Beyond the Western
The Old Man on the Bench
Jack Goodner

Beyond the Western

Stephanie, the smoking hot paralegal slithered into my office and announced in her normally irritating and condescending manner, “Jason, your uncle wants to see you ASAP.” Staph, as I prefer to think of her, seems to believe that part of her job description is to remind me frequently that I’m only here because my uncle owns the law firm. Only my modern, enlightened attitude about women and my reluctance to having her file a workplace grievance keeps me from telling her that she’s only around as eye candy for my lecherous uncle.

“Stephie said you wanted to see me, Uncle Hal.”

“Yeah, Jason, I need you to run some papers over to Steve Johnson in Longview. He’s in court today so you may have to wait a little while to see him. He’s planning on reviewing the documents and hopefully signing them so you’ll need to hang around for that. You might want to take something to read to kill the time.”

My uncle gave me an envelope and instructions and I took off. I knew Staph would think Uncle Hal was just using me for a gofer and maybe he was but I didn’t mind. It got me out of the office which was good.

I only had to wait an hour or so to deliver the papers. The lawyer said he would review them on his lunch break and we agreed to hook back up in the afternoon court session.

I went to a small Thai café that I like and had a wonderful meal. On the way back to the courtroom I happened to walk past an old man sitting on a bench in the Courthouse square. I was looking at my cell phone and wasn’t paying much attention to anything else.

“Hey young fella, what kind of critter did you have to kill to get the skins for those fancy boots?”

The question took me completely by surprise. I looked around to see if he was talking to me or someone else. Not seeing any other people nearby, I looked down at my feet. I was wearing a pair of grey Larry Mahan full quill ostrich boots that I’d bought from a vintage boot dealer at the Canton Trade Days.

I walked over to the man and said, “Well, the skin is from an ostrich but I didn’t kill it.”

“Ostrich huh? That’s like a big chicken ain’t it? You reckon they ate that big old bird?” The old man sort of grinned and I figured he was having some fun with me.

“I’m pretty sure it got eaten. I had a hamburger once made from ostrich and it was ok.”

“Where’re you from, Son? You don’t sound like you’re from around here.”

“I grew up in Chicago. I’ve been in Texas for about six years now.”

“Why’d you come to Texas?”

“I came to go to school and now I work here.”

“What kind of work do you do?”

“I’m a lawyer.”

“You like it?”

“I like the pay. If I could make the same money digging ditches I’d probably pick up a shovel.”

All the time we had been talking the man was carving on a piece of wood. I asked, “What are you whittling?”

He turned his head to the side and spat. “Shit boy you don’t know nuthin.’ Whittlin’s what some no talent jackass does to a stick. I’m carvin’ a dog.”

The man had been poking fun at me for some time so I decided to turn the tables on him. “It doesn’t look much like a dog to me.”

He blew on the small piece of wood, wiped it against his pants leg, and then held it up toward the sky and said, “It’s a cloud dog.”

“What’s a cloud dog?”

“You know, when you look up at the sky and you see a cloud that looks like a dog and then you look again and it’s turned into an alligator or something else.”

I guess the look on my face betrayed me and he asked, “You don’t know what the hell I’m talking about do you? Haven’t you ever just looked at the clouds and seen animals and other stuff in the sky?”

“I’ve never done that or even heard of it. Maybe they don’t do that in Chicago.”

“Son, people have been looking at the sky and seeing fanciful things for thousands of years. Maybe with TV and cell phones, modern folks don’t do it as much anymore and that’s a damn shame.”

He started working on the piece of wood again and asked, “What kind of knife do you carry?”

I was pretty sure the old man already suspected that the only things in my pants pockets were my car keys and a little change, but I reluctantly admitted that I didn’t carry a pocket knife.

“I’m disappointed in you, Son, what with you wantin’ to look like a Texas cowboy and all.” He spat again and said, “This country started going to hell when boys had to stop carrying pocket knives to school and gettin’ their asses paddled when they needed it.”

