What follows is the Artist’s Note for the story THE STARDUST HIGHWAY.
There are people of kindness all over; they live or work in homes and stores and offices. I’m sure you know of one right now who’s perhaps sitting alone, reading or thinking or knitting; or maybe they’re with someone, talking or laughing or reminiscing. They are in your physical world, and it feels good.
Maybe your person of kindness has been at that home or office or store for a long time, and you count on them to be there when you call or visit. Because you’ve always known them to be there.
I had a person of kindness in my life. He drove a US Army supply truck in Europe in WWII. He sat on an un-cushioned driver’s seat for thousands of miles of bumpy rides, virtually breaking his ass to help free the world of tyranny. He came back to his pop’s Massachusetts laundry and hobby shop in 1946 and never left. He was the sole proprietor in the 1950’s, 1960’s, 1970’s—that’s the decade I met him—right through the 1980’s, the 1990’s, up to 2008. He spent sixty-two years alone in that tiny store, which was not much more than a twenty-foot by five-foot corridor of trinkets and dry-cleaning.
Today that store is a paved driveway, and the man is a memory.
But I can see him. It’s sunny and business is a little slow today, so he’s going to sit outside for awhile. He keeps a narrow wooden bench inside the front of the shop, and, whistling a drab three-note tune, he’s pulled the bench out to the sidewalk. The seat is well-painted but the paint’s covered with bumper stickers, including several promoting his own business. He’s watching the Albion Street traffic with a creaky old buddy who’s managed the walk downtown, just for the company. They’re talking politics, the old days, and town news. They’re nodding to the ladies passing by, and voicing everlasting can-you-tell-me-whys.
I only have him in memory. Only in imagination. That’s all I have left. That’s all that he is.
Can you imagine a store that hasn’t changed much in over six decades in this country? Place a man in there, a man who counted on the world to come to him. And so we came. Because his life was one chair, one corridor of scale models and gag gifts, one phone, one cat, no credit cards and a sparse room to live in out back.
He had no wife, no family—except for Misty, his black domestic longhair. No internet. No vacations. No sick days, unless it was bad enough to have the store closed that day. No lunch hours. He counted on friends to connect with the world. I ask again: Can you imagine?
He had a regular crew of visitors. They would stand and chat at the counter and talk cars, tanks, ships, and airplanes. He’d often spring for coffee and donut deliveries for these gentlemanly gatherings. He was the host, and he listened, well.
Sometimes there’d be four guys, guys with names like Gus, Charlie, Dave, and Ed, providing good company for a few hours on late afternoons. Others would drift in and out. Sometimes it would be a group of three, or two.
But mostly it was just a man and his cat, alone in a dark hobby shop, and to offer another voice he had the ever-present police scanner. And that was just enough.
Some men can draw things out of others in the purest ways. In his last few years, if his arm was resting on the counter I had no problem putting my hand on his hand as we talked. A man in his eighties is precious; that man in particular was very precious to me.
On a given December, if I was visiting his store, he’d see me and disappear out back for a moment. Then he’d emerge with a gift with my name on it. What was he giving?
Despite its appearance, despite what the gift physically looked like, he wasn’t giving me a Panzer II book, or a scale model M29 Amphibious Weasel, or a harmonica made in occupied Japan, or a nice box of ribbon candy.
He was saying: You are something to me. That was his gift. So when I look at the Stardust Highway photograph, and its gentle trail of stars, I see him.
In the early 1970’s I knew an older lady who owned a beach house not too far from where my family lived in the summertime. She must have been about seventy years old, which means she was born at the turn of the century.
When I was very young, five, six, seven, and eight years old, this lady would invite me and sometimes one or two of my friends into her very nice house for a piece of candy. The cost to us for the sweets? Just a short visit, and to talk for awhile. Because there was no one else.
In all the words she said that I’ve forgotten, what’s lasted is her smile and her giving ways. Did she wait for us every morning, hoping we’d walk by? I don’t know. Did she keep her house just so, in case a certain boy’s bare feet braved her driveway’s little stones—and the splintery deck stairs—to knock at her door? I think she did.
I’d stand in her home that had a beautiful Gloucester beach view and she’d smile and hold out a bowl. It was always my choice: But what was she offering?
Little fingers reached into that bowl filled with bulls-eyes and really good lemon drops. What I took away did not come in a wrapper. The taste did not fade. I did not have to sit up straight to learn this lesson.
Kindness endures. Kindness is a presence, long after the body that gave it is gone.
THE STARDUST HIGHWAY story and photograph, with the above Artist’s Note, appears in the book WHAT HAPPENED TO VICKY LEE? A COLLECTION OF STORIES by Ara Hagopian. Available here: http://vickyleethebook.com/