"What the hell are you doing?"
The voice comes from a man in a white wooden rocking chair, drinking gin from a clear plastic cup. I tell him I'm looking for Pop. He softens, tells me to sit down, then tells me many other things in a glorious baritone, boasting about two eightysomething men he knows who could pass for 49, reminiscing about his days as an airborne pathfinder in Vietnam. But about Pop. "When he comes by here, he's walking fast," the veteran says. "He can be nice or he can be mean."
The veteran knows a woman named BayBay who used to be Pop's landlady. Matter of fact, he has her number. He calls her from his white wooden rocking chair, and she meets me the next afternoon on her own porch in her own white wooden rocking chair, and then we get in her car and drive a couple of blocks to Pop's house, where a picnic table sits in the yard beneath a sheltering oak.
BayBay is the sort of middle-aged woman who commands fear and respect. She tells a man outside the house to go in and get Pop. The man returns a moment later to say Pop won't come out. BayBay finds this unacceptable: "Did you tell him Miss BayBay wants him?"
The man goes back in the house, which used to be white before time and weather scoured away the paint. Aluminum cans are piled under a dogwood tree by the sagging picket fence. There is no front door besides the screen door, which offers a view straight through the house to the cars traversing the bridge above the Cape Fear River. A handwritten cardboard sign by the door says:
Pop Herring steps into the sunlight. He is 59 years old, but he could pass for 70. He is tall and gaunt, with deep wrinkles along his brow and a patchy white beard on his sallow cheeks. His clothes are ragged. Miss BayBay introduces us. I offer a hand to shake, but he bends his arm to the left and gives me a gentle tap with the side of his hand. "He's not a gentleman yet," Pop tells Miss BayBay, and when I lean against a telephone pole he warns me to move, as if I might push it over. Despite all this he has a warmth about him, a jovial spirit, and he tells me to come back tomorrow with my car so we can ride around town.