It was a cold night on the high mountain meadow. Gilbert was walking to ease his troubled mind, late in the evening of an uncomfortable maturity. The wind was bitter, but Gilbert didn’t care. He was accustomed to being well prepared for the harsh winter weather. Gilbert was accustomed to walking, and never got around any other way.
Gilbert wore plenty of clothing for the snow and the cold winter wind, from his leather boots, treated with moisture repellent, to his well-made hat and scarf of his old age. Gilbert’s gloves were no longer necessary in this late night jaunt; he’d warmed himself plenty during his walk. Gilbert’s sister had been more than generous to provide his ample winter parka. The snow that night was old and sparse. The wind was not even an issue to him.
Gilbert was mumbling to himself, as he wandered aimlessly through the high mountain meadow, in the cold country air of night. It was one of those old country towns where no one ever locked their doors. Gilbert felt secure enough. Gilbert had a lot on his mind that night. He was preoccupied with his own thoughts. Gilbert was beside himself with all his own thoughts, wishing for someone to talk to. Gilbert was batting around some threadbare, old idea, which had never settled itself in his mind.
Just then, there came a stranger from up behind Gilbert, on foot, just as Gilbert always was, there in the late night air. The man was an ordinary-looking man, dressed in ordinary clothing. Gilbert was unafraid, even though it was dark and late at night. Gilbert had no idea who the man was, and the thought never occurred to him to even consider the idea. Gilbert couldn’t see the man as bearing any kind of threat against him. Gilbert felt secure, as preoccupied as he was with himself. The man was calm enough, and did well to contain in his own presence. The man seemed to want to listen. Gilbert was feeling lonely. Gilbert felt like talking. He was tired, and his thoughts were rambling in his mind.
“Hello, stranger,” Gilbert ventured. “Would you like to sit with me and talk awhile?”
“I would like that very much,” the man responded, in a friendly sort of way. “What’s on your mind?”
Gilbert forgot himself, and just started ranting at this total stranger, telling him all sorts of things about himself. It never occurred to Gilbert that he could be in any kind of danger from such an ordinary looking person. Danger was not a part of Gilbert’s existence. As insecure as Gilbert’s life had been, he was in the habit of being unafraid of other people. Gilbert was feeling garrulous, and here was a ready-made listener. It seemed fortuitous to Gilbert that here was someone who wanted to listen to him at just the right moment. Gilbert was driving himself nuts with his thoughts. He welcomed this listener.
Gilbert had been in love once, a long time ago. He’d had to let the girl go, whenever he’d gotten addicted to drugs in college, way back in the early nineteen-seventies. It had brought on a state of mind where Gilbert had suspected that he’d never be able to be a good husband to the girl, so he’d broken off with her abruptly one night. He’d regretted this action of his for his whole lifetime, even though he was certain he had done the most noble thing, where the girl was concerned, in the long run.
His interlocutor was quiet, being attentive to the monolog, as Gilbert went on and on about how much he’d always loved the girl. It was when he was in his glorious youth, in school, far away from home for the first time in his life. Gilbert had been a man of action, where that girl had been concerned. Gilbert was a wild boy when he’d been in his youth at that school. That innocent, homespun girl, who had never done anything in her whole lifetime, except practice her piano; had liked that wild boy, and his wild ways of action in those days.
Whenever they were apart, she wrote him torrid love letters, remarking how much more of a man he was, in contrast to some of the other young men who were dating her on campus whenever Gilbert had to be out of town. Gilbert had found the girl’s weaknesses, and appealed to her most natural feminine instincts. He’d played her instincts against her, with a lust and a yearning for plenty of passionate action, as the wild young man he’d been at the time.
Gilbert mused that the girl would never know how to respond to him as the old man he’d become. Gilbert was no longer a man of action in his old age. He was only a man of words.
When they’d been together, he would draw out all of the most natural responses to his own impetuous nature, as if the passion was all she wanted, too. Who knew? Maybe all that he’d done with her had been precisely the things she’d wanted to do in the first place? Gilbert had to admit he really didn’t know what the woman had wanted, after a whole lifetime of being alone without her.
Gilbert had been a young man of insatiable appetites. The time on campus had gotten by, and Gilbert found he was no longer going to classes when he should have been. Gilbert was chasing after all sorts of college coeds in all sorts of situations on that campus. He was not the least bit true to his girl, after all. Gilbert was taking all the sorts of drugs and alcohol at the time. He smoked pot and dropped acid. Gilbert had played the fool in his youth.
Gilbert seemed to forget the Vietnam War was on, and he was, indeed, threatening his own student deferment from the draft by playing the fool the way he was doing at the time. But, Gilbert hadn’t cared. When his health finally failed him, Gilbert got dismissed from the draft to the war for health reasons. The young man had been relieved.
The little pianist was beguiled in her own little world. One night she’d insisted on going to the mountain to smoke reefer with Gilbert and some of the others he was hanging out with at the time. The poor girl had coughed her lungs out, smoking that reefer on that mountainside that night. She had never coughed in such a way as long as Gilbert had known her. She had never smoked anything, much less reefer. She had never so much as had a beer, for as long as Gilbert had known her. Gilbert was heartbroken for the poor girl’s future. Not even the wild young man could do that sort of thing to his very best girl, even if she hadn’t been his only girl at the time.
He’d already been to the state hospital, with a bad reaction to something like LSD, or whatever it had been that Gilbert had taken one day on campus. Gilbert had been diagnosed with a chronic mental condition he didn’t know anything about at the time. He guessed it was something like his old man had when Gilbert was a kid. The girl had tried her best to reject him when he’d come back to campus the next fall, but she couldn’t manage to stand her ground against his charm when he returned.
That was always Gilbert’s best tactic. He was charming.
The young man had brought the girl out of her shell, then dropped her at the worst sign of trouble between them, in their own, foolish youth. Gilbert regretted that he’d had all that trouble with that girl. Gilbert had gone back to school and won her back, only to drop her – flat – after just a couple of short months of classes he found he couldn’t handle anymore. His addiction and mental problem had presented itself to be more of an issue than he’d realized, until he’d finally gotten to the point where he had no money or sanity to continue with his schooling. Gilbert knew he couldn’t keep the girl. A lifetime had gone by, but Gilbert was still heartbroken.
The girl had long since gone on with her life, married another man, and had a family with whoever that husband had turned out to be. She wasn’t sitting around mooning over Gilbert. Gilbert had been tormenting her after she’d gotten married, until her husband had put him in his place. The husband hadn’t yelled. The husband hadn’t sworn or threatened. Her husband simply pointed out how inappropriate Gilbert was being by calling into their home, and Gilbert knew the husband was right. What’s more was, the husband was a gentleman, too. The husband had stopped Gilbert in his tracks, all of it over the telephone.
Gilbert knew he would do better in life, if only he could just stop drinking alcohol and stop smoking cigarettes. Gilbert was so certain it would be more healthy for him, if he could only just get enough to eat for a change, and not smoke pot anymore. Gilbert was so weary of worrying about getting busted for the reefer, and how his connection was always milking him dry for the least little bit of reefer.
The other man on the mountainside listened to Gilbert very patiently.
“I can help you with these things, if you like?” the man offered.
Gilbert was uncertain he was willing to do that, with as much as he enjoyed his bad habits.
“But why? Surely you’ve grown weary of being hungry and trying to avoid the law?”
Well, Gilbert did not want to lose his friends, by turning over a new leaf.
“But you’re going to lose them anyway.”
“I guess you’re right. But how could you help me?”
“Please allow me to introduce myself. My name is Death.”