“Let’s go see Gene and Booda,” I tell my little dog Bobby. He knows the routine. Out the cabin door, hang a right, and run fast to their back door. We’ve got a key.
We knock twice on the window in the door. Never three times, or four. Never on the wood. The sound carries better from the tempered glass. We want Gene and Booda to know it is us with our two knocks, and we want them to hear us at the door. Because we always just go ahead and let ourselves in the door.
Soon as the door opens (and this is the way it always goes), Bobby dashes in, taking the lead. “Hey, Bobby,” Gene says, sort of singing it, as he always does. First thing I see, after pulling the door closed behind me, are Gene’s tennis shoes. His recliner is tilted back and his feet are up, and I say, “Hey, Gene,” as I come around the corner. I extend my hand to meet Gene’s. He says, “Hey, Sonny,” and we sort of give each other a light squeeze of the fingers. We are men well past the need for some white knuckle grip test.
Bobby’s already disappearing into the kitchen where Booda gives him a little Milk Bone treat. I always sit in the chair facing Gene. But I wait before I sit until Booda comes into the parlor and I give her a hug. “Hey, darlin’,” she says. This time, she goes back into the kitchen. I can smell something good cooking and she’s got work to do in there.
Gene’s got the Braves game on. He picks up the remote and mutes the sound. Bobby joins me on my lap and Gene and I catch up on nothing special. Just a little talk, a regular old visit. Earlier Gene had driven his truck into town and picked up some groceries. We talked about getting his truck to the shop soon for a new timing belt. I’d already got a price and we just needed to do some coordinating on dropping off and picking up. In the mirror above the love seat I can see the baseball players moving around on the TV screen. Booda comes in and sits in her usual chair to my left.
When it’s time to go, Bobby senses it and jumps down and stares at me from the floor, both ears straight up, waiting. I tell him to hold up and say to Gene I’ll be going out of town Thursday. It is Monday. He reaches to the table beside his chair and picks up his calendar and a pen. “Let me get this down,” he says. The reason Gene wants to set down my itinerary is because he wants to know when I will be back. I want him to know when I will be back. That’s the way we do it when I go out of town.
So I tell Gene what I’ve got on my schedule. A visit to the Eudora Welty Writers’ Symposium in Columbus, Mississippi, over the coming weekend. Some VA appointments in Tuscaloosa during the coming week, hanging out with my sister there the following week while waiting to do a book reading and signing in Birmingham, on stage with Gene’s daughter Suzanne and son-in-law Joe. “Then I’ll be home,” I say.
“What day will you be back?” Because if I’m not back on the day I say I’ll be back, I will get a text message from Gene. “When u coming home?” On the calendar he will write “Sonny back”. But in the text he never asks, “When will you be back?” He wants to know when I will be home. And I like the way he puts it.
I get up and Booda stands up for a hug. Bobby is already at the back door. Gene tilts his recliner. I walk over and give the toe of Gene’s shoe a wiggle. “I’ll see you again before I take off.”
“Okay, Sonny,” Gene said.
But it didn’t work out that way. Suzanne texted me Tuesday morning at 8:39 to say that Gene died. He had got up, got dressed, tied his shoes, said good morning to Booda, made a pot of coffee and poured a cup. Booda was in the kitchen with him when he passed. Gene had survived a heart attack years earlier, and beat back cancer twice. That’s so he could, as Suzanne said, “leave on his own terms.”
When I got my head settled and my eyes refocused, I went to reopen Suzanne’s text. On the cell screen right beneath Suzanne’s name was Gene’s name, and I opened that one. A text from him an hour after I’d walked out to say I had a package there. Gene always brought my mail to his house from the line of mailboxes down the street, and it’s a good reason for me to drop in.
I texted back, “I’ll come over.”
Gene texted back, “Ok.”
That’s not an engaging exchange between two men. But Gene went on to his long home, and he didn’t take his phone. He won’t need it. I won’t erase his message, because it’s a whole and complete story of loving someone right now while you have the chance.
I need that message. So, yes, I will keep Gene’s text.