My grandfather got taken in by a confidence man, late in his life. The saga was impossible to watch without your jaw dropping.
“Dad, we’re buying you a flight to the wedding,” my father said to Grampa.
“No, no: not necessary,” his father replied. “Charlie’s flying me down there. He’s got his own plane.”
Charlie was flying him somewhere, alright.When Charlie failed to come through, time and time again, you had to wonder why Grampa kept believing. At some point, you grow skeptical. At some point, you must lose hope.
Asheville has a mansion and Asheville has a college. Asheville has rivers and mountains and sand. Asheville has music and Asheville has hippies. Asheville has buskers with good spots to stand. Except for Jeremiah, I really enjoyed Asheville. I met good folks at an open mic night at Tall Gary’s Cantina (Hi, Mike! Hi, Stray Dog!), and played to wild acclaim. For Halloween, I went out as the constellation Cassiopeia. A man at the bar bought my costume (really, just a string of twinkly lights) at the end of the night. A wildly sweet lady bought me noodle soup for dinner (Hi, Linden!). A British couple told me the story of their 7 weeks in America and theme wedding in Vegas. I met kids who walked from New York.Old punks stopped me on the street to tell me how to sing sweeter folk songs. Quixo (my dog) got more attention than he knew what to do with. Overall, it was a fantastic time, except for Jeremiah.
Jeremiah walked up to me second thing in the morning. I was standing outside my van, smoking a cigarette. His curly hair was mostly salt-and-pepper gray. He had a wholesome, L.L. Bean-looking green cotton sweater. His khakis were stained with blood.
“I see that you’re from New Hampshire. I’m with the Bread and Puppets Theater – they’re from Vermont! We played a show last night at the college, and I fell off my stilts. That’s how I got this black eye. Can I tell you three jokes?”
Any sane person would say no.
He told me three jokes. I guessed the punchline to one of them. He offered to reward me with a joint (no, thank you). He said his friends needed bus fare back to the college. Did I have three dollars? I had one (my last, at the time), but he was welcome to it. He told me he could read auras. He read mine. He told me he wasn’t hitting on me, he had a girlfriend. He smoked the end of my cigarette. He told me he was a member of the Grateful Dead Family. He called me Sister Bear. He said he knew a place to take a free shower (no Planet Fitness in Asheville). He could show me where it was, but he couldn’t give me directions. Could I give him a ride?
If I were watching it unfold on T.V., I would be shouting at the screen. I would be cursing the writers for making the woman a victim again. I’d be thinking, “Oh God. I can’t watch.“
“You can’t give me directions?” I ask.
“No,” he says, “it’s been a while since I’ve been there. I can find it if we drive.”
I don’t want this man in my home, my sacred space. It’s as if you’ve invited someone into your house, and they said, “You know, you don’t have to pay for internet. I can show you how, but to show you, I have to sleep in your bed.” To be able to shower on the road is paramount, though. A free public shower is better than free dinner, better than cash. I let him in the van.
He took me to the rec center. He insisted I go upstairs to shower. I was unprepared – didn’t he need the shower? I was given that impression. After all, his clothes were bloody. Even the short drive from my overnight parking spot to the center had polluted my van with his stench! I checked out the shower and came back downstairs, where Jeremiah was regaling the Rec Center ladies with stories of Bread and Puppets and his black eye. He told them the same jokes he told me. He said, “This town is full of rapscallions, ne’er-do-wells, braggadocios and beggars. It’s all shenanigans, ballyhoo, roustabouts and tomfoolery.” Verbatim, he had used the same spiel with me. At the time, I found it hilarious. “What a character!” I thought.
“Your turn,” I said, indicating the stairs to the showers.
“What? I don’t need a shower. I brought you here so you could shower.”
There was a tone to his voice. A little threatening. A little bit of a put-down. An insinuation that I wasted his time. A scratch in the surface. We leave.
In the parking lot, he shows me dance moves. He spins me, promenades me, dips me. “I know a place you’ll love in West Asheville.”
“What kind of place?”
He hems and haws. “You’ll like it.”
“No, tell me what it is.”
Turns out, it’s a coffee shop. At the time I thought it would be a good place for our journey together to end. I told him we had to part ways, even though he had offered to be my “tour guide” in Asheville. I knew by now that I had to ditch him, but I didn’t know how.
As we drove down the street, Jeremiah said: Stop here – I know this guy. I stopped. A man with a large hiking backpack who was clearly drunk or high or both leaned in the window of my van. “I heard they beat the shit out of you, but you gave ’em hell!” the stranger said, in a thick South Carolina accent. “No, man,” Jeremiah averred, “I fell on the stilts.” As we drove away, Jeremiah said, “I don’t know how he got his story so wrong, but I was with Bread and Puppets. I fell from the stilts. He’s crazy.”
“Why,” I asked, “does it matter so much to you that he got it wrong? So what if you got in a fight? What are you afraid I’ll think?” Now, I have a psychology degree. That makes me no expert, but I did learn that when people get disproportionately angry about the “wrong” story, you’re probably pointed in the right direction. (Most people come to this knowledge through common sense. I had to pay people to learn me.)
On the way to the coffee shop, he asks if I believe in a bartering system. “Sure,” I say. I do: equivalent trade for services rendered. He asks if I can buy him a coffee if in trade he gives me weed. I tell him no, I don’t smoke weed. I had given him my last dollar. I couldn’t buy him a coffee. He tells me he thought I was excited for the coffee shop, and I say I was – but only as a tourist. He says it’s ok – I know a good park to walk your dog.
We get to the park. Quixo doesn’t need a walk, as soon becomes apparent. Jeremiah is a bit crestfallen, and again he tries to make it feel like I wasted his time. We run into a nanny with two wards. In contrast, the light of day is suddenly cast upon my companion. He doesn’t know how to interact with humans, except to regale them with his practiced script. We beat a hasty retreat.
Jeremiah promises he knows the man who invented Bread and Puppets. He can introduce me. (I know the King of Siam.) Wait, no. He knows a Hell’s Angel. He can introduce me.
“Does the Hell’s Angel want to meet me?” I ask, for a brief moment not totally the fool. He does. I just need to get him some groceries.
“Do you have eighty-three cents?”
My penny jar comes open. I should have kicked him out in the grocery store parking lot, but he’s right: I have pennies to spare. Seventy-two of them. Somehow his math works out. He goes into the grocery store and re-emerges with a bag full of Colt 45. I drive him to the Hell’s Angel’s house (he actually joined the Outlaws). There’s a pile of butts on the table. Jeremiah opens the Colt, lights up a stub, and says, “I got into a fight last night.”
My grandfather passed away a couple months ago. He spent his last years planning how he’d spend the million-dollar fund from the government promised to him by the sweepstakes phone representative, and reselling Walmart watches to his fellow nursing home residents. His plans for the money were noble. He kept none for himself.
I wonder what Charlie was like in person. I wonder how he smelled. Did he have curly salt-and-pepper hair? Were his clothes of cotton?