I am backstage, about to tell stories onstage. A woman with a clipboard announces, “Ten minutes to showtime.”
I am tuning my guitar, hoping I won’t stink tonight.
This is what all performers think about before they go onstage. They say silent prayers that all go, more or less, the same way.
“Dear God, don’t let me stink tonight.”
It’s easy to stink at storytelling because there is no school for it. There are no credentials, either.
Which leads me to ask: “What am I doing with my life?”
I am still unclear on how I started telling stories for a living. The only education I have in storytelling came from elderly men who wore Velcro shoes.
I have always had a soft spot for old men. From childhood, I believed that I was an old man trapped inside a kid’s body. I never fit in with peers. This was only made worse by the fact that I was raised fundamentalist.
As a young man, I would find myself in a crowd of teenagers who were smoking cigarettes, sipping longnecks, far from parental eyes. And for some reason, nobody ever offered me any real chances at sinning.
I would have appreciated the opportunity, but they viewed me as different. It was as though I were elderly.
Once, as a joke, my friend Jordan handed me a lit cigarette in front of everybody. I didn’t want anyone to think I was a wimp, so I took the biggest drag I could. I almost died from a coughing fit.
My friends howled when they discovered that I had peed my pants a little from hacking so hard.
I can’t believe I just told you that.
Thus, I was blacklisted. I was the old man of the group. During social situations, I would generally hang in the corner, drinking prune juice, adjusting my Velcro footwear, holding everyone’s car keys.
People called me “D.B.,” which was short for “Designated Baptist.”
My truest friends were elderly men. What I liked about them most was that they had already gotten their petty teenage sinning out of the way. They were more interested in major sins. For example, weekend trips to Biloxi.
After my father died, I looked for anyone with white hair to pay attention to me. I just wanted someone to be proud of me.
When I found the right person, I would follow him around like a Labrador until he took me home.
There was Ben. Bless him. He has Alzheimer’s now. He was a Mississippian who talked like Rhett Butler. We spent nearly every afternoon together.
He was retired and had nothing to do but tell stories. And he told some doozies. Some I can’t repeat here. Some I have told on stages.
When Ben came down with dementia, the world lost a library.
And there was the retired Auburn University professor. He was a man who chain-smoked Winstons and read Wordsworth.
He would loan these books to me and encourage me to read them. He would ask me to summarize them.
I don’t know if you’ve ever read British Romantic poetry, but back in those days everybody was always saying things like “heretofore” and “whithersoever” to each other for kicks. The poems were miles above me.
So the good professor would help me. In his ratty apartment, he taught a high-school dropout to appreciate literature.
After he died, I recited Emily Dickinson over his headstone.
So maybe this is how I started telling stories. Because my life has been spent in the company of old men who loved to tell them.
Old men are not like boys. They don’t have big ambitions—if any. They’re past that. They know a lot about life.
They’ve seen their mistakes get worse over time, and watched their qualities get better with age. They’ve lost those they care about, and discovered that success is nothing.
Sometimes they are grumpy. Sometimes their joints get stoved up. Sometimes they can’t help telling it like it is. Other times, they say something so profound you have to write it down.
They are filled to the hairline with stories. And if you listen, they will tell you one while they whittle a stick. And when they are gone, you will miss the sound of Rhett Butler’s voice.
“Five more minutes,” the woman with the clipboard says.
I hurry to the bathroom one last time. When I am at the sink, there is an old man beside me. White hair, thick glasses.
He dries his hands with paper towels and says, “You ever heard of this storyteller guy, Sean Dietrich?”
I keep my head down. “No sir,” I say.
“Me neither. My dang wife drug me here tonight, I sure as hell didn’t wanna come, I hope this guy doesn’t stink.”
He tosses his paper towel into the garbage and leaves the bathroom.
He is wearing white Velcro shoes.
I hope I don’t let that old man down.