What you’re about to hear is a true story, but at the very beginning, I didn’t know that. I didn’t even know it was the beginning of a story. You never know when a story begins.
I was on the treadmill at my gym, in Sollentuna, Sweden, a suburb of Stockholm, staring down through the large windows that opened over the mall, trying to outrun my writer’s block. In case you’re wondering: you can’t outrun a writer’s block. And you can’t outrun a bill collector who’s after you because you can’t pay your therapist. The one you need because you can’t work – because you have a writer’s block.
And yet, there I was, trying to outrun my troubles on the treadmill when I noticed an old man pacing between the children’s play area and the shoe store on the second floor of the mall.
I jumped up and spread my legs so that my feet were on opposite sides of the belt. When I pressed the large red emergency stop button, the treadmill came to a stop with a loud hiss. I sprinted into the dressing room, and without even showering, got changed and left the gym like Jake and Elwood Blues in The Blues Brothers. No, not making backflips, but just like them, I considered myself a man on a mission.
I wasn’t the only one curious about the man.
A lot of people walked through the mall, all of them in a hurry to buy more presents, buy food, buy something. After all, it was the day before Christmas. That upbeat, plastic, superficial, artificial holiday spirit was another thing I had been trying to run away from.
The shoppers hardly noticed the desk, the kid, or the old man. A few lonely men were standing by, keeping an eye on their children at the small playground, probably waiting for their spouses to pick them up.
I hadn’t done anything yet, either, per se, but just looking and making observation was a part of the job, my being a writer and all.
By the time my elevator came down, the man was all set up. In his brown suit and a ragged overcoat, he reminded me of the main character in Columbo. On the other hand, his big beard and made me think of Nick Nolte’s character in Down and Out in Beverly Hills.
He was already sitting on a camping chair behind a small table that made him look like a giant. On the other side of the table, there were two more chairs, and taped on the table in front of each one, two laminated pieces of office paper.
I like to think of myself as an open-minded person, but I am also a friend of order – and frankly, the thought of a beggar sitting in the mall made me anxious, and I walked closer. But I didn’t just walk closer, I tap danced closer, pretending to me listening to music, oblivious to my surroundings. See, when you’re lying, or misleading people, it’s important to believe in your own story. It’s not a lie if you believe in it.
I pulled up my phone to “read a text” and absent-mindedly stopped and walked around in small circles as I “replied” to the message. I put on my headphones made a few dance steps as I got closer to the table, pretending to be listening to music, and being in my own world.
My eyes were on the old man the whole time.
He did – nothing. He didn’t talk to anyone, he simply held his hands on the table in front of him, crossed as in a prayer, and stared ahead, with a hint of a smile on his round, moonlike face. A very wrinkled moon.
By the end of my charade, I was about two meters from the table, and “realized” I was intruding on the man. I lifted one side of my headphones to clumsily apologize.
“Oh, I’m sor–,” I started, still pretending not to have noticed him.
I read the signs on the table. One of them said “Deposits” and the other “Withdrawals”.
“So, what’s this?” I said.
He gestured for me to sit down.
“A deposit or a withdrawal?” he asked me. “Of course, you can’t make a withdrawal before you make a deposit, so that would have to come first.”
“OK, I’ll make a deposit. How much?”
“Oh, no, sir. Not money. At this desk, you’ll get something else you wish for,” the man replied.
His voice was exactly the kind of hoarse voice people make when they want to sound like old men, as if every word is a struggle, the s sounds as thick as Sean Connery’s.
“I beg your pardon?”
“Stories. You tell me one, any story you want, short or long, sad or happy, funny or serious, true or not, all up to you,” the old man replied.
“That’s my deposit? And then, what? What if I want to make a withdrawal?”
“Then I will tell you a story.”
“OK, I’ll bite.”
“Once you’ve made one deposit, you can make as many withdrawals as you wish. You can either tell a story or listen to one of mine, completely up to you. But first time, a deposit,” he said, and wagged his index finger at me.
I let out a nervous laugh.
“Tea?” he asked me.
“Sure,” I said even though I never drunk tea.
Like a magician pulling a dove out of thin air, a red, cylinder-shaped thermos appeared in the old man’s hand out of nowhere. He poured tea into two cups, handed one of them to me, carefully screwed the top back on the thermos and hid it under his chair – which, I now realized, was where it obviously had been all along – and then picked up his own cup of tea and held it in his hands as if he was warming them.
Up close, I could see that he was even older than I had imagined, and I guessed him to be in his late 80s, maybe even in his 90s. Granted, my frame of reference for old people was The Golden Girls, the 80s TV show. Even though he was sitting down, I could tell that he had once been a taller man, although never a tall one. His skin looked like leather, and while his hair was almost completely white – the parts that weren’t white were gray – it looked thick.
