The Old Man - Tennessean

Friday, April 7, 2017

The Old Man eased himself into the camp chair and rested his feet on the large, ashen-gray rocks that had contained the fires of the last fourteen days. He had finally found the remedy for the truck’s refusal to start. A wire from the ignition had worn so badly that it had shorted, and while the Old Man loved that truck like a member of his family, it was beginning to irritate him with its frequency of needed attention.

John Kenton appeared shirtless from behind the loaded truck carrying a a gallon milk jug filled with blackberries. His arms and hands were a mosaic of a hundred scratches that had bled slightly before drying. He placed the container carefully on the ground, before sitting in the shade opposite the Old Man.

“You git it fixed?”

“Of course I got it fixed,” spouted the Old Man, “I was workin’ on it, wasn’t I? No thanks to you, I might add. I don’t know what to think of a young man leaving his ol’ grandpappy to labor in the hot sun on a decrepit old truck while he goes off to pick berries. By the way, pass that jug over here.”

John laughed. “You old goat! I tried to help you and you ran me off with the boat paddle. ‘My truck don’t allow nobody workin’ on her except me,’” he mimicked.

The Old Man wasn’t listening.

“Are you deaf or something? I said pass the berries over here. There’s a certain type of berry that grows in these parts that will poison a man. Better let me test’em, seein’ as I’m the oldest and have already had a full life.”

John handed the milk jug across the dead fire to the Old Man.

“Don’t eat them all. They’ll be nice to have on the trip home.”

The Old Man examined the blackened fruit as if it were a precious stone.

“You have to eat ten or twelve of these things before you can tell whether or not they’re the poison kind.” The Old Man smelled the first berry and held it up to the sun, closely observing the color.

“Sometimes you can tell by the color, but I’m not sure about it. My memory fails me sometimes. You know I’m a pretty old feller.”

“It wasn’t the ignition wire like I said, wasn’t it?” smiled John.

“What?” The Old Man chewed slowly on the first berry.

“The ignition wire! You losin’ your hearing along with your memory?”

“Absolutely not,” said the Old Man. “I told you it wasn’t the ignition wire in the beginning. That was right before I took the boat paddle to your backside. You see, my memory’s good as ever.”

“What was it then?”

“It was a broken wire in the kingpin modulator,” he stated flatly.

“The what!” John fell over laughing.

“Kingpin modulator,” the Old Man repeated. His mouth was now full. “They don’t put them on new cars. Discontinued the kingpin modulator back about the time you were wettin’ diapers. It’s not unusual that you wouldn’t have heard about’em, you bein’ practically just a baby and all.”

A red-tailed hawk screamed above them and both men looked skyward as it screamed again.

“I reckon those berries will be all right to eat. Least ways I ain’t died yet. Care for some?”

“Thanks.” John ate a berry, while the Old Man’s eyes returned to the hawk.

“Where’s Beth?”

The Old Man pointed toward the creek. John turned and looked three hundred yards to the east. He could see the girl sitting beneath a giant oak on a knoll that overlooked the emptying of the creek into the Tennessee River.

“If you’re ready to go, I’ll get her.”

“Leave her be,” said the Old Man. “She’ll come along directly.”

“Suits me,” said John. “I’m in no hurry at all.”

“I sure am proud you brought her along, John. She’s a joy.”

John smiled. “Hey, you haven’t got a pain in your stomach have you?”

“Can’t say as I do boy. Why?”

“I don’t know... just thought those berries... aw, forget it. You just look kinda pale, that’s all.”

“I’m not pale at all son, but the first symptom of berry poisoning is obscured vision, especially with colors. Maybe you ought to hold off them for a while. Just to make sure.”

John threw an overripe blackberry at the Old Man, which caught him on the chin.

Elizabeth McKensie rubbed the head of the sleeping Labrador puppy. The dog stretched its legs and opened one eye. Its tail beat the ground briefly before the little retriever found sleep again. The black hair on the puppy’s side was hot from the morning sun, and Elizabeth thought that the dog had grown since their first meeting two weeks before.

She thought back on these last days, which seemed to have gone by so quickly. And yet, this place... this camp... and these men she had shared it with had become such a part of her life that her entire twenty-eight years prior to this trip was now a blur. Two weeks with the Old Man, out here in the middle of nowhere, could do that to a person. His impact on one’s values was hard to understand, but in a short time his enthusiasm for the simplest of nature’s gifts had completely overtaken her. His sincerity about “harvesting happiness,” as he put it, must be the power behind this enthusiasm. A more powerful sincerity she had never known.

She had not been an intruder in this camp, as she first had feared. The Old Man’s excitement about her joining them was real and not imagined. He had not been an untiring host; the first to rise in the mornings and the last to bed at night. He had provided Elizabeth with her own sleeping tent, insisting that if he had only learned one thing about women in his long life, it was that female privacy was essential to outdoor living.

“You may never need that privacy,” he explained the first night, “but knowing that it’s there is important. Like a teddy bear, when you were a child.”

The Old Man’s enthusiasm was heightened, she thought, because this was a new camp. He had found this place only recently, and while the entire experience was new to her, it was especially nice that this land was being presented to John for the first time. The Old Man was like a child revealing the workings of a new toy. They had walked behind him for days as he increased his exploration of this new place. But there was always a specific reason for their roaming.

She had completely forgotten which days had held particular events. Their activities were spontaneous, depending on the interest at the particular time. There was absolutely no reason to remember a Monday from a Tuesday, or a Wednesday from a Thursday. It had become the night of the frog hunt or the day of the ground-hog hunt or the turtle trapping or the float trip.

It had been mid-morning when the Old Man came strolling into camp with the little black dog.

“Can you shoot?” the Old Man asked as he poured a cup of coffee from the blackened pot.

Elizabeth placed her sketch book on the ground beside her.

“I’ve never tried,” she answered.

“You like frog legs?” The Old Man offered the coffee pot in her direction.

“Sure. I mean I ate some once. They were delicious.”

The Old Man smiled. “Tonight I’ll show you frogs sitting fat like small green pumpkins. I found a pond back yonder that I bet hasn’t seen people in years. Where’s John?”

Editor’s Note: Check out our web site, MarshallTribune.com for the rest of this short story, or next week’s paper.