his evening toward dusk my neighbor, Arthur Pope, strides across
the driveways that separate our houses, a casserole dish held between
his hands. I see him through the kitchen window as I stand at the
sink opening a can of Natural Balance duck and potato for my basset
hound, Stump. I reach to switch off the light, but, too late, Arthur
has spotted me — I can tell by the way he lifts the casserole
dish higher, extends it with his oven-mitt covered hands —
and I have no choice but to wave at him and then go out into my
side yard and open the gate.
neighbor.” A former Navy man, this is the way he talks. Unlike
me, he’s kept fit over the years. He still does calisthenics,
even keeps a barbell set in his basement — a manly man with
chest and shoulders and arms that aren’t what they were thirty
years ago, but still they’re impressive. A thick head of wavy
gray hair. A bounce to his step. “Time for mess.” He
bows his head over the casserole dish and sniffs. “Andouille
jambalaya,” he says. “Permission requested to come aboard,
October, and the leaves have started to fall. Here in Mt. Gilead,
our small town in southern Illinois, we can burn them on Saturdays,
air quality and the ozone layer be damned. We rake our leaves to
the sides of our streets or onto our back yard gardens, and set
them to burn. The air smells of the must and the smoke the way it
has this time of year as long as I can recall since I was a kid
in Rat Town — that’s what we’ve always called
the neighborhood in the lowlands on the south edge of Mt. Gilead,
a mess of tumble down houses. Each spring there, when the Wabash
River rises, the floodwaters still come up to the doorsteps. I’m
glad to be safe and dry here in Orchard Farms, this modest gathering
of ranch homes on streets with names like Apple Blossom and Cherry
Blossom and Peach Tree.
he knows my life — me, Sam Brady, a bachelor all my sixty-five
years — and I wish I could believe that he does. He thinks
he knows it because his dear wife, Bess, is now six months gone,
and he imagines that we share the misery of men living alone. “You
and me,” he said once not long after she died. He laid his
hand on my shoulder. “Jesus, Sammy. We’re a pair.”
But my life
is not his. I’d tell him this if I had the heart. I’d
tell him I have no idea what it is to love someone all that time
— nearly forty years he and Bess were married — and
to lose them one day without warning. An aneurysm in her brain.
“Arthur, my head hurts,” she said, and then the next
instant, she fell to the kitchen floor, already gone. All my adult
life I’ve lived alone, except for the dogs, the latest being
Stump, who stands now at the screen door waiting for his duck and
contentious,” I tell Arthur, nodding toward Stump. Nothing
could be further from the truth; like all basset hounds, Stump is
long on patience, steadfast with his devotion, mild-tempered, and
affectionate — a perfect companion. His nose is up against
the storm door glass. His velvety ears hang in loose folds, their
ends curling slightly inward. He stares at me with his sad-ass eyes.
“Stump,” I say to Arthur. “He puts the hurt in
me if he doesn’t get his grub.”
we all.” Arthur lifts the casserole dish toward my nose. “Sailor,
don’t we all.”
What can I
do but let him into my house and tell him to set the casserole dish
on the range? He tells me exactly how he made it, and I know what’s
coming next. “I could give you the recipe.” He snaps
his fingers. “Or you could come on down to the Senior Center
— that’s the ticket — and, Sammy, you could learn
to do for yourself.”
not the first time he’s asked. He’s learned to cook
by joining a widowers’ group — the Seasoned Chefs
— and every Wednesday evening he goes downtown to the Senior
Center and works up a new dish. But me? “Sorry, Arthur,”
I tell him. “No can do.”
heard them all my life, these words. I’ve let
them, for better or worse, make me a cautious man.
For a moment,
I’m tempted — I’ll admit that — but then
I think of myself trying to make conversation with all those men,
widowers who have a genuine right to their loneliness, and I can’t
imagine it. You see, I’m a man who chooses to be alone, a
man who has a secret. I’m a closet auntie, a fag, a queer
— you know all the words. Here in Mt. Gilead, even this day
and age when the world is supposed to be more tolerant, more accepting,
it’s clear that many folks think this is a wrong thing to
be. I see the graffiti spray-painted on the sides of garbage dumpsters
along alleys, on the bathroom walls at the city park, on the Salvation
Army collection bins in the Wal-Mart parking lot. Those words. I
hear them on the lips of school boys and cocksure young men swaggering
around the Town and Country Lanes, where I sometimes bowl a few
lines, even from people like Arthur, older men who still believe
that naming something they fear puts it in a place where it can’t
hurt them. I’ve heard them all my life, these words. I’ve
let them, for better or worse, make me a cautious man, on guard,
well aware that danger always waits just around the corner.
