Friday, May 15, 2015

The Old Man And His Red Man


On the way back to the homestead from South Mountains last Sunday I stopped for a fill up and a cold drink. It was one of those places you find along backcountry roads that serves as a combination gas station/grocery/hardware store/bait & tackle shop for the surrounding community. After filling my tank, I went inside, made my soft drink selection and headed toward the register. As I approached, a small man of indeterminate, but clearly advanced, age walked through the door and sidled up to the register. He was obviously a local; the cashier addressed him by name and knew without prompting which of the vehicles -- a beat-up Ford pickup -- at the pumps was his. When I say he was a small man, that is not meant as a disparaging statement, merely an accurate description. Bolt-upright, he would probably have stood five-two or three, but years of hard labor -- I'm guessing in the fields, but that's just my speculation -- had hunched him over so that his effective height was in the range of four-something. He wore faded blue jeans that were at least two sizes too big and pulled halfway up to his chest, a blue plaid shirt and a blue "truckers" cap with what I assume to be the name of some local establishment on it. His face was creased with deep wrinkles that gave him the general complexion of one of those dried apple dolls. In other words, he was about three-quarters of the way to being a Norman Rockwell illustration.

He fished in his oversized back pocket, retrieved one of those old-fashioned wallets with an integrated coin holder, the kind I hadn't seen since my father passed away, and handed over two bills. The cashier passed back a couple of smaller bills and a few coins. The man hesitated for a second, then handed the bills back to her and said, "give me one of them lottery tickets, I guess." After a discussion of the relative merits of the various instant games, he made his choice and proceeded to "scratch off" the ticket right there on the counter in front of me. Normally, I'd have been getting a little perturbed by this point, but the man so closely resembled the relatives I visited with mom and dad as a kid that I found it hard to work up much of a lather over it.

"Well, looky there... I won."

Sure enough, the cashier confirmed, he had won $8. After she had paid him, he hesitated for yet another moment before handing back most of his winnings.

"Well, I guess you'd better give me a pouch of that Red Man."

The cashier produced a few more coins from the register and retrieved the familiar green and red pack from a rack behind her. Until that moment, I hadn't thought about Red Man chewing tobacco for years. That was my father's brand right up up until a "sore that doesn't heal" on his lip convinced him to give it up for good when I was in my early teens. Prior to that, I can recall him spitting tobacco juice into the weeds outside his work shed. Mom forbid the stuff in the house.

Having taken his walk on the wildside for the day, the old man stowed his wallet and shuffled out the door with his ill-gotten gains.

"Sorry about that," the cashier offered by way of apology, "he's just an old man... comes in almost every day."

"Not a problem. I understand completely." And you know what, I really did.

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