Robert Frost tells us that “good fences make good neighbors.” I suppose there is some truth to that. But I met the best neighbor I ever had the night his fence row burned to the ground.
At the time, I was living in Forrest County, Mississippi. Pastoring a country country church that was the product of three earlier splits. Of course it was called “Unity Baptist Church.” Churches that have a habit of splitting seven ways from Sunday always seem to be named “Unity” or “Harmony” or “Fellowship.”
They didn’t have a parsonage so I found a small house to rent out in the country at the edge of the piney woods. My nearest neighbor lived a quarter of a mile away, across a hay field. And the first time I met him it was like a scene out of the Book of Exodus.
Sometime in the middle of the night, I woke up to find shadows running around the walls of my bedroom like a mad band of Indian braves circling a buffalo herd. It sounded like a stampede outside my window. Brush crackling. Twigs snapping. A dull roar that sounded like hoofbeats. I jumped up out of bed and ran out on the front porch. The field that lay right up against my house was on fire.
Flames were licking the trees at the edge of my property. The pine sap had already begun to pop and sizzle, like bacon frying in a cast iron pan. As I started down the steps toward the end of the house to fetch the water hose, I was stopped dead in my tracks by the sight of something moving in my front yard. It looked as though the yard itself was moving.
Soon, my eyes began to focus and I was able to make out the shape. Cats! A sea of cats! And they swarmed my porch like some plague called down upon Egypt. Then I heard a voice coming from the midst of the fire.
“Hey!” It said. “Looks like none of us are gonna get much sleep tonight.”
And an old man stepped through the flames and came walking through the cloud of smoke like Moses blowing in from the backside of Midian. At first I thought I was hallucinating. “This is what I get for eating cheap oysters from a gas station before bed,” I thought to myself.
But the vision did not dissipate. The tall figure kept making his way toward me. As he got closer I saw that he was an older man, probably in his seventies. His hair was wild atop his head and his eyes were shimmering in the orange glow all around him.
“Reckon I could use your phone?” he said. “It appears that my field has caught fire.”
“Come on in here before you get burned up” I hollered.
When he got closer I was able to see that his face and his arms were almost completely blackened from soot and smoke. The sea of cats parted as he stepped up onto the porch. He stuck out his hand. Black as midnight on one side, his palm as white as buttermilk. It was almost comical. I took his hot hand in mine.
“Lucius McNutt,” he said. “Glad to know ya.” He stood there in natural blackface, grinning like a man running for president, as the horde of feral cats swarmed around his britches legs.
“Come on in this house,” I said. “Let’s call the fire department and get you cleaned up.”
It wasn’t long before we heard the wail of sirens coming down the road. Lucius said that he’d like to sit out on the porch and watch the men work. “I’d always rather watch men work than have to do it myself,” he said.
So we did. We didn’t talk much at the time. Every now and then he’d say, “Ain’t that something? It’s almost pretty, ain’t it?”
“It sure is something,” I said.
After a while, one of the firemen came over to where we were sitting, “Looks like the fire has been contained to the field. We are going to let it burn out. It didn’t hurt the house and it looks like we’ve got it to where it won’t spread any further.”
Lucius reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. “You wouldn’t happen to have a light would ya? I seem to have lost my matches.”
I went into the house to find a lighter and with a slight nod of my head I signaled for the fireman to follow me inside.
“I think that man might be a little off,” I said.
He chuckled. “You’re not wrong. Lucius is my uncle. And he’s as crazy as a run over dog.”
“Ah,” I said.
“He’s harmless though.”
“Any idea what caused the fire?” I said.
“We’re pretty sure he started it. Accidentally. Probably went to sleep with a cigarette in his hand.”
“But you said the house was fine. If he started the fire by dropping a cigarette wouldn’t the house have been the first thing to go?”
The young fireman stared at me for a minute.
“Uncle Lucius hardly ever sleeps in the house.” He said.
“He makes him up a bed in a hollowed out hay bail most nights.”
Now it was my turn to stare at him.
“Lucius just woke up crazy a few years ago. He used to be the pastor at the First Baptist Church. Then, one sunday morning about ten years ago he showed up for service in a top hat and wearing a masonic apron around his waist. He thought he was presiding over a lodge meeting.” He said.
Then he continued, “Uncle Lucius has always been what folks might call eccentric. On Saturday evenings, he would go out back and practice his Sunday sermons by preaching to his old mare he called ‘Evangeline.’”
The fireman pronounced Evangeline like it had just shy of half a dozen “e’s” at the end, like “leeeen.”
“And all of those cats are his.” He said. “He has never turned away a stray.”
“Yeah, he mentioned the cats while we were sitting out on the porch,” I said. “He said Jesus was whipped with a cat-o-nine-tails. And I have me thirty-nine cat tails. That’s what nudged me in the general direction of thinking that he might be a little soft in the head.”
The fireman smiled a wan smile. “He’s good as gold. He may be one of the richest men in the county. His daddy owned a lot of land and made a killin’ when he sold everything but the farmhouse there before he died. Left Uncle Lucius everything. But he gives most of it away. Besides burning down the odd field now and then, he’s harmless.”
“Good to know,” I said.
“Well, it’s late. The fire is gonna be fine. I’m gonna take Uncle Lucius to my mamma’s for the night.”
I said goodnight to the two of them. But I didn’t think to ask what I should do with the feline encampment taking refuge on my lawn. I reckoned they’d fend for themselves. They always do.
Lucius and I became fast friends after that. I had him over for supper often. He would bring groceries and I would cook them. I soon learned from others that he had bought groceries for half the county at one time or another. He would hear that someone was sick, or that another had lost a job, or sometimes he thought that a person just looked too skinny, and he would go to the Piggly Wiggly and buy a car load of food for them.
I came up behind Lucius in the check-out line at the grocery store one afternoon and saw him reach down into his deep pockets and pull out a wad of cash, dozens of loose Rolaids, and a handful of change. I knew the groceries were for someone else. Lucius didn’t cook. He ate every meal at Rosie’s, a local cafe.
“Brother Lucius,” I says, “What are you doing with all those Rolaids in your pocket?”
He looked at me like I was the one who was crazy.
Then he said, “Son, I always keep ’em in my pocket. Never know when the belly burn is gonna hit. I fooled around and forgot my Rolaids one day and ended up takin’ sixty-seven cents before the indigestion left me.”
Then he grinned a big toothless grin at me.
Some folks around town called him “McNutts.” But maybe Lucius wasn’t really crazy after all. Maybe he was just colorful. Either way, Lucius McNutt knew more about being a good neighbor, and loving one’s neighbors than perhaps any man I have ever met. I suspect we could all do with a little more of that kind of crazy.