The clock showed 3:00 AM and Jeremiah could not sleep. Again.
Slowly and quietly he moved out of their bed, then groped in the dark for his jeans and t-shirt hanging on his chair. His wife, Julie, turned in her sleep as he made his way toward the door.
“Can’t sleep?” she whispered.
"Yes,” he said, as he left their bedroom and closed the door behind him, ending the discussion. Jeremiah did not want to talk about it. What was there to say? He could not sleep. So? It had happened before. So? He was troubled. So? By what? He didn’t like to talk about it.
He stood in the hallway by the front door. His jeans were faded and comfortable, well broken in after twenty years. His t-shirt had his company’s logo on it. Actually, it was his former company; it imported clothes from Southeast Asia. He started it with one employee and it grew to more than a hundred. He sold it for several million last year and felt successful, because at fifty-eight years of age, he was wealthy and no longer had to work. The good feeling did not last long.
He was wealthy and no longer had to work. The good feeling did not last longJeremiah looked down and saw that he was still wearing the same style of clothes he wore since he was old enough to go outside and play, and this made him smile. He slipped on his sneakers, lying on the mat by the front door, and once again left for a late-night walk to relax him enough to go to sleep.
He walked down the sidewalk to their driveway, then down their driveway to the street. A dog barked from inside one of his neighbors’ homes, a neighbor he had never gotten to know. How many neighbors had there been like that? Too many. Why? The truth was that it became unnecessary to meet new people when they had the same thoughts, the same opinions, the same reactions as the people he already knew. How jaded had he become, he wondered?
Jeremiah was the only one up and around, the only noise in their neighborhood of expensive homes surrounding a championship golf course, a community called Emerald Oaks. There was nobody to play with at 3:00 AM in Emerald Oaks, that was for sure. In this neighborhood, the most common sounds were automatic garage doors opening and closing, and shiny cars coming and going through the front gate of their community, manned twenty-four hours with security guards to keep undesirables out. Those shiny cars cost as much as his parents’ house cost fifty years ago, which was the only house his parents ever lived in until they went to nursing homes and then slowly faded away. Jeremiah and his family had lived in five houses during their marriage, until their nest was empty. His two children, a son and a daughter, went to good colleges, married well and moved out of the house, and settled in on promising careers where they moved out of state when promotions were offered. They were an upwardly mobile family, that was the term. What did it mean?
It meant these were not going to be their children’s final homes, the same as Emerald Oaks was not going to be their parents’ final home. Their children would move around more when additional promotions were earned, and there were a few more stations to pass through as Jeremiah and Julie went through the cycle of life, moving from their 3,000-square-foot pool home to a downsized condominium that was easier to clean and maintain. After the condo a “heterogeneous” retirement community awaited them with its active independent area, connected to its limited-care facilities, connected to its full-time, around-the-clock nursing care facilities, connected finally to . . . no, I’m not going to think about it, Jeremiah thought.
He tried not to think about it, but inside his brain was a primitive compartment that could not be tricked or turned off, and it continued to think about it, imagining the cemetery and the gravestone, with his family standing around it. That was why he was fifty-eight and not able to sleep. In South Florida you saw the circle of life, and it was fun when you were young and looking up, but it was a more sobering view when you were over the top and heading to the bottom and saw to where it rolled around.
He wanted to say hello to another human being, to be assured he was not the only one alive on the planetJeremiah passed by the immaculate tennis courts, followed by the lavishly landscaped club house that the golfers and tennis players shared. A couple more blocks and he was up to the guard gate. He wanted to say hello to another human being, to be assured he was not the only one alive on the planet. The guard was a large, heavyset Spanish woman named Alisa, with whom he stopped and chatted when he took these late-night walks. She was usually buttoned up like a sausage in a uniform that was at least one size, and possibly two sizes, too small. He nodded to Alisa, but she did not nod back. She was sitting at the desk inside the small booth, her head in her hands, sleeping.
Jeremiah stood there, hands on his hips, wondering if he should continue walking around Emerald Oaks Circle, or leave his safe little community and cross over Tamiami Trail to the subdivision on the opposite side, Pinewood Village, a community with no automatic gates that were manned by a large sleeping Spanish woman named Alisa. He felt adventurous, so he passed through the guard gate, crossed the empty road, and entered Pinewood Village through one of its two entrances.
