Never Before and Never Again

It had been a long day of interviewing and photographing. Supper had been a sandwich in a café. Too restless to be surrounded by the four walls of my motel room, I drove out of town into the rolling patchwork of fields and woodlands of southwestern Arkansas.

Some would unkindly say it’s the kind of land that’s only there to hold the rest of the world together. My response to that would be that if it weren’t for such places, the world would fall apart.

I turned onto a gravel road. By then, I was conscious of the pause that occurs in summer between late afternoon and evening, a time when a softer kind of sunlight makes its final showing through the trees, and almost all sounds are suspended. Even the dust kicked up by the car hung motionless above the road behind me.

After rounding a slight curve I was met by a small cornfield that bordered the road. Several rows away was a mule pulling a single-row cultivator guided by the hands of a lone man. Beyond them, the field sloped upward toward a farm lot on which stood a house, barn, and two small sheds.

I continued toward the buildings, turned into the driveway, parked, and walked toward the open gate to the field. There, I leaned against the fence as the team of man and mule approached and slowed.

“Whoa, Arnie, whoa,” said the man as he relaxed his grip on the cultivator handles. He pulled out a handkerchief, pushed back his wide-brimmed hat, briefly closed his eyes, and wiped his face. I’d already identified this as one of those times when no introductions were needed.

“So,” I asked, “how did Arnie get his name?”

“Oh,” said the man, “it just came to me. I liked it, he did too, so it stuck.”

“I can tell that you two work pretty good together.”

“Oh yeah, we do. If things don’t go just right, sometimes it’s him, sometimes it’s me. Don’t make any difference, though. Just so we both understand each other.”

“Do you and Arnie work the whole farm this way?”

“Wished we could. Tractors cost a lot, but they get the work done much faster. I got one I use on the two big fields. This small field, though, it’s just right for Arnie and me. Gives him something useful to do and me a chance to think.”

“So, I guess this is your farm.”

“Oh yeah, first it was daddy, then me. Been that way for almost fifty years. My wife, bless her heart, died six years ago. Got a son up in Kansas City. He’s a real good kid. Bright too. I told him early, go to school, get a good job, that he didn’t belong here. He checks up on me, though. I’m getting down to the short rows, but I try not to think about it too much. Would make no difference if I did. God put me here, God will take me away.”

So began a visit lasting almost a half hour. Me, a white stranger from two states away, breaking conversational bread with a black man who’d known pain, uncertainty, and what it was like to be cold, hot, and bone tired. At the same time, though, he’d had rich blessings he’d either earned or had come his way. He’d made a decent living, had a good wife, and a son of which to be proud. Now, and with Arnie as his companion, he was making the most of what remained.

As the last of the sunlight was fast disappearing, the man said that after getting Arnie unhitched and fed, he’d wash up, make himself a bite of supper, settle in with maybe a little TV before going to bed and turning out the light.

“But,” he said with a smile, “the best part is to be on my back in bed with it all dark and the window open to let in the cool air and the sound of the crickets that help me go to sleep.”

He never told me his name, nor did I tell him mine. It didn’t matter. My stopping seemed to be perfectly logical, a good fit with his quitting time and with my wanting to be somewhere other than in a motel room. There, and in the fading light of another day, we had met for the first and last time, musing together with much to understand, nothing to prove.

As I began slowly driving away, I hung my arm out the window and gave him a low wave, the kind acknowledging that all was well with us, even if not for everyone else.

With that, I silently wished Arnie and his master the best of everything yet to come.