The Last to Figure It Out
By Michael Jackman
For about five years I was a regular at this 100-year-old bar in Hamtramck. Almost every night would find me sitting down by the bend in the bar, drinking double shots of whiskey and shell glasses of chaser beer, a plume of cigarette smoke rising in the ashtray in front of me. Night after night, the same people came in, and many became part of the nucleus of our little inebriated scene.
I’d often ask people at the bar for help. Jim, who drove a truck, carted stuff around for me many times. Over the years, he probably helped half of our fellow barflies move. We used that truck to move a 400-pound cast iron bathtub 60 miles one time. Hell, I finally felt bad about asking for his assistance and tried to spread it around. And I tried to be giving as well. When friends from the bar were in need, I’d often pitch in. We were drunks, but we nurtured our own sense of community too.
For instance, I sometimes paid these two younger barflies, Jesse and Ziggy, to do work for me. They struck me as your classic square pegs: They were intelligent, but they wouldn’t fit into your typical workplace due to their social skills. Hyperactive and foul-mouthed, Ziggy was a chatterbox, a frenetic skater dude who was always making faces and talking a mile a minute.
Jesse could hardly have been more different. I think he had low self-esteem. He had aged out of the foster system, lacked life experience, and seemed phlegmatic, almost catatonic, but if you paid attention he had a quiet, quick wit that knew when to strike. He could be impulsive, too, as when he got a forearm tattoo—the Johnnie Walker logo. I bring it up to show that Jesse didn’t take himself too seriously, and hardly needed a dare before doing something unusual.
I’d give them both odd jobs because they needed the money and I was facing some real health problems at the time. I paid them well, and threw them both some cigarettes and booze, trying to be a “cool boss.” One December, a couple days before my 45th birthday, Jesse and Ziggy came over to move some big stuff out to the garbage. It helped that my wife Bobbi was endlessly entertained by them, Ziggy talking nonstop like a comedian, Jesse standing by quietly like a straight man.
The previous owners had left lots of stuff up in the half-finished space on the second floor, and Jesse and Ziggy trooped up there pulling out old fans, luggage, doors, even tossing some of it out of our second-story window into the back yard below. They did the work with the gusto of people who don’t quite know what they’re doing.
On the first floor, Bobbi heard a crash in the bathroom. The cat went scrambling past her. She peeked in and saw plaster dust everywhere, a sneaker and leg sticking out of the ceiling.
Up in the attic, Jesse called out, “I found your bathroom.”
Or there was that time Rodney Miller helped me move a load of stuff into that house.
By that time, I’d known Rodney for a few years. He made quite an impression on me when we first met—this tall, muscular man with luminous blue eyes and a long, iron beard, his face seemingly etched with care. There was a whiff of Southern to him, just a hint of honeysuckle in his speaking cadence, his words carefully chosen and unspooling slowly, his sly smile, his haw-haw laugh. A few times, I wandered over to his place after the bar, a ramshackle house he was always working on, since he was a sort of handyman by trade.
Like Jim, he had a truck, and I asked him to help me move a few things that remained at my old place. He came over with this young woman. She was beautiful, perhaps a decade younger than him, but, like him, rough around the edges. She dove in and helped, too, and I was surprised to see this gamine trooping up and down the stairs with some of my heavy belongings. Their apparent strong partnership made a lasting impression on me. In fact, when I didn’t see Rodney for a few years, it made sense—I figured he and his lady-friend had just struck off on their own.
But when I started seeing Rodney at the bar again several years later, the girl was gone, and he looked a little banged up. He’d been more filled out before, and now he looked thinner and more haggard. He often sat farther down from my space at the bar, where he chatted with the others. I guess his house was gone, because he moved in with Jesse and a few friends of his. That had to be a comedown: subletting a single room in an apartment full of twentysomethings. Jesse, in fact, had gotten a steady job at a scrap yard, and was learning how to recover precious metals from catalytic converters. I was tickled to see him putting a life together for himself.