Jeremiah looked around at the small old houses, some with cars on jacks in their driveways, or parked on the front lawns. This was where the service people lived, the maids, the auto mechanics, the waiters and waitresses, the people who cared for the lawns across the street at Emerald Oaks. It was possible Alisa lived there, also.
A figure appeared in the distance, a few blocks away, walking toward him. Jeremiah could not make out anything, except the stranger was wearing a hat and was of medium stature. Decision time—should he choose a different street, or proceed on the present collision course? Who else would be walking the streets at 3:00 AM in this neighborhood, if not trouble? Change course, he decided. He turned right and headed south.
When Jeremiah looked back, the dark figure also changed course and was less than a block away and closing fast. He could still not make out any features except for the hat and the height. It was clearly a man, from the way he walked. Jeremiah stepped up his pace, walking faster. Another right turn and he would be out of Pinewood Village, heading back to Tamiami Trail, back to Emerald Oaks, back to his guard-gated community and safety.
Except that the stranger was still gaining.
What do I do now, thought Jeremiah. There are still more than two blocks to go. Jeremiah stepped up his pace once more and began jogging. I’m not in shape to do this, he thought. He turned around, and the figure was still gaining, only a hundred yards off.
Jeremiah was breathing hard. Should I run, he thought. What do I have to lose? Jeremiah broke into a sprint, arms pumping and legs stretching. When he turned around, the stranger was losing ground, and that exhilarated Jeremiah, giving him a spurt of adrenaline.
The street was dark, and Jeremiah he did not see the skateboard left out on the sidewalk. When he tripped, he flew through the air for almost ten feet, landed hard on his shoulder, and banged his head on the concrete. Jeremiah fought to hold onto consciousness, and succeeded, but when he looked up the stranger was there, looking down.
He was an old man, one of the oldest men Jeremiah had ever seen, in his nineties or beyond. He had a white beard that was in contrast with his completely black attire. He extended a wrinkled and spotted hand to Jeremiah, a hand that shook with age. Jeremiah did not reach for the hand because he was distracted by the old man’s eyes.
What kind of eyes were these, he wondered. They were eyes of a kind he had never seen the likes of. Even in the darkness they shone a brilliant blue, sparkling with energy, yet at the same time, they were kind and wise and accepting. Jeremiah was comforted by the old man’s eyes, relaxed enough to accept the hand offered to him. He reached out and was pulled up with surprising strength from someone so old and wizened.
He was an old man, one of the oldest men Jeremiah had ever seen, in his nineties or beyond“Who are you?” Jeremiah asked.
“My name is of no importance,” the old man answered. He brushed off the dirt on Jeremiah’s shirt and arms.
“Why were you following me?”
“Why were you running away?” the old man asked back, continuing to brush off Jeremiah’s clothes.
Jeremiah moved away and finished brushing himself off, while the old man watched him.
“Would you like to walk together,” the old man offered.
“I don’t know you.”
“So come walk with me and we will get to know each other,” the old man offered. “Who else do you have to talk to at this hour?”
Jeremiah nodded his acceptance of the offer. They continued to walk together in silence, crossing over Tamiami Trail, walking through the entrance of Emerald Oaks, passing the guard gate. Alisa was still sleeping, sitting up at the desk.
“Do you live in Pinewood Village?” Jeremiah asked, motioning with his head back towards it.
“Then what were you doing walking around there at 3:00 AM?”
“I felt uneasy and could not rest . . . the same as you,” the old man answered.
“How do you know how I feel?” Jeremiah asked, anger creeping into his voice.
“I am sorry to be so presumptuous, young man. If I am wrong, I apologize.”
The old man said it with such humility that Jeremiah felt ashamed of his anger.
“No, you were right. I could not sleep. But why do you call me young?”
“Compared to me you are a young man, still full of energy and life.”
“How old are you?”
“I stopped counting the years after ninety.”
Jeremiah whistled. He could not help it. Seeing someone well past the age of ninety, and still so active, gave him hope that he might have the same luck and continue to be healthy and mentally sharp for another thirty, or even forty, years.
There was another long period of silence between them as they walked around Emerald Oaks Circle, studying the mini-mansions that were there, with perfectly sculpted lawns and shrubs.
“There is great wealth concentrated here, is there not?” the old man asked.
“Yes, but some have more than others.”
“And you feel successful that you have arrived at such a place, do you not?”
