Commentary

October 20, 2012

J.P. DEVINE: Gordon and the leaves

By J.P. Devine
Correspondent

"The worst part of holding the memories is not the pain. It's the loneliness of it. Memories need to be shared." -- Lois Lowry

He was a little man, maybe 70 or 75, bundled up in a nylon Red Sox jacket, and huddled among a bench full of seniors in front of Freeport's L.L.Bean, waiting for the leaf peeper tour bus to start loading.

Why did he look familiar to me? On the way home, it came to me. He looked like Gordon.

Gordon was one of those people who hide in the back of our memories, people who in our youth share the same streets, but when our lives turn a corner, they're gone and we forget them. Except we don't.

Gordon, I never knew his last name, was a clerk at a drama book store in Manhattan. The shop was one of those dry, warm radiator-heated places, where hungry actors pretend to read just to stay warm.

Gordon was a small man, 50 maybe, with a terrible cheap hair piece and a commanding voice that echoed around the stacks. He knew where every book was on every shelf in the store. I met him when I came looking for a scene from Thornton Wilder's "Our Town."

"It's so Maine, you know," Gordon said. "When I read it, I can just smell autumn and see the leaves. I played the narrator, you know, when I was younger, in a summer theater in Maine. Did you know that?"

I did not. How would I?

"When I read this, I'm right back there," he said. "October in Maine, the leaves are gorgeous. You been there?"

I had not. Over that winter I learned more about Gordon, that he took his vacation in early October and all by himself, took a tour bus up to Maine to watch the leaves turn.

To hear him talk, you would think he had been to Tuscany or the South of Spain the way he described it.

"Ever been to Maine?" he asked me, many times. I had not.

Manhattan was my home now, I was hungry to act. I had no hunger to crunch through woods and peep at leaves. Give me a hundred bucks, I would go to Miami to get warm, but Maine?

Loretta, a stunning young creature with gypsy curls and milk-chocolate eyes, who had my attention and who sometimes would give me the chips from her take-out lunch, only knew that Gordon once had a cockatiel, but one day as he was putting in a screen, it flew out and got away.

"Very sad," she said. Very sad indeed. Loretta said it was true about his autumn trips, and how he bored everyone with his snapshots of autumn leaves in Maine.

"How long has he been here?" I asked.

"Forever," she said. Forever.

Gordon apparently had no family and lived alone in an apartment nearby. I only saw Gordon outside the shop once. It was near Christmas, and I was picking up coffee for friends rehearsing nearby. He was at a table in one of those terrible Formica-encased coffee shops where they hung little red and green tree lights around the cash register.

Gordon was all alone, sipping a bowl of soup and reading a book that he had propped up in front of him. I remember starting to go to him and say hello, but I couldn't. I was suddenly struck with the horrible loneliness of it all, of the cold, green fluorescent light surrounding him like a toxic fog. Manhattan has hundreds of places like that, and hundreds of people like Gordon. Some have canaries or cats or a goldfish in a dime store bowl. Everybody has something. Gordon had his memories of October in Maine.

In 1977, we paid a visit to the city, and even though I was sure he would not be there, I had time and I was curious. The book shop had been remodeled. It had a new elevator, and the windows were cleaner. The cork board where Gordon used to stick up pictures of his leaves was gone. Nobody remembered Gordon.

Why do I? Maybe because I finally came to Maine, and I'm up to my knees in Gordon's October leaves. Goodnight, Gordon wherever you are. You're right. They are gorgeous.

J.P. Devine is a Waterville writer.

 

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