I didn’t want to listen to him.
We had just got there.
Early-risers from an hour and a half away, Bianca and I rolled lazily on the flea market lawn a little after it opened. 9:17am. It was a springy Texas February—brisk blue and sunny.
“Where should we start?” Bianca asked as we approached the field of tin barns and sheds, coughing up uneven tables piled with treasures and junk. Life—light blue-green rows of cacti caught my eye among the shades of rust.
Cacti of every size in terracotta pots. Just out on tables and content there, not needing us to take them home really. You wondered how some of them could actually be living. Odd-balled prickly plants. Dusted and dry. Rough and weathered desert things.
They looked like their owner, Allen.
We learned he was 81. His baseball cap just as old, white hair feathered out the sides. He smiled with leather wrinkles. You could tell he was lean and strong still underneath his two jackets and jeans, how they hung off him in places. His hands were cushioned in sturdy gloves, not for warmth, but safety from his sharp labors of love. He welcomed us loudly, insisting one of his stubborn plants would look real good in our apartment.
Bianca pointed at the tiny, white house-shack just behind him. A neon sign in the front window glowed, ‘CIGARS’ above a rocking chair layered with brown old things. The floorboards adjusted to us noisily, sneezing dust in the shadows. Someone must’ve forgotten to clean in here twenty years ago, I thought.
His cigar collection was small. I’m not even sure they were humidified. The boxes sat opened, many empty, in a glass display case that was probably left cracked open on the other side. If it was anything like the rest of the shed, I doubt there was a rhyme or reason for the order of the cigar boxes. The open door behind us blew in refrigerator air.
He was deaf in one ear and let Bianca know by shouting and pointing to it when she asked about the cigars. He rambled loudly how low the stock was, and then, like old men do who don’t worry about time, he told us about himself like we had asked.
We didn’t ask and I was impatient. It was our first stop of the morning and somehow I got trapped in a little cigar box. I forgot how chatty flea market vendors are and standing there we both mentally noted to walk faster through the next one. I crossed my arms from the breeze and bracing for boredom.
He told us about his morning routine. Wake up at 5:30am. Sit on the porch. Drink coffee. Smoke a cigar.
I liked him a little more.
In 2018, or it might’ve been 2017, he told us after his morning routine he would work around the house. Yard work. Clean. Care for the cacti. Except he got tired. The cacti and yard work were too much so he had to take breaks. Get up do it again. Take a break. It sounded concerning.
At his next check up the nurses found out his heart was beating at 24 beats a minute. He explained to us it should be 70 beats. My heart was old, he said, it was wearing out.
Weeks later they sent him to a cardiologist. One who was at a really good clinic in San Antonio. His name Allen pronounced like royalty. Every corner of every syllable was smoothed over. Should we have heard of him? He could’ve been a celebrity. A king.
“FerNANdo M ConTRERas-ValdES.”
After the EKG, the nurse held feet-long paper printed out between his heartbeats. In a flurry she force him to sit down immediately. Don’t move, she ordered. The doctor will be here in 15 minutes. In five minutes Dr. Fernando M Contreras-Valdes opened the door. He steadied Allen in a wheelchair.
Fernando M Contreras-Valdes was kind. Professional and polite. As Allen repeated what the doctor told him, I wondered watching the glimmer in his eyes and smile at the corner of his mouth, how many times he’s told this story.
“Sir, your heart is going to fail. I am going to put this pacemaker on your heart and you are going to feel like you are 25 years old.” They rolled him off and in 25 minutes the surgery was done. Allen had a new heart.
The cacti are content. The yard work gets completed. His can live again. Every so often he goes to the hospital to check if he needs a new battery. This November he gets a new one, he told us, tapping his chest.
I had never heard of such a thing. Neither had Bianca. We stood there wide-eyed at the story and made small talk comments I can’t remember. Bianca motioned to the crinkly plastic-wrapped cigar she’d been holding in her hand the while she listened.
He took cash only and didn’t put it in the cash register; he bent down to show us where he hid the heavy, green zippered bag behind the counter. Like with time, he didn’t seem worried about money either.
He walked us five steps to the porch, all of us silent in preparation to say goodbye easier.
Bianca asked his name.
“Allen Duncan,” he said with the right amount of pride and straighter shoulders. He said it with power standing on that rickety porch step. His name mattered and for half a second I thought we maybe should have known who he was too. Us girls told him our singular feminine first names with a handshake. We thanked each other and walked away with a cigar, less time, and a story I kept thinking about.
“Y’all come back now.” He held an arm out. My heart ached not being able to answer honestly yes.
When I got home, I flipped open my laptop and to write about Allen Duncan. I couldn’t figure out why this cactus man mattered to me. Why his story felt so special. This 80 year old man with a 25 year old heart.
It’s the gospel. He told me the gospel.
I’ve heard it before—on Vacation Bible School blankets, in youth group vans, and from my AirPods at the end of every church podcast—Jesus died for me so I could live. Like I said, I don’t always like to listen.
I hadn’t heard Allen’s gospel though. A man who actually got a new heart—one even younger than my own. I don’t know if he knows God, but I heard Jesus’s accent in his story. That familiar cadence of rescue, even when you don’t know your heart is barely beating.
If Dr. Fernando M Contreras-Valdes can give Allen a new heart, The Lord God Almighty can give you a new heart too.
If it wasn’t too late for him, it’s not too late for you.
I’m sitting here realizing I am the rough, prickly one. God help me, I have cactus heart. I don’t want to waste my time talking to strangers at flea markets. I don’t want to be moved. Or change my terracotta-potted life. I am stubborn and I don’t listen.
But God is not scared of my sharpness. He leans in close to tell me his love story, over and over, even when I’m not paying attention. Every once in a while I hear it, this time from an 80 year old named Allen.
I probably need a check up like he did. And this time I should really listen to the doctor.
He only needs is a couple minutes to change your heart.