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.
30 thoughts on “I Imagine”
Ben – best effing posting for a long time! You totally nailed that old man’s life. I know because I am that old farmer myself. I have to ask for help getting heavy stuff into the back of my old pickup, I take my three small dogs with me everywhere and I eat corned beef hash out of the can! Still beats hell out of sitting in an old folks home trying to imagine what the old ladies looked like when they were 22. I’m glad that you are writing regularly again; hope you keep it up. – Gene
Hello Gene. My name is Will. Ben was interested in the old farmer in white, I am interested in you, an old farmer who comments enthusiastically on a post about another old farmer. So to learn more about you, I have a question. Would you describe here the most memorable day in your life as a farmer? Thanks.
Will – This is Ben’s space and I shouldn’t take up too much of it. I looked up ‘memorable’ in a fifty year old Webster’s dictionary just to be sure I remembered what the word means. OK – I am a somewhat unusual farmer in that I grow organic herbs and veggies out on the prairie. No critters except three dogs and a cat. I grow and sell most of my produce on contract. Most memorable day? Well, it would have to be the day I was notified that my largest-by-far customer had just filed for bankruptcy and left me holding a six digit contract with most of the crop already planted. Definitely threatening me and my farm since I had borrowed money to get the crop in the ground – as most farmers have to do – and I had no freakin idea where I was going to sell all that stuff or how I would pay off my loan. That was nearly 20 years ago, but believe me, It is memorable! I think about it regularly. Obviously I survived. I haven’t many years left and I surely will not be taking that kind of risk again. – gene
Enjoy that hash. You don’t eat it cold, do you?
Thanks Gene (and Ben, too), and Gene, here’s to you walking the prairies in soiled whites real soon..
Just beautiful, Ben.
Wonderful! And made me wonder – when exactly did I stop imagining the lives of people who cross my path? I used to do it all the time – and I used to write. Time to start imagining the world again, and even if it doesn’t get me writing again, it will still enrich my life and stimulate my aging brain. Thank you.
Awesome. Go for it, Cally.
I know this farmer (actually a few like him). This piece made me a little misty I must admit. Not being that young myself I can’t imagine ever letting go of the things I’ve spent most of my life doing. My gardens, my dogs, my chickens. I pine for larger livestock but remember the work haying always was and realistically am not up to the task. I won’t stop doing this until I can no longer enlist the help of someone younger who’s willing. This is a beautifully written piece well imagined, thank you.
Nicely said, Ben…damn nicely said.
Forget misty.. this made me sob!
Get out of Jerseys, Old Man! Christ, I just sold 2 for .65 cents.
Definitely Miracle Whip? Way to stereotype the old timers, geesh! By the time we are old those could be fighting words! I often miss the point of things, but I’m not missing the point of reverence for the elderly here. I wish more people had that….
I love Miracle Whip and I don’t care what anybody says. It’s the Iowan in me. Phooey on that mayonnaise stuff.
I’d sure like to know just how that old man might describe his encounter with the “young whippersnapper” at the feed store. More importantly, I hope the two of you connect many times in the future. GREAT post!
The best characters can be found at the feed store. Love this and love the fact that you were able to make assumptions about this gentleman that were kind and reverent. Thank you for a wonderful read!
Another great source for character sketches like this would be a flea market. 🙂
I know one thing: that we are damn lucky with your curse!
I imagine a slice of Entemann’s Lemon Danish, with too sweet white icing drizzled across the top, for dessert. Definitely black coffee. I also imagine you running into him again, and then…
oh, man, I used to love those things. Might have to step out for a box or two this afternoon.
Annie Proulx has a short story in her collection Close Range about an old rancher who lives on cheese doodles, beef jerkey and burnt coffee after his wife leaves him. The parallel is striking.
Nice. That was so, so nice. I loved it. Perfect start to a day trying to write. Thank you Ben.
Such a nice piece of writing I imagined you as a juggler having fun juggling the beautiful use of language, the images and the imagination of the story going wild. Nice nice nice. And long live the unrecognizable stains. Over in the old country now, I really enjoy the colorful characters you may meet on a short walk: the bottle pickers by trash containers with long bottle “fishing poles”, old grandmas full of endless gossip stories perched morning to dusk on town benches and a guy in dusty clothes black socks and sandals carrying a live chicken or pig across the town.
Best damn sentence was the punchy (and plucky)-“Loudly, because as it turned out, the car needed a muffler, too.”
Nicely mirrors the old man.
Ben, my dad is that old man, only his dad sold the farm (literally) when he was in his teens and away in “the service”, and what he really wanted to do–take over farming from his dad–he couldn’t, so he went to pharmacy school and became a pharmacist, instead. But he always planted trees and crops everyplace he ever lived, and kept livestock even when he lived in town, and he raised kids who did the same. Now my dad–though he is 82 and is weak from radiation treatments–still insists on cutting and splitting his own firewood, and other fearsome jobs that he should have given up long ago. I worry about him, but I know that his pride is more important that a strained back or sore muscles.
Beautiful post and comments – thanks to all. I wish i knew this old man but then he is probably happy in his solitude.