The last time we Jowerses went down to my parents' grave in South Carolina, I took a little art piece with me — a simple little fistful of copper wires bent into the shape of a tree and decorated with laminated photos. The photos were old family pictures, pulled out of the Jowers family shoebox.
I don't much like visiting the graveyard. Over the years, I've wondered if anybody cares about — or cares for — all the odorless and motionless plastic flowers. But once I'm back home and standing at the foot of my daddy's grave, I feel like I've got a mission. Jabo Jowers was always good to me, and I felt like I owed him something handmade. That's why I brought the little art piece to the graveyard.
Daughter Jess, the keeper of the copper tree, walked with me to my daddy's grave, knelt down and carefully fit the homemade tree into the urn that stands in the middle of my parents' headstone.
"Good job, baby girl," I said to Jess. "Next time we're here, I say we leave a few toys — maybe a big pinwheel and a plastic model of Jabo's 1950 Studebaker."
"I'll support that," Jess responded. "I know Jabo loved toys."
That trip to the graveyard took place some months back. Now here it is December already, and Jabo Jowers has moved into my head as he always does at Christmastime. It's not that he haunts me from afar. When I go to South Carolina, I go to see him. It's an open invitation. Once I'm there, I can see him plain as day. He's wearing worn-out leather slippers, white sweat socks with busted elastic, and his green J.C. Penney Big Mac overalls. As always, he's got a buzz cut on his head and a no-filter Lucky Strike in his hand. I can see him, but I don't think I can hear his voice anymore. He's been gone too long.
If Jabo wanted to haunt me, he'd do it in July. That's the month he dropped dead on the floor of the Augusta, Ga., AMVETS club at the age of 48, while he was dancing the boogaloo. But there's no summer haunting for Jabo. He comes at Christmastime, just like termites come in April.
Jabo's been in the ground for almost 40 years now. He's missed a lot of Christmases, but I believe he's still got some business to do here in December. This is the time of year that Jabo took time to teach me things — like how to ride a motorcycle and how to shoot doves, not mockingbirds, at the dove hunt. And how to lie to the feds straight-faced, telling them that I hadn't seen any moonshining paraphernalia around Jabo's metal shop. I guess those condensers I'd soldered up looked like water heaters to those revenuers.
For years, when people asked me about Jabo's trade, I told them he was a metalsmith. That was true. He was an exceptional metalsmith. But Jabo was also a member of the redneck mob. He specialized in swapping out VIN numbers in cars and installing house-size stills in hard-to-find rural locations. When Jabo needed, say, a piece of machinery, he'd steal it.
"I found that forklift on the side of the road," he once told me, pointing to a forklift strapped to the bed of his six-wheel truck.
Of course, when you think about it, everything is on the side of the road.
Jabo Jowers was a redneck version of Showtime's Dexter Morgan. Dexter is a serial killer who kills other serial killers. Jabo was a con man who conned other con men, a thief who took from other thieves.
I know, I know. Some of you are thinking, "What's that got to do with Christmas?"
Well, it's this: Even though Jabo was full of faults and troubles, he was a tenderhearted man. A car-wrecking, knife-fighting, tax-evading tenderhearted man, but still a tenderhearted man. On each Dec. 26, he'd gather up all my new Christmas toys, then get busy distributing those toys to other children.
Jabo was just that way at Christmastime. He found his joy about the same time he smelled the Christmas pies and cake cooking. In one winter day's time, Jabo would ditch his redneck mobster role, and morph into a stand-in for Saint Nicholas.
Jabo wasn't a religious — or even churchgoing — man. But there was something about Christmastime that filled him up with an incandescent spirit. For all I know, Jabo might've found his Christmas spirit in the potent eggnog. He might have decided to celebrate the day he walked away from his own daddy's house. He might've found his jollies in the fireworks, or in the jitterbugging.
Or, hell, he might've found it all right there on the side of the road.