By Hardy Jackson
They made small towns what they were.
Every town had them — people whose actions and antics live on in the public consciousness and become part of the folklore of a village long after they are gone from the Earth.
And C.J. was one — not his real name ‘cause Lordy I could get in trouble back home.
Now don’t confuse “characters” with eccentrics. Eccentrics are folks who were a few clicks off plumb and whose idiosyncrasies left solid citizens shaking their heads and wondering how it could be, “She came from such a good family” — like my cousin who had more money than God and to my mother’s embarrassment lived like a bag lady. (She was a big Alabama fan and during the Bear Bryant years took great delight in reminding my daddy of how low his beloved Auburn had fallen. To make Daddy feel better, I bought his nemesis a crimson U of A sweatshirt, which she proudly wore on her early-morning dumpster dives collecting cans. Alabama fans were aghast. Daddy was delighted. He put me back in the will.)
But she wasn’t a “character” — at least in the sense that I know the term. My cousin cared little for the conventions of “normal” society and blissfully ignored them.
A “character,” on the other hand, is someone who cares enough about the conventions of society, the niceties of convention and the customs of a community, to wage a not-all-to-subtle war against them and delight in the consternation he creates.
That was C.J.
C.J. was a businessman.
For a while he ran the local pool hall, which qualified him for membership in the Chamber of Commerce and put him near the top of many a prayer list.
He also operated a sawmill, but his real talent was in the filling-station field.
C.J. assembled as fine a collection of shade-tree mechanics as you would hope to find, kept them sober enough to tell an alternator from a carburetor and provided customers with the sort of service small towns are famous for.
C.J. was not cheap, but he was convenient.
Your car broke down, C.J. would send someone to take care of it. Or go himself if no one was available.
And if you complained about the cost of the convenience, he would tell you, as he told one customer, “I’ve got a cabin on the river, a boat, a truck, a 4-wheeler and all this here in town, and you gotta help me pay for it.”
(Rumor has it that when you rolled in to have him check that “funny noise” under the hood, he would jack up the car and take off a tire to keep the customer from hopping in and driving off when presented with the estimate.)
C.J. was a regular fixture at the local café where he and similarly inclined buddies took up a table and discussed the issues of the day — especially the scandals that are so common in small towns and about which good taste demands public ignorance and silence — as if not talking about it where others can hear will make it go away.
One of those issues, and one discussed with delight at C.J.’s table, was the case of a local minister (male) whose counseling of a member of the church choir (female) had gone beyond scriptural matters, and when their association was exposed (pun intentional), representatives of the congregation asked the minister to leave.
(There was no truth to the rumor, which probably originated at C.J.’s table, that the next Sunday the lady in question sang “He Touched Me” as the offertory solo.)
One morning as C.J. and his crew discussed the details of the matter, some of the very churchmen who had dismissed the minister arrived and tried to inconspicuously slip into a booth on the far side of the room.
C.J. noticed them right off, and after giving them time to get settled and order breakfast, he ceremoniously rose and crossed to where they were sitting. Then, in a voice loud enough to carry back to his grinning buddies, C.J. spoke those words that secured his place in the “Town Character Hall of Fame.”
“I understand you folks are looking for a new minister?”
There was an awkward silence in the booth.
“Well, I’d like to apply.”
The churchmen fidgeted.
“And I just want you to know that salary isn’t important, so long as I am assured of the fringe benefits.”
No one was in the booth when breakfast arrived.
No one could recall who paid the bill.
Harvey H. (“Hardy”) Jackson is professor emeritus at Jacksonville State University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.