Southwest Desert Heat Wave

I saw on the news that it was one hundred and eighteen degrees out where my brother lived. I called him up to see how he was doing.

“Well, it’s definitely hot,” he said,” and chuckled, I’m sure imagining my horror. He knew I wasn’t a fan of hot weather, even less so when it was ultra-hot like he was experiencing. He paused for a moment and then piled it on, “Yeah, the cactus are wilting, my pool’s like a hot tub and you can fry an egg on the sidewalk. It sizzles.”

Brutal. I wondered if he was joking, but, honestly, I couldn’t tell. “Sounds like hell to me,” I tell him.

“I’m only partially kidding. It’s not so bad. It’s a dry heat,” he said, and laughed again. “I go for my run at five in the morning when it’s only ninety degrees or so.” I could see him grinning on the phone. Sweating and grinning. He loved it out there in the desert heat.

Later, after I hung up, I stepped outside into the cool shade of the woods of my northern Minnesota home. This time of year our biggest concern is getting eaten alive by insects. However, wasn’t the buzzing of bugs I heard just then, but the sizzling of that egg on that scorching desert sidewalk outside my brother’s house, frying in my ears. The sound didn’t leave until long after the stars had come out, blanketing the sky, and a fresh breeze had blown in off the lake, cooling my skin, driving the memory of that desert heat far, far away, back to where it belonged.

 

Advertisements

The Hobby Store Clerk

The customer stepped up to the counter and Janet Jacobson greeted him cheerfully, “Good morning. How are you doing this fine day?”

He handed over his purchase and said excitedly, “Hi. Great. My name’s Paul. I can’t believe you guys had one of these. I’ve been looking for one for over a year.”

Janet smiled and said, “Hi, Paul, pleased to meet you. My name’s Janet and welcome. First time at Harvey’s Hobby I take it?”

Paul glanced around almost reverently, like he was in church, “Yeah. You guys have some amazing stuff here.”

Janet grinned to herself. She got that a lot; guys fired up about whatever hobby they were involved in. Like this guy. It was kind of cute, really, even if Paul looked to be in his forties, like her.

“What have you got here?” she asked, sincerely interested, taking the box from him. From the picture on the cover she could tell it was some sort of single engine airplane. She liked these hobby guys. They were usually on the shy side, like her, but always eager to talk about whatever their interest was. All you had to do was ask and they told you. Paul was no exception.

“It’s a nineteen sixty-nine Piper Cub. It’s ultra light, yet incredibly durable and strong. It’s cool because it was first manufactured the same year as the moon landing. You just don’t find them for sale too often, mostly on eBay or something…usually used. I called yesterday and talked to Randy, and he told me you guys had this, so he held it for me in back and I drove down this morning. He just got it for me.”

“Cool,” Janet said, setting the box on the counter, “Where do you live?”

“Up north by International Falls.”

Janet blanched and looked at the clock over the entrance. It was just after nine in the morning. International Falls was on the Canadian border, about as far from Minneapolis as you could get and still be in Minnesota. “That’s what? A six hour drive?”

Paul grinned, “Yeah, about that. I had to get up and leave at three to get here when you opened. I didn’t want you guys to sell this baby out from under me.” He pointed at the plane and laughed, making a little joke. He knew he was babbling on and on but he couldn’t help it. It didn’t happen too often, well, never, really, but right off the bat he’d felt had felt comfortable talking with the clerk. With Janet.

 

 

Paul was a little on the heavy side, wore a clean, light blue dress shirt, slightly wrinkled from the long drive, blue jeans and comfortable looking shoes. He was clean shaven and had short cropped brown hair, carefully parted to one side.

Janet smiled, smoothed her short hair and then ran her hands over the oversized tan mu-mu she was wearing. She was big boned and liked to feel comfortable in her clothes, so everything she wore was one or two sizes larger than necessary. Then she ran her hands over the long, narrow box as if trying to feel some of the power or magic or whatever it was that Paul was clearly feeling. She thought that maybe she could.

“It looks like a neat plane,” she said, finally, meaning it. She looked closely at the picture of the white airplane trimmed with red, green and black markings. She was enjoying talking to Paul, especially hearing about him flying his remote controlled airplanes, something she knew absolutely nothing about. In a way, he was kind of like her, singularly passionate about his hobby. In fact, it was amazing how so many of these hobby guys or women, or hobbyists as she referred to them, were like her. But it only made sense since she was a hobbyist herself, spending hours at home in her workshop in the basement of the house she shared with her mother, working on her stained glass creations.

She was drawn back to Paul’s soliloquy on flying airplanes, “This one has a special controller. It’s pretty easy to use. All you have to do is…”

Janet smiled some more. Sometimes guys would mistake her interest in their hobby for an interest in them. Sorry, but no. Nice as Paul seemed, there was one thing Janet wasn’t: She wasn’t interested in dating him or any of the other hobby guys that came into the store. Not after what her step-father had done to her for all those years, back when she was growing up on the farm in north central Iowa. Nope, after seven years of unrelenting hell with that deviant, she vowed never to have anything to do with men again. Never, ever. It was a vow she’d kept for nearly thirty years. But that didn’t mean she couldn’t still talk to someone like Paul. He seemed nice. Harmless enough.

“Where do you usually fly your planes?” she asked, happy to keep the conversation going. The store was quiet right now, having just opened. Only a few people were inside, browsing around, looking through the aisles stocked nearly to the ceiling with trains sets and remote controlled airplanes, art supplies, science kits, model battleships, magic tricks, kites, plastic dinosaurs, stuffed animals and scrapbook crafting materials. And everything in between. It was the best hobby store in the upper Midwest, as far as Janet was concerned. By noon the place would be packed, Saturdays always were.

