I met him at a bar off the trail. I’d been walking all day, shoes wearing a single spot in the side of my right big toe. I’d ripped off a bit of my sleeve and stuffed it there to take some of the pressure off. I’d run out of all but one cigarette seven miles back; I always save my last cigarette. The bar was carved into the side of the mountain, like someone had taken actual dynamite, blown an actual hole in the actual mountain, and put an actual bar there. The door was set between two bent oaks and looked like it was probably painted red once. I needed a chair and a drink of water, so I went inside.
The bar smelled like stale smoke and barbecue and butter. The amber lights were dim, like most bars, the tables and floor and stools all made of old wood and stained so many times you weren’t sure what color everything was originally. I sat down at the bar and before I could order the bartender handed me a glass of what looked like horse piss. “First one’s on the house,” he said in a Scottish accent so thick I felt like I was breathing it in, and I chugged the whole thing. I had needed water and this may as well have been.
There was a man sitting next to me, his white, scraggly beard barely sticking to his face, staring into his mug, watching the foam dissolve. His face was wrinkled, but not the clever kind of wrinkled, the kind people might say is “leathery” or “weathered.” It wasn’t the Hollywood wrinkled that looks like an old, salty seaman with a story to tell, it was just a sad sort of wrinkled, like his skin had gotten too big for his face, like everything he used to be was bigger than what he was now. Like he just deflated.
I talk to strangers on the trail. I’m a people person, that’s why I take these trips alone. That’s why I don’t pack enough shit and run out of cigarettes and beer, so I can ask for something and people can lend me something because people like it when you owe them something, as long as it’s something small and stupid, like a cigarette or a match or a band-aid. They feel connected to you, feel just a tiny bit superior to you, and that’s when people are most comfortable. People talk then, and share their stories, because people inherently trust people to whom they are just a tiny bit superior. So I saved my last cigarette in case I needed to ask for a light.
“Hey,” I said. “Got a light?”
The old man took another long draw of his beer and went right back to staring at it.
I thought maybe he hadn’t heard me, so I asked again. “Got a light?”
I don’t like bothering people who clearly don’t want to be bothered, so I turned to find someone else to talk to. The bartender came over. “Doncha ask him for a light,” he said. “Ask him for his storm.”
I was taken aback (as was, I realized in retrospect, the proper reaction) but the request was so odd and I so love odd things that I turned to the man and asked, “Got a storm?”
“Aye,” he said, a strange word to come out of his mouth as I had not pegged him for a sailor. “I did once.” The bartender just laughed and left to serve more intoxicated patrons with deeper pockets and looser change.
The man pulled from his pocket an old, worn photograph, folded in half so many times the image had two white lines cutting it into uneven fourths. There was a sky, and ground, and a trail, and a man walking the trail, and one half of the sky was dark and gray and cloudy and the other half was clear and bright and warm.
“When I was eighteen years old,” he began, and I quietly scooted my chair forward, for I could tell this was going to be an interesting story for my collection, and I could already see myself writing it down, describing the scene, drawing the old man in the margins as I recounted the bourbony smell of his breath, the dirtiness of his fingernails that weren’t really dirty but stained with age, “I lived in a small village next to the sea. I had lived there all my life, with my mother, and my father was dead, I suspect, though I’d never known him and didn’t care to.
“Now, my mother loved collecting things, all kinds of things, you see, in jars. Odds and ends, rocks she found pretty, newspaper clippings, owl pellets with full mice skeletons in them, all sorts of things, just put in old canning jars and sealed up and put in the basement. As a small child of six or seven I was fascinated by her things and I would go down and she would show me her collection. In those days, of course, it was labeled, and neat, and things sat on shelves and there were lights and she dusted. And I would come down and she would pull things off shelves and show me what they were: a chunk of bright candy she’d sucked on as a girl but hadn’t ever finished because she liked the color and wanted to save it; a bit of string she’d tied around her finger once to remember her father’s birthday; a ruler, broken in half (she said once she couldn’t form a cursive f so a schoolteacher had beaten her on the knuckles with it until she bled and she stole it and broke it and ran away and went to a different school, which I never believed, because there was only the one school in town).
“There was a small door, half the width of a normal door and hidden behind some shelves and I saw it once and walked toward it to go through and my mother pulled me back and said, ‘No, child,’ and took me upstairs and never let me in the basement again.
