I have a recurring dream. In this dream, I stand before my seventh-grade class, wearing decidedly less than a jaybird. My teacher barks a few commands at me, but I can’t understand her. So I just stand there. Shower-ready.
It’s the same way I felt when I met this man.
He and his wife stood in the crowded line, waiting for a table, holding one of those restaurant buzzers in their hands. He had a head of gray, and his wife looked like she ought to be cross-stitching something.
He started up a conversation, saying, “You look awfully familiar.”
“Thanks,” I answered. “But I’m already married.”
He didn’t laugh. “No, I mean it. You look like a fella I used to work with. Spitting image.”
My smile must’ve faded. Because there’s only one man who fits that particular description.
As it happens, this man was from Franklin, Tennessee. An iron worker. He had hands like hams, a tattoo on his forearm. When he heard my name, his face lit up.
“I’ll be damn!” he half-shouted to his wife. “You know whose son this is?”
They grinned. I tried to smile back, but I felt as though I were standing before the entire seventh-grade without my britches on.
“I worked with your daddy back in Franklin, years ago,” the man said. “He was a good man.”
A good man.
That’s what older men say about dead men. It’s the highest praise one male can give another. And as far as funerals go, it’s like saying “War Eagle” at an Auburn game.
It loses its punch after you’ve heard it a thousand times.
And while he told stories about my father, it occurred to me, I’m the same age my father would’ve been when he worked alongside this man. And such an idea made my chest ache, to think my father died while he was still in his youth.
The man’s buzzer blinked red.
“Our table’s ready,” his wife said.
He shook my hand. If he’d squeezed any harder, he would’ve broken it.
His wife hugged me.
I could’ve said anything in the world to them. I could’ve thanked them, or told them to enjoy their suppers. I could’ve wished them well. For crying out loud, I could’ve asked his name. But I didn’t.
Instead, I said, “He was a good man.”
That might not seem like much to you. But it’s the first time I’ve ever said those words.
So I said it again.
I just attended the funeral of a friend’s father. At the service, a 12-year-old girl stood before us and sang “Beulah Land” before they closed the casket. There wasn’t a dry eye in the county. I hardly knew the man who died, but I wore a necktie for him just the same.
My father loved that gospel song. Whenever we’d float the river in a leaky fishing skiff—in bad need of caulking—his shaky voice would bellow, Beulah land, I’m longing for you… His singing would bounce off the water and scare fish away for miles. He’d carry on until you begged him to stop.
One day, he finally did.
I suppose I believe in these kinds of church songs. And I believe in singers that sing them. Like that 12-year-old. Or any unprofessional songman struggling to earn a five-digit income.
Take, for instance, Roberta, who worked in a carpet factory. Whenever she sang “Lay My Burden Down” for church, you’d swear the roof was detaching.
Roberta lived at a Salvation Army shelter with three children, one of whom was blind. When someone like her opens her mouth to sing about hard times, by God, you listen.
Once I watched a group of singing construction workers at a small church in DeKalb County, Alabama. They performed 45 minutes worth of a capella gospel. They sounded like housecats singing Dixie. They were god-awful. But it didn’t matter. These men were like me.
And when one of them started on, Beulah Land, I’m longing for you…
You might not care about this kind of music, and I wouldn’t blame you. It’s not exactly the kind of stuff you’ll find on iTunes. God knows, it doesn’t make you want to thrust your hips or dye your hair pink. After all, no one gives a flying flannel about a hymn sang by some blue-collar worker with a voice like a foghorn.
Still, whenever I hear a song about a place beyond the river, where home will be eternal, where time won’t matter anymore, where no sad goodbyes are spoken. I wonder if such a place exists.
And when I hear a 12-year-old with white-hot vocal cords sing “Beulah Land,” I start wondering if they have good fishing up in heaven.
Then I loosen my necktie.
And I’m sorry I ever asked Daddy to stop singing.
I’ve lost my father’s old baseball mitt. I’ve looked everywhere, torn the house apart, dug through closets, the garage, the attic, dusty boxes.
If I weren’t sentimental, this wouldn’t be a problem, but I am. Objects that wouldn’t sell for a blessed dime at a yard sale mean the world to me.
Take, for instance, Granddaddy’s union card—stamped on a piece of Depression-era leather. Sometimes I carry it in my pocket, I don’t know why. Or my wife’s University of Alabama ball cap, which rides on my dashboard. The quilt Mother made me in first grade.
And Daddy’s ball glove.
He bought it in high school, and it was the last glove he ever owned. Woven leather, dark brown, smelled like axle grease. It was just an old faded thing, but it was among the only things I had left.
In my childhood, I saw that mitt every summer. We’d play catch until dark. When I got older, he threw harder. By age 12, I had to wear a sponge beneath my glove to keep from fracturing my hand.
I don’t know why I’m telling you this.
But it’s more than his glove. The day after someone dies, you inherit a whole mountain of their belongings. Everything. A man’s whole life, handed down to an unsuspecting young fool who doesn’t know what to do with any of it.
I inherited Daddy’s gun collection, radial saw, blow torches, ratchet sets. Old beer coolers, watches, a leaky lawnmower, his welding clothes.
He drove a white utility truck, with a long bench seat. A Ford. I grew up in that thing. If I concentrate hard enough, I can see the vinyl seats, so hot in the summer they’d scald the backs of your thighs.
We rode to church in that dirty vehicle. He’d park out back, so no one saw him step out of it.
“Don’t get mud on your Sunday clothes,” he’d say while I crawled out. Inevitably, I’d gallop into church with a streak of red dust on my britches.
We rode that truck all over. To the creek, Dairy Queen, or the supermarket. And to baseball practice—when he’d toss the ball, shouting, “Ground-ball to first!” I’d lob it back hard enough to dislocate my cotton-picking shoulder. Then he’d yell, “Good hustle, Speedy!”
God. I’d almost forgotten he used to call me that. Speedy.
The older I get, the harder it is to remember his face.
I wish I had that glove.