“People are lonely because they build walls instead of bridges”
(Joseph F. Newton)
I looked him over carefully, hesitating to identify myself, the thought entering my head as I focused on the brown paper envelope he held in his hand, “he’s a damned process server!”
It didn’t make any sense to me, however, since I’d not been anywhere to witness anything, commit any crime, except poaching, and all of my bills were paid! What few I had were paid automatically out of my checking account. Perhaps this had something to do with my investments or properties I owned or perhaps the bank itself, but that didn’t make any sense either! My thoughts were interrupted by the young man asking again,
“Mr. John Thomas Gifford?”
This time, when I looked him over, I saw not a process server, but a young man, tanned brown from the sun, slim, slight of build, weighing perhaps a buck twenty in wet clothes, brown hair covered in a baseball cap, dressed in blue jeans, t-shirt, and tennis shoes; certainly not someone who, for a living, accosted others with legal papers, bringing sweat dripping down their ass cracks and around their balls! No, someone quite the opposite, I thought, but what the opposite was, I was uncertain.
“That depends on who’s asking!” I responded finally, but cautiously.
The young stranger smiled, a completely disarming, almost innocent smile, one which would brighten anyone’s day, no matter how depressing or overwhelming that day might be.
“Earl Henry Jackson, Sir,” he said extending his hand, “late of Cape Girardeau, Missouri and seeking a Mr. John Thomas Gifford, supposedly in residence on Gifford’s Island, if the information the Chief Deputy at the County Sheriff’s Office is correct.”
The Chief was my cousin and I know he wouldn’t send someone out here unless it was important or he was in a pissy mood and did it just for kicks! He was still a bit testy about me inheriting the Island, but getting better, at least I thought he was. We were on speaking terms and decent relationship otherwise, but he could be a trickster, just the same.
“What’s in the envelope?” I thought I may as well cut to the chase and find out just what in hell was going on before I let him in.
His answer, said with that same disarming smile along with determination, left no doubt in my mind of his perseverance and fortitude, giving me pause to reflect on my first impressions, “If you let me in, I’ll show you!”
“Not if you’re a process server; then you’re not coming any closer and you can look elsewhere for your ‘Mr. Gifford’.”
Eyebrows raised in question, “What’s a process server?” the young man asked, cocking his head to the side, face twisted with a puzzled look and a frown.
“Come on in,” I sighed, “and take a seat!” indicating a chair at the little table on the porch. Anyone who didn’t know what a process server was couldn’t be all bad, but just the same, I kept my back away from him, unwilling to reveal my first line of defense stuffed in my belt in the small of my back. Once he was seated, I joined him, but on the other side of the table where I could face him, study him, and react quickly if there was a need; well, as quickly as my stiff and tired body would allow me.
He sat quietly for a couple of minutes and began to fidget while I continued my appraisal, until he finally said, “May I?” laying the envelope in front of him.
“Go ahead; I’m curious as hell to see what’s so all-fired important for you to run a small runabout up river from Missouri to see me.”
“No way,” he giggled, suddenly giving me a pause again in my impressions of him. It was no less than the giggle of a young man, enjoying a joke or as a small boy discovering something funny for the first time. “I drove my pick-up truck north and rented the boat from a place called ‘Hennessey’s’. That little five gallon tank on that fifteen horse kicker wouldn’t go that far anyway.”
He opened the envelope and produced a yellowed copy of a newspaper. One small column was circled in ink, but I could read the bold type of the article title.
“This is a Caruthersville, Missouri newspaper article from eleven years ago,” he began, “telling of the death of Raymond Jackson, age twenty-two; saying his body was found in the river by two boys, Cameron Saint-Denis and John Thomas Gifford. Ray Jackson was my older brother and I want to know what happened and how he died! What better way to find out than ask the two people who found him.”
Oh, my god; the incident with the dead guy was eleven years ago, over a year before the death of my lover, leaving me with ten years of suffering, mourning, and anguish; a time when I spoke little, but thought often of that summer! I hesitated, sorting my thoughts before beginning to answer, but Jackson continued,
“Would I be able to talk to Mr. Saint-Denis concerning this since he was with you that day? It’d be helpful if I could speak to both of you at once.”
