"Come here, son," he said, with his hand outstretched. "Move into the light." I shuffled forward, taking his right hand with my own, and eased into the soft glow cast from the sodium vapor bulbs above the pier.
Jones was not a large man—nowhere near six feet—but neither was he small. His white hair was worn straight back over his head. It was too long, but had been carefully brushed and smoothed with his fingertips. His eyes, even in the dim light, seemed to shine. They were a clear, crystal blue, framed by a deeply wrinkled face. Though he wore jeans, a white T-shirt, and leather flip-flops, the old man seemed stately—though even now I admit that is hardly a word one would use to describe a five-foot-nine-or-so old man under a pier at night.
As I describe Jones, I might as well go ahead and tell you that I never knew whether he was black or white. I'm not sure it matters beyond trying to paint a mental picture for you, but I never asked and never decided if his café au lait–colored skin was the result of genetics or a life lived mostly outdoors. In any case, he was brown. Sort of.
"You crying about something in particular?" he asked. "Maybe somebody in particular?"
Yeah, I thought. Me. I am the "somebody in particular." "Are you going to rob me?" I asked aloud. It was an odd question. More evidence, I suppose, of the level of distrust I had in everyone and everything at that time.
The old man's eyebrows rose. Peering beyond me into the darkness from which I had emerged moments before, he chuckled. "Rob you? I don't know . . . you got some furniture or a TV in there I didn't see?"
I didn't respond. I might have hung my head. Somehow, his attempt at humor made me feel worse. Not that he seemed to care.
He punched me playfully on the arm. "Lighten up, young man," he said. "First of all, you're about a foot and a half taller than me, so, no, I'm not about to rob you. Second . . . there is a benefit to not owning a bunch of stuff." I looked at him blankly, so he went on: "You're safe. Not only am I not gonna rob you; neither is anybody else. You got nothing to take!" He paused, aware that I was still not smiling. In fact, quite the opposite—I was becoming angry.
The old man changed tack. "Hey, Andy, if I promise not to ever rob you, can I have one of the Cokes you have stashed back in there?" He gestured behind me. I stared back at him. "Yes? No?" he said. "Please?"
"How did you know my name?" I asked.
"You can call me Jones, by the way."
"Okay. So how did you know my name? And how do you know whether or not I have any Cokes under here?"
"No big deal, really." He shrugged. "I been watching you for a long time. I been around. And the Cokes are bound to be a product of your late-night forays into the garages of the local rich and famous. So . . . can I have one?"
I watched him for a moment, considering his answer, then slowly nodded and retreated into the darkness for his Coke. Returning with two cans, I handed one to the old man.
"Didn't shake it up, did ya?" He grinned. Then, seeing once again that I refused even the slightest smile, he sighed and said, "Lord, Lord. You are a tough one." Popping the top on the Coke, Jones shifted in the sand and crossed his legs. "All right," he said, taking a long pull from the red can, "let's get started."
"Get started . . . at what?" I asked flatly.