Drifter In From The Rain
Drifter In From The Rain
I wonder still upon his name, that one beyond which he referred to himself as, if indeed it can be defined as a name.
Said he in voice that sounded and felt beyond ancient, “What does it matter, a name? You would probably forget it as soon as I am gone and we’ll never likely meet a second time, so be content that I come to you as a simple, Drifter in from the rain.”
Regardless of what he thought, I will never forget him, a hobo sort of fellow with white hair that hung lazily down past his shoulders, a beard that covered most of his chest and stomach, a thin almost frail body wrapped up in coveralls and a faded brown fedora on his head, which I saw removed but once when he dipped in the lake and sank himself neath the surface for as long as I have ever seen anyone hold their breath. Long enough that I almost went out to rescue him from drowning. After, he stood in the sun turning slowly, I suppose to dry himself, which took well near an hour. I heard him humming some tune which I did not recognize.
I became aware that he went through this ritual every few days and refrained after a second brief capture of the scene from spying on him.
He carried with him but a small backpack, a pup tent for, “rainy nights,” he said, “Other wise the stars make a good view to fall asleep with,” and a walking stick about the height of his shoulder with a nicely carved bird’s head to crown it off.” I bought it from a Gypsy a ton of years ago” said he. His only other possession, which he cherished and that was given him by a Gypsy as well was a beautiful silver flute, which he played well and often, often where there were people, for tips they dropped into the flute case, and a tidy bit of income he managed I can say.
I asked a foolish question at that, “Are you not a Gypsy?”
“Love a duck kid. You gotta be born a Gypsy or at least be ritual led into a clan and I don’t fit neither of them. Like I said, I’m just a drifter in from the rain and I am only passing through.”
I let that topic drift away and asked another stupid question, “Where are you from?”
He smiled, pointed his thumb over his shoulder and said, “That way.” And before I could ask the next obvious and stupid question he pointed ahead and said, “And I am going that way.”
I didn’t ask any more questions figuring I’d get answers that made absolute sense but none at all at the same time.
Mostly I just watched him, sometimes being nearly at his side and sometimes from afar. There was hardly a moment that he was uninteresting.
I was a boy and my family lived in a small cove village that survived on summer tourists. My folks maintained a small craft marina and tavern, both of which were prosperously busy from spring melt to Thanksgiving and we were considered well to do among the other villagers, most of whom took their evening libation at the tavern, and on a Saturday eve father offered a free draft of beer to all our village neighbours. We also had a summer residents clientele which frequented our lunch/dining room and pier view patio.
The man who never gave his name came most days for a dinner and a beer which he paid for, I assumed, from his tips. Later, with a beer or two in reward he would bring out his flute and entertain the early evening patrons who crowded into the lounge area, just for a drink or while waiting for a table in the dining room. Father attempted once to offer him a position as the taverns lounge musician, but he refused it saying, “I could not guarantee being able to show every day, which was later determined to be reasonable because he would often be gone for a day or two or three at a time. Gone where?, you ask. I doubt anyone knew the answer, though I do recall observing him approach the village along the town road once or twice and from the area south of the village toward the point we called the wilds, a deer reserve beyond the camp grounds south of the village.
Quite often he sailed with Jenny C, a cruise boat that carried two dozen folks out across the lake for an evening sail and dinner at a restaurant in Point town some nine miles down the bay. He played his flute and took a few dollars for his efforts I was told, but never touched a drop of drink.
He smoked a good deal, rolling his own cigarettes by hand, no machine like I have seen others use, and perfect little cylinders of tobacco they were too. I have seen others smoke rollies and most of them had brown fingers, but the drifter’s were always clean. He was always clean for that matter, unlike the bums that straggled through the village now and then.
I saw him oft times standing at the end of the marina pier just staring west ward, watching the sun set and humming some nameless tune, or whistling as he was prone to now and then.
I think he liked me, or at least found my attention toward him tolerable and on a Saturday afternoon he would set to telling me a tale of his adventures across his long years while we sat at the end of the pier, fishing, he loved to fish and if he caught a good one he would invite me to dinner at his camp, a place in the brush no one seemed to mind over.
“Lad. I’ve never answered the call of common living for I prefer the free life of a rover and the adventures I have accumulated on my journey. Its not for everyone and at times its as tough as strolling in a blizzard, but when the dawns come most of them are the finest any man can hope for or even imagine if one is tied to a job and its slave wages.”
“But what about winter. Where do you go?” Asked I in utter innocence.
