Secrets of the Old Man in the Box
April 2, 2016
BEN HAD GONE to spy on the old man in the box.
He was nine. He lived in the country at the end of an oil road.
For boys living deep in the thickets of East Texas, spying on the old man in the box was a rite of passage.
Who is he?
Where did he come from?
No one ever said. He guessed no one knew.
Does he have a name?
Daddy met him once.
Daddy said he called himself John Kelly.
Didn’t talk a lot. Hunted a little. Fished when he was hungry. Planted a garden every spring. Mostly tomatoes. Mostly new potatoes.
Mostly he kept to himself.
Maybe John Kelly was an outlaw. That’s what the boys in town said. Maybe he was running from something. Maybe he was hiding from the law.
Some heard he was an army deserter. Some said he had abandoned his wife. Some said he killed his wife.
And he lived by himself in a little one-room log cabin at the end of a dirt road, down by the edge of the creek. The boys called it a box. It sure looked like a box.
Ben only knew once thing as he moved through the pine forest and out across a meadow thick with bull nettle thorns and beggar lice. John Kelly was a man to be feared. See him coming, run the other way. There was a boy ten years ago who went to spy on John Kelly, and nobody ever saw him again. Ben asked his daddy about it. His daddy just laughed and kept on reading the newspaper.
One by one that summer, the boys had gone out to see if they could get a quick glimpse of the old man. They walked into the woods. They ran home. Never before had they come so close to death. They were sure of it. Louis said he didn’t sleep for a week. Nightmares kept him awake. Nightmares were real. He awoke in the morning with fever and sweats.
And now it was Ben’s turn. He had been walking for an hour or most of the day.
The day was sultry. The sky was turning dark. Ben heard the rumble of thunder to the west. Lightning crackled across the top of the pines.
He knew he should turn back. He knew he should go home. But the boys would laugh at him and call him yellow.
What’s the matter, Ben? That’s what they would say. Afraid to look at old John Kelly?
The rain caught him in the far corner of Jacob’s Meadow. It came down in sheets. The day turned as dark as the clouds. Ben huddled beneath an aging oak, chilled and blinded by the rain.
The thunder rattled the trees and pounded the ground around him, and he could smell the lightning, and he thought it smelled like brimstone although he had never smelled brimstone before.
The old man reached down from the rain and took Ben in his arms. He was a mountain of a man. In the distance, the boy heard the creek running with white water. A door opened, and man and boy walked inside the cabin.
It was a box. The box was dry.
Old John Kelly placed the boy in a chair and slumped down in a rocker.
Ben glanced around the room. He saw nothing but books. From floor to ceiling, the room was lined with books, old and dusty.
“Have you read them all?” Ben asked.
“At least twice and some more.” John Kelly’s voice was soft and gentle.
“How long you been living here?”
“Since the war.”
“Does it matter?”
“Why don’t you ever come to town?” Ben asked. He wiped the drops of rain from his face.
“Don’t need to.” John Kelly grinned. He pointed to his books. “I got all my friends right here.”
“But they’re not real.”
“To me they are.”
“People in town, they talk about you,” Ben said.
John Kelly shrugged. “I’m sure they do.”
“They think you’re crazy.”
John Kelly laughed. “They may be right,” he said.
“They think you’re hiding something.”
“I’ve been to war, and I’ve seen men die,” John Kelly said. “I’ve been in love, and I’ve broken a heart or two, and I have had mine broken a time or two. I was always worrying about where I was going and how I was going to get there” He smiled. “I don’t worry about that anymore,” he said.
“I pick up a book and can go anywhere in the world,” he said, “and I never have to leave home. I read about death, but nobody ever dies. I can fall in love, and she never walks out on me, and she’s always here whenever I open the book again.”
“Don’t you ever get lonely?”
“What do you do then?”
“Sometimes it rains, and, on good days, I find somebody wanting to come in out of the rain, and we sit where it’s dry and talk a spell. It helps me know all’s right with the world I left.”
Outside the rain died away. Thunder faded. Lightning o longer lit the sky.
“Can I come back?” Ben asked
“Sure, but I may not be here.”
“Where will you be?”
“In a book somewhere.” Old John Kelly grinned. “You can always find me in a book,” he said.