In which Citizen Jim arrives in need of a macabre (read: funeral-based) favor, while Chicken Sheets is just trying to hold everything together until her electricity comes back on.
By Saturday morning, the electricity lost to the 105 mph winds of Hurricane Sally still hadn’t been restored. It was estimated that power crews might have things up and running anywhere between two days and two weeks.
The last time I experienced a weather event so severe was in 1998. During that hurricane I drove across the Bayway Bridge from Mobile to Fairhope after finding out that my girlfriend at the time was cheating on me with the RA of her dorm. I can’t recall what the storm was called, so I usually think of it as Hurricane Melinda (my ex-girlfriend) or Hurricane Stephen (the RA).
To make myself stop thinking about Hurricane Betrayal (as I also thought of it sometimes) I started making a list of all the problems that Hurricane Sally was causing me. I did this by the light of a single emergency candle affixed to a salad plate, so the first problem I wrote down was my lack of electricity.
The lack of electricity, of course, was causing many other tragedies to unfold, including (but not limited to) not being able to make a cup of tea, and not being able to take a hot shower. And having no air conditioning. And watching the charges on my iPhone and iPod fade because I had no way of recharging them.
There was also the sad fact that I couldn’t watch my Saturday morning cartoons. And because there was no internet, the video chat I had with my best friend Beth every weekend had to be put off.
On the bright side, I wouldn’t have to do laundry. In addition, my lifelong fantasy of living in a lighthouse and having to eat kippered herring by candlelight would most assuredly become a reality.
Just as I hooked my finger through the tab to peel the lid from a tin of smoked fish, I looked up from this task to see Citizen Jim outside my kitchen window, which I’d raised so a breeze (not a very cool one, however) could circulate through my stuffy little Hobbit House.
“Do you want me to slice open the screen and climb in through the window, or should I go to the door?” Citizen Jim asked.
“I would prefer that you enter through the door,” I said, amazed that I still had to say these kinds of things to the person I love most in the world.
Maybe more amazing are the responses I get to these statements.
“I don’t know if I want to waste time with that!” he said. He added, “It’s a dire pickle I’m in!”
Almost certain this was not true, I said, “Then don’t just stand there! Run to the front door!”
I was opening the door just as Citizen Jim skidded around the corner of the house.
“Oh, Stimpy, this is awful! You gotta help me!” said Citizen Jim as he ran inside.
“What’s wrong? Is it your mom? Did a tree fall on her cottage?” I asked.
Citizen Jim scowled. “Huh? I’m sure Mama’s fine, but listen—”
I couldn’t let him go on. “You mean you’ve come all this way and you haven’t checked on your mother after a Category 2 hurricane just ripped through the county?” I asked.
Citizen Jim crossed his arms over his chest. “You know that old saying about how it takes a village to raise a child?” he asked.
“Of course,” I said, grimacing when I thought that Hillary Clinton had used It Takes a Village as the title of a book.
“Well, Mama is less trouble than a child, and she lives at Homestead Village. So I don’t need to worry myself about her. Believe me, I’ve got bigger problems right now,” he said.
I rolled my eyes. “If you say so.”
“I don’t just say so, I know so,” he said. “I guess you haven’t heard the news?”
“Honestly, the only news I’m worried about concerns the electricity coming back on in Fairhope so I can stop writing this story on notebook paper with a pencil,” I said.
“Just when I think you couldn’t possibly be a worse friend, you always double-down and prove that you can,” Citizen Jim said.
“What have I done, now?” I asked, though I knew he might also be talking about something I had failed to do.
There are three words which perfectly describe my relationship with Citizen Jim.
“I guess you know that Winston Groom died, right?” he asked.
In fact, I had heard that news. But I was sure admitting it would only make Citizen Jim angry for reasons I would be powerless to fathom.
“Oh, jeez. I didn’t know that,” I lied.
“Yeah, I’m not surprised,” he said. “You never try to stay informed about anything that might ruin my life.”
See? I wasn’t kidding about those three words!
With no idea where this might possibly be going, the only thing I could safely say was, “I’m sorry.”
