With some people you can just tell, even from a distance.
Maybe it was how his shoulders slumped in a kind of tired sigh, or the slow way he put one old foot in front of the other as he walked towards us.
Whatever it was, I could see it in the shape of him, even from a hundred feet away, somehow this guy had lonely written all over him.
I was in Florida for a gig, and my friend took me on a little nature walk to see alligators, which for a Yukon kid is kind of like spotting a dinosaur, they were that foreign to my Northern eyes.
We were meandering along the boardwalk that led back to where we had parked the car when my friend’s dog approached the old man’s aging cocker spaniel and exchanged sniffs and wags.
Dogs are good for that. They can get two strangers talking who otherwise might cross the street to avoid each other.
We exchanged the usual information, what kind of dog is that, how old is he, I have an old dog myself at home, her hips are sore in the winter but not so much since the glucosamine tablets, you should try them they really work, stuff like that.
The man seemed so eager to talk that I pulled out a cigarette and rested one elbow on the hand railing, settling myself in for a bit of a chat.
“Canadian huh? Never been, but there sure are a lot of yous living in the trailer park where I’ve got my rig.
“Me and the missus retired here from New Hampshire in 2000, we used to have a little house in the Keys, but she passed, just this last February. The place was too big for just me and the old dog here, we were rattling around inside that house alone, so I sold it and bought myself a little travel trailer.”
It was the first week of January, but he hadn’t said that his wife passed away last year, or a year ago. He said February. I knew what that meant. He was still counting his loneliness by the month. I bet if I asked him he could still tell me how many days it had been.
I travel a lot, and over the years I have become an expert at talking to strangers. Most of them just want to talk, mostly about nothing, the weather, their kids, their old dog’s hips, how often Air Canada has lost their luggage, that kind of thing, just to pass the time.
But there was something about the watery way his eyes caught mine and held them. I just knew.
“How are you doing?” I asked him softly.
“Today we’re great, aren’t we boy?” He ruffled the fur on top of the spaniel’s head. “Nothing like the sun to keep the old bones happy.”
He thought he was answering the question most people ask, the kind of polite question you are never supposed to answer with the actual truth. So I asked him again.
“I mean how are you really doing? It must have been tough for you, these last couple of weeks, getting through the holidays for the first time. How are you really doing?”
His eyes opened wide, like he was seeing me standing in front of him for the first time. Then he shook his head a little, as though he couldn’t quite trust his ears, making the skin of his old cheeks jiggle a little in disbelief.
It took him a minute to compose himself. I saw his shoulders relax, and then he let out a long breath.
“To tell you the honest truth, I’m having a real hard time eating my vegetables. I make a mean fish chowder, and a pretty decent cheese and onion bread, but I’m at a loss when it comes to cooking vegetables.”
It’s strange, the things you miss.
Me, I miss the way she used to wear her socks to bed, and then pull them off with her toes. I would find them hidden in the sheets when I made the bed in the morning, crumpled into little black balls, covered in dog hair. It used to drive me nuts, but not anymore, in retrospect. Now it seems kind of adorable.
I miss her dirty socks, and how she never took out the recycling. He misses the way she made him eat his vegetables.
“Can I give you a bit of advice? From a seasoned bachelor?”
“Please. Please do.”
“Purple cabbage.” I told him. “Purple cabbage is the very best vegetable companion a bachelor could ever have. It’s cheap, and you can keep one of those suckers in the crisper for two months and still make coleslaw. Full of fiber.
And cheese sauce. You’d be surprised how much broccoli you can trick yourself into eating if it’s covered in cheese sauce.”
He nodded, his brows knitted in concentration, like he was trying to remember what broccoli looked like.
“My wife liked cabbage a lot. Used to grate it on top of a salad. Cheese sauce. Hmmn. I’d forgotten all about a good cheese sauce.”
We chatted a bit more, until he glanced at his watch and realized he was almost late for lawn bowling back at the trailer park.
“I should be off. I can’t be late, or old Mrs Simpson will get her panties all up in a knot. I don’t know why we have to be so punctual, we’re all retired for heaven’s sakes, but God help me if I show up late for lawn bowling. It really was a pleasure talking to you.”
He shook my hand. His was dry, and still calloused. He used to work for a living, I could tell.
“You too, sir. I mean it. It was nice to meet you. Things will get easier. You’re going to be just fine, you know.”
“Yes,” he said, almost under his breath, bending over slow and careful to clip the leash onto his dog’s collar. “I suppose I will.”