“And that’s how it happened” said the elderly woman in the nursing home, finishing her story.
This concluded our six-hour interview.
After an interview that long, my brain’s gray matter was leaking out of my ears.
I was a younger man. I was only at this nursing home for a quick local newspaper story about the new Walmart being built. That was it. A few soundbytes. A few quotes. Everyone goes home.
The elderly woman, however, misunderstood the purpose of my visit and thought we were doing a story about her entire life. Her presentation included a long, detailed illustration of her ancestral genealogy dating back to the Phonecians.
When our interview finished, the nurse wheeled her away. I collapsed on the rec room sofa and tried to uncross my eyes.
And that’s when I met him.
He was sitting in a wheelchair parked beside the TV, wearing a large Stetson, attached to oxygen, drinking an O’Doul’s. He was watching “Law and Order.”
The man wasn’t just old. He was old-old. He looked ancient enough to have the Social Security number 4.
He glared at me, took a sip from his longneck, and announced that he had to visit the little boys’ room.
I looked around for a nurse. There were none.
So he made stronger eye contact with me. “I said I have to take a leak. It’s kinda urgent.”
I blinked. “Are you talking to me?”
“No, your guardian angel. Yes, you. Take me to the john or run and fetch a mop.”
I wheeled him out into the hallway and looked around for a young person in scrubs to save me. But there were no medical staffers.
When we arrived at the bathroom the man upturned his wheelchair footplates and looked at me. “Don’t just stand there. Help me.”
“Uh,” I said, “I’m not sure I’m supposed to be doing this…”
“So you’re just gonna let me pee myself?”
I began helping him out of the chair. Thankfully, a nurse walked by and took over. She placed the old man onto the commode, and all was saved. I almost left the assisted living facility, but something made me stay. I waited for him before I said goodbye.
“You’re still here?” he said, exiting the bathroom. “I thought I scared you away.”
“I just wanted to make sure you were…”
“Take me to my room,” he said. “I wanna show you something.”
So the nurse and I accompanied him to his quarters. No sooner had he unlocked the door than I saw guitars hanging all over the walls. Nice guitars. A few Gibsons, a couple of old-school Epiphones.
He secured another O’Doul’s from his mini-fridge and offered me one. I accepted. This was actually the first O’Doul’s I’d ever tasted because, frankly, I never saw the point.
He nodded to the guitars. “You play?”
I’ve been playing guitar since I was 9, although I haven’t improved any.
He pushed the brim of his hat backward. “Go pick out two guitars, Pilgrim, and let’s play.”
I selected a Martin 000-18 and I played rhythmic accompaniment with him. He picked the lead on a Gretsch Country Gentleman. We played tunes your grandparents cut their teeth on. Tunes my granddaddy taught me a long time ago. Like “Cotton Eyed Joe,” “Tennessee Waltz,” and Don Gibson’s “I’d Like to Throw Myself a Party.”
The old man’s hands didn’t move the way they did when he was younger. His fingers were numb from diabetes, and his neuropathy was acting up, but he could still play single-line melodies that made you want to scoot your heels and shake your aspirations.
When he sang “Room Full of Roses,” I had never heard a voice so pure.
His biography wasn’t anything to get sweaty about. He never made it famous, he never played in Nashville or anything. He was just a guy. A real, upstanding guy. And more than that. He was every blue-collar man you ever knew.
He drove a Ford F-100 and paid his bills on time. He was denim and square-toe ropers. He was Friday nights at the Oasis. A man who tucked in his shirt, loved his wife, whose highest financial goal was to own a big-bodied car with too much chrome work.
I drank another O’Doul’s, and so did he. And when our reverie was finished, he said, “Come back and see me sometime.”
I said I would, of course, but I rarely did. Although we emailed all the time. He read my work and forwarded me email jokes and chain letters. Almost every morning, he sent a daily email to see how I was doing. And I would write him a few paragraphs in return because nobody ever checks on me.
This morning, I received an email from his address which began: “Hi, I believe you knew my father. I regret to inform you…”
And anyway, that’s why I’m drinking an O’Doul’s tonight.