A Parting Giftby Ben Erickson
Josh is 17 years old when he is enlisted to help an old man write his memoirs. Beautifully evoking ordinary life, A Parting Gift explores such fundamental puzzles as how to live one's life, the reason for existence and the nature of God.
SOURCE: VOYA, October 2000 (Vol. 23, No. 4)
- Hachette Book Group
- Publication date:
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- Product dimensions:
- 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.65(d)
Read an Excerpt
The beat-up old Volkswagen, radio blaring, puttered up the long drive to the house. Ancient live oaks lined the drive and formed a living arch over it. The house sat far off the road, and it wasn't until rounding the last bend that the bay came into view.
The house was unpainted and covered in battered clapboard siding that had weathered to a silvery gray. On the tree-shaded back, the combination of little sunlight and high humidity had provided a fertile place for mold and mildew to grow. It has been said that you can watch wood decompose before your very eyes in the sweltering southern climate, andlike many things in the Southit was almost true.
Still, the house had been built when things were made to last. When time was measured more by the sun and the passing of the seasons than the ticking of a clock. Only the best virgin cypress was used, cut from trees found in a swamp less than a mile from the house itself. The hand-hewed mortise-and-tenon construction had marked the turning of a century and two world wars with little notice. It had even survived the frequent hurricanes that hit Mobile Bay, when the only warning of an approaching storm was the movement of animals or the stiffening of joints. With the passing of the years, the house had settled down to fit in with the curve of the bay and the slope of the hill until it seemed as if it had been standing there forever.
The tires crunched on the loose clamshells as the car rounded the last bend in the drive. On the radio, Jimi Hendrix blasted out at full tiltthe thin sheet metal resonating withthe sound. The VW skidded to a stop next to a massive Buick, and its motor coughed, sputtered, and finally died. As the rust-pitted driver's door swung open with a reluctant squeal, a boy of seventeen stepped out, pushing his sun-streaked hair back behind his ears to keep it from falling across his face. This, coupled with the surfboard rack bolted to the roof of his car, was a sure indicator that he spent as much time as possible at the beach twenty miles to the south.
Humming softly to the song that was still playing in his head, he flipped the front seat forward, reached into the back, and took out the last of what had once been a substantial stack of foam food containers. Leaving the car door hanging open, he walked quickly across the drive to the house. He took the steps two at a time and knocked out the rhythm to the song on the back door, his head bobbing slightly to an imaginary drummer.
He knocked again, harder.
Pulling on the door, he found it locked and loped back down the steps and around to the bay side of the house. He scanned the yard for the old man's stooped back or broad-brimmed hat, then trudged up the front steps and across the porch and knocked again.
This time the knob turned easily in his hand, and he opened the door just enough to stick his head inside.
"Mr. Davis?" he called loudly. "It's me, Josh Bell. I've got your dinner."
The house remained quiet.
He opened the door the rest of the way and walked down the entry hall to the kitchen, dropping the container on the breakfast table. His job complete, he retraced his steps to the front door, then paused as he started to close it behind him. An imperceptible shudder ran through him as he thought of Mrs. Miller last year. He had been the first to find hercold and stiff as a board, still lying in her bed. An occupational hazard, he guessed, kind of like that old movie Ten Little Indians. Except there were twelvewell, now elevenhe delivered meals to, and they weren't being stalked by a psychotic killer, just the relentless specter of death. Fearing the worst, he turned with a sigh and reentered the house, walking down the hall toward the two bedrooms.
"Mr. Davis?" he said, knocking lightly on one of the closed doors.
There was no answer, so he opened it and looked inside. The room was furnished with twin beds that were neatly made, but otherwise it appeared bare and unused.
He crossed the hall and knocked on the other door. At his touch, it creaked slowly inward on its hinges. An antique double bed dominated the room, its dark wood in sharp contrast with the stark white walls. Books were piled on the bedside table, and a shirt was draped over a chair in the corner. The bed was neatly made, though he saw the toe of a slipper protruding from beneath the dust ruffle. But for all these signs of life, it too was empty.
