The Old Man and the Schnook

Photo by Ross Findon on Unsplash

His doctor had said, declaring Max’s body ready to resume life, “This is your next appointment,” and handed him a map. “This is the medicine.”Bupkis. Your Healthy Heart had revealed itself as his doc’s code for a weekend of guilt-inducing “musts”. Reduce stress. Appreciate life’s every moment. The map told him to do it inside a circus tent lost out in the woods. 

“Yurt, please.” Max remembered the condescension. 

The voice in the middle of the big tent droned on. “Breathe in … breathe out.” Max had opted for rebellion long ago, and he planned his escape. 

“It’s your choice, Max.” His heart was trying to get a word in, or maybe it was one of the stents. 

“The hell it is,” hissed Max, and in the near-silence heard a sniff beside him and a shoe scrape the plank floor. Max turned his thoughts to the forbidden salty chips stashed in his room, unopened, crisp, waiting for his release from Rehab Day 1.

“You’re alive, is that so bad?” This had to be the stent. “So enjoy, already. Or be a sourpuss. It’s your choice.”

Sure. Your body’s broken, the life you lived gutted and sliced up in a bustling meat-packing plant, and everyone’s telling you to be happy? The reward for living is a pony-tailed kook crooning, “Breathe in, breathe out”? 

“Empty your mind,” the voice intoned. “Concentrate on your breathing.” The whole silver-haired room wheezed and huffed in unison.

 “Now, keeping your eyes closed, slowly bring your attention to your other senses. Your ears … we’re surrounded by Nature. What do you hear?”  

Max heard the irrepressible slap of a mosquito being killed and a low, satisfied, “Got ‘im.” 

At least Kid Guru laughed and a few others muffled their snorts. Max squinted to see who they were. 

The young man restarted his smooth whine. “Relax, take your time. Listen to the birds. So many different voices. Wow!” He couldn’t help himself. “Hear that?” He softened his voice again. “Did you hear the bullfrog?”

Max made his decision. “I heard bullshit.” He hoisted himself off his chair and used his cane to create noise on the wooden floor as he planned a circuitous route to the door. 

“You don’t seem to be enjoying yourself.” Dr. Greene said.  

Such a perceptive professional

“Max.” Her eyes didn’t leave his face. “All we’re trying to do in Heart Rehab is give participants tools for a healthy lifestyle.” 

“The world’s in worse shape than me,” Max said. “Can you and your teenage instructors give me tools to fix that?”

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“My understanding about you is,” Dr. Greene folded her hands on the desk, “you already know those tools. I hear you’ve been confronting what you call the establishment for seventy-eight years. Well, maybe not quite as soon as you were born.” Her face became serious. “Max, it’s simple. You’ll continue helping the world a lot better and a lot longer if you reduce your stress. You have to accept you’ve had heart surgery.”  

Max leaned forward so he could stare the doctor full in the face. “I don’t ever just accept. I act.”

Dr. Greene nodded. “Act with the tools we’re showing you, then.”

“Tools like sitting?” Max crossed his arms and smiled. 

“You can meditate while you’re walking, Max. Or just stop what you’re doing for a minute and slow your breath. What about tai chi?”

“You call that active?” Max sat back and swooped his right arm, then his left. “Part the horse's mane. The big bird spreads its wings. All you’re giving me is concern for no one but myself and then think I’m doing good. Look at the state of this planet! My fight, Dr. Greene, is to make it better.”

“Max, sooner than you’d like, you’re going to be fighting for every day of your life.”

Max escaped the Rehab’s tedious dinner table with a curt, “Healthy walk. Nature.” The spinach lasagna had balled up in his stomach like a hay bale, the supper smell lingering in the dining hall more barn than field. 

Outside in the sweet, cool air Max patted his windbreaker where the stents might be listening, and confided, “This I breath in for.” He set off down the path that wound between the residents’ log cabins, woodsy but modern and decorously spaced under large pines and poplars. Halfway past the first cabin, his muscles stiffened; Max chided himself for not recognizing earlier what was going on. This place had been deliberately constructed as an incarnation of a stress-free life. A feel-good fantasy in wood and limestone. Max’s cane gouged a hole in the white pebble path and scattered the stones. Crumbling sandy earth lay exposed, the reality they could try to but never hide. 

 Beyond the cabins, he passed the yurt and gave two of its wooden supports a whack with his cane. At the third, an even louder noise stopped him. A ruckus going on inside: unmistakable. Max perked up.