She had worked at Harvey’s Hobby for twenty-seven years, having been hired when she was sixteen. Back then, she and her mom were on their own and new to Minneapolis. Thank god. Her mother had finally gotten the nerve to leave (escape was probably a more accurate word) that jerk she’d made the mistake of marrying so soon after her husband, Janet’s Dad, had died in a tragic farm accident involving a neighbor’s hay bailer. Janet had been nine at the time. Her mom had married that jerk and the next seven years had been pure hell, what with his filthy hands and foul breath and disgusting other things. He was abusive to her, and he was abusive to Janet’s mom, so when she finally mustered up the courage to leave, Janet was right beside her. With the poor excuse for a human being passed out drunk on the couch, they each packed a suitcase and left in the dead of night and headed north. It was only when they’d crossed the Iowa border on their way into Minnesota that Janet felt like her life could begin in earnest. They made it to Minneapolis and lived in their car for a week until they found a cheap apartment to rent. They never heard from the bastard again. The last they knew, the bank had taken over the farm. Good riddance to bad rubbish was putting it mildly.

Janet’s mom found work as a cashier at the local HyVee and Janet attended Richfield High School. She also applied for and was hired at Harvey’s Hobby and their course was set. Within five years they had enough money saved to buy the home they were currently living in. Janet knew she’d live with her mother for the rest of her life and her mother seemed to accept that she would too, and that was all right with both of them. They shared a past that was their bond: they were survivors and were making the most of their lives. They both liked their jobs. After work, Janet’s mom volunteered at the local battered woman’s shelter, and Janet had her stained glass projects. She was in control of her life. She was able to meet new people. More importantly, she felt safe at Harvey’s Hobby. It was like a second home to her; a safe place.

Paul had stopped talking about the Piper Cub and was now beginning to tell her about a favorite plane that he owned, a remote controlled World War II RAF Spitfire. In the middle of his conversation, a man with his son and daughter stepped up behind him. Janet recognized them, the guy was hard to miss. He was big, like a motorcycle biker. He had hair to his shoulders, a long beard and tattoos up and down his arms. Appearance notwithstanding, his manner was quiet and kind, and he was gentle with his kids. Time to move things along with Paul, thought Janet.

“Is there anything else, Paul?” she asked, indicating with her eyes the people behind him.

“What? Oh, sure, yeah, sorry about that,” he said, noticing the new customers for the first time. “But, you know what? There’re some more things I was looking at.” He pointed with his thumb behind him. “You’ve got such a great store here. I’ve never seen anything like it,” he laughed, self-consciously. “I just need you to please hold this Piper for me. I’m going to look around some more.” He stepped away to make room at the counter, “It’s all yours,” he said to the long hair dad. Then he looked at Janet and smiled, “I’ll be back in a while.”

“Good. I’ll look forward to seeing you,” Janet said, and she meant it. There was something about him she liked, “I’ll be right here,” she added, softly, almost to herself.

Then she turned her attention to her next customers, “Hi,” she said, “How’s it going? What can I help you with today?”

“Hello. We’d like to get this,” The man said, a grin widening over his face. He was  obviously in good mood as he set a box on the counter.

Janet glanced at it. It looked like some sort of a machine. “Well, what have we got here?” she asked, looking at the guy and then making eye contact with his children, a boy of about ten and a girl about six.

The boy answered enthusiastically, “It’s a rock polisher, ma’am. We’re going to make some agates.”

“How fun,” Janet said, smiling warmly, “I don’t know the first thing about polishing rocks.”

“It’s pretty cool,” the boy said, and proceeded to tell her about the rather lengthy polishing process, with his sister chiming in every now and then.

And all the while the kids were talking, Janet was thinking, “When I was trapped on the farm, I thought I was going to die. In fact, I wanted to die. I didn’t think life was worth living. Thank god Mom and I got out and made lives for ourselves. I may not have much, but I’ve got a place to live and I’ve got this job. I get to meet interesting people. I wouldn’t trade working here for anything in the world. I can’t believe how lucky I am.”

Just then, Paul came back in line carrying a long, narrow box. It looked like he’d found some other treasure; another remote controlled airplane, perhaps. She grinned at him and went back to listening to the young boy explain about the different kinds of grit you used in the polishing process. Paul seemed intent on listening, too.

Janet learned something new every day. It was one of the things she loved about her job. “Yeah,” the boy was saying, “You use two different kinds of grit and two different kinds of polishing compound. It takes about twenty-four days, but when you’re done, man, you’ve got some beautiful rocks, that’s for sure. They’re really shinny.”

Paul had been listening intently. “You know, I’ve always wanted to polish rocks. Maybe I should get one of those for myself. They sound pretty cool.”

“Oh, they are, sir. They’re really cool,” the boy said excitedly. He looked at his father, “Dad, can we show him where they are when we’re done here?”

“Sure thing,” the dad said, grinning, seeming to get a kick out of the way his son was acting around the other adults.

“That’d be great,” Paul said. Then he looked at Janet and grinned, “It looks like I might be here a while.”

It was shaping up to be a memorable day. Hobbyists, she thought to herself, you had to love them.

She smiled and made eye contact with him, “That’d be fine with me,” she said.

And she meant it.

Agate Hunting

I found my first agate when I was ten on a gravel road in northern Minnesota. A walnut sized stone with rusty red hues enfolding swirls of white crystals, it was like holding a piece of magic. Its genesis was eons ago, formed from volcanic fires in the depths of Lake Superior, and its journey to that rural road was part glaciation, part mystery. It’s hard to find one these days. They’re special, and their value is in their rarity.

