Updated: Apr 1, 2019
It’s always been thought provoking for me when life events are so intense that I mark the passage of time by them. Some years seem mundane but the months between June 2017 and June 2018 were anything but that. I’m going to tell you a story but first, here are some facts.
The events of my brother’s death in mid-June 2017 left me rattled, uncertain, and soul-deep sad. All I could think in the beginning was, "He was my first friend..." and then I would cry. As Hurricane Harvey rolled through Houston in August, my melancholy deepened. I visited the site of his death at his birthday, leaving a little remembrance and then had to turn away. The holidays came and went and before I knew it, spring was approaching. Somewhere in here I felt my spirit start to stir and Ode to Mr. Jody Foot crept from deep inside my heart, leaking onto the page. Then it sat. Just sat. What was I to do with it?
I read it to some of my writing friends, they gave me a head nod. My son and sister listened to a reading of the story and agreed it had merit. Finally I called my parents and read it to them with a shaking voice and trembling hands. I then asked if I could post it on my blog to recognize not only the life my brother had lived, but also his grisly persona that was as complex as it was valuable.
In real life, he was a force to be reckoned with, like the time we were playing tag during recess when I was in elementary school. My brother and his cronies were hanging out on the teeter-totters, too cool for school as me and my friends ran and laughed. Somewhere in the rowdiness, I was shoved by a boy who had a crush on me. This resulted in me sliding through the mud and face-planting into the wooden logs that framed our schoolyard. My lips were busted, my front teeth all but knocked out (they fell out a week later), I may have even cried but I don’t remember. What I do recall is rolling over and there he was, my big brother punching the snot out of the kid that pushed me. That image of my protector and a giant playground brute has always held fast.
A couple of years ago he called me, excited to the point of giddiness. For someone as stoic as he was it was abnormal to hear him this enthusiastic. He declared that he was going to write a book and had decided his pen name would be Jody Foot. He laughed, his loud and grinding laugh, though his book didn't materialize the pen name stuck, at least between us.
When I received the news about his untimely death, I went to Austin in order to collect his belongings and view him before the cremation. I held his hand and wept for a long time before I limped from the room. My first friend was gone and our family needed answers, I needed answers. Using the clues in his belongings, my son and I were able to trace his movements over the final days of his life, up to just a few hours before his death. Those hours are where this story begins. I love you, Jody Foot. We all do. Here’s to you, my brother and first friend...
Ode to Mr. Jody Foot
Pain shoots up my shins, like tendons tearing from the bones. My girlfriend will never let me hear the end of it. This is the price I pay every time I go on vacation and don’t run. Shin splints are the bane of my exercise habit.
Hobbling off the well groomed trail I head for the nearest bench nestled close to the banks of Lady Bird Lake. Propping my aching leg on the green painted steel bench, I attempt to stretch. The ear buds are blaring and sweat is dripping from my body as a brooding man stalks past. Jumping a little, I watch as he drops down just inches from my foot. His shaved scalp reflects the sunlight. He looks annoyed by my fright. My heart races but not from exertion.
“Don’t worry, dude,” the mass of a man growls as he digs in his green military knapsack. A reusable shopping bag stuffed with his belongings rests between his feet.
I gape. The force this beast resonates makes my breath catch. I find myself hopping, trying to regain my altered balance. The grizzled man in all black stares back at me, not even breaking a sweat. I’m prepared to give him my cash or phone if he demands it. Maybe chucking it at him and running like hell is the best option. Austin has a large homeless population and this guy has the presence of a King Pin.
“Hey!” he yells, snapping his fingers to catch my attention. “What’s your problem?”
“Nothing.” I mutter, flustered by the movements of this enigma.
“Huh,” he scoffs, sliding to the opposite end of the bench. “Go on and stretch. I’m just going to be here longer and didn’t want to wait to sit.”
And you knew your size meant you could push your weight around without a rebuff, I thought.
“Or don’t,” he shrugged with a chuckle. Pulling a stack of white papers and a dime-bag of weed from his knapsack he seemed satisfied with ignoring me. “Shin splints suck but what do I care? You’re going to be limping back to your car anyways.”
As if this beast knew anything about running, I rolled my eyes. His arrogance pisses me off. Propping my foot back on the bench, I leaned in. Limping away would sting my pride and give this homeless bully satisfaction. Snapping back might get me beat to a pulp. This animal’s forearms are covered in tattoos and I have no desire for the scorpion on his right fist to be introduced to my face. It was time to do the more Austin-like thing and find a middle ground.
“Can I get a hit of that?” I nodded at the joint he’d was rolling.
The hulk-ish specimen didn’t respond. Switching legs, I leaned in with a smile. His eyes flickered to me as he held out his work for inspection. “For five bucks you can have the whole thing.”
A business deal, I mused. It was a terrible one, but money didn’t matter and my girlfriend had decided she didn’t want weed at the house. Between the heat of the afternoon and the ache in my leg, I could afford this heist.
“How’d you know I had cash?” I asked, pulling a fiver out of the key pocket in my shorts.
“Lucky guess,” he growled, eyes turning to the flowing current nearby. “That and the fact that your Benz key is clipped to your shorts and not tucked away.”
Observant. His eyes flicked back to me as we made the exchange and then returned again to the river.
“Mind if I sit?” It was a stupid question but I was starting to feel like an intruder.
He shrugged, pulling a red lighter from his bag and handing it to me.
“Thanks,” I took it with a nod and lit the paper with a puff. “What’s your name?”
