I pick up garbage for the town. Instead of riding up front, I like to walk behind the truck and empty the cans. I’d rather travel under my own steam.
I’m in pretty good shape; no one would guess my age.
I own my own house, a short gray one on a long green acre just outside of town. I have a truck that’s eleven years old and doesn’t owe me a dime. I’ve got no children. I had a wife but she went back to her people and took up with a cousin. I don’t think on it.
There came this day last summer. I remember spending the better part of a morning trying to point out to my neighbor the error of his ways. His name is Wallace Mainwaring, and he must have been standing in the back of the room when they were passing out brains. Wally, as he calls himself, had just had the lawn-care people over.
They have a little ritual, the lawn-care people and Wally. The men drive up in their big white truck and spray fertilizer and weed poison all over Wally’s lawn. The grass turns the darkest, deadliest shade of green you ever want to see, and grows six inches in two days. Wally gets out his mower and sets the blade real low — otherwise, he thinks he’ll have to mow every hour and a half just to keep ahead of it — and he shaves his lawn right down to the roots, so close that by the end of the next sunny day the grass is burnt brown as toast. Then he has to turn on his sprinkler system and run it day and night, and just when he’s brought that lawn back from the brink of extinction, why, the lawn-care people come and start all over again.
I was leaning on my fence trying to impart to Wally a piece of information. Wally kept nodding his head, but his eyes were adrift in his face.
I finally gave up being diplomatic and came straight at him.
“Your goddamn lawn poison killed my goddamn birds.”
Wally’s eyes got big, but there was nothing to follow it up with.
“Your poison killed my birds. Look here.”
He never would have moved, so I had to get the nest out of the box and bring it over to him.
It was a pitiful sight. Seven perfect little chickadees, black caps shiny as new shoes, all well feathered and only a day or two from flight, now lying stiff as sticks and drawing flies.
I set about telling Wally how the parent birds don’t know the difference between an insect twitching with poison and one dying of natural causes.
He said, “But the lawn people didn’t poison this time. They always put up those little signs when they poison.”
He was right. That took the wind right out of my sails. I had nothing more to say to him.
I went and got my chain saw and took down the two posts with the birdhouses still attached. I cut them up into firewood, but it wasn’t enough, so I split them into kindling. I don’t like that kind of mystery.
Then I went for a walk, which I do sometimes, down by the tracks to a stream with a lot of clutter in it.
I usually sit on an old drum a few feet inside the tree line and smoke. Which was what I was doing when the boy came by.
I had seen him from time to time in the neighborhood. A sneak, he was. Nothing to notice, but he had come into my field of vision so I watched him for a while.
He started playing in the stream, not like boys do when they’re together — slamming down stones, searching out animals to torture, acting like they know what goes on behind closed doors between their mas and pas — no, he was playing real quiet, picking up a stone and putting it on top of another, piling handfuls of pebbles here and there.
Every once in a while he’d look around and make sure he was alone. When I gave a cough, he turned real slow, with an expression on his face that suggested he’d just heard spirits whispering his name.
“What are you doing there?” I tried out on him. “What’ve you got?”
He started to stand up but I said, “Whoa,” and he dropped back down.
I came off the old drum and took a walk.
“What’ve you got there? Looks like a town or some such.”
This time he did stand up. He said, “Nothing, Mister,” and kicked the stones into the stream.
“It goes against the law of creation to destroy what you have just made. What’s your name?”
“It’s Spaggot, Mister.”
“Not one of the High Street Spaggots, are you?”
“No sir. I’m a Paradise Valley Spaggot.”
“I know your pa.”
“You can’t. He’s dead.”
“What’s your given name, boy?”
“Mansfield, only they call me Manny.”
“Well, Manny Spaggot, your pa may be dead now, but we rode motorcycles together in 1947, 1948, and 1949, until he went off to get married, but not to your ma.”
“My ma’s his fourth.”
“When did he die, Manny Spaggot?”
“Christmas,” the boy decided, and was about to say more when voices broke in on us, those of the neighborhood gang of four: the two Charbonneau brothers, Lew Jamison, and the youngest Huston.
My boy never said a word, just dropped down over the bank and crawled off up the stream.
Those other boys don’t bother me, but there will come a day when they will have to be reckoned with. In the meantime I just growl and they scatter.
I saw Manny Spaggot again the very next day, twice, and he was getting the tar beat out of him each time.