He tried the bathroom at the end of the hall.
"Mr. Davis?" he called again, still hoping for a response.
He passed the narrow staircase in the entry hall and started up it, then decided that the old man probably wouldn't attempt to scale the steep steps at his age. He continued across the hall to the living room that overlooked the bay, but there was no sign of life there, either.
That left only the den off the kitchen. Backtracking, he walked through the kitchen and slowly pushed open the door to the den. A reading lamp was on, but the aged wood paneling seemed to absorb the light as soon as it left the bulb, and the shade from the oaks outside allowed little of the late afternoon sun to penetrate. He squinted in the dim light as he looked around the room. Except for the fireplace, almost all of the walls were lined with bookcases.
Only then did he notice the shape lying in the tilted-back recliner.
A wrinkled hand dangled toward a book, which lay open on the floor beside the still figure. The other hand was folded limply across his chest. The old man's head was thrown back and his eyes were closed, but his mouth hung slightly open.
Except for the ticking of the clock on the mantel shelf, the room was shrouded in silence. Josh walked slowly over to where the body lay and hesitantly reached out to touch it, checking to see if it was cold yet. He swallowed hard as his fingers neared the splotched skin, forcing them to make contact. There was a jerk, as if electricity had run through the inert frame, and the old man's eyes flew open. Josh stumbled backward with a start, hitting his head hard on a corner of the mantel.
"What are you doing, boy!" Mr. Davis said gruffly, sitting up in his chair.
"II" Josh stammered.
"I thought you"
"Hasn't anyone ever taught you to knock?" the old man interrupted.
"I did, but I"
"As I see it, your job is to leave my supper on the kitchen table, not go snooping around my house."
"It's just that I thoughtI meanMrs. MillerI was the one who" Josh faltered.
"Spit it out, son. You act like you've seen a ghost."
"I haveI meanit's just that you didn't answer the door, and I thought that you might be . . . you know . . ." The old man sat there with a puzzled expression on his face, so Josh was left with no choice. "Dead," he said, finishing the sentence.
The room was silent as his words sank slowly to the floor. Mr. Davis stared at the boy for a minute, then he relaxed and smiled.
"Well, as you can plainly see, I'm not," he said. "Not yet, at least. I was reading, and I must have dozed off."
"II'll be going then . . . that is, if you're okay and everything," Josh said, rubbing his head and backing slowly toward the door.
"I'm fine, son, I assure you," he replied, starting to get up.
"Well, I left your dinner on the kitchen table . . . in the kitchen, that is."
Josh turned to bolt from the room and instead ran into a bookcase beside the door. There was a loud crash, and he suddenly found himself on the floor, covered in a cascade of falling books. He started to climb to his feet, but they gave way beneath him. From a great distance he could hear the voice of the old man calling him.
"Boy? . . . Josh?"
He felt as if he were at the bottom of a well and the circle of light at the top seemed miles away. Gradually he floated up or the light seemed to settle down. Mr. Davis leaned over and helped him to a sitting position as Steinbeck and Twain poured off him like water.
"I'm okay," Josh muttered sheepishly as he sat there on the floor, gathering himself.
"I think you had better rest a minute until you feel better," Mr. Davis said. "You've had a nasty shock, and that bump on your head could use some tending to."
He helped Josh to the kitchen table and fixed an ice pack for his head.
"How about some iced tea?" he inquired, trying to take the boy's mind off what had happened.
"I'm fine, really," Josh said, putting the ice pack on the table and starting to get up. "I should be going now."
The old man put a hand on his shoulder. "No, sit. I insist."
Josh gave in and slumped back into the chair. Mr. Davis looked over at the boy as he opened the refrigerator. "That ice isn't going to do any good if you don't use it," he said sternly.
