The older guy just sits there. He’s staring at me. His blue jeans are cast out in front of him and his knees are straight with heavy boots crossing at the end. I can tell he’s in no hurry to reply when he rocks one more time before taking a soft sip from the large ceramic cup tucked between his hands. Only then does the straw hat on his head gently lean back and raise his voice. “What you want?” The question is smooth. I feel like I’ve been here before.
But as the last syllable escapes his lips a small animal comes barreling out of the thick brush. I don’t hesitate. I don’t have time to determine if it’s a bear or some other wild predator. I need to move. I’ve never been to Africa but at this very moment it sounds as fierce as a wild lion screaming fear at me.
I immediately begin hitting all the electrical buttons on my door, but the window won’t shut. I’m desperate. All my fingers are tripping over them self. I’m simply startled and trying to move too quickly. I know it’s only a millisecond but I don’t have time to think. I’m simply reacting. My sole concern is survival. And the charging beast is picking up speed.
Now the digital clock of the universe has ticked five more times and I’m really frantic, pushing at all the buttons with both hands at the very same time. My eyes haven’t even gotten down there yet; their so fixated on the sprinting bully. Three windows are already closed pushing harder against rubber, and now the driver’s door is finally starting to move.
But it’s not fast enough. I instinctively start bouncing my head to speed it up but the ascent still isn’t quick enough. I can feel the pounding monster hammering closer.
Luckily though, what I perceive to be a black Lab mix presses his paws heavily into the ground and quickly weaves at the very last second and stops just short of my car. I hold my thoughts in my throat. I’m amazed. My vision had it smashing through the glass. Still, it stands up right, glaring its authority and barking at me. The creature is salivating and spitting. A discouraged breath is now escaping my lungs and the heavy push is complaining about the decision to turn onto the gravel path a while back.
“Sam, go on.” The old guy’s grey beard now leans forward and presses harder against his chest as I watch his cheek muscles flare to protect me. “Come on, go!” The man’s words pat Sam on the rear just a little harder. And it’s enough. Sam’s glare lingers in disappointment for a second longer but then he just turns and walks away.
I’m impressed. It didn’t take much for the guy to get a response. But don’t get the wrong impression. Sam isn’t cowering away. He’s simply moving in the other direction watching over his shoulder.
It seems like ten minutes have ticked from my life before I’m comfortable enough to even reveal my face. There’s now an obvious tremble in my hand as I carefully start putting down the window. “Is it safe to get out?” My cautious expression jumps through the half opened space and carefully steps in the uncluttered yard with great reluctance.
“He’s not going to bother you unless you’re black.” The man grabs at his beard and stretches it out even farther than it already is. Then he shares. “I don’t know why, but Sam doesn’t like black folk.” The guy’s head gently turns down a little and shutters side to side contemplating the reason why.
The declaration catches me off guard. My eyes blink twice and actually look at him three times just to make sure I understand him correctly. I’m not sure what it is but a feeling of contentment suddenly rushes over me. The mood is more comfortable with his sentiment by my side. Still, hesitation cautiously opens my door just to be sure.
And I’m right. The warning blinking in my head is instantly confirmed. After only a few steps Sam comes charging again. I immediately stop. I don’t know what to do. I’m frozen. I’m going to die out here in the middle of nowhere. I’m going to be eaten alive and my bones buried in the woods and no one will ever know. The thought runs through my head in an instant. There’s nowhere to go, nothing to do. So I stand with resolution, waiting to die.
But just as suddenly as the situation commences, there’s a new feeling. His tail is alive. Affection is lighting up Sam’s eyes. I’m not sure what it is but I bend my knees and try to tune my voice an octave higher to reassure myself. “Hi baby. Hi Sam.” My trembling voice is greeting him the best I can.
Sam’s eagerness is running full stride. His excitement continues working around me, bumping into my bare legs. His furry enthusiasm begs for my attention before my arm actually feels comfortable enough to extend and let my hand pet him. His wagging tail moves back and forth, hitting me over and over before he gets called again. Sam is turning toward the man when I ask. “May I take a picture of you?” My head looks up for the old guy’s reply.
