Everyone has their period of awkwardness. Mine lasted a good long time, right up until I was about thirteen. You could say I was a late bloomer, but that’s not really true. Physically I have always been tall, growing steadily from the time I was born until I reached six foot three at fifteen. No growth spurt, just inch by inch until I stopped. I think my mother was glad about that as my sister would not wear the hand-me downs that dropped off me each year.
No, my awkwardness was inward. When I hit thirteen, I “came out of my shell” as they say. Found friends and began to get more active. Before then, I could be classified as “that smart kid who doesn’t talk much.” To paint a picture: I was in the remedial reading class rather than the gifted program that my mother helped teach because when they tested me I did not seem to have verbal skills. True story, the librarian’s kid did not talk much.
Do not get me wrong, I am still rather shy and quiet, always have been, rather apt to sit back and watch people talk than start up a conversation. If I ever meet anyone in person who reads this, please do not expect the flood of words I seem to have stored up in reserve. I am like my father, whom I also get my quiet sense of humor, and am unlike him in ways I have outlined before.
Anyway, what I have been leading up to is this: at age thirteen I found a family. Nothing is quite as satisfying as finding a group of friends that share your same interests, views, and spirit. Looking back, maybe I adopted more of their attitudes and likes than I would have admitted at the time, but that is what you do before you know who you are. Try on attitudes and the clothes to match.
With these friends, I found extended families, and one of those families were the Bilbos.
“Jack!” came a shout from the crowd as I walked up. The band stopped playing.
Several people smiled and shook their heads at the old joke. I followed it up in the usual fashion.
“Nope,” I said.
“Ezra!” another voice in the crowd said.
“Evan!” came the final shout.
“Right, yo mama!” I said and the crowd cheered.
Sometimes, it is good to be home.
To explain, Mark Bilbo was my best friend from middle school until graduation. The first real close friend I had, the one that introduced me to everyone else, and the one that “broke me out of my shell,” so to speak. He was older than me, held back several grades due to “poor performance.” He, Elliot and I, plus several others, spent our days dreaming of creative careers and exploits and our nights drinking wherever and whatever we could find. We started smoking together. We snuck away to New Orleans together. We played horrible sounding punk rock on second hand instruments together.
After graduation, we drifted apart. I went off to the big school to fail and come back to get my library science degree. Elliot made his way to California and the movies. Mark, true to form, did not graduate from high school and went straight into the Army. After the towers fell in New York, he became homesick and rather than fill out his remaining time in service, got himself court marshalled, jailed for two years, then sent home with a dishonorable discharge. The details are sketchy, but what I know is what I saw when he came back: a drunken, angry man with little patience and a hungry stare. After one argument too many over political, philosophical, or religious themes, I walked away from him. Still, we kept in touch. In a small town you can do little else.
About the name game... It comes from Mark’s father, Jefferson Ray Bilbo. The man always had problems remembering my name, even when he knew it by heart. So, he came up with a mnemonic device based on the names of liquor that he and the family played, well, they still play when I arrive.
First, he would yell out “Jack,” for Jack Daniels, knowing that it was a bourbon and my favorite. Then “Ezra,” for Ezra Brooks, zeroing in on the “E.” Finally, “Evan” for Evan Williams, completing the name. My script has also always been the same, with exception of the “yo mama” part. I think that was added after a long night of drinking moonshine and telling jokes.
Jefferson Ray was an outlaw in the old sense of the word. Mark played guitar, a talent he picked up from his father, and I am privileged to say I heard Jefferson Ray sit with his own brothers and play outlaw country songs by Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, and others. When the wise men say music comes from the soul, they forget to mention the kind of soul it takes to create a sound that can touch others souls. It burns bright and hot and is gone too soon, leaving behind the dead as examples and the old to tell stories to the young. Many nights I sat with the old man and ate vienna sausages and saltines listening to him tell me stories of the drunken exploits he had been involved in when they toured the South as a band. He liked me and I liked him. I think because I was the only one that would sit and eat that processed food, but I can not be sure.
Here is a taste of the stories he told me. Jefferson Ray stabbed a man with a fork for touching his guitar in Memphis. He broke a bottle of Jack Daniels over a man’s head in Jackson. He bought cocaine from a man that looked like Elvis three days after The King passed away. He was arrested three times in the same day by three different police officers in three different states. He served jail time for every crime I can name short of embezzlement, and that’s only because I do not think he ever had a job long enough to qualify.
Jefferson Ray never settled down, simply inherited the land we stood on from his father and never left it despite what the tax people said. He and his wife, Barbara “Barb” Bilbo, produced six kids, his oldest Bannville’s current mayor, William, then Jefferson, Jr., Tina Mae (the only girl), Mark, and his youngest, also named Jefferson, Jr. who everyone calls “Peanut.”
The first Jefferson, Jr. died while driving down U. S. Route 98 from Hattiesburg to Mobile in 1992 at the age of seventeen. “Bloody 98” state Senator Bruner called it in 1988, and he called it right, being one of the most dangerous stretches of road in the United States. Reports of Junior’s death range from simple accident to racing to running from the police, or all of the above. That same year Peanut was born, and Jefferson Ray said this son was his do-over in the naming department. The results are mixed.
Jefferson Ray never saw his sons grow up to become men, mayors or outlaws. In 2000, he suffered a heart attack. Too many years of hard living caught up to him in a sudden way, killing the gentle man that had been a violent child.
Mark, my friend, killed himself on this property in 2005, two months after Hurricane Katrina on Halloween night. The coroner said it was an accident, an overdose of too much of one thing mixed with too much of another. But I knew my friend, as much as anyone could after he came back. He was lost and looking for something that could not be found, no matter how many bottles he looked in the bottom of. When they found him that October night, he was laying out under the stars, his daddy’s guitar lying next to him.
So here I stand, after a decade absent from this property, seven years away from my friend, and greeted by the same faces with the same old joke. Deep, sad country music fills the air. An honor in a crew of the un-honorable. I did not deserve this. I said earlier it was good to be home. That was true, but I could not bring myself to feel it, not really. The two people I had most connection with were gone. Lost.
I only hoped I was not faced with any more truth this evening.
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