The first time I laid eyes on him was in Agriculture Class and we were both assigned the task of filling sausage skins together. Other students were paired up and assigned different tasks, cutting ribs from pigs, cleaning up scraps as they fell to the floor, air packing steaks and pork chops. This was a real-to-life rural school in Southeast Louisiana. Its claim to fame was a 100% white student population. The rural district itself was believed to have the highest Ku Klux Klan membership in the entire county. I remember even the school’s teachers bragging about this supposed record to kindergarten children in this school that never had a single “nigger” student in the whole of its history.
I’d just transferred from Catholic school in the 7th grade and had long brown hair, played the saxophone and classical guitar and was an avid Beatles fan. All of this was unheard of at Sixth Ward Jr. High School, and the hicks tore into me ever chance they got. Luckily, I was bigger than most of them or they would have killed me for sure. Also, I played football since the third grade and was quite healthy and could outrun them most of the time, this also helped with staying alive in this rural environment. Once, during morning recess, I had no less than twenty of these degenerates chasing me all at the same time and somehow I managed to outmaneuver them all. Not once did a teacher ever come to my rescue, even though I wanted protection from them badly and wasn’t ashamed to take it.
Chris Jenkins was different from the other rednecks at Sixth Ward Jr. High School. He didn’t want to kill me. He had the same crew cut as the rest of the hicks and wore the same cheap jeans and flannel shirts. He wore the same wide belt and obligatory western style belt buckle, but he also would come to school no less than twice a week sporting an Iron Maiden t-shirt. He must have had a whole wardrobe of them because he almost never wore the same one twice in a month: each shirt had a different name for a different Iron Maiden song or title of one of their albums, such as “Killers,” “Run to the Hills,” “The Trooper,” and my favorite, “Number of the Beast.”
He was soft spoken and a slow learner. He was fourteen when I first met him and still only in the 6th grade. There was an emptiness about him that made it even hard for the worst bullies to pick on him, much less beat him to a bloody pulp, like they wanted to do to me. I got the sense that he didn’t have parents; it just seemed like he was raised by his grandparents or an aunt and uncle, but I don’t know that for sure. The fact that he attached himself to me, certainly the most hated kid in the school, couldn’t have done much to help his self-esteem. Even the ones who would talk to me called me “The Jerk,” and they meant it. That I was Chris Jenkins’ only friend was a bad sign for him. We only hung out together at school, and then only in a vague way. We’d talk about fishing and hunting mostly, or about what classes we were failing. We were both cowards. I was big, fast, and mean but I didn’t like to, or, rather, couldn’t, fight very well, which was all but a death sentence at this school where most of the students had family and they’d stay huddled together like rats waiting to pounce on anyone who didn’t have any family connections at the school. But Chris and I didn’t really get close, because as pathetic as I might have been, he was even weaker than me, so much so that it usually made me extremely uncomfortable to be around him for more than a few minutes at a time. On more than one occasion, he’d ask me to stay the weekend at his house but I’d always come up with some excuse and refuse him. Unlike Chris, at least I had the luxury of being a true outsider to account for my un-popularity, whereas, Chris was so unobtrusive that no one even bothered to beat him up. One couldn’t sink much lower at this school, where black eyes, broken noses or fingernails broken off in the face were at least indicative that you existed, that at least you were there without question. For all practical purposes, Chris Jenkins didn’t exist at all.