“Not as sorry as that booze-guzzling hack oughta be!” Citizen Jim said.
Glad to hear I wasn’t his only enemy on this day, I agreed. “Man oh man! You got that right!”
“Stuff a bra in it, Sister Kristy. I need your help, not your smart mouth,” said Citizen Jim, “If I don’t get that money back I’ll be ruined!”
I had to admit: this was a curve in the road I hadn’t anticipated. In fact, I was more than a little curious to hear the story behind such a crackpot statement regarding a person Citizen Jim barely knew in passing. Even combining our experiences with Winston Groom wouldn’t support a laughable claim that we were truly acquainted with him on any level.
From the days when Citizen Jim and I were bookstore clerks near the place where Groom made his home in the 1990s, we each had one defining experience with the author of Forrest Gump.
Mine was, by my own estimation, the more harrowing.
On a Saturday during college football season, Groom and a small entourage traipsed into the store stinking of Cuban cigars and expensive wine. He led his friends toward the fiction section where I was shelving books and barked, “Hey! You got any books by Stuart Woods?”
He was standing within six inches of the shelf where there were a few copies of a new book by Woods.
Because Groom and his friends were blocking my path to the books by Stuart Woods, I said, “I think we do.”
But before I could scooch past and lay my hands on one of the books, Groom repeated his question, this time in a drunken snarl. “Stuart Woods? He writes fiction—do you know what fiction is?”
I was stunned into silence by this, which goaded Groom into deeper assholery. “Do you know what a book is?” he spat.
“Look behind you,” I said, and walked away, my face burning with embarrassment and my eyes full of hot tears.
Citizen Jim’s story was, on the whole, less confrontational. I won’t go into the play-by-play, but it involved Groom’s refusal to autograph a shipment of The Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. Cookbook. His refusal hinged upon the fact that, according his then-wife, “He only makes fifty cents on every copy of that book.”
If this greed-based, cockamamie logic actually held any water, signing all those goddamn books in an hour would’ve netted Winston Groom more than either Citizen Jim or I would be paid for a 16-hour shift during those days of a $4.25 minimum wage.
Neither of these tales explained Citizen Jim’s confusing babble. Though I was sure I’d regret it, I asked him: “What money are you talking about?”
“I know you can’t keep a secret, but that wine-soaked sonuvabitch is dead, now, so what does it matter?” he said.
“It doesn’t,” I answered, “so let’s hear it.”
“Make us a pitcher of lemonade and some popcorn, because what I’m about to tell you is gonna sound like the most convoluted heist movie ever made.”
This was the sort of hyperbole I never trusted from Citizen Jim. “There’s no power—I can’t make popcorn,” I said. “And we’re under a boil-water advisory, so lemonade is out of the question.”
“If you can’t even make popcorn, how the hell does the city expect you to boil water before you use it?” he said. “I guess you’ll have to fire up that giant cauldron in the backyard where you cook up your hate potions and make special teas out of dog turds and pecan shells.”
“I’ll worry about boiling water later,” I said, desperate to get him back on track and off the verge of accusing me of witchcraft. “Just explain to me why Winston Groom’s death is costing you money.”
“His death isn’t costing me shit—it was his life that put me in this financial hole!” said Citizen Jim.
“He blackmailing you, wasn’t he?” I asked, hoping to God this was true.
Boy, did that ever make Citizen Jim mad!
“I oughta sue your ass to Bayou La Batre and back for slandering me like that! How could someone as upstanding and blameless as I be blackmailed by a Merlot-sponge like Winston Groom?”
“You’re right,” I said.
“Now, do you want to keep being my problem, or do you want me to tell you my problem?” he asked.
“Neither, but go ahead and unburden your heart, Precious Lamb,” I said.
“Okay. So. You remember old Winston got nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, right?” he said.
I did remember. “Yep. For Conversations with the Enemy,” I said.
“No idea,” said Citizen Jim.
“Actually, it was. The book was called Conversations with the Enemy,” I said.
