To Sleep With Both Eyes Open
Thurman and I both had a rare day off from work. I was standing at the kitchen sink looking out the window and putting water in the coffee pot when I saw Mr. Jenks, our neighbor walking by and yelling something.
Mr. Jenks was a retired school teacher. He was my aunt's old English teacher back in Oklahoma. He was tall, skinny and weakened by age. He also had a habit of skipping meals to save money and that concerned us. I put the half-filled blue coffee pot down on the green counter and stepped out the back door to hear what he was yelling. When, I stepped outside, Thurman was coming back from the store.
"You hear that?" he asked.
"I saw him go by. What was he saying?
"Something bout verb tenses. He yelled, 'There's no such thing as verb tenses!' He was yelling it as loud as his old man voice could get. He is down at the main road right now yelling it at the cars driving by."
He turned and looked back and pointed toward the road. Then he turned back around and asked, " What's a verb tense?"
"We learned it in school. don't you remember?"
Thurman shrugged, " Musta been the year I was gone."
"Verbs are words that talk about doing stuff like to kill, to think, to walk, or to work. Tenses are things you do to those words to make tell time like if you put an e-d ending on walk you get walked which means you already did it, and if you put will in front of the word you get will walk which means you will do it in the future."
"There's three of 'em, the past, right now and tomorra?"
"Yeah. There's a lot more, but those are the three main ones."
"What's old man Jenks got agin em?
It was my turn to shrug my shoulders. "I don't know. Must be not eating again. I'm going to go fetch him and we'll find out."
Our little cabin was off of the main road, we were in the back of the camp. There was little footpath that led out to the main road. I walked quickly out the front and saw Mr. Jenks and sure enough, he was walking back and forth on the side of the road yelling at cars.
There was a store on the corner and the camp we lived in was just south of the store. Mr. Jenks was dressed in ruffled khaki pants and and an old green button up sweater over a white shirt buttoned up to his neck. Instead of a regular tie, he was wearing a bolo tie with a big chunk of turquoise set into a New Mexican silver clasp. He was walking back and forth and whenever a car or truck drove by he would straighten up raise his right hand and yell, " There are no such things as TENSES! Verb TENSES aren't real!"
I walked slowly up to him. When he saw me coming, he sheepishly lowered his right arm and gave me an embarrassed wave with his left.
I went up to him, put my left arm on his shoulder and shook his hand with my right, "Hey, Mr. Jenks. I was looking for you. Me and Thurman wanted to invite you over for some breakfast."
His eyes went from sheepish to to outright sadness. His shoulders slumped and he lost about three inches in height, "I ain't one for charity, BJ, sides I have something I need to do."
I just smiled gently, "Why would you call it charity, Mr. Jenks. Me and Thurman ain't got no daddy. The one grandpa that we knew was pretty much off his rocker. We both look up to you like a mentor. We want to know what it is that you're talking about here. The people in these here cars ain't listening to you. We'd at least listen."
He straightened back up a little and lifted his shoulders and regained most of his height. As we started walking, he spoke, " Well, put like that I'd be a fool not to take you up on your offer." He stopped after a few steps and looked me square in the eyes and spoke real low like he was confiding the biggest secret in the world, "I like you boys, and I appreciate all you do for me."
I sat him down at the table and went and got him a plate of eggs, bacon, and biscuits covered with gravy. Thurman had finished making the coffee and brought us both a steaming cup of fresh brewed. I added cream to mine; Mr. Jenks took his black.
As he ate, I studied his face. His head was kind of big and round like my dads, and he had the same combed over hair covering a large bald spot. I saw that his eyes were damned near as blue as the turquoise clasp on his bolo tie. His forehead was as a large and as wrinkled as Pop's, but his cheeks were sunken and bottom half of his face was narrow and finished off by a small rounded chin.
He also had a lot of white hair sticking out of his ears and nose, and you could tell he rushed his shaving because there was hair coming out of the creases on his cheeks and around certain spots of his neck.
I let him finish up his biscuits and wash it down with some coffee before I finally spoke, "Tell me Mr. Jenks, what is this you were saying about there being no verb tenses."