“Yes,” Jeremiah smiled with pride. “Wouldn’t you?”
“There are many forms of success, young man. I judge my own success as to how I will leave the world—will it be better or worse for my existence?”
“And how will it be?” Jeremiah asked.
“Better, I believe. And how about you?”
“And are you totally satisfied with all that you have already accomplished, young man?”
“There are many forms of success, young man. I judge my own success as to how I will leave the world—will it be better or worse for my existence?”“Yes. I created and sold a business, and my wife and I created two fantastic children, who will hopefully create fantastic grandchildren to follow us.”
“And will there be no more accomplishments other than that?”
“I am fifty eight and retired. It’s time to enjoy life.”
They walked together in further silence until they stopped at Jeremiah’s house.
“Well, this is where I get off,” Jeremiah said.
“Are you ready to sleep now?” the old man asked. “Do you feel content?”
Jeremiah thought about this. Ordinarily he would have given the answer that cut short this experience, but he felt comfortable enough with this old man to give him the truth, and the truth was contained in a sad shrug and a shake of his head.
“Come, let us take another walk around,” the old man offered, tugging gently on Jeremiah’s hand. Jeremiah followed, even gladly.
“I had such high hopes for your generation,” the old man said.
“So did I. We were a righteous generation—we expanded the consciousness of our country, elevated relationships, and even stopped a war.”
“Those are good things, are they not?” the old man asked.
“Yes, but . . . but a part of the way we expanded the consciousness of our country was by experimenting with drugs . . . and that opened the doors to the generations that followed to try even more drugs . . . until now, we have ghettos and prison populations dedicated to the sale and use of drugs . . . drugs which cause human beings to descend into animals. My children and grandchildren will have to deal with those sub-humans, and they don’t know how to . . . and I worry for them . . . I worry that maybe my generation really failed to expand the consciousness of our country.”
“And then when it came relationships, we had free love, and we threw off the yoke of forced gender roles.”
“Yes, you did.”
“Then free love mutated into a menu of diseases, diseases that caused harm and even death to people. And gender roles mutated into single-mother families, husband-optional households, latchkey children, and 50% divorce rates. When I close my eyes at night I feel we are no better with relationships now than we were fifty years ago.”
“Perhaps,” the old man said.
“And then there was the war. We stopped a corrupt war in Southeast Asia and came to believe that all wars were wrong . . . but now there are militias in other parts of the world who believe war is a legitimate way to change people, which really means they intend to enslave or kill those that do not believe the way they do . . . and my children and grandchildren are not ready to cope with that mindset either. I did not raise my children to be cannon fodder, yet that is the way the world is heading.”
“Yes, it does appear it is heading that way.”
“So what can I do, one man, one fifty-eight-year-old man, past his prime, and looking for rest?”
Jeremiah stopped by a large pond on the edge of the golf course. On the pond were a flock of ducks, floating in the middle, safe from the nocturnal predators on the shores, the raccoons, the bobcats, and the foxes, as long as they stayed in the middle of the pond. There was a bench overlooking the lake and Jeremiah and the old man sat there, watching the gentle movements of the ducks.
“I think, young man, there is a time for rest, and a time for action . . . I think perhaps you are too young to think only of rest, and that is why you cannot rest. What do you think?”
“I don’t know what to think. I know I am limited in what I can do, but still, I feel I must do something. I feel it is not right for a righteous generation to leave behind the problems we have created.”
The old man turned to him and smiled. He stood and shook Jeremiah’s hand and said, “Then I think that is a beginning. If this is of any help to you, my people believe we did not create the problems of the world, and we also believe that is not a valid excuse to avoid trying to fix them when we have the opportunity to do so. There’s an old saying from the book of Ethics that goes something like this—‘The day is short but the work is still much.’ There remains plenty to fix in our world, to make it a better and more G‑dly place. It is not the time for you to rest.”
While Jeremiah considered the old man’s words, the old man continued:
“Perhaps if you take one step forward, and then another step, and talk to others in your righteous generation, they will take a step with you, and then perhaps there will be tens, and then hundreds, and then thousands . . . even millions, all marching in the same direction. You can be a force for good. A mitzvah (good deed) begins with just one very small step forward, and is easily followed by many others.”
Jeremiah looked over at the pond and the ducks floating, disconnected from the shoreline. He looked toward the horizon and saw that the sun was starting to make its way into another day. When he looked back, the old man was gone.