The Old Man and the Boy

I was 10 years old the summer Mr. Doc died, but we could have already filled books with the adventures we had by then. He was a large man, who wore black shoes and blue Dickies work clothes and when outside, a worn, frayed straw hat. His hair was close cropped and woolly white over watery blue eyes that always held the beginnings of a smile. Well, they always did for me.

Doc and his wife Montaree were retired farmers, and when they retired, they had purchased three acres from my grandmother and built a small house on it. They lived simply and kept a large garden and a couple of hogs, and when my young parents were spending so much time at work trying to make enough for us to survive, Doc and Monty were my caretakers, teachers, and surrogate grandparents.

As was typical of their generation, Monty ended up doing most of the actual caretaking, but I lived to spend time with him, and he taught me how to make a slingshot, a cane whistle, and almost all the important things an eight-year-old boy needs to know about life.

Tell the truth. Plant your watermelons after the full moon in May. Stand up straight. Don’t interrupt. Always shake hands. You will feel better if you take a nap after lunch. Always carry a pocket knife. Most shows on TV are useless. Do one thing at a time. Food tastes better if you share it with someone you love. There is value in sitting in the shade and doing nothing but listening to the mockingbirds. Everything is better if you can eat wild plums while you do it.

He had a designated chair in the living room, and sometimes he sat in it and stared down the road, lost in his own thoughts for hours, and then would suddenly stand up and ask me if I wanted to go with him to the store. I would scramble out to the old Chevy truck that stood in the driveway, and he would drive the mile down the road to the small corner store which had been my family’s salvation when my grandmother got a job there after my grandfather died.

Regardless of whatever else we were after, he would always buy a handful of penny candy and a Milky Way candy bar. The penny candy was for later, but he and I would sit on the porch of this small store and watch the cars at the crossroads while splitting the Milky Way before it had a chance to melt. Never has a candy bar tasted so good. We would sit there, in the shade of the porch on that hot summer Mississippi day, an elderly man and a small boy, neither of us saying much, but just sharing a rare treat and occasionally smiling at each other, as if we knew some secret known only to us. Some things are just too important to talk about.

This May, he will have been gone 40 years. Monty died some 25 years ago. The truck is long gone now, of course, and some city people bought the house and they didn’t make biscuits or have hogs or a garden and they cut down the wild plum bushes he and I tended. The store is gone too, long since turned into a pawn shop, and the porch bench is gone and that lazy corner is now a bustling intersection.

It’s all gone now, existing only in the memory of a man who will turn fifty years’ old this summer, and who still loves Milky Way bars and penny candy.