A SHADY CHARACTER
by Brent Pope
Jim was a shady character.
“You’re a shady character, Jim,” is what his pa used to say to him, right before he tucked him into bed each night. That’s how Jim knew who and what he was.
Some say that what his pa did wasn’t right. That somehow, his pa is to blame for how Jim turned out. But don’t go feeling sorry for him. He was a lying, manipulative piece of work if ever I’ve seen one. And I’ve seen the lot of them in my day. He don’t deserve a bit of pity, though he might be inclined to soak it up if you was to dish it out on him.
So there it is, with no sugarcoating or nothing. Jim was a shady character. And being a shady character is how Jim ended up in prison. After what he did and how he acted, his parents didn’t want no part of him. To them, it was like he’d never come to be. Yep, he was flat out a bad seed and he deserved what he had coming to him.
He deserved what he eventually got.
* * *
His story started in Muncie, Indiana—don’t they all?— in a factory. His parents weren’t like him, in character anyway. His pa was always moving from job to job, working for a new person every few days. Spent a lot of time around restaurants, he did. His mom was a real bookworm, the genuine article, and never far from a dime store novel or TV Guide.
But Jim didn’t like who his parents were. He always felt like he was bound for something more. Don’t misunderstand me. He wasn’t just ambitious. The world owed him something more than the cards he was currently toting around his penny ante life. “Imma get mine,” he used to say.
So it was only with the greatest disdain that he found himself on a factory floor. He was meant for great things, he imagined. With great people. What an outrage, a cosmic injustice that was being perpetrated on him.
There he was, just another cog in the wheel of corporate America. He truly believed that, one day, his ship would come in. One day, he’d be free of the chains that society had bound him with. Let me jump ahead and tell you, he was half right, a couple of times over. And I get half-tickled just thinking about it. Of course, that’s the only smile that comes from my having known ol’ Jim.
He wasn’t a model employee, as you might guess. He didn’t work hard. He wasn’t going to be no part of that. He was more of a troublemaker at the plant. Always trying to stir things up and all. Never could find no followers though. Which is kind of a right kick in the teeth when you fancy yourself a leader. What he didn’t fancy was the idea of the factory downsizing—rightsizing, they called it; but if you ask me, that’s just bacon crumbles on a plateful of stewed rutabagas—and the company had set Jim in its sites.
Even though he wasn’t planning to stay on at the plant and be a lifer like some of them fellows, he wasn’t about to let them tell him that they was letting him go.
“I’m not about to let you tell me you’re letting me go,” was how he put it.
Made such a ruckus, it just about caused a riot. Wouldn’t you know it, he got himself arrested, tried and convicted: him who was all indignant about being there in the first place.
So his ship came in the first time and he got himself shipped off with a whole bunch of other from the factory floor across the hot and humid south of these United States smack dab in the waning days of summer. A hot one, too, by all accounts. Wound up in Mobile, Alabama. It’s where he would languish for days, weeks and months on end. In his own little prison. Doing two to three years hard time for his role in the riot, which had got bumped up to a racketeering charge on account of all his previous rabble-rousing at the factory.
* * *
Have you ever made yourself a cup of tea and forgetten about it? You put that bag in a cup and take the hot water from the kettle and pour it in there, then you go off to do something else. An hour later, you remember your tea. But doggone if it ain’t too strong. And bitter.
The Shop. It’s what they called that place of incarceration. Them folks in Mobile don’t go and hide their inmates on the rural highways and byways of some old county roads. Nope, they put ‘em right there on display in The Shop for everybody and their brother to see. Although, seeing as how it was sort of meant to be an object lesson for younguns, I supposed Jim and his cohorts were on display for everybody and their children to see. A right good deterrent, I would think.
Days turned into weeks for ol’ Jim. And weeks, they have a way of turning into months. Other prisoners got out, some were paroled, others released outright. Jim, he looked for his opportunity, but it never came. There wasn’t no way to escape. Until one day.
One day, he was paroled. It went a little something like this.
The parole officer looked long and hard at him.
“You know who I am?” the parole officer asked.
“You the po-po.”
“I’m a parole officer. Might be yours if straighten up and fly right.”
“Like I said. The po-po.”
It was an inauspicious beginning to say the least. ‘Course, the Parole Officer (P.O.—aw heck, the po-po) kind of took a liking to old Jim. Figured he was just being straight up. Not all shuckin’ and fetchin’ like most them fellows who’ll do or say about anything to get out.
He didn’t spring him right away, though. Thought about it for a bit. Tried to size him up.
“Tell you what,” he says, “we got this here special parole program I think you might be suited for. What you think about that?”
“Suit yourself,” says Jim.
“Did you say ‘shoot yourself?’”
Jim just looked at him. The po-po sighed.
There was a bit a paperwork to do. Always is, isn’t there? “I don’t know,” he said. “Seems a bit risky. These things never work out and once they’re gone, they’re gone.”
“You’re dang straight, once I’m gone, I’m gone,” Jim was thinking.
But this was his lucky day. Because if he was getting out of prison, then at least he was out of prison. There was hope. There was hope.
