He sits beside me on the bench beneath a clear sky outside the doctor’s office. My wife is having a routine checkup.
The guy and I are spaced apart. He wears a mask. I wear a mask. Occasionally he lowers his mask to take a draw from a vaping pen before exhaling a cloud that smells like Chanel No. 5.
He is bone thin. He is late-50s. His skin is all freckles. His ratty ballcap reads, “Presbyterianism: Est. 33 A.D.”
He inhales. Holds. Exhales. Then speaks. “S’posed to be nasty weather tomorrow.”
And already I know where this conversation is going.
Floridians have been cussing the weather since our ancestors first crawled from their prehistoric caves to get their real estate licenses.
The weather is an easy subject in the Alligator State because it’s common ground. Everyone experiences weather. Everyone gets sick of weather. To discuss weather is a grand tradition. And like all traditions, there are obligatory phrases often exchanged between participants.
Such as: “Hot enough for ya?” “Supposed to come up a storm.” And the all-time classic: “We could shore use the rain.”
This is the stuff that makes us human.
The old man opens with an old standard: “S’posed to rain sideways this week.”
I play my role. “We could use the rain.”
Although technically we don’t need rain. Last week it rained like a son of a gun; my yard had two feet of standing water and became one with the Choctawhatchee.
The man uncrosses his legs. “You here to see the doc?”
“No, my wife’s seeing him. You?”
“Waiting on my wife to finish her checkup. Had my own appointment last week.” He thumps his chest. “Doc says I’m good to go.”
He sucks on his pen again and laughs. “Nice to be told I’m healthy for once. I’m used to hearing the opposite.”
I take the bait. “Really.”
He tugs his shirt collar downward to expose a mottled scar between his collarbone and neck. “S’where my picc line was. Almost died.”
I know all about picc lines and central catheters. My mother bears a similar scar. I remember the day the Emory University angels gave her that scar.
He says, “Did me a lotta praying when I was sick. Lotta hard praying.”
I smile because I realize we’ve abandoned weather, now we’re getting into philosophy. But we’re on uneven territory. For starters, I don’t speak Presbyterian. I’ve never even visited a Presybyterian church.
The only experience I have with the Chosen is my friend, Jackson, who was a lifelong member. He said Presbyterians were just Baptists who wanted to drink but couldn’t afford to become Episcopalian.
I point to his cap. “You’re Presbyterian?”
More silence. More weather watching.
A woman exits the building. She has gray hair and a smile. We are jolted out of our silence when she says, “Lonnie, I need the insurance card.”
Lonnie smiles. He stands, reaches into a back pocket and removes a wallet roughly the size of a Plymouth. I don’t know how his left cheek isn’t deformed by sitting on that thing.
He fumbles through a billfold and hands her a card. She thanks him, and before returning inside she shares good news. “Lonnie, the doctor said I’m all clear.”
The woman says it the same way you might say, “I just won the Powerball.” A surefire sign that she is yet another individual who has had dealings with the C-word.
She disappears and I can feel the Presbyterian eager to keep our conversational bowling ball rolling.
“She just had a biopsy. Scared the living you-know-what out of us. She already beat breast cancer once.” He shakes his head and consults his vape pen. “What. A. Year.”
My thoughts wander toward the breast-cancer scares my wife and I have gone through. I know what it feels like to be subjected to the horrors of Medical Care.
The waiting is what kills you. Nobody tells you that the fear never completely leaves you. Not even when you get the green light from the medical establishment. Once your security bubble is popped, you are always on your guard thereafter.
Which is both a good thing and a bad thing. Good: because it makes you appreciate life. Bad: because trying too hard to appreciate something is not very relaxing.
“What a year,” I say.
He blows a lungful of Chanel. “You can say that again.”
After a few minutes, I see my own wife trotting outside the doctor’s. Her hair is bouncing, her steps are light. She looks cuter than a duck in a hat. Instantly, I can see the doc has proclaimed her to be in good health because she also wears the I-won-the-lotto-face. And I can breathe easily.
Also, I’m thinking about how grateful I am that Lonnie and I have both received good news today. Good news, I understand, is how Presbyterianism was founded.
I stand to leave. I tip my hat to the guy. “Stay outta this heat, now.” This is my way of wishing him well.
“Sure will,” he says, vapor coming from his nostrils. “S’posed to come up a storm tomorrow.”
My wife hooks her arm in mine and there is not a stitch of trouble on her magnificent cheeks. “We could shore use the rain,” she says.