His arrival usually creates a stir wherever he goes. The locals hail him gladly whenever he makes his way down from his mountain-top home.
“Well! Look who’s come down to see us!”
“The Grand Marshal, himself!”
“We’re so honored! How are you doing, Albert?”
“Feelin’ fresh!” says the 88-year-old gent.
“Feelin’ fresh and pumpy!”
The locals have known Albert Austin forever. They knew him years ago when he was a youngster, and also many years later when he became the superintendent of the local school district. But ever since he
retired to his secluded home on top of the ridge, he’s been known as a kindly Alm Uncle, of sorts. There he lived in the home he had built, living in harmony with nature— with the raccoons, foxes, and wild turkeys. As King of the Bluff, he knew the name of every bird that hovered around his feeders. “There is a Red Bellied Woodpecker,” he’d say. “He’s the Greedy Gut!” Greedy Gut…!
Mr. Austin has nicknames for his feathered friends, and for his favorite people, as well. His daughter is “Wonder Woman” and his girlfriend is called the “Pioneer Woman”. (Yes indeed. Mr. Austin still has a gal, even at his ripe old age.) My nickname is just plain “Happy”. I used to be “Beautiful Lady” till I put on a few extra pounds. Now I’m “Pleasingly Plump”.
“Tra-la-la-boom-deeeay!” Mr. Austin always shouted whenever I’d walk in the door of his home. Or else he’d start to sing: “Oh what a beautiful day… Everything’s going my way!” Then he’d stop and look at me. “You know, Happy. I had this house built…had it hewn outta the wilderness. What do you think of that, Happy?”
I always assured him he was the most brilliant man on earth, of course. Who else would’ve thought of retiring in such a lovely place? He would nod and lean back in his chair, murmuring to himself. “Hewn-outta-the-wilderness…It doesn’t get any better than this.”
These were the words he lived by—there on the top of his tree-covered bluff. Although he lived alone, he had dozens of friends who dropped by often. Every November, Mr. Austin threw a wood-chopping extravaganza. Everybody came to his party and helped him cut wood for the winter. Doctors, lawyers, dentists, and plain ol’ folk like me.
He told us his wild, but true stories…how he and his little brother tried to swim across the Mighty Mo many years ago. And he told the stories of the later years when he went to battle for our country in World War II. Then in the evening, when the sun was dropping low behind the bluff, Mr. Austin always sang his favorite song. “When you come to the end of a perfect day, and you sit alone with your thoughts….” But then slowly, the perfect days began to fade.
Mr. Austin’s health deteriorated. He resisted old age valiantly, and he had terrible allergic reactions whenever he came near the convalescent center. “Get me away from here!” he’d shout.
“We’re too close to the !#*@!*#! nursing home!”
But soon, Mr. Austin needed therapy and professional care. Not even Wonder Woman could cope with all of the problems. The time had come. Decisions had to be made.
When he was placed in the nursing home, Mr. Austin grumbled mightily. So did the locals in his hometown. No one was happy—least of all “Happy”. But we all adjusted. We had to. “It’s only for two weeks,” Mr. Austin assured me. But we both knew better, I think. The days turned into weeks, then into months. Albert Austin lost his smile, his appetite, and his wit. He wouldn’t eat or talk, and he never sang. He ignored his beloved birds outside of his window. Not even “Happy” could make him happy. I knew he was dying—not of disease or old age—but of boredom, pure boredom.
Then came the day that I walked into Room 313 and found Mr. Austin slumped in the wheelchair, his chin resting on his chest. He looked dead.
“Mr. Austin!” I cried shaking his shoulder. “You can’t be dead!” No, he couldn’t be dead. I hadn’t taken him to McDonald’s lately, or to his hewn-outta-the-wilderness home on the bluff. And I never did take him for a boat ride on the Missouri like I’d promised him. “Mr. Austin!” I shook him firmly. “You’ve got to come back for Happy’s sake! You hear me?”
He did come back to life. Slowly. Sluggishly.
He stared at me with a blank look in his eyes.
“OK, that did it!” I said. “Let me have your cell phone!”
I pulled it out of his pocket and called Wonder Woman. “Today is the day,” I said. “We’re going to do it!” Wonder Woman agreed. She arrived within the hour. She didn’t tell the nursing home where we were taking him, of course. “A ride….” she told the nurses airily. “We’re taking him for a ride.”
And we did. To this day, I’m not sure how we pulled it off. I can’t even tell you what we did. All I can tell you is that when we finally brought him back to the nursing home, Mr. Austin’s eyes were wide open. He didn’t look sluggish or half-dead any more. He was saying: “Eight hundred miles an hour! I know we went eight hundred miles an hour!”
Fortunately, nobody believed a word of what he was saying. The nurses went right on with their rituals and charting. Blood pressure, pulse, respiration. Mm-m-m-hmmm, Albert. Mmmhmmm.” The stethoscope was put away. The curtains drawn.
“Bedtime, Albert. Go to bed.” He did. Beneath his starchy sheets, with the covers pulled up to his chin, he went to bed. But he wasn’t just another old body lying in a sterile room.
No sir. With windblown hair and starlight in his eyes, he was Mr. Albert Austin. Adventurer. Explorer. He closed his eyes. Outside the window, the moon rose higher. The stars shone brighter.
And the King of the River Bluff slept.