Around that time, I went out to the local comedy club to join Bobbi and my sister, and I was surprised to see Rodney sitting at the table. As I hung out, it slowly dawned on me that he was on a kind of date with my sister, which seemed at odds with the way he looked: His scraggly dreadlocks were spilling all over, and his hands were covered in grease, as if they’d been inside a crankcase for the last hour. Discreetly, my sister let me know the date had been a mistake—she wasn’t interested. It was mutual: Sharing a cigarette outside, Rodney said: “I couldn’t date your sister. She looks too much like you. That would just be … strange.”
Outside that chance meeting and running into each other at the bar, I didn’t really see a whole lot of Rodney. And so I was surprised when, out of the blue, Rodney called me on a blustery night in March.
“I’m out of fuckin’ gas,” he said. “Can you come help me out?”
Rodney was lucky: He didn’t run out of gas all that far away. His battered old van was easy enough to find. He’d managed to pull off to the side of the road on this enormous elevated roadway connecting two different freeways. “Wow,” I thought, “it’s a good thing he made it up that ascent to the top before conking out.” Even for me, it was kind of tricky to pull off to the side of the ramp. I got out, buffeted by the wind, traffic whizzing by, and got up to the driver’s-side door of Rodney’s van. With the roar of the road and frost on his windows, he didn’t seem to see me, staring straight out ahead.
I rapped on the window and he turned with a jerk. It looked as though I’d really startled him. He got out of the van, said very little, and accepted the gas can. He poured the gas into the tank while I made some small talk. Soon, he was back in the driver’s seat.
“Sometimes, these old cars can pull a lot of trash through your fuel line when they run out of gas. If it doesn’t start, then we might—”
Rodney turned the key and the van started right up. I was relieved. Rodney drove away. I walked back to my car, my “good deed” for the night done. But it was kind of unsettling. Normally, a good deed is rewarded with gratitude, and yet Rodney had said perhaps a dozen words during our encounter—and none of thanks.
Later on, I heard how bad Rodney’s night got: After getting gassed up, he drove home and found Jesse dead on the kitchen floor. Nobody seemed to have any idea what had happened. Somebody thought he’d done some coke and had a heart attack. I guessed that maybe he’d had a heart defect or something. He had a sibling or a parent somewhere—that much my friends seemed to know—but we weren’t even sure there would be a memorial.
I guess that’s why one of the bartenders set something up for us barflies. We all gathered at one of the fading local funeral homes after work on a weekday. We didn’t have a body, or any remains, but we did have a bulletin board, and several people tacked up photos of Jesse in better days. I gave a short speech that seemed to elicit some laughs and a few tears—before inviting other people to speak.
Sadly, nobody did. In retrospect, I wished that I had talked longer. Jesse deserved a bigger tribute than I alone was able to give him. I couldn’t help but feel I had let him down. Within a few days, we stopped talking about it a lot. Within a few months, another death in our small community would become a new, mournful topic to dwell upon.
The next summer, Rodney was found dead in his bed. Jesse’s death had been a rude shock to our little group, but the death of Rodney hit too close to home for some. The same bartender who’d put together Jesse’s memorial was the one who found him. He’d been rooming with her in a rambling two-flat home, in a small space in the back without air conditioning. The room had been quiet, and then there was a strong smell. His body had rotted so quickly, the dreadlocks had fallen out of his head and were on the floor near the bed.
Where Jesse’s death had been cloaked in mystery, Rodney’s death was attributed to dope almost instantly. The consensus was nearly unanimous, but how it had happened remained an open question: Perhaps he had overdosed or done heroin laced with fentanyl. I thought the latter was most likely.
I sat at the bar with Jim, and we tried counting all the people who had died over the last few years: Fast Freddy, Curtis, Jesse, and now Rodney. Jim was such a great sounding board, letting me, as usual, talk a lot, trying to make sense of it all.
“You know what’s weird? Rodney’s dead, but then one of the last times I saw him, wasn’t that the night he found Jesse dead?”
“Yup,” Jim said, tapping the ashes off a cigarette.
I put a cigarette in my mouth and considered it all while I patted myself down for a lighter. Had Jesse died of laced heroin too? Nah, that didn’t make sense. He didn’t even like to do coke. Could Rodney have been involved with Jesse’s death? How was that possible when he had run out of gas and wasn’t home yet? Although it did seem strange that he had called me that of all nights, asking me to … my mouth slackened, the cigarette drooped lower, I stopped looking for my lighter.