In the morning it was the gang of four. They were all behind the True Value. Manny was on the ground. The boys must have been pounding on him for some time because they had reached the point where they were winded and weak; when a foot missed Manny, the kicker fell down.
I caught a couple of them with the toe of my boot, and in the confusion of the moment Manny himself got away.
Later on it was George from High Noon Tire. He had hold of Manny by the hair. With his free hand he kept swatting Manny on the head, saying, “Goddamn thief,” in time with his hand.
By the time I got over to them, George was finished; he’d dropped Manny on the ground and was walking away, clapping the dust off his hands.
I squatted in front of Manny and told him that if he wanted to live to see another day he’d better stay the hell away from everyone, and that I thought maybe I had a job for an instigator like him.
I took him home, set him on my steps, and turned the hose on him; then I gave him a soda and stood him in the sun to dry.
“You see that house across the street?” I asked him. “See the garage? Inside that garage is my rake, a snow shovel, and the finest pickax I ever owned. You go get them back for me and I’ll give you two bucks.”
Manny Spaggot never hesitated.
“There’s nobody home, but you better watch out for the dog,” I yelled after him, and that was the last I saw of him for some time.
I was pulling weeds when he arrived back with the tools over his shoulder. He had brought three rakes because, he said, he wasn’t sure which was mine. I told him, and he returned the others.
“That dog ain’t nothing but mouth,” he said later, settling into my wheelbarrow.
“You and him ought to be buddies then,” I said.
“I ain’t scared of that dog. That there dog snuck up on me and tried to take hold of my foot but I just said, ‘Dog, I can see what you’re up to — you do that and I’ll nail you good, right on the end of your nose.’ He gave this real pitiful whine and crawled away.”
“Go weed something,” I said, but he only went as far as the next row.
“That dog across the street?” he kept on. “He’s puppy food next to old Brownie. He was a wonder, old Brownie was. Never let nobody on the property, not even my pa when he was on the outs with my ma that summer Utica Tim came to live with us — that’s my half-brother from Gainesville, Florida, who came up after his mother drowned. Once Tim had got our smell all over him, Brownie let him come and go as he pleased, but with my pa it was a different story. He’d growl and carry on and show his teeth. He tried to chew Pa’s leg off one day. Started at the ankle and worked his way up —”
I asked him, “How do you get anything done? You don’t shut up long enough for your brain to cast a vote, let alone run the show.”
I like to take what I need to paint the scenery and go up into the hills. This is not the best use I can put a day to. As a matter of fact, it’s like throwing time down the drain, only worse: I’ve had dreams, in that restless time just before dawn, that have showed me what could be gotten down on canvas, but never once has anything in the daylight come close.
There is a flat place on the side of the mountain above Munn’s Falls where I like to go. I carry food and drink and whatever else I need in an old backpack; I lash a canvas or two and an easel to the frame. With the addition of Manny, I brought along a blanket, an umbrella, and more food.
We went on a Sunday. We took the truck to the river. Manny started toward the water but I about-faced him, piled him high, and aimed him upward.
We followed the marked trail to the falls, then climbed up the firebreak.
From this place you can see west to the Berkshires and all the way north to the Canadian border. I believe that at one time you could see east to the ocean, back a hundred years or so, when the worst pollution your transportation emitted was a fart.
You’d think you could get down to basics and pull out the blue and green to paint a day like this, but take the sky, for instance — it goes from a real muscular blue on the horizon to something more than white at the dome. There is no mix of paint that will put it down on canvas — there’s none that’s painful enough on the eye.
Clouds should be simple up here. They aren’t. They’re too distinct, and way too familiar. You might find yourself thinking more about walking out onto one of them than painting it. And the perspective is all off. The mountains look like they’re skirted with grass, the green of the trees is so uniform and feathery. You think it’s close enough to run your hands through. The stubby pines on the next peak over could belong with the train tracks that run under your Christmas tree.
We were standing there at the edge catching our breath when a bird took off over my right shoulder. It skimmed the side of our mountain, floated halfway up the one opposite, and disappeared inside the trees. It gave me a thrill, like I had gone along for the ride.
Manny Spaggot was impressed. He stood with his feet apart and his elbows stuck out, like he was so distracted by the view his balance was upset. His head bobbed up and down with the bird.
I stripped the gear off him and told him not to get lost.