Other than the name of the road I really have no idea where I am. I’m not even sure if I’m still in Caswell County NC. I don’t have a local map in my car or a GPS to track my trip. I’m simply driving home from my parents and unlike the past where I typically take a left somewhere after Yanceyville, I take a right instead. I don’t know where I’m going, but I don’t plan going too far, this time at least. I’m just wandering around, hoping to drop into Burlington somewhere and cruise 40 home.
I really don’t know why I went west today. I guess I’m just feeling bored. I’ve been driving east for too many years. But I’m not necessarily weary with the road, but more with life; not really sure of anything right now. There seems to be too much pain.
Nevertheless, after dropping south on route 62, I’m just doing my thing, casually driving along looking for moments and intuitively turning wherever it feels right. I usually take good notes of corners and their names because my memory isn’t so good (it really isn’t good at all), and because I’m so easily distracted by the images I find. I really have no idea how long I’ll shoot; it can be a few minutes or closer to an hour a few times. So I learned a long time ago I need to at least find my way out. It’s been years since I had to ask for directions because of the unscientific crutch I’ve developed.
Still, today is different. I don’t plan on knocking on a stranger’s door, but I never considered creating a record either. Go figure. It didn’t seem like the thing to do. So I’m just heading south, or so I think I am. Who actually knows after all the twist and turns running up and down the grades of earth.
So, for what it’s worth, I generally stop and poach shots from my open window whenever I can, but there are times when I have to get out and catch a completely different angle. What’s funny, I always want something more when I start downloading them. Perfection always seems to be a breath away.
Today’s excursion, however, really doesn’t feel different than others now. I don’t usually look for them, but I always seem to find myself on roads that have never felt asphalt. I’m like a little field mouse scurrying around sometimes. These country roads are my epitome. They are the best places to capture pure pictures anymore.
And that’s how I ended up here. I think I turned mainly because of the name of the road. Whatever the reason, its pigment changed on me. It’s simply where I am with a pen and camera in hand waiting to find a story to get me through the day.
My fingers eagerly reach out to the old man who sitting on a porch in a sweat soaked t-shirt. He takes my business card as I introduce myself. I apologize for the crumpled up piece of paper twice before he mimics my count and pats it two times on his lap before laying it to rest. And I’m not trying to make direct eye contact with Sam, but for my assurance, I always want to know where he is. I’m really just surprised the card is still in one piece. But the old guy just smiles an awareness at me. That’s all he says.
Then we shake hands and the firmness of the old guy’s grip truly amazes me. The motion of his open palm then invites me to sit. So that’s what I do. It’s simply an instinct. It just feels right. Sam saunters my direction and after circling twice he lies down hard at my feet. And the hopelessness I felt in the car is now taking a different beat.
I pull out my pen and ask him to share one piece of advice for the world.
But my question doesn’t matter. It seems to have jumped off the porch and is running around headless. “I have a daughter who has a photography business up the road.” His first two fingers independently point out in front of him. “And one who’s an attorney the other way.” He doesn’t bother changing the direction of his fingers for the second. I’m just saying.
So we sit in the shade, hiding from the late morning rays that are anxiously thumping on the ground just beyond our feet. The air is silent other than those taps. So silent. I’m really not sure how long we’re there before he speaks. I don’t own a watch after all that fits on my wrist anymore. But what he asks is rather poignant, so I’ll quote it for you. “Are you happy young man?” It’s as if he shook hands with my soul just then.
And I’m just sitting there in the rocking chair and I don’t know what to say. My attention is darting around now trying to avoid his question. After all, I’m the interviewer.
I find myself looking at the waving boards of his porch and evaluating his small garden to the side, pondering his thought much longer than I should; which may be a reply in itself. I don’t feel particularly young anymore, it’s rumbling in my head with a variety of other things. So I just share what I feel in my heart at that exact moment. “I’m content.” My eyes look at him for a reply.
The old man doesn’t turn his head or shoulders. “I’m Bob.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Bob.” I say with an undertone of admiration.
“I use to work in a garment factory west of here, 42 years.” He admits while adjusting himself a little in his chair. “I use to weave socks before I began repairing machines.” He gently pinches at the front flange of his nose. “It was rather coincidental.”
I was immediately impressed by Bob just then. A man his age relaxing on an old rickety porch that needs two coats of paint, surrounded by acres of woods, having such a healthy thought process and a vocabulary to match it as well.
