Updated: Jun 16, 2021
There are life events so intense that the passage of time can be marked by them. The months between June 2017 and June 2018 were like that. My oldest brother, who used the alias Jody Foot, died in mid-June of 2017. This event 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. Hurricane Harvey rolled through Houston in August of 2017. With the record-breaking storm, my melancholy deepened.
I visited the site of my brother’s death on his birthday in October. It felt impossible as I sat in the tranquil place where he spent his final hours that he was really gone. The holidays came and went, then before I knew it, spring of 2018 had arrived. By this time the grief had settled, and my spirit had begun to stir with the rumblings of a story. From deep in my heart, I leaked sentiment onto the page. Then it sat. What was I to do with it?
Some writing friends listened to it and gave it a nod. To write of grief is uncomfortable, to share it is worse. Taboo is the preferred word, I think. My son and sister listened to a reading; both agreed the story had merit. Finally, I called my parents to share it with them. My voice shook and my hands trembled. I didn’t want to make the loss of their son worse. With tearful permission, they authorized making the story public – so here we are.
In real life, Jody was a force to be reckoned with. My early lesson regarding his “force” went something like this…
In elementary school, Jody and his friends were the “big kids on campus” and were hoarding the teeter-totters one fall afternoon as I played tag at recess with my friends. Somewhere in the rowdiness, I was shoved by a boy in my class and to my horror slid right through the mud and face-planted into the large wooden logs that framed our schoolyard. My lips were busted, and my front teeth were all but knocked out (they fell out a week later). I may have cried but I don’t remember. What I do recall is Jody on top of the kid who pushed me, giving him a 1980s playground beat-down. Though I don’t condone violence of this nature, the image of my big brother as a protector always held fast.
A couple of years ago he called me, excited to the point of giddiness. For someone as stoic as Jody was, it was abnormal to hear him so enthusiastic. He declared that he was going to write a book and laughed, his loud and grinding laugh, though his ambitions didn’t materialize the pen name stuck, at least between us.
When the news about his untimely death reached me, I was shattered. Within days I was in Austin to collect his belongings and view him before cremation. I held Jody’s hand and wept for a long time before I limped from the room. My first friend was gone, our family needed answers--I needed answers. Using clues from his belongings, my sixteen-year-old son and I were able to trace Jody’s 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 first friend...
-From the Fire Ring Blog, Vol.1, No.2
Ode to Mr. Jody Foot
Pain shot up my shins, as tendons tore from the bones. My girlfriend would never let me hear the end of this. It was the price of enjoying a good vacation. Nestled off the well-groomed trail, I headed for a bench on the banks of Lady Bird Lake with downtown Austin in the backdrop. In a vain attempt to stretch, I propped my aching leg on the green steel as the music continued to blare through my earbuds and sweat dripped down my nose. A brooding man stalked past, his pack brushing my shoulder. I jumped a little and watched in horror as he dropped down just inches from my foot. His shaved head reflected the sunlight as his dark gaze, annoyed by my fright, washed over me. My heart raced but not from exertion.
“Don’t worry, dude,” he growled and turned his attention to the green military knapsack now at his feet. “I’m just going to be here longer.”
Who wouldn’t gape? And who wouldn’t worry? The force this beast resonated with made my breath catch. I was prepared to give him my cash or phone, maybe chuck it all at him and run like hell. Austin’s large homeless population was a blight on its beauty and this guy radiated the presence of a King Pin.
“Hey!” He yelled with a snap of his fingers to draw me back from the terrors of imagination. “What’s your problem?”
“Nothing,” I muttered, flustered by the brash civility of this enigma as I pulled an earbud out.
“Huh,” he scoffed and slid to the opposite end of the bench. “Go on, stretch.”
Giving orders, are we? Stretch I did, in a leisurely going-to-take-my-time kind of way. After all, I had this bench first.
He shrugged with an added chuckle to himself and pulled a stack of white papers and a dime-bag of weed from his knapsack, totally satisfied with ignoring me. “Shin splints suck,” he said as he portioned out the dried herb. “But what do I care? You’re going to limp back to your car no matter how much you stretch.”
As if this beast knew anything about running. I rolled my eyes and leaned in to get a deeper stretch. I’d rather limp myself back to my car than talk to this homeless bully. Of course, if I snapped back, I might get beat to a pulp and had no desire for the scorpion on his fist to be introduced to my face. Then again, if I could find a middle ground…
“Can I get a hit of that?” I nodded at the joint now rolled and balanced on his knee as he put the supplies away.
The hulk-ish specimen didn’t respond. I switched legs and gave him my best smile. He didn’t even look up as he breathed out his next demand.
“For five bucks you can have the whole thing.” His grizzled chuckle told me he viewed the exchange as a heist.