After my daughter Jenny’s funeral, I decided to give it to my eight year old grandson. We were downstairs in my workroom, and I was showing him some of the favorite rocks I’d collected over the years, getting him acclimated. He’d be staying with us for the foreseeable future while his father was recovering in the hospital.

“This is so beautiful, Grandpa Pete,” Evan said, visibly awestruck.”I love it.” It was nice to see him smile for the first time since the tragic car accident that had killed his mother. I told him a little of its history as he gently caressed the singular stone in his small hands, eyes wide with wonder, his thoughts for a moment taken away to happier times. When I was finished he was quiet. I was, too. What would each of our lives be like now, now that someone we both loved so dearly was no longer with us? My Jenny. Evan’s mother. After a minute he looked at me hopefully and asked, “Grandpa Pete? Do you think we can we go searching for more of them sometime? I’d really like to do that.”

His innocence and quiet voice almost broke my heart. We were both suffering and grieving our loss. Even though the chances of finding any were next to zero, was it too much to hope that searching for agates together would help us both to heal? I didn’t have to think  hard at all.

“Absolutely,” I said, instantly planning a drive north while picturing him cradling a handful of newly found agates in his cupped palms. “Let’s go tomorrow.”

 

Flapjack Johnny and Sourdough Slim

The biggest Lutheran Church in Minneapolis was packed for the funeral. Men were dressed in their nicest suits and women were decked out in their finest dresses and jewelry, everyone looking rich and well off, everyone coming together to show respect for the likeable man who was my Uncle Don. He’d been a successful grain futures salesman for Cargill. He was also a people person. Maybe that’s why he was so good at his job. He seemed to have hundreds of friends, all of them now pouring into the church. At least that’s what it seemed like to me, a kid of twelve who idolized the man who’d died unexpectedly from a rare blood disease.

It was the last week in July, 1959, and the church was stifling hot and muggy. I was trying to talk to a friend of my mom’s with little success. “You must miss him so much, honey,” Mrs. Dayton was saying, her perfume wafting over me like a pungent tidal wave, causing my eyes to water. No, it wasn’t tears. Well, maybe just a little. I was raised to be polite and was racking my brain for a suitable response when a flurry of activity caught my attention. I turned and saw that Flapjack Johnny and Sourdough Slim had just entered the back of the sanctuary. Nobody had made a move to greet them although many were certainly giving the two out-of-place men a stern eyeball. They were standing up against a wall, feeling, I was sure, more than a little uncomfortable. Me? My mood brightened considerably now that Uncle Don’s two best friends had arrived.

“Excuse me, Mrs. Dayton,” I said, moving toward them, “I’ve got to say Hi to some friends of mine.”

I made my way through the crowd. My heart went out to the two north woodsmen because I knew what it had taken for them to get to the funeral. They’d have to arisen before dawn to make the six hour drive from Finland, a small town in the forests of northeastern Minnesota, to get to the church in time.

I hurried up to them, “Hi guys,” I said, tears welling up in my eyes for real now, “I’m so glad to see you.”

Flapjack enveloped me in a big bear hug. He was a huge man, standing six and a half feet tall and weighing at least three hundred pounds. He was dressed in what looked to be brand new OshKosh B’gosh bib overalls, relatively clean work boots, and carried his ever present green John Deer cap awkwardly in one hand. His kind face, walnut tanned from being in the sun, was lined and he was cleanly shaven for the occasion.

“Stevie, my boy,” he said, “How are you holding up?”

I tried unsuccessfully to hold back my tears, “Okay,” said, my voice cracking. Then I broke down in a flood of emotion.

Sourdough moved closer and started rubbing my shoulder affectionately, “We’ll all miss him, son.” Which coming from him was a lot, being a person prone to, and comfortable with, long periods of silence. He was the opposite of his friend, a short, wiry man, dressed in clean blue jeans and a black shirt with white snap buttons. He held his straw cowboy hat in his left hand. Like Flapjack, he’d done his best to spruce himself up for the occasion. His white, full beard was clean and I could tell he’d trimmed it. His blue eyes were sad, though, like Sourdough’s. Uncle Don’s death was as hard on the two of them as it was on me. Maybe harder, because, besides being extraordinarily close, my uncle had once saved their lives.

In addition to being a successful salesman, Don was a member of the Minneapolis Jaycees and a deacon in the church. He was also the older brother to my mom, a single mother ever since my father had left home when I was only five years old. Uncle Don deeply loved me and my two younger brothers, and after Dad left he filled the void saying, “Don’t worry, Cathy, I’ll do right by those boys of yours.”

And he did, too. His true love was being outdoors, and he took it upon himself to teach us how to hunt and fish. I showed more of an interest than my brothers and he picked up on that. Over the years he taught me the ways of the woods: how to track an animal, how to build a lean-to and where to find edible plants saying, “If you know what to look for, you’ll never starve.” He taught me how to tie ten different kinds of knots and how to identify a bird by its call. He easily could have lived in the eighteen-fifties with Jim Bridger and other mountain man, or so I thought all the time I was growing up.

Uncle Don met Flapjack Johnny and Sourdough Slim long before I was born. He’d been working at Cargill for a few years when his boss told him to take some time off. So he did. He packed his fishing pole and drove north with no particular place in mind. “I just was following my instincts,” he told me whenever he was in a story telling mood, which was often, especially if he’d been sipping his favorite drink, Jack Daniels, neat. He found a tiny resort, “Bob’s By the Bay,” and rented a small one room cabin on the shore of Lake Superior for a week.

Bob also rented him a sixteen foot aluminum fishing boat with a twenty-five horse Evenrude motor on it.

“What about bait?” my uncle asked.

