It’s 8 something in the morning and Tina is standing at the corner of Pharaoh and Sphinx with her arms folded across her chest and her jaws as tight as Mike Tyson’s clenched fists. But all the while, the bright morning sun is working her, like some early-rising Mack Daddy—patting her on the head, stroking her neck, kissing her cheeks. It’s nearly got her conned and ready to roll with any ole kind of lie when, just like that, the mask cracks and the devil up and starts beating his wife something fierce. Not just a few sprinkles, but a straight-up downpour—cold, stinging, and catching Tina totally off guard.
The rumpled rain scarf she whips from her handbag provides about as much protection as a torn condom. Now she’s mad, wet and feeling like a fool. She should have seen it coming, especially after having overslept a good 30 minutes and wasting an additional 10 trying to crank her raggedy piece of a car. The only thing that keeps her from hightailing it back home and calling it a day is the bus splashing up to the corner. She hops on board, frowning, muttering a few choiceprofanities and shaking water every which way. She’s stumbling down the aisle, scanning the rows for an empty seat when she spots him—the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. Of course, it’s not really him, just some little old guy who looks enough like the late Nation of Islam leader that Tina is tempted to stop, gawk and blurt, “Dag brother, ain’t you suppose to be dead?”
Perched atop the man’s head is a cap, a little brown and tweed number, not unlike the type Tina’s own daddy was fond of donning back in the day. When the old guy notices her eyeballing him, he tips his brim and stretches his lips into what appears to be some sort of “come hither, child” smile.
He’s an itty-bitty thing, altogether not more than a couple of breaths and a handful of britches. A sudden gust of wind is about all it would take to knock him down. But Tina knows in a glance, the little old guy can probably talk her under the table and back out again.
She bids him a smile, a cheerful “A Salim Alakim,” and a silent “Ain’t nobody got time for that,” before turning toward the oversized, loc-wearing teen who’s seated on the opposite aisle. Of course, with the kid comes a blaring set of earbuds, excessive head-bobbing and a bad-boy attitude plastered like Mississippi mud across his pockmarked mug. Everything about the boy, from the huge backpack he’s propped on the seat beside him to his refusal to make eye contact with Tina clearly says, “You’d best move on lady, ’cause I ain’t the one.”
She’s just about to give his rude butt a nudge when Mr. Muhammad’s double stands, eases off his cap, bows and extends his arm in a proper invite for her to join him. As foul a mood as she’s in, Tina can’t outright snub the old guy. Her mama raised her better than that. With more grimace than grin, she accepts his offer, knowing it’s bound to come with a hefty price.
“Lovely day, isn’t it?” he asks before her butt’s properly graced the seat.
“No, not really,” she says, making it clear he won’t have an easy go of it.
“Well, perhaps that’s only because you’re focusing on the wrong thing.”
Tina sighs and heaves a silent, Why me Lord?! Why?!, before turning toward the little old man.
“And just what, sir, might be the right thing in your most humble opinion?”
He closes his eyes and tilts his head toward the ceiling of the bus. “Oh, the fact that you woke up this morning with breath still in your body might be a good place to start.”
She says, “And? I’m supposed to holler ‘Amen’ behind that or something? Man, please….”
He opens his eyes and stares into hers. For a moment, she plays tomboy tough, matching his gaze with a glare. But when the intensity proves too much, she blinks, which, strangely enough, seems to disappoint her slight-figured companion. He shrugs, smiles and says, “The Lord giveth. The Lord taketh away.”
Tina’s frowning big time now. “You a preacher or something?”
He nods. “Aren’t we all to some extent? I illuminate your way today and, who knows, tomorrow you may do it for someone else.”
She redirects her gaze to the window, hoping he will conclude that she’s not worth the continued waste of time and/or effort. The patchwork quilt of spring flowers blooming along the parkway’s median catches her eye and cuts through her gloom. Bright batches of red. Clusters of yellow. A sprinkling of pink and white. All peering up from strategically placed mounds of mulch and neatly aligned blankets of green. The flower beds make Tina think of her mother. Spring, with its fully engorged buds, eager bursts of colors and softly whispered promises of life yet to be revealed, had always been Mama Ellen’s favorite time of the year. The rain has all but stopped, and Tina has settled back to enjoy the ride when her seatmate leans against her shoulder, peers past her and says, “Yup, looks like brother Rayford just might let up whupping on the Mrs. for a spell.”
Tina coughs and squirms to let him know the touchy-feely type she’s not, and he’d best get up off her, unless he’s itching for a face full of Mace. But after a few seconds of quiet pondering, she can’t help but say, “Rayford?” “That’s what my grandma used to call him—Rayford,” the
little old guy says, seeming all too happy to pick up where he’d left off. “You know, Beelzebub, Belial, Satan—the devil by any other name. Certainly, you’ve heard what folks say in reference to those instances, like today, when the sun is shining and it’s raining at the same time?”
I’ve just never heard him referred to as Rayford, is all,” she says.
The old guy smiles, only this time, instead of Mona Lisa light, he breaks wide with some straight-up Cheshire cat action.
“Well, since we’re on the subject of names, mine’s Homer. Homer McClatchett.” He holds out his palm. “And you are?”
She hesitates before reaching over. “McGee. Tina McGee.”
“McClatchett and McGee,” he says. “It’s got quite a nice ring to it, don’t you think?”
“Umpff,” she says, swiveling her head back towards the window. He clears his throat before summoning the necessary spit and wind to ask, of all things, if she feels like talking about it.
“Talking about what?” she says, hoping he’ll heed the annoyance in her voice.
“Whatever it is that seems to be ailing you,” he says. He pats the fanny pack strapped around his tiny waist. “Chances are I’ve got a little something here that just might be able to help.”