I sat quietly, uncertain how to answer his question. There was really only one answer, but I was hesitant to speak aloud, “he’s dead and buried in the Rose Hill Cemetery” so I just replied softly,
“He passed away a little over ten years ago.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” he said, responding to my announcement. “In that case, could I prevail upon you to describe the circumstances concerning how and when you discovered my brother’s body or would it be too distressing to you?”
Shaking my head ‘no,’ responding, “But I need another beer before I start on that story. How about you – drink beer do you, that is, if you’re old enough?”
Jackson laughed, admitting, “I know I look young, but I’m really twenty-two and I’d love a cold beer. It’s damned hot on that river. Please, friends and family call me ‘Stony’.”
Raising my eyebrows, flexing a smile across my face, looking at him, speaking with some tease in my voice, “I’ll bet that comes from the Confederate Civil War General, right?”
Stony’s face blushed bright red under the deep tan his face and body sported. “Don’t I wish; I was the youngest of fourteen children and, in big families, the older ones take care of the younger ones. Raymond, eleven years old when I was born, became my care-giver, my nurse-maid, my protector, and my hero as I grew. Momma was growing older, our house was so small, so my crib was placed in the big boy’s room and Ray was always there for me. He fed me my bottle, burped me, wiped my butt, and changed my diaper. He claimed I must’ve been born with a hard-on since I seemed to be erect every time he tried to change me and sprayed him and anyone else within range with piss. Ray called me ‘Stony’ and it stuck.”
Laughing, I had to admit it was a great story and a strong indication of how nick-names are acquired, but I refrained from asking him if he’d give a demonstration. Instead, I handed Stony a beer, asking, “Why are you so concerned with your brother’s death some eleven years or so after it happened? Your family should’ve received a police report or a coroner’s report!”
He rolled the beer bottle in between his hands, raised it to his lips, and took a long, hard swig of the amber brew it contained. After swallowing, he answered, “I was about ten when Ray died and it seemed as though my world came to an end when I heard the news. I spent many a day and night crying over the loss of my brother. Time doesn’t heal all wounds, it only helps you compensate. After high school, I attended a tech school and became a cabinet maker. Momma died, Daddy passed away the year before, and one of my older brothers, Le Roy, moved into the house. There just wasn’t enough room for me and his family too.”
“I found a job in Cape Girardeau and before I moved up there, Le Roy gave me some papers Momma kept about Ray’s death. Le Roy knew Ray and I was close and figured I’d want them. Among the papers were the newspaper article and a copy of the sheriff’s report. Both documents said Ray died by drowning. The sheriff’s report went on to say that he apparently had fallen down a rock levee, after drinking to excess, broke his neck, and drowned but there was no autopsy performed.”
When Stony said “broken neck” he instantly had my undivided attention. Cameron died in the same manner, only he didn’t drown; he fell from a bridge. Perhaps it’s only coincidental, but just the same, I began paying close attention to every word, every little detail in Stony’s narration, trying to draw some correlation between the two deaths, if there was any!
“How did Ray end up here, this far North, away from home?” I interrupted.
“Ray was a carnie worker and traveled with a show based in Missouri- done it ever since he quit high school in tenth grade. He’d work up north all summer then come home and do odd jobs or whatever he could find to make some cash. He was here in June that year at some sort of river festival or something the carnival was booked for. You know, I can understand falling, but not from the effects of alcohol. You see, Ray didn’t drink, made him terribly sick, and couldn’t stand the stuff. Me, now, that’s different,” and emptied his beer bottle.
“So, you came north seeking an answer, right?”
“More than that; while living in Cape Girardeau, I had little else to do but visit the public library. They’ve got a good one there with newspapers, microfilms of newspapers from all over, a good collection of reference materials, and computers with internet access. When I began reading back issues and checking various stories in papers posted on the web, in hopes of finding out more, I ran into other cases of young guys, about Ray’s age- college guys most were, who supposedly got drunk and either fell in the river or off of a dormitory roof or something similar; in each case, an apparent broken neck was part of the cause of death. I suppose it’s not unusual in a college town, but they were all within a three hundred mile radius of here. I began to grow suspicious, so I decided someday, if I ever had the time, I’d begin checking them out!”
Sitting patiently while he told me of his concerns, and now mine, I waited for him to continue, explain why he had the time now and not previously. He sat, looked at his empty beer bottle, and shuffled his feet a few times, seemingly uncomfortable for some reason.
“Want another beer?” I offered hoping to ease his discomfort and perhaps loosen his tongue a bit more.
