There are many regrets following me around, and one of them is that I never checked in on Robert Neely.
I met him one dark, rainy night on Highway 45, probably nine or 10 years ago. I was driving back from Starkville when I came upon a stalled car in the road, just a few miles outside West Point. I pulled over to see if I could offer any help.
The car was an old rickety sedan, and it was out of gas. The driver, an older gentleman, stood there in the drizzling rain crying because he didn’t know what to do. He said he’d just visited his sick wife in the West Point hospital, and he was trying to get back to Okolona.
But he had no gas, no money, and no cell phone. I told him I would gladly buy him some fuel, but first we had to get his car off the road so some 18-wheeler didn’t flatten it.
We got it to the shoulder then climbed into my SUV to go get gas.
“This a nice Jeep you got here,” Robert kept saying. It wasn’t a Jeep, but I didn’t argue.
We talked a bit during the drive, and I don’t recall much of it. I do remember him saying, with a hint of pride in his voice, “I’m the onliest Robert Neely in Okolona.”
We got to West Point, filled up his gas can, and headed back to his car. I was worried it wouldn’t be enough gas to get Robert to Okolona. So I followed him.
We drove along at about 35 miles per hour – in a 65 zone – and I turned on my hazard lights. It was still raining, and the highway was blanketed in darkness. It was an agonizingly slow drive.
We managed to reach Okolona. I didn’t know precisely where we were going – his house, I figured. But then he pulled into the parking lot of an abandoned filling station. I pulled in behind him as he parked, and he got out and thanked me.
I wished him well, wondering to myself why he was stopping here. As I pulled away, Robert sat down in a dirty, ragged recliner near a pile of junk. He leaned it back, as if to sleep.
At least the rain had stopped.
That image of Robert lying in that chair was burned into my memory. He was homeless, had a broke-down car, and his wife was in the hospital. He had driven down to see her, probably knowing the gas wouldn’t hold out.
I told myself I would check in on Robert next chance I had. For whatever reason, I never did. I was probably in too big a rush to get down to Starkville for my job. And I’m not sure what more I could have done for him, having small children and being broke all the time.
But I could have stopped in at the old filling station to see if he was there, or ask around town about him. If I recall correctly, Robert told me he had lived in Okolona his whole life.
Maybe it’s not too late to check on him. Maybe he’s still around. I wonder whatever came of him and his ill wife.
Surely someone can tell me how to find the onliest Robert Neely in Okolona.