Today I remember my favorite curmudgeon, Jabez MacLaughlin, three years after his passing from this life to whatever lies beyond the world we see. I’m thinking of the first time that I drove one of the nearly-twin vehicles which he and his Joanna had.
We were to have met at his house and drive over to the restaurant together, but circumstances prompted him to call and say he would meet me. I did not question his instructions. I understood from his tone that he had made a determination; I would follow what he wanted, as I had been doing since I first met him in 2009. Besides: a man in his 80s should garner that allegiance.
I pulled into the parking lot ten minutes early, but Jay had still arrived ahead of me. I saw him struggling to the door, slow, hampered by the lack of air. One impaired lung, one nonfunctioning; they wore at his body. He had been hunched over since I knew him, but regal still, with a measured air and confident gait. Now he forced himself forward with each tortured step. I paused, watching him approach the front of the restaurant. My heart clenched and I swung my legs out of my own car, hurrying over to help him.
Where did you park, I asked. I had not seen his Prius in the designated handicapped spaces. He gestured. I saw the grey claim his complexion and put my arm around him as the host opened the door.
When we had settled him, I realized that he had not worn a sweater despite the chill of air conditioning still wafting in the cool of autumn. I asked, Did you bring a jacket, and he shrugged. It’s in the car, he responded. I stood, saying that I would get it. He looked at me, weary eyes telling me that we would not have many more dinners together. I thought about the empty house, the wife of more than fifty years gone just a handful of months before this evening.
Shall I move the car, I suggested. A flash of concern crossed his face. He did not trust his notorious daughter-in-law with his treasured Prius. But the weight of that awful walk won out, and he relented. I stood beside the table, holding the key fob, patiently listening to his instructions. Step on the brake, push start, watch the camera, and for God sake, honey, don’t wreck my car.
He said that twice: For God’s sake. Honey. Don’t wreck my car.
Notwithstanding his advice, I nearly did. I found the brake in time; and sat, pulse racing, face flushed, while an outraged Johnson Countian whipped an opulent Mercedes around me.
When I had safely slid the vehicle into a spot by the door and retrieved his jacked from the pristine trunk, I slid past the same host. I think he had watched the near-debacle in the lot. He asked, Everything okay, ma’am? and I shot a look towards him. He smirked but only just; deniably. I didn’t say a word.
I tried to quell my lingering panic and had nearly succeeded by the time I got back to our table. I held Jay’s jacket for him, then took my seat. Our waitress brought the two glasses of wine which he had ordered. He would drink his and mine both; we played this game; we had for all the time we had known one another. He raised his glass in my direction, his eyes sparkling, the little smile playing across his face.
Is my car all right, honey? I nodded. He stared, long, hard, squinting a bit to look beyond my composure. Then he met my nod with one of his own — firm, certain, crisp. He understood. I had not wrecked his car. He knew the rest without explanation. He knew me so well, did my favorite curmudgeon. I could hide nothing from him, least of all my love and admiration.
Winter beckons me. In front of this house where I have been in turn happy and devastated sits a blue Prius that I came to own by way of my favorite curmudgeon’s death and the kindness of his son. That vehicle has served me well. It has taken me from where I have been stuck to where I have needed to be. What more can I ask of a faithful friend?