Til the Well Runs Dry, by Steve Cain
I ain’t much for city folk. I’m just a country boy from Georgia displaced to Yankee Land, as some of my ex-friends would say. I say ex-friends because there are still some people (more than a few, I might add) that are still fighting the Civil War in their heads and hearts, and they will (and have) excommunicate people from their lives (like myself) because said people moved out of Dixie. I know it’s strange, but it’s true. I swear.
We all have misconceptions and biases, I guess. Maybe I’m generalizing. When people hear you’re from Georgia, they tend to think you’re a dumb redneck, you like country music and NASCAR, chew tobacco, own a bunch of hunting rifles, and say y’all a lot. We do. We chew tobacco 24/7. Women, too. When we come to some place like Cincinnati, we drive around 275 because it’s like a racetrack, only we’re doing it in our pickup trucks with the gun rack on the back window, blasting Merle Haggard and George Jones cassettes. See, we still have cassette players because we’re too dumb to master the technology of a CD player or USB.
By now, you know I’m pulling your leg. That’s my problem: sarcasm. We’re not all dumb rednecks, just the ones they interview on TV.
When I relocated to Ohio, I settled in a little river village outside of Cincinnati where I was close enough to the big city but far enough away, if you know what I mean. I like people from a distance. I’m not a mean person, not at all, I just like peace, quiet, and no drama.
I was sitting on the riverbank one morning in April, minding my own business, strumming and plucking on my acoustic guitar. If you’re from Georgia, it’s geetar. It was about eight in the morning, there was a slight fog drifting across the river, and a few ducks floated by, paying me no mind. I was playing a little Hendrix, “All Along the Watchtower.” I wasn’t playing it left-handed like Jimi because, well, I’m not left-handed. I’m a righty by birth, Southern by the grace of God. Ha! When I finished with Hendrix, I started in on Charlie Daniels, “Long Haired Country Boy.” If there’s any three songs a country boy with a guitar has to know how to play, it’s “Long Haired Country Boy,” David Allen Coe’s “You Never Even Called Me By My Name,” and Johnny Paycheck’s “Take This Job and Shove It.” If you’ve never heard them, go get ya some, son!
So, I’m playing, minding my own business, and I feel this presence. I hadn’t heard anybody, but I got mad redneck ninja Spidey senses, so I whipped my head around and saw an elderly African American man standing about five feet behind me. I looked him up, and he looked me down.
“Easy, son. I didn’t mean to startle you,” he said in a voice that reminded me of that Morgan Freeman fella.
“S’alright,” I replied.
“You play pretty well,” the man said. “Singing’s not too great, but the playing’s good.”
I tittered, not knowing whether to be offended or not. “Thanks, I guess.”
“Mind if I sit down?”
“Not at all. Pop a squat. Ground’s a little dewy, though.”
“When you get to be my age, that don’t matter. People expect you to have wet pants.”
I laughed again. I liked this guy. I put my geetar pick in my left hand and offered my right to him. “Bo,” I said.
“Of course, it is.” I knew he was mocking me, but his voice was so pleasant and fatherly it sounded congenial (see, I know some four-syllable words).
He took my hand with his dark, wrinkled hand. “Stone,” he added.
“Of course, it is,” I joked. We both laughed at that.
“Moses is my birth name, but everybody calls me Stone.”
“Why’s that?” I asked as he sat down next me.
“Because it’s my last name, and I’m more like a stone than a Moses.”
“Cold and hard?”
“Old and dark.” We both had another laugh.
“Don’t mind me,” he suggested. “Keep playing.”
“What do you like?”
“Know any Otis Redding?”
“Otis? Of course! He’s another Georgia boy, like me.”
“Yeah, I figured that.”
“Why, because the way I talk?” I asked.
“Well, that, and the fact you’re wearing a Georgia Bulldogs hat.”
“Yeah, I guess that’s a giveaway. You sing?”
“I’ve been known to, every now and then.”
“Try this one.” I strummed a G chord, followed by a B7. The tune was unmistakable, a classic, and I saw him smile and close his lips. His tongue flicked out of his mouth and licked his lips. His voice was sweet, youthful, almost angelic, not gravelly as I had expected. His tone was soulful, and it came from a long time ago, from a place far away from where we sat.
“Sittin’ in the mornin’ sun. I’ll be sittin’ when the evenin’ comes.”
