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Listening for the Mockingbirds

John W. Pinkerton


My friend, Mr. Richard Lee Brooks, passed away recently.

Linda and I attended his funeral service at Zion Church of Christ, a small but well kept church just outside of Lyons three miles from Somerville.

We were welcomed by his two sons.  His daughter was late arriving because of airline problems, but she made it there for the service.  It was a nice service with several folks speaking in remembrance of Richard.  Of course there were hymns sung and kind words spoken about Richard.  I think he would have enjoyed it, especially if he could have had a smoke during the service.

I met Mr. Brooks at the nursing home in Caldwell where Linda and I go to visit my mother in the afternoons each day.  We spend a little over an hour there.  I spent about 20 minutes with Mr. Brooks each day smoking and chatting and just enjoying each other’s company in the shade of the gazebo behind the home.

The aides at the home periodically wheel residents out to the gazebo area so they can smoke or just enjoy the fresh air.  Their visits to the gazebo often coincided with mine.  At first the most regular visitors to the area were an old Mexican fellow, Pappi, who spoke little English and looked as though he came right out of central casting for an aged Mexican fellow.   Pappi hung on for a few months, but passed away.  Nursing homes are reticent about announcing deaths.  After not seeing him for a few days, I inquired about Pappi; he was gone.  There was an old white guy who shared the gazebo with us.  He too suddenly disappeared.  Finally it was just Mr. Brooks and myself.

I don’t recall how it started, but each time I was on my way out to the gazebo, I’d wheel Mr. Brooks out with me.  It became routine.  Mr. Brooks really liked to smoke and most of the time he had his own cigarettes; he just needed a light.  The residents, for good reason, aren’t allowed to have their own lighters.

We fell into a regular pattern with our visits to the gazebo.  The evening meal was usually served between 5:15 and 5:30, so I’d wait until 5:00 to head outside.  Usually we’d smoke two cigarettes back to back, but sometimes Mr. Brooks couldn’t help himself, and he just had to have one more or two more, but most of the time it was just two.

I always made sure he had enough cigarettes to get through the next day.  Occasionally he asked me to pick up some packs for him: how many depended on how much money he had on hand.

Mr. Brooks commented to me once that all he really wanted to do was smoke and drink coffee.

Well, there was one more thing he really wanted to do: gamble.  He loved the lotto, state and national, and he loved scratch offs and the all-or-nothing game.  I tried to discourage this as much as possible without insulting him, but I’d pick up and deliver his requests.  Usually, luck ran against him: however, he did win $80 once. 

He sneered at $2 scratch off winners; he wanted the big one, the millions.  He always seemed a little surprised when he didn’t win it, but he took it well.  I once asked him if he would buy the nursing home if he won the “big one.”  He replied that it had too many problems with roof leaks.  I once told him that if he won the “big one,” he’d turn around and spend it all on more lotto tickets.  He laughed but agreed with me.

A few days before he passed away, he caught me coming into the nursing home.  He needed $10 so a young friend of his could take him to a nearby gaming joint.   Some quick stops and cafes and I guess other businesses have slot machines now.  I imagine the establishments with these machines would object to my calling them slot machines because slot machines are illegal in Texas.  Some juridictions have raided and closed down the slots.  About a block from my house is a quickstop that does a booming business in slot fans.

He was back from his adventure  with the slots in less than 30 minutes.  His only comment was, “Gambling’s not for me.”  That was the last time I knew of his gambling.  The oddest moment related to gambling I had was the day he asked me for $20.  I balked.  He reduced it to $10 which I had in my pocket.  A few minutes later he handed the $10 back to me to purchase him a variety of scratch offs and lotto tickets…fair enough.

Some times, Mr. Brooks would become emotional,  covering his eyes not being able to speak holding back tears.  I don’t think it was his nature, but folks who have had strokes have a tendency to be overly emotional at times.  Usually he became emotional when he spoke of someone who had passed away or was ill, but also one Christmas when he presented me with a Christmas card which he had signed, not an easy task for him.  We both stared toward the horses for a long time.