Tina stops him before he can whip out what she guesses isgoing to be a fistful of religious tracts or miniature versions of the New Testament.
“Look mister, I’m already a Christian, okay? I’ve been saved since the age of 7 and I tithe on a fairly regular basis. So there really isn’t any need for you to waste any of your precious time or mine witnessing to me. And rest assured, if you’re peddling anything other than ‘The Good News’ I’m not apt to buy anyway.”
He chuckles. “You ’bout got it all figured out, don’t you?”
Her head begins swimming, a sure sign that her blood pressure is soaring. “Believe me, mister,” she tells him, “if I did, I durn sure wouldn’t be sitting here killing time I ain’t got to spare with the likes of your nutty, motor-mouth behind.”
The old dude nods. “No harm intended, miss. None whatsoever.” He folds his hands in his lap, sits up in his seat and stares straight ahead.
After a couple long minutes spent listening to the murmuring blend of traffic sounds and conversation tidbits, Tina sighs, then says, “Look, I’m sorry. Okay? I’m not out to be ugly, it’s
just that, among other things, my car wouldn’t start this morning, I got rained on and, to top it off, I’ve got a son who ain’t nothing but a cheap, low-down, trifling, son-of-a—.”
“Whoa, whoa, now Miss McGee,” McClatchett says, waving his hands like a stern crossing guard. “Disrespecting a stranger like myself is one thing, but deliberately setting out to cuss yourself, well, that’s quite another.”
They both enjoy a good laugh behind that, after which Tina asks if he is one of the route’s regulars. “Never been on this bus or any like it in all my 70- plus years,” he says. But the first thing James Earl said to me when I woke up this morning was, ‘Homer, it’s going to be one
gorgeous day. Why not enjoy the scenery and let somebody else do the driving for a change? Go on, take the bus. Besides, you never know just who you might meet.’ He pauses long enough to flash her another brilliant display of teeth before adding, “And you know, I do believe he was right.”
Even though Tina suspects the little old guy is trying to flirt, she returns his grin tooth for tooth and says, “You and James Earl must be pretty tight. So how come he didn’t come with you?” Homer whips his bird-like head from side to side, as if he’sexpecting to catch a glimpse of something or someone. “Oh, I’m sure he’s lurking around here somewhere, taking note of my every word and deed. But early in the morning and late at night are generally the only times he actually comes right out and speaks to me.”
Tina gives the old guy plenty of time to clarify or perhaps even amend what he’s said. When it becomes obvious that he isn’t about to do either, she says, “Hold up! Are you saying your friend is… invisible?”
Homer cocks his eyebrows and sighs. “Well, if I had to describe him, I’d say he’s more of a presence than an actual being, a presence with a deep, commanding voice, you know, like that actor, James Earl Jones, hence, the name.”
“Uh-huh,” she says, cutting him a glance before shifting her focus to the folks around them. “You hear any others? Voices I mean?”
“None besides James Earl and my dear wife now deceased, Agnes Mae.” After a respectful pause and a solemn shake of the head, he nudges Tina and adds, “I know you’re probably doubting it right about now, Miss McGee, but I’m fairly certain I’ve still got most of my wits about me. Or at least enough to know that I’ve got a bit of something here you could use.” He unzips his fanny pack, pulls out a purplish votive along with a box of matches, and hands them to her.
“What’s this?” she asks, unable to fight the urge to run the scented candle beneath her nose for a good whiff.
“Lilac and lavender,” he says. “You like it? I make ‘em myself. And that particular combination was one of Agnes Mae’s all-time favorites.”
She reaches into her purse and digs out her billfold. A schizophrenic candle salesman is the last thing she would have ever pegged the old guy for.”How much?” she asks “Please,” he says, waving her off. “It’s a gift.”
“But why?” she asks, even as a part of her is telling her she doesn’t really want to know.
“Well, Miss McGee,” he says. “I hope you don’t take this the wrong way, but from the looks and sound of things, you could use a little light in your life.”
Amused and somewhat touched, she tells him, “I appreciate the thought, mister, but I think it’s gonna take something a whole heap stronger than this to help me. Now, if you can reach into that little black bag of yours and pull me out a tall, icy glass of Coke, three or four extra-strength aspirin, and a big fat Hershey’s chocolate bar with nuts, we might be able to do business.”
He places a thick, toast-colored hand on top of her thin, dark-skinned ones, and gives them a reassuring pat and squeeze.
“Believe me, Miss McGee, a little light is all any of us ever needs.”
She smiles, gathers her things and informs him that the next stop is hers. Instead of moving aside and letting her out, he reaches into that bottomless pouch of his and fishes out a stub of pencil and a scrap of paper.
“Mind if I get your number?”
“For what?” she says, tickled at the old guy’s straight- faced audacity. “You actually gonna try to call me up and invite me somewhere?”
“I certainly do aim to,” he says, still holding the paper and pencil out.
She takes the items and starts scribbling with absolutely no intention of giving him a number where she might be reached.
He takes the paper from her and folds it. “Oh, I don’t know,” he says, as if it really doesn’t matter. Tina scoots past Homer and opens her mouth to say goodbye. “A home-going, perhaps,” he says, flashing his toothy grin.
“Oh, okay! Well, it was nice talking to you,” Tina says, puzzled, but determined not to waste yet another second with the strange, lil-old kook.
Lori D. Johnson has an M.A. in Urban Anthropology from the University of Memphis. She is the author of two novels, A Natural Woman and After The Dance. Her work has appeared in a variety of other publications, including Chicken Soup for the Soul, Chapter 16, The Root, and Mississippi Folklife. She lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, but still considers Memphis, TN home. Occasionally, she blogs at “Lori’s Old School Mix”