Some 25 years ago my wife and I lived in rural Person County, in a run-down, white clapboard house. The house was built in 1912, and it had two chimneys. Each night a whip-poor-will, which perched on the middle chimney, serenaded us to sleep.
In the late 80s the roads leading to the house were composed of gravel, dirt, and a mixture of a mystery substance that held the two together. Along one of these roads, in a ramshackle-looking house that leaned southward, lived an old man. Clarence was 88. He was a wiry man with milky-colored eyes and a full head of bristly white hair that stood straight up like a Christopher Walken wannabe.
In the summer Clarence grew a vegetable garden along one side of his house. A small cow pasture, littered with cow pies in various stages of decomposition, closed around the other side. The first time we passed the house Clarence was sitting in the front yard on a wooden bench. Machine parts, homemade bird houses, and assorted household objects were strewn about him. Yard Sale had been spray painted on a piece of weathered barn siding, the red letters crooked and sloppy. We had waved, that first time, and Clarence had waved back, first removing his corncob pipe.
I got to know Clarence over the next two years. It turned out he was born and raised in the house we lived in. Clarence was the kind of person who loved to tell a story, and I used to go over to his house, sit in his makeshift kitchen-living room area, with its stacks of canned goods that appeared to have been there from the previous century, and listen to him talk.
Often he would be drinking a clear liquid from a large Bell jar. Sometimes he would shake his head following a swallow, and smile, so that I knew he wasnt drinking water. Clarence was full of aphorisms and life-sayings. Ive always gravitated toward very old men, and I soaked Clarence up, and I knew that I would never meet anyone like him again.
Once, on a warm summer evening, Clarence took me to a honky-tonk a few miles from his house. It was a rambling building in the middle of a field. Along the road were nothing but trucks, all of them in various stages of filth, and, it seemed, each competing for which vehicle had the largest tires.
The music was going as we entered the building. It was loud. In front of the bandstand couples were dancing on a wooden floor. The floor was lathered with sawdust and the dancers created patterns in the dustings. As we walked in, I felt a hundred set of eyes gravitate toward me.
Remember, new things become old in a matter of months, Clarence said, and he smiled. He moved away from me and sat at a table with two couples. They looked my way, as I stood there, utterly confounded and lost. But suddenly I was hemmed-in by two women in their mid-fifties, each asking me to dance. They wore bright, solid-colored, above-the-knee dresses, and makeup that covered their faces like a cloak. Each of them smiled, and their bright red lipstick shone like a neon sign.
I cant dance. I cant fast dance. I cant slow dance. I cant even fake-dance.
But these women didnt care. That night I must have danced 50 times with, it felt like, 50 different women, though Im sure I danced with some of them more than once. I was led around that dance floor like a puppet, until the sweat beset my back like a soaked rag.
After about an hour the band took a break and everyone left the building and headed to their giant trucks. In our vehicle Clarence pulled out a Bell jar, and drank deeply. He handed me the jar, and I drank, too. The liquid burned, and I coughed. Clarence laughed.
Did you know, Clarence said, that if all the bees in the world died, humans would only survive four more years.
What? I said.
I learned that from Einstein, he said, as if he had a personal conversation with the scientist. And then he was silent, and we sat in the truck without speaking.
When the gods gave farmers silence, they also gave them the power to mean great things by it. To this day I remember that night vividly. I remember the stars, the black sky, the smell of diesel fuel, the strong smell of womens perfume.
And I remember Clarence who sat quietly now, his eyes squinting through his cigarette smoke, looking through the windshield, watching some birds rise through the sky and vanish.