Sullivan in exile

I remember old Mr. Sullivan, walking down a former country road with his ancient dog and a bottle sticking out of the brown bag in his overcoat pocket. Rain or shine. Winter or summer. Same heavy overcoat. Same aging dog. The same route. Different bottles. Talking to anyone he encountered – and to himself when he was alone.

He was alone a lot, even with other people around. His home, or rather the place where he had a room and a bed, was his daughter’s house. In the little bit of time he spent there he found himself surrounded by his daughter’s over-solicitous smothering, the grandkids’ noise, toys and television, and his son-in-law’s dutiful grunts as he negotiated kids, honey-do’s and dinner before settling into an easy chair in front of an evening’s television therapy.

In the old country of his memories: his wife is dead, his children moved to America, his friends and neighbors dispersed from towns, parishes and pubs to “communities” and duty-bound children. The lucky ones, writing him in increasingly shaky scripts, remained in their homes, walking their fields, roads and villages just a bit more slowly than they’d done most of their lives. True, the population was younger, but he remembered himself as a young man chatting with the old ones in the towns and pubs. One season’s growth usually overlapped the next season’s by some undefined period of time.

Uprooted from his native turf and transplanted across an ocean into a greenhouse of suburban cul-de-sacs circling to nowhere, he walked til he found roads to somewhere. Past the freshly-sprouted shopping malls and fields paved over for parking he found a few of the old towns that used to be the only towns.

He found himself in these towns. Mom and pop businesses hanging on by the loyalty of their dwindling patrons, people whose days were built on relationships rather than transactions, living lives instead of schedules. Pubs were in his past, but the owner of the Formica diner looked the other way when Sullivan sweetened his coffee from his pocket. And occasionally he’d join the shrinking group of old guys at the front window table as they solved the problems of the universe and traded lies about their exploits in better days.

I moved on in my life, to another place. Construction changed the old one-and-a-half lane road to four lanes. His dog died. The old towns sprouted art galleries, ice cream shops and martial arts studios. When Sullivan could no longer walk, they planted him in a wheelchair, where he fertilized himself. At some point they planted him.

In foreign soil.

16 Comments on “Sullivan in exile

  1. Beautifully told. I have seen this guy before. You reminded us of him in a special way.

    • Thank you, Pete. While he was an individual, and a part of my life, there are too many just like him – then and now.

  2. Reminds me of stories that John Cheever posted in the New Yorker last century. Best read with a wee bit of single malt, me thinks.

    • Except this Mr. Sullivan was real [as was the malt in his bottle], walking past my house every day.

  3. I’m sure Mr Sullivan’s daughter thought she was doing the right thing by bringing him with her to America & not abandoning him in the old country.

    • It’s always easier to do what we think is right for others than it is to do it for ourselves. I’ve found that it’s rare that people ask before doing unto others.

  4. The 2016 re-iteration reads just as wonderfully, even more so, than the first time around. (If you have not yet seen it, let no more time pass before you catch “Brooklyn.”) Happy St. Patty’s Day!

  5. Beautifully written. Living in Woodlawn, the Bronx, my little Irish world, I am surrounded by many Mr. Sullivans as well as widowed Mrs Sullivans. Loveliest people. Yes. They do yearn for home even while surrounded by family and friends.

    • Thank you. While our brains may tell us the past is a different place, our hearts tell us it’s always there, just as it was.

    • Thank you. It’s one of those sad-but-true slices of real life.

  6. Really loved this one! So sad , but true. Thank you!

    • The older I get, the more familiar he seems to me. And these days, we’re all walking alone.

  7. Beautifully done, Jim. And there are those of us who feel closer to Mr. Sullivan than we’d like. I still have my family, but I’m losing my friends, two to dementia so far, and I wonder about my purpose. I read it twice because I want to ponder it some more.

    • Have you noticed that there are fewer and fewer of our old friends still around? On my last trip back to America, one friend’s partner had just be placed into a memory care facility. And another friend is most likely on the way to one. “Memory Care” What kind of people come up with names like this?

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