When my wife died it was like they had taken me off life support.
My daughter had to decide whether to bury or cremate, which charitable organization should get the donations, everything. After a month of me shuffling around in my slippers and pajamas at her place, she exploded. “Dammit, dad! You want to join mom in her coffin you go ahead but you’ve got to stop letting me feed you and tuck you in at night. Do something with what’s left of your life.”
So, I moved back to my house and, since I was retired and didn’t want to just stare at the clock, hoping it would move faster, I started volunteering at Goodwill.
I live on the edge of Wallace Woods, where the wealthy of Covington built spacious homes on large lots in the early 1900s. Some current owners have degraded their houses into shabby apartment buildings but most of us try to maintain the original condition and our yards please with flowers and neatly trimmed bushes except that since I’ve been gone my lot looks like a cow pasture. People still consider it a nice neighborhood, but a rough part of Covington starts across the street from my house and cop cars often cruise by.
After I came home from Goodwill one day, an elderly guy, even older than me, rang the doorbell. Thin and tall but stooped over, he had wispy grey hair on top and a tuft of it sticking out from the top of his t-shirt and he had a prominent nose. Each of his big toes poked out of holes in his high-top tennis shoes and the holes in his jeans did not intend to show some skin as a teenager might. He was obviously homeless but, from his stooped position, he looked right at me and spoke slowly but confidently. “You got a nice house but the grass needs cuttin n the bushes need trimmin. I can do those fer somethin ta eat.”
Sounded like a good deal and he didn’t seem the type to steal anything. “Go around back and I’ll get you the lawnmower and some pruning tools.” Working at Goodwill taught me to not completely trust such people but to respect most of them as
honest, unlike the contempt I felt for the snobs who show up once a year to pick the most outlandish outfits for their “Goodwill Dress-up Party.”
Several hours later I took him some water and could see that he knew what to do with a hedge trimmer. I never have liked mowing grass or doing other yard work so maybe I should hire him on a regular basis. “Where do you live?”
“When it gits cold I go ta the men’s shelter on Pike Street, hopin I’m in time ta git a bed, but on a nice fall day like this’n I got my sleepin bag n a small tent in a clearin on the bank of the Lickin River.”
Maybe I should do more than just hire him. I hate living by myself. My daughter is too busy with her family to have time for me and I could use something with more personality than a cup of coffee to talk with in the morning so I said, “Why don’t you stay here? You could do the yard work and help with the cooking and cleaning. I won’
He came back the next day. “I’ll give it a try. If it don’t work, no hard feelins. Name is Slade.”
We shook on it. “I’m Walter.”
The following day, when I returned from Goodwill, he was using a pronged spade to turn over dirt at the front of the house. I stopped at the porch steps. “What you doing?”
“Twern’t nuttin here but weeds. I’m goin ta put in daffodils if ya don’t mind payin fer the bulbs.” Sweat darkened the pits of his rolled-up long sleeved shirt and glistened on the white hair sticking out from the top of his shirt on this bright fall day. Fifteen feet apart, I could still see a bead of sweat dangling from the tip of his nose.
“That’s great! We may get the Yard-of-the-Month Award if you keep this up. You got good ideas.”
He stuck the spade in the dirt, put his hand to his lower back so he could straighten up a bit and shuffled closer to me. The bead of sweat dropped from his nose and another took its place. “Work never hurt nobody. Now these young punks don’t believe it. I oncet worked at a meat packin plant. Hard, messy work. Liftin half carcasses messed up my back n when ya makes ground beef the fat sticks ta yer hands sos ya can’t wash it off. Anyways, one day I went inta the break room n there was three of em, plugs in their ears and goin at it with their thumbs and fingers.” He stuck out his hands and moved his thumbs and fingers in rapid motions. I said, ‘Don’t ya guys ever talk ta one another?’ ”
One of em pulls a plug outta his ear n looks at me. “What you say old timer? ”
“Why don’t ya talk ta one another instead of always exercisin yer fingers?”
“What’s there to talk about?”
“Why, anythins better n nuttin. Ya could talk bout the constitution, bout how this great country of ours got started.” So I began there n took him on up ta the present day, showin how everythin was connected.”
The boy grabbed his ear plug. “Sorry, old timer, but I only got five minutes left in my break and I want to finish this game.”
Slade came to within a foot of me. He was taller than me but so bent over it put our heads on the same level. It looked like he should have brought the spade with him so he wouldn’t fall over. The rancid smell of sweat hung strong on him but I worked at not wrinkling my nose.
