I'll be upfront with you, I'm not sure if J and D are the real initials to his real name, if JD is even the nickname we called him. I may have the letters all backwards or the wrong ones. But that's how I recall him, JD. He was a guy who seemed older than he probably was because he drank a lot of hog liquor and lit up a cigarette as soon as he kicked a cigarette butt out. He was one of those guys that the constant smoke and alcohol and sun had pickled and mummified inside a tight, Saran-wrap skin. And I knew him for just one June and July when I was in high school, though he had lived in my hometown, Pitts, Georgia, forever.
But before I tell you about JD, let me tell you why I thought of him yesterday evening. I'd been walking the Vulcan trail in Birmingham, where I now live, and I'd gone up to the cell towers that were blinking through a fog left over from the day's rain. The wind swirled and swirled. Below me, the lights of Birmingham were stars on the floor, pretty to look at, but they couldn't fix the pain in my father's back or make my son take college more seriously. I'd gone up there restless, and I couldn't get my thinking clear. So I came down from the tallest place in Birmingham to my apartment, where a fire detector cawed like an angry crow from behind a neighbor's door.
I knew the guy who lived there—I rapped hard, tried the scratched knob. It wouldn't turn. Not one bit of smoke wheeled up from any crack, but I could smell old tires and burning mud. You know, that smell you don't ever want to breathe if you can help it.
Do, I told myself. Do something. Then the door to the adjacent apartment, no. 6, swung open so fast it banged the brick wall, and there he was, the guy—gray-white, curly-headed, same good number of teeth missing. Ta da! I expected him to say. I'm not in my burning apartment after all. See? You have been fooled by my magic!
Sweat rivered off his cheeks and he had no shirt. Behind him stood a woman.
"What do you want?" he said.
"Your alarm." I pointed. He lived alone, I was pretty sure. I think I tapped the door. "Hey, I'm sorry to interrupt."
The woman behind him had all her clothes on, so I wasn't exactly sure what I had interrupted, but with all that sweat, the guy had been working pretty hard on something.
"Oh, shit," he told us, and punched the sides of his head with the soft parts of his hands. "My supper—damn." He unlocked his door quick. Smoke billowed out even quicker, whole clouds of it, brown and gray-ragged. The alarm cawed for us even louder, and what he did next—well, he walked right in.
Let me say here I'm not sure I would've taken hold of his arm, but that's what I should've done. I should have stopped him. But he walked into that smoke with no worries, which scared the hell out of me because first thing you're told when the firemen come to your elementary class to give a fire lesson is, Never. Never go toward smoke. Seek. Safety. First.
"You all right?" I called.
"Yeah," he said.
"I don't know if you need to be in there," I said. But he was in there, far in. The woman in the other apartment, she had snail moves. She wouldn't budge. Her eyes kept blinking behind large snail glasses. She did not come out and did not sound a word of alarm. I started to tell her to call 911. What if the fire spread? For some reason, I wanted her to be more panicked.
Then I heard a "damn" from the guy. Heard a pot drop and rumble into the shallow steel sink all of us had in our kitchens. The faucet whooshed on.
"Are you still out there?" he asked.
I was trying to form a hero map of how to manage him around smoky sofas and chairs, getting myself ready by taking deeper and deeper breaths. "Yeah, I'm out here."
He walked up to me. Just stepped right onto the stoop and not once did he cough. Houdini, I'm telling you. On that night, at least, the guy was magic.
"Thank you," he said, smelling of hog liquor and fire. "You saved me. You saved my life. I appreciate it."
"Sure," I told him.
I've seen him drinking Thunderbird before, what we call hog liquor back home because it smells like a pig farm and gasoline and faintly of overripe oranges. Enough of it turns your tongue black and gives you a cheap headache buzz. There was a chant we used to yell, a call and response that went like this—
What's the word?
What's the price?
A dollar twice.
How's it sold?
Good and cold.
What's the action?
Of course, there's the T-Bird car, all '60s red, slung low sleek, and boxy sexy. And the legend: The Northwest Indians believed the thunderbird a huge beast. When it flapped its wings, wings the span of the tallest clouds, thunder shuddered the ground and wins funneled up into the sky as lightning crossed to the earth in legged strikes. The beast circled and circled the ocean until it found a big whale to dive for, dip out, and carry it off in its talons. The whale's blood mixed with the clouds to make a fierce rain. When the storm passed, the thunderbird was no longer hungry.
But the guy was just an old guy with a rivered face, and so was the woman in apartment no. 6. When they kiss, I bet their wrinkles zipper-squish together. She made her doorway a crack so I couldn't see in. She didn't like me.
A week ago, after Alabama won the national championship, the guy came out of his door as I walked down from the cell towers, and pretty much anytime someone walks down the mountain or pulls up in a car, he comes out like one of those cuckoos in a clock. At first I thought he was expecting company. But now I think it's because he wants to talk to any passerby, see if you've got a cigarette, if you've got ten dollars for the watch he's selling. He needs the money before his next paycheck from the kitchen downtown where he works. More than anything, he wants to talk.
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