4 min

Staying power

Gnarled hands and work boots

I am good at finding my kind of place for breakfast. Especially in small towns. This place had all the right elements.

It was embedded in the middle of a mini-mall, in between a second-hand furniture store and a laundrymat. Lots of new pickups parked outside. All-you-can-eat Chinese food buffet on Sunday nights. All-day breakfast for five bucks. Neon “open” sign flashing in the window. Vinyl booths and chrome-edged tables that have been there since the ’50s.

I pulled up a stool at the counter and the owner passed me a newspaper and slopped coffee into my cup without asking.

The old guy sat down right next to me a minute or so later.

I had seen him and his hand-carved cane coming up the sidewalk when I was parking. GWG jeans, a white Stanfield V-neck T-shirt under a faded red and blue plaid jacket, work boots with stainless steel starting to show at the toes where the leather was worn through. Clean-shaven. Export-A cigarette pack peeking out of his breast pocket.

I know this kind of man. He has worked hard every day of his life. Paid his bills. Buried his wife.

He keeps his garage spotless, draws outlines of hammers in black felt pen on the pegboard above his workbench, repairs the lawnmower of the single lady next door, even though he doesn’t like her noisy kids. My father will be this kind of man one day, sooner than I would like to admit.

The owner smiles hello at the old guy. “Soup of the day and pie with ice cream after?”

The old-timer nods and then spins his stool around to address the two older ladies tucked into the first booth by the door. “Bea. Helen. Enjoying the sunshine?”

They smile, exchange niceties, and then he turns back to me, squinting at the headlines in the open newspaper in front of me. “No good news in there; I read it this morning.”

We get to talking. He asks me what I am doing in town, as it is painfully obvious to all of us that I am not from there. I tell him I am a writer, in town to teach some creative writing classes at the high school.

“Ah, an educated man then?” he narrows his eyes at me, and then smiles, as if to let me know he will not hold this against me, even though he should.

I shrug. We move on and talk about other things.

As far as I can tell, he continues to think I am a young man. I can tell by his comfortable body language, how he slaps me in the upper arm with the back of a gnarled hand when I crack a joke, the kinds of questions he asks me. The details about his own life he reveals.

Some people would say that I am being dishonest, that I am lying, to not stop him mid-sentence and inform him, even though he has not asked me, that according to what he has been taught to believe about these things, I am female.

The people who believe that I am -being deceitful have never lived in a skin like mine. I answer his questions with the truth. I mind my pronouns, sure, but I do not lie. Ever.

Why? Because I like this old man, and so far, he likes me. Even if I am an educated man.

He tells me that his wife has been dead for 10 years. That he is about to turn 81 years old. That he hates golf, and doesn’t watch hockey.

I ask him how many grandchildren he has. He has to think for a minute, moving his fingers in front of his face to count them. Ten, he says. All of them turned out pretty okay, except for the one grandson, the druggie, who is sponging off his only daughter, can’t keep a job.

I ask him what kind of drugs his grandson is on and talk a little about my friend, the one I haven’t seen in years, and her battles with the meth.

“Does she look hard now?” he asks me, and I think about this for a minute. “You know, older than her years? The drugs, they hit the ladies in the face harder than they do the fellas.”

He shakes his head, sadly. “Can make it hard to come back from.”

He holds up one finger, to make a point. “The hard stuff, I’m talking about here. Not the pot. I’ll even take a bit of pot myself, now and then, for the arthritis, you know,” he winks at me, “but I don’t seem to get the same kick off the stuff I used to get. Maybe I’m toking it all wrong, who knows? Anyway, point is, I always stayed off the hard stuff, and now here I am, outliving everyone.”

His pie and ice cream comes, and his coffee cup is refilled. We are both quiet for a minute while he eats.

“Don’t get me wrong,” he clears his throat, pushes his plate away. “I’m no angel. I like my beer, for one thing. But if I was to give you any kind of decent advice, here is what I would say: stay off the hard stuff. By that I mean the hard liquor, the hard drugs and especially the hard women.” He laughs at his own joke then slaps me on the back with a leathery paw.

I tell him it was great meeting him, and we shake hands. I am thankful for the weightlifting, and the calluses it gives me.

As I push the glass door open to leave, he picks up his coffee cup and slides into the booth with his two lady friends.

“Just having a little chat with a young fella from the city,” he explains. “A writer, he tells me. Just telling him about my secret to sticking around long enough to get to be an old bastard like me.”