“Creepy man! Creepy man! Old rain man! Old rain man!” my young voice echoed through the humid air.
The target of these anxious yells was old rain man. He was a sort of village curiosity, the local boogeyman.
The origin of his name was as simple as it gets: the old man was only seen when it rained. Then he’d leave his house, cross the yard and sit down on the bench in front of it. Once the rain stopped, he’d vanish back inside.
We kids had our share of stories and ideas about him. Some said he was the one who made it rain. Others said he wanted to flood the village. There were even a few who thought he was secretly an amphibian who needed the rain to survive.
In our village, there were never so much as a few days without heavy rain. Considering that, those stories seemed more than a bit plausible to us kids.
We kids often dared each other to provoke him or go near him. This time it had been my turn to yell at him to see if he’d come after me. In the end, though, the old man did nothing. We were sure though that he feigned ignorance to lure me in closer.
The dares had started early this summer. I don’t know anymore who came up with something so stupid.
At first, we only dared each other to race by him on our bikes. We’d heard the stories of the older kids. They said the old man would sometimes reach out and try to get a hold of those kids who weren’t careful enough. After that, he’d drag you into his dark old house to never be seen again.
As summer moved along, our dares grew more and riskier. At first, it was only yelling and driving past him, but soon we’d dare each other to walk past him slowly or get close to him. We never got more than a stare, but that was enough to send us racing away.
“I got one, I got one,” my friend Stefan started one day, “I want Daniel to sit down on the bench and wait for the old man to arrive. Then you have to sit next to him for ten seconds.”
Everyone gasped, and they all turned to me. My heart dropped. This was different. I didn’t dare to say no though. So far no one had ever backed out of a dare. I didn’t want to be the first one to do so.
“Alright, fine.” I reluctantly said.
A few days later I should get my chance. We were out playing soccer when the sky got darker, and clouds started to gather.
Stefan grinned at me.
“It’s time Daniel!” he cheered and soon the others, remembering the dare, joined in.
Minutes later we were all in front of his house. As I sat down on the bench, my friends retreated. Sitting there I was all pins and needles. I told myself again and again that nothing would happen. None of the stories were true. Everyone was lying.
The first raindrops hit me and mixed with the pearls of sweat on my forehead. It didn’t take long before I heard the loud creaking of an old door. There he was: old rain man.
As he stepped outside, the sound of his old work boots on the gravel echoed in my ears. He was too tall to be a regular human being. His whole posture was wrong. He was hunched over and his arms dangled in the air, warping him into the image of a bizarre, mantis-like creature. With each step he took, I grew tenser.
When I could finally make out his face, it was a mask devoid of emotion. His eyes were glassy and only half open, but I could still see the dark, black pits that were his pupils.
My friends had retreated further and were now hiding behind the trees nearby. I stared at them with open eyes, pleading them to release me from this dare, but they all were laughing.
When the old man took place right next to me, I froze up. He didn’t say anything, didn’t even look at me, and I told myself it was because I didn’t move.
I was in utter and absolute fear. I sat there, concentrating, not moving, waiting, my eyes closed and counting down from ten to zero as fast as I could. When I was finally done, I jumped off the bench and landed right in a small puddle that had already formed.
It was in that moment that the old man’s head jerked towards me. His eyes, suddenly wide open focused on me and only me. Before I could even move, his hand reached out to me and held on to me with an iron grip. I screamed in pain, as he twisted my arm and pulled me in closer.
“You are…” he started, but I didn’t listen. I couldn’t. I screamed for help, screamed at him to let me go and tried to pull myself free, but his grip tightened on my arm. I could see his mouth open, then close again.
Crying and in pure despair I looked towards my friends, only to see them running away. Just their cries of “Old rain man got him! Old rain man got him!” stayed with me.
After what felt like an eternity to me, his grip loosened and I was able to rip myself free and ran off. I cried all the way till I was home.
As I stormed into the house, my parents asked me what happened. The moment they heard me say ‘old rain man’ though, they frowned. It was what I got for going near the old man. They’d told me time and again, that I should stay away from him. It’s what I got for not listening to them.
After that, I had nightmares for weeks. It was nightmares about a giant ghastly old man that took me away in the rain. Sometimes he waited for me outside, in others he caught me on my way to school. There were others, more surreal, in which the old man was a giant that broke through the ceiling with long, bony arms. In all these dreams it was raining.
Looking back it all seems silly now. How could one be afraid of a simple old man? I guess though, that is how kids are.
