Back during grad school, way down in Louisiana, The Observer met a man who — and we're a solid 85 percent sure on this one — was probably in the witness protection program. We can't remember his name anymore after all these years, but we do remember that it was a name as white as mayonnaise. John Something. Or maybe Jim Something. The last name wasn't anything as milquetoast as Smith or Jones, but we do remember that it was beige and forgettable, hence our forgetting, and hence the reason we suspect it may have been selected for him. This is a country full of forgettable names, and we're sure an agency that would go to the trouble of disappearing a whole, live man surely has the best forgettable name generators in the business — supercomputers crunching blandness and spitting out pseudonyms so slick and unmemorable that they slide right back out of your ear the moment you hear them.
In spite of his pasty name, Jim Something was, without a doubt, the most Sopranos-grade Italian dude to ever tread the dirt of South Louisiana. Never have we met someone who made us more guilty to describe him, because it's pretty much inevitable that it will sound like we're making him up while sticking closely to the basest of stereotypes. He wore tracksuits and a gold chain with a medallion on it. He was muscled and stocky to the point of cartoonishness, with a luxurious and awe-inspiring crop of chest hair. He was devoid of neck. He's the only real-life person, outside of Scorsese movies, who we've ever heard use the plural pronoun "youse." He was — and this set off some alarm bells — a transfer student from a university in the Dakotas, and seemed to have zero interest in keeping his grades up, even as The Scholar Observer sweated bullets deep down into the night translating Old English into Middle English into Modern English and generally busting ass. He talked incessantly about New Yawk, pining for the women and streets and nightlife and food of that city in a kind of plaintive, heartbroken wail that made The Observer pine along with him for our own home back in Arkansas. His homesickness was contagious and airborne. Even so, as far as we know, he never went back there. As if that wasn't enough, he had an almost encyclopedic knowledge of criminal behavior, once schooling Yours Truly on the process for turning powder cocaine into crack cocaine.
Beyond that, though, Jim Something seemed to be a man without a past. He never spoke of his life before he'd appeared there, never of his family, never of his childhood, never of his dreams as a young man. He was simply a bundle of pained desire, wrapped in white paper. He was a conglomeration of wishes to be elsewhere, and all those wishes orbited around a city to which he seemed unwilling or unable to return. Any time The Observer has read "The Odyssey" since then, at the moment we see Odysseus weeping alone in want of his homeland on the shores of Ogygia, we always see the face of Jim Something: shipwrecked sailor, marooned in a far land, a man who exists solely in the now.
When he disappeared from our classes and life at the end of a semester, The Observer came home to Spouse and baby Junior in our tiny, on-campus apartment and said: Jim Something is gone, flown away, but surely not back to where he came from. By now, we thought, he's Jack Whitebread or John Bland or Steve Nothingtoseehere in some new, safe, Coney Islandless hell, eating his pasta with ragu and watching the Yankees on TV.
Memory is a funny thing, and The Observer has scolded himself over the years for making up a dramatic and dastardly past for Jim Something, whose only real crime that we know of was wearing those tracksuits. There's every chance in the world that he was just some guy with an itch of wanderlust that took him to North Dakota and then South Louisiana.
Try as we might, though, we can't stop wondering whatever happened to him. We can't stop thinking: He's still out there somewhere, lost in America, adrift and heartbroken on the becalmed Flyover Sea. We think: By now, he could be anywhere. We think: By now, he could be anybody at all.