Hey, Darlin’ - Kate Connors Martin
Updated: Jul 19, 2022
I met Jeff at dusk one fall evening in 2013. When I came upon him, he lay splayed across the center line of a busy, four-lane road. After abandoning a questionable plate of enchiladas at El Rodeo, I drove towards Target to buy more items I didn’t need. The blue gray sky scurried to shut off the day. A steady, misty rain dampened the street, creating a dank coat of shimmer. When I spotted an obstacle a few blocks ahead, the darkening canopy had not yet triggered the streetlights. My twilight vision, or lack thereof, convinced me the approaching lump held remnants of a bag of trash, perhaps flung from the back of an ill-closed liftgate. As my car slowed to go around, I saw arms and legs protruding from a long, khaki overcoat. A baseball hat laying in the far southbound lane caught my eye as I attempted to add up the pieces and parts.
I screamed, though no one could hear me. “It’s a man! It’s a man!”
Reacting to a body in the roadway is simpler than you might think if your braking foot is on the same page as your brain. I slammed to a stop, cursing the lack of a shoulder on the main road. It had skinny lanes which left no room for error or pulling over. I whipped my car into the closest side-street and got out. Crossing the busy lanes, I waved my hands frantically. As I ran towards the pile of person, a blue Mercedes activated their flashers and screeched to a halt. In one smooth move, dodging oncoming traffic, I scooped up the trampled hat on my way to the man. It was as if I had trained for such an event my whole life. When I reached the man, a frizzy-haired woman, about my age, knelt by his torn blue jean legs. Our eyes met and spoke for us as we each grabbed an end. Heavier than expected, this inert short, stocky fellow overwhelmed our petite, skinny frames. We half-lifted, half-dragged him through two lanes of cars, placing him on the sidewalk with more of a thud than intended.
I dialed 911 and finished the basics with the operator when I noticed our stranger stir. Actually, he didn’t stir so much as agitate like a washing machine with an uneven load. A small amount of foam ran down the corner of his mouth. His face held a crooked grimace, like someone having a bad dream. I had witnessed a seizure before and recognized the signs. This one seemed gentler than those I’d experienced, and it was over almost as soon as it began. The man opened his eyes and sat up, shaking off the event like drops of rain on an umbrella. As sirens screeched louder our way, he looked at us as if this were just another Sunday.
“Well, hey there, Darlin’.” He slurred his speech as if half asleep. “I’m Jeff. Don’t call me Jeffery. My mama calls me Jeffery when I’m being a bad little boy. Call me Jeff. You found my hat! Can I have my hat?” He delivered his introduction in one long, muddied sentence at a pace that was difficult to keep up with.
Oh lord, he’s drunk, I thought. Unscathed, not a drop of blood dripped from his body. His clothes appeared to be dirty and shredded much earlier than twenty minutes ago.
Wake EMS and the Raleigh Fire Department arrived and stepped out of their trucks. Two paramedics gave Jeff the once-over, while the firefighters gathered nearby. They knew Jeff by name without asking, exchanging glances packed with more smirk than sympathy. I couldn’t imagine what their days were like, but their flippant attitude did not give me the warm fuzzies.
The shorter of the first responders spoke as if telling a story. “You’re a frequent flier, ain’t you, Jeff?”
The tall one walked our way to confer. He gave us an impatient sigh, then rattled off facts in a monotone voice. “He’s usually drunk. I ain’t never seen him sober. He has seizures from diabetes. He doesn’t take care of himself for nothin’. He refuses treatment and hates hospitals. Hospitals ain’t too fond of him either. He ain’t broke the law and we can’t force him to get help. I’m sure we’ll see him again soon. Leave him be and go home. He’ll be fine. He always is.” Clearly, his experience with Jeff colored him weary. He had his monologue down pat.
After Jeff refused treatment a second time, EMS packed their equipment and headed towards their truck. They climbed in their rigs and drove off. The woman and I looked through the drizzle with disbelief, trying to gage what the other was thinking.
“I should introduce myself. I’m Annie,” she said.
“Thanks for the help, Annie. I’m Kate.”
Annie was in her late 50s, wearing no bra and what was now a see-through white wet t-shirt. Her orange plaid pajama pants and pink slippers survived the precipitation with more modesty. She noticed me notice her state and laughed at herself. Crossing her arms in front of her chest, she explained her attire. “I’m a realtor and was dropping something in a client’s mailbox. I only planned to be gone for a minute. Clearly.”
