Maybe it’s not a good idea, after all. Even though I published in black and white, “words as hard as cannonballs,” that I plan to exit this mortal plane on January 28, 2036. That date marks the 87th anniversary of my birth. And that sounds like enough, I figured. Brittle bones and withered skin and rheumy eyes—all that and more.
I got the idea to choose a deathday from Mark Twain. He said the fear of death follows from the fear of life, and if one lives fully then he won’t be afraid to die. He wasn’t afraid to go, to catch the bus as Gene Hudson (may he rest in peace) was heard to say. Samuel Clemens told the world and anyone else who’d listen, “The Almighty has said, no doubt, ‘Now there are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.’”
Mr. Clemens was including himself in league with Halley’s Comet, since he’d been born on the night the comet was in the sky in 1835. “It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet,” he also said. He died on April 21, 1910—one day after the comet made its closest return to Earth, appearing its brightest in the night sky.
Given to the romance of such absurd pronouncements, I decided to imitate the Great Writer and tell folks I was born under a new moon on Friday, January 28, 1949, and that I take the next occurrence of a new moon on my birthday as the date of my disappearance from view here.
In my sleep. Dreaming of a slow, sweet kiss—the best I ever had.
I was glad, of course, Google didn’t tell me there’s a new moon on my next birthday. Given only a few more months, I would have reconsidered my promise to slip out the back, Jack. Because I’m still having fun, and I am still acquiring insight into this mystery of being human. And because I just plain feel better than I did twenty years ago when I was overweight, and worried would I ever get a novel published.
And now comes my friend John Bolton who also makes me also reconsider.
I’ve known Mr. Bolton for more than 30 years. Back when I was a carpenter, doing a lot of repair and remodeling work, I called Bolton Septic Tank Company to help me with some drain field problems. Since then, Mr. Bolton has been my go-to man for septic tank work. So naturally I got in touch with him for some routine maintenance on the tank here at Waterhole Branch for Joe Formichella and Suzanne Hudson, the homeowners. When he finished, I asked Mr. Bolton if he’d come back and help me tie-in a new drain line. “If you’ll make the connection at the septic tank, I’ll work downhill from the outhouse I built beside my cabin,” I said.
“Okay, but I’ll have to come over on Saturday and work by myself. I’m busy with my crew everyday this week. And they don’t like to work on weekends.”
“Good with me,” I said. He gave me a list of supplies to pick up from Southern Pipe Supply just up the road. Right on cue, Mr. Bolton called me Saturday morning. “I’ll be along soon. I want to stop and get something to eat,” he said. Take your time, I said.
He drove up about ten, got out of his pickup, and we talked a minute about the connection he’d make for joining to the pipe I was laying. Satisfied we were on the same page, from out of the back of his truck he got a pick and shovel, and his T-probe, a handheld sharp-pointed iron instrument that he’d gouge into the ground until he found the main septic tank line from the house. I told him I’d be up the hill making connections from my shower and toilet. If you need me, I said, just give a shout.
Not an hour later, he raised a whoop. I went down to learn he remembered he would need two flexible rubber couplings. “I located the sewer main, and now I can get busy,” Mr. Bolton said. He had a small exploratory hole dug near the house, and another beside the AC unit. I drove to town for the supplies, and when I got back he was standing waist deep in a hole he’d pick-axed and shovel-dug, big enough and deep enough to bury the 5-ton AC unit balanced right beside the hole. The septic tank line he needed access to for the new connections was now exposed.
“Lord, Mr. Bolton, that was quick work,” I said.
Almost apologetically, he said, “It’ll get some slower putting together all these PVC couplings.” I told him I was glad it was him, not me, making those calculations and cutting the pipe. Very little room for error in angles and measurements without creating more work. He patted his trusty electrical reciprocating saw, as if between the man and the tool there was a bond and a record of getting things done right. The saw looked to me like a relic from another age. “The more dirt and sand get in this thing, the better it cuts.”
I gave him the rubber couplings he’d asked for and turned to go back to my work. “Holler if you need me.” Mr. Bolton didn’t say anything, only bent over and mostly disappeared in the hole.
I remembered forty years ago working on the second house I built for myself, up in Millport, Alabama, bitching about needing to hand-dig a hundred-foot-long French drain. “It’ll be your drain,” one carpenter said to me. “It ain’t like you’re on somebody’s payroll.”
Another carpenter standing there said don’t dig a hundred-foot ditch. Huh? I asked him. “Just hold ye mouth right (a thing my grandpa used to say) and put a boot on that shovel,” he said. “Dig one scoop of dirt, and then do it again. After while, a drainage ditch will appear,” he said.
