Old Things

(via Robb North)

Lila liked old things. She collected old things. She went in search of old, abandoned places and took pictures of them. It was an easy hobby to have. So many places were abandoned, and no one wanted old things anymore. Older people wanted to forget all that, and kids had never known anything else. But Lila existed somewhere in between. She was old enough — just barely — to remember what it had been like before. Most of what she remembered was noise. Big, noisy crowds of people. The trains that ran through the neighborhood where she lived with her dad. The rumble of cars on the interstate.

Her dad didn’t know about her adventures to these abandoned places. Not that she was obligated to tell him. She was grown now. On her own. But they talked all the time. He cooked her dinner on Sundays, and she cooked for him on Thursdays. That was their routine. It was important, in these times, to keep the people you had close. He was getting older, and sometimes she wondered if he would need to move in with her eventually.

Her dad was one of the few people who didn’t tease her for her obsession with old things. He still had a whole room full of books, after all. His favorites were the ones that had been printed even before he was born. He used to haunt secondhand bookstores. She remembered this from when she was little. He always let her get something from the children’s section. Maybe that was where her obsession had started — with other people’s discarded books.

He, she remembered, was more likely to buy something if there was some little personal touch. An inscription in someone’s school book, “Thorpe Wolford, 1937, St. Sebastian’s” in an old copy of Ethan Frome he’d given her when she’d been upset about a boy. It was the first book from his collection he’d ever given her. She’d never figured out why that book. It was so bleak for a brokenhearted teenager. But maybe that was why. She had read it in an afternoon and taken it back to him. He’d asked if she liked it. She had. “It’s yours now,” he’d said. She read it again a week later.

But even if he didn’t mind the old things she collected, he wouldn’t have approved of her adventures. The places she went weren’t on the new grid. No power. No signal. Everyone said that was where you went if there was something you were ashamed of. Maybe she was ashamed that she hadn’t been able to let things go like everyone else. She knew a few other people her age. Sometimes, one of them would accidentally start talking about how it had been, and then everyone would get quiet and uncomfortable. But they all did it. It wasn’t just her.

Sometimes, she saw other people during her adventures. But not often. She’d only ever been really scared once or twice. A man following her. She carried a small knife, just in case. She’d stitched a sheath inside the sleeve of her jacket, just inside the cuff. But mostly, if people saw you, they walked the other way. Everyone was still a little afraid of everyone.

Today, she wanted to explore an old school. She thought it was an elementary school. It had that look. Single-storied with a modular appearance. They’d built hundreds of these in the years before her dad had gone to school. Something about population booms and the need to build space to house the hordes of new children who needed a place to learn. She’d seen it last time she’d been out here, but she hadn’t had time to look then. It was fall, and the days were getting shorter, and she wasn’t bold enough to stay here after dark.

The grass was high in all the fields surrounding the school — fields where kids used to play games she did not remember or maybe had never played. Maybe games her dad had told her about. She took her camera out — her camera was not old. It was state of the art. A present for her last birthday. Built, like all things were now, to last a lifetime. Advertisements claimed you could drop it out of a third-story window and barely expect a scratch. Not a test she ever planned to perform. Luxuries were dear these days, though no one was cold and hungry at night anymore.

She snapped a few pictures from a high spot where she could see the old layout of the grounds. It was possible to imagine the grass freshly mown. Children running around during recess or after school. This was about the time when they’d held fall festivals. She remembered one or two, she thought, when she had just started school. There were games and displays of the children’s work. She remembered making a collage from leaves.

She walked up to the building, the tall grass scraping across the legs of her jeans, pausing here and there to snap a picture. The door in the front of the building was unlocked. She opened it and watched as light from outside fell across the threshold. The floor was covered in undisturbed dust. No one had been here for a long time.

Fall was the best time for her adventures. Clear skies and a low sun that found its way through the old windows. Light she needed to take pictures.

This building was unusual. She walked around and found room after room in perfect, dusty order. Like school had let out for summer and the next fall had just never come.