“I had a quota to meet and my machine broke one morning.” I can feel Bob giving me a glance from the side of his face. “I waited nearly all day for it to get fixed.” He says before sharing a light smile with me. But he still isn’t turning toward me. “It took both my shoestrings. But I worked all night and the next two days barefoot to catch up. The next week I was called into my shift manager’s office and I got a promotion and a salary.” Bob then changes direction. “You limp.”
Now I wasn’t trying to distract the natural flow of the conversation but I really like dogs. And Sam has an energy I can literally feel. “May I pet Sam?”
And the question he didn’t ask is avoided. “Anywhere but the belly.”
I didn’t bother asking why, but as I leaned over to touch Sam’s head I immediately stop.
“Sam’s more tender today from the still-births she had years ago. I’m surprised she’s still alive.”
The fact that Sam’s a girl isn’t the reason for my hesitation though. My chest is near my knees when I rise back up and my astonishment looks at her. “Sam is blue!” I add an exclamation point here to share my shock with you. Don’t get me wrong. Sam’s coat isn’t blue, blue, but there’s definitely a hint of a vibrant sky that’s faded on her strands I didn’t notice before.
“Well.” Bob stretches the word out nearly as long as the gravel road in front of his house. “I don’t know how that happened. But it was so long ago I don’t notice it anymore, or I’ve just become accustomed to it I guess.” He now makes a little effort to turn his smile in my direction.
I now try my hand at opening a topic. “It sure is quiet out here.” I listen to the birds and crickets and a few other insects I can’t identify, while trying to hide the fear I’d have living way out here every day of my life.
“It’s not quiet after the new neighbors moved in.”
Now I don’t really remember too many homes driving in, but I’m sure we’re miles from the beaten path, so I have to ask how much further the road goes.”
“It dead ends there.” I’ll note he doesn’t bother pointing a finger or an eye this time. So I can’t resist asking. “How many neighbors do you have?”
“It use to be four until the fifth moved in, in ’62.”
And that’s when it starts again. We sit in silence for another good spell. I’m not sure if it was five, ten, or twenty minutes. It may have been closer to thirty. But I just rock scratching Sam’s head every once in a while.
It was during this break when Bob reaches behind the planter sitting at his side and pulls up an unmarked mason jar that has a few sharp scratches ingrained in it. He tilts it my direction, cordially offering me some before pouring two finger’s width into his coffee mug. And he just starts talking again without my cue “I stopped buying coffee years ago.”
Bob’s eyes twinkle so hard just then I don’t even have to look over at him to get the emotional touch before he finishes up. “The girls don’t know either.” He places his index finger in front of his lips.
Then Bob picks back up where he left off. “I think it was the old lady down the way playing tricks. The girls say she was flirting. But who knows. Sam’s always been a curious dog. She could’ve jumped head first into that vat of indigo like the woman confessed.” Bob clears his throat a little. “It doesn’t matter either way. The lady’s dead and the scar’s faded”. He smiles again. “It made for a nice talk piece a while back.”
The word he uses rings in my head because someone recently said I might have some indigo in me, referencing the New Age concept of people who are believed to possess special and sometimes supernatural abilities. It’s based on a concept developed in the 70s by Nancy Ann Tapp. I really had no idea I was part of a society until it was introduced to me. I always figured I was just a little different than most.
So my question mark is quick and flawless as soon as he stops. “Indigo?” But I seem to have flashed it in the wrong direction because it takes an additional few minutes before the old guy responds.
“We use to dye our own clothes out here. Indigo was popular at a time.”
I sit there for a few minutes unaware I was rubbing my freshly shaven chin just like Bob had been rubbing his beard before I stop.
“Hmm.” It was my only reply.
And I don’t really know how it commenced but shortly after that humming expression, our dialogue becomes more fluid, meandering through the banks of our life like the creek heading through the woods just a piece over the rocky road in front of us.
Bob tells me how he once romanced his wife with flowers every day for six months before he ever got a date, and how he married her three weeks later and still picks her an eloquent bouquet at least once a month. I learn how cancer took her shortly after his third daughter was born. How he home schooled each of his girls even though he never had a formal education beyond elementary. We discuss the excitement of his employment, and the liquor he ran at midnight. He even shares tips of the small crop he’d been cultivating in the early sun.