He smiled, his smile always clean and bright. “Mostly my boy, at least til I got too old, I took to the sea and sailed to the southern climes working for passage. In so many different ports I have tarried through the north world winters, drifting afar as I do in these summer months here.” He answered once without cryptic avoidance.
“But in these last few years, gotten old I have, I find refuge in places that accept refugees of the streets. It is not always a kindly existence but fair enough if one does not expect too much. A warm birth and hot meals, for but a pittance if you can pay, which I usually can.”
“Sounds lonely.” I once said, and the Drifter smiled and said, “Lad, if you like yourself and the life you have chosen, no matter what that life is, you will never be lonely.”
“How did you decide to live this way?” I asked.
He laughed. “I can’t say it was a single decision as such. It was a long train of choices and I suppose touched a little from my childhood answering the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up? I lived my answers, much of which could not be lived today. Each answer led me along the way of Drifters.”
Over the summer the drifter in from the rain told me about some of his adventure. He had been a sailor, a soldier, cowboy, the real kind that rode horses and went on cattle drives, to mention only a small few. “I climbed a dozen rocky mountains because it was simpler to go over than around, and I climbed a hundred cliffs as tall as skyscrapers, free hand, just because I saw them and wanted to climb them.”
I must say he inspired my imagination and planted the seed of longing the wild rover life in me, But he said, when he ended a tale, “Its all different now boy. My way of life is gone. There are no trains to jump anymore and the hitching rides across the country has gotten to be a dangerous thing. No one, or few tolerates the likes of me, except now and then in places like this, but that is mostly because I have been here before and there are a few who remember me and fondly I am warned.”
I said in my innocent ignorance, “I have never seen you here before.”
“Laddie, your Mamma and Papa were young’uns here the last I was through, but your papa has a small memory of me then.”
We had a small boat, just a twenty foot day sailor, rigged with a main sail and a jib. I asked my father to take me out. It was a Wednesday afternoon. But Dad was, “Up to my neck tie with deliveries.”
So, asked if me and the Drifter could go out. Dad smiled and said, “Sure. I know he knows his sheets well enough.”
I gave him a curious side glance. He laughed and said, “I’ll tell you about it one day.”
Happy as a squiggler in the mud I ran off to find the Drifter. Luckily, I found him perched at the end of the pier. I think I caught him weeping, but he covered it quickly and well and when I asked if he wanted to go for a sail he took me up on it with a clear, bright smile and a cheerful, “By the By boy, its just what the day is wanting.”
And so, in that early afternoon sun we set our sails, wing on wing and went with the wind, down the bay and out the channel. I do not think I had ever seen him so happy. He was delighted to show me a few tricks, if ever I got caught out there alone in a storm and when we came in he showed me how to sail her in without the help of a motor. It was a thing we did three times, twice by his hand and once by my own to the watchful eye of my father and several folks lounging on the patio. Dad was all smiles.
After that we went out many times and before long I was a “fair sailor for a young whelp,” he said.
The drifter taught me how to roll my own smokes, and I smoked for a time, but then he taught me why I shouldn’t let it become a habit. It’ll do you no good in the long run kid, so you might want to recall the experience in a fond memory, of a summer, a long time ago.”
I quit as easily as I started though every now and then when I was older, I bought a pouch of Baccy and papers and relived a few puffs of that memory sitting at the end of the pier watching the sun set over Sunset Bay, as most there abouts called it.
The old drifter taught me how to drink, or better said, how not to drink and though my father knew of this exchange he never said a word. It was years later that he told me the old man had helped him through those very same steps to adult hood when he was my age, “just a tad less than adult hood.” He said. “Back then he knew your Grandmother, my father had passed away. I saw them walk many a night in the moon light. She owned this marina at the time. It is a shame that she died before he could get back.” There was a sadness in my father’s voice I had never heard before.
“Maybe he would tell me that story.” I said.
“Or maybe not. I think he mourns her deeply. I think he is saying goodbye in his own way.
In a way I am ashamed because I brought such a sadness to the old drifter, but I was lured by curiosity and I asked him about him and my Grandmother. He showed me what a melancholy smile looked like and at first I thought he was going to refuse to tell me the story, but after a few minutes, and a tear I am sure I saw, he cleared his throat and said, “Your Grams was as beautiful a woman as I ever met kid, and she was a force to be reckoned with, as wild as the wildest storm that ever swept across this bay,” he began with a bright smile.
“We had two encounters, the first of which is between her and me, but the second, nigh on twenty years gone now. It was then we knew a love that not even poets can’t describe in a thousand lines, but it was a love not burden by body, it was all heart and spirit.
