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Thursday, September 20, 2007

It's when the autumn cool comes on that I most think of ol' J. Flood. When the bricklegrass waves in the gentle breeze and the harvest chuckweeds blush in the wine-red sunrays of dusk... when the lowing cattle graze on their meager patches of gray moss and tallowfinch gather ominously on the cairns of buck-bark that I miss ol' J. Flood the most. When the spragbirch jestles through a haze of mizzennmist... that's when.

We had walked together along the early days of youth, parting for no real reason in the less early days of later youth, me and him. Never let on his first name, J. didn't. Just did what he did - what we did- carousing, hitting the golf course time to time and running our little capers. Guess I took him for granted. When I took a bride and moved along, I never figured I'd see ol' J. Flood again, but things got tough later on and I had to make a decision nobody should ever have to make and shrugged off into a silent life of lonesome forbearance. I grew a hide of thorns in those weary years, and eventually, when I was close to packing it all in, he came back into my world.

By then we were both a lot older; I was a past-my-prime steeplejack and he was a spent stevedore, whatever those things are, and we met again in a Clark County bar. I was pushing a broom and pulling a big bar tab by then. And by then, he was played by Morgan Freeman. He smiled that smile of his and simply said "hey, Sport." "Well, well, if it ain't J. Flood!" Maybe we said these things or maybe we just sensed them. Joy, yes, but I didn't let on. Not my style. Drinks were poured. We said little... we didn't have to say things.

We reluctantly - suspiciously, even - went into business together as skin-runners and burlsmiths and shared a modest house on the outskirts. I went about my tasks with a chip on my shoulder and a grim aspect to my doings. I drank a bit and so did ol' J. Flood. He'd sit and whittle most days, always did what was needed without your having to ask and dispensed the sort of stone-silent wisdom you don't quite appreciate until you do, and then, whoah.

Nothing much changed but our ages for many a year, until one day when that kid rolled into town, all eager and needy. Scared and trusting. Trust? Bah... I was a hard sell, but I was a kid once too, I guess. Still, all I needed was a green kid making things complicated. Sure, we took her in, at J. Flood's insistence. Slowly, as I reluctantly taught her a few tricks of the trade, she began to draw my frozen heart toward the warmth of acceptance. I fought it like grim death, but she just kept coming at me, all fresh and guileless. J. Flood sat beside me one particularly fraught but significant afternoon I won't describe because that's not like me at all. "She might just teach you something, you scruffy old bird" he said.

He was a man of few words, ol' J. Flood; one time I tried to take an accounting of all the words I'd ever heard him actually speak. Came up with no more than 35 or so, not counting the common pronouns, prepositions and a conjunction or two. But he used the right words, every time. Said more with a weak grin or a phlegmy grunt than most monologists say in a year of speeches, but that didn't mean ol' J. Flood didn't have the words... by god ol' J. Flood knew. He just KNEW.

I remember that winter when I had to cut his legs off from the gout - he'd never let me take him to a hospital, that disagreeable cuss of a man - I needed something with which to prop up his shins for the surgery. In obvious pain, he rasped: "the box" ...he had this old box... I opened it up and there was Shakespeare's complete works, Marcel Proust in the original, Gravity's Rainbow and the plays of Chekov. A few David Halberstam books and a Philip K Dick paperback. A dog eared copy of Hoyle and a surprising collection of Maxim magazines. A lightly-read book of Mormon and a coverless anthology of symbolist poems with copious, penciled marginalia.

As I pulled the stack out and looked at him with a squint that said "Why ol' J. Flood, you never let on that..." he interrupted my laden squint with an abrupt "Never mind that, goddammit; get to work. And pass that bottle... this might just smart some." Then he just grinned that tough, sweet grin of his. Struck me it was probably the most words he ever said all strung together at one stretch, to me, anyway. I just grimaced at him in a way that was more a loving smile than a grimace, if you knew me the way ol' J. Flood knew me, put his legs up on the books and started hacking away with the same saw he often used to play those haunting tunes of his. Blood everywhere. Yuck. He never even groaned... just reassured me, wordlessly, that this needed doin'. Hack, hack. Off they came. Thud. Thud.

But, that saw! That music!

I remember now the night I stood out in front of the house, smoking one of those cigarettes ol' J used to scowl at me for sticking to. The reprimanding scowl that said "them things'll kill you" every time I'd reach for the pack with a guilt I tried to hide with a gruff look of "back off, ol' J. Flood." I stood, puffing, in the moonlight wondering what to do about that fool kid who had come into our lives and managed to make me care again, damn her. Ol' J. Flood's musical saw commenced to wailing some old sentimental ballad... the kind only he knew made my heart melt under the crusty "screw it all" exterior I'd learned to present to the world for so many years.

All those years after I made a choice I knew I had to make but was all that much harder to make for all the reasons I and only I knew. Nobody understood it, but I think Ol' J. Flood did. And after about the most beautiful 20 minutes of eerie saw music you could imagine, with a pile of butts about 2 inches deep gathering at my feet, I understood what he was telling me. And I made the decision I knew - and he knew - had to be made. And it was a tough one, but I made it.

I'm still not sure the kid ever really knew why I did it, but maybe I had a bill to pay... a longtime debt that had come due... maybe I was dunned by the holy accountant of setting-things-right, and that eloquent saw music was crying "please remit, you ornery bastard." When I finally did what I had decided to do, the kid cried and said "no... you don't have to do this!" But I would not be dissuaded, and as she headed off on the bus, those coffee saucer eyes welling with tears of gratitude, staring out at me from the window, I could practically feel ol' J. Flood nod with approval from his sick bed on the third floor.

