Sunday afternoon, Farmer Orville and I drove to the two-block-long town of Fieldon for our friend Mike West’s wake, at the local Baptist church. I’m uneasy in churches. The more fundamentalist they are, the queasier I get. Orville is a Missouri Synod Lutheran, a sect not known for laughter.
We told Mike stories the whole way. Our friend was known for off-color jokes. If you were around him for the day, you might hear the same joke three or four times. He fudged a little on where his produce came from, especially early in the season.
An old lady might ask, Are these tomatoes homegrown? Are them peaches Calhoun? (Calhoun refers to softball-size peaches from Calhoun County that make Georgia peaches taste like paste.) By mid-July, all the produce would be homegrown anyway.
Sunday was hot and sunny, and thousands of orange tiger lilies lined the highway. We passed by the Do Drop Inn, the parking lot of which was full of afternoon the cars of beer drinkers waiting for the all you can eat pork chop supper. Orville told me all about his and Quilt Queen’s burial plots, like he couldn’t wait to get there. I said if he died first, it would take an hour just to read all the pieces I had written about him. He nodded; he expected no less.
Fieldon has one bar and three churches, two Baptist and a Catholic church in need of paint, a new roof, and sidewalk repair. The good Catholic folk of Fieldon seemed to have given up on a papal visit. “I’m glad Mike wasn’t a Catholic,” Orville said. I didn’t ask.
I have never heard anyone say they were looking forward to the wake. This one was no exception. Mike’s casket was at the front of the sanctuary. His wife Cathy was hugging folks, and family members were shaking hands, and people sitting in the pews shook their heads.
Not once have I seen Orville hug anyone. I imagined he was plotting how to avoid Cathy’s embrace. But he opened his arms wide and almost disappeared into Cathy, who is nearly my height. She and I hugged and kissed and said we’d get together for lunch.
Mike’s adult kids were there. His one daughter and her husband are organic dairy farmers in upstate New York. I told her how proud Mike was of her and she burst into tears. Her dad had never told her that, as it is, sadly, and always shall be with a lot of dads.
As we drove back, I told Orville that now I had seen him hug someone, we could add that intimate act to our visits, and he said he only hugged girls. We stopped at the Jerseyville Dairy Queen for Chocolate Extreme Blizzards. Orville said he was buying, so I told our lovely server in that case I also wanted a bag of ten hamburgers to take home, and my friend did his standing dance, and the girl behind the counter laughed, and “we all had a real good time.”
And Orville and I imagined that Mike, free of cancer, was having a good time, too. I watched my farmer buddy as we sat together, and I memorized him, for the time when memory would be my only solace, and then he spilled Chocolate Extreme Blizzard on his shirt and khaki pants, and I offered to wipe the mess for him, and he said he’d shoot me if I tried.
When he got out of my car, Orville said, “Don’t tell the wife.” He meant the Chocolate Extreme Blizzards, but the damn spots would tell the tale, as Macbeth could have told him.
Here’s to you, Mike. And Cathy, bless you. And Orville, I love you. I could use a blessing too, but heathen existentialists learn to have low expectations.