It was in this very setting, here at the end of the pier that we sat many a night together, just holding hands and talking, I can hardly remember what we talked about, hour after hour or night after night, but talk we did and filled the spaces in between with beer,” He laughed. “But when the fall came my heart was beckoned and away I went thinking that we would meet again someday. I told her to watch the sky and keep a close eye on Cassiopeia, for I would gaze at her each night and remember.” He wept without shame.
After a while he said, “I always meant to come back one last time, and now I have but it am too late. But I always believed we would meet again.”
“Maybe you will,” I said, “Just not here.”
The Drifter looked at me and smile warmly. “Just then you sounded just like her. I suppose we all live on in those who follow us.”
“Do you have anyone like that?” I asked.
“I do, but we are worlds apart and I doubt, even though we meet now and then we will ever be father and son by heart. Only by chemical coincidence.”
I didn’t quite know what he meant by that then but as I grew older I understood.
I said, I didn’t know Gramma very well. Dad said she died young.”
“Very young. She would still be young if she had lived.” He answered.
“Does Dad know your name?” I asked.
The old drifter laughs aloud. “I should think he might have once, but I am sure he has forgotten, and my name is of little importance.”
I tried once or twice after to find out his name, but he always put me off. I learned years later that my father actually did remember his name but told me, and to keep it to myself. Thus, it will not enter this story. I still wonder though, “Why the mystery?” A question I will never get an answer to I am sure.
The summer rallied on like most summers do and when labour day came it seemed the summer had passed so quickly. Most of the tourists, the boaters, cottagers, and campers went home, and when the day after came The Drifter said to me, “Today Boy is the loneliest day of the year. Its marked by the empty beaches, reclaimed by the seagulls and driftwood and the wind blows away the footprints in the sand. Today the wind of the wanderer begins beckoning my spirit.”
“Are you leaving soon?” I asked.
“Yes, and I am old now so it is unlikely I will be back this way before I head back to the spirit world.”
“That’s sad.” My Dad said. We had not noticed he had come up behind us.
The old drifter got to his feet and turned to face my father. I wish I could have seen her one more time.” He said.
Dad replied, “Mother gave me a message for you if you ever got back this way, to be delivered when you were getting ready to leave. She said, “Keep an eye on the night sky my wandering friend. I am gone from here, but I am watching you. Look up and you will see me whirling about the stars of Cassiopeia.”
“I need a beer.” The Drifter said in a melancholy voice.
A couple of days later something happened that I have never, ever been able to categorize in my emotions and has always seemed quite tragically magical. But it was sadly horrifying as well.
It was a horrendous night and the storm waves were crashing into the marina. I always thought it foolish that the owner of the Jenny C brought his boat back to harbour on such a night, but he did and was unable to dock. It would probably have sunk if the old drifter hadn’t been there.
“Throw me line,” he cried out and when the line was in his hands he tied off the bow. Then he yelled, “Throw me an aft line,” and when that line was in his hands he tied it off. Then first the bow, he dragged it in and tied off. Then he hauled the stern line in and tied it off. He kept doing this until the Jenny C was secured.
All seemed well until there came a horrendous wave that picked the old drifter up and carried him off, tossing him it seemed, into the storm.
We never found his body, search as we might for days after. Nor did he drift to any shoreline around the bay or out on the lake.
I went to his camp and gathered all his belongings. I felt like I was breaking confidence as I went through his ‘Stuff’ as he called it. All I really found was his flute, baccy and papers, a change of clothes and a few trinkets. There was nothing there to identify him. I knew he carried most of his life stuff in his pockets. “You can’t lose your pockets kid. They’re attached pretty well, so keep your important stuff in them.”
The flute still hangs on the wall behind the tavern bar and sometimes it seems if a breath of air hits it just right it plays a note.
I gave the trinkets to the bay and buried his back pack near his camp.
I have kept the walking stick with me all the years after.
I wondered from time to time if his son ever missed him. I would never know because I did not know his name. Sometimes it seems The Old Drifter in from the rain never existed
I can’t say why but I didn’t cry though for weeks after I could not find much joy.
One day, some weeks later my Dad saw my struggling and by ways I only understood after I became a father myself he said to me, “Son, fate has a way of taking good care of things and I think that old man was taken just the way he would have wanted, quickly and mysteriously.”
My path later took me from the bay, on to college and a career, nothing like the dream I could never lose. The dream of being some old drifter in from the rain. But I still go home for a time in the summer and sit on the end of the pier with a beer and roll of baccy, with Dad at my side. Sometimes we whistle and every night we look up and wonder if he ever met up with his love of loves among the glimmering stars of Cassiopeia.