Stony smiled and nodded appreciatively so, I retrieved two more beers from the fridge, along with some smoked fish. I gathered a couple of paper plates and crackers from the cupboard and returned to the porch. Handing a beer to Stony, he accepted it with thanks and began, apologetically, “I don’t want to end up drinking all your beer and leaving you without sufficient quantity with the hot weather upon us as it is.”
Opening it, he thought a moment, and asked, “How do you keep it cold? I don’t see any electric power lines or hear a generator.”
I took my time explaining my propane refrigerator and freezer, kitchen range, and fuel oil heater used for back-up heat for the winter. Reassuring him I had plenty of beer in the fridge and more to put in and urged him to drink up and enjoy it. He seemed to relax and drew a long drink from the bottle.
As he stacked a healthy portion of smoked fish on a cracker, I prodded, “Why don’t you tell me why you have time to pursue this quest of yours and your trip here.”
Stony swallowed a mouthful of fish and crackers and washed it down with cold beer before beginning. “My move to Cape Girardeau was a good move, I thought at the time. I found employment right after graduation with a company which did custom cabinet work for high-end contractors, home owners, and other customers. It wasn’t just local contractors or customers; the company catered to home builders and contractors throughout the Midwest. It wasn’t a large company, but large enough to have a strong client base for the finished wood products they produced. The starting pay wasn’t all that great, but I thought the future would be good – I was wrong about that!”
“The owner wanted to increase his profits, evidently he didn’t think his profit/loss ratio was where he wanted it to be, so he had us begin taking short cuts on our work, substituting the number one quality material with a slightly lesser grade and then concealing the cheaper wood with stains and varnishes or placing it in areas where it wouldn’t be noticed. Come to find out, he was purchasing a vacation home in Florida and felt he needed to pay for it all at once, I think!”
Listening to him I could sense the frustrations he experienced when being asked to perform or build shoddy or inferior products. He felt betrayed, ashamed his work was being exploited, and customers were getting screwed royally. Complaints to his foreman did little good; in fact it had a debilitating effect on his employment performance reviews. Stony started catching shit from the other workers and the foreman, in what he thought, was a deliberate attempt to force him out!
“After three years of employment, the foreman came to me and said they were thinking of sending me down the road, unless I’d become a more ‘agreeable and cooperative employee.’ He claimed I wasn’t performing up to company standards, failed to meet production goals, and was causing a moral problem in my relationships with fellow employees. So here I am, twenty-two years old, no job, a pickup truck loaded with my personal gear, clothes and stuff, a tent, and some cash in my pocket and damned little of that if I can’t find some work!”
He’d been camping his way north, hoarding his cash for gas and food, but eating lightly. That explained the way he was devouring the crackers and fish, along with the beer. He thought, if nothing else was accomplished, he’d find out what happened to his brother by talking to Cameron and me and worry about finding a job later. It was his reasoning a good cabinet maker could find employment somewhere and if it wasn’t cabinet making, he’d do something else. I believed him, he appeared to be sincere, a hard worker, determined, and honest, at least that was my current impressions. However, my impressions of him had already changed several times, but this time I felt I was right. Beyond finding out what happened to his brother and maybe securing employment, Stony had no other plan of action!
It was starting to crowd six o’clock and, although still light out, I was growing hungry for something more than smoked fish and crackers. I asked if he wanted to stay for supper and his eyes lit up like a Christmas tree, so I gathered he hadn’t really eaten a decent meal in a while. After three beers he was a bit tipsy so I asked, “When did you eat last?”
He was a bit hesitant, which I noticed he often became when answering a question he really didn’t want to answer rather than lie, he finally said, “Last night at a fast food joint. I was saving my cash for gas. Once I arrived in town and found out where you lived, I spent my daily food allotment for boat rental.”
“Food allotment,” I gasped incredulously, “what the hell is that?”
Stony smiled a fucking goofy smile and replied, “I only have so much cash; in order to make certain it lasts as long as possible, I allow myself so much per day for food and the rest for gas. I hadn’t planned on boat rental.”
“Where do you sleep?”Again, the hesitation – “In the truck, parks, or anyplace I don’t have to pay. I figure I’ll find some place to sack out around town when I take the boat back to Hennessey’s.”
Thank you for reading “Gif’s Island – Chapter Four - “People are lonely because they build walls instead of bridges” – (Joseph F. Newton)
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or locales is entirely coincidental.