I am amazed and amused with the scene that has unfolded in front of me. Men sitting around a table. Old men who have known each other their entire lives. Though I have known at least two of them for over 25 years, I am but an onlooker in this circle. They don’t do or say anything to make me feel that way, but I can’t help but be aware of a fraternity that is broader than my understanding.
It started because I had an urge for a pork plate with two sides for lunch. I pointed my truck for the Whistling Pig. The door squeaks when I pull the handle to step inside. There a pretty long line of folks waiting to give their order to the young lady behind the plexiglass barrier. The orders come at her for the special, or a hamburger with fries, or a vegetable plate with cornbread. She takes each one flawlessly and hollers back to the kitchen between each page torn off the tablet and hung on the string by a clothes pin.
“Next.” She is polite but all business.
From my place in the back of the line I spot David. We nod. “How’s it going?” “Same as always, still kicking I guess.”
I’ve known David since my days at Callaway. He was a lifer. Meaning he started working at the Gardens when he was 17 and just retired a few years ago. There’s hardly anybody from around here who didn’t work at Callaway at one time or another, but not that many who did it for nearly 50 years. His number is called, and he disappears to the back to find a table.
By the time I get my order in and my ticket in hand, #14, I’m already planning on finding David and pulling up a chair. Did he invite me to join him? No. But that doesn’t matter. In a lot of restaurants, the unwritten rule is that you keep to yourself. Don’t bother the other patrons. Eat in silence while staring like a Zombie into your little handheld device we call a phone.
But this place is not a restaurant. It is, but it’s more like Mama’s kitchen, or maybe the dinning hall at summer camp. You just sit down wherever you want, and the conversation never stops. It’s never quiet long enough to get bored enough to pull out a phone.
“This seat taken?”
David looks up. “I was wondering when you’d show up.”
I settle in. Squeezing on a little extra BBQ sauce. It wasn’t a minute later a fella sauntered around the table to the other side and plopped down across from me. Thinning red hair. Thick hands, cut and stained. The top half of his forehead three shades lighter than the rest of his face.
“I’ll tell y’all something. Those two tractor tires have been whipping my butt this morning. That line is too long for my old knees. Think I’ll sit a spell before I order my food.”
He doesn’t know me, and I’ve never seen him before, but he looks right at me. “You mind leaning back ev’r now and then and keeping an eye on that line. Let me know when it gets up to the corner.”
About that time, two more come to the table. One young and one my age. I assume father and son. I pull out a chair between me and wall. The boy takes it to the end of the table. I scoot over to make room.
David asked them what they’d been up to this morning. The younger one is quick to answer. You could sense a little tone to his words. Evidently, they had been bush hogging for a few hours early, and then he had been chauffeuring his Dad around looking for parts for an old truck.
“We ought’a just get rid of that truck. It’s a piece of junk.” I catch his Dad’s eyes which, with one look, say that the boy has a lot yet to learn.
We hear a number yelled out. “Number 22! 22.” The girl sets two more plates on the table. The boy is having steak for lunch. It’s hanging out to the edge of the plate. I’m wondering how I would survive the afternoon if I ate that much for lunch.
Last, but certainly the most colorful character of the bunch, Sandy pulls out a chair and sits at the corner. The line is too long for him, as well. Cowboy hat. Thick handlebar mustache. His smart phone is on a tether looped around his neck and stuffed inside his shirt. Round horned rim glasses.
I pick at him. “I hear you’re in the goat business these days. I hear it was accidental.” Sandy is my neighbor. I drive by his place every day. A couple weeks ago I noticed a heard of goats had shown up.
“Darndest thing” he said. “I was thinking about getting up around 4 o’clock. My back hurt too much to sleep any longer. The phone rang and I saw on the ID that it was 911. The dispatcher told me, “Your goats are in the middle of the road. Can you come get them?”
Sandy asked her, “Did you say G-O-A-T-S?” It was early. Seemed like a reasonable clarification. “Yes sir, goats.” “M’am, I don’t own any goats.” She said, “You live at so and so number at so and so address?” “Yes M’am, I sure do.” “Well, a deputy is with your goats right now waiting on you to come get them.”
So, he gets dressed and goes to find a young deputy, blue lights blazing, holding about 25 goats captive on the side of the road. They drove them back toward the house. “I put out some feed on the ground, they stayed, and that’s how I got in the goat business.”
The fella on the left tells a slightly risqué joke about how to tell the difference in meaning between “theoretically” and “actuality.” William, across from me starts in on the price of wheat. David talks about getting out of the cow business. Young boy is talking about a neighbor who took part of his herd to the sale barn over in Alabama. They were a “no sale”. Sandy is asking for his phone number. “I’ll buy them” he says sight unseen.
I’m slicing up a fried green tomato and just taking it all in. This is fun to me. To be on the outside, but to be included.
“What are you doing over there? You ain’t said two words.” “I’m fine” I say.
There is a comfortable feel to this moment. These men can’t remember a time when they didn’t know each other. It never dawns on them to imagine living in a place where you haven’t known everyone your whole life.
These are men who all had the same teacher for First Grade. They all learned to read under the watchful eye of “Dick and Jane”. Two kids chasing their dog and feeding the chickens and fishing down by the pond. The books were worn because they were hand me downs. But these boys were used to that. Their clothes and their shoes and their toys, if they had any, were all hand me downs.
Now, here they are handing down the life and the stories that have defined who they are and the things they value. I am amazed to be a witness. Utterly amazed to be invited to pull up a chair. Amused to think of the men I’ve known my whole life. The stories we would tell if circumstances were different.
“Thanks for the lunch, men. Some of us have a real job.” They laugh as I pick up my plate and stand. As I walk away, they don’t miss a beat.
Life in perfect rhythm with itself.