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July 15, 2024

The Man in the Front Parlor

By Dan Mulhollen

It seems I have always lived in this place; curiously, though, more like a fixture than an actual resident. Parents, siblings, children, grandchildren, and tenants have all come and gone. Yet I remain. Most avoid my companionship, keeping to their own chambers or preferred corners of the house. But every so often they will need my help and shyly knock on my office door.

"Mister Barnes," they say, peering inside just an inch or two. "May I have a word with you?" I am always eager for conversation. Perhaps too much so, my neediness too transparent. Yet if our relative worth on this planet is measured by the impact we have on others' lives, I feel this long life has been a worthwhile one.

Sometimes my service simply consists of advice to a lovelorn adolescent. They all go through that giddy, insecure phase, sometimes lasting well past their teen years.

Sometimes I'll be asked by the head of the household for some financial advice. Most often these cases require a simple application of common sense.

And on rare occasions their questions truly are matters of the soul, the most heartbreaking and life-affirming questions of all. In all honesty, I like these questions the least.

The curious thing about my situation is the way time plays tricks on my mind. It is a failing of age, I suppose, but the years do not move by in any neat sequence anymore -- 1887 after 1886, 1943 after 1942, 2064 after 2063. Instead they proceed by their own logic, seemingly out of some sort of temporal urgency I really can't fathom myself.

Why last night, I was dining with my sister Abigail and her children. Her husband was killed in Crimea and after five years she was still clad all in black. Now I know our dear Queen Victoria mourned Albert the rest of her long life. But I hoped better for my sister, that she might rediscover the many beautiful and vibrant colors that exist in the world.

This morning Mister Price was at my door; bewildered by the news that a stock he was heavily invested in was now selling for less than a quarter of what he paid. He thought it a wonderful idea, a fully ambulatory, lifelike shell for those confined to wheelchairs.

From that description alone, I could envision the hundreds of lawsuits these devices would bring. All I could do was tell him to be patient. He was far from poor and his looking for quick millions was most immature. He thanked me and ignored my advice, losing several thousand more.

Sonia has always been one of my favorites. The sixteen-year-old flower child searching for existential answers. The seventy year old grandmother marching in a bisexual identity parade. In many ways, her existence was almost as fluid as my own. I guess we felt some sense of camaraderie there.

This afternoon she brought me tea and some scones she had just baked. A young soldier she had taken a fancy to was about to be shipped off to the Falklands. She was naturally terrified. All I could tell her was that going off to war is always a risk, but that most do make it back unscathed.

Indeed, perhaps the most perplexing thing about all this is that while I am constantly in full grasp of my experience, at any given point, I cannot see into the future; even if I was in that future earlier in the day.

I am pleased, however, to report that Sonia's soldier-boy-friend did make it through the war having not once fired his weapon in anger. They married in 1982 and divorced in 1983, the wait sweeter than the resolution.

After the hurried breakfasts, the afternoons are quiet here. I'll sometimes walk through the rooms remembering what once was and what will be. The main rooms don't change much, except for the technology contained. A 62-inch Full Life Definition television where a large radio and spinet once stood. A drip coffee maker replacing the samovar my grandson brought back from Saint Petersburg, just prior to the unpleasantness of 1917.

But some rooms seem to change every few years. Nobody seems to know what to do with the smoking room. Of course, in my day it was where my chums and I would play billiards, smoke cigars, and drink the best whiskeys the Highlands had to offer. My granddaughter-in-law, a staunch suffragette, objected to that practice, and it became a reading room (well, a room cluttered with, among other things, books). Sonia's parents turned it into a "rec" room, inspired by what they saw while on holiday in California.

In the 2020s it briefly returned to its original purpose, during the time tobacco was banned. Most larger homes had their "speakeasies" tucked away behind a bit home remodeling, a closet with secret door, most often.

It took a few years for people to realize that banning tobacco while legalizing cannabis was something of a contradiction. Both are now legal, and the world seems a happier place because of it.

Of course, birth and death are life's two constants. I have seen too many people die to ever be perfectly happy. I miss them terribly, even with the knowledge that I might be conversing with them tomorrow.

Some go out in a blaze of glory: my great grandson Willie sacrificing himself so that a boatload of soldiers could escape back to England during the Dunkirk evacuation.

Then again, there was poor Mister Price, languishing away for years after an unfortunate blow to the head. They eventually did perfect that artificial body technology in which he had invested so heavily. But his body was fine, it was his mind that slowly drifted away.

Between those two constants, there are so many variables. Summer afternoons filled with laughter, drinking iced tea on the patio. And the hundreds (well, at least for me) of Christmases; the gift giving, the caroling, my telling for the two hundredth time about the time I actually met Charles Dickens (nice fellow, although rather obsessive compulsive about writing).

And if I realize that I'll probably outlive Mr Price's granddaughter, Gretchen (a leggy nineteen-year-old fond of showing off those legs), I also realize that she and I still have much to teach one another.

So if you'll excuse me, she's at the door with some tea and butter horns. This should be a most memorable afternoon.

-- Dan Mulhollen

Article © Dan Mulhollen. All rights reserved.
Published on 2008-12-22
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