The Old Man stood behind the Boy’s pickup truck, which idled in the gray of early morning. The two walked to the rear of the boat trailer and saw that all its lights were working, signals blinking and brake lights growing bright as each was tested in turn.

Satisfied, the Old Man moved to the boat’s starboard rail, where he rested his forearms and surveyed the contents of its floor. A bucket of scrap iron weights, a box of catalpa worms gathered the previous afternoon, assorted trotline makings, little more. The Old Man torqued the boat’s drain plug into place, rocked the fuel tank to see how far it stood from full, gave the motor’s priming bulb a gentle half squeeze.

“Ready to go?” the Boy asked.

The Old Man lit a Salem menthol and stared momentarily into space.

“Yep,” the Old Man said. “Just counting my gifts now.”

The Boy had a moment of panic. About the only birthday he could ever remember was his own. He wondered if he’d been supposed acknowledge one marked by the Old Man, who was long past expecting gifts from the the Boy. Still, he did expect general good behavior, which would include telling someone, “Happy birthday.”

“I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean,” the Boy confessed, and the Old Man smiled.

“Just feeling philosophical,” the Old Man said. “The best gifts we receive are those that come from nature. They begin to arrive in our childhood, they stay to bless us through the years. That’s what I was talking about. The quiet way the leaves sound when a breeze finally stirs in the summer, the way we can get our mind to be peaceful just by looking up into the branches while we’re walking through the trees. These are gifts of sound and sight, of sensation. Like the watching the heat monkeys wave in the afternoon over an old, sunbaked dirt road, listening to the sound from a box of catalpa worms munching on leaves, noticing the feel of the first warm sunlight of the day on your skin.

“When you hold a handful of warm earth in your summer garden, or water the plants you’ve potted out around your home, you’re shaking hands with a cycle that tolerates our help and lets us play too.”

The Old Man leaned against the truck’s front fender as the Boy reached through the driver’s open window and turned the ignition off. He could tell they weren’t headed anywhere soon.

“Think about the peace a dirt dauber knows, flying from puddle to pile, building its home and its world up from the ground,” the Old Man said as the Boy turned his head away to roll his eyes. “All we’ll ever need for ourselves lies at hand the same way, if we don’t overcomplicate it, lives waiting to be assembled from the parts all around.

“In its time, nature sometimes brings us children, even greater gifts. You hear me telling you you’ll need to learn to be responsible. When you have kids, then you’ll finally know what responsibility really means. That’s why it won’t hurt to have practiced being responsible a little bit before you get there.”

“Yes sir,” the Boy said.

“Today’s lesson is to put the drain plug in the boat before we leave the house,” the Old Man said. “That way, what happened last time won’t happen again.”

The Boy smiled.

“If we have to be responsible for one thing at a time, starting with things that small, that’s an awful lot of things to keep in mind,” the Boy said.

“Now you’re starting to get it,” the Old Man said. “Someday you’ll understand what it’s like to wish you were a dirt dauber.”

Kevin Tate is a freelance writer. Email

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