About a year or so after we first made sausage together in Ag class, he came up to me at noon recess and asked me if my dad told me about their hunt together that weekend? My dad lived in Slidell, whereas I lived with my mother and stepfather about twenty miles away in the piney woods of LaCombe. My dad had recently been hired as an electrician’s helper by the St. Tammany School Board, and he would travel throughout the parish and do electrical work. My dad loved to hunt squirrel and when he was working at a rural school, he’d always scout out squirrel hunting spots in the vicinity. He found an excellent grove of moss hanging live oaks at the back of a cemetery not far from Sixth Ward Junior High and he stumbled across Chris sitting at the trunk of one of the huge live oaks. Chris had a .410 shotgun cradled in his arms—they said hello, each of them a bit apprehensive about finding the other in the woods. They exchanged names in the cemetery and Chris apparently caught on to my dad’s last name as being the same as mine so he told my dad we went to school together. They hunted the whole of the evening together under the dark oaks. They did well too: they shot three grey squirrels apiece and Chris shot a trophy mount Fox squirrel. I was jealous that Chris got to hunt with my father. He described their hunt in his weak voice and with such melancholia that I couldn’t really get angry with him even though I wanted to. I was quite possessive when it came to sharing my dad whom I didn’t get to see but twice a month usually. But I couldn’t get mad at Chris. I thought it strange somehow that they should meet in the woods like they did since, in my mind, Sixth Ward is so far from Slidell. It just felt funny that someone other than me was hunting with my dad, especially another kid my age. I did feel a sense of betrayal, but on my father’s part, not on Chris’s. I remember how furious I got once when my father had taken a cousin of mine fishing out in Lake Catherine for speckle trout and red fish. It certainly didn’t help matters when I found out they filled the white skiff they were in all the way up to the brim! Then I found out my cousin caught a shark, a rather large sand shark. I was steaming, because I’d always wanted to catch a shark but never did and here my younger cousin comes along and catches one the first time he ever fished in salt water, and with my father. My father! But now, all these years later, the thought of Chris and my father walking through the woods together side by side with squirrels hanging from both of their belts fills me with an immense peace.
Chris dropped out of school in the eighth grade, and consequently, out of life. When I was sixteen years old, I moved out of the country and in with my father in Slidell for awhile. That summer, I took a job landscaping. One day I was weeding the parking lot at the back of a bank. There was a metal hallway that connected the bank to another building, a law firm. I shut the weed eater off and walked under the alleyway to get out of the heat and take a breather. It was semi-dark under there with the only light coming from the opening of the law firm entrance. I heard a voice from the dark side of the hall say, Hey, you want to buy a stereo? I knew instantly it was Chris Jenkins, for I’ve never heard such a tremble of humility in a voice in all my cursed years on earth as meek as his, not even from the worst rejects I’ve met in the streets when I was nearly a bum myself. I have never heard such resigned desolation come out of a mouth. Chris, I said, what in the world are you doing in the city? He stood up and took a step out of the darkness and stood and shook my hand gently and said, Luke, it sure is good to see you after all this time—I’ve fallen real low in life and don’t think I’ll ever get up again. In the half light of the alcove I could still see the country boy face I knew from childhood, way back in junior high school, but he wore his hair long in dirty looking demi-blonde locks—he sported a short but thick mustache and even in the dim light of the hall I could see the needle marks that ran up and down his arms. He had on the same kind of cheap jeans he wore in junior high and he was still wearing an Iron Maiden t-shirt, although I can’t recall the song or album he was wearing on this particular day. I had to get back to work; so we didn’t talk for long but he was quite adamant about me buying the radio, which had a cassette player. He drew his face a little closer to me and said, Please buy it, for the love of God, buy this stereo from me. I’m only asking ten dollars, I need ten dollars worse than anyone in the world, don’t you believe me? I believe you, Chris, I said, but first let me hear how it sounds. He bent over and pushed the play button on the cassette player and loud and clear was the voice of Bruce Dickenson from Iron Maiden belting out these words:
He’s watching, like a small child,
But watch his eyes burn you away,
Black holes in his golden stare
God knows he wants to go home
Chris pushed the stop button and said, See, it’s a hell of a bargain for just ten dollars, but not the cassette, Iron Maiden is all that keeps me going.
I bought the radio and never saw Chris Jenkins again. I wonder what he would think, if he’s still alive, if he knew I was writing about him?
Louis Bourgeois is the Executive Director of Vox Press, a 501 (c) 3 arts corporation based in Oxford, Mississippi.