“I hear you used to work for The Company…” My voice was quiet but clear, the words I spoke over the man’s shoulder intended for his ears only.
Did I really just say that, and in that voice? I’ve got to cut back on the spy novels…
The man in the white canvas bucket-hat stiffened, and his back flexed into a capable shape, despite his age. As the old man turned to face me, I could see that he was poised for confrontation; his shoulders were squared with his hips, his feet set firm but ready to move, and his head was tilted down at a slight angle, as if he were about to come at me, lashing into me with his right hand, which held a plastic picnic fork in a way that gave me great pause.
I shouldn’t have been intimidated; he was much shorter than I, his skin was spotted and veiny, and the tufts of celestial-white hair that peeked out from beneath his silly beachcomber cap matched the white wooly caterpillar eyebrows below its brim.
I shouldn’t have been intimidated, but I was.
Is he going to drop that plate of potato salad before he comes at me?
“What did you say?”
Sweat ran down my lower back and into my underwear. “I hear you used to work for The Company...” My voice had lost its clarity and gained more quiet.
“I haven’t heard anyone use that term for many years,” the man said.
“I’ve read a lot of spy novels,” I explained. “Probably too many.”
“Well you gave me quite a fright; those aren’t words that someone like me wants to hear whispered over their shoulder,” he chuckled, and I saw him relax, but just a bit.
“Matt,” I said, offering a hand in greeting.
“John, but something tells me you already knew that.” He stabbed the fork (weapon) into the potato salad and took my hand into his for a powerful shake.
“Yes, I knew; I’ve been looking forward to meeting you,” I said.
“Oh? Has someone been telling tall tales out of turn?” John looked around my shoulder at my father-in-law, our one mutual acquaintance and host for the afternoon.
“Maybe a little, but only because I am interested,” I said.
The caterpillars twitched, just enough for me to notice. John moved the plate of potato salad to his other hand, as if to give it something to do in place of breaking my windpipe.
“Interested in…?” he asked.
“Working at Langley,” I answered with as much confidence as I could muster.
“Just what did your father-in-law tell you?”
“That you saw a lot of action in World War Two, that you walked away from more than one plane crash, and that you used to worked for the CIA,” I replied.
“Used to; now that’s a funny way of putting it,” John said without humor.
“Once in, you’re never really out,” he clarified.
I watched as John took a bite of potato salad, holding the fork in the normal every day not-a-weapon way that I always held a fork when eating. After a few moments of chewing, white puddles began to form in the corners of his mouth, and I wondered at the fact that a man who had spied for the Free World during the height of the Cold War was standing beside me on my in-laws back porch, suffering the humidity of New Hampshire’s seacoast and leaking mayonnaise.
“So, you want to work for the Central Intelligence Agency?” John asked, returning his fork to the creamy white pile on his paper plate so he could put his hand on my shoulder.
“I was thinking about it; I’ve always like the idea, but wasn’t sure I was up to it,” I answered, my confidence in the whole idea waning after hearing it said aloud by someone who had already done it.
John looked around before nudging me a few steps further away from my in-laws and their guests, which included my wife and young son. He leaned in close but said nothing, so I stood hunched over and waiting, the scent of potato salad on his breath filling the tiny space between us.
This is it, my moment of recruitment…
I had read about moments such as this, moments on dark and abandoned roads, behind dark and abandoned pubs, or inside dark and abandoned churches. An older, experienced agent draws a young protégée in close, gains his confidence, and extends an indirect invitation to change the world from deep within the shadows.
John broke the silence at last. “What is it that you really want to do with your life?”
Here we go…
“I want to live a life worthy of story-telling,” I admitted after a moment of careful thought.
“And you think The Company would be the best way to achieve that goal?” John asked, somehow managing to avoid patronizing me.
“I know it isn’t all dark alleys, car chases, and dead drops, but yes, I think it would.”
John stepped back and looked off into the trees, affording me some potato-salad-free-air. I waited for him to speak, hoping that I looked more patient than I felt, that I hadn’t offended him with my approach, and that with his next words he would welcome me into the brotherhood of spies. His eyes gave nothing away as he appeared to ponder my future. Nervous at the sound of his silence and afraid that my stare was coming off as too desperate, I searched the immediate area for something else on which to focus without moving my head. Looking down, I noticed the paper plate in John’s hand; it had started to give way under the combined pressures of weight, moisture, and gravity, so much so that the creamy lump of potato salad had become a smear, sliding its way towards the edge of the plate and threatening to drop onto John’s shoes. I watched, wondering how long it would take to reach the dripping point, and if I would warn John before it did.
“You have a beautiful family.”
I looked up from the salad and saw that John was staring across the deck at my wife Elizabeth and young son, Caleb.
“I heard those same words spoken to me not long after my supposed retirement, by a man that I had worked with for a long time,” John continued.
John turned his head and our eyes met. “No, not at all, and he hadn’t meant it in a friendly way,” John half-explained.
It took me a moment of thought, but I figured out what John meant.
“A threat?” I almost whispered the question.
John reached out with his free hand and took my shoulder in a firm grip. He pulled me in close and locked his eyes on mine.
“I live every day in regret for the time I spent away from my family, and the fear that my career instilled in them. I can’t help but believe that I alone was the catalyst for my son’s long struggle with extreme paranoia. I thought I was doing great things, and perhaps in the eyes of some I did do great things, but my wife and children paid the price, and I am spending what little time I have left trying to make amends. Were I able, I would trade every moment of my Agency life for the chance to be a better husband and father.”
The words seemed to spill over John’s lips, fall from his mouth, and onto the deck, weighed down as they were with the regret of a husband and father who had too late into marriage and fatherhood realized the devastating loss of neglected years that couldn’t be relived. There were no tears in his eyes as he spoke, but something told me that it wasn’t because he thought himself too much of a man to cry.
