My daddy used to say / You gotta be a man / You gotta pull your weight / You gotta work the land / But every time I tried and failed / He turned away from me / By the time I was a man / It was too late for him to see.
“The best things in life are free.”
Alan Reuss had always heard people say it when he was growing up, but he missed the point. By “best,” he thought they’d meant capitalized words. He’d thought there was a difference between love and Love, liberty and Liberty, god and God. How silly. All those high concepts cost money. Alan had thought them above commercial considerations, back when buildings were named after great men who made laws, not great corporations that made sneakers.
God cost money. Country cost money. Family cost money. If a man couldn’t buy his way into heaven, then something was obviously wrong with the plan being advanced in most of the churches.
The slogan had some merit, but only because the best things in life were little. Licking the bowl of cake batter after the cake is already in the oven. The smell of grass, right after mowing it, and right before a thunderstorm, when the wind whips up. Sweet potato custard. A double rainbow. A pastel sunset. Little things did big things to a man’s soul, and a man never learned how to appreciate them when they really meant something. It was when he’d been humbled by life, when he was down on his luck, when he could barely keep his bills paid, that he found the simple joy just of taking a deep breath. That’s when stopping on the way back from the mailbox to pick a few wild blackberries off the side of the road could be the highlight of a man’s day. Happiness wasn’t making a killing in the stock market. That was satisfaction. Happiness was writing a poem. It was sipping water from a spring, not a bottle that claimed it came from there. It was pulling off the interstate, three hundred miles from home and two hundred from the destination, because a sign said there was a state park, and the park overlooked a river and had some picnic tables, and he could pull out his guitar and sing a few songs to nobody but a few geese and squirrels.
Until Alan lost all the big things, he never learned to appreciate the little, and he reckoned lots of rich folks never got the opportunity to discover that, really, there was a difference between the forest and the trees.
Here he sat at the crosswords, which, by pure coincidence, was the site of a minor Revolutionary War battle involving Patriots, Tories, and a handful of Indians recruited by one side or the other. He had a job interview, but it wasn’t till tomorrow, and right now he needed tranquility. He sang himself hoarse about Smoky Mountain memories, and how he’d laid around and played around this old town too long, how Uncle Remus put him to bed when he was a kid, and why don’t she love me like she used to do? Alan thought about how, if that battle had been held two miles downstream, the guitar he was playing right now might have been made out of that gigantic spruce tree right yonder.
But, more likely, not.
Then he got back in his car, checked his Twitter, and headed off in the direction of his interview, where, if he could jump through enough hoops, he’d be offered a job he would have turned down ten years ago.
TO BE CONTINUED