* * *
This here program that Jim had done got himself released into wasn’t no ordinary you-do-your-thing-and-the-P.O-will-come-check-on-you business. It was high supervision. The po-po kept Jim right where he could see him just about all the time. And when the po-po couldn’t keep an eye on him, he kept him safe and secure where he couldn’t get away.
You’d think that might cramp his style, but old Jim was okay with that arrangement. That po-po wasn’t but one man, and one man was bound to slip up, he was. Just as sure as Jim knew his ship would come in one day, he knew that po-po would make a mistake.
I’ll be danged if he wasn’t right.
May have been because this po-po was unusual to a degree, not like most of them he knew back in Muncie or in the pen. This one had different ideas about the criminal justice system and incarcerative rehabilitation.
Which may have been why he found himself loaded up in a passenger van with the ol’ po-po, hitting the interstate and heading into the setting sun. Before he knew it, Jim was across the state line (which don’t take long from Mobile proper to begin with) and in violation of parole. He didn’t quite know what to make of that particular development. If he was caught by someone in the know, that old po-po would turn on him for sure, say he was chasing this here fugitive and had done caught him after many hours of diligent tracking.
But Jim always expected better, so he believed in destiny. He thought this might also be a real golden opportunity, as you might say. What Jim might say (and did) was, “This might be a real golden opportunity.” If he could get himself free of this fellow, he might just have a chance at staying free. Not sure the po-po would want to explain for what purposes he had transported a parolee across state lines without prior authorization, ad hominem, etc. so to speak.
So Jim dozed and kept watch and slept and schemed, mile after mile until the came to be in the Lone Star state.
“Welcome to the promised land, boy,” the P.O. said. Texas. That Lone Star State. Where the only thing bigger than the sky is a Texan’s opinion of himself and his state.
But simply crossing the Sabine into Texas wasn’t the end-all, be-all of this journey. It was a long windy road, at the terminus of which, the po-po took Jim and commenced to walk down a long ramp to a pier, to which was moored a boat.
Now by this point, Jim was really wondering what was going on? Or as he put it to himself, “I wonder what’s going on.” He had heard tell of folks getting shanghaied, but that was something out of them magazines you found in the waiting room at the eye doctor’s office. Did this peculiar po-po know that, what with Jim’s parents not wanting to have nothing to do with him, no one would ever know if he went missing, all suspicious like? Was he fixing to sell him off to some Chinese slave trader?
I can tell you with good authority that he was not. See, I am that po-po.
Why I took Jim across state lines I’ll not say. Nor will I tell what was my intentions in taking him on that there ship. This is my story to tell and I’ll thank you kindly to keep your nose to yourself.
I can tell you that the weather was foul the whole time, right from when we cast off. And it didn’t get no better once we passed the leeward side of the sound. It was plain rough seas, treacherous enough for a hearty sailing vessel, let alone a man. Which may help you understand why I didn’t think so much of keeping an eye on Jim. I, as a person of some authority myself, had my hands full assisting the captain of the vessel secure her against the buffets. For to be sure, the wind did not stop blowing, ever, while we was adrift.
I noticed ol’ Jim, just a swinging in the breeze. I don’t care to worry too much about fellows who been locked up acting straight-laced like the rest of civil society. When one acts a might peculiar, well then, that’s just their way. Jim there had latched on to a boom overhead, fingers beneath the canvas which had its own hand’s full, so to speak, and was swaying back and forth, back and forth, right powerfully. The only thing I feared at that moment was that I might have a cripple on my hands should he fall and land on deck just so. And wouldn’t that upset my plans (which I’ll again remind you are non of your concern)?
“I’m going to see about these passengers. You think you might want to come?” says I.
“Think I’ll just hang out here,” says Jim.
A moment passed, and I looked away, seeing as how those passengers I mentioned to Jim were just a bit too close to the water for the comfort of such authority figures as the skipper and myself. But all of a sudden the skipper yells, “Gone! Overboard!”
I immediately looked to where Jim had been and it came to me what he had done. He had been swinging as he was to get enough momentum to clear the railing and plummet into those blue-green depths.
It wasn’t no time at all that I was in the water after him, fighting the currents, gasping for air myself, doing all I could to keep myself out of Davy Jones’ locker. I’m a fair swimmer and gave it a go for a good while, treading as close to the edge of the boat as I cared to chance, diving as deep as I dared, but it wasn’t no use. The water was as murky as the surf was rough.
Jim was gone.
I mean gone. Done for. ‘Cause Jim, he couldn’t swim. Never had a need to learn way back there in Muncie, where it all began. All he cared about was being free and getting clear of the likes of me.
I should’ve known better. I had my doubts from the moment I laid my eyes on him. “These things don’t end up well for me,” I told that character in charge of The Shop. But I took a chance on him and this here is how it panned out.
I turned in my papers, after that. Quit. Retired in heart right then and there. Hung it up for real when I got back to Mobile. That Jim didn’t just do himself in. He did me in, too. I’ll have no more to do with a fellow like him. No more.
Funny thing, for the second time in his life, Jim’s ship had come in, just like he believed it would. And it was a genuine ship, too. Only problem was, Jim jumped off of it.
Anyway, that’s how I lost my Maui Jim sunglasses in the bottom of Lake Palestine just three days after buying them. Next time, I have $180 burning a hole in my pocket, I’ll just buy the family a steak dinner instead.