by Mark Poe
The first time I saw the old man he was sitting in a ragged armchair on a drooping front porch that matched his persona. Weather-beaten and worn down by time, the boards of the floor and the overhang was gray, twisted and split. To his left side was a small table that had been nailed together by his own hands from discarded pieces of found boards. A mostly dead bottle of Old Crow whiskey held center stage to the tabletop. He sat slumped from the punch of the contents of the bottle. Arms resting on his knees and head down in a sign of defeat or possibly in prayer for a savior to end the sadness. “Hey, kid. You wanna hear a story?” Of course, I wanted to hear a story. Until now, I was unaware he knew I was there. I look back now and wonder if this is an actual memory or a sepia-colored dream from some dark night of broken sleep.
The grayed board shotgun house had always been in view from the front yard of my home. I sat and stared from time to time but never ventured close. It seemed dull and void of life, much like the old man that was currently adorning the front. In my cluttered youthful mind, I had kicked rocks down the old gravel road in the sunlight of this fine spring morning closer than I ever intended. Daydreams of a 12-year-old boy are many and fleeting so the sound of another’s voice froze me in my tracks. After the invitation for a story, my mind switched to the real world of what to do. Turn and run was high on the list but the offer of a story of an old man was dragging me within feet of the concrete block steps leading closer to him. He was wearing an old pair of slicked over Big Smiths with a flannel shirt underneath. The sleeves had been cut, or possibly chewed from the look of the ragged edges, to make a short-sleeve shirt for better ventilation. From this distance, I instantly became aware of the need for such when an ever-slight breeze brought a stout aroma of unkempt body to my face. His head was covered with a black hat that shone like leather but was probably plastic. Pouring out from each rim was yellowed hair that had tinged over time and nicotine from hand-rolled cigarettes. His brogan boots had no strings through the laces but were tied around the top with trotline staging to keep him from walking out of them. He raised his head to look at me. My eyes froze on his blue eyes that leaped from the rest of his broken features. His toothless mouth was framed by a ragged brush pile of a beard that was stained the same as the ends of his hair.
“Names Ray. What’s yourn?”
“My name is Mark, but everyone calls me Map.”
“Nice to meet you Map. So, you want to hear a story huh? Didn’t your old man and your Momma tell you to never talk to strangers?”
“Yes sir. But you’re a neighbor so I figured it was ok.”
He was close enough that my senses were burned by the rich, fiery smell of the whiskey.
“Let’s go in. I gotta get a bite to eat. You hungry? Ain’t got much a kid would like probably but I can make you a jam sandwich.”
“I do like grape.”
“Hell, I reckon but I was talking about jamming two pieces of light bread together.”
With that, he leaned his head back and cackled out a laugh. The laugh trailed off and he stumbled getting up from the chair. He caught himself by grabbing the door frame before swinging open the warped screen door that filled most of the opening. The inside was musty and smelled of the old man that lived there. It was only neatly kept because of the sparse furnishings. One old Naugahyde chair with busted arms that was spilling out stuffing. An old footstool in front of it with another side table. I’m assuming that was the living room. The walls were void of any family pictures or clocks or mirrors. Just a smattering of torn faded paper hanging on by some unknown substance. A broom had never touched the floor of this cave-like room. His stumbling gate highlighted the areas of the dust-covered floor that he frequented like the block lines of a trail map. The headline of one newspaper that covered the single window was the most interesting sight as I headed through the small opening into the kitchen. The busted linoleum floor hung the toes of my shoes as I sheepishly made my way to the table. His crusted hands were digging into a bread sack that showed holes chewed through by rodents. The bread sack was old and contained only heels. After fishing out a couple, he thumb-hooked the pull tab on a can of potted meat and with his finger, began spreading a layer on the bread.
“Got a friend that works the school lunchroom. None of the kids will eat the heels so she saves them for me and brings them by oncet’ a week. Guess they ain’t never been hungry. I purty much live on potted meat and vienny sausages. Sometimes I treat myself to a can of Sweet Sue. Mostly on cool nights when I build a far outside and can heat the can. Shore you ain’t hungry?”
“Yes sir. I’m sure.”
He mashed the sandwich, bite by bite, between his gums with a smacking sound. He never spoke a word and I was thankful. After the last bite, he threw the empty can in a bucket by the back door. The can bounced off the mound of others and twirled to a stop on the floor.
“Reckon it’s time to take out the garbage. He snatched up the bucket by the rim and headed out into the fresh air. There was no back yard. Only dirt that leads up to the end row of my Dad’s field. He carried the bucket to a hole that he had dug and dumped the contents and set the bucket back inside the door. The hole smelled of unburned refuse and rotten potted meat that had hardened in the corners of the cans his crooked fingers couldn’t reach. I was beginning to feel wary of there ever being a story and the uneasiness of why he was stalling was growing inside me.
“So, Mr. Ray, you was gonna tell me a story?”
“Story huh? Yeah, I will tell you a story. I’ll tell you a story about an old man that was oncet’ a boy just like you ‘cept this boy didn’t get to go to school cause his old man said he couldn’t afford clothes for that crap. That boy wore tow sacks and feed sacks for pants and walked miles and miles of gravel roads picking up empty sodie bottles for him to take to the store to buy a few groceries and his whiskey and snuff. He was barefooted everywhere he went. His feet bottoms were like leather. He would step on broken bottles in the ditches and never bleed. This boy learned to fend for hisself. It was a great day when his daddy would go to sell the bottles cause ol’ man Rodgers that owned the store would slip him a bar of candy or sometimes even a baloney sammich. “
“What about his Mom? Didn’t he have one?”
