“Pops, I’m running a few minutes late, see you soon.”
He banged out the text as soon as he slammed his car door shut. He pulled away from his apartment, the 3-bedroom townhome he shared with two friends he didn’t know three and a half years ago, but guys he’s now certain will be in his wedding one day.
Spring in the south is supposed to be warmer than what Trevor was experiencing that morning. His standard light hoodie and shorts outfit he wore to class that morning didn’t match the light rain and 42 degrees his 2009 black GMC Acadia dash lit back at him.
As he backed out onto Bearfield Road, more popular for its parties than study sessions, Trevor hit the back windshield wiper, which made that god-awful screech when the half-wet glass meets an old wiper.
His effort to see more clearly seemed to do more harm than good, as the Tennessee dirt turned more mud than crystal.
It was a decent metaphor for his life at the moment.
His efforts in class. His side hustle he hoped would help him launch in the summer once he graduated. His relationship with Katie. His relationship with booze.
Everything always came easy to Trevor. The charm. The character. The grades. The athletics. The girls. The fun. The friends.
But this last semester, the final one, before the “real world” of a job, responsibilities, and student loan paybacks, mirrored that muddy rear Acadia window.
The one he glanced back at, then looked at his phone, as he pulled into the never-crowded parking lot of the off-the-beaten-path coffee shop where he meets Pops.
In the seven-minute drive from the pizza, Playstation, and Bud Light inhabited townhome, he had 23 notifications on his phone.
Most of them Snaps from his friends, but a few old school texts, including his sister, his girlfriend, Katie, and Pops.
“No problem, see you soon. I’ll have your coffee ready.”
Pops always beat him to the spot, and to the punch.
For a good part of a decade, Trevor would play the part around his parents and grandparents, but his mind was always elsewhere. Never in the moment.
But now, he loved and looked forward to these times with Pops. His “old man’s, old man” as he referred to his Grandpa on his father’s side.
It was just in the last year or so that Trevor started to cherish these moments, and his friendship, with Pops.
As Trevor pulled into Ron’s Diner, far more of a country-fried steak establishment, than the hipster coffee roasters that surrounded campus, he saw Pops’ old F150.
The left side of the tailgate didn’t latch quite right, he never bothered to put on his front license plate, and the running board on the right side was so rusty that Trevor wondered if Pops was ever embarrassed by it.
But at Ron’s, it fit right in.
It was April in Oakland, Tennessee, long past the hustle and bustle of the holidays, but when Trevor rolled into Ron’s, the jingle bells were still on the glass front door.
Pops always sat at the same table. To the left, facing the door, so he could see Trevor arrive, always a few minutes late, about halfway down the rows of booths.
Trevor, with his hood still up, slightly soaked still from his walk home from class in the rain, smiled. Because he knew what awaited him.
Pops slid out of the booth, extended his arms, and said, “come here, boy,” and proceeded to give Trevor an embrace that always felt like the 22-year-old’s ribs were going to explode.
If Ron’s was jam-packed, or sparse like it was that day, was no matter. It was always the same, consistent, routine.
After a few second embrace, Pops would release the death grip, grab Trevor’s shoulders, and look at his face.
“Damn, it’s good to be with you.”
“You too, Pops,” Trevor said, as he lowered his hood, slid in the near side of the booth, always careful to avoid the tear in the maroon seat cushion that was about six inches away from the entrance.
He isn’t OCD, necessarily, but he is particular, and during previous visits, he noticed cracker crumbs, and even worse, ketchup, in that little tear.
“How you been, Pops? I’m sorry I’m late,” Trevor said.
Pops smiled his big smile, his eyes telling the stories of his nearly 80 years.
Brighter than ever, but surrounded by the evidence of lessons learned the hard way. Or at least the human way.
Weathered, wrinkled, dark skin surrounded his contagious energy from his soul that emanated through the ever-narrowing hazel eyes of his.
Or as the rest of the world called him, at least for the last 60 years, Jim. Jimmy, during his childhood. A native of Oakland, Tennessee, Jimmy was born in 1944, the youngest of seven children to Edward and Mae Barnes. Loving parents, but the kind who showed it most often through a good meal, a safe and secure home, and high expectations to be a productive member of the family and community.
Pops doesn’t recall his dad ever hugging him, or telling him he loved him, other than when Mae and his second-oldest sister, Mildred, passed away. But he also never recalled wondering if he did. But in those bone-chilling painful moments, he recalls his dad’s embrace, and the words that saturated the sadness in his soul, “Come here, boy. I love you.”
He never connected that directly, but it’s no wonder he starts every encounter with Trevor in that manner.
“What’s your week been like,” Pops asked.
In nearly every other relationship Trevor has, his answer to the same line of question would hover around the surface, rarely penetrating the capacity of his heart.
But with Pops, he knows the bullshit that hangs around the top levels won’t satisfy. He’s tried it before, and Pops doesn’t buy it.
Trevor wraps both hands around the white enamel mug, interlocking four of his fingers inside the mug’s handle. At this point, the coffee is lukewarm, but the mug still provides some comfort.
The smile on Pops’ face has changed to care. His eyes, once slivers of bright light, now bright beams of focused gaze, like Trevor’s bright lights in his Acadia on the Tennessee back roads in the dead of night.
“My week has been pretty shitty, actually, Pops,” Trevor started.
“I understand those,” Pops said, as he sipped his black coffee, never losing eye contact.
Trevor knew he would understand. Pops always does. No matter the subject matter, and God knows, Trevor has shared some doozies with Pops.
Stuff his classmates, friends, girlfriend, and hell, even his own parents don’t know.
But Pops knows.
And while most don’t know Trevor’s stories yet, everyone knows Pops’ story. At least it seems that way.
His shameful, humiliating past. The haunting tale of deception and betrayal. The secrets that he thought he’d take with him to the grave.
But his own wife went to hers first.
And the grief and guilt unhinged Pops.