He said “Kids” and that was all, as though that one word was satisfactory enough. I supposed it was. All I had to do was turn my head to where his eyes had gone—there to the swinging doors that led into and out of the Ace Hardware. Kids, three of them. Chests puffed, music blaring. Seventeen, I guessed, no older than that. Kings of the world.
“Know what I’d like to give this younger generation?” he asked.
I didn’t and didn’t ask. I figured to him, the younger generation meant me just as much as it meant those three teens going into the Ace. There to buy some piping for a potato gun, maybe. Or some wax to shine up their rusting truck.
“Manners.” He spit a long stream of brown tobacco juice onto the lot. “Yessir, I’d give em manners.”
“Think most everybody’d do well to get a good dose of those,” I said.
He made that strange motion with his head that was part nod at the truth of what I’d said and part shake that things had gotten so bad. It was a motion that said the whole world was on a train ride to hell and we were all enjoying the scenery.
He said, “My Ella? She’s on the Facebook now. Says she’s got a hunnert friends and done liked all these movie stars and rock n’ roll singers. You ever hear such a thing?”
I recollected I did and tried not to raise my eyebrows. His granddaughter Ella was only thirteen.
“Plays them videogames, too,” he said. “You seen them?”
I said I did.
“Gets on there all jerkin’ round and whoopin. She got this one where she’s on the Olympics. Gets herself all sweaty and worn down. And you know what after? She’ll turn that game off and try some real livin, but it’s like she’s all swelled up on the inside. Like she really thinks that gold medal the computer gave her’s a real one, just like she thinks she really is friends with all them rock n’ rollers on the Facebook. It’d be funny if it weren’t so pitiful.”
He spit again, giving me an opening to say something. I couldn’t. He had a point.
“Cain’t blame em, though,” he said. “Elle or them boys what walked in there or any other. It’s the way of the world now. All’s that matter’s we feel good about ourselves. Ella, she’s comin to see she’s a queen what with all them medals on the TV screen and friends she don’t even know on the computer. Yep, gotta puff ourselves up no matter what. Reckon that’s how we get a gov’ment what doesn’t know how to balance a checkbook and a President who thinks he’s my Lord an’ savior and how a body can go kill a bunch of people and blame it on the gun in his hand and not the evil in his heart.”
He nodded, agreeing with his own wisdom, and spit again. “Yessir, manners is what I’d give em. That’s the best thing.”
I kept silent on that. Manners, you see. You respect your elders. That means not disagreeing with them in words unless it’s necessary. It didn’t seem necessary at the moment. He was mostly right, after all.
But what I think we all need in this age of false pride and self-love is fear, and a lot of it. Because no matter how advanced we become and how shiny our toys get, life still has teeth that bite. And many times the darkness we fight and the monsters that stalk us are not in the world, they are in us.