Relative Jim stood at the corner of 4th and Pine every day except Sunday, wearing his ragged clothes and holding up his hand-made cardboard sign. He had a hat out in front of him, and sometimes the people walking by put money into it. Because he was dirty. Because they felt sorry for him. Because he looked like he needed a break. There were a lot of reasons people might have given money to Relative Jim, but those are best known only to the people themselves. But there’s one thing for certain.
It wasn’t because of what was written on the sign.
You see, Relative Jim didn’t hold his sign up in front of his chest. He didn’t lean it against his legs, right next to a mangy old dog meant to inspire sympathy for those kinds of people who’ll feel sadder about a hungry dog than they will about a hungry fellow. But Relative Jim didn’t have a dog, hungry or otherwise, so he couldn’t very well do that. No, he pointed his sign straight up into the sky, so as you’d have to be a bird or maybe superman to have a look at it.
Most people figured Relative Jim was just a little off, and that was enough of an explanation. You know how those homeless are, they’d say to each other from the other side of their air-conditioned car windows. But sometimes folks would get curious enough to ask to see the sign. And Relative Jim would get a little confused for a second. But he was nice enough people, and so he’d bend his arms in just that right way that makes something that’s pointing upward shift so that it’s now pointing straight ahead. That’s when people would get the second surprise of their brief interactions with that odd old fellow we call Relative Jim.
There was nothing written on the sign.
Most people would move on, then, figuring how Relative Jim looked a bit puzzled at the whole interchange to begin with. Not worth the bother to try to find out more, they’d figure, before moving on about the rest of their business. But every so often, one of those curious passers-by turned out to be a very curious passerby, and would ask why the sign was blank. To which Relative Jim would furrow his brow, give the sign a good long look, then give the fellow what asked about it a good long look, and say that the sign wasn’t blank. If the fellow responded to this downright unusual utterance by asking what, in fact, was written on the sign, Relative Jim would say something to the effect of, “What in tarnation kind of question is that?”
Most individuals, having gotten this far, had a question or two left for ol’ Relative Jim. In for a penny in for a pound, they’d figure, or so a reasonable man might reckon. But those questions didn’t rarely lead to much in the way of useful conclusions to the whole puzzling state of affairs that was a conversation with Relative Jim. He just kept on giving the same kind of answers he done gave to the previous questions. As a matter of fact, I only ever heard one question that got a clear answer, that might shed some light on what passes for Relative Jim’s motivations and line of reasoning. The question was this:
“Who, exactly, is that sign meant for?”
Relative Jim answered that one with none of his usual confused pauses or complex manipulation of his various facial muscles. He answered it right quick.
“Aliens,” he said.
To which the questioner, quite reasonably I think we’d all say, asked him if he thought there were aliens up there looking down on him as he stood there at the corner of 4th and Pine every day, saving of course for Sunday.
“Could be,” Relative Jim replied. “But I’ll tell you for free that I sure as Shinola hope so, and that they’re friendly fellows willing to help a body out. Can’t figure another way I’ll ever figure out what’s written on this blasted sign.”