Keith looked across the chasm of our adjoining desks, leaned across his desk into my workspace, and blurted in a whisper, "I've spent time in prison." He threw himself back in his chair, crossed his arms in front of his chest. He gave me his five-front-teeth-only smile and his deep brown shone in a perverse humor intended to shock me.
It worked. I tried to repress my knee jerk surprise, but I knew my eyes were wide and my face frozen in a stupid look with my mouth gaped open. Finally, I was able to utter, "Oooooohh..." I had long before surmised that Keith was likely a recovering drug user, someone who had lost his way and was struggling to get back He had a saunter and a chip on his shoulder; he was quick to anger, and just as quick to laugh. He had his own set of ideas about right and wrong. He could look you straight in the eye until you looked away first. He was emaciated looking, smoked too much, could be crude in speech and manner when it struck him to be so, could be gentle and kind if one were gentle and kind with him. He was a drifter, had been homeless. He was a loner in a room full of people. He sat at his desk with his headset on, listening to talk radio, occasionally blurting out answers to quiz questions and political opinion polls.
He was my work mentor. I was in a job that was a poor fit. Map making required someone with strong analytical and spatial skills, measuring and recording roads, time and distance using instruments and published resources. To me, time and distance is measured by feeling and intuition. A road is a journey. My heart is my instrument that guides me. An odd friendship and respect bloomed, Keith was spatial and I was, according to him, spacey.
Keith roared with unrestrained delight, and disapproving faces turned to see who was laughing in this grim place called The Workplace. He stared them all down one of his F* You looks until everyone turned back to their work. I secretly admired that and wish I knew how to do it, too.
"Sooooo, why were you a guest of the state?"
"For starting up my own church."
"You're a minister?" I was dumbstruck. I never would have taken him for a man of the cloth.
"No, that was part of the problem." Keith was clearly enjoying dragging out the story, his smile wider and his eyes glittering. "I ain't no altar boy."
"So, I'm beginning to see. How could you ever end up in jail for ministering a church?"
"Well, I seemed to have "ministered" to myself with the church's money."
"Keith! How could you ever conceive of doing such a thing? That's just not right!"
He pulled out the front of his tee shirt and buried his laugh into his chest at my naivete. " Seems like others agree with you. I can't believe people got so mad about it when you consider how pretty stupid and trusting they are. I only gave them what they wanted. They wanted answers and I gave them answers. I don't see anything wrong with that. They wanted to believe in what I said and they wanted to give me money to say it. So I let them. It was simple. I used to drive a white Cadillac in those days."
"You are a very bad man!" I decreed, disgusted with him. He smiled sadly at me and I gave him an apologetic smile in return.
Changing the subject, he said, "Know how I got this job?"
"I am afraid to ask."
"Remember on the job application they asked if you spoke any foreign languages?" I nodded my head. I had written "some Spanish" on mine. "I don't speak no foreign languages, figured they wouldn't hire anyone like me, so to be a wise guy I wrote "Ebonics. Do you know what Ebonics is?"
"Yes, it's commonly called "black" English."
Now it was Keith's turn to be surprised. "Not too many white people know that word. Well, the human resources person didn't know, and when she saw it, she was impressed that I could speak "Ebonics." She went on and on about I was the only person she ever met who could speak such a little known language."
I didn't mean to, but I started to laugh. "You correct her?"
"I needed this job. My two dogs and I were living in my car. We needed to eat. That HR lady and me were both bluffing each other. She tried to show off by letting me know she knew that Ebonics was some dead language like Latin and she needed someone who could speak another language. We both got what we wanted."
I begrudgingly acknowledged his point. "Giving up on the church founding business?"
A huge grin. "I never did look good in a white robe. Miss that white Caddy though...."
"Keith!" I admonished. I looked at my watch, it was the dinner hour. "Look, I'm starving. Want to go to lunch?"
The invitation surprised us both and for once Keith was the one who was dumbstruck. "That is very nice. You are the only one here who has ever asked me to lunch in the whole year I've been here. " I started to say something but he cut me off. "But I cannot go with you. You are a nice lady and I would damage your reputation if you were friends with someone like me. I am a bad man, but you have been kind. Go find some nice friends." Keith put his head set on and shut me out.
At the same time my regular lunch pals came over to gather me up and go to lunch. As we were headed towards the cafeteria, one of them leaned over and whispered, "Be careful of that one. He's no good, hasn't got a decent bone in his body."