Staying a step ahead of the Lion Man
Natchez had its share of characters. Like many small communities, there was a variety of oddballs, debutantes, businessmen, deacons and so on that made the town special.
But there was always a handful of people who stick out in your mind.
One that remains in mine was a man we kids called “the Lion Man.”
He would always stand there in front of St. Mary’s Catholic Church. His long mane hanging halfway down his back. I never remember seeing him without his long thick hair, and I don’t think he ever cut it.
My friends and I would stand across the street, wondering just what he was doing standing in front of a church.
“Maybe he goes to church there,” Jon said.
“Yeah, but he never goes inside,” I replied.
Many days would be spent with us walking by the historic church so we could see if Lion Man was there. It almost became of game, kind of like Where’s Waldo. We would race through the streets of downtown Natchez to see who could spot the Lion Man first.
And he wasn’t hard to find. Aside from his long, tangled hair, he always wore these bright yellow pants with a red shirt. It could be freezing temperatures, and he would always have that same red shirt on.
And it wasn’t out of place for him to be eating a banana. He always had one sticking out of his back pocket or eating one as he sat on the steps of the Catholic Church.
We never actually spoke to the Lion Man. We were all kind of scared of him. He came off as a man who didn’t want anyone to talk to him.
When we were kids, we would wander over to the park located behind the Catholic Church. With pockets full of sandwich bags, we would make our way to the small fountain pond in the center of the park.
There were several goldfish in the pond there. They must have restocked the thing a lot because there would always seem to be more each time.
We would try to grab a few of the fish and scoop up a bag of water to take them home. The poor fish rarely lived much longer. But I guess we thought we were really accomplishing something by sneaking a few fish out of the park pond.
The sun was just started to set that day the Lion Man saw us shoving a few fish into our bags. A flash of his yellow pants caught our eyes as began to walk toward the pond.
He moved like a lion. He was fast, and he appeared out of nowhere that summer day. He made his way over to where we were, with almost no sound.
Children must have a chain reaction nerve inside their tiny bodies because when my friend Ron took off running, I wasn’t far behind. In fact, we all took off running.
We were too scared to look behind us to see if the Lion Man was chasing us. As an adult, I don’t think he was really chasing us at all.
Maybe the Lion Man just wanted to talk to us that day. He was probably curious to see the group of youngsters who would sneak around town following him.
Maybe the Lion Man wanted to make us return the fish to their rightful home. He probably sat alone and looked over the fish when no one was around.
Maybe the Lion Man didn’t notice us at all. He probably was just walking by, and a group of mischievous kids were in his way.
I will never know what the Lion Man wanted that day. Perhaps I should have stayed behind to learn his story. Why did he always wear the same thing? Why did he love to stand in front of the church? Were bananas is favorite food? Why didn’t he ever cut his hair? Where did he work? Was he homeless?
All these questions came over my mind that evening as I placed my fish inside a small bowl in my room.
I never took another fish out of the pond after that day. In fact, I never returned to that park until I was in college.
I returned home for a holiday gathering and wanted to waste some time before supper. I parked my car in front of the Catholic Church and looked to see if I saw the Lion Man in his usual spot. I saw no trace of him.
Making my way to the pond, I didn’t see any goldfish there either. I sat down on the fountain’s edge and ran my fingers across the cold water.
For a brief moment, I thought I saw a hint of yellow reflect off the water.
And as I jerked my head around, I noticed I was alone. Confused and a little embarrassed, I turned back around to the water.
I thought I saw it again, but this time I didn’t move.
I like to think we had an understanding.