“For that, I’d suggested the two Finnish boys,” he pointed arbitrarily further north, and smiled, “Onni and Veeti, but everyone calls them Flapjack Johnny and Sourdough Slim.”

“Why’s that?” my uncle asked.

Bob grinned wryly, “Why don’t you head on up there? You’ll see for yourself.”

Onni and Veeti ran a bait shop north of the Temperance River. It didn’t have a name, everyone just called it, “The Finnish Boys Place.” In addition to fishing supplies, the two of them also enjoyed cooking and they sold the best pasties on the entire north shore. People would drive for hours to purchase them. Uncle Don found their shop, bought a bunch of flathead minnows and, on a whim, decided to try one of their meat and potato and vegetable filled delights. He didn’t eat it until he was trolling along the shore of Agate Bay. He didn’t catch any fish that day, but he did catch something better: a love of pasties, a food traditional to the Cornwall Coast of England and nurtured by those with a love of simple, yet filling fare, like Flapjack and Sourdough’s Finnish ancestors.  And with that, a friendship was born.

My uncle hit it off immediately with Onni and Veeti and continued to visit the north shore every year, sometimes staying a week, sometimes longer. Once, when I was around six or seven, I asked Mom why Uncle Don wasn’t married. She’d been doing the laundry and I was helping her fold a sheet. She said, “Well, your uncle just never found the right person to be with, you know, someone that he liked a lot.” I was about to let it go at that when I had a thought.  “What about Onni and Veeti? Doesn’t he like them a lot?”

Mom squatted down and looked me in the eye and said, seriously, “Your uncle has a special kind of relationship with Onni and Veeti, one that not many people are ever fortunate to ever find. We should be happy for him. In fact, he’s never happier than when he’s up north with his two friends.”

That seemed fine with me. I had friends, too, and I was glad that Uncle Don was as happy with his as I was with mine. I let it go at that.

The story of my uncle saving Onni and Veeti’s lives came out a few years before he died, the first time he took me fishing with him on Lake Superior. I was nine. It was also the first time I met Flapjack and Sourdough formally even though my uncle had told me about them for years. We drove up in early spring and dropped off our gear at Bob’s. By now my uncle’s friends had decided to formalize their store with a name, and we made our way to it, “Onni and Veeti’s Bait Shop and Pasty Palace.”

We drove up and parked in the gravel parking lot. It was packed with customers. As my uncle put his arm around my shoulder and ushered me inside, I felt like I was entering another world. The place was filled with wall to wall displays of every kind of fishing paraphernalia you could imagine: poles and reels, colorful lures, tackle, nets, clothing and foul weather gear, even a few outboard motors. It smelled of fish from the live bait kept in tanks along one side of the store. It also smelled of the fresh pasties that were cooked in a kitchen in the back. (Something they never would have gotten away with these days.) I was awestruck. I also loved everything about the old place.

“Hey there, boys,” Uncle Don called out to his friends, “I’d like you to meet my nephew.”

They welcomed me with open arms, huge Flapjack and skinny Sourdough, but they were busy in the store couldn’t join us that day for fishing. Uncle Don took me out alone, and it was then he told me the story of how he had rescued his two friends.

“We had planned to make a day of it,” he began, both of us casting our lines out into the deep, gunmetal-blue water. “It was a few years before you were even born. I used to come up here once a year after that first time. Usually I stayed for a couple of weeks, fishing the whole time. Flapjack and Sourdough came out on the water with me as often as they could.”

He set the motor to the lowest trolling speed possible and we slowly made our way along the rugged, pine tree studded granite coastline just north of Gooseberry Falls. He told me that the three of them were fishing for lake trout. It was late April, and the ice had just cleared from the lake. They were about five miles from shore when a sudden storm came up out of the northeast, pounding them with near gale force winds and swirling, blinding sleet and snow. They were completely caught off guard My uncle gunned the motor and raced for the nearest land, a rocky outcropping called Seagull Island a half mile away. They didn’t make it. The boat capsized and for the next eight hours Uncle Don kept a hold of both men (who couldn’t swim), fighting the waves and the freezing conditions, making sure they didn’t slip off the overturned boat and drown in the icy water. It wasn’t until just before sunset that they were rescued by the Coast Guard.

Onni and Veeti were forever in my uncle’s debt, which he always brushed off saying, “Anyone would have done the same thing.”

To which Flapjack always replied, “Maybe, but it was you who did it.”

Which was true.

To me, the interesting thing about the whole rescue was how my Uncle downplayed it all. Nowadays, people are given an award, it seems, for just showing up. Uncle Don saved the lives of two men from the icy waters of Lake Superior and none of his friends or business associates ever knew one thing about it. My uncle must have had his reasons, but he never told anyone. It was his own secret along with a small group of people who lived on the north shore. (And my mom and me, of course.) I wondered if today, at his funeral, it would be a good time for me to tell the story of his heroic rescue. For some reason I felt everyone should know about it.

As if reading my mind, Flapjack took me aside and said, “I know what you’re thinking, Stevie. I know you want to tell all these good people gathered here about what your uncle did. You’re proud of the man, and want others to be, too. I get that, and I respect you for wanting to do it, just like I’ve always respected Don’s wish for not wanting to make a big deal out of it.”

I stood near to these two men who not only were my uncle’s best friends, but who were also so much different from everyone else at the funeral. They were salt of the earth, hard working and honest. They cared about my uncle and they cared about me. “What do you think I should I do?”

Sourdough stepped close and softly spoke, “Do what your uncle would have done.”

That’s all he said, and that was all he needed to say. It sealed the deal. If my uncle hadn’t wanted to make a big thing out of his rescue, who was I to disrespect his wishes? I kept my mouth shut.