The truth is
I don’t much know how to be around people. I’ve spent
so many years avoiding them for fear that they’d find out
the truth. Trust me, this isn’t the sort of place where you
can make it known that you’re the kind of man I am and then
expect to live a comfortable life. I read the letters to the editor
in the Daily Mail, letters from church-going folks — maybe
even some of the men at the Seasoned Chefs — who
write about the abomination of homosexuality, the perversion, the
sin. They think they know so much, but they don’t know anything
about me, and I’m determined to keep it that way. It’s
easier — at least it has been for me — to lock the truth
away and live quietly with my dogs. It may be a stupid way to live
— cowardly, even — but such is the truth of the matter.
I’ve given up companionship for fear of losing it. Better
to never have it than to watch it disappear.
The past forty-six
years, before I retired, I worked for, and finally owned, a custodial
service. When I was a young man, the boss would send me out somewhere
— Sherman’s Department Store, The IGA Foodliner, Loy’s
Skating Rink — and I’d spend the night hours, after
all the customers and the workers had gone, stripping and waxing
floors. Later, when I was the owner, I kept that job for myself.
I even took jobs out of town — as far away as Paducah, Kentucky,
and Cape Girardeau, Missouri — just for the pleasure of all
that time on the road, all that quiet and no one else around.
his nose into the back of my leg. I get down on a knee and scratch
his ears. I let him sniff my face, give me a lick. I stare into
those sad eyes. “I’m about to get busy,” I say
He stands with his hands on his hips. He still has on his oven mitts
and he looks. . .well, if you want the truth. . .he looks like a
man afraid of his own hands. “Sammy,” he says, but I
cut him off before he can launch into what I know will be another
attempt to persuade me not to be so much of a loner.
coming,” I tell him. “I’ve got to build Stump
a new house.”
wrong with the one he’s got?”
it won’t do,” I say, still looking into Stump’s
eyes. “Nope, not at all. Not for a dog like this.”
I start with
a picture in my head — a kids’ playhouse I saw once
years ago in a backyard in a town I was passing through on my way
to somewhere else. I’d never seen anything like it, that house,
made in the shape of a sailing ship: hull and deck and mast and
crow’s nest, something out of Peter Pan. What a sight,
this ship. All for the sake of a kid, some lucky kid. I had to pull
over to the curb, had to sit there and talk myself out of going
into that backyard, walking past the playhouse up to the real house,
a house of brick and bay windows. I wanted to put my face up to
one of those windows, just for the chance to get a glimpse of the
miraculous life I imagined going on inside.
take Stump out for a walk at night, and we slip through the dark,
past houses all lit up. I see people’s lives going on: mothers
rocking babies; an old man in an arched doorway, leaning over to
kiss his wife; a woman wiping her hands on a dish towel; a teenage
girl dancing to music. Sometimes I’ll hear someone laughing,
a television playing, a voice calling out, Sweetie, hurry. You’ve
got to see this. My God, what a hoot.
I spend weeks
drawing up the plans for Stump’s ship. I while away several
pleasant days at the public library studying out how to build the
curved hull, the castle tower, the stern wheel, the crow’s
nest. Then I gather my lumber and tools, and I get to work.
got it all wrong,” Arthur says to me one afternoon when he
comes to watch me in the side yard with my saws and hammer and nails.
I’ve caught him on certain afternoons peeking out his window,
and now he’s finally come to tell me exactly what he thinks.
I’m nailing together the hull, overlapping the planks the
way you would a clapboard house. “That’s a clinker hull,”
he says. “Now, sailor, how in the hell are you going to cut
cannon ports in a clinker hull? What you want is a carvel hull,
the planks all flush and even. Then you’ll be in business.”
ports?” I stop driving nails. The air, after all that pop,
pop, pop, clears out, and I watch a lone maple leaf come drifting
down, twirling and then floating, until it finally settles on Stump
who’s sleeping in the sun. “Why would I want cannon
his eyes, sets his jaw, tips back his head. “Sailor,”
he says, “what if Seaman Stump suffers an enemy attack?”
