Fragments of Exploding Sycamore
He cuts back in along Sand Ridge Road—the sole curvy one among the grid. We pass the house where the O’Brien sisters used to live. On the ridge, in their old yard looking over fields to horizon, one lone, momentous Sycamore a black explosion against January dusk.
One O’Brien summer party comes like shrapnel out of the vault. High, drunk, kids, music. One of my first dates with a new, crazed redhead. She slumped against that huge, gnarled tree; wrapped arms part way around it, sweating can of Bud in each hand. She told me she loved it (the tree)—it talked to her regularly—that I should love it. I didn’t tell her that I already loved that old Sycamore, or that I was falling quickly and quietly for her.
While Not Without Charms, Pale Facsimile
Here everything is distance
there it was breath.
–Rainer Maria Rilke
Wish I was back there where we walked the small town nights ’cause we couldn’t drive but had to begin to live—when magic needed only slight invocation to come to bear in young minds. It was better when we only dreamed of the aged, hallowed clamor of the Bar, or the enviable hipness of the Club. Instead, we got what we could and spun and kissed and puked in fields, warehouses, woods, and golf courses.
On my last night of a hometown visit, I chose the empty schoolyard over Downtown and dragged my friend to the old open space, host of dozens of sacred instants. We forgot the need to rot in a dive and grasp at the straws of great happenings. We had it back in our hands for half an hour, and later he thanked me for marking the path, in case we needed to find the way again someday.
We ate acid on a spring Saturday. There had been rain overnight, much of the grass was choked off by weeds, and muskrats patrolled the ditch. My friend’s parents were away; we had run of their land at the outskirts of town. There was a pole barn, an empty, roofless silo, some outbuildings, ATVs, a motorcycle, and other toys. The trails around the property were littered with our rational minds. We wandered and only saw each other once in a while, whipping around on gas-powered distractions or staring at the deformities of inbred barn-cats. I found myself at the perimeter of the property, listening to the neighbor’s electric fence.
The neighbor’s horse came over, drawn to a pulsing awe and innocence I had. I’d been stripped and it had changed my posture towards the air. The horse was dappled gray, the sky above was pulverizing blue, the ground green like peace must be, the breeze nudged acceptance; they were fierce, taut beauty. Power. Fire. The horse looked at me, silly and drop-jaw, and fired off a huge, triumphant round of shit, dropped unromantically on a field rock with grounding, sobering, thwaps. It knew I was close, but needed to peel the next layer. The horse’s eyes answered the shock. Yes. It’s all beautiful and perfect, but only when you stop envying me and disdaining that rock. Are you there yet?
I Let His Ass Hang Out
The old man next door to us—I found out tonight his name is John.
When my girl and I moved in, John was putting a new roof on the house next door. I figured some landlord, out of charity or cheapness, hired him to do the job solo. We lived in the upstairs half of a rental, and had a nice balcony complete with our nine-foot, orange, vinyl couch. I was under-employed and spending a lot of summertime on that balcony, so I saw him working every day. I was always level with him; I on my upstairs porch, he on the roof of his downstairs porch, only a few feet of empty city space between us.
He had flaming white hair shagging out from under a red stocking cap, which he wore at all times even though it was August. He wore one black shoe and one white. He wore grey slacks that were nearly shredded. Areas of his pale, Scotch-Irish ass hung out. Months, or years, of sliding around on new shingles had destroyed his non-work workpants. He wore a plaid sleeves-gone shirt, also sorely torn. He was above-average height, and lithe and muscular for his age.
The old man was loopy—gone. Of all the time he spent roofing next door, never more than twenty feet from me on the orange couch, he never once looked my direction, acknowledged my presence, or made so much as a grunt. I was pretty freaked by him at first.
Another odd, but encouraging, thing about him was the incredibly slow and meticulous work he did on that roof. I was used to seeing them done on people’s days off, or over a weekend; crews of leather-burnt guys in jean shorts and tank tops showing up at 7 a.m. on a Saturday and working until 7 p.m. I was used to shoddy roof jobs done with hydraulic nail drivers and big crews. Roof jobs to last six years, tops. Not John. He was from the old school. He worked silent, alone, hammer, nails in mouth, straight edge, knife, and ladder. He worked every single day from August until it was too cold to go outside. His roof was orderly beauty, perfection, and craft. It will outlast him, and maybe me.
