HE HAD unusually large ears that stood out like satellite dishes alongside his heavily grooved face. He wore a hearing aid nevertheless and a white, blood-stained apron. Three days a week, he worked at the chicken counter, slicing fryers, hacking bones and tossing out giblets.
I started to go the local farmers’ market more than 20 years ago and most Wednesdays I would buy six pounds of chicken bones, as well as other things, at the stand where Bill worked. I made broth with the bones.
Bill and I had instant rapport. I would look for him every week and we usually talked before and after he filled my order, a routine that seems archaic in an age of supermarkets and high-speed commerce but is still possible in some isolated corners of America where retail has not been thoroughly air-brushed and conglomeratized.
It is always smart for a merchant to show interest in his regular customers. But Bill did not own the place. So when I say he always asked how I was with genuine and disarming interest, I should add that this was not salesmanship. It may have been part flirtation, but Bill was not capable of salesmanship. He had a transcendent relationship with the drumsticks and turkey necks before him. They were a help with the bills, but they were also the means by which he achieved the more important business of catching up with the customers.
I know other women enjoyed chatting with him at the counter too and also lit up when they saw him, but I liked to think there was some element of exclusivity in our friendship. Although he was well into his seventies when we first met and had worked as a truck driver for many years, a way of life that would seem to preclude much in the way of common interests between us, he was one of the most charming men I have ever known.
He knew my two children and husband and I knew about his wife and his two grown children. His smile extended from ear to ear. His simplicity was deep. His wholesomeness was all-encompassing. He was the sort of person whose kindness and decency precluded all dishonesty and wiles, but not a sense of humor. He was a human oasis. He was farmland in spring. He was a small town on the Fourth of July. He was a world where people said hello and never moved away.
Such was Bill’s decency that I left his company feeling that I too was decent, a citizen of a small town, a person of undivided loyalties who would never move away. This feeling was in keeping with the truth, articulated I believe by St. John of the Cross, that we take on some of the character of whomever we love.
Bill was a Mennonite, as were several other workers at the stand, where people lined up four deep for Thanksgiving turkeys and where no poultry-related request – I recently heard a woman order boneless chicken breast chopped up for her dog –was considered unreasonable.
He was very proud of his lawn. That was one of the subjects we sometimes discussed. One week, he told me that just a few days before a tractor trailer had been driving down the road in front of his home, which was further out in the country about 40 minutes from the farmers’ market (I had a clear image of a small, neat ranch home), and the truck had swerved and landed on its side. The trailer was transporting a load of gravel and the entire thing was dumped onto his lawn. It took weeks to scrape up the mess. I will never forget his fascinating and disturbing tale of seeking reimbursement from the insurance company.
As the years went by and he grew older, he was there three days a week with no visible trace of more advanced aging. The same deep grooves were in his cheeks, un-deepened. Once he was gone for several weeks because of pneumonia but returned as energetic as before. He did not complain about getting older. I expected, of course, that someday I would come to the market and, without any warning, he would be gone.
It is still possible even in a very busy suburban area where the supermarkets are large, gleaming warehouses with five brands of spaghetti and six brands of deodorant to commune with merchants. I would rather spend a little more, have less variety, eat chicken less and see the same people week after week, year after year, as well as buy products that are made by them or nearby. But it has its downside. One becomes accustomed to the faces of the people at the store. Nothing lasts forever.
About three years ago, when I was away or busy, and didn’t make it to the chicken stand for several weeks, Bill retired without warning. At the age of 89, he hung up his apron for good.
I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye. That would have been hard. How can you say goodbye to someone who has been a fixture of your life for years? That would be like saying goodbye to summer for good or saying goodbye to Christmas or to the oak tree outside your door. I wrote him a note and told him I would miss him and would always remember him, which was true. I knew I would never run into him anywhere because he lived in a different rural world and wouldn’t be likely to come to the suburbs except for work. But I knew I would never forget him.
Just yesterday, my son who is now in his early twenties was reminiscing about visits to the market. He recalled the Cornish hens and how interesting they seemed years ago. He asked what had become of Bill. “Is he still alive?” my son asked.
I said as far as I knew he was.
This morning I called the market and ordered six pounds of bones. They have been disappearing before I get there. A few hours later, a Mennonite woman who has worked there for years filled the rest of my order. As she was packing the bags, she said, “Do you remember Bill?”
“Of course,” I said.
“He was buried yesterday.”