The Man Who Liked Kipling
I met Mr. Cooper as a result of the occurrence of a couple of events over which I had no control whatsoever. The first of these happenstances was centered around the fact that I was unemployed and out wandering the streets of the city one day. I told my wife I was looking for work, even though what I was really doing was disjointedly stumbling around in a kind of mental blur, oblivious to most of that which surrounded me. If a job I was suited for had appeared directly in front of me I might well have simply ignored that fact and continued my rambling. The second thing was, it started raining and there was no public place I could duck into to avoid it.
The neighborhood I found myself in was an upscale suburb comprised of solid, multi-storied houses set well back from the street. Some of them had carriage-house apartments attached to the main buildings that were considerably bigger than the house I grew up in, which during my childhood I would have never thought of as being small. Many of these upper-crust suburban dwellings were fenced and gated -- the grounds surrounding each one were landscaped in most cases, and precisely manicured as well. In any case, I was a balding middleaged guy dressed considerably less than casually who had no good reason to walk up and knock at any of these good citizens' very private doors. I had wandered too far from 'my' side of town and now was going to get thoroughly drenched simply because I had followed my nose and ignored the sky above me.
A large and very lush ligustrum hedge bordered the curb to my immediate right on one particularly well-appointed street, and I was beginning to think about just burrowing into it and crouching beneath the leaves until the worst of the storm passed by and I could make my way back the way I had come when I noticed an old-fashioned low wooden gate in a narrow opening between the bushes and just beyond it, what appeared to be a fair-sized gardener's shed. I guessed the shed was locked -- I couldn't imagine anyone in this part of town leaving their property open to the public. This was one of those antiquated single-story outbuildings sheathed with heavy stucco plaster, with large overhanging eaves that stood out at least six feet past the vertical walls of the shed itself. It looked like a mountaineer's hut from one of the Grimm brothers' fanciful stories, except the roof was shingled instead of being thatched, as it would likely have been in one of those mysterious tales from the past. There was no one around that I could see and the rain was starting to fall in earnest now, so I lifted the little hook latch of the hedge gate and let myself onto the spacious yard behind the hedge. My plan, what there was of it, was to just huddle against the outside wall of the shed and let the ample eaves above me ward off the rain. Once it let up, I could make use of the little wooden gate again and escape back to the street with no harm done and nobody the wiser.
The rain was drumming on the shed roof now. It was coursing down in sheets from the edge of the eaves directly in front of me, but the little building was trenched well and graveled where the bulk of the water struck the ground and I noticed the opening of a French drain at the end of the trench nearest the ligustrum hedge and the street. Somebody was taking good care of this place, no doubt about that. It was ready for this kind of weather, a happy circumstance for me.
The storm wasn't as furious after the first bands of dark clouds passed over. It was falling steadily but the mulch under my shoes was dry there against the shed's outer wall and after a while I allowed myself to sink to the ground with my legs crossed in front of me. Tilting my head back against the wall, Iulled by the sound of the rain on the roof, I allowed myself to fall into a doze.
I don't know how long I slept but when I began to regain consciousness I couldn't help but notice there was a man standing on the wet grass a few feet away from where I was still leaning against the building wall. He was about my age but slightly heavier, with close-cropped gray hair partially covered by a wide-brimmed straw hat such as a farmer might wear while engaged in his everyday outdoor work. He must have been standing there for several minutes just watching me sleep -- the hat he was wearing dripped water from its brim and his raincoat and rubber boots were totally wet. When he saw that I was awake and alert he smiled and gave a little nod, as if he had somehow been responsible for arranging for the two of us to meet in this peculiar way -- me trespassing upon his well-kept lawn to seek shelter by huddling against his gardener's storage shed, he standing there in the rain, watching me snooze like a drugged baboon.
"Nice place to stay dry, that," he said, accompanying his words with a slightly more emphatic nod, indicating my location. Then, before I could speak, he said, "Mind if I join you?" and before I could think of anything to say that wasn't simply ridiculous -- it was his shed, and I was helping myself to the use of it, after all -- he shucked off the wet things he was wearing and plopped himself down next to me, where like me, he leaned against the plastered wall. "Not bad," he said. "You picked the right side of the place to take shelter, friend. The other side is pretty well soaked."
"I'm Cooper," he said then. "I know it looks silly when a grown man takes a walk around his yard smack in the middle of a rainstorm, but I do it about this time every day, so I guess it's just a habit, rain or shine."