“Well shore he did but he never did know what happened to her. Long as he could remember, it was just him and the dad. He always wondered tho.”
With the pause in the last statement, I noticed a different look on his face. Obviously, the story was about him and his childhood. His eyes seemed to follow the clouds and I could see the made-up memory of his Mother written on his face. You could tell he had spent many hours wondering what it would have been like to have a mother to hold him when he was hurt or scared. At some point, he created his own personal Mom through the night stars and felt her hugs on the breeze as he gathered bottles. The old worn quilt that was his only bedding would wrap around him and, in his mind, comfort him through the stormy nights like it was her arms. The tired eyes of Old Man Ray had welled with tears and I was unequipped as to the proper words to calm the hurt that was raging in his chest. I choked back my own tears and swallowed the lump that had formed in my throat. When I was reasonably sure I could talk without giving away my sentiment, I simply asked if we could finish the story some other time.
“Yep. If you promise to come visit more. Ain’t got no friends, outside of the lunch lady, and it shore gets lonely sometimes.”
“I promise Mr. Ray”
By the time I had reached the gravel road in front of his house, he had already taken his perch back on the porch and settled into the chair. I waved but he never seemed to notice. I am sure he was contemplating the past promises that had been broken and there was little doubt they had been countless. When I reached my home, I ran and hugged my Mother with a grip that was strong enough for both me and Mr. Ray to feel. My spirit needed him to know the feeling.
Over the course of the next 4 years, I became friends with Mr. Ray. Not long after, the Old Crow bottles were replaced with jelly jar glasses of sweet tea that my Mother sent with me by the gallon. Dad hired him to work on the farm and he became an adopted member of our family. As I grew older, he taught me more about the side of life he had experienced growing up and a few things that Mom and Dad would never approve of. How to make grapevine wreaths off of the vines growing along fencerows. How to make fishing lures out of finishing nails and old beer cans. After my 16th birthday, he showed me how to make homemade wine using blackberries, muscadines, and mulberries that all grew wild along the river close to home. He taught me the proper mixture of honey and water to mix with the fruit and how to tell when the yeast was done working its magic to create nature’s sweet elixir.
Despite the unpleasant memories of an upbringing that would be considered nightmarish by many’s standards, Ray grew to understand the love that he had heard about and yearned for his entire life. He learned the hard lesson of trust and how one has to open their own heart to receive that love many long for. It’s an ugly and oftentimes painful experience, but in the end, it is just that, an experience. Lives are built on experiences and the hope is that once our ticket is punched for the other side, the good outweigh the bad. Ray’s life had been a whirlwind of sorrow, but he now understood that he couldn’t change that time in his life, but he could definitely change his outlook on his future.
The memory is still hazy of the morning my father walked into the house, whispered to my Mother and picked up the phone. My attention had focused on the sight of my Mother covering her mouth with a slight gasp and her head dropping in prayer. Definitely old enough to understand confusion but still childlike in reaction, I heard my Father mumbling from the kitchen with a tone of strength and sadness. The phone receiver hung up and he walked back out, just like a cold wind that found a crease, and left the room chilled. I instantly bounded out the door after him. He had stopped under the old pecan tree and was staring skyward, his hands in his pocket. He never moved as I approached. Once beside him, without a word said, he removed from his pockets his farm hardened hand and placed it on my shoulder and pulled me close. It seemed we stayed in that position for days before he finally spoke.
“Ray’s dead. I went to get him for work and found him in his chair. The police are on their way.”
There were many questions but none that made sense to ask. I was shocked, I was hurt, but oddly in my young mind that had been protected from the dark side of the world, I was mad, with no understanding as to why. I was fully aware of the rules of life. I had been taught from knee-high that everyone would die one day and that we should always be prepared. But what did that mean? How do you prepare for something when you are unsure of the time? Was I mad because he was gone without saying goodbye? Was I mad at God for taking him now, when he was finally enjoying living? All the emotions swarmed on me and I tried to fight them off, but they came at me in waves. The only question I could verbalize out of the storm of words was…
“It was just his time.”
I sat at the edge of my yard, pondering that answer, while the rolling lights of the ambulance and police cars lit up the front of Ray’s house. I watched the gurney being led from the house and off the front porch, followed by the all familiar slap of the front screen door. I watched without ever really seeing it being placed in the back. The spell was broken when the cavalcade of lights drove away down the gravel road. The reality that I would never speak to him again moved front and center in my thoughts. As tears began to wash down my cheeks, there was an instant grasp of the meaning of being prepared. Had I ever told him that he was my friend? Had I shown him how much he had meant? Did he know I loved him like family? He had definitely shown me, by making him apart of my life and my family giving him something he had always wished for, how grateful he was. I had watched a destitute man that had been beaten down at every turn, find happiness and laughter in the later part of his years because someone took the time to notice him. So, preparation wasn’t fully for the one leaving this world but for those left behind. We have to be prepared to leave this world, but we must also be prepared for one’s leaving. If we cherish people, then when their time comes, it’s ok to miss the times spent with them but know in our hearts we made the most of every opportunity. Memories become way more than words of a song at that point. They become a lifeline to people and times that carry us through. He had finished the story he promised me.