When the service was over, I was having a hard time saying my goodbyes to my two friends. Mom had let me sit with Flapjack and Sourdough, which I appreciated, but I had to get back to her and my two younger brothers and get ready for the drive home, twenty miles to the west. Flapjack gave me a big hug and so did Sourdough.

“You take good care of your mom and brothers,” Sourdough said, wiping a tear from his eye.

“I will,” I managed to say, my own tears welling up.

Flapjack added, “Before you go home, I want to tell you something. Something I think will serve you well as you get older.”

“What’s that?” I asked, wiping my eyes, not wanting to leave the company of these two good men just yet.

“Whenever you’re faced with a tough decision in your life, do me a favor. Always think about what your uncle would do. He was the best person Veeti or I ever knew. You live that way, you’ll be doing the man proud.”

Mom came up just then and I made the introductions. We all tried valiantly to make conversation, but it was hard because everyone was so sad. Finally Mom said that it was time we left. She graciously thanked Flapjack and Sourdough for attending the service, and I hugged them each one more time. Then we left and I began the long journey, not just home, but of learning how to make my way through the world without my uncle in it.

After all these years, I will say this, when my uncle died in 1959, no one talked about him being gay or what kind of relationship he had with Onni and Veeti. But I’m glad I respected his wishes and didn’t bring up the rescue at the funeral, even though it’s too bad he had to keep not only the rescue, but the depth of his friendship with Flapjack and Sourdough under wraps. It must have been hard, but times were different back then; close, loving, relationships between men were made more complicated by society’s stigmas. It wasn’t right, but that’s just the way it was.

For me, after all these years, having my uncle gone from my life has been hard, especially in the beginning. But it was made easier by remembering what Flapjack had said about always keeping what Uncle Don would do in any given situation in my mind. I haven’t always been successful, but I’ve always tried. I think my uncle would have been happy about that.

One other thing. Flapjack Johnny and Sourdough Slim sort of became surrogate uncles  to me, taking over Uncle Don’s role. They took me fishing every summer and even had me stay with them at their store from time to time. They told me it was something Don would have wanted them to do. They even laughed and said, “We don’t mind having you around bugging us in the least,” making a joke of it. They died within a year of each other in the middle ’80’s from complications due to HIV.

I appreciated them so much. They taught me that even if you lose a loved one, you can gain something in return: you can grow up a little and you can learn that life goes on. I might have learned that lesson eventually on my own, but my friendship with Flapjack and Sourdough just made it a little easier. They were wonderful human beings, among the best men I’ve even known. Just like my Uncle Don was.

 

Soap Bubbles

My daughter hands me the soapy wand and says, “Here Mom. Your turn.” I take it from her and dip it in the solution before whipping it through the air. Allie watches mesmerized as the bubbles form and begin to float away. Then she’s all motion as she bolts from my side, running after them, giggling, trying to catch them before they pop and disappear.

Next to me Dad stands watching, arthritic and crippled by the years, yet eyes twinkling with life as he remembers, I can tell, when he and I both played this game. Gently, I touch his arm and hand him the wand. He takes it and reverently holds it for a moment, taping it in his open hand. Then he confidently immerses it in the solution and, like an orchestra conductor with his baton, he moves it with subtle grace in a sweeping arc through the air. We watch as the bubbles come alive and go streaming, floating out on the soft, summer breeze, carrying with them joyful memories of long ago when I was a child and we shared happiness like this together.

Next us, Allie is still, but for only a second. Then, in a flash, she takes off running in wild abandon, laughing and chasing our bubbles, while Dad leans his tired body against mine and we both watch, grinning from ear to ear.

 

 

Nothing But Time

It never occurred to me how important the simple things in life were until I met Sookie Jensen. It was springtime, early Saturday morning, and I had just stepped into the local hardware store for a forty pound bag of water softener salt when a sheet of notebook paper on the bulletin board caught my attention. It read, “Handyman available. Experienced. Call…”and it gave the number. It got me thinking. I wonder if he could help with my gardening project?

For the last two years I’d been on a grow your own kick. I’d tried planting tomatoes and green beans with a pathetic amount of success. Bug ridden, spindly plants lacking in anything worth eating had been the order of the day. Couple that with the fact that my efforts had become a source of ongoing amusement to my wife, well, let’s just say that the note had me intrigued. Up until then I’d been about ready to cancel the entire project and buy from the local farmer’s market. Now…maybe not.

I asked Jerry, the owner of Swanson’s Hardware, if he knew anything about the handyman.

“Oh, you mean Sookie? Well, he’s new in town, and he’s a character, that’s for sure.” He spent the next five minutes regaling me about the guy and may have gone on longer except Gwen Pickle, the president of the Long Lake Chamber of Commerce came in and needed a pane of class cut for a busted garage door window. He went to help her leaving me with this final observation, “He seems harmless enough.”

Hmmm.

I paid for my salt and left, thinking that, what the hell, why not take a chance on him? Jerry had told me that he was an old guy who lived by himself in Squire Wood, an ancient apartment building outside of town near the Lucy Line, a biking and hiking trail that stretched from Minneapolis, twenty miles to the east, all the way to Winsted, forty miles to the west. It was putting mildly to say that Squire Wood looked less like a rundown apartment building and more like a dilapidated, two-story crack house. It was a place most reasonable people steered clear of, myself included, but I guess the rent was cheap.