From then on I never got near the old man again. I was too scared of him. Who knew what he’d do to me if he ever saw me again.
Some of my friends continued with the dares. Many times they dared me to come along, but I never budged. Even after they ridiculed me and called me a scaredy cat, I never went with them.
When we got older though, our interests shifted. At first from playing outside to video games, then to girls, parties, and plans for our future. The old man was by then nothing but a forgotten childhood memory.
After I finished school, the logical next step was to go to university. I had always been one of the brighter kids, and my parents too nudged me into the direction of higher education. To be honest, I took the chance without thinking twice.
I was sick and tired of this small village, and more than glad to leave the place behind and go to the big city.
Unfortunately, things never work out quite the way we imagine them to. After years of studying, I dropped out of university. I worked here and there, never for long. Finally, the day came when I couldn’t even pay the rent for my small apartment anymore. It was in shame that I accepted my parents’ proposal to move into my old room again for the time being.
After leaving this place behind almost ten years ago, I was now back in the same rainy old village. This time without any plans or prospects for the future.
It was humiliating. I was in my late twenties, yet I lived with my parents, back in my old room. I felt useless, like a failure.
At first, my parents were understanding, sympathetic even. As the weeks passed, that changed. They started to ask questions: How long was I planning to stay? What was I going to do? When would I start looking for a new job? Why didn’t I go back to university?
Soon enough my dad started calling me a useless bum and my mom, in turn, took pity on me. It was all a bunch of bullshit.
To escape the nagging and the questions, I went on long walks through the village. There was nothing else I could do. The internet connection here was a joke and a sad reminder of the dial-up times. To get anywhere, you needed a car. Back in the city I never needed one. Now I couldn’t afford it. I was trapped in this backwater place.
My walks were solitary and dull. There were, of course, places that reminded me of my childhood. Fond memories could only brighten your mood so much, though.
The rest of the village population knew me, and of course, they knew why I was back. In these types of villages, everyone knows each other and news was making the rounds in no time.
When they talked to me, they were friendly enough. They told me they were happy to see me again and wished me luck. Some even went so far, to assure me, that a smart young man like me would be back on his feet in no time. It was the usual, empty talk. What betrayed them were their eyes.
I knew what they thought. I had been one of those arrogant kids who gave up on this village and went to the big city. Only now, that I had failed, did I come crawling back, living at my parent’s place.
Some of them were even talking behind my back. In time, they didn’t try to make it a big secret anymore, and I was able to catch bits and pieces of their conversations:
“That’s what he gets for leaving.”
“Shouldn’t have gone to university.”
“Young folks these days don’t want to work.”
“Wasn’t as smart as he thought he was.”
And many other, similar things, all followed by smirks and laughter.
That is the thing with small communities. From the outside they look tight-knit, holding together in good times as in bad, and always taking care of their own. Well, that is true as long as you played along. If you act different, you are quick to be ostracized.
I could feel their eyes resting on me during my long walks. The way they looked at me.
It was one day that I sat down on a random bench to rest for a bit. I leaned back and watched as the first droplets of a summer storm fell. I closed my eyes for a moment, enjoying the rain plastering down on my forehead. As I opened my eyes again, I noticed movement out of the corner of my eye.
As I turned to see what it was, I froze up. There he was. The cause of so many sleepless nights and so many awful nightmares: Old rain man.
At that moment I was ten years old again, not able to move, as the steps of those old, hard work boots on gravel reached my ears.
I saw a giant, ghastly, creeping monstrosity push itself out of the dark doorway. I knew that he’d come to catch me finally. After all those years, he’d drag me away into his hellhole of a house. Then, when he got closer, reality replaced imagination.
In my memories, old rain man had been incredible tall, gigantic even. Now though, he seemed almost a bit on the short end. His hunched walk, not that of a preying evil, but that of a broken, old man. The face was empty and endlessly tired looking, his eyes cloudy. As my mind took those images in, fear was replaced by a different emotion: pity.
As he sat down next to me, I noticed how old he must be. He’d been old even when I was a kid, but now, almost two decades later it showed. He was shaking, breathing heavily, and so skinny, that his bones seemed to shine through his translucent skin.
He didn’t react or look at me. It was precisely the same as then. Old rain man was sitting in the rain, murmuring to himself.
For minutes we sat there, just like that. It was only when I sighed, thinking about all my problems, that the old man’s face moved to look at me.