Business deals were my thing, and this was a terrible one. Money didn’t matter though, and my girlfriend didn’t want weed at the house. Between the heat, my hurt leg, and the current amount of anxiety I could afford a five-dollar heist, even if I was the loser.
“How’d you know I had cash?” I asked as I pulled a fiver out of the key pocket in my shorts.
“Lucky guess,” the man growled as we made the exchange. “The Benz key clipped to your shorts and not tucked away might have helped.”
Observant. His eyes settled on the river’s slow meander a few feet away.
“Mind if I sit?” It was a stupid question as I'd begun to feel like an intruder. He shrugged and pulled a red lighter from his pocket and handed it to me.
“Thanks.” I took it with a nod and lit the paper and herb with a puff. “What’s your name?”
He ignored the question and nodded at the joint. Smoker’s code was in full effect. I handed it over as I had in college. There was no telling where this guy was from, or what he’d been up to, but the rules had to be observed.
“Jody Foot,” he said around the deep drag he held in his chest.
It was a strange name but seemed to fit. We sat in silence and passed the herb between us while paddleboarders floated nearby. With each inhale, the surrounding trees and brush became more vibrant. A great pine with giant roots stood on the riverbank 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 with curiosity, the weed mellowed my nerves. It was clear Jody was homeless, but I wasn’t going to just say that.
“Until Monday,” his stoic face nearly cracked into a smile. “Put a down payment on an apartment yesterday.”
“Really?” I couldn’t imagine why this made me feel proud, but it did. “What kind of work do you do?
Small talk came easily for me even without the joint. Jody glanced at me sideways, his rough expression eased into a smirk. The marijuana worked for him too and there was something behind his eyes--a private joke maybe, but he wasn’t about to let me in on it.
“Welding,” he answered and turned back to the paddle-boarders.
I could see that. It explained how he could wear all black in the burning summer heat without a flinch. The joint burned 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 do you know about shin splints?” Weed made me talkative as the high set in.
“Marine Corps,” Jody growled. “Used to run a lot then. Had bitchin’ shin splints when I first joined.”
Homeless vet. Jody was the stereotype and yet so much more. Intrigued, another question rolled out before I could make it stop. “The Marines taught you how to weld? I thought they focused on killing.”
Jody scoffed and stomped the nub of the joint into the dirt 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, conscious of what an idiot I was being. Jody laughed and a menacing cough followed. I watched in horror as this giant of a man bent over, his body in torment. He pulled a tumbler of water from his bag and chugged it down. The contents were visible with clothing and not much else. I assumed this was all he owned. Disbelief outweighed my good sense.
“Why do you do it?” I asked. “Why do you live like this?”
Jody was quiet for a long time. I began to think I’d outstayed my welcome and moved to go when he finally spoke.
“Choices, man. Choices.”
Jody was a man of few words, but this held weight. I sat back down.
“Not all people grow up like you,” he growled. “You know, with the fancy cars and options for 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 and another swig. I could see the light of memory in his eyes. He didn’t smile, just sat there lost in one of the places he’d been. The afternoon grew silent and though I wanted to know more, it felt out of place. I unclipped the key from my belt just as Jody spoke again.
“I’ve been a bouncer at more bars than I can count. Busted my knuckles on the skulls of men I wouldn’t know if they passed me on the street.” Jody flexed his fists-, and the scorpion tattoo grew larger. “I have brothers and sisters I don’t talk to. Some of them have 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 been offended but 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. Even the repugnant voices in my head have gone quiet. I’ve been on the streets for almost twenty years. Come Monday, I won’t be 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 me in the gut like 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’d done more than survive, he’d experience life and climbed out of every pit that he’d landed in. Jody experienced things yuppy stooges like me couldn’t fathom. My life revolved around looking away, pretending people like him didn’t exist, or worse yet, being disgusted they did. Suddenly my life didn’t seem to make sense anymore where 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. I put my earbuds back in, then gave him a nod and strolled away. It was thirty minutes back to my car. I mulled over Jody’s story along the way. 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.
The spare water bottle on the passenger seat caught my eye. Jody had finished his water. I had enough time to run this one back and offer him a place to stay for the weekend. A smile broke across my face. My girlfriend would be furious. I wove through traffic; anticipation rose in my chest. What if he didn’t accept? Nah, he would.
With a quick park at the hostel up the hill from the bench, I jumped from my car and jogged down the hill to the trail. The sun was low, the area shaded. His bags were still there next to where he’d sat. I spun in a circle then noticed paddle-boarders gathering in the river and pointing at the shore. There was something in the reeds. With a trot to the edge, there was Jody, face down in the water.
I dropped to my knees. How could this be? Then I remembered the phone in my hand and dialed 9-1-1 on reflex. There was no way I could get his huge body out of the water alone, so I waited, determined to see him off on his next journey safely. Jody’s grizzled face and gravely laugh came to mind with the words –
Choices, man. Choices.