It’s been a long time since I’ve seen the rusty blue tractor. I remember how we’d hear its roaring engine well before we’d see it. Bobby rarely rode the tractor over to our place because all he had to do was jump the fence and he was in our backyard. Most of the time, when he was on his tractor, he’d be coming over to tell us something about our chickens or our goats that was of great importance; like the time he came on his tractor to deliver the news that he saw a raccoon run off with our prized chicken (who was like a pet to us).
Bobby was the kind of person that you could always trust. If Bobby said something, you knew it was true. He often came over to our place to talk about the right way to raise chickens. His dream was to one day own a chicken farm himself. I never saw Bobby wearing anything but his overalls and a white tee shirt which stood in stark contrast to his coal black skin. The top of Bobby’s shoe was cut off because he had lost two toes (I never found out how) and he swore that he was able to walk better with the shoe cut off where his toes should have been. I don’t know how old Bobby was - nobody did. He was one of those people who just seemed to be ageless. He could have been 60 or 90; it was impossible to tell. His skin was the texture of leather and his brown eyes shone with age-old wisdom.
I can picture him right now sitting on our front porch, leaning back in the rocking chair while he rolled a cigarette between leather fingers. You always knew that Bobby was getting ready to tell a story when he started rolling one of his cigarettes.
“I’s gonna have me a chicken farm one day down in Mississippi, yessiree. It’s gonna be real big; at least a hundred acres with chickens as far as you can see and them big ol’ roosters just a crowing...”
I knew that, as his eyes misted, he was on his beloved farm tending his chickens. His faraway look told me that he had left our farm and I’d have to wait a bit for him to return.
“Yessiree,” he’d say as he drifted back to his rocking chair, “it won’t be long now ‘fore I’s tending them chickens.”
I still hear his words in my head from time to time when I’m feeding my chickens. Sometimes, I feel as if Bobby is standing right next to me...”Them chickens are looking mighty fine miss Betty. Nice and fat - just the way you’s want them. Nows don’t you forget they’s need laying mash! You got enough laying mash? I’s bring you some tomorrow.”
Bobby always looked as though he was ready to collapse from some intolerable weight. His shoulders were in a permanent slump giving the appearance that his overalls had become unbearable and one could imagine that a strong wind would topple him. I knew this wasn’t true, though, as I had witnessed Bobby’s amazing strength when he came over to help with the tractor and, in less than a minute, loosened a bolt that I had been trying to free for an hour.
One day Bobby came over and I noticed that he looked thinner; which is a dreadful thing. His lackluster eyes told me something was terribly wrong.
“You feeling okay, Bobby?” I asked as I got us two beers out of the fridge.
“I’s got the cancer.” He said as he hung his head. “Doctor says I’s gotta get some kind of treatment and I’s got to go away to some place to get it.”
His words hit me like a brick. Bobby was a fixture in our lives. I never thought the day would come when he wasn’t right there beside me telling me how to raise my chickens or birth my goats. This couldn’t be happening.
“Where do you have to go, Bobby? What kind of cancer?”
“I’s gotta go away. I don’t know where. Debby’s taken’ me.” He said as he pointed to the farm next door where Bobby had been the caretaker for at least twenty years.
Debby was one of the owners of the farm. She managed the horse barns and depended on Bobby to keep the pasture mowed and the arenas raked. I often watched Bobby on his rusty blue tractor as he circled the arena in a cloud of dust. He worked from sunup to sundown. In the nine years that we lived on our farm, I don’t think a day went by that I didn’t see him on his tractor.
“This can’t be,” my mind was screaming as I looked at Bobby with his head hanging low twisting his ball cap in his hands.
“Do you know what kind of cancer?” I asked again.
“Nosiree,” he said through his tears, “I’s just gotta go away from here and I don’t want to, Miss Betty. They’s making me leave!”
I knew then that it wasn’t the cancer that was going to kill Bobby; it was the fact that he’d have to leave his beloved tractor, his flourishing garden, our front porch and, of course, our chickens and goats.
I felt his pain as if it was my own. My heart was breaking for my friend. I didn’t know what to say to him, so I said nothing. I just opened the beers, handed one to Bobby and we sat in silence; each of us lost in our private thoughts.
“When?” I finally asked.
“Tomorrow,” he moaned, “I’s leaving tomorrow.”
I never saw Bobby after that day. He left to get “treatments” and he died within a month. I often wonder how long he would have lived had he just stayed on the farm where he belonged.
Today, as I heard the rusty blue tractor coming down the road, my heart skipped a beat. I was wishing with all my might that I’d see Bobby in the driver’s seat. I waited by my driveway to see who was driving Bobby’s steel steed. A young black man in blue overalls sat behind the wheel and, for a moment, I imagined that he was a young Bobby.
He stopped by my driveway and I asked him if this was Bobby’s tractor (even though I knew it was).
“Yes, mam,” he said, “I’m looking for the entrance to the grove.”
The entrance to the orange grove behind our house had become overgrown since Bobby died. I pointed it out to the young man and he continued down the road on the tractor. As I watched him go, I swear he transformed into Bobby. Then I heard Bobby’s words as clear as a bell:
“I’s gonna have me a chicken farm someday...it’s gonna be real big...chickens as far as you can see...and them roosters just a crowing...It won’t be long now ‘fore I’s tending them chickens.”
As the tractor faded into the distance, I realized that the baton had been passed and l smiled into the heavens. Bobby had finally made it to his hundred acre farm and, I knew in my heart, he was happily tending his chickens.