I will not say a word about what transpired between me and the canvas. If it isn’t the most foolish and ugly waste of time, I don’t know what is. The only part I like is when I get to turn the damn thing upside down and start over again. Manny Spaggot did not appreciate this method; he thought everything should be saved. He must have been back and forth a dozen times to eat and to aggravate me.
We had finished our lunch and were lying there in the sun, resting our heads and feet on boulders and our backsides on the moss between. “This is what counts,” I said, waving my hand at the rocks and sky.
Manny piped up, “Joe?”
“Mmm?” I said, preparing to nap.
“I liked the one with the bird in it. If it was me, I would have kept it.” He went on with hardly a pause for breath. “What can you do to get off people’s nerves? I am on them all the time. There’s not one soul I get on easy with, except Utica Tim and he’s long gone — back to Florida, I mean, not dead, though he might as well be —”
I told him that the first thing I would recommend was that every once in a while he shut up.
I waited a bit. “That wasn’t so bad, was it?”
“Well, actually it was, but I will work on it.”
“See that you do, Manny Spaggot. And in the meantime, don’t worry about getting on people’s nerves. Until you’re bigger, just figure on staying out of range.”
Manny gave a sigh. “There are days when I would give both my arms and both my legs just to have somebody treat me like I was their best friend.”
I said, “If you would look around, Manny Spaggot, you would find that this day, your wish has been granted.”
It took a minute for my meaning to register, then he went red in the face so fast it was like somebody’d hit him.
It’s kind of amazing, isn’t it? How something you say can go so far as to change the way somebody else’s blood is circulating?
Manny jumped up and started down over the ledge.
“Whoa,” I said. “You pay attention to where you put your feet or they’ll take you someplace unexpected.”
I had the feeling when I woke up that although everything seemed the same — the sun hot, the clouds lingering, the breeze next to nothing — everything was different. It took me a minute to figure out what it was: there was no noise. All day I’d heard Manny Spaggot no matter where he was or what he was doing; now there was nothing.
I got up and started to look around. It was while I was moving that I heard a sound — the clacking of shale against shale — but it didn’t come again. I was standing at the sunny side of the slope, and somehow it seemed right to start down the dry scar of a runoff, even though there was nothing to encourage me.
Soon the going got rough; the runoff had dug deep into the mountainside and exposed big steps of stone. The faces were dark with moisture. A little farther on under the first of the stumpy trees, there was water, just a trickle of it.
I followed the beginnings of the stream until a downed tree made me leave it and go around. I came back on it kind of sudden, and had to pull up short. The side of the mountain had fallen away; below me flapped the tops of the trees.
I pushed myself back against the rock and felt around for a handhold. When I finally got myself anchored and half turned around, the first thing I spotted, not two feet from my face, was the shoe of Manny Spaggot: one dirty old sneaker all by itself upside down on the ledge.
I wasn’t going to look over the side; I just picked up the shoe and started climbing down. I had gone maybe twice my height before I found a shelf big enough to crawl out on. I looked around.
At first all I could see was a foot, and after that a skinny leg, then arms, and finally, deep within the shadows, the boy’s head. He was tucked into a crack in the rock at the far end of a long, thin ledge.
It took some maneuvering to get myself into such a narrow place, but once there I could examine my boy at will and determine him not dead, just unconscious, and breathing like a horse running a race. The snoring gave me some concern, but I had to think more about getting him down off the mountain without causing him further harm.
I laid him out as straight as I could on the shelf. I ran my shirt around his waist and tied the sleeves around a tree root, in case he should come to and try to move around while I was away. Then I climbed as quick as I could back to the clearing. I fetched the easel, and a rope I always carry.
I ran the rope around Manny’s thighs and under his arms. I tied him to my easel; I thought it might help keep his spine straight. The hardest thing was figuring out how to keep his head still; I ended up using my shirt. I cut a hole in the back of it for his nose to stick through, then I wrapped it around his head, knotted it behind the easel, and had enough sleeve left to cross it back over his chest.
It disturbed me some when I took him up; he looked like a little puppet on a stick.
I carried Manny back up the stream to the clearing. From there, I could follow the firebreak down to Munn’s Falls. It took a long time because I had to hold him straight up and down against the front of me, which made it hard to see where I was going.
At one point there was a steep piece of trail. I lay flat on my back, lifted Manny on top of me, and started to slide myself down the incline on my rear end.
