By John Thomas Tuft

“In the end, it is just you.” The old man, skin the color of a too ripe banana, eyes a bit bloodshot from the morning’s libation, whatever that might be, cackled a bit at the end of each sentence he spoke. “You certainly got the right jacket on, buddy.” Cackle. We were in the McDonald’s in Roanoke, Virginia, across the street from the Berglund Center for the performing arts and coliseum. School buses unloaded students for some sort of field trip experience as I devoured a McGriddle and Coke, breakfast of champions. The man was referring to my Pittsburgh Steelers jacket, a certain conversation starter as I journey through life. I was on my way to a doctor’s appointment, one of life’s futile indignities for as the old man said, “In the end, it is just you.”


In this day and age of coaches for all aspects of life: parenting coaches, writing coaches, marriage coaches, birth doulas, death doulas, faith coaches, clergy coaches, sex coaches, career coaches, healthy living coaches, healthy eating coaches (don’t bother with me), decluttering coaches, memoir writing coaches, throw your life in the air and see what comes down coaching– seems perfectly suited to the “don’t tell me what to do” tenor of current living. Coach me on it, but I’ll figure it out. Cackle. As I was placing my order at McDonald’s, the woman behind the cash register nodded appreciatively. “You got the best jacket. Good to see you.” Be careful, we’re everywhere! Cackle. As I finished my repast and stood to clear the table, the old man leaned in close. So close, I could feel the stubble from his shaved head scratching my cheek in a moment of peculiar intimacy. “You got to play an April Fool’s on your lady there,” he whispered, a gleam in his eyes, and yes, the cackle. A quick glance over his shoulder at my significant other. “Get in the car and tell her she forgot her pocketbook!” Cackle.


In the end, it is just you. On occasion, I get asked what do I think happens when we die. My honest answer is, “I really don’t care. Does it matter? It is called death for a reason.” Maybe not the Easter message that you might be looking for, right? I’m practicing paring my soul. Cackle. I took me and my Steelers jacket to the doctor’s appointment. She turned out to be younger than my youngest daughter, doing her internal medicine rotation with the Virginia Tech medical school next door. And not impressed with my jacket or team preference. It got me to wondering. Human beings are this amazing sack of self-containing skin with all sorts of gooey biochemical processes going on inside, that even generates its own electricity, who somehow believe that life is about self-discovery. Maybe I need a soul paring coach. Is it all about finding what I want and going for it? You might have figured out by now that I go through life asking questions. My significant other tells me she can tell when I am in ‘counselor listening mode.’ I look at her and nod as she speaks, then respond with a question. Just how I roll…


I left the doctor appointment relatively unscathed, two prescriptions already making my phone ping with notifications from the pharmacy back at home. The awful irony of these handy dandy technological devices moving information in the blink of an eye, while also feeding the spectacular rise in the aptly labeled “deaths of despair” as overdoses and suicides and gun violence reflect back to us, and everyone else, the emptiness and confusion in the mirror of our souls. Social media has exposed us in its harsh light; the good, the bad, and the ugly, in the most Southern sense of that word. Each group competes to scream the loudest: “Have you seen how they treat us?” While secretly terrified of the old man’s words, “In the end, it is just us.”


Lunch was in the bucolic town of Bedford, at The Train Station.  Just what the name says. Inside is a mixture of men in caps with names on their work shirts eating while their pickups rest in the parking lot, librarian/quilting circle types, retirees, young families with babies, two female friends where one is monopolizing the conversation with loud stories, broad gestures, eyes wide– as I try to be too polite to eavesdrop as writers are wont to do, and the requisite old codger in baggy clothes seated alone at his favorite table, eyes a bit rheumy, fingers gnarled, heart pure. His soul is pared to the core. We present ourselves to be seated and the young woman comes out from the ticket cage with two menus. She has the appropriate mixture of forced smile and practiced indifference that shouts, “I’m in my late teens to early 20s, don’t f**k with me.” Her gait is made a bit odd by the one leg being made of black titanium, strapped to her upper thigh. But she is steady and true, leading the way to our meal.


The food is a surprise, a good surprise. As I’m eating I feel a tap on my shoulder. A waitress passing by leans in to say, “I see you’re wearing the right jacket. Good to see.” Indeed, I am, and it is.  My SO rolls her eyes. “You and that jacket!” I look her in the eyes, nod, and say, “What can I say? We’re everywhere.” I tried to get her one for Christmas, but….there’s always next year. If I have a goal in the years that I have left, it is to keep learning how to pare my soul. Death is about grief. The trick is to know what it is that we grieve. And grieve…however long, however painful.


We get back to the car to go pick up the puppy from the groomer. “Hey, you forgot your pocketbook!” I exclaim. She rolls her eyes. “Just how old are you?” I smile, rub the faint brush burn on my cheek from the old man’s head. Then I cackle…


Words are magic and writers are wizards.