This week I’m sharing posts I wrote years ago about the people I got to know and love through Meals on Wheels. Today, meet my friend Jerry.
Jerry’s waited for me on his back porch every other Wednesday for nearly five years now, so I know exactly what to expect from him. He’ll be dressed for church since it’s Wednesday, even though Prayer Meeting won’t start for at least seven hours or so. His left eye will stare at me while the right one darts around, and his right arm will be drawn up to his side, unless he decides to unfold it with his good arm and wave it around like a ruler to emphasize a point.
I also know to expect Show and Tell. Sometimes Jerry will show me the stuffed animal his sister Rosemary gave him for Valentine’s Day, the one that says I love you when you squeeze its paw. Other times it’s the family of monkeys his daddy carved out of peach pits, the Last Supper clock that his preacher gave him, or one of his neckties of Bible verses.
“He’s like a child,” I told Todd. A child in a sixty year old’s body. A child who’ll tell you that his boxers feel scratchy inside his pants, or that the smell of cabbage made him throw up yesterday. A child who likes to tell stories.
How Jerry loves to tell stories.
I can recite most of Jerry’s stories by heart, particularly his favorites which often involve household appliances. There’s the one about the day his vacuum cleaner belt broke, and then the replacement belt broke right after that. (!) And there’s the story about the dryer he bought from June, a girl who works with Rosemary. That dryer is 26 years old and has never been scratched SO DON’T EVEN THINK ABOUT PUTTING YOUR KEYS ON IT, HEAR?
There are also the family stories, most of which focus on what a hussy 71 year old Rosemary is, how she took his camera without permission and took a photo of herself WITH A MAN (!) and how she loves to go to the Moose Lodge where people walk around with a beer in each hand. “I told her I can’t go in there cause my church would throw me out, and then what would I have? No church to go to. I’d be all alone!” Every time he tells it, tears dribble down his face.
What story would it be today?
By the looks of the photo he was holding, it’d have to do with his sister Grace.
Grace died of a heart attack when she was only thirty-one.
“She was good,” he’d probably say. “So good. So much gooder than Rosemary.” Then he’d start in on his favorite story of late, the one in which Rosemary called him on the phone and said “Guess what we just ate,” and he said “What,” and she said, “Peanut butter and banana sandwiches,” and he said, “Well, where’s mine?” He’d tell me again how Rosemary used to REFUSE to bring him any bananas, even though she KNOWS he loves peanut butter and banana sandwiches.
I’d listen and then I’d say what I always said at the end of the story: “Jerry, why don’t I go get you some bananas right now?” and he’d say, “Naw, I got some in the kitchen. That’s not the point.”
I closed the car door and prepared myself.
“Hey Jerry. How are you doing today?”
“Fine. Did I ever show you this picture?”
“You sure did,” I say. “Your sister Grace was a pretty lady.”
“Yes,” he says, stroking the photo and smiling at it. “She sure was. She didn’t deserve what happened to her.”
“No she didn’t. It’s really sad that she died so young.”
Jerry snapped his head up and looked at me funny. “That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about that man she married. The evil one. The one who woulda kilt her. That James Thornton.”
Within a minute, Jerry is crying, telling me the story of how James used to make Grace walk while he drove the car, and said cruel things to her and made her cry. Sometimes he even hit her, and she’d come running back home, to Mama and to Daddy and to him. Jerry was twenty three then. Twenty four when she died.
As Jerry tells me, the tears run down his face, through the uneven patches of whiskers, falling off his chin onto his church shirt.
“She’d run away time after time, but she’d always go back. Cept’n that last time James Thornton tried to come get her. Daddy looked out the window and saw James Thornton’s car and said, ‘Ain’t no way he’s getting her back. Over my dead body.’ He pointed the gun at the car but it jammed. And there comes James Thornton, out of the car, storming across the yard. Daddy told Mama, he said, ‘Mama, get me the hammer.’”
Jerry stopped for a moment to get a dirty dishtowel from inside and blow his nose on it. “You should have seen it. Daddy smacked him in the head and he fell just like a tree falling down. BOOM! Right on the floor. One of my shoes was under him. I remember that. James Thornton fell on one of my shoes.”
“After he got out of the hospital he never bothered her again. But you know what? She died the next year anyway.”
Jerry took a deep breath and then looked at me.
“There’s a lot I don’t understand,” Jerry said, wiping at tears, “but I know Jesus saves. And I know He’s with my sister Grace. And Mama and Daddy. Rosemary too, one of these days. Course she might not end up there.” He snorted loudly, the tears stopped, and then he smiled and started telling me about the day his vacuum cleaner belt broke.
A few minutes later, I patted his hand and went back to my car to finish my route, my heart pulled out of shape by his tears, by images of Grace and James Thornton, and Jerry, witnessing such a violent act.
I got back in my car and went on with my day, but as I drove back to suburbia, Jerry kept drifting into my thoughts. He needs the daily meal, to be sure, but I think that just as much, he needs to be heard. To be seen. Don’t we all need someone that we can tell our stories to? To listen? To notice?
Thank you, Meals on Wheels, for what you do for people like Jerry, and that people like me get to be a part of it.