Old Man

by Raymond L. Atkins

Old Man was a traveling auctioneer, and I was his unofficial apprentice.  He was fifty-nine years old when we first met, but they had been hard years—dog years in many senses. He looked as aged as a weathered barn and claimed that he felt older than he looked.  I was fourteen. 

His name was Dennis Sexton, but everyone except me referred to him as The Colonel. This epithet was a nod to his twenty-nine years in the Army, during which he had risen through the depleted enlisted ranks on the bloody sands of Omaha Beach to wear lieutenant’s bars on the frigid Pusan Perimeter before finally displaying a colonel’s silver eagles as he walked the mean streets of Saigon. 

I always called him Old Man, not because I objected to his long service, but because I had been raised in a martial environment by a deskbound warrior, a charlatan who wanted to play at soldiering without actually getting shot at.  Thus I did not care for military trappings, standing-at-attention, demerits, drills, five-mile runs—all of which were parenting tactics employed by my father.

“Call me The Colonel,” Old Man had told me upon the occasion of his offer of employment.

“How about if I work real hard every day and call you something else, instead?” I asked respectfully.  He looked at me a moment before shaking his head slowly and cracking a toothless smile.  He liked a little spirit in the ranks, provided it didn’t get out of hand.

I had been on the payroll for about five minutes by that time, after first outclassing all competition at a hiring event that no one else had attended.  The word was out among the local young bloods that The Colonel liked to see some sweat for his dollars and that after all those years in the infantry, he was about as crazy as a rabid preacher on bad cocaine.  Thus my peers had declined to apply, and the job dropped into my pocket like a gold watch.

The concept of tough work didn’t faze me.  I had taken a job because I was weary of having nothing in my wallet but the photo it came with.  As for my new employer’s alleged craziness, I had been the unintended by-product of sexual relations between a pair of totally insane people during a time of unrestricted lunacy in the world, so his reputation as a nutcase didn’t give me undue pause. 

“Fair enough,” he said.  “I don’t really care what you call me.” 

He was short, knobby, and paunchy, with clubbed, yellowed fingers and a chronic cough courtesy of a lifetime of intimate association with a staggering number of Pall Malls.  His ears were too large for his bald head, which in turn was oversized for his stooped shoulders.  His rheumy eyes were almost useless, but they danced and twinkled like fireflies in the spring night sky.  He had a handsome nose, but its placement in the center of his roughshod face appeared to be an error, as if he had been in a hurry that morning and had put on someone else’s snout by mistake.  He claimed that he had a bad heart, worse knees, weak kidneys, a scarred liver, a prostate the size of a tennis ball, and a digestive system so impaired that all he could eat was bananas, oatmeal, and Maalox. 

He worked five and sometimes six auctions per week: flea-bitten junk sales held in sheds and back rooms, car sales conducted in parking lots and garages, antique sales brokered in failed shops and decrepit warehouses, livestock sales undertaken in barns, pastures, and farmyards,  real estate sales chanted from courthouse steps, and the occasional estate sale, generally held right where the deceased had resided, conducted in the same rooms where most of the living and all of the dying had occurred, right there where the departed could float in on a wayward breeze and view the proceedings through the mists separating this world from the next.

Old Man drank good Kentucky bourbon and preferred Maker’s Mark when he could get it.  He ate Chiquita bananas by the bunch, smoked Pall Mall cigarettes by the carton, drove a white Ford pickup truck with mud flaps that invited other drivers to get their hearts in Dixie or get their asses out, voted a straight Democratic ticket in a state where it was a futile act, bought Amoco white gas, and watched Bonanza reruns whenever he could discover an episode to view and a comfortable chair to sit in.

“You should always buy the best liquor you can afford, marry the best woman you have the privilege to meet, and burn the best gasoline you can find,” he would say around a Pall Mall as he carefully poured Maker’s Mark from his plaid screw-top thermos into his red plastic coffee cup.  “You don’t live but once, and second-best is second-rate, not worth the effort, not worth your time.”  Words to live by from a widowed journeyman who had found his best woman standing in the smoldering ruins of Berlin, who had married and cherished her for well over twenty years before losing her, and who had regularly soaked his grief in sour mash ever since.