I was about to proffer my own name just to be polite, but suddenly there came a great clap of thunder right above us that made both of us jump, and I momentarily lost my train of thought.
Cooper gave a kind of nervous chuckle once we both determined there was no real danger threatening us. He shifted around a bit in the packed mulch we were sitting on, then stretched both arms above his head. "Lightning used to scare the dickens out of me when I was a kid," he said. "I would dive under my bed with a flashlight and a book and read to myself until the storm outside moved on and I felt safe enough to crawl back out from under the bed."
"What did you read, mostly?" I said, mainly just to appear interested in his story. "Do you remember?"
He lowered his arms, clasping his hands behind his neck. His eyes were on the clouds still racing overhead and for a moment I mimicked his gaze, looking skyward myself. "Sure, I remember," he said. "It was Kipling. It was just about always Kipling."
"The novels or the stories?" I said after a moment's hesitation, because right at that precise instant almost nothing was further from my mind than the written works of Rudyard Kipling. I had read the first and second Jungle Books when I was a boy, though, myself. I vaguely recalled attempting to read one or another of the novels, though I could not bring to mind which of those books it may have been. Cooper saved me the mild distress of my effort to bring a book title to mind, though.
"It was the Jungle Books," he said. "The ones where the animals talk to each other."
"The Mowgli stories," I said.
"Right, those," he said. "No matter what the weather was doing outside, I could always lose myself in those stories. Not all of them have Mowgli in them, though. There's that one about the mongoose and the snakes, and one about a white seal, too."
"Rikki-Tikki-Tavi," I said, "--and, The White Seal."
Cooper seemed excessively pleased to have discovered another individual who had read the Kipling stories, even within the unusual context of our incidental meeting. "Those creatures scheme," he said. "They make elaborate plans for tricking one another into falling into traps or getting lost in parts of the jungle where they've never been before, and lots of other stuff. When I was a boy hiding under my bed, I would read about the things they said they were going to do and it made me want to be there with them, instead of being stuck in the house here with my parents."
I let that sink in a bit -- apparently the mansion upon the grounds of which sat the neat little shed we were presently using for shelter was also the home my companion had grown up in. Maybe he had a wife and kids of his own who were living there now. It could be one of those extended-family dwellings where each branch of the tribe is housed in a separate wing of the place, as quaint as that notion seems in these modern times.
"You were brought up in this place, then?" I said.
He nodded, still eyeing the scudding clouds overhead. "Except for when I was sent away to school, yes." His glance dropped from overhead to the impenetrable hedge just a few yards away from where we were sitting. "I helped plant that hedge," he said, apropos of nothing we had been talking about. "There was a man named Carver who showed me what to do. We helped each other. As a matter of fact, he still works here." At that, he looked around as if the man he had mentioned might appear at any moment. "He's getting pretty old now," he said. "My wife keeps him on just to follow me around, I think."
I was beginning to take a liking to Mr. Cooper. He could have simply ordered me off his property or sent for the police to cart me away, and of course I would have complied in either case. Instead, he'd begun chatting with me as if we were old school buddies, without exhibiting a whit of distress that I was a stranger who was trespassing on the grounds of his familial home -- maybe not an out-and-out bum in the purest sense of the word, but certainly an uninvited guest. I was about to probe a little bit more into the workings of his mansion with a view toward discovering a little more about the place and its nebulous history when he started in on the subject himself.
"My father inherited quite a lot of money that became his to control at around the age of twenty-five or so," he said. "He could have just left it alone to gather interest in the usual way and our family would have gotten along fine, but he wanted to stay busy so he founded an insurance company based just on the fact that he had the money to do so -- he didn't actually spend any of it, though. Apparently just the fact that he possessed it was sufficient to get the ball rolling, and within a fairly short while the business was operating totally in the black." As the rain continued to fall, though with less intensity than it had previously, I just sat back and continued to listen.
"Everything was going along fine until my parents sent me away to school." He gave a brief sidelong glance that took me in -- my worn shoes, my scruffy haircut and baggy trousers. "No insult intended," he said, "--but I don't imagine you've ever attended a private school, have you?"
"No, indeed," I said. "My folks never had that kind of money. My dad was a postman. It put food on the table, of course, but that was about it."
