I am backstage, about to tell stories onstage. A man with a name tag and a clipboard announces, “Ten minutes to showtime.”
I am tuning my guitar, hoping I won’t stink tonight.
This is what all performers think about before they go onstage. They say silent prayers that all go, more or less, the same way.
“Dear God, don’t let me suck.”
It’s easy to stink at storytelling because there is no school for such things, so you don’t know if you’re getting it right. Which leads me to ask: “What am I doing with my life?”
I am still unclear on how I started telling stories for a living. The only education I have in storytelling came from elderly men who wore Velcro shoes and wore their slacks up to their armpits.
I have always had a soft spot for old men. From childhood, I believed that I was an old man trapped inside a kid’s body. I never fit in with peers, and I never wanted to. This was only made worse by the fact that I was raised as a tee-totalling fundamentalist who was forbidden from touching NyQuil.
As a young man, I would find myself in a crowd of teenagers who were smoking cigarettes, sipping longnecks, far from parental eyes, and for some reason, nobody ever offered me any real chances at sinning.
I would have appreciated the opportunity, but they viewed me as different. It was as though I were elderly.
Once, as a joke, my friend Jordan handed me a lit cigarette in front of everybody. I didn’t want anyone to think I was a wimp, so I took the biggest drag I could. I almost died from a coughing fit. My friends howled until they peed.
Thus, I was blacklisted from social situations. I was the old man of the group. During social scenarios, I would generally hang in the corner, drinking prune juice, adjusting my Velcro footwear, holding everyone’s car keys.
People called me “D.B.,” which was short for “Designated Baptist.”
Ah, but my truest friends were elderly men. What I liked about them most was that they had already gotten their petty teenage sins out of the way. They were more interested in major sins. For example, weekend trips to Biloxi. Or scratch-off lotto tickets.
After my father died, I looked for anyone with white hair to pay attention to me. I just wanted someone to be proud of me. I wanted to piece together a father figure. When I found the right person, I would follow him around like a Labrador until he took me home.
There was Ben. Bless him. He has Alzheimer’s now. He was a Mississippian who talked like Rhett Butler. We spent nearly every afternoon together.
He was retired and had nothing to do but tell stories. And he told some doozies. Some I can’t repeat here. Some I have told on stages.
When Ben came down with dementia, the world lost a library.
And there was the retired Auburn University professor. He was a man who chain-smoked Winstons and read Wordsworth. He would loan these books to me and encourage me to read them. He would ask me to summarize them.
I don’t know if you’ve ever read British Romantic poetry, but back in those days everybody was always saying things like “heretofore” and “whithersoever” to each other just for kicks. The poems were miles above me, but I loved them.
So the good professor would help me. In his ratty apartment, he taught a high-school dropout to appreciate literature.
Maybe this is how I started telling stories. Because my life has been spent in the company of old men who loved to tell them; who could not restrain themselves from telling stories.
Old men are not like boys. They don’t have big ambitions—if any. They’re past ambition, and they have only experience left. They are ready to integrate what they know into the world around them. And if you listen, they will help you.
After all, old men have seen their mistakes get worse over time, and watched their qualities get better with age. They’ve lost those they care about, and discovered that success is nothing.
Sometimes they are grumpy, sure. Sometimes their joints get stoved up. Sometimes they can’t help telling it like it is. But other times, they will say something so profound, so incredibly put, that you have to write it down.
They are filled to the hairline with stories. And if you listen to them carefully, they will tell you one while they whittle a stick on the porch.
And when they are gone, you will miss the sound of Rhett’s voice.
“Five more minutes,” the man with the clipboard says.
I hurry to the bathroom one last time. When I am at the sink, there is an old man beside me. White hair, thick glasses.
He dries his hands with paper towels and says, “You ever heard of this storyteller guy, Sean Dietrich?”
I keep my head down. “No sir. Can’t say that I have.”
“Me neither. My dang wife dragged me here tonight, I sure as heck didn’t wanna come. I ain’t never heard of this joker before, all I can say is, I hope this guy doesn’t stink.”
He tosses his paper towel into the garbage and leaves the bathroom.
He was wearing white Velcro shoes.
I sincerely hope I don’t let that old man down.