Gus is a tall man. He has the stooped shoulders of a scholar. His white hair is cut short. His hands are at his sides. He is wearing a white open-collared shirt and grey pants with cuffs. His shoes are scuffed brown lace-ups. He is holding a pair of pruning shears in one hand and several thick green beans in the other.
He looks at the boy beside him. His nephew. His sister’s son. Sees a bit of himself in the boy’s intense close-set brown eyes.In the distance, well behind the white clapboard farmhouse, are the mountains. The Green Mountains. Mid-summer green in the clear dry air. Round tree-whiskered peaks at their tops. Gentle slopes with deep, shadowed furrows running down between them. Running down into the Mettawee River valley.
“You are named after my father,” he tells the boy. The boy who is looking off to the distant mountains. “That is an honor,” he says, “for both you and for my father, and me, in a way. I hope your mother has told you that.”
“I don’t know. Maybe. Did I ever see him?” says the boy.
“No. My father passed away long before you were born. But he is in you as he is in me. We are both blessed by that. We carry him, a part of him at least, in us. The words we speak. The thoughts in our minds, how we peel an orange or solve a math problem or how we dig a hole and how we treat one another. It all comes to us from him and who he was.
“Is he in Louis too?”
“Yes, he is.”
“Then why doesn’t he talk in words or say anything other than dhurrmmm all the time? And why does he twirl things in his fingers like that and rock back and forth all the time?
“I don’t know exactly why. But he does talk. Just differently from me and you. But inside he is just the same. He talks in a language that he understands and I am learning. You can learn that too if you want to. He rocks back and forth because it soothes him. He does that more when he is afraid of something.”
“I’m afraid of him. I’m afraid to talk to him.”
“I promise you, he would never hurt you. In some ways, I think, he is trying to make sense of the world around him. You must look at him when you talk with him so that he knows to pay attention to you and to look at your face and your eyes. Your eyes are important. They let him see who you are and what the words you are saying mean to him.”
“If you are his father, why is he so different from you?”
“I know he seems different. But, and this is what may help you, he is more alike with you than he is different. He sees with eyes like you do. He hears with ears like you do. His heart beats like yours does. He feels happiness and sadness and fear and love like you do.”
The boy, his name is Joseph, fidgets. He takes a snapping bite of a green bean. “It smells like grass.”
“It does, a little. I think it smells like the earth. Like the earth maybe before people came to it.”
They both look away in the direction of the mountains and the stream.
“Are those mountains yours?”
“No, the mountains belong to all of us in the valley but the stream that comes down from the mountains and runs along the edge of the pasture is part of our land.”
“Can we walk to it?”
“Will Louis come to the stream with us?”
“No. Not this time. Maybe next time if your parents bring you back for another visit. He’ll stay with Belle now and we’ll see him when we get back.”
Gus has a voice like a baritone sax. He has a smile like a slow surprise winter sunrise. He takes the boy’s hand and they begin to walk across the field of tall red clover toward the mountain.
“This is the year you make your bar mitzvah, isn’t it?”
“Yes. Did he…?”
“Louis? Yes, he did, in a way.”
“I mean did Louis say his haftorah? In front of all those people?”
“Well, no. I stood on the bema with him and he wore a long white tallis around his shoulders, one of my father’s, and his yarmulke and he swayed to the sound of my voice as I sang the haftorah for him. I was so happy for him.”
“Did he make the dhurrrmm sound?
“A little. And by the end he had relaxed and I saw that he was happy. Like he gets when we listen to music. He loves Brubeck and Miles, McCoy Tyner, Charlie Parker and Coltrane. He likes Coltrane the best. His eyes light up like stars at midnight and sometimes he just falls asleep sitting next to me on the couch, his head resting on my knee.”
“Will you come to my bar mitzvah?”
“Your mother and I don’t get along, you know. She might not invite me but I would like to be there.”
The sky darkens over the mountains. “Let’s turn back before it begins to rain,” Gus says.
The boy puts his hand out and Gus takes it in his. They walk back to the white clapboard house. They can hear the chickens scuffling in the yard.
After dinner, while it is still light out, the boy’s parents come to pick him up. Belle gives him a paper bag full to the top with green beans, cucumbers, and tomatoes.
He climbs into the back seat of the car. They drive south on 22, back toward the city, and the boy never comes to visit the family in the white house in the Mettawee Valley among the Green Mountains and the cool running stream in the distance ever again.