"Well, it's not the paradise most people think it is," he said. "I tried several places until we managed to find one I could tolerate--" here he allowed himself a kind of little shy grin, like a rich kid who knows he won't be punished might do if caught doodling at his desk in the classroom "--and that could tolerate me. I brought my Kipling storybooks with me to wherever I was sent to school, and while everybody else was doing schoolwork or at least pretending they were doing it, I was re-reading all those fantastic jungle stories.
"They worked on me like pills sometimes work on schizophrenics," he said. "When I got older I began to realize that what Kipling had done with his writing was create a world for people like me to hide in. I've always been grateful for that. He's been dead and gone for quite a while now, but the world he created is as alive as ever."
"So you still read and re-read the Jungle Books, then?" I said.
After a brief moment of silence had elapsed, Cooper said, "No, not anymore. My wife found where I kept all my books and put those away, along with a few others. She says as long as I read children's literature, I'll always remain a child."
It sounded like the wife ran the show around that stately house, not that an arrangement like that is particularly rare or even necessarily a bad thing. There are plenty of women who can run a house like an eight-day clock. I didn't want to second-guess the situation, as it didn't have very much to do with me, anyway. Still, the comment about a man being a child if he allowed himself the pleasure of reading the Kipling stories did rub me the wrong way, a little bit -- it seemed like such a harmless pastime.
"My wife is a clinical psychologist," Cooper said. "However, when we got married I became her only patient, or client, or whatever practitioners of the behavioral sciences call the people whose thoughts they attempt to put into alignment. I guess once she discovered how much money was already in the kitty she decided to devote her life to keeping me sane -- according to her standards, anyway."
"Your mother and father are no longer alive?" I said.
"Not for many years," he said.
"You and your wife have no children?"
"No," said Cooper. "We tried for a long time, but it was no dice."
"So it's just the two of you and -- what did you say the man who works here's name is -- Carter?"
"It's Carver," he said, "--though I doubt he'll live many more years, himself. My father hired him as a groundskeeper back when I was barely old enough to walk."
Neither of us noticed it when the rain stopped, perhaps because the sky was still cloudy and there was a fair breeze blowing.
"Mr. Cooper--" I said.
"Just "Cooper" is fine," he said. "You can call me Coop if you want to -- that's what they used to call me at school, back when."
"Ok -- Coop it is, then," I said. Then I said, "Coop, I don't think you really need to be psychoanalysed." Both of us still sat side by side in the neatly-spread mulch surrounding the shed. Ok, he sounds a bit nutty, was what I was thinking. Then I thought, but he's no crazier than I am, or anybody else is.
"I think I hear somebody coming," Coop said. At first I hadn't noticed the sound of footsteps in the wet grass, but then I did. Even though the lawn was closely cut the mat of wet grass was thick enough that the sound of a person walking on it could still be discerned.
A mature yet attractive woman carrying a large, folded umbrella appeared from the other side of the shed. "Ah, there you are," she said to Coop. "And with a new friend to keep you company during this inclement weather -- better than facing it alone, one might suppose."
I attempted to get to my feet, but the lady -- I assumed it was Cooper's wife, the psychoanalyst -- waved me back down with her free hand. "Formalities are unnecessary, I'm sure," she said. "You and my husband are obviously getting along famously already -- no need for me to spoil the visit merely by showing up. Please continue as you were."
"This is my wife, Nagaina," said Coop. "Hello, Dear."
"Ah, another Kipling allusion," said Mrs. Cooper. "A rather unkind one, too. Did I deserve that jab, Darling?"
"I was only joking," said Coop. "Of course you're not a cobra."
"Thank you for exhibiting your good manners, then," said his wife. "I'm sure your
new friend is impressed, though in what way does tend to place at least my imagination under a little strain."
During this exchange between the two of them I had managed at last to get to my feet, brush the mulch from my trousers, and in general straighten my posture. "I made a snap decision, ma'am," I said. "The rain caught me off-guard and I saw your shed would keep me dry, even though it meant I'd be obliged to become a temporary trespasser. Mr. Cooper discovered me here and was kind enough to let me weather the storm under these eaves, as you've seen. I've enjoyed his company. He's quite a talker -- it's been a pleasure to meet him."
