Old Jefferson John Williams never really done nothin’ to deserve his story told, but Doc Elroy and the Preacher prodded me to write a little piece on him. I, myself, never done nothin’ to deserve to write about nobody, but Doc helped me with spelling and smoothed out some of the grammar a bit, without changing much of the words. Anyhow, what I wrote was printed up in some out-of-town paper and I have a copy of it. I still don’t understand why I was asked to write about Jeff John, or why it was printed. But I don’t care, ‘cause what I did was right.
Old Jeff John lived everyday mostly the same. His last day on this earth was about the same as all his other time, ‘cept he died. His old lady, Ann Hannah, died, too. Or, maybe I should say they was both killed. I guess maybe the account of his last day, to the best of everybody’s recollection, is as good a testimony on Jeff as there is. They lived in a shack on a dirt street over in the Flats section, across the bridge from the rest of town. I talk like I don’t know nothin’ about the place, but I know it real good, ‘cause I was born and raised over there. That’s where the po’ folks stayed. Anyway, bein’ too old to work, Old Jeff scratched out whatever he could between social security and welfare, or whatever, and fishin’. Everyday he would get up at daybreak and walk about three miles down the road along the river, ‘til he got to his hole, which was about the only spot to reach useful catfish and bream without a boat on the Flats side of the river. He was always adverse to going on the other side, but it didn’t really matter, ‘cause Old Man River didn’t send his fish any more to one bank than the other. Jeff John generally managed to come home with something in his bucket everyday. But he been havin’ trouble the past few weeks. As a matter of fact, his fishin’ problems seemed to start when they dammed the river last year, quite a ways further down, to build some kind of ‘lectric power station. That dam made the river a narrow lake for someways above the dam, clean up past the bridge.
Now, right across from Old Jeff’s fishin’ spot, they just recently finished puttin’ in a marina for recreation boats. This marina opened about two weeks before and, man, ain’t it somethin’ to see them kids tear up and down the water in their speedboats and jet-skis the way they used to rip the main town streets in their souped-up cars? I ain’t never seen such commotion. Anyway, all this affected Old Jeff John’s fishin’. As a matter of fact, he was just as likely to come home with one old sorry fish as none anymore. And it was gettin’ to the point of bein’ none more often than not.
Well, his last day was a Saturday and the kids started revvin’ their boats ‘bout the same early time Jeff John was throwin’ out his first cork. So he quit after a few hours, seein’ it was a waste of his time, not that he had anything better to do. Now, I know for a fact that Jeff John and his old lady needed them fish. I’ve been there before, so I can tell it. But there’s no sense fishin’ in dry water, so I figure Old Jefferson John thought he might as well go back to the shack and spend the day rockin’ on the stoop. His old lady, Ann Hannah, hadn’t been feelin’ too good nohow, so maybe he thought it was best for him to be at home, rather than fishin’ without catchin’ nothin’. Personally, I think she wasn’t eatin’ enough, ‘cause, as long as I can remember, she was a big one, and lately she been losing weight and I don’t think she was on no beauty diet.
Anyway, Old Jeff John got about a half mile from shack town, when some kids came runnin’ out towards him. They told him to hurry back ‘cause of an accident and he stepped out as fast as he could the rest of the way. When he got to his place, there wasn’t nothin’ left but a pile of smokin’ ashes and hot rock. There was a bunch of people standing around, but nobody said nothin’. They just stared at Old Jeff John. The look on his face never changed at all and he just stood there for a long time, evidently trying to comprehend what happened. Finally, he called old Hannah’s name in a real quiet voice. That only made things get quieter, ‘cause she was dead. I remember I was kind of surprised to hear her name come out of Old Jeff’s mouth ‘cause I don’t recollect them two ever talkin’ at all, much less call each other’s names. But lookin’ at Old Jeff’s eyes when he whispered her name, then I realized he really cared for that big old woman. I guess those two had been together so long their brains had fused and they didn’t have no need for words.
After a while, Mrs. James, who was Hannah’s best friend, took Old Jefferson aside to tell him what happened. The truth is, the way it was pieced together, Hannah had stumbled and knocked over the kerosene lamp, which started the fire. She was knocked cold in the fall, but somebody managed to fight their way through the flames and get her out. Now the way the facts point, she was still alive for a good spell after the ambulance was called, and I ain’t accusing nobody, but it seems to me had they come sooner and gotten her over to the clinic right away, she might still be alive. And so would Old Jefferson. Like I said, this is the way the facts fall. Anyway, Old Jeff listened for a long time to people giving him sympathy mixed with what they saw and what they tried to do. He heard a lot of sorrow runnin’ into his ears until, after a while, I guess he formulated an opinion as to what actually went down and what he was gonna do. He hadn’t spoke a word since he first called Hannah’s name.
Late in the afternoon I seen Old Jefferson walkin’ across the bridge toward the main part of town. He was walkin’ angry with his head lookin’ up and straight ahead. I remember this kinda scared me, ‘cause I never seen Old Jeff mad and I ain’t never seen him walkin’ over that bridge. Well, what he did was, he walked over the bridge and the whole way down to the new marina on the other side of the river where the fortunate folks had their boats tied up. He then proceeded to try to set fire to the whole damn thing. I guess Old Jefferson connected his troubles to that marina and it set itself as a symbol in his mind of all the things that had moved against him that day, or maybe his whole life, I don’t know. Things like that are hard to figure. Anyway, he evidently had a serious blaze going on one of the piers and a few boats when a gang of kids came runnin’ down there and beat up on Old Jefferson real bad. They got the fire out without a whole lot of damage, but they sure laid some hurt on the old man. When I heard about it I went to the clinic to see him, ‘cause more than likely no one else was with him and I figured he might need somebody there.
Well, I stayed with the old man until he died later on that night. Doc Elroy and the Preacher were there for a while, but I was alone with him when he died. I’ll never forget as long as I live. He was conscious but hadn’t said a word all night. After a long, long time his breathin’ started soundin’ funny. I went to call Doc. When I came back, I knew he didn’t have long, so I took his hand and asked if there was anything he wanted me to do. He whispered old Hannah’s name in a voice so low I could hardly hear it and I saw a tear roll down his grizzled old cheek. I felt so bad I wanted to cry myself, but when the end of Old Jefferson John Williams’ life came a minute later, I realized that his tears were not for sadness, but rather in God-given peace, ‘cause he had a little smile on his face when he passed.