The sound of his voice made me think this was a strongly held conviction and I didn’t say anything in response. I kind of agreed that the U.S. had some problems but I’d never thought anything about the decline of the country being related to a lack of pocket knives or corporal punishment. I thought about his statement briefly and decided the old gent might have a point.

I have a pretty well-deserved reputation for being a smartass and sometimes my mouth starts running at full speed while my brain is still stuck in neutral. For some reason, that didn’t happen this time and I decided now might be a good time to listen and not talk.

“You have any kids?”

“I have a six-year-old boy and a four-year-old girl.”

“What do you do with them?”

“Well, my son plays Tee Ball and my daughter is in gymnastics.”

“You just told me what they do. What I asked was what you do with them. Do you ever just play catch with your boy or roll around with your daughter in the yard?”

I’m sure my lack of a response told the man all he needed to know.

“Do you play golf?”

“Yeah, I like to play golf.”

“When you’re playing golf do you ever see any kids out there with their daddies?”

Damn! Has he been talking to my wife?

“Son, I’m going to give you some advice. I’ve never done anything in my life that amounted to a hill of beans except to raise three good kids. I’ll tell you, Boy, kids are smart and they know when you’re really paying attention to them and when you’re just playacting at being a daddy. It’s not too late for you but you need to start spending some good time with your kids. Pretty soon they’ll be too old and won’t give a shit about you then.”

My cell phone buzzed telling me it was time to meet Steve Johnson. I held out my hand to the old man, introduced myself, and told him I enjoyed our visit, and thanked him for his advice.

He handed me the piece of wood he’d been working on and said, “Take this with you, Son. It may not look much like a dog but maybe it’ll remind you of our talk.”

“To tell you the truth, I don’t think I’ll need a cloud dog to remind me of what you said but I’ll take it just in case.”

“Here, take this too.” He snapped the blade shut on his pocket knife and handed it to me. “You never know when you might need that.” I started to try to refuse his gift but I quickly convinced myself that the act of giving it to me was important to him. The truth was I really wanted that knife. I thanked him profusely and took the prize from his calloused old hand.

“Do you come here often?”

“You can find me here most days. I hope to see you again, Son.”

“Me too.”

I usually enjoy driving and listening to music. The drive back to my office in Tyler wasn’t very enjoyable. I turned off the radio and thought about the things the old man had said. I couldn’t get his advice out of my head. Since I’d come to Texas I’d heard a few people refer to being taken to the woodshed for punishment. I felt like that was what had just happened to me. The things that the old fellow had said struck way too close to home and left me with a sick feeling in my gut.

I started thinking about all the things I was doing wrong with my kids. I knew for sure that the last three times I’d driven my son to Tee Ball practice I’d just dropped him off and gone to a nearby driving range to hit a couple of buckets of balls instead of staying there and watching him. I thought about it and realized that I didn’t even know where my daughter went to gymnastic lessons; that was something my wife took care of.

By the time I’d parked my car and walked into my office, I’d decided I was going to make some changes in my life.

Normally, the first thing I do when I get home is to take off my suit and put on some comfortable clothes. When I pulled into my garage I got out of the car and immediately started looking at the boxes stored neatly on shelves along two walls. I got a step ladder and started going through our stored memories.

Fortunately, I now owned a good pocket knife that made the job of cutting the packing tape easy.

I was on the second box when my wife Jackie walked out of the house. “What are you doing, Jason?”

“I’m looking for my old baseball glove.”


“So I can play catch with Buddy.”

Jackie put down her soda can and said, “I’ll help!”

We had identified six boxes of stuff to donate to Good Will before we found my old ball and glove.

That afternoon the four of us walked to the nearby park, played catch, tag, and keep away. We also saw a wonderful assortment of animals in the sky. I wasn’t sure if that old man was going to make me a better Daddy or not but I thought he just might.