leaves the old woman her number, and the old woman quickly drives back to the tattoo studio to have the phone number tattooed on her as well.
The block is quiet. The old man's wrinkly hands are braced against the street. He rubs his toes up against the inside of his shoes for traction. His face is directed toward the end of the block where the sun now hangs. He feels anxious with everyone watching, but also feels that this could be the time, the time when he hoists the sun with his arms as his own. The old man squints one eye closed, decides its time, and jumps from his crouch and races down the street. Cameras flash and people cheer, but the old man can't hear anything; only the sound of his feet hitting the pavement--thump, thump, thump. The block is electric as some people cry and some people smile. The old man can see the different faces out of his periphery. They look hopeful, despair-less, and the old man runs harder, breathing deeper, and lifting his legs higher into the air. He is at the end of the block. His arms are open, ready to receive it, to cure himself. His eyes are wide. Everyone holds their breath, the sun slipping away like always, as the old man runs past the end of the block, chasing further than he ever has before, down onto the next block and the next one after that.
About the author:
Nick Ostdick is a fiction writer from Chicago. He edits RAGAD, a literary broadside and online magazine of new writing. His short works have appeared widely in such places as Slow Trains, Word Riot, VerbSap, Identity Theory, THE2NDHAND, and elsewhere, and he likes to think he had a beard before it became en vogue to have beards.Visit him online at www.inthenickoftime.wordpress.com.