“I seen this,” he told me, straightening his legs outward from the wooden bench as he hitched a thumb into the front pocket of his overalls. “Twiced, I did. Twiced was too many.”
He leaned forward and spit a runner of brown tobacco juice onto the pavement between us. Six feet, that’s where I kept it. That’s what they say is to keep six feet between you and anybody.
The little old lady at the register inside the 7-11 had reminded me of that just a few minutes before, and then she’d winked and said she didn’t like that six-feet rule, it being so hard to hug on anybody. Six feet, but I stepped back anyway when I saw that spit coming at me like a bullet.
I guess that’s how things are now.
“Twiced,” he said again.
I knew he was right, knowing him all my life. Daddy used to bring me here every Saturday morning. I’d ride with him to haul our trash to the dump, then we’d stop by the 7-11 for a Coke and a Zero bar.
Even then, all those years ago, that old man would be sitting on the bench in his overalls, chewing his tobacco as he looked out on the road and the houses and the mountains like it was all his own. Even then, all those years ago, he was old. Now he was older, with lines on his face like worn leather and a Dale Earnhardt hat that had seen too many sunny days under too many plowed fields. Weren’t no corona gonna keep him hid inside the house, he’d told me. Besides, it was just him out there on that bench.
He went quiet, no doubt thinking of the two times he had lived through a thing like this.
Sickness, he meant. The first time back in the early 60s or so, and then again going on a dozen years. Had it really been that long? I counted them off in my head and decided it was. Time truly does pass.
“Pammy,” he said. He smiled at the name the way a father will. And then he said “Rachel” in a quieter way with a mist in his eyes that showed in a brief tick of time the remnants of a heart torn in two, one half beating on an old wooden bench, the other half sunk in the ground across town at the cemetery beside the Church of the Brethren.
Anyone that old was bound to have seen death. Parents, siblings, friends, enemies. He had seen it closer than most, first holding his daughter Pammy as she took her last breath before the age of 10, struck down by scarlet fever. Then all those years later saying goodbye to his wife of nearly sixty years while the cancer wasted her away.
“I hear you old folk shouldn’t be about,” I said, wanting to steer his thoughts from sadness. And as I figured the best way to do so was to get him riled, I added, “Too frail, I reckon.”
He leaned forward and spat again, this time coming within an inch of my boot. Then he smirked at me. “Still whip you, boy.”
It was true. He could.
“Ain’t afraid a no germs,” he said. “Though I keep well enough away, for others more’n myself. Don’t nobody want to catch the death, but death’ll catch everybody in the end.”
I said, “Lord, Hubert, that’s a hell of a thing to say.”
He looked at me that way he always did, like I was the child and he was the wisened old man God kept around just to keep everybody in line, just to remind us all of the way things used to be back when the world made sense.
“You tellin me I’m wrong? That’s the problem. Folk forgot that. When’d folk forget that?”
I didn’t answer. Partly because I wasn’t sure what Hubert was asking. Also because I knew that was one of those questions he asked that required no answer, because he already had one.
“Come down here ever’day to sit on this bench,” he said. “Gets me away from the farm for a bit, and I like it. I like it here. Seein all these folk, talkin to them, seein how they gettin along.” He waved out toward the parking lot. “Now they don’t stop. Get out they cars with they masks and they gloves on, which ain’t no problem and I think is fine. Masks are, least ways. I wouldn’t be wearin no gloves myself.”
And he wasn’t. Not a mask, either. Hard to spit with a mask on.
“That don’t bother me, though. Know what bothers me? That look on’m all. They scared.”
“Reckon we should all be scared,” I said. “Scared means you’re careful.”
“Scared means scared,” he said, then waved out to all that pavement again. “That’s their problem. Half these people all worked up because up until a month ago, they all thought they was to live forever. Hear me? That’s what happens when folk get away from the land. They should come live with me a spell, spend some time on the farm. I see it all the time, death. My fields die every winter. Cows and pigs. Crop. Don’t nothin in this world last. Not even them mountains’ll last in the end. Ain’t supposed to. We all just passin through, man and woman and beast the same. Best thing you can do is keep that in mind. Think on it, like I do. You forget it, you got the biggest problem they is. Cause I seen it. Twiced.”
Hubert was right. Those old farmers usually are. I stood there with him a little while longer, keeping those six feet between us, chatting and watching those cars roll in and out. I saw people scared to death to go in and buy a gallon of milk, watched them sprint to the doors and back again like it was death itself chasing them. And it was, just like it chases us all.
I saw Hubert too, sitting on that bench and enjoying the sunshine like it was any other April in any other year. Laughing and joking and telling me of new calves born and that old tractor of his that was always acting up. Sitting there as calm and happy as he could be while to the rest of us it felt like the world was burning down.
All because we were the ones still learning how to live, and he was the one who’d spent his years learning how to die.