In other words, he looked just like any old man but the way he had appeared in the mall so suddenly, without a warning, the way he managed the tea ceremony, the way he spoke in sentences like the one he had just uttered to me, and the way he had handled the kid I had labelled a trouble-maker made me think of him as some sort of a guru. Or a medicine man from old Tarzan comics.
Then: a simple nod to signal me that I should begin my story.
“You want me to tell you a story?” I said.
“You don’t have to. But it was you who sat down here. And to hear a story, you have to tell one first. Would you like to hear a story?”
Has anyone ever, in the history of mankind said no to that? Even Adam and Eve wanted to hear a story, in that story of Adam and Eve. Everything we have, everything we’ve ever done is built everything on stories: our culture, our wars, our peace, our economy, our religions, our heroes, and our villains.
The real question was: Did I want to hear a story, told by an 90-year-old Nick Nolte who made me tea in the middle of a suburban mall in Sweden?
Damn right I did.
“Yes,” I said, and cleared my throat. “Fine, here goes.”
And I told him a story. Well, to be honest, I panicked. I should have had a real juicy story to tell. I was a writer, for crying out loud, but what I told him was an old joke I had heard in third grade
A Texan, a German, an Italian, and a Finn talk about their ranches. The Italian said that his ranch was so big that he couldn’t see the other end of it from his house. The German countered by saying that his ranch was so big that it took him all day to walk from one end to the other. The Texan one-upped him and said that his ranch was so big that it took him all day to drive from one end of it to the other.
“And then the Finn said, ‘I’ve had a car like that, too’,” I said. I nodded to mark the end of my story.
“I’ve had a car like that, too,” said the old man with a smile. I wasn’t sure if he just repeated the punchline or if had had a car like that as well.
(The version I told him was slightly longer than that– I added a little color to it – but it was no Old Man and the Sea).
“Was that a story?” I asked him, carefully. “I mean, it was more like a joke, really. Will that do?”
“All stories will do, long or short, funny or melancholy, true stories or made up, but stories need to be set free. The more there are, the better things will be,” he said, and swirled his tea around his cup.
I took a sip of my tea. I didn’t know what to do.
“Thank you for your deposit,” the old man said then.
“You’re welcome. My pleasure.”
“Anything else I can help you with?”
“Can I make a withdrawal now?”
“If you want to. You can always come back. And next time, you don’t have to make a new deposit … unless you want to.”
“I think I’d like to hear a story,” I said.
“Well, then,” the old man said and stroked his beard. “More tea?”
When I declined – politely – the offer, he pulled his chair closer to the table and began his story.
“What I’m about to tell you,” he said, “is a true story.”
When the man spoke that first sentence, I leaned forward. Twenty minutes later, when I leaned back and let out a whistle, I realized I hadn’t moved at all. It was as if I had been hypnotized. Mesmerized.
“Now that was quite a story,” I said.
Because it was.
It was a story with everything. There were knights and swordsmen, wordsmiths and bards – well, one bard – flower girls, dukes, cooks and butlers, horses, pigs, sailors, rascals, agents, spies, jesters and kings (and princes and princesses), and a delivery man. It had love, hate, brotherly love, and sisterly jealousy. The story traveled through time and space as the heroes traveled in snow and across sand dunes, flew a balloon and sailed the seven seas.
I’m not going to tell it to you in detail. The point is simply that the story he told me was not only amazing, breathtaking, touching, caring, tender, and frightening, but in essence, exactly what I needed to hear as I came down from the gym, feeling my age.
(Which was 61).
A story like that, told in that hoarse voice (and a few others), and accentuated by some heavy coughing at times, was like elixir. My mood was much better than it had been when I first saw him from the treadmill, trying to outrun all the shitty things in my life. When I walked home later, I felt there was nothing I couldn’t do.
Oh, the cough? Yes, it was the kind of cough that in a Hollywood movie, or even a classic opera for that matter, it would have been the first hint of the main character dying. But this wasn’t a movie.
Other curious people had started to circulate the second-floor landing where we were sitting, so I got up, thanked the old man, and gave up my chair. I nodded to a woman, on her way to the gym – she was wearing her gym tights – and told her she should try it.
“What is it?” she asked me.
“It’s … a dream come true.”
She laughed a nervous laugh, and then turned to the old man.
“So, what is this?” she said.
I took a few steps towards the exit, and then stopped pretending to be tying my shoelaces, but I couldn’t hear their conversation. I just know that when I came back to the second-floor landing fifteen minutes later, she was sitting on the chair, listening to the old man tell a story, and that a group of people was idling around, waiting for their turn.
I was so merry that I bought a small Christmas tree on my way back to my small apartment, not realizing I didn’t even own any decorations.
(To be continued).