Slowly, noiseless, he mounted the wheelchair ramp and peeked in. To his disappointment, he saw no riot between patients and staff, no fist-shaking, no nothing except one lone figure, his thin body half-dancing in front of a loud computer. The man wore shapeless beige pants and a flowing white shirt.

Max smiled, quietly opened the door and his cane hit the floor. Mr. Meditation yelped. His left hand spilled a crinkly bag of chips and his right dropped a beer. Max said nothing. His instructor glared, almost snarling; it made Max think of the raccoon he’d had to live-trap once at a summer workers’ camp. 

Satisfied, Max leaned his cane against a chair, cocked his head and made his way over to the mess on the floor. He began munching what was left of the chips in the bag and squinted at the screen. But his mouth dried as he watched the images: police with thick shields, truncheons and tear gas confronting young anger.

“Where?” Max said and moved in to get a closer look. “South America?” He swung around to eye the instructor. “I don’t understand.” He said it as if it were a question. “I mean, with you,” and Max’s arms opened wide. “I never figured … you know,  breathe in, breathe out, and the international news? Police and demonstrations? Chips and beer?”

“What century you from, Grandpa?” The man picked up his near-empty beer can and some still managed to spray Max. 

Max backed up just enough to pull over one of the grey metal chairs and sit down. 

The instructor stood still, glaring. “Get out!” He looked away for the instant it took him to switch off the computer, and snapped, “Get the fuck out of here.”

Max gave him an amiable few seconds and said, “I’ve meditated before, in fact.” He launched into a story about his daughter while the instructor stepped closer, fist squeezing the beer can like a bulb about to betray his blood pressure. 

“Pops, forget about tonight, understand?”

“My daughter and a guru in India. Glad that went nowhere, but, not to judge, I did some meditation with them.” Max could see on the instructor’s face that he was listening even as he sneered. Max gazed up and shrugged. “You don’t seem like that kind of guru, so I’m interested, that’s all.” He thumped a finger on his chest. “Max. You know me already. You  are ...?”

“The guy you walked out on. Remember, you old geezer? Or are you too senile to remember?” 

Max straightened in his chair. “First, watch your mouth. Second, you’re wrong.” His open palms pressed hard on his knees.I don’t like that Rehab here means forget your whole life. I’m still Max.” His eyes fixed on the scowling man. “How do I get back in the world, working with the refugees, helping out at the hall? Not by spreading my big bird wings.” Max pushed himself off the chair, veered out of reach of the instructor and over to the table, bumped against the cooler, and grabbed a beer. “Sure, everything tonight here is secret. That’s the way I like it, too.” He saluted with his can. “Look, remind me what’s your name. I’ve got a question for you and it’d be insulting to call you kiddo.”

The instructor shook his head angrily as if realizing a trap had been sprung. “I’m Cas, Grandpa,” he said, “Like I said in class.” He sunk down in Max’s chair, shoved his beer can under his foot, and stomped on it. “Casper.” 

Max’s face fell. “Oy vey, how bad was the schoolyard? I got beat up with, and he sang, “Maxi’s got a mi – ni,” his hands clapping out the beat, “you know where!”

A strained voice said, “Crappy Assper. Kids shoving in front going ‘whoooo’ at the ghost.” He jerked his head. “Get me another beer.”

Max nodded. Once Cas had his drink Max dragged over a second chair, kitty-corner so they could look at each other or straight ahead. “Here’s my question,” Max said. “Direct, I hope you don’t mind. Seniors aren’t your favorites, Cas. So what‘re you doing here?”

“It’s a job.”

“These days you meditators could teach anywhere.”

“Maybe. If I meditated.”

Max searched Cas’s face for the joke. “You teach, but you don’t … do?”

“Like I said, it’s a job. Best I could get that didn’t pay the minimum.”

“OK, sure. But you had to train. That costs.”

“I didn’t train.” 

Max shifted in his chair and rubbed one ear. Cas grinned. “I looked it up on the web.”

“You what?” 

Cas, a full grin mischievous and proud, said, “Video clips! I practiced the moves. I could see what to say, what to wear, and I put this outfit together at the Sally Ann.” He smoothed his loose pants. “Like new, right? I got the job.”

“You fooled me.” Max became aware he’d been holding his breath.

Cas high-fived him to an awkward response. “The one cool thing I’ve done with my life.” Before Max could interject, he said, “What’ve you done with your life?”

