Kentucky. A gas station. This joint looks like it’s about to fall down. Tin roof. Dusty parking lot.
I step inside and shake the cold from my jacket. The first thing I hear is the laughter of old men.
There are four white-hairs seated around an electric heater. They wear plaid. They stare at me long and hard.
This general store is perfect. Wood floors, lopsided ceilings, tall shelves.
Their belly laughs fills the room. And if there’s a better sound on the planet than old men laughing, I don’t know what it is.
This place is part hardware store, part grocery store, part tourist trap. You can buy a bag of corn feed, a jar of mustard, or get a T-shirt that bears the phrase: “My folks got lucky in Kentucky.”
The old boys are talking in a familiar way. They chuckle between every sentence. I overhear them while I am walking the aisles and I have almost forgotten why I’m here. I’m too engrossed in the conversation between men who are solving the world’s problems.
“Can I help you?” one old man says to me.
Coffee. That’s what I’m here for. The hotels I have been staying at for the past few days have served coffee that was an affront to the human race. I’ve sipped water from frog ponds that had more flavor.
“Coffee?” one man says. “Shore thang.”
The old man walks to a low shelf. I follow him.
“Folgers,” he mumbles. “Got it right here.”
“Thanks,” I say.
He glares at me with a smile. “Where’re you from?”
“Me? Oh, I’m from th—”
“NO! WAIT!” he says, holding up his hands. “Don’t tell me, I’m good at this game.”
He adjusts his hearing aid and asks me to say something else.
“You want me to say something else?” I ask.
“Just talk, for crying out loud.”
Welcome to Kentucky.
Before I speak, one of the men hollers: “Don’t listen to him, that old fool couldn’t hear a dump truck driving through a dynamite plant!”
More old-man laughter.
The man waves them off and tells me to speak, so I say a few words.
He listens, then announces, “I got it! Florida! You’re from Florida.”
I am truly impressed.
“Wow,” I say. “That was amazing, how’d—”
“WAIT!” he says. “I ain’t done.” He closes his eyes again and seems to be focusing. “Go on, say something else.”
He snaps his fingers. “You’re from the Panhandle!”
This guy is incredible. He ought to get a job in the carnival.
The old man leads me to the front of the store. And I overhear the others talking. Their conversation has taken a turn from laughter into something more somber. From what I overhear, they are talking about a young woman in town.
One man tells the others that he’s been taking care of her cattle ever since her husband died. Another says he is going over first thing tomorrow morning to caulk her windows and replace gasket on her doors.
One elderly man—who resembles Methuselah’s grandpappy—says he’s going to help her sell her late husband’s car because it will bring in money she could use.
And I can hardly believe what I am hearing.
“Excuse me,” I interrupt. “I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation, what exactly are you talking about?”
The man at the register wears a grim face and says, “My niece, she just lost her husband, she’s got two kids.”
All of a sudden, I know exactly what they are discussing. I am the son of a widow. And even though there are a few states lying between these men and my homeplace, I know their kind.
The day after my father died, several old men in plaid showed up on our porch.
Mister Jeffers crawled onto our roof and repaired a leaky patch over our guest bedroom. Mister Lonnie repaired a rotten piece of a door jamb—and I helped. Mister Jon change the oil in my mother’s car.
These men. They are not strangers. They are the men I’ve known my whole life. They are solid. They are good. And they are beautiful. I wish I could stay and talk, but I don’t have time.
I place my money on the counter. I bid them good day.
Before I reach the door the man at the register says, “Hey! Coffee Boy, don’t you wanna know how I knew where you was from?”
“Sure,” I say.
He points through the window at my vehicle. “Your license plate.”
The men howl with laughter until their faces are purple.
The laughter of old men is the best sound on the planet.