My interest in Sookie got the better of me, though. My wife Rita and I worked long hours; she, as an administrator for a law firm in town, and me in information systems for a manufacturing company in Minneapolis. I commuted back and forth, and the drive sometimes took as much as an hour each way. Our kids were eight, ten, twelve and fourteen. They played sports, did band, debate, science club and the school newsletter after school, so we had weekly driving schedules and pickup times posted on a white board in the kitchen just to keep everything straight. In short, we had a busy life, and free time was at a premium if it even existed at all. Given all of that, I still felt compelled to try to plant a vegetable garden even after two years of failure. You know the old saying, “Third one’s the charm.” Maybe this Sookie character would bring me good luck.

When I got home and told Rita about my plan she just laughed, “Go ahead Shawn, knock yourself out. Me? I’m not going to hold my breath.” Then she pointed at the door, “Now, get going. The girls have soccer practice in…” she glanced at the white board, “five minutes ago, so go. Now.”

I went. I loaded ten year old Lisa and twelve year old Emma into the Prius and took off, thinking that maybe trying to grow vegetables again was going to be too much to ask.

I dropped the kids at practice and hung around to watch, thinking about cancelling the whole gardening thing. Then I chastised myself. No way. Both Rita and I were type A personalities. I liked to push myself and was even now training for a local triathlon, so I took it as a challenge to prove to both myself and my wife that I really could plant and grow a successful garden.

Let me explain: Rita and I had a good marriage, but it wasn’t uncommon for her to question how handy I was around our home. I’ll admit that I wasn’t the best when it came to household maintenance, but I tried. For some reason, with this gardening project, I felt like I had something to prove to her. I decided that I was more than willing to give the grow your own idea one more chance. When I got back from soccer practice, I called Sookie.

It didn’t start off well. I could tell he picked up the phone, but he said nothing by way of a greeting. After nearly half a minute of silence during which I became increasingly uncomfortable, I said, “Hi. Hello there. Anybody home? I’m calling about the notice you posted in the hardware store. About you being a handyman? I could use some help with my garden. Do you do any gardening?”

Still silence. Well, this is ridiculous, I was thinking to myself. I was about to hang up when a voice said, “Hello? Hello? Is there anybody there? I can’t hear too well with these damn hearing aids.”

I don’t why, but I laughed out loud, suddenly finding the whole situation amusing. I found out later that I was calling on his landline. He could see the light blinking  indicating he had a call, he just couldn’t hear anything. It turned out he needed new batteries for both his hearing aids. Something I ended up buying for him later on.

I yelled, “I’m calling about your ad in the hardware store.”

“What?”

Man, this was going nowhere fast. I yelled even louder and he yelled at me and we yelled at each other for a couple of minutes before finally agreeing to met in the hardware store parking lot at noon the next day, Sunday, which we did.

Let me tell you, that first meeting started off a little rocky, but once I purchased a couple of hearing aid batteries for him, things picked up considerably. I told him about my problems with my garden. He listened without saying a word, nodding occasionally. When I was finished I asked, “Would you care to have a look?”

“Sure, young man,” he grinned, “I’ve got nothing but time. Let’s go have a look.”

He was short and wiry and wore bib overalls and a straw hat. He had a long, white, beard and moustache, bright blue eyes and surprisingly white straight, teeth. He looked kind of like I always imagined Rip Van Winkle would have looked like. Appearance notwithstanding, he was a nice man and very soft-spoken. But, like Jerry’d said at the hardware store, he was also a bit of a character. For instance, he didn’t drive a car. “Don’t care for them at all,” he said that first meeting when I looked askance at his mode of transportation. He had ridden an old three speed bicycle to the hardware store. “They’re bad for the environment.” He looked at my Prius, my yuppie nod to being environmentally aware, and just smirked, being polite enough not to add anything by way of comment.

I don’t know, there was something about him that I liked. Maybe the fact that he and I were so different had something to do with it. I drove him to my house to see the garden. Rita and I lived on a three acre lot carved out of the forests and fields of western Hennepin county. We had it built to spec eighteen years ago. It’s huge, one of those McMansions everyone is complaining about these days. Back then it wasn’t a big deal. Now a days, well, let’s just say we’re a little embarrassed by our home’s immense size and are trying to do our part by being as environmentally responsible as possible. Our lawn service only uses eco-friendly fertilizer and we recycle. That’s all good, right?

As we drove up to look at my poor excuse for a garden (with Sookies’ bike in the back), my oldest, fourteen year old Jared, ran out, “Dad, can you take me to baseball practice? Mom’s been trying to get a hold of you.”

I checked my phone. Opps. I had a message and about five texts. Damn. In the doghouse again. “Sure, I said, hop in.”

“I turned to Sookie, “You don’t mind?”

“Nope, not in the least,” he smiled, watching as Jared got in the backseat.”What’s your name, young man?”

Jared snapped his seat belt, introduced himself and he and Sookie shook hands. I was glad to see my son was being as polite as we’d raised him to be.

I turned to him, “Where’s practice?”

“Up at school.”

“What position do you play?” Sookie asked. And from that point on they began talking about baseball, of which Sookie knew a surprising amount, which led talk of school, which led to a discussion about what Jared wanted to do with his life, which led to me finding out that my kind hearted son wanted to become a veterinarian. I’d had no idea.

Sookie was like that. He looked odd, weird even, and lived by himself in a rundown apartment building, but he was interested in other people, intelligent, and, as I was about to find out, knew his way around a vegetable garden. After we dropped Jared off at his practice field we went back to my house. If he was impressed by my property with its nicely manicured lawn and strategically planted shrubs and trees like I thought he might be (most people were), I was to be proven wrong. What he cared about first and foremost was my garden.

“Let’s see what you’ve got here, young man,” he said, as I led him around to the backyard. He didn’t even glance at the kidney shaped swimming pool and big flagstone patio. Instead, he focused on the eyesore of my pathetic plot of dirt I called a garden and took over.

