Uppermost House: Good night upside down

PeterLewisTreehouseCMYKBy S. Peter Lewis

BN Columnist

The man heard ringing and folded his book and set it down on the arm of the couch. He stood wearily, walked across the room and lifted the phone from its cradle and put it to his ear and said “hello” and heard the deep familiar voice.

Happy birthday, young man.

Hey, thanks, dad.

You’re what, fifty-five today, right? That’s a speed-limit age.

Yup. That’s right. Pretty much forgot about it until somebody said somethin’ at work.

Just another day, right?

Yeah, no big deal.

Still, though, fifty-five sure is something…

The younger man stood in the middle of his living room and listened as the woodstove chewed through a piece of red oak while he talked to the older man about what sons and fathers talk about mostly when birthdays aren’t a big deal.

So, how much snow’d you get up there in Maine?

Not two feet, but not much less, and more comin’.

Here too, and I sure hate weather that you have to move around.

Yeah, no kidding. I wanted a heated driveway for my birthday, but my wife got me a cordless shovel instead.

And the younger man had to say the little joke twice because his father was as deaf as a mollusk; and it seemed even funnier when shouted so they both laughed loudly when it was clearly out in the air.

Fifty-five, gosh, the father said. And the son could hear and feel in the ensuing silence all those years hanging in the air and he knew his father was thinking that if he had a son who was fifty-five then he surely must be creeping up on some kind of ancient himself. And the pause continued while they both thought hard about the implications of that.

And then they had one of those quick conversations without any context or waypoints that two people can have only if their synapses are somehow intertwined across two lives and two hearts and two memory banks and four states and the line is clear and the timing is perfect.

Hey, do you remember…?

Yes! Of course I do!

But what was the last one?

Picture of kitty!

Oh yes, that’s right.

And the son turned and walked slowly through his old house while he and his father reminisced about a nightly ritual that was over five decades old yet seemed to have last occurred just last Tuesday.

Each evening, with a wink and a smile, the father would announce bedtime and grab his little son up and toss him over his shoulder and hold him by his squirmy little ankles and the boy would dangle upside down and hang on to little fistfuls of flannel shirt as they walked through the house toward the bedroom. Every few steps the father would stop and spin the boy around and the boy would behold something inverted and bid it good night. There were five stations between the living room and the boy’s bedroom, and they were simple and wonderful.

Night-night thing on the wall! (The boy didn’t know what a trivet was, but that’s what it was.)

Night-night light switch.

Night-night thermostat.

Night-night smoke detector.

Night- night picture of kitty.

And then the father would swing the boy off his shoulder as a farmer swings a bag of grain and plop him down in his bed and tuck him in and kiss him and tell him he loved him and turn off the light and walk quietly out and close the door, almost but not quite all the way.

As they talked and remembered, the fifty-five year old man padded through his own house, his fingers sweeping lightly across his own trivet, light switch, and thermostat, and glancing up at his own smoke detector. He felt himself bouncing on his father’s shoulder. Saw the world go by, jiggling and upside down. Felt the bristles of his father’s twelve-hour beard against his cheek. Heard the loving whisper in his ear. Saw the door left open just a crack.

Late that night, as he lay in bed holding his wife’s hand, the birthday boy stared up toward the ceiling through the January blackness and thought about the five magical stations of childhood and realized that one was missing. He mentioned it softly into the darkness.

We really need to find a picture of a kitty to hang on the wall.

His wife stirred and whispered why.

It would just be so nice, and we already have the other four things.

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