There are some lives so inane and short lived they smother us when we think about them—and we think about them far more than we care to admit.
Such is the case with Jim Stills, a man I knew only for a few years as I was growing up around Slidell, Louisiana.
His life was utterly pathetic. I do not blame him for that, but I do blame him for not leaving me much to write about.
His father was a biology teacher at Slidell Jr. High. And one day little Jimmy Stills came home from school and his mother had to tell him the bad news; that his father asphyxiated himself in the newly renovated garage. She had to tell him that the electrician they hired to finish up the wiring found his father leaning over the steering wheel of the four door Fairlane with the motor running and the garage filling up with gray smoke, while his mother went early to the florist shop where she worked to make ends meet, to supplement the father’s teaching income.
Jim Stills grew up without a father, which is to say, the older he became the darker his mind became, until one day there wasn’t a world at all.
Jim Stills made it through the Navy all right, but when he got out he couldn’t shake the guilt he felt about never having made it to the war overseas in Vietnam to prove his strength and manhood, to himself if no one else.
He got married somehow, and even a daughter and son were born to him, but ever since his discharge from the Navy, he drank whisky, vodka and rum steadily, and of course the wife left him eventually and took the children. Jim Stills was left all alone in one of those miserable little stucco homes on the outskirts of Slidell, and that’s no laughing matter.
I do not want to appear to be making a joke of his misery. I am not—I’m simply trying to explain to you that, really, the man didn’t have much of a chance at life.
I liked Jim because he never told on me when I skipped school and would spend the whole day in the woods shooting birds and squirrels. Jim haunted the same woods but not to hunt, rather to manage the dozen or so weed plants he grew to support his drinking. We had an unspoken agreement that I wouldn’t rat on him if he wouldn’t rat on me and the agreement worked out fine.
I liked Jim because he was so strange to look at. He was very tall and gaudy; he had an incredible black beard. He looked like some Southern variation of an Amish man, without the certitude of sobriety in his dark eyes.
I also liked Jim because he would sneak me into the VFW Hall and buy me beer, even though I wasn’t even close to being old enough to drink legally.
He never told any stories, that much I can remember about him. He was always laughing, though, a kind of hideous sardonic laughter, as if he was privy to some joke only he could understand.
He was always quite drunk, but never violent.
When Jim Stills was thirty-eight years old, he must have decided that night to go in for the kill, to cash his chips in all at once, to take the ride as far as it would go, which was to the very end of nowhere. Enough of this foolishness, he must have thought, so he got incomprehensively drunk at a concrete dirty little building of a bar on the outskirts of Slidell and left the bar before midnight. He walked toward his house, which was right next to our house, but long before he got to Arthur Street—which bestrides Bayou Bonfouca, which goes out to Lake Ponchartrain, which in turn spills out to wherever you’d like to go in the entire world—he stretched out his too long legs and in a state of magnificence, he lay his body out on the Great Northern train tracks that went across the lake into New Orleans not so very far away , and that night he went to sleep forever and forever and forever.
The next day, when the hot old August sun showed hard on the tracks, Jim Stills body was all over the place. Trains were delayed for hours, as cops, coroners, and all the rest had to pick up the little pieces of flesh and bone that once constituted this man who would sneak beers to me and never told on me for skipping school; who once had a father who killed himself and who once had a wife and children who abandoned him in some little corner of our dark little town of Slidell.
Such was the life of Jim Stills.