Then he gives me a wink, and it almost breaks my heart because I
know he’s telling me he’s lonely. I know he’s
asking me to please play along. What he wants more than anything
now is to help me build this ship, to have my company to help him
pass the hours, and I’m willing to grant him that.
Stump is lolled
over on his side, the maple leaf stuck to his white belly, but he
doesn’t know it. His legs are up in the air, and one of them
twitches, the only sign that he might have felt that leaf at all,
but he keeps snoozing, belly full, warming in the sun.
I say, and I say this in all earnestness, careful not to hurt his
feelings. “I’ve never known Stump to be the fighting
Arthur says, “Do you want to be authentic or not?”
hull,” I say, imagining the two of us working together.
grab my carpenter’s apron,” he says, and apparently,
I want to be authentic because I don’t stop him, and the next
thing I know we’re pulling off the planks and starting over.
While we work,
he tells me stories of the earliest shipbuilders — the Egyptians
and the Chinese — the ones who knew that to build a sailing
vessel was a matter of faith. They could make it water-tight —
hull and keel and prow — and then set it to launch with no
guarantee that it would ever return to port. The gods that ruled
the seas might, at any instant, take a whim to dash a ship against
an outcropping of rocks, or spin it topsy-turvy with giant waves,
or the winds might get fickle and carry it so far from course it
would never be able to right itself. So the builders carved eyes
into the ships’ bows so they might better find their way.
The sailors watched the stars. The North Star poked a hole through
the top of the sky. The Milky Way was a river running from Heaven.
I like to think
of the old shipbuilders and their faith. I imagine them fitting
the timbers together, raising up the castles and masts. Day after
day of this work, their methods tried and true, mastery learned
Now, here we
are, Arthur and I, each afraid to admit that we’ve reached
the age where our circumstances — this widower, this secret
auntie — sweep us, scared to death, into our last years.
Soon the conversation turns to
Bess, as it often does. Arthur stands across from me, marking lengths
of plank for the deck. “I always thought Bess was looking out
for me.” He lays a two-by-four between two sawhorses, measures
with his tape, and then draws a mark with his thick, flat carpenter’s
pencil. “She was my friend. My first mate, I always called her.
Sammy, do you remember that?”
have to know a story of a boy I knew a long time ago and
a brother I loved and then lost.
my table saw cutting the planks that he’s marked, and just
before I bring the blade down, I say, “I do, Arthur. I surely
do. You were her Popeye; she was your Olive Oyl.”
The saw whines,
its blade slicing through wood. Sawdust sifts down to coat the toe
of my boot. The scent of freshly cut pine sharpens the air. When
I raise the saw blade, and its shrill noise falls back, I see that
Arthur has laid down his pencil, and he’s bowed his head.
His carpenter’s apron, its strings tied too loosely, sags
from his hips. His hands grip the two-by-four, and it looks as if
he can barely hold himself up.
He snaps up
his head, and what I see in his eyes surprises me. I know that somehow
I’ve hurt him.
can you say something like that?” he asks, his voice smaller
than I’ve ever heard it. “Make a joke like that? Popeye
and Olive Oyl. . .a cartoon, for Pete’s sake. Jesus, Sammy.
I’m talking about Bess and me. I’m talking about people
who meant something to each other. Forty years together. But, of
course, you wouldn’t know anything about that, would you?”
I’ve been wanting to tell him this — when it comes to
love and what we’ve lost, he and I are not the same; he’s
owned an abundance I’ll never know. Now that the moment is
here, though, what I feel inside isn’t the relief I’d
prefer. Instead, I’m miserable because Arthur knows without
a doubt that I’m a man who’s afraid to get too close
to anyone. The greatest gesture of love I can manage is to build
this ship, this fancy house for my dog. I can’t even tell
Arthur I’m sorry, and finally he picks up the two-by-four
he’s marked and hands it to me. Without a word, we go back
to work, and for just that instant I get a sense of what it must
have been like for him and Bess — all the times they must
have hurt each other, all the compromises they made for the sake
took care of me,” Arthur says after a while. “Bess.”