Josh closed his eyes and returned the ice pack to his head. Mr. Davis put two glasses on the table in front of them and pulled up a chair. Josh took a sip and looked down at the table, pretending to examine his glass.
The old man stared at his lowered head for a minute. "What grade are you in, son?" he finally asked.
Josh shifted the ice pack to his other hand. "I'm a senior," he said.
"Well, that makes two of us," Mr. Davis quipped, and noticed the boy's faint smile in response. "At least that's what they like to call us nowadays. Any idea what you'll do after graduation?" he asked.
"I'm not sure yet," Josh answered, still avoiding the old man's gaze. "I'd like to go to college if I get a scholarship. If not, I guess I'll try to find a job around here."
He looked at the spot of blood on the ice pack, then returned it to the growing lump.
"How are your grades?"
"Pretty good," he said tentatively, taking another sip of tea.
"Do you like school?" Mr. Davis asked after another long pause.
Josh thought for a minute. "I guess so. I mean, you're not really supposed to like it, are you?"
The old man chuckled. "No, I guess not. Do you read much, Josh?"
"A little. We're reading some novels in English this year."
"Stuffy old classics, I'll bet."
"Mostly," Josh said. "The Scarlet Letter, Wuthering Heights, things like that."
"Ever go to the library and check out a book just for fun?" Mr. Davis pressed.
"Sometimes," he answered, wondering where all this was leading.
"Anything that you really liked? That you couldn't put down?"
The boy glanced up at him. "There was a book of short stories by Jimmy Buffettyou know, the singer."
"What was it that you liked about it?"
"I'm not sure," Josh said. "I guess that it was about people who were kind of different."
"What do you mean, different?"
"Well . . ." He thought for a minute. "It was like everything they did or said was bigger and brighter than the way things really are," he said, looking directly at the old man for the first time.
Josh's brow furrowed. "And even though some of the stories took place right around here," he said, searching for the right words, "it really wasn't like anywhere I've ever been before."
He looked at the older man, a little surprised by his own insights. Mr. Davis nodded and smiled.
"That's what books do best," he said.
"What?" Josh asked.
"They create their own world. A world you care about and love, but could never visit in real life. Books can pluck you out of your everyday experiences and carry you somewhere far away."
Josh considered this. "I think I know what you mean," he said. "I feel like I knew those characters. It was like I've lived with them always, but they're not even close to being like anybody that I really know."
Mr. Davis got up and disappeared into the den. He returned with the book he had been reading earlier and put it on the table in front of him.
"Do you know who Ernest Hemingway is?" he said, sitting down again.
"Sure, a writer. But he's dead, isn't he?"
"Yes, but his books are still with us, so in a sense he'll never die. Not as long as there are people who read what he has written. That's one of the beauties of writing, Josh. It's like adding a drop to the sea of man's knowledge and experiences." He looked out the window at the branches framed against the deepening sky.
"Have you ever read this?" Mr. Davis asked, pushing the thin book across the table to him.
Josh picked it up and flipped through it. The yellowing pages had been thumbed through many times over the years. He shook his head.
"Well, take it home and give it a try. Let me know what you think."
"Sure," he said as he got up to leave.
Dusk had fallen and the temperature was starting to drop when Josh left the house and walked over to his car. As he slipped the book into the pocket of his jacket, he looked back through the window at the old man sitting alone at the kitchen table.
It was well after dark when Josh pulled into the driveway of the small house that he had painted himself last summer. He cut the engine and sat for a moment, looking down the row of similar houses in the faint glow of the streetlights. As he got out, he noticed for the first time that the bulbs his mother had planted in the flower bed were beginning to come up.
It had been six years since the divorce and over a year since he had last seen his father. He was an only child, and life hadn't been easy since the breakup. His mother worked the early shift at the twenty-four-hour discount store that had opened in town last year, then somehow found time to fix the twelvenow elevenmeals for the elderly that he delivered after school. The extra income from the "meal on wheels" business helped make ends meet, and when his father remembered to send the child support check, things went smoothly. Things rarely went smoothly.
