That was the last time I’d ever open the door without making damn sure who was on the other side. But I was woolgathering, thinking about one thing and not the thing before me, when I happened to be walking by. Someone rang the bell, and I turned the knob. Just like we all do. It was an automatic gesture, an innocent gesture, I’d like to think. But it was not a wise gesture. I looked the old man on the porch up and down as he gave his three-word introduction: “I’ve been waiting.”
The guy was about ninety years old, plainly dressed with a tie but no jacket. Big brogan shoes. For sure, not one of the formal and wary bankers or the rumpled and assertive builders I’m used to seeing in my work as an architect. So in the way I always do, wondering and examining and trying to make order out of things, I stood there searching for another pigeonhole to put him into. I should have been slamming the door, but I stood there gaping and waiting, wordlessly anticipating more from him or an a-ha from myself.
“Mr. McBride.” He addressed me, a man not quite half his age, as if I were the senior person, the man in charge, though we both knew that was him.
“Mr. Eddy McBride, I’ve been watching.” He pulled open the screen door. A-ha. Now I knew him. When I was a boy, he’d been the yard man. Long dead, I’d thought.
Back then, this house belonged to my great aunts. The yard man lived outside town, down by the river, and every spring he’d bring his mule to plow the garden. He seemed very old, graying like the whiskers on his mule, deeply wrinkled and burned by the sun, and when he came I always followed. I walked the furrows behind him in my bare feet, breaking the clods that the plow left whole.
“Eddy McBride,” he’d called me. “Walter Lee,” I’d called him back. There was a touch of protectiveness and a lot of hurt pride in the way he insisted on whole names. Walter Lee, I came to believe, needed his name, and he needed the family that went with it. He needed something no one could take away. But that was just me reading between the lines. Walter Lee never talked about himself. He never asked for anything. Not until now.
“Eddy McBride,” the old man repeated. He took hold of my forearm. “Are you ready?”
“Let go of me.” I stiffened and pulled against his grip, testing his resolve and making sure I had more strength than a ninety-year-old.
But mostly I was staring the old man in the eye. I was wondering what parts of our shared story he was dredging up. And how in the hell he could still be alive. After all these years.
“It’s almost time,” he declared.
I was pulling away harder now. Whatever he wanted, I could tell it was nothing good.
“You have to try.”
I was still trying to pry loose when Walter Lee paused in his ordering me about and opened his claw. Thinking I was ready to follow, I supposed. Until I realized he was putting me in my place.
Unexpectedly freed, I fell backward, waving my arms at nothing to break my fall and landing hard against the model of a never-built house I’d once been proud to have designed. The balsa wood went flat with barely the sound of a snap.
I sat on the floor, glaring at the old man.
In the open doorway, Walter Lee was backlit against the bright sun outside. It was the kind of image a film might use to portray a ghost, all washed out and white and fuzzy, kind of cheesy and amateurish, if you want to know the truth. But if ghostly was his intention, it was working. I squinted to see him better, but I just couldn’t hold my focus.
Walter Lee was real, I was certain of that, but it was as if I could look through him. My eyes kept going to the world behind, which seemed extraordinarily clear considering it was only background. I could have counted the leaves on the big pecan tree twenty yards out in the yard.
“It’s your turn,” he said.