About 15 years ago, my Uncle Henry died. He had moved from New Jersey to Tennessee about 1960. This is story of the impact we can have on others if we only dare to care.
By Charlie Sharp
He was not the only one who cried at the funeral. But his tears were different. In a day of reserved civility, he unabashedly mourned. In this small Southern town tradition dictated how people would live, marry and even die. Cowboy was not bound by their expectations. Even if he had known what tradition would mandate, his love for Henry would have prevailed.
Cowboy had a real name, given to him when he was full of hope and yet to embarrass his family. Some of the locals knew it, most did not. On reflection, one would, at first, be perplexed that they could know someone for so long and not even wonder about his given name. But then again, it was only Cowboy.
His clothes, his total appearance, was of little importance anymore. Any hope he would become a model citizen was long gone. Little was expected and less realized. From his matted hair to worn boots, nothing met the standards reserved for the rest of the town. The teeth that remained were darkened. His skin showed the abuse of harsh weather and hard living.
On that day, not all of Cowboy’s clothes were threadbare. His blue jeans had the stiffness of new, unwashed denim yet they were covered with the debris of several nights in a barn. His large red handkerchief, probably purchased with the jeans, had also not been touched by soap and water, and might never be.
There had never been enough money saved from the bars to buy a complete new outfit. Pieces were replaced only when absolutely necessary. That they were bought at all was due to Henry. A few dollars saved from this lawn mowing job or that house painting, held by Henry, kept from the bartender, till enough was accumulated to go to the Army-Navy store for a replacement.
Everyone who knew Henry was genuinely fond of him, even loved him. The funeral parlor was full of them, those who knew him in passing, and those who’s life he had touched more deeply. But it was the most disheveled who would miss him the most.
Henry had been his only friend. The rest of the world knew Cowboy as a drunk, someone who would drink till he could not stand and then drink some more. Then he would crawl into the closest barn, find a soft place and succumb to the whiskey.
It was there Henry would find him and rescue him from the cold. And if Henry didn’t get there in time, an irate farmer moving his cattle from the barns to the fields at daybreak would discover Cowboy. More times than either of them could count, Henry had drug Cowboy from some empty stall, taken him to breakfast at the Spinning Wheel, and put him to work on a project Henry could have done more easily himself.
Henry had a wife, Nell, who gave him love and structure to his life. Cowboy had no love, no structure, and no future to prepare for. When Nell died 8 years before Henry, he and Cowboy were both stunned. She had given Henry direction, which he continued to follow. Cowboy never had a path to trod.
Nell had accepted the relationship between Henry and Cowboy, and may have even understood it. Cowboy was not accepted at their dining room table, but Nell often gave him lunch in the kitchen.
Henry also had a house, a car, a truck, and a good reputation. Cowboy had none of these. But Henry had a number of jobs, even careers, each not spectacular by the standards of those on the North side of town. In his mid-fifties, the mill had closed and the town tried to move into the next century, but Henry was part of the last, the time when we cared for each other, even for those everyone else had written off.
When the funeral ended, Cowboy disappeared, perhaps to a bottle and a barn. Two months later I came to town for the estate auction of Henry’s home and possessions. We, the family members, had taken the memorabilia, given the clothes to charity, and arranged to have the rest sold.
Cowboy was the first to show up. He asked if Henry had remembered him in the will. Henry had not, but then he was not good at such things. I thought he expected money or the old truck they had used. His goal was something much more important.
As the auction continued, piece by piece Henry’s legacy disappeared. Suddenly Cowboy rushed to me for help. He was both despondent and alarmed. The treasure he sought had slipped away. The auctioneer had moved so swiftly that the wheelbarrow had gone to the highest bidder before Cowboy could signal his intention. He had saved the money for the purchase by doing odd jobs by himself. He wasted none at the bars since Henry’s death. Now all that seemed fruitless.
The one object that would forever tie him to Henry was gone. He had toiled with Henry. Together they hauled rocks, dug trenches. The hickory handles of the wheelbarrow were worn smooth by their rough hands, his hands and Henry’s.
Cowboy pointed out the lucky bidder. Together we went to him but Cowboy did the talking, which was not his style. He blurted out that he had to have the wheelbarrow. He offered to buy it and give the new owner a profit, whatever it would take. He saw the passion in Cowboy’s eyes and without hesitation gave him the auction ticket. All Cowboy had to do was pay the bid price and it would be his. Cowboy shed tears just as he had at the funeral.
For the rest of the day, he never let go of the wheelbarrow. He sat below the willow tree in the back yard as if he were with an old friend. As the auction ended, I saw him load his treasure into the truck of one of Henry’s friends, someone with a heart nearly as big as Henry’s.
Cowboy is on his own now. But every time he grabs the handles of the wheelbarrow, his chapped lips can’t help but smile. He’ll cry no more, for Henry will always be with him.