Most days and many nights he was sober enough to drive to whichever sale was on the agenda, but seldom was he sufficiently dry to drive home after the auction had concluded.  Nights were his preferred time for drinking, as if his sobriety was linked to the orb of the sun and followed close behind as it lowered itself in the west.  The dark held phantoms for him that he could not confront without fortification, so he drank like a camel at an oasis, drank like he someday hoped to drink the world dry, and this crazy thirst served to founder him, to unman him to such a degree that some nights he wasn’t even conscious when the time arrived for our departure for home. 

Thus one of my primary duties was that of chauffeur.  After each sale, I would assess his condition before deciding how best to load him into the truck.  Some nights he was ambulatory, mostly, and he would stumble and stagger beside me as I dragged him along.  Other evenings, I pulled him in a wagon or rolled him in front of me on a hand truck like he was a drunken sack of meal.  When he was just too boneless for wheeled transport to be a practical solution, I used a fireman’s carry.  He was a small man, I was a big boy, and it wasn’t much trouble.  Once I had him loaded, I would take my bearings, draw a deep breath, and begin the slow journey down obscure Alabama back roads toward home.

The first time I drove was after an antique sale in Arab, Alabama.  Arab was a small town on Sand Mountain that had nothing to do with the Middle East, regardless of what its name might imply.  It was late, and I was standing by the truck watching him smoothly con an old lady out of a fried apple pie.  He was a social man, a roughhewn bon vivant, and often we were the last to leave an auction.  I had already loaded up the furniture and glassware that Old Man had bought on the sly, and I was just waiting with my hands in my pockets for our time to depart.  Finally he swayed over to me, gumming his purloined pie with one hand while trying to adjust his truss with the other.

“Damn thing bothers the livin’ shit out of me,” he mumbled.  He executed a little half skip in an attempt to resettle all of his parts into a more comfortable arrangement.  “You ready to go, boy?”

“Ready, Old Man.”

“I’m drunk, boy.”

“I know.”

“You gotta drive.”

“The only thing I’ve ever driven is a tractor.  The truck’s got no taillights.  I don’t have a license.  We’re fifty miles from home.  It’s raining.”

“You worry too much.  Get in and drive.”  I did get in, and I did drive, somehow, and once the trip home was accomplished without fatality, the learning curve was complete, and a new duty was added to my list of responsibilities.

One night several months into my career as a professional underage driver, we were stopped by a constable in Section, Alabama.  The town was known for its drag strip, for a rowdy beer joint out on Highway 11 called Jimbo’s, and for its humorless law-enforcement officials.  It was late, and I was tired, so I may have weaved, or it might have just been my turn to stand before the forces of darkness.

“How old are you, boy?” the policeman asked.  All I could see was the bright glare from his flashlight and the shadow of his right hand as it rested on the butt of his service revolver.  I may not have been old enough to drive, but I was sufficiently seasoned to be able to recognize an unwieldy situation when I saw one.

“Fourteen, sir.”  Old Man had once told me that there were just three things to remember when talking to representatives of the law: always tell the truth, never make quick moves, and always say sir.

“What’s wrong with him?” the cop asked.  Old Man snored, coughed, mumbled, and snored again.

“He’s drunk and passed out, sir.  I’m taking him home.”

“Where you comin’ from?”

“Scottsboro, sir.”  He seemed to consider this information carefully.  Finally, he spoke again.

“Well, if you made it up that mountain without runnin’ off the side, I guess you can drive good enough to get him on home.”  The highway up the mountain from Guntersville to Section was a narrow, steep road called The Widow Maker, and it had made several since it was first carved into the crumbling granite face of Sand Mountain by a woebegone chain gang back during the unforgiving thirties.

“Yes sir.”

“And don’t let me see you back over here again.”

“No sir.”

The remainder of our trip was silent.  Old Man was passed out, and I was busy with my driving, trying to remember turns and recognize landmarks.  Finally we arrived at our destination, and I hoisted him over my shoulder and carried him to his bed.

“Good night, Old Man.”  I pulled up his blanket so his abused old body would not fetch a chill.  Then I touched his bald head for a quick moment and left.