He put his cup down and wiped his lips with a napkin. "I realized this morning that there ain't so such thing as time. It was made by man." He looked right at me as he said it as if to monitor my reaction. When I didn't respond, he went on," I was reading something about it in Hindu scripture and suddenly had myself a momentous moment. It then dawned on me with some considerable force and power that I'd been wrong to teach kids about them verb tenses all these years."
"By Hindu, you mean them people over in India?"
"For the most part yes. The Buddhists in China have similar beliefs."
"Well, what caused you to take off on it all a sudden?"
He tilted his head back and to the side and looked at me strangely, " I don't reckon I hardly know. I just something I suddenly understood . I mean the power of it shook me to my bones it was so powerful. Then it forced me to realize that I had inadvertently been teaching kids a outright falsehood for an awful long time. I lost control of myself. Figured I had to get out and tell somebody before about it was too late."
Thurman chimed in at this point, "How can it be too late if there ain't no such thing as time?"
I sent him a dirty look, but Mr. Jenks just laughed. "I don't rightly understand that part, Thurman, just that I knew that it, time, as to be an illusion. That's what them Asian people think about it too. They think that life is just part of dream."
"And we're just asleep?" I was curious to know.
Mr. Jenks nodded. "All life is an illusion, just a dream."
"Mr. Jenks, have you been eating?"
"It ain't that. It's the truth."
"That ain't why I'm asking. Stuff like what you talking about is way over my head, and that's why I don't normally think about it a lot. I don't doubt that there ain't some good reasons why you came up with all that. I'm just worried about your response. I mean standing on the side of the road yelling at cars is a damn inefficient way of spreading the truth wouldn't you say."
There was a pause as the words sank in, then he smiled sadly and starting laughing. "Well, I have been trying to save up so I can go back home and see my daughter before I die, so I might have skipped a meal or two."
Thurman asked him, "Why don't your daughter help you out?"
Mr. Jenks quit smiling and lowered his head, "Hell, she married a drunk; they ain't got no money, not a pot to piss in."
"Well, Me and Thurman have been talking on it, and we'd consider it an honor if you'd come and eat with dinner with us."
"Breakfast is always open too if you wanta get up that early," Thurman added.
The old man started to say something about not taking charity but couldn't finish his words. Instead, he broke down and started in to crying. Thurman looked a question at me as what we should do. I shrugged. So, we waited till he cried himself out.
He finished crying and fished out a handkerchief and wiped his eyes. Then he started speaking in a very low, but very emotional voice, " Sorry for the water works boys, but life ain't been very nice to me lately. First, Beulah died......," His voice broke at that point, and he had to muffle a sob, "Then my boy Rob got in the wreck," another sob, "In fact, if it weren't for your aunt and uncle and you boys nobody'd even know I was still around. I think that that understanding might have had something to do with me shouting at cars."
I thought that Mr. Jenks's losses were a lot like mine, only I had Thurman around for support. It made me shudder to think for a second what it'd been like without him.
"It's settled then. You'll come over and have dinner with us ever evening." I reached out to shake his hand on the deal.
He hesitated at first and wrestled with the language trying to say something appropriate. Finally, he just gave up, heaved a big sigh of relief, and reached up and took my hand. Thurman got up and shook his hand too.
While still holding the hand, Thurman kind of choked up his own damn self and spoke, "I don't know if I ever told ya, Mr. Jenks how much I enjoy our conversations. I never could talk to my own daddy and the only grandpa was always fishing in his mind. All Pa ever did was criticize and yell at me. I really enjoy talking to you."
That much was true. Ever bit of it. Thurman would clean up after work and go sit outside with Mr. Jenks and drink tea on the porch. He'd usually come home with some new bit of learning. One night, Thurman came home and told me that Mr. Jenks knew Pretty Boy Floyd. Another, night he came home talking about Mr. Jenk's pa being at San Juan Hill.
As he stood up to leave, Mr. Jenks was almost crying again, " You boys don't how much I appreciate this. I was starting to think I'd never get the money saved. I've got almost a hundred dollars in a box in my closet. If I ever get it up to three hundred maybe I can go back and make do for a while till something else happens."
