Saturday, December 22, 2018

Father Time

A small white house nestled in the curve of a paved lane overhung by Live Oaks and Dogwood trees is the home of Mr. Odell. He is well over 90 years this year and I’m about 10 years old. My Mom takes us over to his house once in awhile and he attends our church in Ellenwood, Georgia. My Dad is new in his career as an airline pilot, so he’s gone for days at a time and Momma works to keep the cabin-fever away by taking us here and there for visits and activities.
Mr. Odell’s house is small, tidy, and quaint. Behind his house are grapevines and gourds as well as a small vegetable garden. He has birdfeeders made of gourds, planters made of gourds, gourd windchimes, birdhouses and bowls all from gourds. The old man loves to have us over and shows my sister and I his latest puzzle each time when we arrive. He works on thousand piece or bigger puzzles all the time. Placing each piece on a specially built table and then gluing the masterpiece to a wood or cardboard backing for display, though most seem to sit in endless stacks of a dank poorly lit room in the back of the house. I wonder at how he stares at the puzzles and a single piece for what seems like an eternity at times. The kitchen is small and bright and coffee is always brewing and there is a small porch out front.
Mr. Odell is a tall, wiry man with big hands and a white beard. He has a comically large and quick smile and a twinkle in his eye reminiscent of Saint Nic though he has none of the jelly bowl on his small frame. He has family, but none live nearby, and his wife passed decades ago. He occasionally pulls a smooth plank of metal out of his pocket and rubs it between his thumb and forefinger.
“What is that Mr. Odell?” I ask.
“Oh, this is a silver dollar I started carrying in 1910.”
I look wildly at him, this is 1987 and I’ve been around for 10 years. This relic of a man has been carrying this silver dollar since the turn of the century? It doesn’t look like a silver dollar. It’s the size of a quarter and completely smooth save one notch missing from one side. Mr. Odell explains that he carried the silver dollar on a chain for the first 30 years or so, but the chain eventually wore through the coin and he has since kept it loose. The coin resides in the small watch pocket on his denim overalls along with his pocket watch which was probably just as antiquated. I was envious as I could be and carried around my own silver dollar for a few weeks before losing interest and probably the coin. Mr. Odell also showed me a halfmoon sliver of metal from his front pocket, which he explained was his wedding ring that had also worn itself down to a shiny half-moon on his finger decades ago. He returns the items to his pockets as soon as I had a glimpse and a feel of them. We sit on the front stoop and watch black birds swoop across the horizon like a modern piece of pointillism come to life. He says nothing and sips on his lemonade.
Momma and Jessica are wandering around the grape orchard in the back and my little sister squeals with delight at the sight of a butterfly. Momma shows her how to pluck a honeysuckle and lick the nectar from the stigma of the flower after pinching off the calyx and pulling the tiny plunger through the flower. Squirrels quarrel noisily in a tree nearby. Mr. Odell slowly gazes toward the street again and puts a foot on a stump that is sawed off at table height. A car scoots by too fast and he mentions that cars are not too loud these days. “You gotta pay attention so as not get run over,” he says to me.
The idea was novel, so I asked what cars were like before. He laughed and stood, stretching his long bony skeleton like Don Quixote just came to life and stepped out of a Baroque painting. He hitched up his overalls, tucking his bony hands into the front flap. This pose signified the beginning of a story, so I waited with much anticipation. Mr. Odell began in his crackly centenarian’s voice, which still carried the weight of its former strength. “Well, one day when I was about your age, I sat here with old men from the area and they would tell yarns while spitting chaw or taking a nip from a flask when the women-folk were in the house. One man was prone to making bets… and let me tell you Eric… never take a bet. A man won’t offer it if he thinks he can lose; and never make a bet because one day you’ll be wrong, and you will lose big. Anyway, this fella told my Daddy that he bet a silver dollar he could move his hand before my Daddy could drop his hatchet on his finger there at that very stump. My Daddy took the bet and we all readied the area in anticipation since Old Paul wasn’t prone to losing a bet and my Daddy wasn’t prone to taking one. The table was set, and Paul had his hand on the stump…”
(“Pardon the pun”, Mr. Odell said and chuckled to himself, though I had no idea why at the time)
After wiping the smile off his face and letting the laugh die in his belly, Mr. Odell continued, “Well, ol Paul had his hand in a fist on the wood block with his pinky sticking out and my Daddy had his small prunin’ hatchet at the ready. After much deliberation about how this would start, it was decided that one man would count to three and my Daddy could drop the hatchet at any point after. Daddy even laid a couple of cumquats on the table to show Paul how he would do it. Two quick chops turned the fruits into four pieces as easy as a hot poker through butter. Now they were ready, and Mr. Johnson started counting. One… Two… Three… but as he said three, we all heard a commotion on the road. It was a motor vehicle and I, for one, and prolly most of them had never seen such a contraption. It was putting along with smoke belching out and an awful noise. ‘Look!’ I said. Just then we heard a hatchet dig into the stump. Daddy and Paul looked down wild-eyed and Paul put a handkerchief over the tip of his finger. The nub set on the block next to the cumquats and looked right at home, truth be told. They took Paul inside and Momma and them cleaned and cauterized his finger. It wasn’t so bad, he didn’t even lose a knuckle, but that’s how I got this here silver dollar.”
I watched him roll the smooth metal disc across his knuckles like it was floating on air before flipping it up and asking me “Heads or Tails?!” before placing it deftly back into it’s home. Heads or tails was another joke, since the smooth plank had no discernible features.
“Yeah, Ol’ Paul was alright, but he weren’t no fan of the horseless carriage after that.” Mr. Odell slapped his knee, and guffawed as he plucked a pomegranate from the tree, cut it in quarters with an old Case knife and tossed me a section. I have no idea if the story was true and don’t much care. When you’re older than everyone else, I guess you can tell whatever kind of story you want, who’s to say otherwise?
Momma and Jessica came back to the house and Momma asked what was so funny. “Oh nothing, just telling this little fella about the first car I ever saw,” he said and shot a wink in my direction.
We would bring him a covered dish once every week or two and enjoyed the yard and putting some puzzles together over the next year and eventually we moved away. It was before social media and I doubt Mr. Odell woulda been the Instagram type anyway, but I think of him from time to time. A kind man, with a kind heart and a great story to tell for any occasion. I know there is no possibility he still roams this Earth, but I will always envision him on that stoop watching the cars roll by while the dogwood blooms fall in the yard.
Goodbye Father Time, the idea of a coin in your pocket for nearly a hundred years was probably the first concept of time and aging I ever had and helped me to imagine that my life’s choices could affect me for far longer than I could imagine. Time can sand a ring into a sliver and wrinkle an old man into a gnarly tree, but it couldn’t extinguish the twinkle in his eyes until they closed for the last time.

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