“Oh I am sorry, I didn’t think that” I started, but the old man shook his head.
“It’s alright. This old bench here won’t mind you at all.”
It took me by surprise, but old rain man had made a joke. I smiled at him, and the old man started to laugh a little. It turned into a hard cough right away that made his whole body tremble. After it was over, his eyes focused on the spot in front of him again, and the murmuring started anew.
I listened for a bit, but I could only make out a word here and there, never a full sentence. The topic of his murmurs stayed a mystery to me. There was only one thing I heard over and over again, the name Martin. I thought about asking who Martin was, but it felt wrong to me to ask so bluntly about things I’d eavesdropped on. So we sat there, next to each other, not talking at all. For one thing or another, it was pleasant.
Soon the rain became a drizzle that lasted for a few more minutes before it finally stopped. Without saying another word the old man got up and went back inside.
I sat there for a few more minutes, trying to comprehend what had happened.
At home, it was the usual drama. Where had I been all day? What jobs had I applied too? What was I planning on doing? By then I was used to it. The drama had become a sad routine to me.
It was a week or two later that the rain surprised me again during another one of my walks. My steps led me back to the old man’s house. Sure enough, there he was, sitting on the same bench. I walked over and sat down.
I can’t don’t know why, but I enjoyed his company if you could call it that. I guess it was because he merely sat next to me. He wasn’t asking any questions, judging me or showing prejudice. No, he was just there.
Again and again, I heard the name Martin in his murmurs and this time I took the courage to ask him.
The question was almost a whisper, and when he didn’t react, I assumed he hadn’t heard it. I leaned back again, staring at the rain.
“Martin, the old man said out of the blue, “my son.”
It was only after a few moments that I realized he was staring at me again. This time I saw the tears that filled his eyes. I already knew what must have happened and with another question, I got my confirmation.
“He was so young, my Martin.” he said with a trembling voice.
“I am sorry,” I started, but the old man was already back to his old self and must have already forgotten I was there at all.
From then on, I’d pass by his house more often, and if by chance it was raining, I’d sit down with him. Many of these hours we spent in silence.
It soon became clear to me that the old man was senile or demented. There were only a few rare moments that he seemed to be in his right mind.
It was in those few moments that I learned more about him and his life. His wife had died young, soon after the birth of their child, Martin. I never found out what happened. The few people I asked all told me a different story, and I soon gave up.
Martin had been a good boy the old man said: smart friendly and happy. He meant the world to him. He died due to a doctor’s mistake following an infection. They prescribed the wrong type of medicine, and one morning the little boy didn’t wake up anymore.
One day I finally found out why the old man was sitting outside in the rain. The reason why he’d been mocked by us kids and the village people alike. It couldn’t be any simpler: Martin liked to play in the rain. Whenever it rained, the little boy would rush outside to watch the raindrops fall and to jump into the puddles.
Even right now I was sure he was still seeing his son playing in the rain in front of himself.
As the month went by I kept spending time sitting on his bench. After a while, I not only started to think but also to talk about my life and the things that concerned me. I don’t know if any of what I said reached him, considering his ever-worsening dementia. I didn’t mind. It helped to be able to say things out loud without being cut off or called out. I care about people’s stares anymore.
Every once in a while the old man would murmur something like That’s nice Martin’ while nodding his head ever so slightly.
It was almost half a year after I’d arrived back at the village that I sat down on this bench for the last time. As it started to rain, his door didn’t open. There was no sound of work boots on gravel. There was only me and the rain. I knew what had happened, but only after the rain had stopped did I get out my cell phone and made the call.
The funeral was a few days later. In a small village, all the people know each other, yet only two guests were present. One was me, and the other was the elderly caretaker of the cemetery. She was there more out of obligation than actual mourning.
People chose to treat him as a curiosity, a topic of gossip. No one had made an effort to find out what had happened to him or to help him in his grief. They hadn’t cared about the old man.
After the funeral was over, I stayed at the fresh grave a bit longer, before I said goodbye for good.
Even now, years after those events I still think about the old man from time to time. Those days in the rain helped me a lot. Only there was I able to reflect on my situation and how to change it. No one else had given me room to think, but instead, they had all judged me.
That’s why I am thankful for old rain man. Without him, I could have very well ended up bitter, still there in the village, still going on sad, lonely walks.
Whenever I am over now, visiting my parents, I also visit his grave. Each time, I bring him some flowers, and if it rains, I tell him a bit about my life.