The Hitch Step
By Tom Fulton
I hate funerals. I always cry at funerals. A lot of theatre people were there. Even those who thought he was an asshole. An older, gray haired man was giving a eulogy. He was saying that as Jack's student, he was taught how to live - actually live on stage. A while ago a pretty, thin woman sang a silly song about hope. She couldn't hit any of the high notes. They were squeaking and souring nearly beyond endurance. My friend Richard, who was sitting next to me, leaned over and giggled: "Jack is probably turning over in his grave…"
There was crying behind me.
The place smelled of wet carpet and Lysol. It wasn't a church. It was a funeral home - flat, one story, made of brick. There was a little lobby where someone had set out a punch bowl. Most of my class mates were there. We sat together at first. We all looked sad and respectful. Suddenly I didn't want to sit with them. They were pointing out famous actors in the audience before the service. I wanted to be alone.
I excused myself, with a friendly punch on Richard’s arm and walked to the back of the auditorium. I chose a seat near the window. From where I sat, I could see a small pond. It had been dug out for the funeral home and was neatly kept. The grass was mowed down to the edge. Nice little wrought iron benches and umbrella tables sat near the water on a brick patio.
A man in black sat in one of the chairs and stared at the water. It was an odd sight. A little man - he must have been old because he looked a little stooped. It was raining. The water was calm except for the rain drops, which made it look like pierced tin. He was a long way off, but he sat perfectly unperturbed in the rain - not in the least anxious to come indoors. I admired him. To sit in the rain without a care. It was a gentle rain, the kind that turns the air gray and misty and causes the grass to look fresh. I noticed some birds huddled under the eaves of the building - near my window. They shook themselves cheerfully and then hunkered down on the ledge to wait for the rain to stop. They too seemed content with natures little whim.
The eulogy waxed on.
"And I'll bet you dollars to donuts that he is already upbraiding some young angel for over acting - even now. Jack's was an irrepressible spirit. Even death could not subdue his love for his art. Now that he is free of his body, perhaps he can finally find the completeness he so fervently fought for when he was alive."
The speaker had a slight Irish accent. A kind of sweetness that made everything that came out of his mouth seem sincere and profound - like it was part of an ancient folklore. His gray hair and gentle face were comforting. For a moment I thought he really knew what he was talking about. I felt such a terrible urge to weep. But I choked it off. My throat hurt with the effort.
It was only last Saturday when Jack had directed me in my scene work. He seemed old then, but not sick. Just old and wise. I had never known a man with such conviction. It was the kind of faith that made people believe he had the power to save them. I'm not sure from what but I believed it too. Jack, my teacher, my mentor, had opened doors for me into the realm of the infinite.
Sometimes in class I imagined since I was in the company of the eternal, I was eternal too. But the truth was in the casket.
The old man by the pond shifted his body and turned towards me and grinned. He shifted his weight and lifted himself out of the little chair and began to walk toward my window - all the while grinning madly. The rain still scampered across the grass. Through the gray mist this odd man walked directly toward me. The birds on the ledge above jerked their heads in quick alert movements and then flew away. I turned toward the front of the funeral parlor and pretended to join in the prayer that was now being spoken by an emaciated old pastor, who looked like a character out of Sleepy Hollow. I closed my eyes and said ‘Amen.’
The prayer ended and I opened my eyes. The old man was pressed up against the glass. His hands were gently resting under his chin. He was staring right at me like he knew who I was. And his grin widened like a stretched cloth across his face. I chuckled for an instant and then was struck by recognition. A shot of horror blasted up from my groin and passed like fire into my brain.
It was Jack! It was Jack! It was Jack!
I nearly fell off the bench. I turned to the congregation to show them, to point to him, to be saved by someone who might have seen him too. But everyone’s head was bowed. "Amen" echoed again through the little hall. I wanted to shout something but my throat was stuck.
I whirled back to the window. The man was gone. He was just. . gone… No, no there he was… beyond the pond, his figure was small, in the distance, walking briskly away. My mouth worked awkwardly, I managed to choke out the words.. ‘Jack’ 'Jack...'. I know no one will ever believe me but, I’m quite certain that he heard me. He lifted his hat, did a little hitch step, touched his heels together about two feet off the ground and disappeared over the hill.
I’ve never had the nerve to tell anyone about it, of course. I don’t even know if I believe it myself anymore.
But there’s something odd and very real about that little hitch step… It has haunted my dreams for years. You have to . . .sort of . . . hike up your pants, send both knees outward, spring up into the air off your toes, bringing your heels together sharply as you stick your elbows out and up like a bird before landing as gracefully as you can back on the ground. It’s very tricky.
I don’t know a living soul who has ever got it right….
copyright (c) 1998 by Tom Fulton
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