"Yes, he can be a rare breed of conversationalist when he's inclined to indulge his abilities in that direction," she said. "When we first met I thought he was the most brilliant young man I might ever hope to be acquainted with -- of course, we were very young then -- neither of us knew the other very well at all. We had no past history, no family connections, nothing like that. When he first brought me to this house and introduced me to his parents it still all seemed quite natural and even relaxed and normal, at times. Like most of us I suppose, the preponderance of each of our mental and emotional makeups lay concealed beneath the social graces we had been taught as children. In short, I was all but totally unaware of the depth of his fears. He was not privy to my desire to gently unravel such things and by doing so, make people happy."
All throughout this eloquent little speech of his wife's, Coop remained silent. Finally he got to his feet and stood beside me. He was still in his socks and without being asked, his wife bent down and retrieved his rain boots from the place where he had dropped them earlier and silently handed him the pair, which by this time were at least partially dry. He bent down, brushed the mulch from the soles of his socks, and one by one slipped the boots back on. "Thanks, Dear," he said. Mrs. Cooper nodded. "Nobody likes walking in wet grass in nothing but his socks," she said. She followed this brief statement by saying, "I'm going to see this gentleman out. You may tell him goodbye if you wish." She indicated the route we would take to reach the little wooden gate I had used to enter the grounds back when the rain started, then began walking firmly but unhurriedly that way.
Coop was still standing beside me there beneath the eaves of the shed. His arms hung at his sides and he was looking straight ahead, toward the departing rain clouds. "So long, Coop," I said, and held out my hand. "Thanks for letting me stay dry and for the good conversation."
When this elicited no response from him, I caught a movement out of one eye and when I turned my head I saw Mrs. Cooper waving me to come on, so without repeating what I had said, I turned away from the man and followed her to the little gate. I decided not to look back. It seemed pointless. My bemused friend, mentally slipping into some private inner space of his own where other voices or even just everyday sounds made no impression, had withdrawn from further talk for the time being.
Mrs. Cooper, meanwhile, waited for me to walk back the way I had come before, then to stand beside her at the gate. I started to thank her again for allowing me to take shelter there throughout the rain shower, but she spoke to me before I could draw enough breath to get the words out of my mouth.
"My husband is not crazy," she said quietly, glancing back toward the gardener's shed. "He is, however, fearful of many things most people take for granted as being simply parts of our lives that, like it or not, we are forced to deal with often -- sometimes every day. His current behavior emphasizes that point, I fear. Still, I'm glad you happened to appear at our home today. It's evident that he enjoyed having someone other than myself to talk to, if only for a short while. Furthermore, someone who shares his enthusiasm for Mr. Kipling's jungle stories. That was a nice unexpected addition to his daily routine, and I'm sure very welcome indeed."
She glanced past me toward the street, which was still mostly quiet. Every now and then an automobile would pass, with the only sound being the swish of its tires on the smooth asphalt surface. "I can have Carver drive you back to your home," she said. "It will be no trouble at all, and it must be quite a walk from here."
I thanked her for the offer, but told her I would just walk back to the place I had first entered their -- to me, unique -- enclave. "There's a bus line that runs right past the entrance to your neighborhood," I told her. "I'll just catch a ride at the stop there."
"As you wish," she said.
"There is one topic I'd like to mention before I go," I said. At first I'd thought to just let the matter lie, but my curiosity got the better of me. I said, "Coop told me you took away all his Kipling books along with some others of his you thought were causing him to cling to his childhood. My thought is this: Do you truly feel his reading those stories causes him to remain trapped somewhere in his mind as a mental child? It just seems outlandish and unlikely to me that something as innocuous as a Kipling fantasy story might possess the power to entrap the mind of an adult, especially of a man as obviously intelligent as your husband appears to be." Then I added, "Please forgive the intrusion into your private affairs -- it's just that he mentioned it to me during the storm, and I can't seem to shake it off. It was bothering him a good deal, that was plain to see. My own imagination wouldn't allow me to recognize that a notion like that could have much therapeutic value, if any."
"That's because it's not true," said Mrs. Cooper. "My husband is free to read anything he wishes, at any time he chooses to do so."
"Then why," I began, "--would..."
Without waiting for me to finish, she said, "For dramatic emphasis regarding his condition, I suppose is the best and simplest way to put it. To punish a child, a parent often elects to take away his or her favorite things until the unacceptable behavior stops. Cooper is very clever, and you're a total stranger. He was "playing" you, I suppose one might say, though I'm equally certain he meant no harm by doing so. For him it just established a bond between the two of you, making your shared situation much easier to tolerate. You're the first stranger he's interacted with spontaneously in more years than I care to attempt to recall."
