Mister Vernon died last night. He went easy. You never met him, but you knew him. He was every white-haired man you’ve ever seen.
He spoke with a drawl. He talked about the old days. He was opinionated. He was American. Lonely.
Miss Charyl, his caregiver, did CPR. She compressed his chest so hard his sternum cracked. She was sobbing when the EMTs took him.
Caregiving is Charyl’s second job. She’s been working nights at Mister Vernon’s for a while.
She arrived at his mobile-home one sunny day. Mister Vernon was fussy, cranky. A twenty-four carat heart.
She listened to his stories—since nobody else would. He had millions.
He talked about creeks, mudcats, frog gigging, bush hooks, and running barefoot through pinestraw and cahaba lilies.
And he talked about Marilyn. Marilyn was the center of his life once. His companion. But she was not long for this world.
He talked politics, too. Charyl and he disagreed. Mister Vernon would holler his opinions loud enough to make the walls bow.
He was a man of his time. An oil rig worker, a logger, a breadwinner, a roughneck. He helped build a country. And a family.
Each day, he’d thumb through a collection of old photos. His favorite: The woman with the warm smile.
Marilyn. The woman who’d helped him make his family. Who’d turned his kids into adults. Adults who had successful lives and successful families. They live in successful cities, they do successful things.
“He sure missed his kids,” says Charyl. “They hardly came to see him. They were so busy.”
Last night, Vernon asked Charyl for a country supper. She lit the stove and tore up the kitchen. She cooked chicken fried steak, creamed potatoes, string beans, milk gravy.
“Marilyn used to make milk gravy,” he remarked.
She served him peach cobbler. Handmade. The kind found at Baptist covered-dish suppers.
“Marilyn used to make peach cobbler,” he said.
After supper, he shuffled to his easy chair. He watched the news with the volume blasting. He got tired. He shut off the television.
“I’m going to bed,” he said.
Charyl helped him into cotton pajamas. She washed his face. She laid him in bed. She tucked the corners of the quilt beneath his shoulders.
“Sing to me,” said Mister Vernon.
“I wanna hear a song.”
“Dunno what to sing, Mister Vern.”
“How ‘bout the ‘Tennessee Waltz?’”
Charyl cleared her throat.
She sang from memory. Eyes shut. It was more than a melody. It was the favorite song of a man with busy kids. It was his song. His era.
It was girls in faded floral print. Men in boots. A generation of dirty hands, cutting timber, pigging pipes, and striking arcs.
When she finished, Vernon’s eyes were closed. She kissed his forehead. He was cold.
“I love you, Vernon,” she whispered.
He breathed a sigh. His chest rose and fell just once.
Marilyn was waiting at the gate.
Vernon might be the most average elderly man anyone’s ever heard of. But America will not be the same without him. Neither will his successful kids.
He was beautiful.
And I just thought you ought to know about him.