Ignoring the question, he nodded at the joint I was rolling between my thumb and index finger. I handed it over like I used to do in college. There was no telling where this guy was from or what he’d been up to but the rule of the smoke had to be observed.
“Jody Foot,” he said around the deep drag he was holding in his chest.
It was a strange name but seemed to fit. We sat in silence, passing the herb between us while watching paddle-boarders float along the river. With each inhale the surrounding trees and brush seemed to become more vibrant. A great pine with giant roots stood on the bank in front of us. Both sides were worn down where Austin-ites had walked to the river's edge for a better view of the downtown buildings in the distance.
“This is a good spot,” Jody announced. “I come here a lot.”
“You live around here?” I asked, trying not to be offensive. It was clear this guy was homeless but I wasn’t going to just say that.
“Just until Monday,” his stoic face almost smiled. “Put a down payment on an apartment yesterday.”
“Really?” I couldn’t imagine why that made me feel proud but it did. “What kind of work do you do?
The trivialities of small talk came easily for me, almost like second nature. He glanced at me sideways, the mask of toughness dropping to a smirk. There seemed to be a private joke going on in his head but he wasn’t about to let me in on it.
“Welding,” he answered, turning back to the paddle-boarders.
I could see that. It explained how he could wear all black in the burning Texas heat and not flinch. The joint was burning low, hot on my fingertips. I offered it to him. His calloused fingers took it easily.
“I’m in sales,” I said.
“Figured,” he nodded.
“So how’d you know about the shin splints?” Weed made me talkative and the high was setting in.
“Marine Corps,” he growled. “Used to run in the Corps. Had bitchin’ shin splints in the beginning.”
Homeless vet, this guy was the stereotype and yet he wasn’t. Intrigued, another question rolled from my mouth before I could make it stop. “The Marines taught you how to weld? I thought they were just focused on killing.”
Jody scoffed, stomping the last of our weed out with his steel-toed leather boot.
“Man,” he shook his head. “We’re not having a Forrest Gump session here, are we?”
I shook my head, flustered and conscious of what an idiot I was being. Jody started to laugh. A menacing cough followed. I froze, watching this giant of a man bent over as his body hacked in torment. Pulling a tumbler of water from his shopping bag, he chugged it down. The contents of the bag were visible, it held clothing and not much else. I had to assume that this was all he owned. Disbelief outweighed my good sense.
“Why do you do it?” I asked. “Why do you live like this?”
He was quiet for a long time. I began to believe I’d outstayed my welcome and moved to go when he spoke.
“Choices, man. Choices.”
Jody had been a man of few words but these held weight. I sat back down.
“Not all people grow up like you, have fancy cars or go to college. I was in the job corps by fourteen. That’s where I learned to weld. I’ve been all over the country. Dabbled in college a bit at UNLV, then joined the Corps and became an MP. Those were good years.” He took a deep breath, the light of memory in his eyes. He didn’t smile, didn’t really show emotion. The afternoon seemed to grow silent as he looked back in his mind. Then it was gone and he turned a scowl on me.
“I’ve been a bouncer at more bars than I can count and busted my knuckles on the skulls of men I wouldn’t know if they passed me on the street,” he said. “I have brothers and sisters I don’t talk to and they have a bunch of bratty kids I really don’t know. If we’d met yesterday or even the day before you would never have sat on this bench.”
“Why?” I asked.
He flashed me a toothy grin. “Because I wouldn’t have let you. People annoy the shit out of me, especially yuppy stooges like you.”
I should have taken offence but instead I just sat there. It had to be the weed.
“But whatever, man,” Jody’s laugh sounded more like sandpaper being used as an instrument. “I woke up today and the world didn’t seem to spin so fast. I didn't feel so angry and even the voices in my head have gone quiet. I’ve lived on the streets for almost twenty years. On Monday, I won’t and that makes everything alright. So how’s that for your box of chocolates?”
He laughed again, pleased with the Gump reference. I smiled, whether he knew it or not his story hit my gut like of a lump of lead.
My life had gone as expected, but had I chosen to live? Sure, this guy was hard and worn but he had done more than survive, he’d experience life and climbed out of every pit that he’d landed in. Jody had experienced things that yuppy stooges like me couldn’t fathom. My life revolved around looking away, pretending people like him didn’t exist, or worse yet, being offended that they did. My life didn’t seem to make sense anymore and Jody’s did.
“Mr. Foot,” I stood up, extending him my hand. “I think you’ve just set me free.”
He laughed his raucous laugh and swatted my hand away. “No problem, man. It’s probably just the weed.”
We both laughed and I put my earbuds back in then gave him a nod before trotting away. It was thirty minutes back to my car. I mulled over Jody’s story and even more over how it made me feel. As I clicked the lock on my Mercedes-Benz it felt ostentatious. Maybe I could get out of the lease, it would be worth checking.
My eyes wandered to the spare water bottle on the passenger seat. Jody was out of water, I’d take this bottle back to him and offer him a place to stay for the weekend. A smile broke across my face. Julie would be furious but she was out of town so it didn’t really matter. I wove through traffic, anticipation rising in my chest. What if he didn’t accept? Nah, he would.
Parking at the hostel near the bench, I jumped from my seat and jogged down the hill to the trail. The sun was low and the area was now shaded. His bags were still sitting there. I spun in a circle then noticed paddle-boarders gathering in the river and pointing at the shore. There was something in the reeds. Walking to the edge I saw him, face down in the water.
Dropping to my knees, I dialed 9-1-1 on reflex. Jody had shared the last of his life with me and now I’d stay with him to see him off on his next journey safely.
Choices, man. Choices.