The Jeff City Man was walking along Elm towards Providence, just beside Peace Park, where James and I had gone to play catch. I recognized the windbreaker I’d seen on him from various encounters on campus sidewalks over the past couple of years.
He’d stop me if we were passing each other on the sidewalk—sometimes running across the street and dodging traffic if he caught my eye—and ask for change, so he could buy gas and get to Jefferson City. He tried to avoid looking at me for long, which might have been because he was a tremendously bad liar. He’d asked me for Jeff City gas money three years straight, even though Jefferson City was only a thirty minute drive from Columbia. He must have had bad luck, I’d think, and then look down at the Jeff City Man’s fairly new-looking sneakers. It didn’t occur to me that someone might be looking at me, at the racial overtones of the thing, of a poor black man asking a white college kid for some change and seeing the white kid digging deep to find some excuse not to fork over some dough, because somehow “I’m broke from student loans and beer runs, sorry” doesn’t quite elicit sympathy. So then I’d convince myself the Jeff City Man wasn’t really homeless, and I’d await my next encounter with him as I’d slink away.
But today, watching the Jeff City Man ignore us as he strode by looking for other marks, I couldn’t quite avoid that race thing again. James was nine, and black; an at-risk one-parent child assigned to me by Big Brothers Big Sisters, the idea being that I could fill the gaping hole of an absentee father and be a strong role model, helping James’ self-esteem.
I didn’t think James really needed it.
“I score forty-three points yesterday,” James said, rubbing his Michael Jordan jersey over his early-bloomer nine-year-old’s Buddha belly. He sat a few feet away, sprawled out at a small distance from me on the fluorescent-green spring grass. We came to toss around a football, but James liked walking more than running, and sitting more than walking. He hocked a loogie and sent it spiraling over towards a butterfly a few feet away.
“M-V-P, aight? Cain’t compete wit’ dat, White Boy. Put me on Sportscenter, I’m a pimp.”
The last statement echoed in my head a few times before I started laughing at it: Aym ah peeeeeeyimp, stretched out I, and then he repeated it, quieter. Positive role model aside—he’d named me “White Boy”—I’d thought it was okay to keep him in check every now and then. Allegedly—allegedly—his family called him “Tookie,” a nickname that made me nervous, I didn’t know what it meant. He had six girlfriends, could skateboard better than Tony Hawk, and possessed a preternatural NBA-like ability to play ball. A forty-three point game against the peewee league was modest by his ninety-point-per-game scoring average, though I must admit, forty-three was still pretty baller. Not bad for a four-eleven and a hundred-thirty pound point guard with a Buddha belly.
“Hey! That’s Uncle Charlie!”
James pointed. I turned my head to see that to my horror he was directing his finger towards the Jeff City Man, moving along the near sidewalk in uneven strides. He had a new black-and-green windbreaker.
“Uncle Charlie! Uncle Charlie! Yo, over here!” James climbed to his feet sideways, swiveling around his jiggling gut to do it, and started waving wildly as I tried to shush him. “It’s me! It’s Tookie!”
The Jeff City Man didn’t turn to look at us, and James started to run towards him. Seeing images of my name in headlines (“White Boy charged with negligence in brutal murder of future NBA lottery pick”) I was on my feet in an instant and had tackled James from behind, dragging him down to the grass as he’d kept pedaling towards the Jeff City Man.
“What the hell you doin’, White Boy? Lemme go!”
I pinned him down until the Jeff City Man was gone, loping somewhere north along Providence. James groaned and rolled over onto his back, but not before delivering a sharp slug to my ribs. I allowed it. I was more worried about the fifty-three more grey hairs I’d count in the mirror next morning.
James, breathless, explained that Uncle Charlie used to be a circus clown after leaving the army, where he had been awarded “the medal of something something, I saw it, it was purple”; and that as a clown, Charlie knew people—like Bill Clinton, and Tupac.
“Uncle Charlie breathe fire, man. I seen it. He legit.”
Rubbing the sore spot in my side, staring up at the cumulus clouds that we’d start to name after celebrities, I’d filed James’ information away with the story of the time he’d been on the spaceship, and how Harvard had called him with a special invitation to skip the rest of grade school and join in their studies.
His mother called me that night to tell me never to physically touch her son again.
I hadn’t done Big Brothers/Big Sisters in a year, parting ways with James at the end of that Spring. It was pretty apparent that there wasn’t a connection, and I didn’t know how I could be any use to him outside of paying for his ice cream so his mother didn’t have to. He’d lived in the basement of a shanty along Garth, the street running through the worst neighborhood in town, and to pick him up I had to climb over a sofa and stacks of empty sneaker boxes to climb the stairs down to his door.
I never even got to say a proper goodbye to him, and his mother later called me to tell me that James cried, though I didn’t know why he would. Still, I’d never felt so guilty in my life.
And for a while, that was that.
I was drunk when I saw the Jeff City Man again. Very drunk. One of my friends was leaving town for good; it hit me a little harder than I thought it would, and so I hit the sauce accordingly. It was a warm April night, after midnight, and I was sitting on my ass on the sidewalk waiting for a ride outside a gas station downtown when he walked up, like and apparition emerging out of the dark.
“Got a dollar?”
I looked up into his indifferent eyes. He was still wearing the black-and-green windbreaker, unzipped. A beer belly poked through the bottom of his faded black t-shirt.
“C’mon man,” he said. His voice was gruff.
I gave him three dollars.
He disappeared inside and I felt sick to my stomach. I’d drank far too much. In what seemed like only a moment, he was back outside, a brown bag in hand. The Jeff City Man came and sat next to me. I could hear his joints popping. He smelled like breath mints. He pulled out a bottle of Everclear, from a brand I had never heard of. He offered me a pull.
“Ugh,” I said. “Ugh, man. You’re not supposed to drink that straight.”
He shrugged boyishly and took a tiny swig.
“Yo,” he said. “I want to show you something.”
He took another pull from the bottle, but this time didn’t swallow. He’d pulled a book of matches from his pocket without my noticing; lighting one, he put the brilliant flame to his waiting lips.