Jeff stood to the side like an expectant child waiting to see if he deserved a sticker. “What now, ladies?”
Annie groaned in exasperation, and I could tell from the way she stepped back she didn’t deal well with strays. Strays were, however, my specialty. I would no more leave Jeff on the side of the road at night in this weather than I would one of my children.
“Where do you live, Jeff?”
He pointed north. “Up yonder. Near my mamas.”
Now we were getting somewhere. Thank God he has a mother, I thought. ‘Up yonder’ couldn’t be, but so far. Shopping would wait while I drove Jeff home. I turned to Annie. “Will you help me load him into my car?”
Annie’s mouth fell open enough to let out her thoughts and feelings. “Are you crazy?”
It wasn’t the first time someone accused me of that. “A little,” I said.
We supported Jeff to my car and sat him upright in the back seat. He reeked like a stew of musty yesterdays, a recipe of alcohol, sweat, and dried urine. I wondered when he last had a bath. Or ate. I could guess when he last drank. Annie buckled him in, then jingled her car keys, wished us luck, and drove away.
“This is sure nice of you, Darlin’. Can you take me to mamas before you take me home? I need to get my backpack.”
I turned and smiled at him. Except for his smell, he seemed charming. Though the sun had set, fear hadn’t. “Absolutely,” I said. “Show me the way.”
Mama’s house was a ranch style red brick shoebox tucked behind one of the local high schools. Weeds grew taller than the grass, the yard as unkempt as Jeff. I pulled in the driveway and parked. He walked up the uneven sidewalk and rang the doorbell. Then he knocked. Soon after, more animated, he pounded. The house replied with a dark, vacant stillness. Jeff turned around and shrugged his droopy shoulders. He disappeared around the back of the house, running playful, like a child. Perhaps to grab a hidden key, I thought.
While I watched the house and waited for Jeff to reappear, the front door opened wide, catching me off guard. I blinked and a red backpack sailed high across the lawn. My eyes followed it like a rocket as it landed with a thump near the mailbox. I guessed that this was Mama. She had a good arm. The door slammed shut before I could catch a glimpse of her. The click of the lock reverberated in the tiny cul-de-sac and echoed its way to my heart.
A minute later, Jeff wandered towards me. He spotted his backpack on the ground, grinned and picked it up. “Mama’s had enough of Jefferey. Jefferey’s been a bad boy. I got what I need. Take me home, Darlin’.”
He directed me to a three-story office building near the corner of a busy intersection, set back a few hundred yards from the road – the same road I’d found him on, a few miles away. Holly bushes, about as tall as Jeff’s eye level, surrounded the pine-forested property. A covered entrance led to a set of locked double doors and unlit offices inside. No cars littered the parking lot.
“Thanks, Darlin’,” Jeff said. He squeezed between the bushes and the exterior wall, sidestepping his way to the corner of the building. Mesmerized, I followed him like the pied piper. I wanted to see where he lived, what he called home. A solitary lamppost provided enough glow for me to see a dark blanket and three squashed empty tall boy Pabst Blue Ribbons. I recognized the labels on the cans from my college days. Two books propped against the building, though I couldn’t make out the titles. Jeff sat down, patted the dirt next to him, signaling me to do the same. “This is home, Darlin’. I can’t thank you enough. Can you stay awhile?”
Shame washed over me and baptized me in it. My husband and I were in marriage counseling, on the crust of divorce. I’d been lamenting the potential loss of my 3,000 square foot home and all the stuff in it. Jeff had so little in his corridor of a home. And he was proud to entertain.
“Have you eaten today, Jeff?”
“I could eat,” Jeff said. “But only if you are.”
I left Jeff and drove to Food Lion. His limited space and lack of refrigeration forced me to be intentional. Grabbing a cart, I threw in two pre-made turkey sandwiches from the deli. I walked the aisles for non-perishable foods, ones wrapped in plastic or tin to withstand any rain. Within ten minutes, I piled in enough food for a few days, plus a 12 pack of store-brand water. As an afterthought, I dropped in a small flashlight, a pack of batteries and some wet wipes. I thought about my home, what I was doing. I felt good about it, my good deed for the less fortunate.
When I returned, Jeff was sleeping. He woke when the case of water scraped and rustled against the bushes. The way he lit up you would have thought Christmas had come to town. Who knew granola bars and canned peaches with a pop top could illuminate someone’s day?
“No beer?” Jeff asked.
“No beer,” I replied. That exchange was to become a common one between us.