In addition to filling a variety of roles when we traveled, I was also the caretaker of Old Man’s storage building and property.  He had a large warehouse situated on two hundred acres of grass and timber near Mentone, Alabama, where he stored items that were bought by the house.  This was merchandise that Old Man procured for himself, usually by ignoring legitimate bids from the crowd so he could, as he liked to put it, buy it right.  He also lived in that same cavernous building.  His residence was two rooms and a bath tacked onto one end of the structure. 

One of my duties was to unload and arrange whatever he purchased so that it could be viewed by potential customers and eventually sold to one of them.  The warehouse was a mystical realm, a magic kingdom where mature pieces of furniture and bric-a-brac were made to look young and where new items were carefully aged.  Periodically, when Old Man had acquired enough merchandise, he would have his own auction sale there in the warehouse.  Familiar faces from other auction venues would crowd in, the sellers would become the buyers, and the sale would commence with Old Man’s familiar: Well all RIGHT boys, whaddaya gonna give?  There was a carnival atmosphere at these events, a sense that all was as it should be in north Alabama, at the very least, if not out in the wide, cold world. 

Another of my responsibilities was that of groundskeeper.  I would bush hog, plant, trim, dig, grade, and fill.  One raw day just prior to my eighteenth birthday, I was bush hogging the front section of the property a final time before winter scratched its woolly head and stumbled across the mountain.  As I made a pass, Old Man flagged me down and climbed aboard the rusty Ford tractor.  It wasn’t much to look at, but it had been bought right, and it had only taken me eleven hours to drive it from its original home to Old Man’s property.  He reached behind the steel seat and pulled the Three Dog Night eight-track tape from the player I had installed.  He pitched the cartridge in the general direction of a rhododendron bush, lit a Pall Mall, and shared a thought.

“I don’t see how you can listen to that shit.”

“Well, I can’t, now.”

“Let’s go for a drive,” he said.  It was early on a Saturday, and the bourbon fumes curled around him like a silk shawl.

We struck out overland, weaving to and fro as we avoided jutting stone, swaying pine, yawning gully, and mountain laurel.  Old Man’s property sat atop Lookout Mountain and bordered on Little River Canyon.  Eventually we eased up to the edge of that gaping precipice, the deepest gorge east of the Mississippi and west of the bitter, lonely sea.  Old Man staggered from the venerable tractor and veered toward the canyon rim.  Then he caught himself and slanted back toward the trees.  He wandered a bit, as if he were looking for a wayward wristwatch or a lost set of keys.  Then he came to a sudden halt and stood straight as a young elm braving an icy blast from the mysterious northern realms.  He waved me over.

“What do you think?”

“About what?”

“About here.”  He waved his arm like he was introducing a circus act.  “Do you think it’s a pretty spot?”

“Well, yeah, I guess.”

“This is where I’m going to put the family burial plot.  When I say I, that means you.”

“I figured.”

“When you get it finished, I’m gonna move Alisa here.  Right here.”  He was pointing straight down.  “When my time comes, I’ll go beside her.”  His finger moved slightly to the right. 

Old Man’s wife, Alisa, was buried at Fort Carson, Colorado, a long way indeed from the Berlin avenues of her youth.  She had been in the rare air of the foothills of the Rockies when the Reaper whispered in on the edge of a forbidding wind and ended her with a quick flick of his curved blade.  By the time Old Man had gotten in from the wilted jungles of southeast Asia, Alisa was already tucked in under the thin, crumbly soil of the High Plains, placed there among tears and lilies by four grown daughters who should have waited, but didn’t.

Ever since I had known him, he had sworn that he was going to bring her home to the mountain, that they would sleep together throughout eternity, man and wife comforting one another as the winds whipped up the canyon walls and the lazy river below continued to whittle the gorge as it flowed to the Chattahoochee and on to the Apalachicola before resting in the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

“The girls and their husbands can go over there,” Old Man continued.  “There’s plenty of room for grandchildren, too, if they’ve a mind to.”  He was quiet for a minute, and I thought he had lost the thread of his thought.  “There will be a place for you, too, if you want.  Someday.  A long time from now, I know.  But still.” 

He was overcome, then, and had to console himself with a Pall Mall and a snort.  Presently he recovered, and we spent the next two hours scratching the layout of the family plot into the stubborn sod.  It began to get cool then, as it does on Lookout Mountain toward sundown, regardless of the time of year.  The sun was a red ball on the horizon, and our breath steamed starward as the temperature crept lower.  I loaded Old Man onto the tractor and drove him back to his apartment at the warehouse.

