Jimmy shared a one-room tarpaper shack with his younger brother, his weatherbeaten mother Elsie Lane and her common law husband Wilson Tucker. They were hill people.Wilson was given over to the drink, and Elsie took what work she could find as a domestic for the more affluent families dotted sparsely around the Valley. The boys were accustomed to squalor, and they were quickly becoming acquainted with censure and ridicule.
The school bus rambled up to the porch of their shack every weekday morning, which afforded the passengers on the back four benches on the left a birds-eye view of the Tucker outhouse, the hinged door of which was almost invariably flapping open.
Jimmy was a bright boy, good at school, and full of goodwill toward his fellows. He was also filthy. He was the kind of filthy which would have caused my grandmother to have apoplexy. Given the chance, she would have scrubbed him down with lye soap and a curry comb, all the while combing his fine blonde hair for lice and his toes for pinworms.
I liked Jimmy, almost in spite of myself. There was a pecking order to Valley life, with the Tuckers occupying the lowliest caste. My parents and uncles would have disapproved mightily at the hint of any association between me and Jimmy. Both of us understood this and kept a respectful distance. However, egalitarianism gains its strongest foothold in the souls of nine-year old boys, even though it understands the lease is brief.
The older boys were not so encumbered by scruples. They bullied poor Jimmy on an hourly basis, taking what little he had in the way of earthly possessions and cornering him in the schoolyard to taunt and ridicule his manners, his appearance and his smell. I never participated in these impromptu chapters of faults, even though occasionally it did incommode me and certainly produced consequences.
But the joke was on my bully comrades. They might have believed Jimmy to be white trash, but I absolutely knew that they were.
I went away to school in Sewanee and lost track of Jimmy over the years. The last time I was back home, which is 22-years ago now, my Aunt Rachel Jacobs mentioned that the Tucker boys were suspected of being the house thieves responsible for scores of petty thefts across the Valley.
It stuck me that this is what philosophers mean by fate. I knew Jimmy Tucker when he was boy, and I knew him to be a decent and a good-hearted boy of uncommon intelligence. Somewhere along the line, however, he assumed the role in the community which had been created for him. It was as inevitable as that daily bus ride into the bowels of Layne’s Cove.
Whenever I hear people speak so confidently about “enlightened self-interest”, “looking out for number one”, or “the world is a mean place”, I see blue veins throbbing behind alabaster cheeks caked with soot and dirt.
Then I think, “You’re so full of shit, you selfish prick!”
That was a gift Jimmy Tucker gave me.