Journeys in the Vanishing American West

      Mr. Jeffrey’s Secret
      My primitive shack in Cripple Creek, where Mr. Jeffrey sought refuge one cold and snowy night.
      On a cold October night, with new snow on the ground, my friend Ted Roberts and I pulled up to my shack in Cripple Creek. Winter comes early to the high country. Ted was visiting from sunny California, and Cripple Creek both amused and distressed him. He could never understand what I was doing there. We had been down in Colorado Springs, and got home about midnight, in cold fog and light snow. I turned off the truck and sat for a moment looking at the bright window of my house, which in that small mountain town I never locked. “I don’t remember leaving the lights on,” I said. Then we heard music. “And I’m damned sure I did not leave the radio on!”
      Ted and I exchanged glances, realizing that someone was in the shack. We weren’t worried, only puzzled. I flung the door open--and there on the faded couch was Mr. Jeffrey, drinking one of my beers. Several empty cans sat in front of him. His face was battered and swollen. He looked at us drunkenly. “Ah was in a fight, Mr. Dayton,” he said, lurching to his feet. “Down at the bar. Ah was in a fight. But I won, I shorely did.” That struck me as doubtful. I had seen him in numerous scuffles in the bar, and never once had he prevailed over those rednecks.
      Mr. Jeffrey was a country boy from the Florida Panhandle, a real hayseed, but not a tough one. Ted and I got beers from the fridge and sat down to hear tonight’s tale. But Mr. Jeffrey was mumbling drunkenly, not making sense. Why he had wandered up to my place instead of to his room above the Home Café I did not know. I just wanted him out and on his way. Ted volunteered to walk him back downtown. They left in the cold fog. I was relieved to be rid of Mr. Jeffrey. I did not think there was any danger in the man, but the idea of him getting too comfortable in my house gave me a creepy feeling. I wanted to maintain a certain distance from Mr. Jeffrey. That’s why I never asked him what his last name was. I really did not even want to know.
      Ted returned with a tale of woe. He said it had been an ordeal. Mr. Jeffrey kept slipping on the ice and falling down. Again and again Ted had to get him back up on his feet, only to have him stagger off in the fog, rambling incoherently, about being threatened with “dayaith.” Mr. Jeffrey was intent on returning to the bar, and insisted that Ted accompany him. There they had a couple of drinks, the redneck boys staring--wondering who Mr. Jeffrey’s hulking “friend” was, but not wanting to find out. Finally Ted got Mr. Jeffrey to his room, or the stairs to it, and came back. “What an experience!” he said. “How do people get so totally fucked up in Cripple Creek?” I replied that they were fucked up before they got here--Mr. Jeffrey certainly was--“but this place doesn’t help.” Ted just shook his head. ‘No,” he said, “it sure doesn’t!”
      Mr. Jeffrey had shown up one summer day, a young Florida cracker who made his way to our small mountain town for a fresh start. There were many who looked to Cripple Creek as a place of new beginnings, mostly to find out that it was a place of bad endings. It was the image of the West, I suppose, that drew people like Mr. Jeffrey, a tradition of men with no last names. Men with dreams, of being or doing anything they wanted. But dreams have a way of not coming true, and whatever visions poor Mr. Jeffrey had for himself certainly never came close to materializing.
      He invested some money in a small novelty shop in a warren of stores in a downtown building called The Mall. His shop sold tricks, puzzles and childish “joke kits,” along with silver dollars and old Life magazines, stuff like that. Preferring the bar, he didn’t spend much time in his shop; but when he was there he never sold much--or anything. “Ah made 50 cents today, Mr. Dayton,” he once told me. It was pathetic. But he seemed to have enough money to rent a room and endlessly buy drinks. In spite of the time he passed in the bar, Mr. Jeffrey was not accepted by the locals. There was something about him they did not take to. His sly country-boy manner, the little derby hat he wore, or just his general appearance. The Confederate flag on his white Ford van didn’t help. The local fellows beat him at pool and took his money, mocked him behind his back and sometimes to his face, and punched him out more than a few times. The women mostly ignored his advances, or mocked him in the cruel way that women do when they have the upper hand.
      Despite his various setbacks, Mr. Jeffrey insisted to Mr. Moore and me, in one of our few conversations with him, “Ah’m a man--I’ll make it out here!” But there was something in his past that cast a dark shadow. Trouble in the past--yes, there was trouble in his past. Something back in Florida that had caused him to leave home and family, who now evidently supplied meager funds to keep him gone. Once Mr. Jeffrey’s father came to visit. A Southerner but not a dirt farmer, he had a pained look, as though he knew that things were not going well for his son and would come to no good end. Apparently seeing me as someone in a position of authority, the father asked, “How’s Jeffrey been gittin’ on?” the way he might ask the police chief or the sheriff. I mumbled something noncommittal. It was sad. He seemed like a nice man, worried about his boy.