By then the morning had run straight into the day. And I’m sure we could have sat there and talked til dark for a week before I’d get a decent portion of his life. He knows so much and has experienced even more. And I know you’re wondering why Bob never says anything about his third daughter. I want to know, too. And even though I knew you’d be curious, I didn’t think it polite to ask, at least not on this trip. But I hope to make it back. Maybe he’ll share something about her then.
But I have to go now. I’ve been enough of an imposition, and I’m hungry. As I get up, my camera nods at Bob and quaintly shares its appreciation.
Walking through his yard, which really isn’t a yard but more of a half-moon circling into the gravel road I notice right then, I hear Sam move back to Bob after all these hours with me. Then Bob closes our time together answering my initial question. “You can survive on contentment, but you’re not living until you feel happiness in your life every day. That’s my motto.” I then hear Bob clear his throat and after spending only an afternoon with him I know he’s setting me up for something much more powerful. “Tell all your friends it’s what Robert Early says.” He stops to create a dramatic pause. “Enjoy life today. There’s no promise of tomorrow.”
In this instant I simply turn and take an eloquent shot of Bob to remember the wise man sitting on his quiet porch all by himself with Sam. And then I thank the man again for his hospitality and go. That’s how quickly things end. It’s that easy. The moment we shared is done, but it’ll live with me forever.
I’ll stop my story right here before we dare discuss anything more so I may briefly explain my surprise later that night. The trip home really isn’t as quick as I initially plan. I don’t make it too far when I stop and get a room. I rationalize the universe is giving me some direction. It’ll give me a chance to catch more shots tomorrow in a part of the state I rarely see. Plus I’m tired. Suddenly drained.
My ritual typically downloads images first, as soon as I walk through my front door. No bathroom breaks or kitchen stops. And my routine’s usually the same on the road. But not today. I find the bed and quickly fall asleep. This is when I have some weird dreams. The strangest thing, I’m usually a shallow sleeper. I don’t usually drift off like that. So it makes a mark when Bob and Sam visit my slumber.
And here I am. It’s 11:11 that very night when I wake up (Just so you know I love it when things double up). My eyes immediately rollover and quietly unpack my camera and computer. I then download all the images so my mind has something else to play with. My pictures can be so vivid as I create moments with them. And that’s when it happens. The shock I’ve been trying to explain comes to light in that dark room.
The realization perplexes me so much my fingers search the keyboard over again looking at the different images of the day. But I can’t figure it out. How’d it happen. I’m awake and I’m sane. It just doesn’t make any sense. How can it be. Sam is nowhere to be found in the last picture I took of the porch and the black man even though I saw the dog sitting right there.
I figure it’s the universe playing tricks with my head. I guess it just wants me to visit them again. That’s the last thought I remember before drifting off to sleep for the very last time.
Joe Hawkins All Rights Reserved This may not be copied or reproduced in any form without permission from its author.
Hello. It's me
I got kicked off my porch today. Yeah, I know it sounds weird, me being kicked off my very own porch.
I move to get a better shot, and the bluebird thinks its funny.
i'm just sitting here in the late morning. the grass is green, but it's an overcast day and clouds are rolling fast. i suspect heavy rains by early afternoon, but the weather channel says there may be hail. it doesn't matter. i can get a few shots in before anything strikes. the event may actually be done by then. i'm not sure. i'm just sitting here right now all by myself. away from the crowd that hasn't shown up, just photographing anything i feel. there's birds and trees and lots of other little things to fill the space. it's just a simple process anymore, filling the void that is. there's even a thin river running by that's right over there. and here's my tree. i didn't see it at first. i'll admit my mind didn't see it at all. i just breezed right by, but as my thoughts were wondering in the spring air, my eyes keep coming back to the sensation standing right there. I just like this tree. it's magical. it's a wizard with hands flying around. but it can't seem to hold on to all of these great ideas. even if none are truly great, they're all its own, and it wants to share them with us -- you and i. so hold onto your seat. we're going for a ride. it's the day i met a magical tree.
The sun is shining. So I am writing.
I can't sleep in the dark anymore.
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