Escaping the wet chill of a rainy day
April 22, 2016
WHEN THE DAYS grow chilled and wet and bleak, and nights seem to grow a darker shade of black and last forever, I remember Lonnie.
He had the world whipped.
Didn’t know it.
But he did.
Lonnie was a spry little man, aged somewhere between thirty and seventy. For men like him, it was difficult to tell. He was thin as a splinter, had given up more teeth than he kept, wore clothes he found in a dumpster, and walked the streets in sneakers that didn’t match. The hair on his head was curly. It might have been straight. Lonnie didn’t wash it much.
His life had been hard. It would have killed most men.
Lonnie only laughed about it and said he didn’t remember much of it, but he did, during a few sober moments, remember the armed robbery at a service station on a hot Saturday night in 1952, except he couldn’t recall if was holding the shotgun or driving the getaway car.
It didn’t matter.
Twenty-five years, the judge said.
Lonnie simply grinned at him.
The gavel fell, and he felt a sigh of relief.
For once, Lonnie didn’t have to worry anymore.
For the next twenty-five years, he would have a roof over his head at night and three fairly warm meals in his belly each day.
He would be warm in winter.
He would be cool in summer.
Might have to work a little. Then again, might not. Didn’t make much difference to him one way or the other. It was as good a life as Lonnie ever had.
He was a model prisoner.
Didn’t cause any trouble.
Stayed out of trouble.
Was a friend to any man who didn’t have one, and that was Lonnie’s downfall.
He was too good a prisoner.
The Parole Board turned him loose in ten years, and poor old Lonnie was back on the streets.
Wasn’t looking for either one.
Lonnie mostly hung around the police station while I was working for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
The police had badges.
They had guns.
They had jail cells.
Police were the only friends he had.
When the summers were too hot, the police picked him up on Monday mornings while the air was still cool, and the day had not yet quite begun.
No charges were ever filed.
Mostly they picked him up on suspicion.
Suspicion of what?
Take your pick. The police didn’t care.
Neither did Lonnie.
He was comfortable for the week.
The wicked heat stayed outside. Lonnie remained inside and played checkers with the jailer. He was a damn fine checkers player. If he could have made money playing checkers, Lonnie would have been a rich man.
When the harsh winds of winter blew, when ice was in the frosty morning air, when the cold rains struck the streets of Fort Worth, the police were on the lookout again.
Got to pick up Lonnie.
Doesn’t make any difference.
Lonnie spent the cold, bitter winter nights in the warmth of his jail cell. I don’t think it was ever locked. I think he had his own personal cell.
Lonnie wasn’t going anywhere during the week, but on late Friday afternoons, summer or winter, rain or shine, cold or hot, he always asked to be released.
The jailer put away the checkerboard. He glanced through the charges, and since there were none, Lonnie was a free man again.
Before he left, Lonnie, without fail, asked to borrow five dollars from the jailer.
The jailer would, without fail, pull five wrinkled ones out of his desk drawer, hand them to the spry, little man with a few gaps in his mouth where his teeth should have been, and Lonnie would be on his way.
On Monday morning, here he was again.
If the police couldn’t find him, Lonnie would give himself up.
He grinned and said, “You’ll think of something,” and the police always did.
As soon as he reached the cellblock, Lonnie sauntered straight to the jailer and gave him back the five wrinkled dollar bills.
He never spent a cent.
He and the jailer kept trading the same five dollars back and forth for years.
“Why do you do it?” I once asked Lonnie.
“Borrow five dollars every Friday.”
Lonnie simply sat back in his cell and grinned. “You know how it is,” he said.
“A man don’t like to be out on the town for a Friday night without any money in his pocket,” he said.
“What about Saturday and Sunday?”
“What about them?” he said. “If you have a good enough time on Friday night, Saturday and Sunday will take care of themselves.”
They always did for Lonnie.
He was a friend of mine.
My latest novel, Night Side of Dark, takes place in the chilled rains and snows of Poland and Germany during World War II.