I rushed out the front door of the courthouse and headed toward my parked car when I spotted a familiar face, an old man with wrinkled skin and a permanent silly grin. “Five Dollar Fred.” Well, that wasn’t his real name. I don’t think anyone knew his real name. That’s just what everybody in town called him because he was famous for hanging around the courthouse and asking everybody he saw, “Got five dollas?”
Why he always wanted five dollars was anybody’s guess. I’ve heard folks call him the town drunk, a crack head, a worthless vagrant. I’ve seen people stuff a few bills in his hand and keep going just to get rid of him. I’ve seen others spit insults at him, and one time, some kids threw rocks at him.
He was sauntering toward me with that constant grin plastered on his face, his long arms and legs swinging loosely like he had all the time in the world. Here it comes, I thought. I could see by the sparkle in his old brown eyes that I was about to be hit up for five dollars, which wouldn’t have been a problem if I only had it. However, I had been laid off from my job for a month, and I had just paid my property taxes 10 minutes ago from the last of my savings. I wouldn’t see another five dollars until my next unemployment check.
As he approached me, I stuffed my hands in the pockets of my blue jeans and tried to look away from him. But, he didn’t seem to notice or care that I was avoiding him because just as we were about to pass one another on the red brick walkway, he threw out his hand to me. “Hey man, got five dollas?”
Reluctantly, I stopped and looked at him, an old man with twinkling eyes, a broad smile revealing a space between his front teeth, and a hand outstretched to me, expecting something from me. I had nothing to give him.
I shook my head regretfully. “I’m sorry, man. I don’t have it.”
He dropped his hand but kept that smile of his going strong. No doubt he had heard those same words hundreds of times, yet he didn’t seem to be discouraged by mine. Instead, he piped cheerfully, “Pretty day, huh?”
I nodded. “Yeah, it sure is. I’ve had enough of cold weather. It’s good to feel the sunshine.”
He shook his head up and down vigorously, his smile widening even more if that was possible. “You gots business at the courthouse today?”
I was somewhat surprised at his question. For just a fleeting moment it sounded nosey, but the friendly ring to it made me realize that he was just simply being conversational. “Yeah, had to pay my property taxes.”
“Oh, you don’t say? Where you gots land?”
Again, it seemed like a personal question, but his eager smile told me that he just wanted to make small talk. “Oh, I got about 25 acres up in the northern part of the county,” I answered him.
“Oh yeah, I know whereabouts you talking,” he swayed back excitedly. “You talking about up there around the Eagle River, ain’t you?”
Before I could respond to him, he enthusiastically went on to tell me about how he had grown up in that area as a small child, and how he had “caught a good mess of fish in that river.”
I observed that as he was joyfully recounting his childhood memories for me that he kept leaning from one foot to the other as if in discomfort. I interrupted him just long enough to ask him if he would like to sit down on one of the nearby wrought iron benches.
“Oh, sure that I would. Gots that old arthritis, you know? Can’t stand too long, can’t sit for too long.”
No sooner had he let his old body down on the bench, he took right back up to where he had left off talking about the time his little baby brother had fallen into the water and nearly drowned if he hadn’t jumped in to save him. “And that’s how I learn to swim,” he told me, his grin never stopping.
Five Dollar Fred, I quickly discovered, was like the Energizer Bunny. Once you turned him on, he kept going and going and going. I glanced at my wristwatch every now and then as he continued to regale me with one story after another. A few minutes turned into one hour, which then became two hours. Fishing tales turned into school memories that led to how he met his wife, and how he got his first job. Before I could get a word in, he had given me his opinion on the war in Iraq, his religious convictions, his child-rearing beliefs, and his ideas about how to improve the county’s economy.
The warm afternoon sun was beginning to lower, and I noticed chill bumps popping up on his bare arms. I was sure that by now my wife was worried that I was either in a car wreck, or that I was with another woman. I waited for him to take a breath in his constant chatter and seized the opportunity to rise to my feet. “Well, I really need to get going. If I don’t hurry on home, I’ll have an angry wife waiting on me.”
With a little stiffness, he stood also, chuckling at me. “Ah yeah, I hear you, my young man.” He put out his hand to me once again, his smile beaming at me. I thought he was going to ask me for the five dollars again, but he just said, “Thank you for letting an old man talk your ears off.”
I shook his extended hand and smiled back at him. “No problem. It was a pleasure.” I started to turn away, but then something suddenly made me feel like I owed him an explanation about why I didn’t have a meager five dollars for an old man. “Hey, I’m sorry about the five dollars. I’ve been laid off from my job for over a month, and I just used my whole savings to pay my property taxes. If I had five dollars, I’d be happy to give them to you.”
His brown eyes went wide like he had forgotten all about the five dollars, and then for the first time, his smile faded into a frown. His frown was not of disappointment but of compassion. He then surprised me by reaching his hand into his back pants pocket and pulling out an old worn leather wallet. I watched him open it, and to my astounding shock, I saw a thick wad of bills. His old, crooked arthritic fingers pulled out a fifty and handed it to me. “Here, maybe this will buy you and your wife a few groceries.”
I’m sure my jaw was hanging wide open. All I could do was stare at the greenback held between his fingers. “Whh…how?” I wasn’t sure what to ask him. Why had he been asking for five dollars if he had money to give away?
His grin reappeared when he saw the question in my face. “Don’t you know, I weren’t really needing no five dollas? That just be my way of making company.”
A tidal wave of understanding came rushing over me so huge that I was momentarily dazed. Finally, I realized that the old man before me was not the town drunk. Neither was he a vagrant or a crack head. Five Dollar Fred was a lonely man in need of, not five dollars, but five minutes of company. Everyday, he strolled the courthouse yard watching people bustling in and out of the old building, tending to all sorts of business, busy people with so much to talk about, so much to share with a lonely old man if they would just stop and give him the five minutes of time that it took to give five dollars.
I humbly and graciously accepted the fifty from him. “Thank you…” I remembered then that I didn’t know his name, and I knew I couldn’t call him Five Dollar Fred.
There went that silly grin of his again. “Larry,” he said. “The name be Larry.”
I nodded and shook his hand again. “Thank you, Larry.”
“Naw, sir, thank YOU.”
I started to ask him what for, and then another wave of comprehension hit me. The 50 dollar bill was not a token of charity, but a thank you gift. He was thanking me for stopping and taking the time out of my busy life to listen to him, to care for just a couple of hours.
“You know,” I said to him, “I have to come back up here next week. Think you would like to tell me some more of them fishing stories?”
His grin spread from ear to ear. “For sure, young man, for sure.”
As I turned away from him and walked to my parked car, I thought, “His name is Larry.”