“Bother me not, ratfucker!” Jim lumbered down the road, clicking his teeth and gesturing at the invisibles that peered at him from trees and unruly hedges. It was a blasted morning of cold winds and the spit of ice. Jim was up and roaming every morning, no matter what. He wore a tattered red cap, the yarn doing the slow unravel here and there. Occasionally, he’d dance a piece of a jig, a musical commotion taking place in his head for an unknown measure of time. Lettie once thought she was in love with Jim, mad ways and all, but she talked herself out of it in three short weeks. Still, she left a basket of this and that, apples or crumb cake or fresh eggs, on her porch steps so he’d notice. He never failed to look and when he returned the basket, it might contain one of his little carved creatures or a bunch of cress or nothing at all.
“Scaramouche!” Jim called the Foster’s dog whose actual name was Skip. The dog loved him and didn’t mind the discordant songs or the patter of disjointed words and would sit at his feet when he’d plunked down on the bench outside the post office. “This is Scaramouche!” Jim would offer to the passersby although they all knew the dog was Skip and belonged to the Fosters who maybe didn’t deserve such a loyal dog themselves.
The sorriness of Jim’s house was a well-known fact. But the townspeople had taken the position of nothing-to-be-done. Either the house would fall down or Jim would and, with luck, their time would be up simultaneously.
“Accidental discharge!” Now and again Jim would utter those words, pointing at his head as if to explain himself, as if he knew he didn’t see the world in quite the same way as others and might cause confusion among the populace. The townspeople would nod or pat his arm and reply, “Yes, Jim, well and good. No trouble at all.”
Some days Jim was merry as the spring birds and other days, he was a thundercloud, muttering in deep tones and scowling at anyone who looked his way. But he was never one to harm and no one was ever afraid. Jim was an unknown number of years old and there were a few who remembered him as a boy, not half so full of collision and blur. Time takes a toll.
One cloudless April day a stranger came to town. Just passing through, he told the fellows at the general store, though Liam and Malachy had their suspicions given his shifty eyes. He had a swagger and a baroque tongue and clearly fancied himself a cut above the inhabitants residing in this place at the back of nowhere. He strutted past Jim and the dog, furrowing his brow.
“Scaramouche!” Jim cried out, “Say hello to him, why don’t you.”
The Swaggering Man gave a sharp bark of a laugh. “Scab’s more the name,” he said, “you and the dog. Not much good, I’d reckon.”
“No, no, no,” Jim said, rising to his feet. “He’s Scaramouche, a dog for all time and my friend and you be damned to hell.”
The Swagger Man cocked his head. “Wait, old man, you don’t be talking to me like that. You’d best scuttle off to whatever dark corner of a barn you settle in.”
It had been a good many years since Jim had been riled up by a string of words from a mouthy fool, but he remembered he didn’t like it. “Away,” he said in a low guttural voice, and then repeated, “Away! Away!” his voice rising, the volume growing louder until he was fairly shouting.
The postmaster stuck his head out to see the cause of the turmoil. People stepped out of the grocers and the hardware store and a dentist office. The Swagger Man had slipped a knife out of his coat and held it up, glinting. “Don’t be losing your mind, now, mister, you haven’t much left and you’ll soon be losing something else.”
Jim had run out of breath and was gasping. Skip gave a threatening growl.
“Same with the mutt,” said the Swagger Man. “I’m no animal lover.”
A cloud of confusion settled in Jim’s mind. Was Scaramouche in danger? Was this stranger going to lunge with the knife and there’d be blood everywhere and wailing? What sort of day was it when this ratfucker came down the street like he was the king and brought his dark soul to suck up the air in this place where Jim had lived all his life?
Jim had felt a knife go into his flesh once in his younger years, and while it wasn’t the worst pain he’d known, he didn’t care to repeat the experience, especially if the stabbing went to the place where the blood would come out like a gushing fountain, and he’d be dead in a wink. He’d seen that happen. No thank you.
Jim was weighing his options — walk away, run away, try to wrest the knife from the blackguard’s hand, risking injury or worse — when a group of townspeople joined the two men, a river of muttering among them. The local lawman headed up the bunch and he pointed at the knife. “Don’t even consider it. You’ll be down the road and gone from this town forever in a quick minute, or you’ll be locked up for disturbing the peace, and god knows when anyone will pay any mind to your sludge of a soul — it could be years.”
“Yeah, you worthless bog-dweller,” said Malachy. “Take yourself off before you lose the chance.” Several men had eased Jim and Scaramouche to the back of the crowd. Lettie watched from her porch.
The Swaggering Man looked a little disappointed that he wasn’t going to have the chance to defend himself from a raving lunatic coming full speed at him. He’d just sharpened his knife, after all. He still had an ounce of sense in his porcupine head though, and saw that his well-being would best be served by moving on. There’d be other opportunities. He tucked the knife in his coat pocket and headed in the opposite direction with a whistle.
“There’ll be trouble waiting wherever he lands,” grumbled Liam. The rest of the crowd nodded. That was as sure a truth as the rain coming all through the month of June.
Jim became softer in his manner and less turbulent. He took to spending time on Lettie’s porch where she’d feed him a plate of cookies or a slice of pound cake. Passersby would call out hello, and Lettie would wave, sometimes with the knife she’d used to cut the cake or pie, and though everyone recognized that knife, nary a one asked a question or said a word. You couldn’t tell the courage and resolve of a person by looking at them.