“I’ll start on it tomorrow,” I told him.  He just nodded his head and went inside.  He had not spoken since we left the sacred spot by the canyon.

Over the next few months, I worked on the plot every day we weren’t attending a sale.  The tract was sixty feet to the side, gently sloping toward the canyon, laid out among the trees so that it would be shady and cool.  At the four corners and halfway down each side, I built small cairns of mountain rock, and I looped these together with sections of black iron chain.  One of the most interesting items that Old Man had bought over the years was an ancient cross made of black wrought iron.  I had heard him represent it as The True Cross to at least two prospective buyers, even though it was my understanding that the genuine article was made out of wood, was irretrievably lost along the dusty corridors of history, and was worth a good deal more money than the three hundred dollars Old Man was asking.  I built a large stone pedestal at the dead center of the graveyard, and it was on this dais of mountain granite that I installed the icon.    

It seemed that we were going to fewer auctions as the time meandered past, as if Old Man was slowly scaling back on what had been his favorite and only pastime.  But I shrugged off this behavior, or at least I did until Labor Day.  The yearly Labor Day antique auction at Doc LeVarn’s Furniture Barn in Pisgah, Alabama, was a landmark event, and I had never known Old Man to miss it.  We would always get there early, and often we would stay so late that it was early again, and I would spend several days after the sale unloading and displaying all of the merchandise he had bought.  But this year, the plan changed.  Old Man said we didn’t have time to go.

“All we have is time,” I said.  “What else do you have to do?”  I liked Doc LeVarn’s sale, and I liked his daughter, Abby, even more than the sale, and I did not want to miss our annual trip to Pisgah.

“We have to work on the cemetery.”

“But it’s done.”

“Ain’t done.  Come on.”  We rode the tractor out to the plot.  It was still summer in high Alabama, but there was a hint of crispness in the air, a breath of the autumn breeze that would presently stroll the landscape.  We arrived at the cemetery, and I helped Old Man down from his perch on the fender.  He slowly walked to the spot he had stood upon months past.

“I’m on my way to Fort Carson tomorrow.  I’m going to fly out there and get Alisa.  While I’m gone, I want you to dig the grave.  Right here.  Bring me a stick and I’ll mark it off.”  I did as I was told.  He scratched a rectangle in the mountain grass.  Then he stepped a couple of feet to his left and stuck the stick upright in the turf.  “Once you get the grave dug, find the prettiest mountain laurel on the property.  Dig it up and plant it right there.”  He pointed at the stick.

I had my orders, and while Old Man was gone to retrieve his wife, I readied her place of repose.  I carefully dug the grave by hand, cut the tough sod with a sharp spade and excavated the red clay one sad shovelful at a time, slowly and with reverence as befitted the execution of an honorable but somber task.  Then I walked that mountain, north and west, east and south, until I located the only mountain laurel that would do to mark her endless sleep, a graceful monument of waxy leaves and delicate purple flowers planted in memory of a life that had been and of a love that would not pass.

On a clear September afternoon under a topaz sky, Old Man’s wife was gently lowered into her long-awaited home.  Slight gusts from the canyon sighed through pine needles, tousled at hair, and tugged at hems.  Alisa’s youngest daughter sang “Morning Has Broken” with such grace and purity that time itself paused, and even the hawks gliding on the eddies over the canyon hung motionless as the notes floated past their wings.

My days with Old Man began to draw to a close that fall.  Time passed, as time will, and he and I drifted each his own way like flotsam at the mercy of a ragged surf.  I gravitated toward a montage of memories yet to be made, a wife, some children, houses, schools, pets, joys, and sorrows, each a thread to be woven into the tapestry of my life, each a stepping-stone on the paths I would choose to amble.

Old Man inevitably drifted to the canyon’s rim.  It drew him like a diviner’s rod is drawn to water, called to him with unspoken promises of peace and rest.  As the months passed, he spent more and more time by the mountain laurel, sitting, drinking Maker’s Mark and smoking Pall Malls, quietly chatting with Alisa about all things and nothing at all. 

And then one day in February, on an underdone and blustery Thursday, the bleakness of the never-ending winter inundated him, and it simply became too much trouble to make the journey back to his room.  So he stayed.

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