By William Carter
He was eating Cheetos and watching me with an intensity that was borderline disturbing. The tangle of beard that ended mid-chest on him and began just beneath his eyes was dusted fluorescent orange and sported a braid or two. At the end of each braid was a colored bead that danced and bobbled every time he chewed; something he was doing with amazing speed, his mouth wide open, as if his Cheetos were going to be snatched away before he could finish.
“Hey! Hey!” he calls out to me. “Why you goin’ so fast? Slow down; slow down … woooo … slow down!” He sings the last part.
I ignore him.
He tilts his head back and upends the bag, spilling a stream of Cheetos into his mouth, then begins to talk aloud to himself about how crazy I was to be planting shrubbery in the thick, oppressive heat. “That boy plantin’ like the world’s gonna end if he don’t finish! Woooo! Slow down … slow down … slooow dooown!”
I glare at him. My cap and t-shirt are soaked and sweat stings my eyes and my hands are caked with dirt. “I’ve got to get this finished!” I snap.
He grins and nods at me. “That’s right…that’s right,” he says. “But slow down, boy. Slow down.”
There’s plenty of empty space beside him and he gestures me over, offering me a spot on the bench as if he owns it and is doing me a favor. I decide to take a break and go sit on the other end of the bench. We’re shaded by the giant oak in front of the old Court House and its 15 or 15 degrees cooler there and it feels good to just sit. He nods once – kind of regally – as if accepting my surrender.
There‘s a faded, red ball cap crammed down on his head and his hair and beard frame his face in a halo of gray. The khaki slacks he wears are worn through in places and are probably older than I am and his t-shirt advertises “Slick 50” motor oil. His lace-up boots are fairly new, though, and written with black Magic Marker on the toe of the left one is: JOHN 3:16. On the toe of the right boot he’d written JESUS. Propped beside him is a broom stick sheathed in black electrical tape; between his feet is a backpack, the kind a kid would take to school.
He offers me the bag of Cheetos.
“No thanks. I just ate,” I lie.
In the next 10 minutes I find out he’d been walking most of his life and had traveled the night before from Nashville and was headed for the Natchez Trace. He was on his way to Mississippi to see if his Mama was still alive. He hadn’t seen her since he left to join the Army more than 40 years ago. If his Mama wasn’t still alive, he told me, maybe his baby sister was and he hoped she’d be glad to see him and let him stay awhile. Then he was going to walk to the Grand Canyon just because he’d never seen it and he’d heard it was pretty big and after that he was going to walk to the ocean but he didn’t know which one yet. He thinks he may have stopped to rest on the Square a long time ago but couldn’t really recall.
“I think I remember this oak tree,” he says.
I give him a bottle of Gatorade and an apple from my truck and he puts them in his back-pack.
“I hope you get to see your Mama,” I tell him.
He heads down West Main, Mississippi-bound with his Mama on his mind and preceded by Jesus with every right step he takes.
I go back to work.
Only a little slower this time.
Posted on: 6/28/2013