I have a recurring dream. In this dream, I stand before my seventh-grade class, wearing decidedly less than a jaybird. My teacher barks a few commands at me, but I can’t understand her. So, I just stand there. Shower-ready.
It’s the same way I felt when I met this man.
He and his wife stood in the crowded line, waiting for a table, holding one of those restaurant buzzers in their hands. He had a head of gray, and his wife looked like she ought to be cross-stitching something.
He started up a conversation, saying, “You look awfully familiar.”
“Thanks,” I answered. “But I’m already married.”
He didn’t laugh. “No, I mean it. You look like a fella I used to work with. Spitting image.”
My smile must’ve faded. Because there’s only one man who fits that particular description.
As it happens, this man was from Franklin, Tennessee. An iron worker. He had hands like hams, a tattoo on his forearm. When he heard my name, his face lit up.
“I’ll be damn!” he half-shouted to his wife. “You know who’s son this is?”
They grinned. I tried to smile back, but I felt as though I were standing before the entire seventh-grade without my britches on.
“I worked with your daddy, back in Franklin, years ago,” the man said. “He was a good man.”
A good man.
That’s what older men say about dead men. It’s the highest praise one male can give another. And as far as funerals go, it’s like saying, “War eagle,” at an Auburn game.
It loses its punch after you’ve heard it a thousand times.
And while he told stories about my father, it occurred to me, I’m the same age my father would’ve been when he worked alongside this man. And such an idea made my chest ache, to think my father died while he was still in his youth.
The man’s buzzer blinked red.
“Our table’s ready,” his wife said.
He shook my hand. If he’d squeezed any harder, he would’ve broken it.
His wife hugged me.
I could’ve said anything in the world to them. I could’ve thanked them, or told them to enjoy their suppers. I could’ve wished them well. For crying out loud, I could’ve asked his name. But I didn’t.
Instead, I said, “He was a good man.”
That might not seem like much to you. But it’s the first time I’ve ever said those words.
So I said it again.