I played. Stone sang. It was sad, lonely, and beautiful. When we came to that part, he even did the whistle. When the last notes ended, I expected Stone to get up and walk on water across the river, into Kentucky and beyond, but he just sat there, lost in thought.
“That was amazing.” Stone nodded in reply. “Did you used to perform?”
“Perhaps a bit. A different life ago.”
That was all he would say about that, no matter how much I questioned. I finally let it drop. The old man opened his eyes, and I swear I thought I saw them well with tears, but nothing ever flowed from them. He picked up a brown paper bag sitting next to him on the ground, unfolding the opening gently. His fingernails were short and clean. He reached into the bag and took out two lumps wrapped in aluminum foil (in Georgia, we call that tin foil) and offered me one.
I took the lump and asked, “What is it?”
“Biscuit,” he replied.
“Thank you.” I unwrapped the foil. The biscuit was still warm and smelled wonderful. I took a bite of what I thought was sausage, and I was immediately confused. It was sausage, but it had a grainy taste and texture.
Stone looked over at me and smiled. “What’s the matter?”
“What is this?”
“Goetta,” he replied. “I take it you’ve never tried it.”
“It tastes like sausage and…oatmeal?”
“That’s it,” he agreed. “What do you think?”
“It’s different,” I said. “Not bad, but not what I expected.”
“I can see that.”
“Who woke up one morning and said, ‘What’ll I have for breakfast this morning? I’m kinda in the mood for oatmeal, but I have a hankerin’ for sausage. Oh, I know! Boom, goetta!’”
Stone laughed. It was a hearty laugh, and pieces of biscuit flew out of his mouth. I finished and thanked him.
“You think you’ll try it again?”
“I prefer my sausage to be sausage, and my oatmeal to be oatmeal, in a bowl with brown sugar and a few raisins. If you’re bringing them around, though, I won’t turn ‘em down.”
Stone closed his eyes and nodded again. “Yep, it’s an acquired taste for sure, kind of like Cincinnati chili.”
“Oh, yeah, what’s up with that?” I asked. “Who puts chocolate and cinnamon in chili? Where I come from, chili is made with beef and beans. We put it in a bowl, not a plate on top of spaghetti! I mean, I’ve heard of Tex-Mex, but not Tex-Italian! You Midwesterners are a strange bunch!”
“Now, now,” Stone scolded. “Don’t knock what people like. I’m sure some people think grits are nasty.”
“Okay, them’s fightin’ words,” I half-joked.
“And,” he continued, “I wouldn’t be calling Ohio people Midwesterners. They don’t like being called Northerners or Yankees, either.”
“What should I call them, then? Northern Southerners? Not Quite Midwesterners? West of Easterners?”
Stone just shrugged. “How about just ‘Ohioans’?”
“Yeah, I guess that works.” I thought about it as we sat quietly. “Say, you said, ‘They.” Where are you from?”
Stone looked off down the river, towards the nuclear power plant. After a minute or two, he said, “A long way away. Been away for a long, long, time, but this has been my home for a while.”
I was interested in the man, but I didn’t want to press him too much. If he didn’t want to share, he didn’t want to share. He must have had his reasons.
“Don’t like to talk about yourself too much, do you?”
He turned back to me and looked tired. “Why talk about myself? I already know about myself. I’d rather talk about other things and learn more. Besides, the past is the past. Can’t go back there, can’t go home. Might as well move on. Home is in the heart. I take it wherever I go. Home is here.”
It was my turn to nod. Stone put his hand on the ground like he was feeling the earth. He pushed down and started to get up.
“Where ya going, Mr. Stone?”
“Time to go,” he answered. As he stood, I saw his pants were indeed wet from the ground.
“Looks like you wet your pants, old-timer.”
Stone turned to me one last time, smiling. “Yep, that’s what they’ll think. Now, play me something off.”
“I’ll be back down here tomorrow morning,” I told him.
Stone nodded and started toward the village. I strummed my six-string again, another Otis Redding ditty called, “You Don’t Miss Your Water.” I didn’t turn around, so I didn’t see him, but I could hear Stone’s sweet voice on the breeze: “You don’t miss your water ‘til your well runs dry.”
It’s been a few months now, and I think about Stone every time I come down to play my geetar. Sometimes I get a feeling like someone is behind me and expect to see him, but there’s never anyone there. I don’t know if he’s alive or if he’s still in Ohio. Maybe he found his way back home. Regardless, when I come down here, I always pack two goetta biscuits in a brown paper bag, just in case. There’s always one left, but I’ve got a taste for them now.