On Monday afternoon I stopped at the feed store in town for a few bags of grain to fatten the insatiable meat birds. I placed my order and went to stand by the loading dock with an older man, also waiting for his order. In truth, he was not merely older, but flat out old, 80 at least, thin and hunched and moving in that gingerly way of the aged, attired in a rumpled white button down shirt, and rumpled white pants. Both the pants and the shirt bore innumerable stains of innumerable hues, and I did not care to guess at the origins. His car was a Toyota Camry of a mid-90’s vintage; the right rear tire was nearly flat, the right headlight was missing, the accompanying fender crumpled beyond repair, and the entire car was covered in a layer of dust so thick I could see that he’d used his windshield wipers to facilitate the view from behind the driver’s seat. The car looked just pulled from long storage in a barn. In the passenger seat, a small black dog sat at attention.
What do you have for critters, I asked, as we waited. I cannot help myself from asking questions of the elderly, they are inherently interesting to me, and none more so than those waiting to load grain into decrepit sedans with small dogs riding shotgun. I figured him for a couple more dogs at home, a few cats, maybe a small flock of layers.
Jersey’s, mostly, he said. He spoke quietly. I strained to hear him. Most of them open. A few calves. No one uses the term “open” to describe unbred bovine except for those whose familiarly with cows is worn into them like a ravine, and so of course I was all the more intrigued.
His grain came, and I helped him load, four bags to his one, and to be honest, I was surprised that he managed even that. I almost offered to relieve him of that single sack, but did not, and was glad I did not, because an old man who knows enough to describe an unbred cow as “open” bloody well deserves to lift a bag of grain on his own now and then. So what if he dropped it (and it looked for a moment as if he might, he tottered unsteadily under its weight). No one would be hurt. It could be picked up again. I’d do it if he couldn’t.
The rear of the Camry settled a little with each bag, and the dog watched us best he could through the dusty side window. I closed the trunk lid, mentioned the almost airless tire, and watched as he drove away. Loudly, because as it turned out, the car needed a muffler, too.
It is my curse that I often cannot stop imagining the lives of people I meet, even fleetingly. And so it is with this old man. I imagine him arriving home in that listing car, unloading that grain one bag at a time, wobbling his way from trunk to barn, maybe pausing to lean against the open doorway a moment, gathering his marginal strength. I imagine him feeding his cows, a scoop or two each, and how it must be that he stands with them as they eat, because no one at his age would keep cows if it were not important enough to him that he stand with them for a while. Watching them. Hearing them. Smelling them.
I imagine he lives alone. I imagine him eating soup from a can and pre-sliced bread from a plastic bag, lettuce from the small garden he fertilizes with the manure from his cows. Miracle Whip, definitely. Listening to the radio as he eats. I imagine that his house is drafty, and that he is sometimes lonely, but that mostly, he does not mind being alone, or even the occasional loneliness. He has his dog, the cows, the little garden. There will be tomatoes if the weather holds.
I imagine he doesn’t leave home often, but that every couple of weeks, he slides open the big barn doors, and drives the dusted Camry from its resting place, winding his slow way into town to pick up a few bags of grain for his girls.