She made her way to the library and found the only bit of disorder. A stack of books by an old computer. Maybe they’d never been checked back in. If it had been a high school library, she would have scoured the shelves to see if she could find something for her dad, but he didn’t go in for the kinds of books you could find in an old elementary school.

She thumbed through the stack on the circulation desk, mostly what she expected. Tales of mild adventure. Bright picture books with talking animals. And one odd thing, “Field Guide To: Baseball,” it said. Awkward punctuation and all. She slipped it in her bag and continued her expedition, making sure she left before the sun got too low.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.


She showed it to her dad on Sunday. They were having lentil stew. He liked to cook lentils in the fall.

“Baseball!” he said. “Where did you find this?” She started to make up an answer, but he continued talking before she had a chance to say anything. “I used to watch baseball with my dad when I was very small. Hang on a minute.” He wandered back to his bedroom, and she heard him rattling around for a while.

“Here you go. Heads up.” He lobbed the ball at her. She juggled it briefly but held on. It was scuffed. A little patch of brown on one side, a bit of faded green on the other. “You’re not the only one who likes to hold onto things, you know. I caught that at a minor league game once. Or dad did and gave it to me.”

He spent the evening telling her about it, flipping through the rule book, which had enough helpful diagrams to make his stories intelligible. It was the most excited she’d seen him in a long time. These weren’t things she’d ever known about him. Not, she realized, because he’d intentionally withheld these stories but because they’d never gotten around to it. There’s so much we never find out about the lives of our parents before we were born. And when she’d been growing up, everything had been so tumultuous. They’d been so busy figuring out all the new things they had to know, there hadn’t been time to remember the old things. It was good to see him smile like that, and it gave her an idea. But she didn’t want to say anything about it yet. She didn’t want to disappoint him.


She went back to the school, but not to take pictures. She didn’t even bring her camera. But she did bring a heavy hammer and a few other tools in an old tote bag. She didn’t need them, as it happened. Everything in the building was unlocked. She found the gym and dug through the old supply closets. There were a few things she recognized. A couple of gloves, half a dozen balls and a metal bat. All in good condition except for whatever time naturally had done to them.

She started scouting around, looking anywhere that might have more gear. Catching equipment was the hardest thing to find. It took her months to scavenge everything she needed. Fall passed into winter, and spring was coming on before she was ready for the real task she had in mind.

A few years before, when everyone finally started to believe things had calmed down for good, people had started gathering together in groups, playing games outside, in the sun. It had been encouraged by the powers that be and by everyone who was as old or older than her dad. “Your generation,” he said, “never got that. Your childhoods didn’t go how they should have. It’s good to be outside. It’s good to breathe in the fresh air.” He’d paused before adding, “Now that it’s fresh again.”

They had been cautious, the people her age. But it helped to be in groups. It felt safer to be in the open if you were with others. They knew there was no danger, of course, but it’s hard to get away from what happens when you’re growing up.

When she had enough gear together, she hauled it out to one of their Saturday gatherings. She brought the book and begged them all to look. But it wasn’t hard to get them to agree. They were used to that. Learning on the fly. Following directions at the drop of an urgent hat. There were usually a little more than 20 people in the group. More than enough for two teams. It was fun to learn something just because. To have a purpose that didn’t have to feel so urgent.

When they all felt ready, they invited what families they had. Lila picked up her dad. It was a variation from their routine, but she refused to explain.

He knew what it was as soon as they were in view of the field. It was all grass except for the ill-shaped mound, but they had drawn foul lines and laid out the bases. He wished he were just 10 years younger, then maybe he could have stepped on the field and kept up with some of the younger ones. He could have played left field, at least, he thought. But it was good to sit on the sidelines and watch the clumsy game and watch his daughter and know this would be a good memory for her.

Jason teaches high school English, writes fiction, runs a small writing program and writes about education and literature. He also writes for Redleg Nation and both writes and edits for The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @JasonLinden, visit his website or email him here.
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Adam Dorhauer
4 years ago

I really like how such a radical setting is treated as background for a slice of life story, and how that setting is established in the first paragraph just by giving character details.

4 years ago

Tasteful and well done.