I think his real name was George. I knew him as Jazzy. No one ever said how he got that name. We all just called him that.
When my grandfather, Edward Hill, died, I looked around for an old, wise curmudgeonly black man to stand in the gap. There was Jazzy all along.
I met him when I was in the sixth grade at Forest View Elementary School, where I was trying not to look like I was trying to fit in. My family was splintering again. Mina was pretty, popular, smart and had numerous pairs of Dr. Scholl sandals and all those tight Gloria Vanderbilt, Vidal Sassoon and Calvin Klein jeans that cut into the bends of your knees when you sat down.
We listened to Prince, Rick James and Natalie Cole albums on her record player in her flowery bedroom, where I sat beneath the canopy of her bed and watched her try on new clothes.
Her family was intact. I latched on to her and them — all of them.
One thick-aired summer Mina, her parents, her three brothers and I loaded into their Buick LeSabre ("Big Red") and rode to Mt. Sterling, Ky., to Mina's grandparents' house. We were off to see Jazzy and Granny.
My house down the street was packed with two brothers, two stepbrothers and one half brother acting out a black male version of Survivor. You could smell the testosterone a block away. I needed a break.
Jazzy and Granny lived in a country house on a corner in a tiny community of nosy neighbors, Court Day, porch swings and Ale 8 1. They raised Sidney, Mina's mother, and Joyce, Mina's aunt, in that little house. I didn't know this growing up, but Jazzy was Sidney's and Joyce's stepfather. This surprised me, because stepparents spelled melodrama in my world.
I didn't know having one could be a non-experience. That's Jazzy and Granny, though — the Un-Cola of regular folks.
Their house reflected that. It remains cluttered but calm, small yet accommodating, while simultaneously unremarkable and vibrant. Granny still lives there, and nothing much has changed except that Sidney redecorated her mother's front room with the heirlooms of family antiques.
I was nervous my first time there. I was raised to practically fear my elders, to always be within earshot in case an errand was ordered, to lift heavy bags and chauffeur when I got old enough to drive. I spied Mina and her family as my family annex and my refuge.
Meeting Granny and Jazzy was like being introduced to my grandparents all over again. It was love at first sight.
They listened when I talked and remembered what I said, especially the details of my personal life. That weekend they fed me, loved up on me and laughed at my budding raucous humor. It was the beginning of an ever-deepening relationship.
Granny's middle name should be "Whatchulookinfer?" and Jazzy's could've been "Gitonawayfromme." He was irascible, surly, outspoken, good-hearted, kind and hilarious. Ignoring the seasons, he usually wore a plaid shirt buttoned to the neck and a tweedy jacket. He had a high, "smart" forehead that chased away wild gray hair that stood up in tiny corkscrews like spun cotton.
His chin nearly always held gray pinprick stubble, and he had droopy eyes. When his mouth was pursed in a pinched grin, he was usually talking trash about somebody.
When I was a kid, he never treated me like the hanger-on that I was. He warmed to me and expected to see me at Thanksgiving, Christmas, weddings, births and family reunions. When I missed one, he'd chastise me next time around, hug me and ask if I had a car because either I didn't or I was driving a hooptie.
We talked like fishing buddies. He was grandfatherly to me.
I loved fixing his plates so he could sit down. When they were headed back to Mt. Sterling, I never worried he was too old or his reflexes too slow to make the drive.
I knew he was old and tired. But still I expected to see him.
Mina is now three times a mother. She's still my best friend. After 26 years we're as close, serious and silly as sisters are. We trade phone messages before we catch one another on the fly.
When we spoke one recent morning, she was loading up her family on her way to Mt. Sterling to bury Jazzy. He had prostate cancer, and I didn't even know he was sick, a detail lost in the sofa cushions of being a grown-up.
"You're my only friend who knew him," she said.
I didn't make the trip because the hooptie at my disposal couldn't make the trip. Jazzy forgives me.
But he'll expect to see me next time around.