Willie M. Gaston paced the street in his car. He explored supermarket parking lots, trolled gas stations and waited for nothing outside Mom and Pop restaurants that smelled like cigarettes.

He didn’t even drive fast enough to feel wind on his dark black forearm draped out the car window.

“Heeeeey, man,” Willie would say to strangers through a grin as they walked past his car at the grocery store. “How you doin’?”

Those who knew Willie returned conversation. Those who didn’t returned courtesy. Everyone spoke to Willie.

“He’s just a kooky old man,” folks would say to themselves and their inquiring children afterward. “He’s nice.”

Then they’d load up their gleaming Suburban and return to their pruned home with an inside balcony overlooking a paint-scented living room. They loved living in sod grass subdivisions.

Meanwhile, Willie smiled.

“All right now,” he said again and again to people as his feeble body limped past the meat coolers. He made the children smile sheepishly, commanding their attention as their parents grimaced at the price of ground beef.

After 45 minutes, three conversations and 38 greetings, Willie paid for a pack of sandwich crackers and left the store, seeking his 1993 Buick Century with one hubcap and an “I Love Jesus” license plate on the front. He returned to his three-room palace in the slums without exceeding 20 miles per hour.

He looked inside his 45-degree fridge and saw nothing. His cupboards offered shreds of nothing. The gas station on the corner, conversely, offered smokes and stale coffee, which the big-bosomed clerk named “Aaliyah” gave away for free to anyone who complained about it. She was also good for conversation.

Aaliyah was kin to Joe Wardley, who Willie knew as “Ed.” This was his connection to Aaliyah.

“You talk to that sister ’o yours at all?” Willie asked her in a considerably different tone of voice he’d used to complain about the coffee one breath earlier. He took a sip.

“Mmm, mm,” Aailyah replied indifferently, placing Willie’s dimes, nickels, pennies and two quarters in the cash drawer used to pay for $3.65 cigarettes. “I ain’t seen her.”

“How ’bout yo mom. How she doin’?”

“She good. She hurt her foot real bad.”

Willie and Aailyah agreed that was “something,” and Willie told her to tell her mom he asked about her before turning to leave, but never asked for details of how her mom hurt her foot.

“Well, I gotta go down to the store,” Willie said straight-faced.

Truth was, Willie didn’t have to do anything. He did what he wanted and what he wanted to do was continue the 56 years he’d already spent living. He worked odd jobs when he needed money, traded refurbished lawn mowers, refrigerators and bicycles he’d rescued from neighborhood curbs for cars and ate food cafeteria-style restaurants couldn’t sell. He had a rap sheet a mile long.

While his way of life was particularly excluded from the teachings of sod grass subdivision parents, his lust for life was a trait  their children grew to notice. By that time, though, parents had already instilled a sense of stuffy disgust for folks who “didn’t do anything.”

Willie didn’t appear to notice. He still flashed gentle smiles their way as they walked by or pulled next to his rattlebox Buick at a red light. The young children always smiled back, as they’d not yet learned to judge.

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