The dawn was frosty on Birmingham's south side. It was a late spring.
These were the days that would make or break me, days of decision, days of choosing between life and an ignominious early death.
I had made the hardest choice. I had chosen life, and, oh, baby, what a drag. That's what the bottle will do to you.
But I had made some friends, other gentlemen losers with some use for me.
I was sleeping in a small cave on Red Mountain, a steep slope up the street that leads to downtown from the city's south side. On the top, a heroic size bronze of Vulcan, the pagan god of smelting iron, an artificer in bronze and brass, surmounted the dizzying heights where the highway passes over into Shelby County and its suburbs studded with other classical water temples and woodland shrines dedicated to the faded past. Their educated knowledge afforded those who once shook the hills and moved the banks and railroads to produce coke and steel in the city's furnaces glimpses of what the south could be or could have been if given half an imperial chance, I suppose.
In the mornings, I could grab a bite to eat in a rescue mission maintained by a fundamentalist denomination. That morning it had been leftover fried chicken from one of the fast food outlets—half frozen, naturally, and thawing slowly.
A Yankee sitting at the other end of the table complained.
"I never heard of having fried chicken for breakfast!" He kind of shouted it. "I thought you boys down south here had your fried chicken and watermelon after church on Sundays, huh?"
An old boy with a lean and hungry face, a goatee and a drooping moustache, said, dead calmly, "Then I guess you ain't from the south, are you?"
"Nah, man. I'm from Michigan."
"Well, look here, boy, you in the south now. Hear?"
"I don't want to hear none of yo' Yankee lip about it, now. Eat your fried chicken and hush."
That did it. They were at each other like two wild creatures, fangs, claws and paws. I watched as long as I could stand it, then I made my getaway, scooping up another piece of chicken and wrapping it all in a napkin. It was a mighty ugly scene. This was no time to hang around.
Trekking back uphill, I stopped at the old Masonic lodge at Five Points, located in an old red brick mansion.
It was cookie monster day, the day the women sent their old men down with home baked oatmeal and chocolate chips.
I often went in there to swab out the johns, stock the coke machine, empty the ashtrays, mop the floors, run the vacuum cleaner. You know, stumble bum stuff.
Good way to start the day. God knows, I was grateful to get it.
To tell you the truth, I kind of liked that old house. The brick was of the grade known as fire brick, hard enough to line a furnace or a chimney. The joints between each one were barely an eighth of an inch wide—each one plumb, square and level. Its three stories perched on a knob over the street. I guess it would give you the picture of what they mean when they describe something as an "imposing edifice."
We maintained the fiction that some day I would petition the lodge for the mysteries of the craft, but as yet the day had not come. Nevertheless, we were all friendly.
There's something about those old boys that you just can't deny. When they can see a man is trying to make it, trying to work, they don't scorn him.
I knew enough to get lost when an awkward silence occurred. That meant they were going to review memory work, something that should not be repeated in front of one who is as yet uninitiated.
About the time I was finishing up and Buck gave me some chump change for my work, Charlie H_______ came in the front door, loud, laughing, throwing mock punches and protecting his nut sack from retaliatory grabass attacks from the brethren there assembled.
The best description I ever heard any of them give on Charlie was that he was just plumb eat up with it. Friends, he was plumb eat up with it.
When you looked at Charlie, you saw the essence of the personality of a Babe Ruth or a Mickey Mantle, maybe even old Ty Cobb with all the meanness gone out of him—maybe. I guess you'd have to get an estimate on that.
But definitely Dizzy Dean.
Charlie was a good old boy through and through.
Washed-up professional baseball pitcher and proud of it.
Now that he's dead, I guess I don't mind saying that I loved Charlie because he loved me. We just seemed to be brothers deep in our souls and in our hearts.
I guess I could tell you about the time Charlie went crazy and started talking Indian talk like old Mr. Hemingway, then switched to writing everything down in a little pocket notebook he would stick in your face if there was something he wanted you to know.
That didn't last long. Some of them got him laughing, and the next thing you knew, he was telling the kind of stories you would hear in a mining camp, a logging show, or on a fishing vessel.
Oh, Charlie was a trooper. But he liked to hoo-raw and grabass more than anything else. He lived for it.
One day, we had been in the Safeway getting the makings for guacamole. We'd been all over town trying to get some cilantro, which they don't have much call for in Birmingham, so we struck out on that.
But it was just after church and all these little old blue-haired ladies were waiting in line with us, giving us the fish eye.
Charlie said, "Let's act like we're drunk, man."
Overhead, the music speakers were playing the plaintive warble of that country disco hit, "Looking For Love in All The Wrong Places" and Charlie suddenly jerked off his glasses and pulled his false eye out of its socket.
Then he burst into tears.
