Let me tell you about Smokey.
He lived near the levee in the poorest poor section of a working-class neighborhood. The houses in the nicest part of the neighborhood were only a couple of feet apart with tiny yards front and back. If you had a garage, you were left with almost no yard at all. Mom stayed at home in the house while dad went to work in the factory. Most everyone was able to take a couple of weeks vacation a year and drive a newer car. Everyone had a T.V.
Smokey’s house was rundown and there was a rundown car in the yard. It was always overgrown and covered in weeds, thicket and vines. I’m sure there was a tree overhead because the sun never traveled back in there but for the life of me, I never saw the trunk of that tree. His shack sat at the end of the road, pitted and ragged and unpassable when it rained.
Smokey got his name because he always had a cigarette in his mouth, always. He smelled like smoke and he looked like smoke would look if it put on pants.
His face was craggy and it always seemed to be a couple of days unshaven. His teeth were sparse, dirty and appeared to hurt all the time. He wasn’t but maybe five and a half feet tall. When he spoke he had that smokers voice, monotone and gravelly. Every time he spoke smoke came out with his words. Even so, there was something about his voice.
Us kids all avoided him and were afraid of him. Some said the war messed him up, others said he was just crazy and mean. Seldom did he travel out of the house but from time to time he would be seen, shuffling to the corner, his pants way too long and dragging the ground, probably to get some more smokes.
Around age 10 or so I had earned the right to leave my mother’s sight when I went out to play. We had to get back in by dinner time and if we weren’t back in by the time the streetlights came on the entire neighborhood began the search. It was a community with common rules and most everyone watched out for most everyone else.
I knew I couldn’t act like an idiot anywhere in this working-class neighborhood without my mom hearing about it. That meant a spanking, or two. Three if the neighbor who caught you took a whack.
Playing with my buddy one afternoon, near the levee, we spied a strange sight. It was the church lady who lived two doors down from me, she was leaving Smokey’s house.
At age 10 we were worldly enough to know we had probably just landed on some first-rate and juicy gossip. We laughed and started to joke about it but we must have been too loud because the next thing we knew church lady spied us right back. She gave us that look. You know the one.
Church women have a look they give you that has been passed down to them from Eve. No amount of Saints, holy water or prayers could save you when a church lady looked at you like that. Knowing she had our eternal souls she turned and got into her car and left.
The church lady and I crossed paths many, many times over the next few months, I mean, she was two doors down. Neither one of us ever mentioned the sighting and I was thankful she chose grace and did not end my life. I was smart enough to avoid eye contact and never mentioned, until this very day, what I saw.
A Couple Of Weeks Later
Mom called me inside.
This was bad, real bad. First of all, mom never called me in unless it was for a whipping. She looked at me with a strange look in her eye and said, “What have you done?”
My ability to breathe was suddenly removed from my known skills list and I just stared at her. Pro-tip: never just stare at your mom when she asks, “what have you done?” In spite of my inability to remember words or how to breathe, she just said, “Go see the church lady.” She said the woman’s name, but all I heard was, “See the church lady.”
I was certain this was the end for me. My luck had run out, the church lady had finished the paperwork to reclaim my soul and I was on my way to eternity.
Turning to leave, I did the practical thing and started going over my will in my mind. My little sister should get my world maps on the wall and I want my buddy to get my encyclopedias (we bought one volume a week for 26 weeks from the grocery store). I wanted to be buried in my new blue jeans and that white shirt. I still hadn’t grown into those jeans but no one would know if I was laid out in the casket. I was going to leave the $2 bill my Great Aunt Carrie gave me hidden in the wall for future explorers.
The distance from my mom’s sight to the front door of the church lady’s house had become a much longer journey than two houses. It took a while to travel all that way. As I opened the gate to the front yard I saw her inside the house and she waved for me to come in.
She was in a chair and had that century’s version of a walker in front of her. She had broken her hip and was barely able to get from the chair to the bedroom, but she somehow managed to cook up a casserole and made a couple of sandwiches. She said, “I want you to run these over to Charles Wimbley’s for me. I’ll pay you fifty cents.”
Jackpot! In those days 50 cents would buy a new Cadillac with whitewalls.
I all but screamed out, “Yes Ma’am!” I was a 10-year-old who had just hit the lottery and been given a new lease on life. Then I had to ask, “Ma’am, where does Mr. Wimbley live?”
Her gaze went from angelic to church lady again, but she put her head down and I couldn’t tell if she was saying a prayer or sucking in enough air to blow a dragon-like flame straight from the depths of Hell at my increasingly stylish hair. She said, “he is where you saw me a few weeks ago.”
Dang. I owned her now. This malignant spirit from Hell was… I started looking around her house assessing what I wanted to keep and what I would sell. Her car would soon be mine and we’d get to the banking soon enough. I smiled a smile, gazed at the casserole and remembered why she called me there.