“Well, I eventually lost interest in odd collections in basements and began chasing a, well, a different sort of fancy.”
I smiled at that, for I love the coming-of-age story, the boy who abandons being a boy for being a man, who runs from the pursuit of silly childish things toward the love of a woman who will, of course, if she’s any good for him, inevitably pull him back toward the pursuit of silly childish things, for that is, after all, the whole point.
“There was, see, a boy whom I’d grown up with, and we were friends, but I loved him. I loved him more than he loved me and I loved him more than he ever loved anyone and he couldn’t possibly understand, for he loved a girl, and he did not love me, and he could never love me, no matter how hard he tried, and he did not want to try.”
Here the old man turned away and I did, too, and ordered another drink to give him space to wipe his eyes. I waited what I considered a decent amount of time, then turned back.
“My mother, see, she knew about the boy, and she wasn’t happy because she wanted me to marry and have children even if I wouldn’t have been happy. But I got angry, as boys are wont to do, and I told her I would destroy the only things she’d ever really loved, and I went downstairs to the basement and it wasn’t neat anymore, or orderly, it was dusty and old and dark and the jars were discolored and I broke them. She sat in the doorway and collapsed against the frame and sobbed, for I was bigger than her, and she watched me take them and smash them and destroy it all.”
He took a deep breath, then continued, “I am not proud of that.”
It was several moments before he spoke again, and then he said, “I was a boy. I was a boy without a father and I should not have done what I did but she–”
He paused again.
“No. I should not have done what I did.”
I drank my beer, ordered another one, and finished half a bowl of peanuts before he spoke again.
“When I was done, I remembered the small door that I had not been allowed to go through and I walked toward it and she stood up and screamed at me and I stopped and listened for a moment and she said, ‘If you open that door, what is done cannot be undone. Please. Don’t.’ Something about her tone moved me to compassion and I almost went to her then but I remembered her vileness and anger about the boy and I was angry again and I opened the door and it was only a closet lined with shallow wooden shelves caked with layers of dust so thick I had to rub and rub to get it off and on the shelves were more jars. Only these jars didn’t hold odds and ends. They held…something else.”
I realized I had been holding both my breath and the bar and let them go.
“I remember staring for a moment at the jars, each with something moving in them, something grander than a jar could hold, something bigger. One had what looked like an entire sunset held in it, another a starry night sky. One had gentle rain on a porch swing at dawn, another a thundercloud and a small twirl of dust. It was this one I grabbed and held aloft, to look at it through the light, for it was closest to me, and I had completely forgotten why I was in the room.
“But she thought I was going to break it as I had the others and she cried out and lunged for me and I forgot that she was there and I dropped the jar and the storm inside it. It filled the little closet and lightning clapped and the shelves broke and there was a fire and the jars fell and shattered and the dust twirl became huge and took my mother and tore through our roof and outside the storm grew bigger and bigger and it took her higher and higher and higher and she was gone.
“I took the only jar that hadn’t broken and I ran outside and saw her flying away, already dead, but I was still hoping, still screaming after her that I was sorry, sorry for breaking her jars and sorry for hurting her and sorry for loving a boy and I ran and I threw the jar in my hand, the one of a gentle sunset over a meadow, I threw it far and it broke and rose into the sky but it was not enough. I ran down the road toward the storm and watched the sunset rise into the sky, fight the darkness and the thunder and the cyclone and the icy, stabbing rain, but it was beaten back and disappeared and my mother was gone and I was left standing in the rain and mud, black clouds above my head.”
The bartender had filled up the man’s beer at some point and he took several large gulps, wiped his chin, set down the glass.
“When I got back to town the cyclone had torn through everything. Most people were okay. But the boy I loved and the girl he loved were not. It tore through their roof. They had been in the attic. She was found in the bay. Half of him was found near the base of the lighthouse. The other half was picked up later in a net by a fishing boat.”
He folded the paper and put it back in his pocket. I wasn’t sure what to say, so I just asked, “Where did your mother get the jars?”
He shrugged. “Made them herself, I guess. Like everything else. Kept them from childhood. Just memories. Mementos. Knick knacks.” He took another large swig of beer and set the glass down and stared into it, watching the foam make little waves against the glass.