I was sixteen the first time I visited his farm. He came riding up the valley hillside like something out of a movie. He looked like John Wayne, only shorter, with white hair.
At the time, I was a lonely kid who wanted to learn to ride. We became friends. I shared my first adulthood beer with him. There’s a difference between childhood beer and adulthood beer. You guzzle one, sip the other.
Or maybe it’s the other way around.
We sat on the back of his truck. He popped the bottle-cap using his belt buckle. It was marvelous. I’ve attempted this trick at least a million times. Once, I even cut my hand trying. Ten stitches later, I still can’t do it.
“You know,” he said, one day while overlooking the valley. “I’d rather die than live in the city.”
And that’s why I spent so much time on his farm. I helped him plant pecan trees. I cleaned stalls, cut grass, roofed his shed, painted his barn. He tried to pay me. I didn’t want money. I had no father; his son was a meth-addict.
Yesterday, I drove past a place that reminded me of his. I caught the afternoon sun lowering over the Alabamian trees.
I had to pull over just to watch for a while.
I dialed his number. It’s been a long time since I’ve called. Four years, maybe. I haven’t seen him since his wife’s funeral—when I waited in line to shake his hand. That day, he told me, “You look ridiculous in that necktie.”
“Look who’s talking,” I said.
Then he ruined my shirt with his tears and snot.
A woman answered his phone. She had an official voice. “Oh my God,” she said. “Nobody’s told you, have they?”
“I’m his nurse, sweetie…”
The phone felt like it weighed ten pounds.
While she talked, I watched the sun settle. I remembered riding an American Quarter Horse named, Brownie, behind his horse, Girl Scout. I remember feeling—even if only for a minute—like someone cared about me the way a father might.
“You can come and see him,” the woman on the phone said. “But he’s not gonna be the man you knew. The Alzheimer’s makes him forget his own name, he’s lost a lotta weight, can’t even hold his bladder.”
Then she asked how I met him. I told her what I just told you.
She laughed, and said, “They say he was quite a man when he was younger.”
He was, ma’am.
And you should’ve seen him open beer bottles.