Published on 2011/03/20

The Crusty-Hearted Man

Anne E. Johnson

Outside our town, a few miles from where Jimbo’s gas station used to be, an old man lived all by himself. Everybody knew he was there, but nobody actually knew him. He’d show up a few times a year to buy canned goods at Ruth & Bobby’s, but that was it. Not a soul, not even the oldest soul in town, could remember a time when that man hadn’t been around. He must have been two hundred years old. Some said more like three hundred.

Truth was, he’d been out of touch with people for so long that nobody could remember his name. He couldn’t even remember his own name. Folks said that a crust had grown over his heart.

The heart’s a funny organ, though. It’s tougher than you’d think, and can survive through pretty much anything. It’s like a tulip bulb. No matter how icy and long the winter is, that little bulb stays alive under the frozen ground until it’s time to shoot up a new sprout, green and full of life. But for some especially frosty people, there’s rarely enough sunshine to wake up their hearts. It takes something spectacular, maybe even something from another world. I’ll tell you what happened to this old, old man, and you’ll see what I mean.

Nobody wanted to have anything to do with him. Flies and grubs and spiders occasionally tiptoed into the walls of his house, but most were never heard from again. The younger raccoons and rabbits would only touch his front stoop on a dare because their parents warned them not to.

“Get away!” the old man would scream hoarsely while shaking a frying pan above his head.

Every living creature, from human on down to bedbug, knew enough to keep off the old man’s property. But that knowledge had not been broadcast across space. So, when an alien landed in a clearing in the woods one late winter afternoon, it didn’t realize what it was up against. It was scared and a little sick after a rough landing, although it wasn’t afraid. It had been brought up to assume that all beings will do right by each other when given the chance. Poor little thing.

I bet you think an alien is a spindly sort that looks like it’s made of green plastic. Well, not this one. It was furry, oh, so furry. Picture fur as thick as a polar bear’s and as soft as a mink’s. Now double how thick and soft it is. Now color it blue-green. This deep, soft, dark fur was all over its body, which was short and wide. The alien, standing, came up just past your knees, but was too wide to get your arms around.

It had two giant tangerine-orange toenails on each of its four feet. Its eyes, too, were the color of tangerines, but twice as big. They were very close together in its head, and surrounded by fur, giving it a very intense look. Your average human would probably describe this alien as “the cutest thing I’ve ever seen,” and make a sound that went something like “awwww.”

Well, this little alien was in need of shelter and food. It didn’t know the plants and animals of our planet, so it shuffled right by some perfectly edible berries and nuts. But it recognized a building when it saw one. And so it approached the old man’s house in the middle of the woods, with hope in its heart but nothing in its belly.

“MMMnnnyonggg,” it called out from the yard. Nothing stirred in the house, but several woodchucks and foxes gathered to watch from a safe distance away. The alien trundled up the front steps. Once it caught its fur on the rotting wood, but freed itself like a real trouper.

Inside the house, the old man heard the nasal howl. He assumed it was a wolf or an injured bear.

“MMMnnnyonggg!” It was louder this time.

“Durn thing’s up on the porch,” said the crusty-hearted man as he pulled his frying pan down from its nail. “I’ll teach ’em whose house this is.”

The old man shoved the front door open so hard it smacked against the rotten siding. A few shingles crumbled and fell. The woodland creatures watching the show skittered further into deeper shadows, fearing what would come next.

But the alien didn’t move. It didn’t know it was supposed to be afraid of the sound of wood smacking wood, or the sight of a two-legged earthling holding a round metal object. It assumed this was either a way to say “hello,” or else a communication device telling the whole planet about its arrival. Those were the only options that made sense to the alien. Widening its eyes and puffing up its fur, it tried to look as friendly as possible.

For his part, the old man was so puzzled that he forgot to swing the pan. “You’re not a bear,” he accused the furry thing. “You’re sure not a wolf. What are you? Gorilla?”

The alien didn’t know what the word “gorilla” meant, but it enjoyed the sound, so it waddled a little closer to the cool-talking human.

“GGgggrrrrill,” said the alien, trying to fit in.

The old man just snorted and slammed the door, leaving the alien alone on the porch.

The next morning, the alien was still there, still ready to be welcomed. It never occurred to it that the old man didn’t want to meet it. A few of the braver weasels had tried to explain this to it during the night, but there was the language problem, after all. The alien just smiled at its new friends, although you couldn’t see it because its mouth was hidden in all that fur.

“MMMnnnyonggg, ggggrrrrillll!” it cried as the sun’s first light glimmered through the treetops.

“Will ya stop yer hollerin’?” the old man called through the closed door.

But the alien didn’t stop its hollering. Soon the old man came out, smacking the door against the house again. He bent his ancient bones and squinted at the weird, noisy animal.

“You’re a gorilla,” he decided. “Run away from the circus.”

I know, I know. They don’t have gorillas in circuses, they have chimpanzees. But this man had probably never been to a circus.

“Bet I can train ya. Hmmm. I could use somebody strong to work around here. You can sleep there.” He pointed to a bedraggled crate on the corner of the porch. “If you do lots of work, I’ll let you lick the bean cans from my dinner.”

The alien stood there beaming, so pleased was it to be spoken to at last. It prepared to be ushered into this great palace and receive offerings and thanks for making its long journey across space. Impatient, it took a step toward the door.

“No, you don’t go inside. I don’t know where you been, you filthy beast! You go over there.” The old man pointed again at the crate.

Not knowing the meaning of a pointed finger at the end of an outstretched arm, the alien tried the pose itself while stepping into the house.

“No! You get out of there, you…” That was as far as the old man got before his life changed forever.

With both hands he grabbed the alien. All ten arthritic fingers sank into that deep, impossibly soft fur. The old man sighed. It wasn’t a normal sigh, but a shushing expressway of air that carted out centuries of disappointment and loneliness caked and dried at the bottom of his being.

He sighed again. This one was more like liquid with a hundred crackling sounds. That was the softening of the crust around his heart, breaking apart and then dissolving.

“You’re so soft,” he said. The alien turned to face him, widening its tangerine eyes. “Look at that face. I swear, you’re the cutest thing I’ve ever seen.”

Then the old man made a sound so surprising that several raccoons jumped up on the porch to see what was going on.

“Awwwwww."

And, to the amazement of all the animals, the man, much younger now and with a freed spirit, gave this fuzzy alien a great big hug. A third time the man sighed, pushing his arms deeper into the silken plush. That last sigh was the breath of spring, a tiny shoot of life born from his re-awakened heart.


Anne E. Johnson is a writer based in Brooklyn. Her short speculative fiction has appeared in Spaceports & Spidersilk (including the March 2011 issue) and Crow Toes Quarterly, and she has upcoming work in Shelter of Daylight and elsewhere. You can visit her writer's blog at http://anneejohnson.blogspot.com.