This last comment shifted what had transpired into a new light. Years of everyday talk with no one but his wife and a doddering old servant, then one day on a walk around the home grounds that had been repeated daily for decades, a stranger appears, sheltering from a passing storm. A man who liked Kipling, no less.
"How do you know he's not playing you?" I said to her. We were still standing at the little gate, facing the street. "He mentioned to me that once you discovered the true condition of the financial situation the two of you currently enjoy, you disengaged yourself from all your other patients and settled into practicing your therapies on just him and him alone." Immediately after saying this it struck me how personal and insulting it must have sounded, especially when taken in conjunction with the consideration I had been shown by these two unusual but generous people and the fact that I myself had described my own remarks as intrusive, not to say rude.
While I still struggled to see it all through her husband's eyes and also as these inner thoughts played out, I failed to notice when Mrs. Cooper was done with our little verbal exchange and somehow managed to stride unseen across her vast lawn and disappear into the distant house. The little gate's latch sprang open in my hand and I stepped through the opening in the hedge, closing the gate behind me.
From the direction of the gardener's shed and out of the range of my vision, I imagined seeing Coop still standing there, leaning alone against the side of the building, absorbed in watching the diminishing bank of rain clouds form the shapes of the jungle-covered slopes of the fictional Seeonee Hills, a refuge for their unusual make-believe inhabitants and for a man trapped in perennial isolation by his stubborn, unrelenting boyhood fears.
Then I started thinking about all the times I had wished I was rich, of having so much money in the bank I would never have to give money a second thought. Compared to me, at the very least these peculiar folks were certainly rich. The fascination with Kipling's fantasies seemed to fit into the overall scene like a missing jigsaw puzzle piece as well, joyfully discovered long after being given up as irrevocably lost. I had helped this miniature circus parade along by momentarily becoming that missing piece, or so I envisioned the shape of my role in things.
The afternoon's theatrics remained on my mind as the minutes ticked by, even though Coop stayed out of sight. Our brief interlude of conviviality ended as spontaneously as it had begun once the rain was gone and Mrs. Cooper had escorted me to the little garden gate. Perhaps I should keep an eye on the weather forecast and return the next stormy day, I thought. Even as I allowed myself to daydream over such a future meeting it occurred to me how silly the idea really was: two adult men -- one rich, one poor -- waiting for a rainy day to maybe arrange our lives in order for a possible chance encounter to take place. Actually, any arrangements to be made would be mine to conceptualize and put into effect -- my wealthy friend would merely be engaged in taking his daily stroll around the grounds of his aging yet respectable estate. And, I thought, he's the one consumed by a lifelong bevy of amorphous fears, thunderstorms being the only one I knew of with certainty -- a man soothed by the magical nature of the tales of a long-departed English writer, likely a bigger nut than the two of us put together, if I'm honest with myself. He should be the one of us to compose any stratagems designed to continue our acquaintance, was my thought. According to his live-in psychoanalyst and helpmate, however, this turn of events was unlikely. I had no reason to disbelieve her.
As I made my way back toward the portion of the civilized world that was mine to roam about in freely, I felt as if the imaginary creatures inhabiting Mr. Kipling's jungle stories padded along behind me, passing in and out of the lengthening shadows along the way. Nut, I thought. Coop's comment about how the animals schemed popped up again inside my skull, causing me to produce a wry chuckle. Two hours spent ducking out of the rain with a jazzed-up rich man and here I was toddling along my way, thinking about talking animals that inhabited the distant wilds of colonial India, a place I had never been and would certainly never be. I started silently reciting the word Nut now, in time with the sound of my own footsteps: Nut, Nut... Nut, Nut, Nut...
But with the afternoon hours past and evening time increasingly coming on, my brain slowly shifted gears yet again, trending toward a slightly insistent fogginess involving both imagination and the will to continue moving forward, and all I could think about was maintaining the rhythm of my walk back to the bus stop, where for just the sum of the change in my pocket I could catch a ride home.
C.W. Arnim is a native of southeast Texas. Between tropical storms and newsworthy episodes of street violence, flooding, and just everyday life events, he attempts to explore the mysteries contained within the thoughts of friends, relatives, and anyone else with a story to tell.