Jeff was 47-years old, younger than me by mere months. My initial impression pegged him as a much older man. His thinning ashen hair hung in long clumps, dry and frizzy at the ends and greasy on top. When he walked, he shuffled like cards, scraping the ground with each step. Though he had a slight build, no one informed his belly of the fact. A diet of junk food and beer defined his sideways appearance. His eyes were round like the sun, all glassy and blue. They hesitated to make contact for too long, wandered while we spoke. Dimples appeared out of nowhere when he smiled, giving a glimpse of the boy he once was.
We ate our sandwiches in the dark and talked about books. We both loved Tolkien and Grisham. An avid reader, Jeff bought what he could at Goodwill or bartered. The flashlight excited him because it allowed him to read at night. He lived much of his life in the dark, especially in winter. That he was well read surprised me; embarrassed me that it did. He had a college education and came from a solid middle-class family. His life used to hold space for a wife, a mortgage, a white-collar job, two cars, and even a dog named Brownie. But mental illness, alcoholism, and poor coping skills walked with him too. Jeff began drinking when his wife asked for a divorce, or perhaps the drinking led her in that direction. Perhaps I was one poor decision (or a series of small ones) away from laying prone in a street. Isn’t that how it sometimes begins for people? One loss bleeds into another until you can’t stop the hemorrhaging.
Jeff admitted he did occasional overnight stints behind bars in the county jail. Afterwards, they usually released him to The Healing Place for recovery and rehabilitation. Jeff didn’t care for structure, or a strange roof over his head. When he lived on his own, his home changed frequently. Because putting down roots for too long behind the same building led to discovery, then three hots and a cot in a place that felt foreign. He preferred freedom and simplicity, making it up as he went along. He recognized he drank too much, didn’t have a job or a permanent address. He liked it that way. It was what he knew, where his comfort and security lay.
After an hour, maybe two, I ensured Jeff was stable and settled. He thanked me for the help and asked to walk me to my car. It was the first time I worried my night might end as a headline on the evening news. But I trusted more than not. He opened my car door like a gentleman, made sure I was strapped in, then kissed the top of my hand; told me to be lock my doors, and be safe. His manners caught me off guard and I served myself another large helping of shame.
“I’ll check on you soon, Jeff.”
“I’ll look forward to it, Darlin’.”
I drove home the two miles to my house, crawled into my dry bed and fell asleep with the lamp on. Grateful for it all. I thought about how his home felt better in some ways than mine.
In the days that followed, I couldn’t wipe Jeff from my heart. As a young man, Jeff didn’t dream of being homeless, just as I didn’t fantasize about being divorced. When we imagine the possibilities our life holds, we wind towards the wonderful. But possibilities often sway the other way just as readily, some random situational and genetic luck of the draw. Religion had lost its way with me, but the phrase ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ nestled in my head.
A week later, I spotted Jeff walking on Six Forks Road, close to where I’d first met him. I recognized his bowed gait and pulled over.
“Hey, Darlin!” he shouted.
I leaned my head out the window and smiled. “Hop in. I’ll take you home.”
We stopped at my house first. I left Jeff in the car while I raided my pantry. Then I grabbed a large sweatshirt plus an old blanket we hadn’t used in two moves. Then I brought him to where he called home – somewhere different than the last.
Friends worried about my safety, my sanity. To assuage them, I googled Jeff to see what I had gotten myself into, if I needed to worm my way out. Jeff’s handful of arrests related to his homelessness and addiction. The state of North Carolina took his driver’s license after a series of DUIs many years prior; there was a drunk and disorderly and three trespassing violations that took place in front of retail establishments. There were a few mugshots, carbon copies of each other. The information didn’t deter me.
We were an odd pairing, Jeff and me. I didn’t expect anyone to understand, but Jeff’s stripped-down life centered me like Sunday morning yoga. I looked for him each time I ran errands. My car held essentials he might need. Clothes my ex-husband intended to donate found a place on Jeff’s back. Should I pass Jeff on the street, I kept water bottles, snacks, books, batteries, blankets, and dollar bills stacked within easy reach. People often raided his camp, stole what little he had. Forced to start from scratch when his possessions sprouted legs, Jeff owned nothing, not really. Whether the police, building owners, or other homeless people were behind it, the result of shivering on the cold, hard dirt was the same. The sad price you pay for a home with no door and an address that’s the worst kept secret in the neighborhood.