Jim lit my cigarette for me. I needed it now.
“Why am I always the last to figure it out?” I spluttered.
He gave me a sympathetic look and nodded slightly.
“So, Rodney wasn’t out of gas, was he?” I asked him.
“What do you think?”
“I think … Rodney gave Jesse dope laced with fentanyl and Jesse died. Then Rodney probably cleaned up any evidence he was there and left, took off. After that, he probably realized that he had no alibi, so he pulled off to the side of the road and called me. Now, that makes sense. He looked at me like he’d just seen a ghost!”
“It all kinda fits together,” Jim said.
“So, I was used.”
“Sure sounds like it.”
I took a strong puff and felt a wave of anger pass over me. I was furious at Rodney, ashamed that I hadn’t figured it out, and that I had been called in as cover by the person responsible for Jesse ending up dead. I was the victim’s eulogist and his killer’s alibi. I was crestfallen.
Jim, as usual, was wisest of all. “You shouldn’t feel too bad about getting tricked,” he said. “That’s what junkies do, man. They use the people around them. You aren’t any less of a person because somebody made a sucker out of you that one time.”
As the years have gone by, I’ve tried to console myself many times with that thought. I’m not sure it has worked completely.
The next fall, I had been called for jury duty, which I suppose I relish about as much as the next person. The Frank Murphy Hall of Justice being one of the last places where you can’t have a cellphone, I enjoyed the excuse to bring some real literature. After a day and a half, I had finished a pretty good P.G. Wodehouse novel, and was working my way through some Flannery O’Connor short stories. At last, my group was asked to take a seat in a court gallery for jury selection. Hardly anybody wanted to be there less than I did—at least, until I realized what the case was about.
The Westland Police Department had arrested a man who’d given another man heroin laced with fentanyl. According to the prosecutor’s charges, the suspect had given him the dope, the victim died, and the suspect then altered the evidence at the crime scene, departed, and then lied about having been there. All of a sudden, I was absorbed in this case, fascinated by the story, wondering which of the men seated at one of the tables was the person being charged.
One by one, my fellow jury members were asked whether they knew anybody who’d died of a drug overdose or suffered from opioid addiction. One by one, they were excused by the defense attorney after telling their personal stories. When my turn came, I gave them the shortest version I could.
Instead of being excused, they called me into the judge’s chambers. The judge and the defense team were very interested in my experiences. I tried to trace my story for them as well as I could while remaining brief. As I talked, I felt crowded by all kinds of unwelcome feelings, realizing that, outside of Jim or Bobbi, this was the first time I’d really articulated the story—and it wasn’t easy to conceal how it made me feel.
They kept asking if I could be fair and impartial in this case despite my experience. “I don’t know,” I kept answering. “I can try.” That was the best I could offer. On top of all this baggage I was handling, I also actually felt bad disappointing them.
In the end, they let me go. I walked out of the building. It was a cold day in October, and dry leaves skittered around the concrete yard.
I began to think long and hard about our “community” at the bar. Certainly somebody must have put two and two together and known the real story. And yet nobody took a stand and told the truth: Rodney just fell under the same juggernaut Jesse did. Nobody was saved. Nobody was punished. And hardly anybody we knew seemed to fully understand what happened.
I looked up at the steel gray skies and at the statue in the courtyard called The Hand of God. It depicts a man standing in the palm of a large hand, gazing upward, his body expressing apprehension, I suppose reacting to judgment being handed down. I sighed. I tightened my scarf and started walking away from the hall of justice with a quick step, headed to Woodward for a bus back home.
The Last to Figure it Out is a work of creative nonfiction based on real experiences, with the names changed to protect the identities of those involved.
Michael Jackman worked for almost fifteen years as a journalist and editor at Metro Times in Detroit, winning a few local honors for long-form features and public service journalism. Jackman continues to edit, write, and revise his nonfiction book about Detroit in the 1940s.
Read next: Imaginary Dinner Party, Part Five by Lynn Crawford