After a brief but electric pause, John continued. “I do not make it a practice to tell a young man how to live his life, but I am telling you now that to follow this ambition of yours will be your family’s ruin. No matter what you do in this life; no matter the riches, fame, or glory you accumulate, or how many daring moments you survive, your life will amount to meaningless rubbish in the end if your career pushes aside your wife and children, and this career will do just that. Put your family first and your life will be a success, no matter what you do to provide for them.”
There was nothing to say in reply, so I said nothing. I looked at John’s aging, shrinking frame, and wondered at the things he must have experienced while living a life of secrecy, intrigue, and unrecognized patriotism, and that he would, if offered the chance, exchange it all for a do-over. A little more than a year into fatherhood myself, my son’s birth had done much to salvage my young and struggling marriage, but I remained fearful of our future, and ignorant of how I was going to manage holding on to everything that mattered most. John’s regretful advice had come at a watershed moment.
“I hope I didn’t frighten you,” John said, his hand still gripping my shoulder.
“No, you didn’t. I’m sorry to hear that you have so many regrets, but I’m glad that you felt comfortable sharing them with me,” I replied.
“Well, I wouldn’t say that I felt comfortable about it, but I am hopeful that you can learn from my bad example and experience,” John confessed.
“I will, I promise.”
An hour later, John and I were still talking. Or rather, John was talking, and I was listening. That hour laid the foundation for our friendship. John had indeed lived a fascinating life, and so he had many stories to tell, stories about life-altering moments on dark forest roads, the guilt that comes from being the sole survivor of a plane crash, and what it is to witness the moment when power corrupts. I took in every word of John’s stories, did my best to read between the redacted lines, and devoured the spy novels he would pull out of his personal library and lend to me with a wink, which I took to mean that he could vouch for their authenticity.
I had always imagined myself living a life worthy of storytelling, but time spent in John’s company made me realize that what I truly wanted was to live a life telling stories.
John and I became close friends, and over the course of the next couple of years we spent a lot of time together. I would sometimes bring Caleb along with me, much to John’s delight. He loved Caleb like a grandson, and the two of them would chatter away about the things I had chosen to forget about the world. I would often end up playing chauffeur, driving the two of them around the seacoast, listening as they discussed butterfly wings, air conditioning, how much they loved trees, and the happy taste of cold milk and cookies in a grandmother’s kitchen.
Throughout our friendship, John continued to express his regrets, and to make amends with those he loved.
One day while out for lunch with his son, John fell down some steps and broke his neck. The sight of him unconscious in that hospital bed, his body broken and his head locked inside a metal cage put a lump in my throat. Elizabeth stood beside me and held my hand as I held John’s and tried not to sound afraid when I told him that I loved him.
Later that week, Elizabeth and my father accompanied me to the hospital to visit John again. Dad had accompanied me on visits to John’s house many times, and the two had become friends. I was too timid to ask him, but I had often wondered if my father saw shadows of my grandfather, dead since my father’s teenage years, in John. Both had seen the worst that men can do to each other in the name of God and country, and both had won medals for acts of valor that must have haunted their dreams, as so often is the case with heroes of war. I had often imagined my grandfather to be a man much like John, and hoped that one day, after meeting my grandfather, I might introduce them to each other.
John’s room was empty, the bed stripped to the mattress. I turned and stepped back into the hall just as a nurse was passing.
“Hi, we’re looking for the man that was in this room; his name is John. They must have moved him, do you know where he is now?” I asked the nurse.
She stopped, and her face took on an anxious look. She pivoted on her feet and glanced down the hall towards the nurse’s station, then turned again to face me.
“Are you family?” She asked, her voice low and secretive.
“Yes, we are,” I lied.
Her face twitched, then filled with warmth and concern. She fidgeted for a moment, and then clasped her hands together as if in prayer before taking a step closer to me.
“He passed just a few minutes ago, I’m so sorry,” she said, reaching out with one hand, as if to soften the blow, or perhaps catch me in case I collapsed.
I made it into the elevator and out to the parking lot before collapsing. Elizabeth scooped me into the car and held my hand while my father drove us drove over to John’s house to be with John’s wife Fae.
A few days later, Fae asked me to speak at John’s funeral. I thought about what I was going to say while mowing my lawn, just hours before the service. It had been a couple of weeks since I’d last mowed, so the grass was thick and tall. Sweat and tears ran together as I punished the mower, shoving it without mercy into grass it couldn’t hope to cut very well.
John’s funeral was for me a first, and a very painful experience. I hadn’t yet needed to say goodbye to a friend in that way, and I didn’t want to let John go; we hadn’t shared enough time together, and he had more stories to tell me.
Just last week, while going through an old filing cabinet, I found the words I wrote for John’s funeral after mowing that damnable lawn. Tears wet my cheeks as I read about our first meeting, John’s stern warning, and his promise to me that my success would not be measured by my career status, but rather by the time spent with and attention paid to my family. I had written about the amends John had been making, the joy he felt in loving his wife and children, and the silly, childish, wonderful conversations he had with Caleb. I didn’t want to say goodbye, but I was grateful for the time we’d had, and I couldn’t wait to see him again someday.
I imagine our reunion will go something like this:
Standing alone at a welcome-to-heaven picnic, fork held (not like a weapon) in one hand, and a plate of anything but potato salad (probably cake) in the other, I’ll sense someone approach me from behind. Before I can turn to see who it is, I’ll hear the following words, spoken in a quiet but clear voice over my shoulder, intended for my ears only…
“I hear you used to tell stories…”