One of the things he did during that first week, after he ordered and spread a couple of yards of manure and compost, was to get the kids involved. It didn’t take much. Right off the bat they were interested in this strange looking man working in the backyard, and they took to wandering down to watch. My youngest, eight year old Becky, was the first one to start spending time with him, weeding and getting her hands dirty planting and helping out with whatever needed to be done. On Friday of the first week after Sookie had gone home for the day, she looked concerned, “Is Sookie ever coming back?” she asked, her little forehead furled in concern.

“Do you like him?” I asked, begging the question and slightly distracted since I was getting ready to go for a bicycle training ride for the triathlon.

“Yes. He’s very nice,” she said, pausing, and then adding, “And he’s really funny,” with the emphasis on really. It was pretty cute.

By the next week, she had recruited her soccer playing sisters, Lisa and Emma, and brother Jared to help out. Soon thereafter school ended, summer break began, and we had the kids enrolled in day camp, golf, tennis and horseback riding lessons, soccer camp and other activities, wanting to keep them occupied during the day. Completely unexpected, though, what they liked most was coming home from their planned activities and helping Sookie in the garden. They not only planted rows of carrots, lettuce and bush beans, but they also helped him dig out a new bed for squash and pumpkins. They planted rhubarb, three different kinds of peppers and five different kinds of tomatoes. They even planted some potatoes. They also outlined the entire garden space in marigolds to, as Becky told me seriously, “Keep the critters away.” As the garden grew in size, they weeded and watered and helped with the hoeing, often working into the evening until the sun started to go down. It was fun to see. In fact, it became a family affair, of sorts, for the kids. The only thing missing were the parents.

In the beginning, I couldn’t be bothered. Even though I’d hired Sookie, I didn’t see him much because I was busy full-time with my job. Any free time I had was spent training for the Gear West Triathlon coming up later that fall. I only talked to him occasionally about the garden and whether or not he needed supplies and what to maybe plant next – that kind of thing. After the kids became so involved, though, I became curious as to what was drawing their attention, so I started going down after work to be with them and see what they were doing. Often Sookie had gone home by then, but the kids would always be excited to see me, pointing out what they had planted and how the vegetables were coming along.

Once little Becky took me by the hand and said, “Look it, Daddy. Look at the all pretty tomatoes. Don’t they look delectable.”

Obviously it was a word she’d learned from Sookie and it was incredibly sweet, not only her expanding vocabulary, but also her attitude and enthusiasm. I enjoyed seeing my kids not only having fun, but learning something useful: the art of gardening and how to grow things. I started working out less after work and coming down more often to the garden to be with my children. I even started to do some weeding and hoeing myself, getting my hands in the soil and my knees dirty. It was hard work, but it dawned on me after a few weeks how much fun it was, especially being around my children in that sort of unstructured time and seeing them so relaxed and happy. My enthusiasm for the triathlon waned until by summer’s end I’d quit training for it altogether.

In early August, Rita pulled me aside and said, “Say, Shawn, did you know Sookie used to teach Physics at the University of Minnesota?”

Ah, no. I’d never talked to him about his past at all, but Rita had always been a straight shooter. She told me that one day she’d just up and asked about his background and he obligingly told her.

“Yeah, I guess he’s even written a few books. Science related stuff.”

“I had no idea.”

“Yeah, he’s pretty amazing.”

By then Sookie had been working for us for nearly three months. Who’d have thought it? Certainly not me.

It had taken her a while to gain his trust, though. At first it was a direct order for me to, “Just make sure you watch him around the kids, Shawn. And for god’s sake, make sure he doesn’t do anything weird.”

Later, though, after she’d gotten to know him a little better she told me, “You know, I don’t believe I’ve ever met anyone like him.” And that was true, neither of us had.

My wife and I were both born of privilege and didn’t have to want for anything. We were brought up in affluence and if we liked our little world out west of Minneapolis, away from the congestion and noise of the inner city, well that was just what we were used to.

Sookie was different by a long shot, and the more we found out about him, the more interesting he became. He had been brought up on a soybean farm in Aitkin county in north central Minnesota. He had served as a medic in Vietnam. His wife died giving birth to their third child, and, although he’d raised his kids by himself, all three had moved west once they’d grown and he didn’t see them very often. He was working on new book about sustainable living. And he valued his privacy so much that he had yet to make an offer for us to come and visit him in his apartment.

He worked in the garden almost every day, riding over on his bicycle and doing whatever chores needed to be done. A few weeks after he started with us he took stock of our yard and suggested that, along with maintaining the garden, he could also keep the grass cut and the shrubs and trees trimmed. I took a chance and let the lawn service go and never regretted it. Sookie found an old Toro horizontal blade mower, the kind you might see on a golf course, on Craig’s List for me to buy. He fixed it up and had it running like a clock in no time. The lawn never looked better.

But it was more than the cosmetic appearance of our yard that he impacted. Over the summer Sookie became an integral part of our family. We got in the habit of inviting him for dinner on Sunday night, the only day of the week it seemed we had everyone home at the same time. We all enjoyed having him around; the kids because not only did he make them laugh, but because they learned so much from him. Rita and I…? Well, I guess it was the same for us, too.

For me, though, it became more than gardening and lawn mowing, it was him as a person. “Shawn,” he told me early on, “You know, you’ve got a good thing going here. A nice home, a great family, a good job. But let me ask you this, are you happy?”

I remember laughing at him, “Sure, I’m happy. You just said it yourself; nice home, great family, good job. Who wouldn’t be?”

