November 18, 2014
He is eighty-seven, a lanky old man with a pot belly, a cane, a ubiquitous ball cap and two-pocket flannel shirt (even in summer). His skin is reptilian, from a life spent in the sun. His voice is low and sharp and practiced, as he orates twice a day, breakfast and lunch, at the local café (my grandfather called “café” “kafe,” rhymes with “safe”). He’s had more heart attacks than he can recall but he isn’t afraid. The daily bacon on his plate is proof of that. He likes coconut pancakes.
We both like ham and beans Thursday, and whoever gets there first reports: “Beans ain’t up to snuff today. Randy musta made them” Or: “Best beans ever.” Or: “Too much pepper.” Or: “Thanks for the warning; I’ll order me the cheeseburger.”
He is easily the most complicated person I’ve encountered since I moved back to my hometown. He listens to the white people Ferguson talk, the fear that riots might spill across the river, the Klan threatening to intervene in the town, and he shakes his head—not from fear, from genuine concern. He is that middle of the road, passionate conservative I would vote for—if one ever popped up again.
“I hate to see protestin’, especially when the perpetrators are just dumb kids. My granddaughter lives near there; I’m worried for her. You don’t shoot unarmed kids. It is wrong.”
Whenever I see him, he asks, “Get your walk in yet?” He has read my pieces in the Alton Telegraph and he likes them. “I used to read the Post Dispatch, until it became pages of ads with a few stories fitted in. I miss the comics and the puzzles. At least the Telegraph keeps me connected.”
“When I was young like you, I bet I coulda walked faster than you.” I won’t take that bet.
“You hear they are puttin’ up a Dollar Store out here? Why? Damn rich people can just tread on you and they don’t need to be accountable.”
“I miss the wife.” His wife is in a nursing home; he can barely fend for hisself much less tend to his spouse.
In the café, he is Norm from Cheers: “Lannie! How’s it goin’, Lannie?” “Oh, my blood is pumping, my mouth is talking, my bones are creaking—I must be alive.”
He is funny, subtle and dignified at the same time, the only man I know who could not possibly offend someone. The hotheads and fearful folks love him. They stop at his table to pay their respects or sit and talk with lowered voices, often seeking advice. He gives it, plain and sensible—he often expounds on getting jobs and working hard—and since, to river rats, plain and sensible is utterly profound, they take in the words with wonder, as though he were a cult leader to the unwashed.
Every time I see him, he says the end is near. And he is right. I see the whoosh of sand in my hourglass. Layton speaks plainly: “I am slowly croakin’. I will go when I go.”
This morning, when I got up from the counter, fueled from caffeine, Lannie said,” You walkin’ today?” When I affirmed, he shook his head and said, “I will nap while you walk for me.”
And I will.