      One day when Mr. Jeffrey and I were shooting pool he mentioned that something “terrible” had happened back in Florida. It seemed he was anxious to unburden himself of this tale, but it did not happen. Instead he started joking about memories of summer Bible Camp, and the “laying on of hands”--that is, feeling up young girls behind the cabins in the Southern piney woods. How much he knew about such things I could only imagine. I saw Mr. Jeffrey make a fool of himself many times. Yet I always talked to him in the bar, as did Mike Moore. We were about the only ones who gave him the time of day. I think he sort of looked up to me, an older guy with a position in the community and respect among the people who put him down. To me he was just another flawed human being, with a story behind the simpleton role he played. I accepted him for what he was.
      Then one night the story came out. Mr. Moore was trying to charm two tourist women at the bar, and was not paying attention as Mr. Jeffrey, half-drunk as usual, began to talk of the Florida Panhandle. “Oh, it was awful, Mr. Dayton, it was something truly terrible,” he moaned. “Yes, Ah had been drinkin’. Ah’d had a few, an’ Ah was drivin’ my hotrod, openin’ her up on one o’ them long straight, empty roads through the sawgrass that we have in the Panhandle. An’ this colored family pulled out, from behind a canebrake, right in front of me. Ah barely saw them, didn’t have no time to even hit the brake. Smashed them broadside. Oh, Lordy, it was awful. A bunch of ‘em died, they was a family. Ah was busted up, in the hospital. They charged me with manslaughter and DWI. It wasn’t my fault, Mr. Dayton, they pulled right in front of me.” He collapsed onto the bar.
      I gathered that he had spent time in jail, and then his family had given him a stake to get a fresh start somewhere out West. But his fresh start in Cripple Creek was just another dead end. As Mr. Jeffrey slowly pulled himself back together, Mr. Moore joined us with his tourist women, and ordered shots of tequila all around. “This is fun,” Mike laughed, unconvincingly. He was not much of a drinking man. The women were briefly amused with these manly rituals, but then gave up on us as just a bunch of drunks in a nowhere, forgotten old mining town in the mountains--which was, at that moment, true. They drifted away, leaving their shot glasses untouched. So Mr. Moore and I polished them off, too. Even so, we never gained on Mr. Jeffrey’s head start.
      By closing time he was mightily drunk. In fact, he fell off his stool onto the floor and just lay there. Mr. Moore and I ignored him. Then Sheriff Carlson, who liked to check things out at night’s end, entered and saw Mr. Jeffrey on the floor. “What’s that man doing there?” he asked. Someone answered, “Jest dronk, Sheriff, that’s all.” With disgust Gus looked at the inert form. “That boy ain’t nothin’ but a drunk,” he said. “Some of you fellas haul him out to the patrol car. I’m gonna let him sleep it off in the jail. Feed him coffee in the morning an’ suggest he don’t belong in this town.” A couple of rednecks hauled Mr. Jeffrey like a sack of potatoes out to the patrol car and heaved him in. Off he went. The country boys all laughed, the women snickered. The sheriff was a pretty good guy, but did not tolerate men who could not hold their liquor.
      Shortly after that incident Mr. Jeffrey closed his joke shop and left town, without saying goodbye to anyone. We heard that he had taken a room in Colorado Springs, and once or twice that winter I ran into him in the Royal Tavern in Manitou Springs, where the cog railway up Pike’s Peak is based. He still had his white van with its Confederate flag, and still was getting, I presumed, his stipend from the family. He said he was “maintaining.” Soon I lost all track of Mr. Jeffrey.
      Years later, when I was living in Santa Rosa, California, one day a letter from Mr. Jeffrey arrived out of the blue. He must have gotten my address from somebody in Cripple Creek. He was writing from Florida, from a box number in some town. It had the ring of some kind of institution. He said he was “doing well,” and was ready to come out West again and “start over.” Where did I recommend? No place, really, but I wrote back suggesting towns like Prescott, Arizona, or even smaller ones--Bisbee, Arizona, or Taos, New Mexico, places where strangers could fit in if they kept clean. “Don’t go to California!” I emphasized. There would be nothing but everlasting trouble for him in the complicated and dangerous Golden State, where the machinery works around the clock grinding up the likes of Mr. Jeffrey. I never heard from, or of, him again.
      But I did gain one more piece of information from Mr. Jeffrey’s letter: his last name. It was Dinkins--he wrote it in the return address. Probably had to. Just out of habit these days,when I am in a motel room I pull out the telephone directory and look up Dinkins. Each time I do, I think of Bible Camp, and the “laying on of hands.” Once, in Palestine, Texas, I found a listing for a Jeffrey Dinkins. Another Jeffrey Dinkins, I assumed, without bothering to pick up the phone to test my theory. It’s probably a sort of Southern name. I imagine the state of Florida has a record of it.