Smokey lived a good mile and a half away. There was no way I could manage to carry all that on my bike so it meant a long walk but, dang, 50 cents y’all.
About halfway to Smokey’s, I realized I had never heard anyone call him by his name. He was Smokey to my older brothers, he was Smokey to everyone in the neighborhood, even my dad had acknowledged he knew about Smokey. But, the church lady knew his name now, didn’t she?
I remembered how I first saw him and her together and thought it was kind of funny and gross. But not gross enough to stop my mind from laughing about it.
Another block or two and the view of the busy road I’d have to cross came into sight. It finally hit me that I was going to have to go toe to toe with Smokey to give him this food.
It smelled good and I was hungry. The casserole was real heavy too. I think it was tuna casserole, but I couldn’t be sure. It was heavily wrapped in aluminum foil and in a tote bag I had specific instructions to return.
In spite of being tempted, I didn’t eat it. Church lady had paid me 50 cents and I had a duty to do. As I stepped over the pitted road of potholes and dirt with some gravel here and there I found myself finally facing the front of Smokey’s house.
Those next few steps were like entering a cave. There might have been a path to the door at one time but it seems that the front door wasn’t used anymore. Regardless, the rule was, you go to the front door of a house or you get shot. I had to set the casserole down to knock respectfully on the door and I did.
So I waited the 15 seconds or so mandated by law before I knocked a second time. Again, no answer. I looked over my left shoulder slowly and didn’t see any werewolves or vicious animals snarling at me. I again knocked and heard that voice of his say, “Just a minute.” I expected someone to yell, or throw something, or a gunshot, but it was just his smoky voice. A minute turned into several but finally, Smokey appeared at the door.
He hadn’t shaved in a couple of days for several years now, it was an oddity of nature. Every adult man I knew shaved every day. No one had facial hair but hippies and they were scraggly or full bearded. His beard never grew too long, but he was never clean-shaven. It was odd and he was the only adult I knew like that. It was also my first look at him close up. At close range, he looked different, almost vulnerable. He was really skinny, his eyes had pain in them and I had to stop myself from staring at him too intently. He didn’t seem to mind and almost smiled at me as I stared.
After that awkward few seconds, he asked me what did I have there. “Oh! Here is a casserole and a couple of sandwiches. The church lady p…” I stopped short of saying the church lady paid me to bring it to you.
I don’t know why, but I did. He smiled again, this time his smile was more kind. It took a long time for him to get the casserole and sandwich out of the bag and while I waited I looked around the yard. There was a chair and a path to that chair, one of those metal ones that you used to see everywhere. The view from the chair was of the levee and I realized it was in the general direction the sun would set. When he came back he thanked me and gave me a nickel for my trouble. Close up, Ole Smokey was kind of friendly-looking, not that monster we all knew was real.
A Couple of Weeks Later
My Wednesday afternoons had become running food to Smokey. It took maybe two hours but the pay was amazing. I was the richest kid we all knew.
The church lady was having trouble getting over that hip break and I still had 10 cents left from that original 50 cents because there was no wasting money back in the day. I was surprised to find out a Cadillac with white walls could not be had for under a dollar, but we have to learn these things eventually.
It hurt my feelings when the church lady asked if I could deliver this week for free, but her money had run out. I did it because I didn’t know how to say no to an adult, not because I wanted to. Smokey still tipped me that nickel.
While it had become normal to see and talk to the church lady there was never a moment where we were more than business partners. She had a product and I delivered it. But, we had become a bit less formal. One day it got the better of me and I had to ask her how she met Smokey. It was a sneaky way for me to eventually lead her down the path of telling me about her passionate and sin filled love affair with the troll by the levee. It took all of my 10-year-old brainpower to come up with that scheme. She politely smiled, dropped her chin and stopped making eye contact. After a breath or two she gently shook her head and told me to run that food over there.
I was the kid that grew up in the house next to the schoolyard. I could walk out my door, cross the alley and be at school. It was great. Our school had a separate Carnegie Library right out my back door and I was there all the time because I loved to read at night before bed. The librarians knew me by name, especially the high school girls who worked there. They were very attentive to my reading list and were forever developing my knowledge of the world via literature. One of those high school aged librarians happened to drive down the very street I was trekking on my way to deliver food to Smokey. She pulled over and asked if I needed a ride and I said “heck yeah.” I was certain the cutest of all high school-aged librarians had a crush on me and giving me a lift was her opening salvo.
She also knew about Smokey and when we got to his road she said, “I’m not driving back there. I’ll get stuck and he will bury our bodies. I can’t believe you’re going back there, …” she said in under one second. She dropped me off at the road to his road and I did my job, spending a couple of minutes with the villainous legend.
When I saw her at the library she had a lot of questions. I told her the story and she gave me the most unfriendly and judgmental squint of my life up to that point. She made me feel like I was part of a scheme to overthrow the government.