“Like I already said,” Max replied, steadying his voice as he watched for Cas’s reaction, “I work for social justice.”

“A do-gooder. Did anything turn out?” 

“Cas, listen up. You’re insulting again. Let me explain something. A do-gooder thinks they’re doing it for others but it’s really for them. I don’t think like that and I don’t pick my work like that. Why would I bus out at midnight to the end of town to be there with the Syrian parents when police bring their kid home? Sure it makes me feel good, but it’s more.”

Cas’s long legs leaned his chair back, controlling it just short of toppling. “You sanctimonious old bastard,” he muttered, and louder, “Why’m I stuck in a hole I can’t get out of? How come I’ve got nothing in my pockets, let alone the bank?” Cas was examining the yurt’s ceiling. “Can’t travel, can’t pay for school.” He leaned in. “Know what?” Cas grabbed Max’s collar. “I took the job here for the meals and room. How do you think that makes me feel?” His hand tightened on the collar, almost digging into Max’s neck. “For fuck’s sake, all I need’s one good break.”

 “You and me both.” Max forced two fingers between his neck and the collar. “Let’s get out of here,” he said, “Go into town. Your car. At night I don’t drive.” He picked up his cane but Cas’s fist clenched on top.

 “It’d cost me my job if they found out, for fuck’s sake.” 

“Don’t get your balls in a knot, I’ll fix the town thing.” Max twisted the cane out from under. “You go get changed. Jeans and T-shirt, okay? Not that flowing guru stuff.” 

“You can’t fix it,” Cas muttered, and leaned back in his chair.

“Break the rules? Watch me.” Max grabbed a magic marker and wrote in big letters on the workshop’s flip chart, “Max insisting private meeting. Back soon. C.” He nodded his own approval at Cas. “Now, what’s your car look like?”

“Keep cruising. Get a good look.” A neighborhood bar, old and plain, got the green-light. All eyes were on Max and the young man as he ordered two draft and paid for a pool table the right size for snooker.

“You’re in a hole, you said. Your pocket’s empty. You want a break. These are the right words, Cas, but you’re in the wrong game.” Max’s face was now the mischievous one as he racked the balls and handed Cas a chalked cue, seeing from his nervous stance that he had to be careful not to make him feel a fool. 

“You’re right-handed?” Max whispered into Cas’s ear. “Okay, so your right arm’s like this and you hold the cue here. Your left’s a support.” Max angled Cas’s fingers on the table. “Bend down so you see straight where you’re shooting. Now hit the white ball, right in the centre.” Max coached him through a lifetime’s experience, and Cas’s honed concentration put balls in the pockets until midnight.

The next morning Max slipped into the yurt with a nod and a smile, enjoying the curiosity of the assembled participants. Cas, in the blousy shirt and loose beige trousers, nodded a cool welcome and began the yurt’s chant. “Breathe in … breathe out. Keep your eyes closed. Inhale and feel the airflow all the way to your toes … and now smoothly out as you exhale.” 

Max acquiesced. For Cas. 

Like a rabbi with a teaching Cas turned to fresh imagery. “Now imagine a smooth green pond in the early morning. Breathe in this green life … breathe out and feel as calm as the water.” 

Max became aware his brain was talking over his heart’s usual commentaries. He squinted around the room, and at Cas, and silently inhaled. “How political …” and exhaled, “… is this kid?” Inhaled … “he could work” … . And let his breath out, “… drive me at night.” 

 “Now, imagine the pond’s still surface is covered with waterlilies. Their leaves heart-shaped, their beautiful round flowers opening in the sun. Red flowers everywhere, and white, yellow, blue, and orange … imagine chocolate brown and black, too. Round balls of petals. Breathe in. You are these flowers in the sunlight …”

Max’s breathing went haywire as he muffled his laughter. Cas was a quick learner, giving one helluva good bullshit session. 

The last night, Max and Cas escaped playing snooker again. As they walked out of the bar in the early morning, Max said, “You’ve got real talent, Cas.” Cas grinned and high-fived Max, but a minute later, as they rounded the corner, he exploded. 

“What the fuck!” Cas ran towards his old Chevy.

Shards of glass littered the sidewalk. Spray-painted over the car’s doors were the words, “Get out, Ponytail”. 

Like a good witness, Max memorized every detail while murmuring calm words to Cas and fitting in some swearing. Cas, on his knees, was wiping at the paint and soothing his broken companion.

