A Maryland Man
Old Jim shuffled slow whenever he walked. The gent played one mean harp, too. He broke it out often, and a scuffed black-shoed foot would start tapping out a steady beat while he “marked a train”, as he called it. You could close your eyes and almost taste the thing wailing somewhere off in the distance. He could mock the sounds well.
Mom Bell graciously had allowed my bride and our new-born a bedroom for free while we waited for our name to move up the long housing list. Situated in the outlying suburbs of Washington, D.C., the spacious ranch in the forest offered plenty of space for us all. Jim had his own private quarters in a smaller house out back where I’d sit and feed logs into his wood stove while he played me a song.
He had came to live with her and her husband as a young boy, she said. They found him wandering the streets one day, dazed and bleeding from a bad head injury. Mom Bell dressed his wounds while her husband sought out his kin. She explained to us that none were ever found, so they took to looking after him as an unofficial adopted child. Recently widowed, she still took care of old Jim.
Uneducated as he was, he helped her around the house with light chores in exchange for room and board. It was a fair deal. He didn’t seem to mind the situation, nor did the odd relationship seem all that unusual to us, after awhile. The old fellow simply needed her.
The first time he met our infant, he approached the boy with both caution and wonder. After tickling his tiny chin once, he looked up at us with a set of watery eyes and declared,
“Looks jus’ like a little human, don’t he.”
Jim lived in his own world. Mom told us she had caught him far from the house one day, walking down the side of the road. She pulled over and opened the passenger door to yell at him.
“Jim! What are you doing out here?”
“I’m going in to see Franklin, Miz Bell.” And he smiled toothlessly at the woman.
“Jim, get in the car right this minute.”
He got in and they drove back home.
“How do you know where Franklin lives anyway, Jim?”
Mom already knew that Franklin lived twenty-five miles away, in downtown D.C.
“Oh, he got him a blue Buick parked out front his place, Miz Bell. I’d knows it anywhere.”
Mom Bell stayed busy helping poor folk. She rose early, and if she wasn’t showing me how to re-upholster an old couch to donate, she was off on another of a thousand errands. She always left with a cheery reminder for Jim.
“Don’t forget to water my flowers.”
While my wife prepared a bottle on the stove, Jim dragged his feet around the house, carrying a watering pitcher and grumbling to himself.
“Water dem flowers. Water dem flowers. Das all I got time to do is water dat lady's damn flowers.”
He held serious conversations with everything around him, including objects. I passed through the kitchen just as he dropped a fork while he did dishes.
“Show! You jus jump right out my hand like you supposed to. I won‘t argue with dat.”
I don’t think he ever saw me, either coming or going.
Jim would answer the phone if no one else was around. Mom walked in the kitchen with an arm full of groceries and found a note laying on her counter. The wife and I had gotten home just prior. She sat her bags down while I stirred sugar into a fresh cup of coffee, and then she picked up the note and studied it. She had a quizzical look on her face when Jim came in the back door. Mom Bell waved the note at him.
“Jim. What is this?”
“Oh, some lady, she calls for you.” He went to the sink to fill a glass with water.
She placed the note on the table next to my cup of coffee, and then went to stocking cabinets. But she grinned at me.
“Who was she, Jim?”
“I doan recall jess who she was, Miz Bell. Thas why I took and wrote it down, for you.”
She picked the slip of paper back up. On it were several squiggly lines, like waves.
“Well, what does it say, Jim?”
Old Jim acted insulted at her question as he carefully rinsed his glass.
“Don if I knows. I doan read no writin’.”
We finally got our phone call. Our new apartment awaited us. A week later, I had a friend drive me back to Mom’s house to help load a couch.
The two of us arrived at dark. No car in the driveway. I had Paul back his truck in, and then he and I went around to the rear of the house. I never mentioned Jim, figuring he was asleep anyway. And I knew Mom wouldn’t mind if I let us in through her unlocked basement door.
After pushing the door open, I switched on the lights. We got halfway across the room when a lone figure on my couch raised up from under a blanket . Paul nearly had a stroke.
Later, on the way home, my still-astonished pal told me,
“I just never expected to see a Negro living in her basement.”