Citizen Jim shrugged. “Could be—don’t care. I just know he didn’t win. And every time I found myself down in Point Clear at Boo Boo’s King Kole Klub to get a steak and some West Indies Salad with Dudie and Squattsey, he was always there. And every time I saw him, he’d corner me by the jukebox and tell me his sad tale,” Citizen Jim said, then pretended to cry and sound mournful as he imitated Winston Groom. “Same shit every time. ‘I ain’t never gonna get nommernated for no Wurlitzer Prize again!’ he’d say, then he’d just cry like a baby.”
“And he was right,” I said, shaking my head. “I almost feel sorry for him.”
“Oh you do, do you?” Citizen Jim said. “Well, I wish to Christ on the Hollywood sign it’d been you he backed up against the pool table and sobbed at while Dudie and Squattsey were ordering double shots of Jägermeister for everyone at Boo Boo’s, because then you’d be in this fix, not me!”
“I still don’t know what fix you’re in,” I said.
“If you don’t shut up and let me tell you, I’m gonna fix it so you lose track of time from being knocked into next week!” he said.
I wanted to but didn’t dare compliment him on the originality of this threat. Instead, I stared at him while concentrating on trying to keep my mouth shut.
“All right. I finally got sick of poor old Winston crying on my shoulder and blocking my escape while Dudie and Squattsey were running up my tab at the bar. So I told him I’d nominate him until he finally won that prize. He got real excited, too. He said, ‘You do that and I’ll split my Wurlitzer Prize money with you fifty-fifty!’ We shook on it and everything,” Citizen Jim said.
“Oh no,” I muttered.
“Oh yes. Every time he wrote a new book, I tried to grease those Pulitzer wheels with cash—a hundred bucks here, five hundred there. For years, Stimpy! Thousands of dollars I paid those rat bastards!”
“And he still never got no Wurlitzer Prize,” I said, frowning.
“No, he never got no Wurlitzer Prize,” Citizen Jim said. “Worse yet, I was dumb enough to tell my wife about my gentlemen’s agreement with Winston after I found out the S.O.B. kicked the bucket. Now she wants me to demand the Pulitzer Committee pay me back all those worthless bribes.”
I understood, now.
“I understand, now,” I said. “You want me to write a very strongly worded letter and hand-deliver it to Bob or Steve, right?”
“Who the hell—a letter? You think I could get any of my money back from those assholes with a letter? Is this story by Charles Dickens?”
“But Robert Blau and Steven Hahn are the chairs of the Pulitzer Committee,” I said.
I really thought I was being helpful.
“Look here. That money I tried to bribe the Pulitzer people with is long gone. They spent it on fine dining and top shelf booze and swag bags for everyone but poor old Winston.”
“Then I don’t know what else I can do,” I said.
“I have no idea why I keep thinking you’ll be able to connect more than two dots without direction from me,” said Citizen Jim. “What I’m saying is that you need to put on a black veil, your black stilettos, and the sexiest funeral dress you can find at the Goodwill so you can get all this sorted out before they dump that asshole’s flag-draped coffin into a grave.”
Words were failing me, so I let my face do the talking.
“Don’t shoot that look you always give me when you think I’m talking out of my ass because I’m high,” he said. “If you don’t go to that funeral and get my money back, you’re gonna hafta go to a funeral anyway—mine! After my wife kills me!”
There was no use refusing or arguing. Thus, I did what I always do when Citizen Jim orders me to perform some far-fetched task that he also wants me to complete the moment he demands that I do it.
I agreed to get started on it as soon as he left.
“All right, but don’t dilly-dally around here cleaning up your flooded hallway or picking up branches in your front yard. Time is of the essence! I’ve got debts to settle!” he said.
“How much money do I need to collect?” I asked.
“I need what’s owed to me, plus a little interest. Maybe around fifteen or twenty percent,” he said. “And maybe I’ll give you half of that as a tip for helping me out.”
“How much will that come to?” I asked.
“The longer you stand around asking me stupid questions, the closer that credit card bill from our beach trip gets to being due. Now get on the ball, Chicken Sheets!”
As soon as Citizen Jim left, the lights came on. I made some popcorn and looked around, contemplating all the post-hurricane work that lay ahead of me.