Jim Kelly

What is it about certain men? How you don’t forget things they say. Things they do. Like Mr. Brown from my growing up. He was a handyman in a small town in northern Michigan. Did odd jobs for my Grandpa. Opened the cottage up in the spring. Got the pump running so we’d have water. Put the docks in. Painted the rowboat. Made sure we had plenty of split cord wood for fires on cold nights. He never looked at us. Never spoke to us. Like for him kids didn’t exist. Just things to ignore, step around.

He had a long, yellow gray face, wore the same sun bleached ball cap every summer and he didn't smile. Each time he lit a cigarette, and he smoked them one after another, he did the same thing. Closed his eyes and took a long pull. Pull that collapsed his cheeks and set off a whistling, tin foil crackle deep in his chest. Then, eyes still watery shut, he’d snap his mouth open and hold it that way, not breathing. Smoke drifted or hung in place until he’d cough. Cough and spit in rattly little bursts.

“Shot him” he said. I was by myself that morning making sandcastles with a red plastic bucket on our little bit of sandy beach. Mr. Brown and his helper were laying out and nailing together new sections for our dock. “Fuck was that nigger thinking, fishing in our lake? Tell you one thing, won’t nobody ever find the body.” Did they laugh then, he and his helper, that thick bodied teenager with sun burnt face and arms? I can’t remember. What I do remember is how the helper was always stopping what he was doing to run a hand back and forth across his bristly, flattop haircut and say “Goddam it’s hot, I could really use a cold beer about now.”

After my grandparents died and the cottage got sold I never saw Mr. Brown again. Uncle Leo told us, years later, that his helper had married right out of high school, worked driving truck for the local gravel pit, had seven or eight kids, one right after the other, then died young of some quick cancer. I heard what the man said. But, all these years later, can I say that he really shot somebody? Killed a stranger for being black, black and not from around there? Maybe he was just making it all up. Telling a story. Sad sack old guy trying to impress a big strong teenager. Kid who could work circles around him. Make the kid think better of him.

Palace Quality. Laundry delivery man. Picked up one load, delivered another all bundled in brown, paper wrapped packages once a week. “Palace Quality, Palace Quality” he’d shout, letting himself in by our kitchen door. If I answered he’d ask for my Mom. If she answered he’d stand there with his arms crossed, leaning against the counter like he had all day, winking and talking, laughing loud. He wore a blue uniform and said things to me, if I was outside when he was leaving, like he was letting me in on a big secret.

One time he walked right into our kitchen shouting “Palace Quality” like usual when my Aunt Alice stopped him cold. Told him to quiet down, put down the laundry and leave. My Mom was sick and Alice was there taking care of her. “That Aunt of yours” he said, leaning in close “is a fat pig. Is ten pounds of shit in a five pound bag. Your Mom though, she’s just my type. Exactly what Palace Quality likes. Big in all the right places. Nice personality too. Enjoys a joke. I’d do her in a heartbeat.”

“Dumb bitch” Mr. Johnson shouted. If he was sober he meant Princess, the dog he bought to breed bird dogs for extra cash. If he was drunk he meant his wife. They were next door neighbors, the Johnson’s. He and my Dad used to get drunk and holler. Tell fight stories. Crack each other up. One time we were by for a cookout. It was dark, late and the coals weren’t started in the grill. His kids kept asking him when we were going to eat dinner. “When I’m good and goddamn ready to cook it” he shouted.

He walked into their living room looking back, talking over his shoulder. Princess was asleep on the floor. He hadn’t seen her, there were no lights on and he was moving fast for the kitchen to get more whiskey. He tripped and fell on his face. “Dumb bitch” he shouted, picking her up and throwing her hard against the wall. She hit dropped and lay still. Later that night my Dad helped him bury her by a stunted apple tree off at the far end of their weedy little back yard.

Certain men. You don’t forget the things they say. The things they do.


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