TOM BRYANT: On Slim's Porch: Old Friends, Silent Night, Eyes Eastward
This column that I wrote several years ago has become a holiday tradition. Not much has changed except Bubba, Slim and I are a little older. We still check the eastern sky every Christmas for that rising star.
"Bryant, it's about time you stopped by. I was about to give that deer roast to H.B. Johnson. I didn't know if you wanted it or not."
Slim called me the week before, informing me that he had some venison for my game dinner and for me to stop by. When I pulled up in front of the old store, he was out on the porch putting more charcoal in his smoker. It was one of those clear, crisp fall days with a bright sun that made the shadows blacker than usual. The smoke rolling out of the smoker on the porch looked like small clouds in a sky of their own.
Slim reopened his old store, after a time out west seeking his fortune, and had done a remarkable job of restoration. The old place looked just as it did when his grandfather ran it. I hoped that he had not overdone it physically, because he put in a bunch of hours to get ready for the holidays.
I sat down in a rocking chair not very far from the smoker but far enough to keep from being engulfed when Slim stirred the coals.
"Slim, appreciate you saving me that venison. I can sure use it at the game dinner this year. I've got plenty of ducks but the venison has been kinda scarce."
The game dinner has become a tradition around the Bryant house for the last several Christmases. A few friends join us on Saturday before the holiday and I cook up the bounty from my many forays in the field.
Slim finished stirring his smoker, walked over and sat in the rocker beside me. About then the phone rang... and rang ... and rang. I said, "Slim, you gonna answer that?"
He said, "Nope, I made up my mind today not to jump up and run every time that cotton-picking phone rings. If it's important they'll call back. Then, maybe I'll answer it, and maybe I won't."
I didn't comment. Sometimes Slim's reasoning was completely over my head.
The sun was beginning to set, and we both watched as Johnson's black Angus cows ambled up the hill toward the barn. I could tell Slim was in a pensive mood, so I just sat there and enjoyed the classic beauty of a North Carolina fall day coming to an end.
"Where is everybody?" I asked.
Usually on a Friday afternoon this time of year the front porch of Slim's old store would be full of hunters and passersby chatting and catching up on the latest gossip.
Slim replied, "I don't know, Bryant. Seems to be fewer and fewer people coming in these last few weeks. I guess everybody has more on their minds than they can handle. You know with work and the holidays and everything. I did see Bubba yesterday, he said he would stop in this afternoon after he finished working on his deer stand."
Bubba and I go way back, we've been hunting and fishing together for years. Slim always said if you saw Bubba's truck somewhere, mine would be close by.
We sat there rocking, the last rays of the sun reflecting from the tree line across Johnson's pasture.
"What do you think, Bryant? Here we are approaching another Christmas, the season of good will toward men. It seems to me there's not much of that left in the world today."
"What have you got on that smoker?" I asked Slim, hoping to change the subject to happier thoughts.
"I've got us some deer jerky smoking. Ought to be ready. We'll try some before you leave."
About that time the phone rang again. "Get that thing, Bryant. I'm tired of hearing it."
"Cooter," it was Bubba calling from his car phone. He had just recently installed me with a new nickname. Where he came up with "Cooter," I have no idea.
"What's the matter with Slim? He won't answer his phone."
"I don't know, but I believe he's got the Christmas blues. Get on over here and we'll cheer him up."
"I'll be there in a minute, and I've got some of Ritter's apple brandy. If that won't do it, nothing will."
Bubba was always finding some concoction in his travels, most of it 100 proof.
"That was Bubba," I hollered out the front door to Slim. "He'll be here in a few minutes."
The sun was completely gone now. I grabbed my coat out of the back of the Bronco as Bubba came sliding up in a cloud of dust. After we had insulted each other sufficiently, we walked up on the porch. Bubba had his gunning bag slung over his shoulder; and as he got to the top of the steps, he pulled a flask out of it, offered it to Slim and said, "Merry Christmas."
"I ran into Santa Claus out near my deer stand today, he gave me this and said, 'Make sure you give some of this to Slim.' So here I am, Santa's helper, with good tidings for all."
Later that evening, after we had sampled Slim's deer jerky and washed it down with Ritter's apple brandy, we sat in comfortable silence on the front porch. It was cold but not cold enough to move us inside to the old pot belly stove.
Bubba went in and turned off the outdoor lights so we could enjoy the beauty of the stars. There was supposed to be a meteor shower that evening. Slim had his portable radio tuned to a station playing Christmas carols. Nobody said much, we just watched the heavens.
"What's that bright star over there?" Bubba asked, as he pointed toward the eastern horizon.
"I don't know, but I believe it might be Venus," I replied. "What do you think, Slim?"
Slim paused for a second and then said, "Do you guys get the irony of this situation? The three of us out on this porch this time of year watching a star rising in the east ... 'And lo, the star which they saw in the east went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.'"
Slim could quote almost any verse from the Bible.
We sat there watching the star slowly rise, each of us lost in our thoughts.
"I wish ..." Slim let the thought die in mid-sentence.
"Me, too," replied Bubba.
Tom Bryant can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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