Mr. Bolton had moved dirt a shovelful at a time with his mouth held right, and a hole had appeared.
Around three o’clock, I made the last of my own PVC connections and went down to check on Mr. Bolton. He was at the edge of the hole, duct-taping the exposed end of the pipe I would later tie-in to with my sections from uphill.
“This tape’ll keep the dirt out ‘til you get here with your line,” he said. I had about sixty feet of digging to go. I’d get that done on Monday, I figured. I rubbed my lower back, made a fist, and massaged a kink there. Suzanne walked out to pay Mr. Bolton. She’d asked me earlier how much his bill would be. She added sixty dollars to the check. “He’s an old man,” she whispered to me.
“How old are you Mr. Bolton,” I asked. He stood up and turned in my direction.
“What!” It was not a question. “Mr. Bolton, you are four years short of 90-years old.” The man grinned. I looked at the surprise and wonderment on Suzanne’s face. Her mother was 90. I could imagine Suzanne imagining her mother in the yard four-or-so years ago, bent over working some small garden trowel to plant a flower. No way. I know some people not much older than my own 73 years who step down very carefully from curbs.
“When are you going to stop this pick-and-shovel digging and twisting and heaving dirt out of holes?” I shook my head.
“I reckon I better not quit,” Mr. Bolton said. I looked at him. Then at Suzanne. She handed him his check and thanked him. Jamie, a friend of Suzanne’s appeared on the scene. “Mr. Bolton here is 86-years old,” she told Jamie, who did a double take, sizing up the hole and the tools and the man in front of her. “Sonny,” she said, “I don’t want to hear you say you’re too old for this kinda work again.” As though she would personally call Mr. Bolton and snitch on me.
I asked Mr. Bolton did he know Charlie Gay.
“Yes, I did,” he said. “Before he died, I was real close to him. He was about the only white man I knew who would socialize with me. He used to ask me out on that big boat of his all the time.” Mr. Bolton said he never took Charlie up on a fishing trip, but knew it was offered sincerely.
“The boat is why I brought up his name,” I said to Mr. Bolton. Charlie Gay was a draftsman who could draw and design a floor plan as good as many architects. He was a friend, and a man I also worked with a lot over the years. A man who, in fact, taught me to use a T-square and draw my own house plans well enough to satisfy even bankers back in the day.
I said to Mr. Bolton, “Charlie told me he was getting too old to be crawling around in the bilge of the Mother Superior, to be reaching and climbing around on the upper decks, to bend and stoop tying dock lines. He told me he was going to sell the Mother. And he did.”
Mr. Bolton couldn’t recall when that happened. Then within the month Charlie told me it had been a mistake. “That work I did on my boat was what kept me limber, flexible, able to keep my balance,” Charlie said. “Now I’m all stove-up. My bones creak just getting out of the recliner.”
I asked Mr. Bolton if he also believed his work kept him going strong. He said yes, he thought it did. “When I was a younger man, I was a construction supervisor. All I did was ride in my truck. My tool was a pencil. I did that for 25 years.” But then in 1988 he started his own company, and every day went to work right beside his crew. “If I’d have kept sitting behind the wheel of a pickup, I don’t think I’d be healthy as I am now.” He spoke of cutting open the palm of his hand with a saw, bad enough to leave the job site and go to the doctor. But before Mr. Bolton made the drive from Foley to Daphne, his hand had begun to “stitch back together on its own,” he said. He didn’t go to the clinic. Went right back to work the next day.
“I don’t believe the young people are healthy as we are. Us older men who still work at something.” He looked at me. Out of the blue I blurted out to Mr. Bolton I decided I would lay down and die on January 28, 2036.
“Go out under the next new moon on my birthday, the way I came in back in 1949.” Would he, I mused, see the poetry and mystery in a man saying that?
Mr. Bolton looked at me, silent—a straight-on, locked-in gaze. He blinked and nodded. “Well, I gotta get on. You need me again, call me.” He turned and left.
Like maybe Mr. Bolton thought it better to not plan any such foolishness, and for his part he would be here for a long time yet.
Like maybe Mr. Bolton thought it better for me to bend my back and use my arms ‘til those parts quit of their own design.
Like maybe Mr. Bolton thought it better for me to render unto God what is God’s own. Say, this life I am granted.
And I’m starting to think that last part there, well, maybe that’s an idea with just enough absurd romance of its own. Plus, who knows what plumbing job or book might yet call my name?