Monday, June 21, 2010

And Then There Were Two

Three old men, walking together, hands clasped behind their back, European style. Every evening, during the summer, they'd pass by the house; then, ten minutes later, they'd pass by again, on their way back. As they walked, they'd be conversing, in a language I recognized but did not understand. No one I knew walked in that particular way, holding their hands behind their back. Nor did women, unless it was with your mother or an elderly aunt, walk arm in arm together down a sidewalk--except the Europeans. That may have changed now but it was an anomaly back then in that particular time and place.

Sitting on the front porch steps, ruminating on how people walk. Andor Czompo, a dance instructor, once told us that Hungarians walk differently from everyone else in the world, which he then proceeded to demonstrate. The difference had to do with the position and coordination of the feet and simultaneous swinging of the arms as one strode forward. That little example, one of those peculiar things you hear or see and always remember. Like the elderly Greek gentlemen who passed by on their evening stroll all those years ago when we lived there on Elm Street.

They were always impeccably dressed, as if going to an event. One of them wore a hat. Their talk would be punctuated with lively gestures; one would be speaking and the other two would nod in agreement or interrupt with a counterthought. Sometimes we heard them before they arrived, the sound carrying down to precede them.

They always walked three in a line close beside one another, neither slightly ahead nor behind each other, so that when traffic came towards them on the sidewalk, the little column of three suddenly had to de-link, separate, and move aside to let someone pass.

All four seasons, there they were, walking their walk, like clockwork. In the winter, they'd be dressed in heavy coats, bundled up in scarves, with boots and gloves. When they talked, you could see the frozen air coming out of their mouths as their feet crunched along the snow-packed sidewalk. If one slipped, the other two were there to help him get back up again.

Came Spring one year ... and there were only two. "Look, Mom," my daughter said, looking out the window of our second-floor apartment one evening as they passed, "One of them is missing." Something else was different, too. They weren't talking. The two remaining walkers walked as usual, hands clasped behind the back, but at a slower pace than I'd remembered. Still side by side, the little column, now shortened, continued the evening tradition. They looked straight ahead, or down, and walked in complete silence. It was that thundering silence that told me the third one's absence had taken place fairly recently. I had no idea who they were or what part of the neighborhood they came from, but it was like a large cloud had drifted by and emptied out a deep and sudden sadness.

This was years ago, and the other two have probably, by now, joined their old companion in that realm wherever it is that people go to when they die, but I like to think they live on somehow. They do, at least, in my and my children's memories, those "three old Greek guys" back on Elm Street, whose friendship with one another was as solid as a rock. They didn't just simply walk together. They were, it seemed, glued together, and totally in sync.

Whoever you were, guys, thanks for the memory. It is one I replay often and with pleasure, like a well-loved film, the three of you passing by, season after season, talking and laughing. Sto kalo, gentlemen.

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