Cobb was a bit of an enigma. He started showing up at our little country store about two years ago and, in spite of my best efforts to figure him out, he gave away next to nothing about himself. He was either house-sitting, free-loading or in the witness protection program up in the one of the houses hidden in the twists and turns of the Batten kill valley or its attending hills and hollows.
Once or twice a week he would slouch in, his tall, banana-shaped body crabbing across the worn floorboards to pick up a Foster’s oilcan of beer and a 99-cent bag of Fritos.
If I said: “Nice day out today,” he would respond: “I guess.” If I asked: “How are you today?” he would respond: OK.” In winter, he accessorized his meager jacket with a length of colored scarf the likes of which is usually seen at Big Ten football games. In summer, he wore a stained Red Sox baseball cap backward. He could have been an old young man or a young old man with either fading blond or fledgling gray streaking his hair, which hung limp around his lean face. His mouth was straight as a pin, muscles never twitching in a smile or even a frown. He did not complain or grouse. He did not joke or comment, even on the weather or the roads. He was just … bland.
Now, it is no secret that “bland” is disturbing to me. I want people to share their joys and sorrows and jokes. I want the challenge of a good political spar and I rejoice in people who are passionate about what they do -- it can be collecting four-leaf clovers, shoeing horses, or raising kids. It can be teaching or preaching. It can be running or spinning. It can be baking or golfing or basket weaving. But please show me some emotion! Though I sometimes get impatient with “drama,” I would take that any day over gray ennui. I felt sorry for Cobb who seemed so humorless and passionless.
One quiet evening in the valley I was behind the counter with our night help when Cobb came in. A pretty young lady was at the counter with four cans of dog food. She was trying to decide the merits of Taste of The Wild vs. Wellness vs. the cheaper Alpo and a generic brand. She was taking up time asking the kinds of questions only she could answer: “How much do I want to spend?” Cobb stood motionless for a while waiting his turn. Then he spoke.
“I was fed kibble when I was a kid,” he said.
I was momentarily ecstatic -- he was finally interacting!
But, what followed was as unpredictable as the winds that rise out of nowhere and race down the valley.
“Here,” he said, “feel my jaw.”
What his jaw had to do with being fed kibble I did not even stop to process. Not being touch-averse, I reached out my hand to touch the rock-hard clenched jaw.
As soon as my fingers grazed the three-day stubble, he let out a loud and long feral bark that fell somewhere between Siberian Huskies lining up at the start of the Iditarod and a Bullmastiff going after a poacher. Cobb’s formerly bland face broke into laugh lines, changing his countenance to one of a mischievous elf, his eyes sparkling with the fun of having so surprised us. Three startled females momentarily blanched and then laughed the kind of laugh you crave on a quiet day, laughing heartily that we had been the butt of such a joke and amazed at who had launched it like a bomb into our midst.
Cobb paid his modest tab and exited the front door, still chuckling.
“Been doing that since I was 10,” he said shaking his head on the way out. “Gets ‘em every time.”
He was not humorless! He had just been weighted down by a life that remained hidden and private but still retained a spark and I was overjoyed that he shared it with us on a quiet night in a no longer quiet valley. That feral bark echoed in our minds as we went about our tasks -- and contemplating how we could foist Cobb’s joke on others. But we agreed that it was the context that made the humor so we enjoyed it for what it was.
In the days that followed, I looked with different eyes upon Cobb’s banana shape crabbing toward the beer cooler. His pin-straight mouth now seemed to be curled in a smile as he recalled his joke on us. I smiled back but did not press for what he could not or would not give.
I was content with his gift of surprise and laughter.
(Note: There's more than a "seed" of truth to this particular tale -- but it's still fictionalized.)