By digging in my heels, I managed a few feet easy and slow. The thought that maybe this wouldn’t be too bad had just passed through my head when I suddenly discovered I was trying to beat my heels through solid rock, and failing. I was starting to slide faster. I kept my head up and never quit trying to drive my heels in, but it was useless. Everything from bitty pebbles to great big rocks were bouncing along next to me, like we were all in a race for the bottom.
The thing that stopped me was a tree; momentum wrapped me right around it.
Manny Spaggot groaned.
It was one of the nicest sounds I’ve ever heard. He didn’t do any more than that the rest of the way down, but I knew that where there’s a complaint, there’s life.
The hospital waiting room was Spaggots from one end to the other. There seemed to be a dozen boys the same age as Manny, and I kept getting his mother mixed up with what must have been four or five of her sisters and sisters-in-law. There appeared to be no Spaggot men, which somehow wasn’t too surprising.
Mrs. Spaggot remembered me from when Mr. Spaggot had gotten thrown out of his house lock, stock, and motorcycle by his first wife, the present Mrs. Spaggot’s sister. I had helped pick his clothes and him up off the front lawn.
It became clear in the course of our conversation that Mrs. Spaggot bore me no grudge for anything I had ever done to a member of her family. I almost kissed her for the relief it afforded.
Now, I will relieve you of any suspense: Manny Spaggot did live, and suffered no ill effects that any of us can see. He actually seems to find life a little more tolerable this year than last — although I think that is due to the natural growing process, not to the fall that almost broke his neck.
But what happened to me was this: for a short time, in that hospital waiting room, I came unhinged.
I actually noticed it coming on, like you can smell a storm, so I got myself out of there and into the bathroom. I was jittery, like I couldn’t follow one thought from start to finish. The inside of my head had become strange to me.
In the bathroom they had a mirror on the wall, so I spent some time studying myself. I didn’t look any different. I am tough skinned and thin haired and getting on, and I was more than a little dirty at the time. What was going on inside didn’t show. More than anything else, I wanted to kneel down right there on the bathroom floor and pray for something to save this kid. I wanted to hit myself on the chest like people from other places do.
I was afraid of him dying. I was afraid I would feel like I did right then, only worse. I started pacing to keep from getting down and praying.
I went to the sink and splashed water on my face. I figured it might do me more good inside than out, so I drank a handful down; and right away it turned against me. The next thing I knew, I was in the stall vomiting into the toilet. It took my insides to bring me to my knees, but as soon as I got there, I knew that was where I belonged.
So I threw up and hung on to the seat and prayed for the boy’s neck to be unbroken.
Some time later I got myself to the sink and cleaned up. I had found something out: I was not going to lose my mind if the boy died. It would still be ticking away, it would still be mine, I’d have no trouble recognizing myself if I passed me on the street. What I would be, though, is missing him. And I don’t hold with missing.
All those times in my life when I lost things seemed to be times I couldn’t afford to miss them.
I think the reason I felt like I was losing my mind was that all the missing was trying to get my attention at once. Some of it came from the first time I ever woke up hungry; or from the time I said goodbye to my pa; or when I was twelve and went to work in the tobacco fields and sat by myself that first night rolling the leaf tar off my hands, waiting for soup from the old lady missing all her teeth and half her hair. Some of the missing was from when the army wouldn’t take me, and my brother went and came back, and died of pneumonia his second week home. A lot of the missing was from when my wife left me.
It sort of cleared my head some, looking at the missing I was carrying around inside of me. I even straightened myself up so I could carry it better; I rubbed my hands over my belly, which is where it seemed to take hold. I found myself thinking kindly on it, like it needed my protection, and some regard.
I walked out of the bathroom so peaceful it was like nothing had happened. It seemed as easy as drawing breath to sit down and sniffle along with the chorus of Spaggot women.
And when the doctor came out with the good news, we all looked at each other to make sure we’d heard the same thing, then a little roar went up and everybody hugged all around. They started patting me on the back like I was some kind of hero, instead of the fool who had gotten us into this mess.
We all got to go in two at a time and see Manny. He was lying in the middle of a nest of tubing and machinery with enough electrical cords draped around to clothesline Death should He try any angle of approach. Manny was sleeping when I saw him, but his mother said he woke up for her.
After that I spent half the night in a Spaggot kitchen telling anybody who would listen that it was all my fault. People were polite enough, but I could see they were only bearing with me until I got to the part about finding the boy, and how I used the rope and the easel and my shirt, and how we slid halfway down the mountain. The last part is Manny’s favorite; he just wishes he’d been awake to see it.