“Yes, but are you?” His gaze intensified as he bored into me with piercing eyes. I swear sometimes he seemed to see into the depths of my soul. It was disconcerting, but I stayed true to my statement. “Of course I am. Who wouldn’t be?” I told him, somewhat petulantly. But as I turned abruptly and walked back to the house, I had to admit that he made me wonder, “Am I really?”

Something Sookie said to me that first time I met with him in the hardware store parking lot stuck with me; his statement of, “Young man, I’ve got nothing but time.”

I thought about it a lot that summer and along about Labor Day I began to get an inkling of what he was getting at. He meant that it’s up to you to make the most of your life. You need to concentrate on what’s really important before it’s too late and you run out of time to do what really matters to you.

With that in mind, by the end of the summer I had begun to cut back on my hours at work, and Rita had done the same at her job. And, more to the point, we both had started to make sure to spend more time with our kids. Our lives began to refocus, not so much around working and making money, although that’s certainly part of what we did, but with prioritizing what was important to the both of us; number one being Rita and I and our relationship with each other, and, two, just as important, both of us spending more quality time with our kids. For both of us it felt like the right thing to do.

Rita’s birthday was the day before Halloween, and we usually celebrated the two together. This year was no different. We planned a big party with a bunch of our friends, costumes, scary decorations that the kids were in charge of – the whole bit. The evening before the event Sookie unexpectedly showed up with a surprise.

“Here,” he said, handing Rita a gift wrapped box, “This is a little something for you.”

I think Rita blushed for the first time in years. “Why thank you, Sookie. That’s very thoughtful.”

The kids gathered around, excited up to see what he’d come up with. As she unwrapped the paper and opened the box, he said, “I baked it for you for your birthday. It’s from your garden.” She lifted out a beautiful pie. “It’s rhubarb and strawberry,” he grinned and turned to the four kids, “You guys should be proud, you grew the rhubarb.” His grin turned to a big smile and he enveloped them all in a massive hug. Then Rita joined them.

What an unexpectedly thoughtful gesture! It was right then that I realized Sookie being part of our family was as important to him as he was to us. I think I had a tear in my eye as I hugged him and said, “Thanks for everything.”

“My pleasure,” he said, his voice cracking. It was a pretty emotional moment for us all.

During the winter we didn’t hear from him. At the end of the growing season he’d told us he was renting a car and going on an extended diving trip out west to visit his three kids and their families, and he didn’t know when he’d be back. Rita and I both organized our work schedules so at least one of us could be with our children after they got home from school. We even seriously started talking about selling our house, downsizing, and moving to the nearby small town of Long Lake where they had some nice bungalows with yards that weren’t huge, but were big enough for a good sized garden. Our kids all have assured us they wouldn’t mind the move at all. Our family has gotten closer, that’s for sure.

On a snowy Saturday evening in the middle of January, Jared and I built a fire in the fireplace, Rita and Becky made some popcorn and Lisa and Emma set up our favorite board game, Monopoly, on a card table in the family room. As we played, talk turned to the garden. Becky asked, “Is Sookie coming back to work with us next year? I really want to see him again.”

It was almost as if he heard us talking about him, because at that exact moment my phone rang. I took the call in the next room and, what a pleasant surprise, it was Sookie. He was calling to let us know he was back in town. We talked for a long time, mostly about the upcoming year and what we might possibly be growing in the garden. He didn’t even ask if we wanted him back, just implied that he would be, almost like he was part of the family, which, in a way, he was.

After we hung up, I went back to the family room with its mostly eaten bowl of popcorn, cheerful fireplace fire and friendly board game and said, “Good news! Sookie’s back in town, and he’s looking forward to coming back to work in the garden this year.” Everyone, my wife included, cheered.

I can’t really say how this story is going to end. Right now it seems we’ve adopted this kind and gentle man who is so much more than just a gardener. Who knows what this year will bring? Rita and I are going to try to be the best parents we can be. We might downsize and move. We want to spend as much time with our kids as we can because we know eventually they will outgrow being around us and move on with their lives. I know it sounds like a lot, but it’s something to shoot for.

And that thing about time? It’s all about how you use it. I can’t recall my family ever being happier, even more so when we think about this upcoming spring and the beginning of planting season, because we all agree, working in the garden with Sookie, well, that’s something we’ll all make time for.

 

 

 

Bicycle Built For Two

A tandem bike. It was the last thing Liz and I bought together before she left me for her personal trainer, bleach blond, muscle bound, Donnie. Damn. We rode together once, maybe twice, and then, poof, just like that, a quick wave goodbye and off she peddled into the sunset, gone for good. We’d been together six and a half years. She took the bike, too.

Well, that was it for me. Lesson learned. No more taking a chance on relationships for this guy. Heartbroken? Absolutely. Moving on? You bet. It’s been nearly five months and I’ve got a new bike now and a new gal. Her name is Libby and she rides in a basket in front attached to my handlebars. She’s my sweet little, cinnamon and black, long hair Chihuahua, and she’s adorable. The way her hair blows in the breeze, her bright amber eyes, her cute little pink tongue and her jeweled collar…Well, really, when you get right down to it, what’s not to love?

Now, I will say this, most people think it’s sad that its come to this , my attachment to Libby, but to them I say, “Too bad.” I’m loyal to her and she is to me and that’s what’s important. The way I look at it, Libby would never hurt me. She’s filled the void left by Liz and my future has never looked brighter. I can see us peddling down the road of life together for years to come. Who needs a girlfriend when I’ve got my sweet little Chihuahua? In fact, who needs people anyway? I can see it now, Libby and I, lifelong companions, together until death do us part. Sounds good to me.

We get closer every day. I’m even starting to snack occasionally on the kibble I get for her. We’re perfect for each other in each and every way. And you know what? I hardly ever get lonely.