After recovering from the judgmental facial expressions and trying to exit the library, she broke code and spoke over accepted library volume levels to ask, “What did you say his name was?”
The Next Day
“What did you do?!” asked Mom.
I had yet to master not staring blankly at my mom when she asked this question. Regardless, she told me to go to the library right away.
“Does he walk funny?” asked the high school-aged librarian who had a crush on me.
It took me a second but I realized he did, “Yeah!” was my surprised response. She passed over an old newspaper article from the 50’s.
“Two seriously injured in early morning crash.”
It was only words and a picture of what could be described as once being a car. Towards the bottom was the name of Charles Wimbly. Another name was there and it was a more common name, George Simmons, but I couldn’t place it.
The next Wednesday I asked the church lady if she knew about it and she, still unable to move without the last century walker, stopped dead in her tracks and looked at me with a concerned face. She said she did. I asked her if she knew who George Simmons was and immediately realized I shouldn’t have asked.
I’m 10 years old, rich beyond measure, the envy of all my friends and soon to be engaged to the high school-aged librarian girl and didn’t know what to do. But I had learned from interactions with my mom to not stare blankly at the church lady. She looked unstable so I grabbed the kitchen chair and she slowly sat down in it.
“George Simmons is…” she paused, “…was my husband.” She wept openly and I had seen on TV that when that happens it was my job to hug her and hold her as she cried.
Over the next few weeks, she told me the rest of the story. Her husband was a drinker and couldn’t control it. He could often be found sleeping it off in the yard or the alley she said. When he started drinking he would walk down the streets and just wander around, getting his fix. Sometimes he got mean, but most of the time he just passed out. He had been a mechanic and was always able to make a few dollars here and there fixing people’s cars if they had the tools. She never saw much of that money. He would spend it on alcohol and be gone for days on end.
In her world, you didn’t divorce. The church wouldn’t allow it and you would be ostracized even more by that crowd if you did. Her fate was that of a drunk’s wife in a time that women had few options.
One early morning, about 4 a.m., she told me, Charles Wimbley was on his way to work as a security guard at the factory. A job he got with help from an old army buddy. Wounded vets were honored back then but the government didn’t do much for them; their fellow soldiers did. Smokey never had much and didn’t need much.
On his way to work, he saw George laying in the road, by the sidewalk in a dangerous spot. He didn’t want him to get run over so he stopped the car, woke George up, wrangled him into the car and proceeded to drive him home. George thought he was getting a lift to the liquor store at 4 a.m., but, of course, the liquor store wasn’t open. George was having a hard time processing this information and it made him mad they weren’t going to the liquor store. So mad he pushed Charles while they were driving down the road causing Charles to yank the wheel. Charley overcorrected, left the road and hit the ditch. They ended up flipping a few times with Charley being ejected from the vehicle while parts of the car landed on George. The crash all but destroyed Smokey’s legs.
George died the next day and Smokey somehow managed to live through it, just like he had the war.
The next week walking to Smokey’s was tough. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to tell him I knew what happened, that all he ever did was serve his country and that drunken neighbor and life wasn’t fair to him. It was almost 15 years later and Smokey was living like that.
Mrs. Simmons had been feeding him for over a decade. She was barely getting by but she faithfully fed the man who tried to help her husband.
When Smokey opened the door that week, I was standing at attention on his rundown porch doing my very best schoolboy impersonation of a soldier. I stood at attention and saluted him with my best Hollywood movie-trained salute. He gave me a wry smile at first and almost scoffed. Then he saw the tears forming in young eyes.
Charles Wimbley somehow grew about 4 inches taller, stood as straight up as I’ve ever seen him stand. His face lost 20 years and gained strength as he fixed his stare over my head and off into a long distant past. He slowly raised his hand to salute back, held it, and slowly lowered that salute. We didn’t say a word and we never spoke of what he had been through. I refused his nickel and said simply, “thank you.” I stood at attention until he closed the door.
The church lady soon passed away. She had gotten weaker and weaker with her hip and one day she just didn’t wake up. Smokey was getting meals on wheels by that time and the local veteran’s group had taken him under their wing. They also fixed up his house and yard. I was near there a couple of years later and realized I hadn’t seen him or checked in on him in a long while; being a preteen takes up a lot of your time. So I worked up the courage to go look in on him.
As I got near the street by his street I could see smoke coming from the area of his house. Racing back there I noticed the road was smooth and clean, not like it was before. I could smell from the smoke he was cooking something. As I got closer I could hear people and when close enough to see there were probably a dozen or so guys out there laughing, drinking beer and having a BBQ. I stopped my bike and took in the view.
It was good to see Charlie, he was still magically unshaven, and for the first time, I heard his laugh.
This story is a combined memory of several stories that happened in my old neighborhood. Smokey was a real person.See a typo? Report it here.