I grew up in Oak Cliff, Dallas, Texas, just up the hill from the Jack In the Box on Corinth road and down the block from Greater Mt. Pleasant Missionary Baptist Church. Going a little further would land you at the Dallas Zoo or, in the other direction, the entrance to the legendary Dallas Sportatorium. No matter which direction we took back in the day we were guaranteed an adventure.
For my brother, Little S.L., and me there was nobody who took an adventure further than Jeffie Caldwell. Most of the time we walked wherever we wanted to go, so when we finally did get a bike Me, Little S.L. and Jeffie took turns riding and walking alongside it on our journeys.
Most days started with a yell across the neighborhood to find out what was going on for the day. Jeffie was always out before us and he stayed away from home longer and later than we were allowed. The next mornings would be spent sharing fried egg and Spam sandwiches while Jeffie told us what he’d discovered. We sat spellbound on flattened basketballs in the shade of our garage and apple-pear tree as he scared us with his escapes and unbelievable sightings. We learned to tell if he was making stuff up because Jeffie would pick a boring part and start poking a stick at the yellow jacket nest on the underside of the garage roof line. The hornets would swarm, we’d scream, swat, dodge and Jeffie would disappear.
One day there was no response to our yells. Me and Little S.L. went looking and eventually found him down the hill in front of the Jack in the Box. He was sitting on the curb, staring at two, white steel pennies on the pavement between his feet. Every so often he would scratch his unusually dirty palms, then rub them hard against his equally dirty handed down jeans.
“Hey, Jeffie”, we called out to him but he never took his gaze off those pennies. “What’s happening, Jeffie?” also went unanswered and it took a few minutes before he noticed that we had been standing there. Jeffie’s eyes were big, but he kept them closed to slits most of the time because he needed glasses. When he looked up at us his eyes were bugged, bloodshot and a little glassy. He called on me first. “Hey, Buggy, uh, can you do me a solid, man?” Without waiting for my answer Jeffie stepped slowly away from the shiny coins and asked, “Uh, can you pick up dem pennies for me, right quick?”
Little S.L. stepped in front of me and picked up the pennies, but instantly dropped them and yanked his hand away to scratch against his pants. He swore–“SHIT. DAMN”. Jeffie didn’t say anything. He looked over at me and asked again, “Uh, hey, Buggy Man…can you pick up ‘dem pennies?” Little S.L. kicked at the pennies and said, “There’s something on the back of the pennies that stung my hand, Jr.”
We just stood there for a minute or two or longer, really deciding what to do next. I knew that Little S.L. would never swear in public and certainly not in front of the Jack-in-the-Box. I also knew that Jeffie could come up with some pretty “different discoveries” and didn’t want to pick up pennies that had been dipped in some kind of liquid. “Uh, Jeffie, where you been all morning?” was how I avoided the whole thing…for a minute. “Hey, Man…you know….just walking around and looking around for stuff…you know.” Little S.L. broke in quickly, “Where was you walking when you got dem Burning Pennies, Jeffie?” “I ain’t got no BURNING NOTHING…They Itching Pennies, Steve!”
Ten seconds later, with the pennies flying across the Jack-in-the-Box covered eating area. I agreed with Jeffie. As soon as I reached for the coins a string of pressure covered the tips of my fingers and thumb. Once I grasped the coins a quick, itch-burn-biting sensation came over my hand. I swore…in front of the Jack-in-the-Box.
That’s when the White Manager opened the side door and came out to run us off. Jeffie, showing us in real-time one of his “famous escapes” scooted over to the spot where the coins had settled and spoke up, “Hey Mister, we’re just practicing a magic trick, wanna see it?’ The Manager stopped and laughed at him, “What kind of magic trick has two white pennies thrown in the air for no reason, Jeffie?” (That’s why you didn’t cuss in front of the Jack-in-the-Box) “It’ll cost you two tacos to find out”, Jeffie recovered and the Manager lifted an eye brow and put his hand on his hip. Jeffie looked at the pennies then back at the man and added, “We only get the tacos if you can’t figure out the trick! Okay? Oh, and you don’t tell Rev. Caldwell that we been cussing next time he’s down here.” “Deal” the man agreed and went back inside for the tacos.
When the Manager returned there were two neighborhood boys-workers with him. “Okay, show us the trick”
Jeffie made a big show of waving his hands over the pennies and muttering magic words we knew from comic books, but at the end he said, “The Witche’s Itches to anybody who touches her coins!” Then, to our surprise he picked up the pennies and placed them on one of the round metal table tops. “Now, if the trick works then the magic spell that I just put on the pennies will make your hands itch like crazy when you touch them…go ahead and see it…PICK UP THE TACOS..PENNIES!” Everybody laughed, but one of the boys reached out for the coins. He never made it. He snatched back his hand and looked oddly at Jeffie.
The Manager tried next and quickly dropped the coins and scratched madly at his palms before turning to a smirking Jeffie, who had already reached into the bag for his taco. “Boy”, the Manager whistled out, “What in the world is Rev Caldwell teaching you boys”. Then, they returned to the restaurant and said to get out of the customer seating area.
Jeffie handed us the remaining taco to split and used the paper bag to scoop up the pennies. He rolled the bag into a tight wad and dropped it in the waste can beside the building.
Jeffie was stone cold quiet at our questions about the pennies and we could see him looking around for a wasp nest to whack, so we put him in the middle and kept walking. Stopping at his sidewalk, we waited for his answer. Jeffie told us that he had been in an alley looking for cans and bottles to sell when he saw a White lady burying something behind her garage. He waited until she was finished and back inside before digging it up and, instead of jewelry or gold, he found her cat in a shoe box. The cat had those pennies Scotch taped to his dead eyes. Jeffie had made it all the way to that seating area before figuring out what was itching him so bad.
Finally, when Rev. Caldwell came to the screen and barked out, “Jeffie, was you boy cussin’ down at the Jack-in-the-Box?’ we knew it was time to run!