I couldn’t figure what landlord would let a roofer take six months to do a house. Then it dawned. The landlord was letting this homeless maniac live in an empty rental house while he worked on the roof. The landlord wanted a free roof, plus materials. And he or she felt sorry for John and let him stay in an unfurnished house with a permit posted on the front door.
I also caught him doing other handyman chores; mowing the lawn with a 1950s push-mower, weeding out crabgrass with a pocketknife, and painting the floor of the porch.
God, the porch-painting was amazing. He painted each two-inch floorboard individually across with a one-and-a-half-inch brush—glorious. Each board, by hand, from left to right towards the mat-less front door. He did the north half of the floor first all the way to the north edge of the doorway, then the south half of the porch to the south edge of the doorway. I don’t know how he did the center because I had temp work that day, but I assume he painted himself into the front room, and emerged the next morning at sunup.
He wore glasses to drive his 1971 Plymouth.
He once played with a homeless cat and string.
Then winter came and he was not on the roof, and I was only on the balcony to smoke. I didn’t see him until the first big snow. His white ass was still showing with a seventeen-degree wind whipping. He shoveled his driveway with a dirt shovel instead of a snow shovel. Old School says, Why buy two? He didn’t throw snow on our snow-covered lawn, only on his own snow-covered, crabgrass-free, hand-stabbed lawn. I told my girlfriend that the old man was out shoveling with a tiny dirt shovel, and she asked if his ass was still showing.
“Yes,” I said, “and the red hat.”
After the next big snow, a zealous neighbor revved up his snow blower and drove it around, blowing our driveways and sidewalks. While shoveling our walk, I overheard the blower-owner tell another shoveler, “I’d like to do John’s driveway, but he’d probably holler at me.” He went ahead and began doing the driveway next door.
The old man came out his door, red cap blazing, and began to yell, “Get the hell off my driveway! Don’t plow my driveway, you fucker!”
John’s neighbor couldn’t hear him over the engine. John kept yelling and swearing a blue streak. I wondered as I paused if John had been a Navy man. I also began to worry that the old man was going to attack. John was still muscular for his age. I stood and watched as John’s neighbor came dangerously close to the old man, who was leaning over his porch railing, and put a hand to his ear.
“What?” the neighbor asked.
John yelled right in his face, “Get the hell off my driveway, you sorry fuck!”
The neighbor waved John off and headed back down the driveway toward his own house. As a further affront, the neighbor snow-blew his way out instead of just leaving.
Again, John screamed, “Don’t blow snow on their yard!” referring to our yard already covered in a foot of snow and dappled with snow clumps.
John ran back inside and emerged with his tiny dirt shovel. I hoped that he intended to shovel snow and not batter his neighbor to death. He began to shovel the remaining snow furiously, yelling, “I don’t need your help, and I don’t want it, you son of a bitch!”
I began to shovel again before John could turn his twisted anger on me. It was funny that a twenty-three year old would avoid the gaze of an old, white-haired man, but he had the better shovel if it came to combat.
Later, I asked the neighbor who’d gotten screamed at, “What’s that guy’s story?”
“Who? John?” he asked.
“Yeah, is he crazy, or what?” I replied.
“I don’t know,” he said, “but that’s the first time he’s spoken to me in thirty-five years. I tried to tell him his roof looked nice, but he never acknowledges anyone’s presence. I lived across the street for thirty-five years, but he won’t speak to anyone.”
I’d wanted to pay John the same compliment many times. But the neighbor wasn’t exactly right. John trusted the mailman and had spoken to him at least once.
Did John not believe in snow blowers? Did John’s neighbor realize that by plowing the drive, he’d taken away John’s life-purpose for the next morning?
I was suddenly relieved that I’d never taken pity on the old man. I’d considered leaving a pair of my old work pants on his porch, as an anonymous act of charity. The kind of favor that lets you pat your own back, loving the image of the poor old man finding a pair of hand-me-down Dickies outside his door. But I never did John that disrespect. I let his ass hang out.