I haven’t seen a fallen stranger lately, not since 1970 in Memphis, where I was introduced to city life. Bicycling adults weren’t common then, and I always felt like some Yankee eccentric as I rode through this or that flat, pleasant neighborhood. One October Saturday at a stop sign, I paused beside a Buick and absentmindedly peeked inside, where an old man sat slumped over his steering wheel. Should I tap on the window? What if he was only napping? What if he was grieving? Or just contemplating? Should I walk up to a nice Tudor house and knock on the door of a stranger, to ask for help? I was not some ten-year-old boy. I was a first-year estate attorney in a downtown firm. I had no medical training, and of course there were no cell phones in 1970. When I heard sirens approaching, I pedaled off like a thief.
In hot May, a slim, middle-aged man lay in his blood on Highland Avenue. Maybe he was a sales clerk from the Sears down the street. He wore a short-sleeved white shirt, thin necktie, and his dark hair was organized into a greased pompadour. An ambulance was on the scene, but the man was dead.
One August Sunday at dusk, I was returning from an afternoon party in Memphis’s upscale east end when I saw a body sprawled in the middle of four-lane Poplar Avenue. As I got closer, it became clear that the shape was an elderly woman. My first green thought was that a well-to-do Memphis lady wouldn’t drop dead in the middle of a public thoroughfare; that would be common. She must be a drunk who’d taken the wrong bus all the way out here, and then guessed wrong about how to cross the broad street. But two cruisers with whirling red lights had secured the scene, and two more sirens were audible and headed here, as if to say she belonged to the neighborhood. She’d fallen, but she mattered.
Half-drunk myself in the wee hours of a Saturday night, I was turning the final corner back to my apartment in a modest, safe neighborhood when a whiskery, toothless old man stumbled into my path, waving his brown bag at the night. I mashed the brakes just in time, but his eyes pinned me and demanded, What are you doing in my life?
In September, a year after my move south from law school—at little Ohio Northern in the village of Ada—I heard three booms near my apartment. I’d grown up on a southern Ohio farm and knew the sound of shotguns. But I told myself I’d watched too many cop shows and movies. The next morning The Memphis Commercial Appeal announced there’d been a murder a block east of my place.
I was the only rookie lawyer in my firm that year, and I was trying to learn the self-assured, wry manner of some colleagues and acquaintances, especially those who seemed upward bound. I kept thinking that one day I’d ask why everyone in Memphis felt free to drop dead anywhere they wanted. I’d say, grandly, “They fall, like incompetent birds.” They seem to look you in the eye as if to say, “I’m dropping dead today. At your feet. Are you up to it?”
But I made my living with legal pads and careful listening, not wit. I’ve always been a plodder—and a “dreamer,” as my father was happy to say now and then, as if he wanted me to feel incompetent. But he was not wrong, and after twenty years of corporate law, urban complexity, and failed dreaming, including a failed four-year marriage to a clever, aggressive realtor named Amanda, I came back home to Tifton, Ohio and at age forty-seven opened a second-floor office over the Addison County Credit Union.
* * *
At times it seemed I’d returned to a life that had been planned for me somehow. Most likely some people in town saw my return as a failure and surrender—after all, hadn’t I been uppity to wander so far. But I knew my return was a necessary adjustment, and when we met on the street, most folks were friendly enough.
Except to acknowledge now and then who had gone and who had not, we didn’t say much about the Vietnam War. My scoliosis was severe enough to have earned me an honest deferment, but I lost one high school friend to death, another to PTSD and alcohol, and a third, Paul Bennet, to his postwar evangelicalism, which rendered him unable to talk about anything but sin and salvation. Then there was Dave Worley, four years older than I, but well known as a Tifton halfback and point guard, a solid student and a Methodist gentleman. He re-upped for a second year in country, and in his first week of Year Two (1969), he was struck dead by lightning.
In my first couple of years back home, I lived on my savings and investments from Memphis, along with my family’s good name as Tifton farmers who repaid their loans on time. Eventually my one-man law practice was covering my expenses, including the modest salary I allowed myself. I’ve never needed much.
Today, for example, in my small back yard a dawn tribe of sparrows lands in chattering fellowship. I’m fifty-eight, and that’s plenty. Distinct selves—eight, ten, a dozen—start falling fast from the sky until they twist their wings just so, just in time, every time, to halt a free fall and land softly on pine and maple branches. They pause there, checking for danger, then flutter down to the grass, unspectacular creatures, browns and greys, pecking.
* * *
Because I’m a dreamer, maybe, the sparrows’ talk sometimes reminds me of Bert’s, a Tifton family restaurant where the color-speckled salad bar seems to promise health and long life, along with thick soup and a variety of rolls from Monty’s Bakery next door. In the chatter another customer and I might notice each other and wonder if we’d like to share our stories. Our eyes say we might, but we’ve learned to be wary of letting people in, even in this cozy hamlet. So we choose the safety of silence, as if we’ve all been lawyers for a long time. Sometimes we speak each other’s name, or failing that, we nod, and somehow that’s more comfort than I’d ever have guessed.
At Bert’s yesterday, a plump but attractive woman, around thirty, was picking up her carryout for one, and I was drawn to her shy manner. How was she faring on the safe streets of Tifton? Safety’s not much of a guard against loneliness.
I’m only a little embarrassed to say the young woman made me think of a nuthatch—not her appearance, of course, but the way the bird patiently fetches seeds from the feeder and returns to the tree, one black grain at a time, no gobbling, no noise or quarreling with others, just the gentle removal of a seed. Then, with her head pointing down the tree, she taps the seed against the bark, as if she has all the time in the world.
I also like Bert’s two oversized tables where groups of family or friends gather—though I’m one of the singles, an old bachelor pretending to read. Sometimes the groups seem to work awfully hard to ignore subjects among themselves that are messy or dark. There’s some friendliness about cars, sports, home repairs, pregnancies, weather, illness. Maybe a rumor or two, which they often speak in whispers. Or they work up some volume but confine themselves to platitudes—“I don’t know how she could do that to Jim. I guess we are who we are . . . .” Or plot summaries—”I went to Home Depot and bought this and this and this and this . . . and I baked the chicken just that long and not a minute longer . . . .” Too often I resent them or envy them, but they’re what I have. We’re a motley chorus, fat and skinny, old and young, pretty and ugly, with various gods, but at Bert’s we know our roles, and we get along. As luck would have it, no one’s dropped dead at Bert’s in the last ten years.
Right now, over by the dessert display, a broad-shouldered old woman in a loose blue dress holds the hand of a small girl, about five, who gazes up at her with big brown eyes. It looks like adoration. They point at a strawberry pie, and their voices rise in excitement. They agree that strawberry is Bert’s best pie, and they show no sign of falling.