The Old Man
The Old Man dropped the last floured quail into the hot grease and wiped his whitened hands on a towel. He watched, as the battered bird began its golden-brown transformation, and gently placed the lid on the skillet. Turning toward the large bay window, he noticed that the snow was still falling through the back porch light. It was a windless snow, falling heavily at times, and the Old Man felt a contented comfort in the warm farmhouse. His wealth, he reckoned, was not in the small amount of money he had managed to save over the years, but in the tremendous row of split firewood just outside the window. His contentment was found somewhere between the smells of frying quail and his wealth of a winter’s supply of split firewood. The Old Man smiled to himself as the snow continued to fall.
Suddenly the black dog sprang to her feet and began barking frantically at the door. Above the dog’s violent protesting of the unfamiliar outside sounds, the Old Man heard knocking at the front door. He turned on the porch light and looked through the frosted window to see a man in a light sport coat with the collar turned up against his neck. Wet snow clung to his hatless head. The visitor was shaken from the cold and the Old Man noticed his hands had turned red, as had his ears and nose.
“Sit,” commanded the Old Man, and the black dog immediately responded. The door opened slowly as the Old Man’s eyes met the man on the porch.
“Can I help ya?”
“My name is Arthur Bedly and I was wondering if I could use your phone. My car slid off the road and I need to call the Auto Club.”
The Old Man studied on that for a minute. He reckoned there was no danger in this stranger, especially since it was obvious that he was near frozen.
“Well, I’ll tell ya’ friend, I’m not real sure about your success in finding an “auto club” around these parts, but you’re welcome to come in and warm up a bit.”
Arthur Bedley was now hesitant. He had been so grateful to see the lights of the farmhouse from the road only moments before, but now he was not sure about this old man at the door, who talked so slowly while he remained painfully cold on the porch. A snow flake fell to the back of his neck and he quickly stepped into the warmth of the farmhouse.
The black dog growled and Arthur Bedley felt the fear in his stomach. He had never known a dog to like him, and since childhood, had been nervously apprehensive about canines,
“Will your dog bite?” he asked.
“Not unless I tell her to,” smiled the Old Man. “It’s alright girl. It’s O.K.” The black dog wagged its tail at the sound of the Old Man’s voice. “How far down the road is your car?”
The stranger shivered. “Three or four miles, I suppose. Just past a little bridge.”
“That’s Salmon Branch. ‘Bout a mile.” The Old Man reached for the man’s coat. “I’ll take that for you. It looks wet.”
“Oh, thank you. I’ll just call the Auto Club and be on my way. I don’t want to be a burden.”
The Old man smiled as he placed the coat on a rack in the corner.
“Mr. Bedly, I hate to disappoint you, but there’s no such animal around here. You’re in the river hills of the Tennessee. Now, I’ll be happy to call old Gooseneck Jim and he’ll pull ya’ out with his wrecker. That’s about the best you’ll do tonight.”
“Anything you could do to help me get out of this country as quickly as possible would be greatly appreciated,” said the stranger in an accent that pinned him as a resident of some State to the North.
The Old Man raised his eyebrows. “I’ll make that call. Make yourself comfortable.”
Arthur Bedley surveyed the room in the Old Man’s absence. He noticed how out of place his sport coat looked on the rack with the other clothes. There was a faded denim jacket with a corduroy collar, and a green felt hat that was worn so badly that the creases in the crown were torn. A brown vest with leather on the shoulder was hanging on the end, and the pouch on the back of the vest was stained. A small tan feather protruded from the pouch. On the hearth of the fireplace stood three pairs of boots, one of which was wet. All of the boots were scratched and wrinkled with use.
There was a massive gun case in the corner, containing dark-stocked guns of various lengths. Above the guns was a wooden plaque holding a tremendous set of deer horns, he supposed. Maybe they were moose, he thought.
In the opposite corner, next to the fireplace, was the Old Man’s chair. There were stacks of hard-covered books on the floor by the chair and above the chair was the most beautiful feather arrangement he had ever seen.
“Gooseneck said he’d be out directly,” said the Old Man as he entered the den. “He’s just finishing supper.”
“Wonderful, thanks so much for calling. I was just admiring your feather arrangement on the wall. Does someone locally make those?”
The Old Man smiled. “That particular fellow was local. Twenty-three pounds and gobblin’ his head off.”
Arthur Bedly looked confused.
“It’s a turkey fan,” said the Old Man. “The tail feathers of a wild turkey.”
“Oh,” whispered the stranger. “You killed him.”
The Old Man sat in his reading chair and the black dog nuzzled his knee.
“Sit down Mr. Bedly. It’ll be a few minutes before the wrecker gets here.”
The visitor found comfort in the couch across from the Old Man, who was preparing his pipe.
“Where you from Mr. Bedley?”
“Chicago. The North side.”
The Old Man struck a kitchen match, and presented it to the tobacco.
“And what brings you South?”
“Business. I had a meeting in Atlanta and decided to drive. I’ve never been south to see the scenery. I took a wrong turn about an hour ago and I really don’t have any idea where I am.”
“Are you hungry?” asked the Old man. “I’ve got a skillet of quail fryin’ in the kitchen. Be ready in just a minute.”
Arthur Bedly frowned. “Oh no! You see I am totally opposed to the killing of animals. Feel very strongly about that. No offense, you understand . . . but I’ve progressed in my life to the point where a man must take a stand against certain atrocities. Killing wild animals for sport is terribly wrong.”