“Them three was gettin paid but not doin no more n they had ta. Youngins don’t put in the effort ta do things right. Heck, it ain’t jes youngins. Nobody does. Want ta live off the govmint on six hunert dollars a month. Women havin babies ta git more money. I worked hard all my life. Don’t owe nobody nuttin. Don’t git nuttin from the govmint but social security n don’t git from that near what I put in.”
“You sound bitter.”
“No siree. Got my strength, got my health cept the pain in my back n now got a nice place ta stay n no rent, just workin, which is what I want ta do anyways and I best git back to it.”
Another bead dropped from his nose as he turned and walked in his stooped-over fashion back to his pronged spade.
Day after that Slade was working on the same area. Carrying a grocery bag up the front walk, I said “Hi.” He put a hand to his back and looked up. I pointed to the car and said, “There’s another one.”
He began walking across the lawn to my car at the curb when a girl in her late twenties or early thirties came walking by. Slade said ”Hey there.”
She turned to face him. “Hey yourself.” Then she took off her blue sunglasses and looked more intently. “Hey, don’t I know you from somewhere?”
“Yessum ya do. I’m Slade. We both had our tents set up under the I-75 bridge fer a spell. What’s yer name again?”
“I’m Samantha, Sam for short. You live here or you working for food?”
“I bin livin here, thanks ta my friend Walter.” He waves his hand in my direction. “Don’t pay no rent. Jes work aroun the place ta pay fer my keep.”
“That’s sweet. I need a gig like that.”
“Ya still homeless?”
She stiffened and drew back a step. “Yeh but it’s cool. I don’t need you feeling sorry for me.”
I put my grocery bag on a front step and walked toward her. “Can you cook?”
“What’s that got to do with anything? You run a restaurant?”
“No but we could use a cook. We been living on baked beans, frozen pizza and boxed macaroni and cheese.”
“So I guess you figure on me sharing your bed too.”
“No. Hell no. I’ve been married. Slade too. We don’t even think about that sort of thing anymore. We will respect your privacy. No worries about that.”
Brown hair out of control, petite, jeans frayed at the ankles and shirt not tucked in. I liked her cautious approach to the situation.
“Sounds sketchy to me.“ She turned and started to walk away.
Slade said, “Won’t be here like it was under the bridge. We ain’t gonna do ya favors sos we can expect something back from ya.”
I said, “There’s a separate bedroom for you and Slade will put a latch on the bathroom door so you can lock it. We’ll all do our own laundry so nobody has to deal with anyone else’s poopy underpants or stinky, balled up socks.“
Slade scratched the thinning hair on his head. “You youngns may not relize it but it come a time in yer life when havin sex don’t mean nuttin.”
I said, “That’s right. It just complicates things. My wife died recently and we got along fine but we didn’t even do it the last couple of years. Wasn’t worth the effort. Besides, it’s getting colder. I hate to think of you sleeping under a blanket of snow.”
“My momma told me not to do stupid but you both seem decent enough. Okay, I’ll give it a try but first sign of trouble and I’m outta here.”
Slade smiled. “Don’t ya worry none bout that n it gonna put some spunk in the lives of two old coots ta have the likes of you aroun.”
I said, “Yeh, don’t worry. We’ll appreciate your cooking.”
“I’m really not much of a cook but I can fry bacon and do scrambled eggs.”
I said, “That’s a start. There’s two bedrooms left. Take your pick.”
“I have to go back under the bridge to get my stuff.”
“I can drive you there.”
“No thanks. You don’t want to see the needles and trash. I’m used to walking and I don’t have much stuff.”
That evening Sam said she was going to cook hamburgers and French fries.
I was out back talking with Slade as he worked on turning another patch of weeds into a flower bed when we saw smoke pouring out of the kitchen window. I yelled to Slade, “Get the hose!” and ran inside. Sam stood back a ways from the stove, fanning the smoke with a spatula.
I screamed, “Get away from there! You’ll get burnt!”
She had both front gas burners on full blast. The hamburgers were burnt and the skillet full of oil and French fries looked like the stack on a steamboat. I turned the burners off and fanned the smoke with my hands. Slade ran in with the hose on full.
I shouted, “No, Slade! Take it back! We don’t need it.”
After we got rid of the smoke and mopped the floor, I said, “That’s okay Sam. Try something simple next time, just not so simple as baked beans or boxed macaroni and cheese or frozen pizza. Let’s go out to eat. It smells too much like smoke to do take out and eat here.”
Sam said, “I’ll stay and wipe the grease off the stove.”
“No you don’t. Everything is still too hot. We’ll take care of that later.”
