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The Noticer: A Story of Perspective about Life's Greatest Challenges

The Noticer: A Story of Perspective about Life's Greatest Challenges

by Andy Andrews

Learn More | Meet Andy Andrews
The Noticer

By Andy Andrews

Chapter One

His name was Jones. At least, that's what I called him. Not Mr. Jones ... just Jones. He called me "young man" or "son." And I rarely heard him call anyone else by name either. It was always young man or young lady, child or son.

He was old, but the kind of old that is difficult to quantify. Was he sixty-five or eighty-or a hundred and eighty? And every single time I ever laid eyes on him, he had an old, brown suitcase close at hand.

Me? I was twenty-three when I saw him for the first time. He held out his hand, and for some reason, I took it. Looking back on the moment, I think that act in itself was a small miracle. Any other time, and with any other person, considering my circumstances, I might have cowered in fear or come out with my fists flying.

I had been crying, and he heard me, I guess. My cries were not the muffled sobs of loneliness or the whimpering of discomfort-though certainly I was lonely and uncomfortable-but the anguished wail that a guy will let loose only when he is sure there is no one around to hear him. And I was sure. Wrong, obviously, but sure. At least as sure as one spending another night under a pier can be.

My mother had succumbed to cancer several years earlier, a tragic event in my life that was compounded shortly there after by my father, who, neglecting to wear his seat belt, managed to chase my mother into the afterlife by way of an otherwise survivable automobile accident.

One questionable decision followed another during the confused aftermath of what I saw as "my abandonment," and within a couple of years, I found myself on the Gulf Coast, without a home, a vehicle, or the financial means to obtain either. I did odd jobs-mostly cleaning fish on the piers or selling bait to the tourists-and showered at the beach or swam myself clean in a pool at one of the hotels.

If it was cold, there was always a garage left open in one of the many empty vacation homes that dotted the beach. Rich people (anyone who owned a vacation home), I soon learned, often had an extra refrigerator or freezer hooked up in their garages. Not only were these excellent sources of old lunch meat and drinks, but they also worked almost as well as a heater if I lay close to the warm air that blew from the fan at the bottom.

Most nights, though, I much preferred my "home" underneath the Gulf State Park Pier. I had a large hole dug in and smoothed out right where the concrete met the sand. Visualize a monstrous lean-to: it was roomy, absolutely hidden from view, and as dry as anything ever is at the beach. I left my few belongings there-mostly fishing tackle, T-shirts, and shorts-often for days at a time, and never had anything stolen. Honestly, I didn't think anyone knew I slept there-which is why I was so surprised when I looked up and saw Jones.

"Come here, son," he said, with his hand outstretched. "Move into the light." I shuffled forward, taking his right hand with my own, and eased into the soft glow cast from the sodium vapor bulbs above the pier.

Jones was not a large man-nowhere near six feet-but neither was he small. His white hair was worn straight back over his head. It was too long, but had been carefully brushed and smoothed with his fingertips. His eyes, even in the dim light, seemed to shine. They were a clear, crystal blue, framed by a deeply wrinkled face. Though he wore jeans, a white T-shirt, and leather flip-flops, the old man seemed stately-though even now I admit that is hardly a word one would use to describe a five-foot-nine-or-so old man under a pier at night.

As I describe Jones, I might as well go ahead and tell you that I never knew whether he was black or white. I'm not sure it matters beyond trying to paint a mental picture for you, but I never asked and never decided if his café au lait-colored skin was the result of genetics or a life lived mostly outdoors. In any case, he was brown. Sort of.

"You crying about something in particular?" he asked. "Maybe somebody in particular?"

Yeah, I thought. Me. I am the "somebody in particular." "Are you going to rob me?" I asked aloud. It was an odd question. More evidence, I suppose, of the level of distrust I had in everyone and everything at that time.

The old man's eyebrows rose. Peering beyond me into the darkness from which I had emerged moments before, he chuckled. "Rob you? I don't know ... you got some furniture or a TV in there I didn't see?"

I didn't respond. I might have hung my head. Somehow, his attempt at humor made me feel worse. Not that he seemed to care.

He punched me playfully on the arm. "Lighten up, young man," he said. "First of all, you're about a foot and a half taller than me, so, no, I'm not about to rob you. Second ... there is a benefit to not owning a bunch of stuff." I looked at him blankly, so he went on: "You're safe. Not only am I not gonna rob you; neither is anybody else. You got nothing to take!" He paused, aware that I was still not smiling. In fact, quite the opposite-I was becoming angry.

The old man changed tack. "Hey, Andy, if I promise not to everrob you, can I have one of the Cokes you have stashed back in there?" He gestured behind me. I stared back at him. "Yes? No?" he said. "Please?"

"How did you know my name?" I asked.

"You can call me Jones, by the way."

"Okay. So how did you know my name? And how do you know whether or not I have any Cokes under here?"