When Mr. Jenks was leaving out the front door, I turned around and only then noticed that our cousin Colton Welles was standing at the back screen door listening. I nodded at him, and he opened the screen door and came in.
He was wearing the same clothes that he had on the night at Uncle Billy's house down the same cynical expression on his cruel face. He saw Mr. Jenks leaving and said, "Who's that old fool."
"Just a friend of ours."
"I heard you invitin him to having vittles with you. Why you ain't invitin me over? I'm your damn cousin."
I didn't even respond to the question.
Colton then asked another question, "He crazy or what. I heard him goin on bout some shit about verbs and what not?"
He didn't realize it, but he had revealed that he'd been at the back door listening for longer than a minute. "He ain't crazy. Least not yet. He might be headed down that road if somebody don't help him. He just old and don't don't have a family out here and wants to go back east."
Colton just sneered, "Well, that ain't no concern of yours is it? It's his own damn fault he ain't got no family."
At that point, Thurman camc back from walking Mr. Jenks home. He entered and saw Colton standing there and his hackles went up right away. It made me kind of nervous cause it looked like cat sensing danger. "What brings you out so bright and early. I thought you only come outside in the afternoon."
Colton laughed and withdrew his outstretched hand after Thurman ignored it, "Just out and about and visitin folks. I talked to my daddy this morning and thought I'd stopped by and talk to you while I was in these parts."
Colton made the gesture asking if he could sit down and Thurman nodded. "What you want a talk about, Colton?"
The words came out slowly at first, "I wanted to ask you boys if your daddy ever said anything about the money my daddy stole from my mama?"
The flesh around Thurman's eyes tightened up a bit. "I don't know what you talking about. What money is that?"
"My Uncle Rudy first told me about it. He said that my mama inherited the money from my grandpa's farm. She got sick and Daddy put her away, and she died. Rudy told me that Daddy took all the money, married your aunt, and used Mama's money to set up shop out here. Said Daddy left Oklahoma so no one would think bad of him. Way I figured that was my mama's money, and it shoulda went to me."
Thurman went and poured himself a cup of coffee, and he poured one for Colton too. He handed it Colton and then answered, "I don't know how to tell you this other than telling you the unvarnished truth. Your Uncle Rudy was the sorriest sumbitch in Salina. He was the town drunk and put out more shit than a whole herd of milk cows. Your grandpa never had no money that he didn't drink up. He lost the farm. Bank took it from him, and he was the cause of all your mama's problems. Uncle Billy said she was a real sweet, lovely person, but she was always in pain and had a mental breakdown; he had to put her in a hospital to protect her from herself. She hung herself in there. There was never no money. Your Uncle Rudy's full of shit."
I watched Colton's face carefully for a reaction. When Thurman said that his mama was sweet it brightened and looked for a moment like a ray of sunshine trying to breakthrough some storm clouds, but it instantly darkened again when Thurman mentioned how she had died."
He was angry but controlled it. "That's what you say. I remember one day I was taking a shit in our outhouse. and I overheard Daddy with your daddy talking bout that money and what he was going to with it. It was your daddy that put him onto Californie."
Thurman had had enough by this point and jerked up out of his seat with his eyes flashing and fists clenched at his side. "You're a damned liar, Colton. That never happened."
I could tell that Colton had deliberately said that to get a rise out of Thurman. He looked over at me with a smug grin that vanished the moment he saw that was I smiling. "What the hell you smiling about. This is man talk, boy! Ain't no laughin matter here!"
I stood up still smiling, "I had to smile cos of the idea of you remembering a shit that you took. Thurman's right. That never happened."
"Why you say that? You can call my mama crazy, and I can't say shit about your Pa?"
"No, you can talk about my Pa all you want. He was a mean old buzzard. It's your daddy we defending. He ain't never been like that. He wouldn't have done that."
Colton didn't react, but I could sense the tension in his body and could see the fires burning behind his eyes. He stood up slowly and started backing his way out the door. He left but fired a parting shot, "I get it now, boys. You figure since my daddy ain't got little to do with me that'll you'll horn your way into his good graces and be there to get the money at the end."
He scooted out the door before Thurman could get to him, the screen door slamming behind him.