Slade said, “I’ll go but no hamburger joint. I didn like that idea when Sam said she’d cook burgers and fries, but I kept my mouth shut. That’s all these young people want ta eat is hamburgers, hot dogs and French fries. Like I said earlier, I worked in a meat packin plant. A handful of meat n a handful of fat n you throw em in the machine ta git hamburger. That’s not enough fat so ya cut taters inta strips sos they’ll soak up as much oil as possible when ya cook em. Causes pimples n it’s not a wonder so many young people need extra-large clothes n aren’t ashamed ta show off their fat butts in their stretch jeans.”
Sam said, “I’ll have a peanut butter sandwich.”
I said, “No, we’ll go together.”
Slade turned to Sam and said, “Yeh, ya meant well. That’s all we can ask.”
As fall turned into winter Slade got so bent over, he couldn’t straighten up much at all and his lower back pain wouldn’t let him get comfortable sitting, standing or lying down. I asked if he had health insurance.
“My wife tried that oncet. There’s this Obamacare thing. The Affordable Care Act. That’s what they call it. She tried that n they wanted ta charge her $600 a month. That’s not right! That’s not affordable! If ya have ta go ta the hospital n ya don’t got insurance, they make ya sign up fer it. It ain’t right! It ain’t American! But she had ta do somethin bout her diabeetes, so she found a pharmacy fer poor people that gave her the supplies fer nuttin. She had ta lie about our income ta git it. I wouldna done that. I don’t ask nuttin from the govmint that ain’t already mine n I don’t do no charity place cept one ta lie down when it’s cold outside n I don’t need that anymore. I don’t need nuttin. Period.”
On Christmas Eve I invited Slade to go out for a beer.
He said “Thank’n ya but I took the pledge. Guess I could have a sody though whilest ya drink yer beer.”
We had no trouble finding a bar open and everyone was buying drinks, so we stayed a lot longer than we had planned. We could have brought in the New Year if it was the right holiday.
When we got home, we were surprised to see the house lit up and to hear rock music. When we opened the front door, we walked into a fog of smoke. The smell of beer, marijuana and vomit made us back up to get some air. When we stepped back in, we saw young people sprawled across the furniture and the carpet. Sam lay passed out on a recliner.
I yelled, “Out! Everybody out!”
Sam slowly raised her head and looked at me like I was standing in the next block.
“Sam, how could you do this? Things were going so well. You’re even learning to cook halfways decent.”
She looked at the refugee camp around her. “Sorry. I wanted to celebrate too so I invited a few friends, but word got around. Guess things got out of hand.”
The others started stumbling out the door and dragging along those so out of it they couldn’t wake up.
I said to Sam, “You can wait until morning but then you have to leave. I hate to kick you out, but you’ve betrayed my trust. You thought you couldn’t trust us, but it turned out the other way around.”
She again said “Sorry” and hung her head as she weaved across the room and then leaned on the railing to get upstairs.
Slade turned to me. “It’s a shame. Seems like Sam was workin out good but ya never know. Give a dog a bone n he’ll bite your hand off.” He said he needed to leave too. “I ain’t worth nuttin no more. It’s too cold ta work outside n I fixed what needs fixin and painted what needs paintin. There ain’t nuttin fer me ta do and I ain’t gonna jes take up space.”
“There’ll be other things to fix and paint and I need you for companionship, especially now with Sam leaving.”
“No siree. I gotta be movin on.”
He helped me clean the mess but then packed his things in a tote and took off.
Next day he came back. “They’re buildin a bicycle path along the bank of the river. My tent n sleepin bag gone. It’s what they call eminent domain. The govmint can take anythin they want n in this case they’re not even goin ta pay me nuttin. It ain’t constitutional n it ain’t right but what can I do?”
“Stay here. I need your help. I been moping around all day. Didn’t even do the shopping and there’s nothing to eat.”
“You got peanut butter? You got jelly n bread? Don’t shop til ya have ta. I visited the House of Burgesses in Virginia oncet. They refused ta buy products from England. That were in the sixteenth century, no, maybe the seventeenth, about 1750, before the Revolutionary War. Then you couldn’t buy things n now they say ya have ta buy things. Things like medical insurance. It don’t make no sense.”
“1750 is in the eighteenth century but, okay, let’s have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. And it’ll be just the two of us. No other borders, especially no girls.”
“No siree, one peanut butter sandwich n I’m on my way. Thank’n ya fer all ya done but I got ta git back my dignity.”
“You’re leaving me with nothing but Goodwill.”