The World According to Eli

This is an excerpt from an unpublished book I put together several years ago.

Eli used to sit on the porch there at Hinson’s Store and talk to anybody who would listen.  Sometimes, if nobody was there, he’d just talk to himself.  Like a lot of old men, Eli was more than willing to share his experiences and the knowledge he had gained from those experiences.

One Saturday afternoon, his only audience was J.C., Jake Lennon’s youngest boy. lt was one of those hot, summer afternoons when there was no breeze and the shade of the porch offered very little respite from the heat.  J.C. was sitting on the floor of the porch with his back against the wall of the store as far from the sun as he could get.  Eli was sitting in the rocking chair that he claimed as his.  It really belonged to Mr. Hinson, but nobody except Eli ever sat in it.

“Age has a way of creeping up on you, boy,” he said.  “One day you think you can do anything, and the next day your mind is writing checks your body can’t cash.”

J.C. had no response to Eli’s statement.  He learned long ago that old folks didn’t really care what he thought, and he knew that Eli would continue his solitary oration without encouragement.

There were rare occasions when Eli kept his thoughts to himself.  In a way he envied J.C.’s youth.  J.C. was beginning a journey that Eli was about to complete.  He felt compelled to give him advice, but he was constrained by experience.  He had told Mr. Hinson the other day that the best way to give advice to young folks was to find out what they wanted to do and then advise them to do it.

“You decided what you want to do when you grow up, J.C.?” he asked.

“Nope,” was the solitary answer.

“Well, you need to go ahead and do something.  You can’t just sit around here the rest of your life waiting for life to come to you.  Life ain’t a spectator sport, you know.  You gotta go down life’s road like you know where you going and experience everything you can.  Along the way, when you’re young, you’re liable to get blamed for a lot of things you didn’t do; then, when you get old, you’ll get a lotta credit for things you didn’t do, but you don’t get either one if you never go down the road.”

Eli’s words hung in the heat of the afternoon.  J.C. didn’t answer, just looked out at the sun reflecting off the gas pump.  He wondered what the old man had been like when he was younger.  Did he make a lot of money?  Had he seen a lot of places?  Had he known any women?

“You ever been married, Mr. Eli?” he finally asked.

“I was married once.  Once is enough if you do it right.  She was a good woman. Probably better than I deserved.  We lived together a long, long time.  You know, boy, before a man and woman get married they can expect to live one lifetime each; then when they get married, they got one lifetime together.  If you marry the right woman, that lifetime can seem real short; but if she ain’t the right woman, it’ll seem like a lifetime goes on forever.”

“How do you know if she’s gonna be the right one?’ the boy asked.

“Son, if I knew that answer I wouldn’t be sitting on this porch.  I’d be peddling that information to every man that walks and be the most admired man that ever lived.”

Once again silence engulfed the two as they sat there on the porch of the store. The sun was just below the tops of the pine trees across the dirt road, and a few dark clouds could be seen on the horizon.  One of those afternoon showers that come with every summer day would soon cool the air.

Eli thought about the boy sitting beside him.  He had been a boy once with an uncertain future but with dreams and hopes. He wanted to tell the boy that life was his for the taking, but for all of his philosophical utterances, he couldn’t think of just the right thing to say.  Finally he said, “Boy, you live and learn, and then you die and forget it all.”

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