Josh opened the kitchen door to find his mother washing dishes at the sink. She glanced in his direction, reproaching him silently. "Sorry I'm late," he said quickly. "Mr. Davis kept me awhile."
"Next time call," she said, turning off the water. "You know how I worry about you being on the road in that old car at night."
"I will," he said contritely, giving her a peck on the cheek as she dried her hands on a dishtowel. "It's a long story."
She took their still warm plates out of the oven, and they sat down to eat. Josh related the events of the afternoon and told her about his conversation with the old man.
"Well, he's always seemed nice," she said. "And I guess he's been lonely since his wife died. That house has been in his family for generations, but they had only moved back here a few years when it happened. He's become almost a hermit since then."
She put down her fork and folded her hands, staring at their diffused reflections in the kitchen window. Josh looked at her and noticed for the first time how tired and thin she had become.
"Now that you mention it, I don't think I've ever seen him in town," he said to keep the conversation going.
She glanced at him and picked up her fork again.
"I see him from time to time," she said. "He comes in to pick up supplies and go to the library. But he always seems to look right through you." She picked at her food. "He only shops at Hinson's Grocery and the old hardware store next door. I heard him say that the new discount store is a gift from the devil, and sometimes I feel like he's right. I don't know what he'll do if Hinson's goes out of business, and how they stay in business, I'll never know."
"He goes to the library a lot, huh?" Josh asked as he finished his last bite and put down his fork.
"He's a regular. When I filled in there last year, he came in every week and always left with a stack of books. Not much of a talker, though. Friendly, but he seems uncomfortable making small talk."
"Well, he talked a lot to me today."
"Maybe that's because he had something to say," she said, getting up from the table.
Josh cleared the dishes before he started on his homework while his mother went in the other room to watch television. He was still working when she came in and kissed him good night, gently fingering the lump on his forehead.
"Sleep tight," she said as she closed the door to her room.
"You too," he answered, a little too late.
Later, as he was hanging up his coat, the book Mr. Davis had given him fell out of the pocket. He picked it up and rubbed his fingers over the waterstained cover, then climbed into bed and turned on the lamp. As he opened it, he could smell the musty odor of the old man's house so close to the bay. Turning to the first page, he began to read...
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The book, A Parting Gift, by Ben Erickson is a very inspirational story of a boy named Josh who struggles with his everyday life. Josh, a senior approaching his graduation, doesn¿t really have his life planned out for the future. He lives in Mobile Bay where he loves to go surfboarding. A child of a broken home, he and his mother take one day at a time. Not being able to count on his father to send child support, Josh helps his mother by delivering meals his mother prepares for senior citizens. Not knowing what to expect, Josh meets this elderly man named Will Davis. Mr. Davis ends up changing Josh¿s life forever. As the days pass the two begin to become very close. Mr. Davis puts life into perspective and really makes Josh think about the road ahead of him. Mr. Davis approaches Josh with a saying that he believes, ¿When an old man dies, a library burns to the ground, all your life you¿re storing up memories of people, places, and lessons you¿ve learned. If you boil it all down, what you have left in the bottom of the pot is wisdom.¿ (Erickson 25) With this, Mr. Davis explains how ¿it takes a lifetime to make sense out of what you learned but if you can express yourself in words you can make a lasting gift to the world.¿ (Erickson 26) Josh is then hired to write down each story that the elderly man tells him. As each story is told, Josh learns a moral or lesson and he begins to put his life into order. Throughout this book, there are great uses of symbolism. Mr. Davis has a saying or moral for each of his stories and with each story a new thought or symbol is placed in the reader¿s head. As the main character learns a new life lesson with each story, the reader also learns something new. Ben Erickson does an excellent job of making you realize things that aren¿t obvious in life, and sometimes we need to slow down and appreciate the simple things. He uses the symbolism of comparing a man¿s life to a library. When the life is lost, years of knowledge and wisdom are gone unless they are written down. Like in a library, if the library were to burn down, so many years of hard work and determination would be lost. The two begin to spend many hours together sitting on the dock over the water. Josh learns about each childhood memory as well as adulthood memory the man has to tell. With the help of Josh, the elderly man rediscovers a purpose for living, and Josh also begins to put his life into perspective. Ben Erickson makes the characters seem real to the reader and he makes it so each reader can relate to the story he is telling. Although the mood changes from being blissful to somewhat somber, when Mr. Davis passes away it keeps your attention fixed on each new event that goes on. Each chapter leaves you hanging and not wanting to put the book down. This book is definitely geared towards every age group. It is a story that will bring you from smiles to tears of joy and will leave a lasting footprint in your heart forever. It has many great lessons that may change your life, for within its depths is wisdom and truth that has the power to inspire us all.