Jeff never displayed anger at his endless Groundhog Days of scavenging. Replacing clothes, food and finding ways to stay warm were a routine part of his day. Not once did he ask me for anything I gave him. He waited for help to be offered, and then his pride feigned refusal at least twice before relenting. Jeff registered good-natured complaints when beer wasn’t part of my offerings, but he laughed as he grumbled. Said I was just like his mama.
My encounters with Jeff grew less happenstance, more purposeful. When I felt lost, I crawled next to Jeff on a wet, moldy blanket to bring me back home. We took regular walks together down the crossroads near his camp. Cars honked and their occupants yelled obscenities; trash flew at us from car windows; soccer moms watched in disgust when forced to share the same sidewalk. I’d walked these streets a dozen times alone, always found everyone friendly. But the world through Jeff’s eyes could be compassionless. Yet he limped right along, smiling, like it was a necessary part of the process, a part of his day. I wanted to scream at the unkind. Tell them he had a name. That there was a life behind the manner Jeff lived. That he brought clarity to me about what it means to be human. That he gifted me purity and grace when humanity failed him. That he was my friend. That I was proud to walk with him.
I had to ask Jeff once, after a particularly cruel walk. “How do you still smile at people after they treat you like that? How can you still wave and say hello?”
Jeff considered me simply, spoke with the innocence we’re all born with. “My mama told me to be kind and good, even if people are assholes. There just isn’t any other way to be.”
I thought about that a lot, how right his mama was. Made it my mantra.
Jeff and I celebrated our first Thanksgiving together at a Kentucky Fried Chicken not far from where he called home that week. We settled on Colonel Sanders on the Wednesday evening before. We walked in the door and the manager (his nametag said Doug) greeted us. And when I say greeted, I mean insulted.
“I’ve told you before. We can’t have your kind here. You need to get the hell out.” Doug waved his hands at Jeff as if he were swatting a bee. Doug glanced at me and rolled his eyes in what he imagined to be solidarity. He didn’t realize we were together, speaking to Jeff like he wanted to squash him.
“Go on now so I can help this nice customer.”
I took Jeff’s left arm in mine and linked my two palms around the crook of his elbow and grinned; waited for the baked beans to fall where they may. The reality of the situation dawned on Doug like a rainy weekend that unexpectedly drenched a planned picnic.
I took a brave breath. “Mr. Creech is my friend, and he will be staying. We’re celebrating Thanksgiving together tonight.”
Jeff shifted his weight from leg to leg, keeping time like a metronome as he stared at the overflowing trash can. Doug considered me carefully, then Jeff, then me again. Jeff’s stained sweatshirt, baggy pants and ripped tennis shoes didn’t compute with my salon-highlighted hair, flowered silk blouse, leather boots and designer cross-body bag. Doug stood in stunned silence I was eager to break.
“Is my money no good here, Doug?”
Some people are born with a stammer and others come by it naturally when confronted with their behavior. Doug gave speaking a solid (but failing) attempt and stomped behind the counter to take our order. He grunted while Jeff cowered nervous behind me, as if waiting to be chastised. I paid for our food, and we chose a booth near the window.
“Would you like to wash up, Jeff? I’m going to.”
Jeff looked with embarrassment at the grime filling the cracks of his chapped hands. “I’m not allowed in the bathroom. I’ll get in trouble.” He’d been told so often the toilet was off limits he couldn’t wrap his body around access to soap and water.
“We’re paying customers,” I said. “Restrooms are part of the meal deal.” With reticence, he entered the men’s room.
When Jeff returned a few minutes later, he radiated self-respect. He gushed as if he’d won the grand prize in a fast-food raffle. “That was great! They had free paper towels.” I saw a small amount of water dripping down his right cheek and almost mistook it for a tear. Then I realized he had scrubbed his face as well, which warmed me like hot chocolate.
Jeff reached for my hand and recited a rote prayer of thanks. One perhaps he’d learned as a child. He took this part of home everywhere with him. When he finished, he stared at the feast as if summoning telekinetic powers to transport the food into his mouth.
I waited a few beats, observing him, curious about his hesitation. “What’s wrong, Jeff?”
“My mama taught me to be a gentleman,” he said. “It’s not polite to start to eat before a lady does. You go first.”
Mama had taught him well. I wondered if she knew that or spent her time wondering where she went wrong. As soon as I drew a nibble of mashed potatoes and gravy on my spork, Jeff took a slow and triumphant bite of his chicken. Then he made himself at home in a place that would never welcome him on his own merit.
On the way to the car, I had an idea.