"No big deal, really." He shrugged. "I been watching you for a long time. I been around. And the Cokes are bound to be a product of your late-night forays into the garages of the local rich and famous. So ... can I have one?"

I watched him for a moment, considering his answer, then slowly nodded and retreated into the darkness for his Coke. Returning with two cans, I handed one to the old man.

"Didn't shake it up, did ya?" He grinned. Then, seeing once again that I refused even the slightest smile, he sighed and said, "Lord, Lord. You are a tough one." Popping the top on the Coke, Jones shifted in the sand and crossed his legs. "All right," he said, taking a long pull from the red can, "let's get started."

"Get started ... at what?" I asked flatly.

Jones set his drink can down and said, "We need to start noticing a few things. We need to check your heart. We need to gather a little perspective."

"I don't even know what you are talking about," I said. "And I don't know who you are."

"Fair enough." He smiled. "Well, let me see, now ... how do I explain?" He leaned toward me quickly. "As for who I am, call me Jo-"

"You already told me that," I interrupted. "What I mean-"

"Yeah, I know what you mean. You mean, where'd I come from, and stuff like that."

I nodded.

"Well, this evening, I came from just up the beach a ways." I sighed and rolled my eyes. Chuckling, he held up both hands in mock protest. "Hang on. Hang on, now. Don't get aggravated at old Jones." In a softer voice he added, "Okay?" Accepting my nod, he continued.

"I am a noticer," he said. "It is my gift. While others may be able to sing well or run fast, I notice things that other people overlook. And, you know, most of them are in plain sight." The old man leaned back on his hands and cocked his head. "I notice things about situations and people that produce perspective. That's what most folks lack-perspective-a broader view. So I give them that broader view ... and it allows them to regroup, take a breath, and begin their lives again."

For several minutes we sat there quietly, peering out at the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico. I was strangely calm in the presence of this old man, who was now lying on his side, elbow in the sand, with his head propped on his hand. After a while, he spoke again-a question this time. "So your mama and daddy passed on?"

"How did you know that?" I asked in return.

He gave the tiniest of shrugs, as if to say, Everybody knows, but I knew they didn't.

Though it alarmed me that this stranger seemed to know so much about me, I shook off the eerie feeling and answered his question. "Yeah, they're both dead."

He pursed his lips. "Well ... that's a matter of perspective too." When I questioned him with a look, he continued. "There's a big difference in 'dead' and 'passed on.' "

"Not to me," I snorted.

"You ain't the one who's passed on."

"You got that right," I said bitterly. "I'm the one who's left." On the verge of tears again and with a mean tone of voice, I blurted out, "So what's your perspective on that? Huh?"

Carefully, Jones asked, "Well, why do you think you are here? In this situation ... in this place, I mean."

"Because I chose to be," I tossed out. "My own bad decisions. My attitude." I stared hard at him. "See? I know all the right answers. So I don't need to hear it from you. It's all my fault, okay? Is that what you want me to say?"

"No," the old man said calmly. "I was just curious if you had any perspective of your own."

"Well, no, I don't," I said. "I grew up hearing that old adage about God putting a person after His own heart where He wants him to be. And He puts me under a pier?" I cursed, then added, "By the way, about that reference to the difference between 'dead' and 'passed on,' I've spent more than enough of my life in church, so I get what you're implying. I'm just not sure I buy any of that anymore."

"That's okay for the moment," Jones said soothingly. "I hear you. And I understand why you feel that way. But listen ... I'm not selling anything. Remember, I am only here for-"

"For perspective, yeah, I know."

Jones was silent for a time, and I began to wonder if I had been rude enough to shut him down completely. But, no. That was just the first of several chances I would offer him to give up on me and leave. And he didn't.

"Young man?" Jones asked as he brushed a wisp of white hair from his eyes. "What would you think if I told you that, yes, your bad choices and decisions have had a part in your ending up under this pier, but beyond that, under this pier is exactly where you should be in order for a future to occur that you can't even imagine at this point?"

"I don't understand," I said. "And I'm not sure I would believe it if I did."

"You will," Jones replied. "Trust me. One day you will." Then, suddenly smiling, he said, "Here's the thing, son, everybody seems to misunderstand that saying you threw at me a minute ago. Why does everyone think that when people say that 'God will put a person after His own heart where He wants him to be' ... that it means God will put them on a mountaintop or in a big house or at the front of the line?

"Think with me here ... everybody wants to be on the mountaintop, but if you'll remember, mountaintops are rocky and cold. There is no growth on the top of a mountain. Sure, the view is great, but what's a view for? A view just gives us a glimpse of our next destination-our next target. But to hit that target, we must come off the mountain, go through the valley, and begin to climb the next slope. It is in the valley that we slog through the lush grass and rich soil, learning and becoming what enables us to summit life's next peak.