His voice is
so quiet I can choose not to hear it if I prefer. But I do hear
it. I hear the way it quivers. I take it inside me, knowing that
later, in the night, when Stump has fallen asleep by my chair, and
the house is still, I’ll remember the way Arthur said her
name. I’ll recall, as I do now, how night after night, all
summer, I used to hear her laugh coming from their house. “Arthur,
you kill me,” she said one night as Stump and I passed by,
and she said it in a way that told me that whatever Arthur had done,
it delighted her. She was sitting in a chair by the living room’s
picture window. She tossed back her head, threw up her hands as
she laughed. I stood in the dark and watched her, this petite woman
who tap-danced in the community talent show, who still wore Arthur’s
high school class ring on a gold chain around her neck, who could
look at me — yes, even me — with a smile that made me
believe she’d been waiting years for me to come along, and
I thought, My God, she’s an angel.
So we finish
Stump’s house, Arthur and I. We measure and saw and cut the
angles just so while Stump dozes on the grass. How good it is to
work in the autumn sun, to feel its warmth on my face, across my
back, to coax this ship along, plank by plank, no thought of the
time passing, the light shortening as we move toward winter.
We work, for
the most part, without talking, falling into a comfortable rhythm
of measuring and sawing and nailing. We put a pet door into the
hull so Stump can enter, and we design a gangway so he can waddle
up to the top deck — the promenade, Arthur insists I call
it — with as much dignity as a basset hound can manage. We
cut a hatch into the deck and equip it with another pet door so
Stump can move back and forth from the hull to the deck. He can
be topside, or he can go below. I catch on to the sailor’s
lingo. Pretty soon, I’m talking about fore and aft, bow and
stern, port and starboard. “Steady as she goes,” I say
to Arthur as we raise the mast tower, and he says to me, “That’s
it. Now you’re getting your legs.”
I let him cut
the cannon ports in the hull and rig them with hinged shutters that
we can prop open or close. Stump, when he’s below deck, sticks
his face out a cannon port and sniffs the air. “Ahoy,”
I say to him, and he barks.
Then, one day
toward evening, we’re finished. For a moment, we stand in
the last of daylight, admiring our work, and, pleased that I am,
already I miss the way the hours have so pleasantly unfolded with
got a surprise,” he says. “It’s over at the house.
I’ll be right back.”
gone, Stump sniffs around the perimeter of the ship, and I imagine
he’s trying to make up his mind about such a thing.
back, and he has a flag. “The lady who teaches the Seasoned
Chefs stitched it for me,” he says. He unfolds it, and
I see that it’s a Jolly Roger of sorts, only instead of a
skull, there’s Stump’s face, and below it the crossbones
are Milk Bone dog biscuits.
authentic,” I can’t resist saying to Arthur.
he says, “who’s to notice except us old sea dogs?”
He gets up on
deck with a stepladder and hangs the flag from the mast tower. Then
he comes back to where I’m standing, and we put our hands
on our hips and tip back our heads to study that flag furling and
popping in the wind.
a leg and pees on the stern.
like he’s christened it,” Arthur says with a laugh.
“Now all it needs is a name.”
even give it a thought. “How about we call her The Bess?”
For a long time,
Arthur doesn’t say a word. He just keeps looking up at that
flag. His eyes close for an instant. Then he opens them and says,
“If that’s what you want.”
I tell him.
This may not
seem like much, this story I’m telling, but you have to understand
what it is to be me — a man who has always been afraid of
himself. You have to know the rest of my story, the part I can’t
yet bring myself to say. A story of a boy I knew a long time ago
and a brother I loved and then lost. I’m sorry, but for now
I’m afraid all I can give you is this picture of me moving
through the twilight as I fetch a can of red paint from my basement.
I hand a brush to Arthur and he takes it, his eyes meeting mine,
both of us unashamed of how sentimental this all is. He kneels down
along the prow of this ship — the house of Stump — and
with great care he paints the first stroke, the bristles of the
brush folding back with a slow, steady grace that stirs me on this
evening near to winter. I know this is as close as I’ve come
in some time to living by heart, and what shakes me is the understanding
that this is as close as I may ever come — this moment already
beginning to fade — here on dry land.
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