Flash Fiction Challenge 100 – Day 81
I never learned whose idea it was to hold his funeral outside in the gravel parking lot that sits at the mouth of the holler, but I want to shake his or her hand. What better way to say goodbye to the man everyone knew as The Holler Man. I’m convinced, 34 years later, many folks from the town never knew him by his actual name: Scott. When I was younger, Scott and I were friends.
Many people thought he was simple. Scott wasn’t slow. He was one of the wisest men I’ve ever met. That he was seeming without ambition, lived a meager life, worked little, and was homeless never made me think any less of him.
He was homeless, and he wasn’t. Technically, the ‘holler’ was his home. In a broader sense, the earth was his home. Oh, yeah. Scott was that guy.
That’s what my grandma Hector called the small, sheltered valley that ended just in front of her tiny squat home in Chester – a ‘holler.’
The holler sloped down from the gravel lot that stretched between Opdyke street (where grandma lived) and the backside of a row of businesses that sat on State street.
People would dump many things into the overgrown, weeded depression, scrap lumber, garbage, pallets, cardboard boxes, broken things that no longer did what the owners wanted.
Scott sifted through all those disposed of items and could forge an existence from it.
The glass bottles he would recycle. A nickel for each one.
From the pallets, lumber, and boxes, he crafted a solid dwelling. We get a lot of high winds and thunderstorms. One tactical advantage living in the shielded valley; it did not expose him to a lot of wind.
I hate coming to this town. I feel it is a small, backward city with backward people. Everyone here clings to some reality map that I cannot or will not grasp. But when I heard Scott the Holler Man had died, I had to attend his funeral.
It’s a hot day for a funeral, especially for one held outside in southern Illinois in August. I’m sorry I came for this. What’s the point? My mood is dour. Nothing ever changes in this town; only the good die young. Seriously, what is the effing point?
In my mind, I see Scott sit down on an empty folding chair next to me. Not his ghost, just my overactive imagination.
I smile at him. He smiles back.
Classic Scott. When I would complain about the heat or humidity or the people, he would smile, and I would forget about most of it. How can one complain when a man who lives in a house built of cardboard and pallets is as calm as he is?
We would spend days together. Usually, I deferred to whatever Scott wanted to do. Even at fourteen years of age, Scott, five years older than me, I recognized Scott was, in his way, a genius. He was always content. In life, I wonder if most folks don’t put too much stock in happiness. They all want to be happy all the damn time. But happiness comes from living a meaningful, simple existence. Scott taught me that.
Contentment and simplicity were the foundation from which happiness could occur. But few people saw it that way, especially in the 1970s in Chester. The country, still reeling from Vietnam, put little stock in such touchy-feely, mumble-jumble. The town fell politically even further to the right than that. There was little diversity in the people that lived there.
So most people labeled Scott a hippie, a beatnik, a ne’er-do-well. Those people are why I seldom make the trek back to my hometown.
We could sit on the bank of a creek deep in the holler. Scott would sit quietly and watch the fish, water bugs, and crawdads for hours.
Some days, I would help him sort through the fresh garbage or haul his stack of bottles over to Holly’s grocery. He always tried to give me half his take for helping him. I always turned him down. What I learned from being in his company for hours was worth way more than a few bucks from recycled bottles; the way I saw it, I owed him.
But as a teenager from the projects, I was in no position to ‘help’ him.
I peer down in the holler.
I’m surprised to see a tiny trailer sitting nestled among the weeds.
“Who bought you a trailer?” I ask him.
One of the Tammy’s shoots me a concerned glance.
“Coach O’Malley,” Scott says to my imagination.
I look between him and her several times.
Tammy didn’t hear him, I guess.
Is he a ghost? I thought it was just my imagination.
“Tammy, hi, you look great. Who did that?” I say as I point down at the off-white trailer sitting in the valley.
“Oh, yeah, that was Coach,” she says.
“O’Malley? I thought they never got along?”
“Oh, right. That would’ve been after you left, I guess.”
Of all the conservative voices in this provincial town, Coach O’Malley’s had been one of the loudest in condemning the protesters, in questioning the already unstoppable progressive movement, and of never passing by any opportunity to be openly critical of Scott.
“He should get a damn job and move out of that hole,” I had heard him say frequently.
Tammy told me how Scott had donated a kidney that saved his daughter’s life. It’s hard to hate someone who saved your daughter’s life. Overnight coach O’Malley became a reformed Ebeneezer.
The coach had, according to Tammy, tried several times to get Scott to move into his spare bedroom and even to rent him a tiny place of his own. Scott always politely declined.
What he never declined from Coach, however, was the fried chicken. From one of the town’s only two eateries, Coach would buy a bucket for him and his wife every Friday night. He began buying two buckets, one for him and the missus, one for Scott.
Later, he was even better at seeing that Scott was never hungry.
He would bring burgers from McDonald’s (the town’s only other eatery) on an ad hoc, spontaneous basis. Or an occasional six-pack of Budweiser from one of the grocery.
Coach O’Malley died two years ago. I never made it to that funeral. And now I’m kicking myself. Who would’ve thought we would have something in common?
It is a type of violence not to let people change, grow, develop into their higher selves as he had. I’d heard Coach had passed away but was indifferent to the news.
I wipe at my eyes as Tammy finishes catching me up.
I had tried to ‘help’ Scott similarly.
A few years after becoming an engineer, I had the money to help save Scott from his life in the holler.
I remember sitting in his little hut with him.
I offered him the help that would allow him to find something more permanent, less prone to leaks, bugs, and snakes.
He smiled warmly at me, then gave me a long bear hug.
In the end, of course, he declined the help. The two of us walked down to the creek and sat on the bank for hours; it was just as we had done when I was a teenager.
Tammy turns back to face the next speaker at Scott’s funeral.
I turn back to Scott.
‘I apologize for trying to save you. In honesty, you were saving me the entire time,’ I say so softly, I might just be thinking the words.
Scott smiles his smile at me again, stands up, and strolls down to his trailer.
I’m sure no one else saw the trailer door open and close as he enters his home for the last time.