La Vergne, Tennessee—the inside of 87-year-old Stuart’s home is covered in faded photographs and country music albums.
Black-and-white images of a young man line the walls. The photogenic young man is strong, a guitarist, a mechanic, a soldier, a laborer, a father of seven.
His best girl is a living saint.
“When we met,” his wife says, tapping a picture frame. “I’s seventeen, Stuart was nineteen. We were babies.”
Stuart Woods is my good friend. I wasn’t far past twenty when I met him.
He was a silver-haired man living in a double-wide trailer off Musset Bayou Road—only steps from my house. I was a skinny young fool.
He used to smack my shoulders and say, “This here’s my BOY.”
I never got tired of hearing that.
His wife would serve us beer on coasters. Stuart would tell war stories. Then, he’d flatpick a red Gretsch guitar for my entertainment.
I would watch his quick fingers play “I Ain’t Got Nobody,” or “San Antonio Rose,” or “Peanut Vendor.”
I wanted to be Stuart.
Sometimes, I’d stay for supper. After a meal, we’d walk to Stuart’s garage. He’d light a cigarette, we’d talk about cars. The oil cans on his shelves were older than I was.
We’d sit on swivel stools—the kind in body shops—and make easy conversation.
And that’s what we’re doing now. Stuart is in his recliner, telling stories about a bygone era.
The Alzheimer’s makes him forgetful, the diabetes makes his feet numb. He just lost his driver’s license.
But nothing has changed his sunny disposition. He’s still Mister Happy. He still piddles on his Cadillac.
He hasn’t tasted beer in months, but he wants one today. So do I.
We sit together, holding longneck bottles. He retells his top-40 greatest memories. I could listen to him talk until the second coming of Roger Miller.
The more he speaks, the younger I get, and the younger he becomes. The lines on his face disappear.
His hoarse laugh takes me back to a time I hadn’t yet figured out what I wanted to do with my life. And it reminds me that I never did figure it out.
I still wish I was Stuart. I wish I smiled as easily as he does. And I wish I played guitar like him.
“Haven’t played my damn GEE-tar in years,” he says. “Can’t make my fingers move no more.”
I tell him not to bother playing if he doesn’t feel up to it.
“Hell with that,” he says. “I’ma play for you, boy.”
Before long, he’s holding the dusty Country Gentleman Gretsch in his old hands. He plays. And even though his fingers don’t work, the music comes back to him.
When he’s done playing “Bye Bye Blues,” he inspects his fingertips.
“Aye God,” he says, laughing. “Feels like someone chopping my hands with an axe.”
His wife snaps our picture with an old-fashioned camera. We have our arms around each other. Then, Stuart hugs me. I feel his shaky muscles squeeze. Why does life move so fast.
He slaps my shoulders. His eyes are still bright.
“This here’s my boy,” he says.
I drove a long way just to hear him say that.