Pete McGill bought the pair of boots in Arkadelphia in 2016, using money his grandfather gave him for his 16th birthday. Pete’s grandfather, who he called Popsie, gave him money every year. He wrapped it in aluminum foil. “Men don’t use envelopes,” he always explained. That year, Popsie gave him $600. “Pete, I know it is way more than I normally give, but you’re growing up. I love you. Spend it on something that lasts.” Popsie unexpectedly grabbed Pete and hugged him for a long moment. Popsie was one of the hardest-working men Pete had ever worked alongside.
A week later, Pete drove his dad’s pickup truck back from a tiny little town south of Plano, Texas. He didn’t have a driver’s license, but his dad’s hired man got arrested down there for getting into a fight at a bar. Pete took the bus to Plano and hitchhiked over to the truck to drive it back. His dad didn’t argue much with the plan. He knew that Pete was tired of pretending to go to high school. Pete missed school Thursday to get on the bus. He never went back to school.
On the drive back, Pete realized he couldn’t drive straight through to Caddo Valley, where his dad’s place was. He stopped near Gum Springs and slept with the windows down. No one bothered him. Not that he was concerned about being disturbed. No one bothered Pete. He’d inherited his dad’s eyes.
After eating at a small diner the next morning, he drove on. Because he rarely had the chance to go to Arkadelphia, he pulled into a small strip mall. Above the sign, a large boot loomed. Pete remembered that Popsie told him to spend the money on something that would endure. A good pair of boots might last for ten years. Twenty minutes later, Pete exited the store wearing a new pair of boots. He threw his old work shoes in the bed of the pickup as he drove away, whistling.
For almost four years, Pete wore those $100 boots. Last year, his dad became ill and had to retire. He gave Pete the family business and a new cowboy hat. People who saw Pete with the boots and hat invariably commented that he resembled Paul Newman in his prime.
Despite the pandemic caging people, Pete continued running his dad’s business. The unusually rainy weeks in May kept him driving with his windows only partially open. For Pete, he was living his best life. His dad usually did the administrative work, and his grandfather Popsie sometimes rode with him to all the properties. Regardless of what else might be going on, they ended up back at the house cooking on the grill and sharing stories.
On Friday, May 22nd, Pete’s dad called him and asked him to drive to Saltillo just south of Conway and pick up a deed for some property. Truthfully, Pete looked forward to the drive. It was raining again, and at times the sky looked vengefully down on him as he drove. Even though Popsie joked about him doing so, Pete installed satellite radio in his pickup. Music kept him preoccupied. He had a beautiful singing voice, a fact that seemed to embarrass him if someone mentioned it. In this case, he sang one of his favorite Flynnville Train songs. As Pete drove, he let the small roads give him his course as he forgot about his time and place. He had GPS on his phone, something he despised using.
Indeed, he often drove an hour needlessly. By meandering, he saw a lot of people and things he never would have. Like his dad and grandfather, he couldn’t understand the need to be in a hurry, just to get to the grave worn out and anxious.
As he neared a little creek cutting its way through Conway, he felt his cellphone vibrate against his leg. Pete answered, saying, “Hold on for a second.” He pulled in alongside the native stone edge of the bridge covering the creek. Though it was Friday, there was no traffic as the rain beat down.
Pete picked up the phone again and turned off the radio. His stomach lurched, and though he didn’t know how he knew, he knew that his world was about to turn hard to the left.
“Pete. Did you pull over?” It was his dad.
“Yes. What happened! Something bad has happened, hasn’t it?” Pete rarely lost control.
“I’m so sorry, Pete, but Popsie died a few minutes ago. He was sitting under the deck out back watching the rain and he nodded off.” His dad’s voice cracked and trailed off to a whisper. It was probably the hardest thing he ever told another human being.
“I’ll be home in an hour,” Pete told his dad and hung up.
Pete sat in the truck with his head bowed for several minutes. The rain beat on the roof of the truck as the emergency flashers clicked in Pete’s ears. Pete exited the truck and walked over to the rusting red-orange metal railing rising above the native stone and serving as a guardrail. He ignored the rain drenching him.
He left his left leg and pulled at his boot until it came off. He did the same for the other boot. He turned and stared at the overfilled creek rushing beneath the mimosa. How long he stood there and immobile went unnoticed.
Pete felt the boots get heavier in his hands as he stood there, resting them on the rusting railing. They were filling with water.
Pete flung both of the boots into the roaring creek.
“Thanks, Popsie. Thanks for everything.”
Several days later, a mother out for an evening walk with one of her sons spotted one of Pete’s boots lying on the gravel of the creek bed. She idly wondered how a single boot came to rest in that spot. She took a picture of it. Something about the solitary presence of the boot spoke to her, more so than the subsiding creek or the depth of the aromas of a May evening.
She went on her way, never knowing that the boots were an offering to one of the most loved grandfathers who ever walked the earth.
For Pete – and above all, for Popsie, who bequeathed his grandson with an appreciation of the things that last and ability to distinguish between what lasts and what endures.
The mother didn’t take a picture of a boot. She took a picture of a life, disguised in the way that so many stories are.