“Have you ever taken a selfie before?”
My question perplexed him. He didn’t understand the term. I demonstrated with the camera on my cell phone. The capabilities mystified him, like he’d just seen a magic show. We crouched together under a leaning streetlight in the KFC parking lot and took a handful of pictures. He told me no one had photographed him in over twenty years. He wasn’t even sure what he looked like anymore.
When I showed Jeff our photos, he squealed in delight. He boasted. “Look at us! We were just there! It happened exactly like that!” I marveled that a click and a swipe could capture something as effusive as a man’s sense of belonging. I wished polaroid cameras were still in fashion, so I could have given him one to keep.
The next year, after my divorce, I introduced Jeff to my friend Donna and her husband Brandt. They were charmed too and took an immediate interest. I had to move across town after I sold my house. My new address made connecting with him more difficult. They gave grace and needed supplies to Jeff where I left off.
One brutal, cold winter evening, they brought Jeff to their house; allowed him to stay in their guest room. His visit lasted less than a day. The comforts of living we take as necessities, a flushing toilet, running water, exacerbated him. The first evening, climbing into the shower, he navigated the curtain incorrectly, pulling the rod down with the rings. They found him laying naked and trembling on the beige tile floor sobbing on top of his misstep. Jeff’s bath towel and washcloth sat unused by the sink.
Sleep escaped everyone that night as he paced and muttered. “I can’t stay in this house. I want to go home.”
Donna called me the next day, told me what happened. I thought a lot about how I defined home after that. How my definition didn’t need to match anyone else’s. Home is a feeling, not a place.
I moved two times in as many years, and Jeff did more of the same. He disappeared for weeks and months at a time, leaving me frantic about his whereabouts. I made the twenty-minute trip when I could, hopeful our paths would cross. I’d drive down Six Forks and spot his familiar limp; notice the curve of his back sinking lower with each step.
He’d shout. “Hey, Darlin, where you been?’” We reconnected in those moments like the old friends we were.
Often, I didn’t find him at all. By then, friends who lived in the area knew what he looked like; would give me reports when they spotted him. Let me know if it had been a while. Ask me if I’d heard anything or knew where he was.
My friend Tim from high school called me one day. He’d seen Jeff stumbling near the Dunkin Donuts. I happened to be near and drove to the area; found Jeff a few blocks away. I could tell immediately something was different by the way he let the sidewalk swallow him. Devoid of his usual innocence, his eyes rained as he fell into me.
“Mama died; Mama died. She’s gone.”
We collapsed onto the sidewalk, crawled under a tree for shade. His tears left streaks of clean that carved their way through the dirt on his face, transferred it to my shirt.
“She died at her house. I tried. I tried. I couldn’t make mama better.”
He was inconsolable. I wondered what his care had looked like given his experience with Donna and Brandt. Not that it mattered. Jeff had gone home to his mama. Tried to care for her. Done his best.
After we talked about her, he settled some. We went into Dunkin Donuts, and I bought Jeff a few donuts. Paid for a large cup of coffee. It gave him the opportunity to use the bathroom, wash up a bit.
When we got to the parking lot, he rooted around in the bag while I held his coffee. He pulled out a powdered sugar donut and took an enthusiastic bite. It left a trail of snow-white dust on his chin, a few crumbs on his lips. He looked jubilant, eating that donut. It’s how I like to think of him.
I needed to get home. Take a shower and cook dinner. Let my dog outside. “Can I give you a ride? Where are you staying?”
He pointed down the street. “I’ve got a new home, Darlin’. Down yonder. I’m going to walk. Eat my donuts.”
I gave Jeff a hug. Squeezed him a bit harder because of his loss. “Next time we’ll get more fried chicken.”
It was the last time I saw him.
I learned a short time later that Jeff was gone, too. He went home to his mama.
Tim found his obituary in the newspaper. There were only two lines. The date of his death, and the name of the crematorium. I never found out what happened. But I like to think Jeff passed away at home, wherever that might have been at the time.
On a blanket worn with forest floor.
Behind bushes high enough to shield his space.
Surrounded by his favorite books and a flashlight full of fresh batteries.
I hope wherever he’d been, people were kind and good to him.
Because there just isn’t any other way to be.
Kate Connors Martin is a writer of non-fiction essays and is currently working on her first memoir, Reclaimed Good. Though she came to be published later in life, she has been writing since she was a little girl. She is most at peace when putting to paper impactful stories that powerfully highlight the human condition in a meaningful way.