"So, my contention is that you are right where you are supposed to be." The old man scooped up a double handful of the white sand and let it pour from his fingers. "It may look like barren sand to you, son, but nothing could be further from the truth. I say to you that, as you lay your head down tonight, you are sleeping on fertile ground. Think. Learn. Pray. Plan. Dream. For soon ... you will become."

Before he left that night, Jones opened his suitcase, holding it carefully away from my curious gaze, and removed three small, orange hardcover books. "Do you read?" he asked. As I nodded, he added, "I'm not asking if you can read; I'm asking if you do. "

"Yes," I responded. "Mostly magazines and stuff, but I do."

"Good enough," Jones said. "Read these."

I looked at what he handed me in the semidarkness. The titles were all names. Winston Churchill. Will Rogers. George Washington Carver. I glanced back up at him. "History books?"

"No," he said, with a twinkle in his eye, "adventure stories! Success, failure, romance, intrigue, tragedy, and triumph-and the best part is that every word is true! Remember, young man, experience is not the best teacher. Other people's experience is the best teacher. By reading about the lives of great people, you can unlock the secrets to what made them great."

I read Winston Churchill until dawn. It was comforting somehow to discover a life that had endured more tragedy and rejection than my own. And it didn't escape me that by the end of his life, Churchill had met with more than an equal measure of success.

Jones had said good-bye sometime after I started reading. I barely noticed him leave, but in the morning, I wished I had been nicer to the old man. I felt embarrassed, a bit ashamed of myself, but not nearly so devoid of hope as I had been the evening before. By nightfall, I had finished George Washington Carver and was so tired that I slept until the next morning.

That day, I washed boats at the marina and thought constantly about what I had read. I also kept an eye out for Jones, but I didn't see him. Gene, the marina manager, said he knew Jones well. He told me that the old man had been coming through town for years. "In fact," Gene said, "Jones was old when I was a boy. And I'm fifty-two."

I read Will Rogers within the next twenty-four hours, but it wasn't until several days later that I saw my friend again. I was throwing a cast net in the lagoon, trying to catch shrimp and mullet minnows to sell for bait, when the old man slipped up behind me. "Doing any good?" he asked.

"Hey, Jones!" I exclaimed. "I didn't hear you come up! Where've you been? I already read the books!"

He chortled at my enthusiasm. (Actually, I was a bit surprised myself that I was so glad to see him.) "Slow down, slow down! Let me comment." He grinned. "You didn't hear me come up because you were splashing around so much you wouldn't have heard me if I was riding an elephant. As for where I've been? I've been around-even seen you a couple of times-but didn't want to be a bother. And I'm glad you finished the books. Like 'em?"

"Yes, sir," I answered breathlessly. "I really did."

"Good. I figured you were through with all three by now. I hope you don't mind ... I stopped by the pier and got them. And I left three more."

"Really?" I said, surprised. "Thanks."

"You're welcome. I'm getting them from the library. But I'm picking them out special for you." Jones then held up a plastic bag. "You hungry? I got lunch."

"I'm always hungry," I said. "Lately, I've been a 'one-meal-a-day' kind of guy, or what my mom used to call an 'opportunistic eater.'"

"Well, come on," he said. "Get out of the water. I have a feast."

The "feast" turned out to be Vienna sausages and sardines. I was hungry, so I ate, but I wasn't exactly thrilled with the fare, and Jones knew it. I wondered later if that's why he brought it in the first place.

We had settled under an oak tree on a high dune, the beach in front of us and the deep-blue lagoon at our backs. I wore old tennis shoes, blue jean cutoffs, and no shirt. Jones, in his usual casual attire, had coiled a blue bandanna around his head. The blue of that headband seemed to make his eyes glow. From where we sat, we could hear the crashing of the surf, and there was just enough breeze to make the summer temperature bearable. "So, what are you eating?" Jones asked, peering at me with a smile.

I looked up, puzzled. Wiping my mouth with the back of my hand, I swallowed and said, "What? You know what I'm eating. Same as you."

"Really?" the old man teased, with a sly look. "Somehow I doubt it. But let's see ..." He leaned over to glance at my food, then looked back at me. "What are you eating?" he asked again. "And where are you eating it?" Seeing that I was now more confused than ever, he added gently, "It's not a trick; just answer the questions."

I raised my eyebrows and said, "Well ..." I held up my hands as if to say, I still don't know what you're getting at, and said, "I guess I'm-"

"No, don't guess. Just tell me."

"Okay. I am eating sardines and Vienna sausages."


"In the sand."

Jones smiled. "I thought so." Nodding then, he said again, "I thought so. Well, the books will help, but I believe I can help as well."

"Jones," I said, shaking my head, "what are you talking about?"

"Your vision, my boy. It is incredibly cloudy at the moment, but I am certain we can clear a pathway from your head to your heart and into your future."

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