Max pulled Cas gently away from the beater. “Stop with the fingerprints. Call the police. Look, just some dumb fucks wearing their big boy pants.” Max found himself involuntarily illustrating his next words: “Take a deep breath.”

“Shut the hell up. Who’s the guy who called that bullshit?”

Max nodded and walked a few steps away and out of reach of the broken glass. With his cane, he lowered himself to sit on the sloping edge of a concrete barrier. 

“For fuck’s sake, look!” Cas’s fingers jabbed at an empty window. “What’ll this cost?”  He stared at Max. “Where’s your justice now? Sitting on his ass is where.” His fingers pointed and shook.

Max made his voice slow and even. “Sitting will help me deal with the cops. I’m not their friend.” A snort from Cas. “And, Cas, I can’t kid myself. The breathing made me feel better.”

Max heard a strangled sound. In the dark, he couldn’t make out whether Cas was disgusted or crying. Max pulled out his own phone, flipped it open, and dialed the police.

“Cas, sit already. It’s all we can do right now.” Cas looked away. “Let me make you a proposition. You need a car? I’ve got one and I need a driver some nights. You need money? Come to the hall and help us with computer stuff. I’ll ask for the money. How does that sound?” 

“You’re do-gooding me, you two-faced liar.”

Max bent down and tugged at his pant leg. “Maybe I am.” He brushed dirt off the cuff. “Sit. So at least I can see you.”

Cas kicked at the tires, threw his jacket down, and collapsed. 

“Don’t be a sourpuss, Cas. We can’t do anything about the car except wait. I’ll work it so the cops drive us home. What I said about helping me and the guys? It’s no bullshit.”

“No bullshit?” Cas broke his silence. “ ‘Course not. I love working with seniors, you know that. Love hearing the stories they tell, especially about some picket line a half-century ago.”

“You and me both.” 

Cas staggered to his feet and turned his back on Max.

Max found a solid place for his cane and levered himself up. Cas had sounded less angry but a dark grey of defeat had crept in.

“Sure it’s frustrating. But what I learned from some hippie in a yurt is that nutty meditation isn’t so nutty. So maybe old Max can stay in the fight, and the fight’s not just to wake up every morning.” 

He waited for a reaction. After a minute of silence, Max tried another tack. He took a deep breath, hoping it was audible. He exhaled with an extended, loud sigh. 

“You’ve got talent, Cas, like I said. I don’t know why you’re in a hole in your life and it’s none of my business. But what I do know is that this weekend happened to get two guys together, and I did stuff I thought was complete crap. But it changed things for me. You did new stuff, too, and it made a difference, right?” 

“The new stuff’s my car got fucked.” Cas, hands in his pockets, stared at the ground. His words trailed off as he spoke. Max stayed silent, shuffling his shoes in the night cold. 

 Cas’s head jerked up. He jogged towards the car and peered in.

“The idiots missed the beer!”

“The idiots!” Max echoed. 

Cas stretched his arms. He walked slowly around the car, stretching and murmuring. Max heard “Idiots!” again. Cas banged his hand lightly on the hood and faced him. “Okay, Snooker Man. I’ll help you out.”  

Max beamed and he high-fived Cas but to no response; Cas had started to walk around Max, looking him up and down. Twice he fingered Max’s windbreaker.

“Mr. Snooker Man, you’ve come to the right place.” Cas stopped and held out one hand as if to shake Max’s. “I can see you need to upgrade to some good meditation gear. The best part is, I know a guy who’ll trade gear for using your car.” He clamped his lips shut to hide a grin. 

“What, he’s short and wide?”

“It’ll work.”

Max pursed his lips. “Okay. It’ll mean I meditate ‘til the day I die. You introduce me to this guy.” Max held out his hand to seal the deal but the next instant it thumped against his heart, his cane dropped, his feet rocked and his eyes opened wide. 

Cas froze. But Max’s eyes held no shock, and they were too bright for pain. He was breathing just fine. 

“No such luck, Grandpa.” Cas retrieved the cane. “You’re going to meditate every day for the next hundred years.” He posed and waved the cane “en garde” and pushed the point against Max’s heart. “While I beat your ass at snooker every night.” 

Max grabbed at the cane and missed. “Is that so?” He raised his arms boxer-stance, eyes gleaming. “You watch your mouth, you hippy guru schnook.” 

Cas shrugged as if he didn’t know or care what Max had said, turned the cane upside down, and pretended to chalk its end in the red flashing lights pulling up at the sidewalk.

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