The summer following my freshman year in college, I went home to New Jersey.
“You need a job,” my mother said. “You have an interview tomorrow.”
I’d been living on my own, making my own decisions, and my mom’s pronouncement rankled. Still, one did not cross Mary Anne. So, I acquiesced.
The next day, I drove to a two-story red-brick home in an old section of West Caldwell, a street with neatly-trimmed lawns and potted flowers fronting houses that were probably built in the 1920s.
I took a breath and reached for the gold door knocker. Then, I waited.
When the door finally opened, I faced a plump, sixtyish woman wearing a dark-flowered dress and sensible shoes. She ushered me into the foyer and pointed to a long staircase. “He’s upstairs.”
I nodded. As I ascended, I heard a voice. “Come in!” The tone was clipped, verging on cranky.
I stepped inside a spacious room, where morning sunlight dappled an old oriental rug. He sat in a dark, wingback chair. A wooden cane rested by his right hand. Thick glasses framed milky blue eyes. We stared at one another. “Sit there.” He motioned to a smaller chair.
Frank Towey, in his early eighties, was going blind. I was expected to do some light cleaning. I would prepare his lunch and drive him to his various appointments.
“Eight o’clock sharp!” He tapped the cane on the floor.
On the drive back to my house, I cursed my mother. I had no desire to spend my summer with a crabby old man. I was not a morning person. There was a reason I didn’t schedule early college classes. And I’d gotten in the habit of staying up late. Had my mother arranged the job to prevent me from going out in the evening? In retrospect, she probably did.
The first week, I performed my tasks as requested. Mr. Towey and I didn’t converse much. Then, one day, he asked, “What are you studying at school? What do you want to be?”
“I want to be a sportscaster on TV,” I blurted out, immediately wanting the words back, ones which only garnered me laughs back in the 1970s when women sportscasters were practically nonexistent.
But Mr. Towey didn’t laugh. He asked me why. After that, our conversations expanded. I learned he’d been a lawyer, a state senator, and a congressman. He was widowed and had no children. He’d traveled extensively, visiting countries on almost every continent. And, though he’d graduated from Holy Cross, he was secretly a Buddhist.
One morning, I came in with a bit of a hangover. He teased me. Then, he started calling me Dizzy. In retaliation, I called him Commander. Both names stuck. Even when I was driving him around town in his 1955, black Cadillac convertible with red-leather seats, he’d call out,”Dizzy! Park here!”
“Yes, sir, Commander!” I’d bark back. And he’d smile.
When it was time to return to school, he said, “I’ll write.”
We traded letters and visits whenever I was home. He’d been especially excited when I decided to spend a semester abroad in Luxembourg. “Pick a country,” he’d say. Then he’d tell me about the people, and the places I should go, and the foods I must try.
For six years, the Commander and I were friends. I was living in Washington, D.C. when he called. “I’m dying, Diz.”
“No you’re not.”
“Yes, I am. But don’t worry. I’m curious to see what happens next. Why don’t you come home for a visit?”
“OK,” I said, trying to figure out how to rearrange my schedule.
But I didn’t make it in time. Frank Towey died before I got there.
I did attend the funeral. I wore a snug red dress and black high heels, which had all those other folks in attendance wondering who I was. He would have liked that. I had searched for a Buddha to place in his casket, but wasn’t able to find one.
Years later, a Buddha stared at me from a shelf at Goodwill. I took the statue home and placed it by a burbling fountain in my kitchen. I sometimes think of the Commander when I see it.
He has been gone over forty years. Still, some of the things we talked about are only now making sense.
“You know the strange thing about getting old?” he said to me one day.
I shook my head.
“It’s that your body ages but your brain does not. In my mind, I’m still a young man.”
I didn’t really understand what he meant at the time.
But now that I’m approaching 65, I understand perfectly.
Blank Slate Press/Amphorae Publishing Group
Price: $16.95 Paperback, $9.99 eBook
As a Vietnam veteran and former Special Forces sniper descends into the throes of mental illness, he latches onto a lonely pregnant teenager and a group of Pentecostal zealots – the Children of Light – who have been waiting over thirty years in the Arizona desert for Armageddon. When the Amtrak Sunset Limited, a passenger train en route to Los Angeles, is derailed in their midst in a deadly act of sabotage, their lives are thrown into turmoil. As the search for the saboteurs heats up, the authorities uncover more questions than answers. And then the girl vanishes. As the sniper struggles to maintain his sanity, a child is about to be born in the wilderness.