By the time I rejoined him, full of unspoken sorrows just like the ones I never spoke all those years ago when I said a different goodbye to a different kid for reasons unlike but somehow identical to the ones I kept to myself this night (although the sorrows this time held a kind of joy for the sad satisfaction of a long-deferred payment finally rendered in full), he just pulled out that little bottle without a word. That little bottle he always pulled out wordlessly when he knew - even better than I myself could admit - there was nothing more to say... nothing more to do but take a tug or two off that little bottle and sort of half-grin at one another and sigh.

That's when he'd always brighten and say "So... Gary Player... THAT was a golfer." There was a time it would rile me, reminding me as it did of our younger days, haunting the links and arguing about the great duffers. By now it felt like a kind of prayer. "Yeah..." I whispered after a minute or two, my gaze fixed on his tender, knowing eyes "...the man in black." Ol' J. smiled. Eventually he just said "Yeah." He paused again and drew a sip from that little bottle. About 5 minutes passed until he added: "The maaaaan. Heh heh." I looked back at him, through a mist of knowing almost-tears and smiled as well. I waited a good long time and replied "Yeah. The man. Gary Player." Ol' J. let burst a fanfare of laughter. "Ha ha - pass that little bottle back, you goddamn liar!" And I did, as I always did, and watched him screw the top back on the bottle before tucking it under his pillow. "For next time." Yeah. Like always... for next time.

But there wouldn't be a next time. Ol' J. Flood would be dead by morning. For hours he coughed and twitched, with a roiling fever that damn near steam-cleaned those rank, ragged bedclothes he'd never let me launder, the stubborn old mule. I kept insisting on calling a doctor, but he just spat. Big wads, every time. It was disgusting and got truly old by the 9th or 10th time. Fucking dick. Before he died he whispered "she's in Topeka by now." I allowed as how, yes, she likely was, according to the schedule, if you could trust it.

"Never could trust much, eh, you old son of a bitch?" Guess not.

But I knew then and there that I trusted ol' J. Flood. And I knew he knew I did. And I also knew I was losing my trusted friend. And I hoped he knew I had finally grasped that fact, but I said nothing further about it and just reached for a cigarette.

"She'll find that brown bag soon, since she's probably ready for a nibble... a little nosh after the long bus ride. Hope she knows what to do with what's in it, alongside that sandwich. You know, Sport..." and stopped short. His loving, wounded eyes rolled back in his head and ol' J. Flood let out a gasp.

"Man that's probably got your last record beat for most words all strung together at once" I thought to myself. Then he said (aloud) "You know what the J. in J. Flood stands for?" I tried to hide my eagerness at learning the answer to a question I'd often pondered on. A few minutes passed. "Nope. What?" "JOHNSTOWN!" he roared with that familiar cannonade of laughter. I was unconvinced. "Get the hell out of..." but before I could finish the sentence, my friend J. Flood was gone.

He'd gotten the hell out of here, all right. Just like that kid, and all those dreams so many years before, dreams I'd never know how much I missed had it not been for the kid. And ol' J. Flood. And his musical saw. And that little bottle. And the bus. But mostly, ol' J. Flood.

"Johnstown? What was that, some kind of joke?" This time I said it right out loud, but nobody heard me but the dog, who just rolled over and let with a fart that seemed to say "woof."

When we buried ol' J. Flood down by the sump he used to love to crawl out and gaze upon, nobody was there but that dog, the parson and me. I headed home after and looked in the mailbox. A letter from the kid. I went in, sat down on ol' J's lumpy bed and reached under the pillow for that little bottle as I began to read the letter. "Tell old J. Flood that I found the money he tucked in that lunch bag..." she wrote "...the money he was saving for that operation so he could see again..."

He had money? He was blind? He was gonna go to a doctor? Who knew?

"...I used it to make a new start, like he said..."
Like he said? Why, the man never said jack shit! Awful verbose with the kid all of a sudden, eh, "Johnstown?"
I took a swig. We sure got our money's worth out of that little bottle... still half-full. Christ!

I gazed out through the cracked, dingy window near the bed. The window from which J. Flood would so often gaze, looking sagely down upon me as I smoked smokes and thought swearwords so many angry, unspoken-guilt-ridden nights before the kid came and changed everything. I'd look up and see him there, nodding as if to say "I know what you're thinking you crabby old ball-buster." Waving that little bottle like I was porpoise and it was a fish. A taciturn porpoise and a little, booze-filled fish.

Yes, I gazed out the window and watched the ridge rabbits gambol through the mounds of broken crockery littering the bozum-wheat that grew wild around the perimeter of our squalid abode. That sweet dump we'd have called home had we ever dared to call it anything other than "this shit-hole."

Yes, it was fall, and the Great Krakes were winging south even as late blooming sereroses timidly poked their tawny budlets above the scrubturf. I listened to the "p'kaw! p'kaw!" of the greesenbeasts as they lumbered about the bristling kruckstalks. And I thought about someone I knew long ago, and that damn kid who transformed me in ways I wouldn't say with words even if I knew what they were (ways or words... either way), but Ol' J. Flood knew. And I thought of him and his strength... his wisdom... his quiet knowing. I thought of J. Flood. But I told you that already. I'll shut up now... There's something I've got to go and do. Something important. I don't know what.