A common subject of our conversations were the horses in the field next door to the nursing home.  You would have thought we were the owners of the horses the way we kept track of their daily movements.  He spoke of how he used to ride horses and theorized that, although he was in a wheelchair, that he could still mount one.  Someone told me that he used to break horses.  I don’t doubt it; although he was my age and in a wheel chair, one could still recognize  the strong, active man he had once been.

I never caught Mr. Brooks in the same clothes two days in a row.  He took pride in his dress.  He had a variety of caps and hats, but his favorite seemed to be his black cowboy hat which led many of the residents to refer to him as “Cowboy.”  He not only paid attention to his own attire, he also paid attention to mine: he’d make note of a nice crease in my trousers or a new shine on my shoes.  He always pointed out when we were both wearing blue, which, for me, is every day.

Mr. Brooks’ hearing seemed to be fine and he seemed to like to listen to the mockingbirds.  After commenting one day that no birds were singing, he added that soon no birds would exist.  His theory was that the red ants would destroy their young.  One day I said that it had been a long time since I had seen a jackrabbit.  He quickly came back with, “Coyotes.”  He might have been right.

At first I assumed Mr. Brooks was older than me.  Not true.  We were the same age.  He had had a stroke or strokes and was wheelchair bound ;although he could get  into bed and back out by himself, he really needed assistance.

The nursing home is only about fifteen miles from Somerville where he spent a lifetime working at the Sante Fe tie plant.  He often said, “There’s no place like Somerville,” and seemed to miss it.  Friends or family would sometime take him to Somerville to eat at one of the restaurants, particularly “Mama’s Kitchen.”  Each Friday, the day Linda and I go out to eat, he’d ask me where I was going and would often the next day ask me what I had eaten.   Fried chicken and hamburgers and barbecue, any kind, seemed to be his favorites.  He never fussed about the food at the nursing home and usually knew the menu for the evening meal.

Mr. Brooks had apparently been in several nursing homes, but he told me that Copperas Hollow, the one he was in, was his favorite.  He liked the people.  When I wanted to know something about someone, residents or employees or visitors, Mr. Brooks would usually know something about them.

I got a copy of his obituary and read it carefully.  There were several elements of the obituary which were news to me: he had served as a song leader for the Zion Church of Christ in Lyons, Texas, and his favorite song had been “I Live in Glory”; he graduated from Snook Jones High School in ’63; and that he had received a barber’s license from a barber’s college in San Antonio which really surprised me. 

His wife, Vergia Faye, had passed away a few years before I met Mr. Brooks.  His children, mostly because of their living at some distance from the nursing home, didn’t visit much.  I’d often ask him, “Did anyone visit you today?” to which he would nod “no” and add, “No one loves me,” and each of us would laugh.

We often laughed while sitting with each other in the afternoons.  Mr. Brooks’ stroke  had damaged his speaking ability and he was usually difficult to understand.  I did my best and often had him repeat his statements until I could understand them.  Sometimes the repetitions were many and would end with us both laughing at each other, but we were patient with each other.

Some afternoons Mr. Brooks would ask me if I knew a particular person from Somerville.  Usually I knew them or knew of them.  It’s really odd that Mr. Brooks and I knew most of the same folks, but had never met each other until a couple of years before.

Mr. Brooks still carried himself with dignity and didn’t suffer fools readily. Knowing Mr. Brooks liked hats and caps, Linda took a couple of caps she had in her closet to Mr. Brooks.  When he and I went out for a smoke, one  of his caps had disappeared from his dining table.  I suspected I knew who had gotten it but didn’t see him around.  I went on back to visit with Mom, but kept an eye on Mr. Brooks.  Shortly, the fellow I suspected wheeled himself into the dining area wearing Mr. Brooks new cap.  Mr. Brooks made a bee-line for him and demanded the return of his cap.  After a short confrontation, the fellow decided to surrender the cap.  The next day I mentioned the incident to him and he simply responded, “He knew that hat wasn’t his.”

We still visit Mom each day, but I don’t go to the gazebo much now; instead, I go out front to smoke alone listening for Mr. Brooks’ mockingbirds.