Last winter I began to realize how accustomed I had become to discussing with Allen everything I was doing on the farm. Last spring he dug the foundation of the garage and built all my retaining walls. Last summer he would stop by a couple of times a week to pick up milk. Then he worked for me on the excavator all of the month of October. Though I hired many people over that year, Allen was the constant. He noticed the details. “Got that gate up? Good girl.” I’d tell him my misadventures with the animals or frustrations on a balky project. He’d reminisce about his childhood on his grandfather’s farm and make suggestions to help me problem-solve. We laughed a lot.
Allen and I weren’t just from different generations, we were from different worlds. I read a book every day; I’m not sure he has ever read one. Conversely he and his son would often tell funny stories of escapades involving machines; I just watched their faces to know when to laugh — the details were way over my head and might as well have been in Swahili. But with Allen that yawning gulf never mattered, really.
Allen wasn’t anything like my father, but in his warmth and kindness, he was very fatherly to me. “Stopped at the town garage, got you a bulb for that burned out tail-light.” Or, “Had an idea about how to —.” Or, “I been thinkin’, you could —” do whatever. He was a hired man but he felt like my friend.
When we finished our big push of work in October, a part of me was relieved. Allen has had two quadruple-bypass operations and he’d become noticeably more slow-moving and frail. I’d been so worried about his health every day, the anxiety had been a heavy weight. But after he left the farm felt changed.
I’ve worked alone most of my life. As someone whose interests have always been different, I’m used to it.
But now I found myself wishing at odd moments that I could tell Allen things. Nothing important. Funny little observations of the animals. Solutions I was considering for various problems. I missed our lunches with thermoses of coffee in the truck, his goofy jokes, his endless helpfulness (“Allen, you’re the helping-est person I’ve ever met!”), his cheerful whistling. Suddenly the farm seemed a little lonely.
My father and I loved the Lerner and Loewe score to My Fair Lady. (I can still see Dad’s delighted face as he savored Rex Harrison singing A Hymn to Him — “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?”) I know the whole show by heart. And now, as I trudged around the snowy farm doing chores, noticing for almost the first time that I had no one to talk to, the line ran through my head, “I was supremely independent and content before we met, surely I can always be that way again — and yet —”
Allen came back in December for a couple of days to help me install DH’s sauna stove. I was struck all over again by how small, fragile, and dear he was. It was icy so I climbed up the roof while he steadied the ladder in the snow and handed up screws. My numb hands were soon bleeding freely — I’m always nicking my hands when I work — and when he saw the blood dripping Allen chided me as usual: “What ya gone and done now?” It felt very familiar to have him scolding me while our noses ran and the wind blew.
Over lunch in the truck I told him I’d missed him. Had he ever heard of My Fair Lady?
He frowned. No.
“Well, it was a Broadway show; they made it into a movie. And there’s this song, Accustomed to her Face, which kind of reminded me of you —”
Allen interrupted with a guffaw. “Accustomed to this ugly face?!”
“There’s even a bit about whistling — I’ve grown accustomed to the tune, she whistles night and noon. It’s really about realizing that you miss someone.”
“Like Toby Keith?” Allen asked. He loves country music and was always singing, humming, or whistling snatches of songs, or quizzing me if I knew this one or that one (I never did. I don’t even listen to the radio and I’ve never heard any country music). “I’m gonna miss that smile,” he sang, prompting me hopefully.
I smiled at him, giving up. “Yes, like that.”
A long time afterward I looked up the tune Allen mentioned. It turns out the title is Wayman’s Song. Click here to hear it. Toby Keith wrote it about his friend Wayman Tisdale, a basketball star who played blues guitar, fought cancer, thought he beat it, and then died unexpectedly. Like most country songs, it tells a story. This one is about a friendship.
Allen and I were friends, no matter how unlikely. I miss his whistling. I miss his smile.