His teeth were short and some were black and some were gone. The sign outside the big barn said THINGS FOR SALE and we stopped because we were in no rush. Outside, bright Sunday, August afternoon, and the depth of summer color was distinctly rural. Inside, dim and cooler, the room was aclutter with old furniture, the smell a mix of dust, wood, and wallpaper. All around the room, chests, desks, curtains, bureaus, tables made of old barn doors, faded Levis draped over the back of a tall chair.
The old man greeted us and talked a little about the desk I was admiring in a way that suggested that he might make furniture himself. He told me he did, both restored and built, but it was hard now with his shoulder. His right arm hung limp at his side. “Can’t lift it,” he said. “If my left shoulder itches, I can’t use my right hand to scratch it.” To use the biscuit joiner, as he’d been that morning, he had to press it into the wood using his left hand and his hip. “The table saw is the real challenge,” he said. “I have to stand on the wrong side of the blade.” He shook his head and looked at the floor.
Under shelves with glass bottles and cast iron pans sat three rusting old wheels. They asked the question about the moment something goes from weather-beaten and forgotten leaning against a shed to an object of décor. I knew we wouldn’t leave with anything.
The old man lives in the basement and has a workshop there. He couldn’t afford to keep the place himself, so he sold it to his lawyer. He came with the deal, he laughed, included in the sale along with all the old cabinets, tables, and broken chairs that fill the big room. The lawyer has plans to turn it into a B&B, and has warned the old man that someday he’ll need to clear out. He told us this, laughing. “I don’t know how old he thinks I am. By the time he gets it all figured out, he’ll have to feed the bushes with my ashes.” Feed the bushes with my ashes.
Feed the bushes with my ashes.
And I could see the someday when his ashes are fed to the bushes, ash in the dirt and on the wind, poured from a can by a friend, and I got nervous, but some people can say this sort of thing and laugh. And I looked around the room at so much solidity and heft. The tables, those heavy rusting wheels, the desk from a railroad station, the thick drapes with yellow flowers, so many remains.
We made our way toward the door and he walked with us back into the sunlight. “Some people mistake me for Bill Murray,” he said, and when he said it we saw it. Something in the worn sad softness of his face and his blue eyes. Sitting at a bar in Troy, a couple a few stools down bought him a drink one time. “I was with my girlfriend,” he said, “my ex-girlfriend,” he corrected himself. “She was a lot younger, an attractive blonde.” He accepted the drink and the couple came over and he said to them, “’You probably think I’m Bill Murray.’ Well I bought them a drink right back.”
We said our goodbyes and moved toward the car.
“Come back again,” he said and gave a small wave with his left hand.
The afternoon was fading, summer is fading, and we didn’t get his name.