Now, here's this big old lunk—I'm sure he weighed over three hundred pounds because he was easily six-four or five inches tall and built like a bear—blubbered up and crying at the top of his lungs.
He said, "You know, Jim, I ain't got but one eye?"
I told him, no, I didn't know that.
Baloney. It was the first thing you noticed when you talked to Charlie. The missing eye didn't track the real one.
The truth was that he'd been sent down to the minor league just below the one he was playing in for the Los Angeles Dodgers and he was meaner than hell and mad at the world about it. He was supposed to be working on his stuff.
He brushed an old boy back twice. That's when the old boy stuck a line drive in his eye and his career was over.
Anyway, the little old blue-haired ladies by this time were totally outraged at this hoo-raw. He handed the glass eye to me and pointed to the empty socket, which he held open with the fingers of his other hand.
"Yeah, man, eye's plumb gone."
"God dog, Charlie, I had no idea," I said, trying hard to sound like this old boy on television who played a very dumb, very hillbilly Marine.
"You know what happened to me, Jim?"
"I give up, Charlie. What?"
"I got gonorrhea in it!"
There was a fresh outburst of tears. The blue-hairs began to stir and mutter their outrage.
"Ah was a'lookin' for love in all the wrong places!"
That's when all the blue hairs got out of our line, and we sailed through alone with our avocados and chips.
He sold mining equipment, which, he said, meant just listening to their bullshit and finding out what they wanted. From there, he said, the engineers and the bankers took over, anyway. That meant he travelled all over those mountains of northern Alabama and southern Tennessee, some over into Georgia—you know, the red dirt country where they get the coal and the iron ore.
Naturally, he worked for his brother-in-law, but he was okay about it. In fact, it made him all the better.
But it was a good day to run into Charlie. I mean, after watching those two act like a couple of animals where they had put something out at the back door for them to feed on and they had to bare their fangs and go animalistic—whew.
Who wants to be reminded of his true station in the world?
Charlie had a way of making you forget that.
Anyway, there he was, big as the side of a house and dressed in a sharp topcoat and wool suit, wingtips spit shined like mirrors, his old glasses polished like the chandeliers in the governor's mansion.
He glad handed me and asked me what was going on.
So I told him about breakfast, how it wasn't quite suitable for that Yankee's palate, and the like.
He threw back his head and howled.
"Well, the old boy from the south didn't tell him anything wrong, man. We eat fried chicken for breakfast around here. I've had it many a Monday morning and many a morning when there was a death in the family. It's what people bring after church or to funeral dinners. The hell with him if he can't take a joke."
At that moment, I flashed on a barn yard in a southern holler, on a farm, and realized that free ranging chicken was probably a good bet for eggs, for fried chicken, for whatever.
We got to talking—viztin', as he called it. He told me the damnedest story about fried chicken I ever heard.
You know, it's an old southern custom to kill a hen and have fried chicken when you know company is coming. Even when you don't know they're coming and just show up, folks do it because they want to. We're talking sliced tomatoes, fresh sweet corn, fried okra, mashed potatoes and gravy.
"Shut your mouth," Charlie said. He threw back his head and roared. He did a lot of roaring. It punctuated his conversations.
He said he was once on a sales trip way up a holler in Tennessee, about half lost and in no hurry, and he stopped in at a little crossroads store to have a Nehi and a Moon Pie.
"Hell, man, I was about to starve to death back in those days. It was right after my eye got put out. In fact, I ate so many Moon Pies my ass liked to gone into total eclipse."
Charlie liked to eat, even more he liked to talk about food and eating.
Anyway, back to the story of the crossroads store.
While Charlie was there, a widow and her son came to the store to get a few things. She told the man who was keeping store there to kill a chicken and butcher it for her. She had company coming.
You see, he didn't have much in the way of refrigeration, so he just kept the fryers and hens alive until they were needed.
So the old boy told his son to go kill the chicken and pluck it. They waited and waited. Then they waited some more.
Now, this storekeeper's son, according to Charlie, was obviously kind of retarded. He was barefooted and naked under his overalls and he had the kind of vacant expression many mentally challenged people affect.
Finally, the man called him and he came around to the front of the store with the chicken in his arms.
He was trying to pluck it, all right. The problem was that the chicken was still alive.
Exasperated, the storekeeper had told him, "Son, that chicken can't stand that."
"Chicken's got to stand it," the boy said. Charlie used those dull, uninflected tones to get the point across.
We all fell out laughing.
Why was that funny? You know, it sure as hell tickled all us old boys.
I don't know, but on that frosty morning in Birmingham when I, nearly naked myself, desperately poor and lost in a nation—and let's make no mistake about it, the south is still a nation, still defeated by war and deprivation—burst into hysterical laughter, joined by Charlie and a half a dozen other good old boys with nothing but time on our hands.
I guess we didn't know any better.