Meeting Jake “Cray” Lazenby


I sat alone that night, on the edge of the river, picking old scabs off my legs an crying. People said there was gators who came outa the river at night, but what do I care?  They kin come an eat me any old time they like.  At least, that’s what I thought in my tortured ten year old mind.  I listened to the tree frogs singing their songs and the fish making splashes in the water.  The air was that lovely semi-salty smell that reminded me of our last house across from the mangrove trees.  They made the water black, you know.  Life was a lot better there with those mangroves.

Somewhere behind me, a soft porch light flicked on and a screen door creaked open.  I turned to see that it was our new neighbor.  He had a strange name and kept to himself mostly.  I peered over the tall weeds to catch a good look at him.  He seemed really tall.  He turned his head to look back into the house as he held the door open.  He gave a whistle and out came two brown dogs who seemed all too glad to be romping around at night. He talked to them in a kind voice, but I was too far away to hear what he was saying.  I watched him sit down on a chair on his porch and look out toward the river.  I crouched lower, hoping that he wouldn’t spot me.  I pictured myself like a lion waiting for its prey.  He just sat and watched.

Before I had a moment to react, one of the dogs had found me and was wanting to play.  He started tugging at the bottom of my shirt.  I sat up, “Stop that!” I scolded in a furious whisper.  “Let go my shirt!”  I stood to tug, and as I did, I heard the man yell, “Here, Pal!”  The dog turned his head and went running full speed for its master.  The man was standing now in front of his porch, closer to where I was.  The dog licked his master’s hand and nuzzled it with delight.

“Sorry ‘bout that,” the man said, stepping closer.  “You alright?”

I nodded, tugging on my shirt.  He could see me clearly, but I could still mostly only make out a tall shadow.

“He’s jus a pup, so he don’t know any better yet.”

“I’m fine,” I said, suddenly realizing that my eyes were probably still swollen from crying.

“You sure you’re alright?  You look like the dog gave ya a bad fright.”

“It’s not the dog,” I admitted.

“Oh, I see.” He said in a thoughtful tone.  “Well, it seems to me that when I’m having a bad time that a glass of sweet tea makes everything better.  Come on.”  He started walking back toward the porch.

I wasn’t thirsty, but I followed him, mostly out of curiosity.  The kids at school said that he had two entire walls of his house that were books.  And one of them was fake.  Rhea said that the fake one was a hidden door to get to a secret room.  I didn’t believe her of course, but if there was truth to it, what would be hidden back there?  I peered through the old screen door and saw that in fact, there were two walls of bookshelves.  Why would a man need so many books?  One of em’ had to be fake.  He must’ve caught me looking in, because he said, “You can come in too if you want.”  I stood still and probably looked nervous.  “Or you can just stay on the porch out here.  I’ll go bring out the tea.”  He went inside and I could hear him humming in a nice soft, low voice.  I don’t know what it was, but it sounded kinda like a church song.  My family only went to church when Jesus is a baby every year or when somebody dies (which isn’t often), so I only know a few church songs, but boy do they all sound the same.

He brought out two mason jars of sweet tea with lemon slices floatin’ around in the ice.  He handed me one and sat down on the chair closest to the left edge of the porch.

“I like to eat the lemon slices once they soak up the tea and spit out the seeds. This is the best place to do that.”

Now that he was sittin’ still, I could see that I was right about him being tall.  He was real tall.  He had really cool eyes too, like when he was born God spilled gold glitter in em’.  And he had some weird scars all up one of his arms.  They were big and a lot whiter than the rest of his dark skin.  I think he saw me looking at em’ because he said, “Never tussle with a gator,” and took another sip from his mason jar.  Things were pretty quiet after that, so I tried to think of something to say.

“What’s your dog’s name?” I asked.


“What’s your other dog’s name?”

“Same. Pal.”

“That’s weird.  How come their both named the same?” Momma woulda slapped my face if I’d been rude to her like that.  I shoulda kept my opinion to myself.  “Nobody wants to hear what a child has to say,” she’d tell me.

But he didn’t say that.  Instead, he laughed.

“You know, you’re the first one who’s ever asked me that.”  He smiled, his eyes seeming to peer back into time.  “I once had a dog I name Marie.  And then I met a sweet lady named Marie.  She got all offended when I had to say things like, ‘Marie, you quit drinking that toilet water.’ Or ‘Marie, stop draggin’ your nasty butt on the floor.’”  He slapped his thigh and let out a chuckle.  He had really nice teeth and a really nice smile. “I figure Pal’s a safe name.  Ain’t nobody gonna get offended by that.”

And I laughed too, despite my earlier troubles.  Our laughter died down and things got quiet again.  He seemed fine with the quiet, but I thought it felt like we were expecting something bad to happen.

“My name’s Ella May,” I said to fill the air. He held out a long-fingered hand to shake.

“And I’m Jake, but everybody calls me Cray.”

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