“Sport my backside,” puffed the Old Man. “I eat’em.”
“Well . . .,” the visitor smiled.
“I feel that we can talk plain to each other, Mr. Bedley.” The Old Man paused. “After all, you’ve taken refuge from the winter cold in my house; you’ve used the courtesy of my phone and my friend, who’s fixin’ to come pull you out. I’ve offered you supper and a seat to rest your bones. And, you have the audacity to tell me my lifestyle includes atrocities against the land. You have the nerve to tell me I am wrong. Well . . . I reckon I’m gonna talk plain back to you.” The Old Man smiled. “No offense now you understand.”
Mr. Bedly nodded. The Old Man calmly continued.
“I suppose that every man needs a noble cause, especially in this day and time, but it just galls my backside when people like yourself, who don’t know a turkey fan from an elephant trunk, like to identify themselves with the protection of animals. You can condemn hunters because that makes you feel noble in your circle of friends, but to condemn the companies that pollute our waters, land and air is not so noble. It’s not noble, because to condemn those people is condemning the very people that make it possible for you to remain isolated from the reality of the land’s teachings. What I’m saying is that I can understand how being ‘Bambie’s’ Saviour would be very noble among your social circle of friends.”
“How do you know who my social circle includes Mr. . . . .I don’t believe you’ve ever said your name.”
“Samuel Acree Kenton is my name, pleased to make your acquaintance . . . and I can I can guarantee you that I know who is not in your social circle. And seein’ as how there are only two sides in this issue -those who understand the land and those who don’t, I reckon I know who might be in your circle.”
“The point is not my friends Mr. Kenton, but more basic. The killing of animals is the issue.”
“The killing of animals is not the issue,” the Old Man continued in a low voice. “The issue here is a difference in basic life values.”
“Are you saying that your country living has to include the killing? I think not. You can live in the country and not hunt and be perfectly happy.”
“True.” The Old Man raised an index finger in emphasis. “One can live in the country and not understand nature’s laws, or one can live smack dab in the middle of New York and be perfectly knowledgeable. A man’s residence has nothing to do with his ability to see clearly. And, for that reason, you do not have to be a prisoner to grocery stores for bulk of your food, or television for entertainment, or debated for your competition.”
“I can’t help it Mr. Kenton.” Arthur Bedly paused. “Your killing offends me.”
The Old Man smiled. “Your ignorance saddens me, Mr. Bedly, and offends the land.”
“. . . . but my way is so much more civilized.”
“Do you reckon that man is so smart that he can civilize himself to live above the laws of this planet?. . . which include the deaths of animals to ensure survival of others. This perfect plan of continuing life includes the deaths of everything that lives Mr. Bedley. That is the law. Now you can remove yourself from these deaths by only looking at meat through cellophane windows at the supermarket, or by thinking that the deaths of cattle or hogs or chickens is different from me hunting quail or deer of ducks or turkey, but the only difference is that while I hunt I learn about life. When you shop for your food you learn nothing about the values of the land. Your way is a grand illusion based on man’s departure from the land and it will make sense when turkeys start roostin’ under water.”
The stranger laughed. “My first impression of you was an uneducated, senile, pennyless old man. You’re a worthy opponent Mr. Kenton. I misjudged you. But, your logic is still very primitive and I’m afraid, at your age, it is too late for you to understand.”
The Old Man relighted his pipe. “It’s not my logic Mr. Bedly. It is the teachings of a generous plan that explains the answers to a wondering Old Man who remains grateful for his time here. Man has been hunting for ten thousand years. Only recently has he been confronted with the possibility of living a full life without really knowing where his food ultimately came from, or getting to know the friend who provided it . . the land . . . or its maker . . take your pick. They are both the same.”
The visitor started to speak, but the revolving orange lights of Gooseneck’s wrecker invaded the dimness of the den.
“Well, Gooseneck will take care of you now, Mr.Bedly. I hope you reach Chicago in one piece.”
Arthur Bedly retrieved his wet coat from the rack and stood at the door.
“I want to thank you for your hospitality Mr. Kenton. It’s really been nice to meet you. Maybe we’ll see each other again some day.”
The Old Man opened the door for his visitor and smiled.
“Don’t make it up to Chicago real often you understand . . but if I do . . .”
“Well, thanks again.” And Mr. Bedly made his way off the porch toward the awaiting wrecker. Suddenly he stopped and turned around.
“Maybe, Mr. Kenton, you should take up golf. It’s less violent.”
The Old Man stepped to the porch and waved at Gooseneck. He then turned to the stranger in the snow.
“You know Mr. Bedly, I chased me a golf ball once . . but it left no sign for me to ponder on.”
“I don’t understand,” yelled the man in the snow.
“I know,” said the Old Man. “I know.”
Arthur Bedly shrugged his shoulders and started again toward the orange lights. The Old Man watched as the snow fell over the sides of the visitor’s low-cut shoes.
When the lights of the wrecker disappeared in the snow, the Old Man walked to his woodpile and retrieved an armful. He glanced at the chimney, billowing soft white smoke that fell slowly to the ground. The black dog was running in fast circles in the fresh white snow and barking playfully at the Old Man.
“C’mon girl, all this talkin’s make me hungry as a bear and we’ve got a supper fit for a king.”
Black dog barked and together they made their way through the snow to the house.