Very inspiring book. The world would be a much better place if people read this book and applied its lessons to their daily life. If readers take the insights Mr. Davis(main character) speaks about in the book, we could lessen our 'Prozac Nation' syndrome that is happening in America right now. People are so unsettled and restless due to 'not' putting these types of insights into action and are turning to drugs (prescription and otherwise) to alieviate their pain. I would bet that Josh, if he is a real person, will never become a victim of the 'syndrome'.
In Mobile Bay, high school senior Josh Bell and his mother struggle everyday just to survive. His father rarely sends money and just about never sees Josh. Since he cannot depend on his dad, to supplement their meager income, Josh delivers the meals his mother cooks to senior citizens as part of the meals on wheels program. Stuck in a dismal present, Josh makes no plans for what he sees is an even more desolate future. When Josh delivers a meal to arthritic cripple William Davis, everything soon seems different to the teen. The elderly man hires Josh to help him record his memories of stories that always provide a moral ending. As the relationship between the lost student and the ailing octogenarian cements into more of a grandfather-son kinship, both gain as each finds a reason to live. A PARTING GIFT is a powerful relationship drama that focuses on the theme intelligence without compassion and wisdom is stupidity. The story line is not loaded with action, but provides an uplifting realistic dialogue between the two key characters. Readers will enjoy that bond though Josh seems more like a responsible adult than a troubled teen. Fans of second chance at living message tales will want to read this inspirational book. Harriet Klausner
Babyboomers and teens alike would enjoy this one! An inspiring story about two main characters that are having to take the hand that life has dealt them. How they handle this is the story that will win your heart.
Encourages priority adjustments.
I am retired and an avid reader. Mr. Erickson has given us a thoughtful and meaningful insight through the eyes of both a senior citizen and a young man.The old man, Will, is rich with an understanding and appreciation of the world through books and in the interactions of nature and man, making us think and appreciate these things available to everyone. Similar to 'Tuesdays With Morrie' and better in many ways. Read it and pass it on to a friend, but don't miss it.
I really enjoyed every aspect of this book. I was at a bookstore in Gulf Shores, Alabama and saw it. It caught my attention. The librarian at the store told me that a local author had written the book and she was in the process of reading it. It had been so good so far she said. I bought a copy that had been signed by the author at a recent book signing. The whole plot related to the area I was on for vacation. The sights and sounds mentioned in the book were right in front of me. The college that the old man in the story graduated from was in Mobile, Alabama. I got to see the college as my family and I passed it on the home. This book was also receommended for graduates. As a high school graduate of the class of 2000, I thought this was an excellent book and I would recommend it to anyone looking for that special graduation gift as well as just a great book to read in one's spare time.
A PARTING GIFT is not a thriller or necessarily, a page turner....but it is inspiring and gives the reader a feeling of calm and a sense of renewal...Living on the shores of Mobile Bay, I was able to feel Erickson's love of the area and his complete knowledge of the Bay and its' beauty and grandeur. I personally hope that this author will grace the literary world with more of his work....Sort of like a literary Bill Cosby, with no disturbing language or situations, he created an unforgettable and poignant story.