My friend Joe
By Bill Shepard
I first met my friend Joe the morning he came to my car where I had stopped for gas.
The service station was just a few blocks from my house, and I stopped there regularly for gas on my way to the school where I was a teacher.
The station couldn’t keep an attendant long and Joe was new to me. There was something about Joe that caught my attention right off; it was the “skullcap” he was wearing. That’s what made me like this guy right off.
The “doffers” at the cotton mill back home in Darlington wore them too. A skullcap was nothing more than a regular cap with the bill missing. Doffers wore the cap to keep their hair from getting caught in the spinning frames where they were bent over, changing the bobbins of thread. It could have been just that the cap reminded me of this, and a reminder of the mill back home attracted me to this man.
Joe introduced himself and I stuck my hand out and told him my name. I drove away, but I just couldn’t get Joe off my mind.
In the days and weeks ahead, when I stopped for gas, Joe would call my name and say. “Hey Willie Bill, what you know?” I would reply, “Don’t know nothing, Joe!” That was about the extent of our relationship for several weeks. Joe had an old Ford car and he kept a small boat tied on top of it. I learned that after work, he would drive down to Tampa Bay and sail his small boat.
One day Joe invited me to his one-room residence. He told me a part of his life story. He had lived most of his years in or near Charlotte. He had been married and had a family. He had a son who was an attorney in Atlanta but had nothing to do with Joe. Joe and his wife divorced when another son, younger than the first, became old enough to be affected by the fights that went on daily. One day, Joe said, he decided to leave. His wife had been granted a divorce and all of the possessions.
Joe reached up to a shelf, took down a cigar box, opened it and took out a letter. It was from a magistrate in Charlotte and was a commendation to Joe for paying alimony to his estranged wife for 18 years and had never missed a payment.
He put the letter back in the box and asked, “Willie Bill, when is your birthday?”
“1922,” I answered.
He took a silver dollar from the box and handed it to me. Keep this, he said, to remember me by. I thanked him and asked, “Where are you going. Joe?” He said nowhere right now, but he might go to California sometime.
Then one day I stopped for gas and a new face appeared at the car. I didn’t ask any questions. I remembered that he said he might go to California someday.
The story behind the poem, next time.
“My friend Joe”
Where he came from I didn’t know.
He came to the car and said “My name’s Joe!”
“Fill ‘er up, Joe,” I said. “My name’s Bill!”
We’ve been friends from that day on,
And I guess we always will.
I’d pull into the station and say, “Fill ‘er up, Joe,”
And he’d say, “Hi, Willie Bill, what do you know?”
I’d say, “Nothing, don’t reckon, but it sure is hot.”
“Yeah,” he’d say, “when I close this station,
I’m going to the beach and smoke a little pot.”
Then one day, I pulled into the station
And a stranger was there.
I couldn’t see my friend Joe anywhere.
I felt all sad inside, just like someone close
Had just up and died.
About six months later my telephone rang.
I picked up the receiver and heard him call my name.
“Hi there, Willie Bill, this is Joe.
Just got back in town
And I wanted you to know.”
He was a drifter as far as I could tell.
Said he could move in 15 minutes
And have time left.
Having a lot of things didn’t seem important to my friend Joe.
Just an old car and a few work clothes.
But he seemed content with
What he had and where he’d been.
That’s more than you can say
About most of us men.
He was a restless fellow, my friend Joe.
Couldn’t stay put, always on the go.
He was like a man in search of something lost
And was determined to find it
No matter what it cost.
He was always smiling and he had a great big heart
And it always made me sad when it came time to part.
Like the other day, when he said,
“Bill, I reckon I better go.”
Had I said where to? And he answered
“Oh, I don’t know.
Might go to California; I ain’t never been there.
One thing I know, I can’t stay here.”
So we shook hands again and said goodbye.
And something down inside of me
Made me want to cry.
So I drove off and he just looked up and grinned.
Said, “I’ll call you when I get back again.”
Where he went I don’t know
But I sure do miss my old friend Joe.”