“You must be Sheen,” said the old man, extending his hand. “You here for the lawnmower?”
We were somewhere outside Andalusia. I was young. I was there to buy a used lawnmower from the Thrifty Nickel ads. I was in kind of a hurry, so the quicker we cut bait the better.
The old man had a firm handshake. “Was it a long drive, Sheen?”
We stood in a rural Alabamian field, 40-some miles from the Florida line. The man wore jeans and scuffed Double-H boots. He was mid-70s. Lean. His summerwear cowboy hat was hard, like plastic. He reminded me a little of my late father. Only older.
I released his hand and clarified. “My name isn’t Sheen, it’s Sean.”
“But the way it’s spelled…”
“You’ll have to take that up with my mother.”
My Irish name has long been a source of confusion for the elderly, who find the name too modern for their sensibilities. The truth is my name is the ancient Gaelic version of “John,” which was my father’s name. And it is all I have left of him.
Also, not to be picky, but my name dates back to 1066, predating most of today’s modern names, such as, for example, Larry.
“Name’s Larry,” said the old man.
I told Larry I was in a hurry, and I needed to buy the lawnmower and skedaddle.
He beamed. “Okay then, let’s go get your mower, Shantell.”
We started walking to his barn, when he gestured to a green pasture and said, “My granddaughters are out riding today.”
As if on cue I could hear horses before I saw them. The bass notes of heavy hoofs fell hard upon the earth. I felt the vibrations beneath my boot heels.
Next, I saw two young women on horseback, in the faroff, moving at full gallop. One rode a buckskin; the other rode a chestnut. The girls were maybe 14.
The old rancher slapped a saddle slung over a nearby fence rail. “You ride?”
“No sir.” I touched the scar on my lower back where a neurosurgeon once mistook my spinal column for a broiled lobster tail. “But everyone else in my family did.”
I come from cattlemen, farmers, and men who stocked grain silos. I was the only English major in the bunch.
But my father’s ancestors were, among other things, beef people who rode the literal range and shouted words like “Yah! Yah!” without being ironic.
The last man in my father’s family to cowboy was his elderly uncle who, when forced to part with his last few head, nearly died of a broken heart.
“Would ya just look at them go,” said the old man.
The two granddaughters were arrestingly skillful in the saddle. Blondish hair streamed behind them in the early evening sunlight. I was transfixed. There was something so incredibly American about the image before me.
The old man soon forgot all about my lawnmower while watching Annie Oakley and Calamity Jane give chase in the pasture.
Whole minutes passed. I could tell this glimpse of his grandchildren was making the man dizzy with pride; he looked like he’d just discovered teeth. And I was right there with him.
We watched the animals extend their muscled bodies like warbirds in mid flight. The sound of eight beating hoofs was like the drum solo to “Wipeout.”
Soon, the girls were really chasing each other.
“By gaw,” the old man hollered. “They’s racing.”
Both girls leaned against the wind in forward crouches. Smiling. They whipped past us like Seabiscuit-colored streaks and the hoofs got louder. And louder. And if there has ever been a more breath-stealing portrait than the one I observed that day, it’s hanging in the Louvre.
He turned to me; bright, wet eyes. “Did you see all that, Sheena?”
When the horse race concluded I was no longer watching the animals. I watched the man. His proud gaze was focused on his kin, and I was wishing someone would look at me that way.
When the girls caught us glancing their direction they waved their hats at us. We returned salute. Then the horses wandered toward a distant treeline before disappearing.
The old man seemed lost in a time warp. His profile looked like a line-drawing from a Louis L’Amour book (illustration on page 301). I found myself wondering whether the man I was named after ever thought of me so fondly. I hope he did.
The old man finally released his fence rail and was jolted back into reality. A reality where all men age, where youth evaporates, where people don’t live forever, and where no matter how much skin moisturizer you apply a turkey-wattle neck awaits you.
“Well, look at the time,” the man said, clapping my back. “I keep forgetting, you’re in a hurry. Guess we’d better have a look at that lawnmower, Shania.”
Shane, Sheen, Sean. To me they all mean the same thing.