Emporia, Kansas, is hot today. The mostly brick and concrete downtown is a throwback to 1953. The weather feels like I’ve just jumped rope in the attic.
I am sitting on a bench, counting cars, eating soft serve ice cream.
I’ve lost count.
I remember my redheaded father bringing me to Emporia as a kid when he had errands to run. I had to hold his hand when we’d cross the street. He’d waltz into a hardware store, and talk to the old men behind store counters.
The old timers all talked the same—they added “now” to the ends of their sentences.
“Okay, now,” an old man might’ve said, messing up my ugly red hair. “Be a good boy, now. Listen to your daddy, now. Hear me, now?”
“Bye, now,” would be the typical farewell greeting.
And my father would always return their goodbyes with: “Alright, then.”
My father could make conversation with a fire hydrant. He was especially chatty with total strangers. And they would usually open right up to him. I don’t know how he did it.
Maybe it was his red hair that made him so easy to talk to.
A green Chevy truck pulls to the curb. A teenage boy leaps from the driver’s seat. The boy is all business. He helps an elderly couple from the vehicle.
The old man wears a camouflage ball cap. He can’t seem to move one side of his body. A stroke, I’m thinking.
The old woman’s silver hair is in a tight bun. She is every farmer’s wife since the Eisenhower Administration.
Together, they all hobble across the street in a three-person clot. The teenager supports them both with lanky arms.
The boy is moving nice and easy, making sure they don’t trip.
They are only inside the store for a few minutes. Then, they exit. The old man holds the boy, dragging a foot on the pavement. The old woman is sipping Coca-Cola from a bottle.
They cross the street again.
And I am Joe Social today, for some reason. I haven’t always been as chatty as I am now, but this town does something to me. Or maybe it’s my hair.
The old man is talkative even though he can’t move his face. He speaks in moans I can’t understand.
“He’s telling you that it’s unusually hot outside.”
“You can say that again,” I tell him.
The old man laughs. His face contorts. His happy, grunting voice is pure music. And our conversation begins.
Granny says they live in the country. Their entire lives have been spent filling silos, raising cattle, and attending church four nights per week. Now they’re too old to do much more than an occasional Sunday service.
The boy is their grandson.
“He takes good care of us,” Granny says.
Grandson blushes. He is about sixteen. Tall, lanky, boots, belt buckle. Granny kisses him on the lips. He blushes even harder.
I don’t get to hear their whole story, but she tells me a few pieces of it.
They inherited their grandson during their elderly years, after the boy’s parents divorced. Drugs were implicated. When the child was two, he was found alone in an empty house near Topeka, he’d been there for a week.
So, during the sunset of their lives, they welcomed a two-year-old into their home. They fought off old age for as long as they could and guided a boy into a manhood.
And that’s about all she tells me because it’s time for them to leave. They’ve got a lot of errands today.
The boy helps his grandfather into the truck. The old woman stands on the curb, watching.
In the truck window, I see the boy buckle the old man‘s seatbelt. The old man rests his head onto the boy’s shoulder for a moment. Then, the boy kisses his grandfather’s forehead.
If there is a sight more holy in this world, I’ve yet to see it.
Before the old woman steps into the vehicle, she looks at me and says: “Take care, now.”
“Alright then,” I say.
The truck rolls away. And I’m glad I have red hair.