You never know who you'll cross paths with later in life, or how they might touch you ...
“You know me,” he says, although in reality I don’t. Not that well, at any rate.
Sure, I knew him in high school—knew who he was; recognized his lanky form and hat-hair; heard the familiar jeering in the halls. Kids used to bleat his name like sheep and laugh. Don’t ask.
“You know me,” he says. That’s how he starts everything—like we go way back, or something. Like we’re tight. He arrives the same way each time—just about sundown, first sound, then sight and smell. This time I hear the rattle and pop of his lawn tractor coming up the road from the east. I’m working on my own mower as he pulls up; I step to the porch as he kills the engine. He looks the same as he did then, save a bit of gut and a scruff of beard, tall and a little off-center, somehow; hair mussed, teeth yellow with tobacco juice. He smells of chaw, exhaust fumes and manure. The latter has dried to the sleeve of his sweatshirt and the leg of his jeans. His shoes, however, are spotless and white—athletic shoes he must only wear after work. He squirts brown spittle from between his teeth, politely, into the grass before stepping onto the porch.
Maybe it’s the job again—he works for a dairy farm to the north, and doesn’t much like his boss. Maybe it’s his truck—transmission’s out, and the transfer case. $1,800 to get it going again, and he makes $6.50 an hour, before taxes. Maybe it’s the car—the old Thunderbird I sold him for a $20 down payment and a winter’s worth of snowblowing. He drove it all winter without a rear window or a heater.
Maybe it’s some combination—if he can keep the Thunderbird running, he can visit another farm this weekend, one that offers better pay. Maybe the owner would recognize him as a hard worker and loan him the money to fix his truck. Maybe he’ll get housing on the place this time, and maybe in a few years, insurance. Maybe he’ll clear $7 an hour.
Maybe he’s finally had it. “You know me, Jim—I don’t take shit off anybody,” he says.
He took shit from everybody. Sitting beneath a shade tree away from the rest of the freshman football team, he took off his helmet, opened a bag of fresh tomatoes and took out a shaker of salt. We sat with our Gatorade and sandwiches and candy bars and bananas and ridiculed him.
Some of the guys lived for giving him shit. I gave it to him less than most—but what’s that make me?
He asks if I’d noticed he’d been by earlier. I hadn’t. He points out the fresh-mowed grass along road in front of the house. Maybe I’d like him to do the whole yard? Maybe I’d like to borrow his mower until mine’s up and running. Maybe, if I’m interested in his snowblower, maybe I could loan him the $1,800, and he could give me the snowblower and make payments on the balance. Then he could fix his truck and visit that other farm up to Traverse City.
He tells me his plans for the weekend, the week, the future. He asks advice on how to approach the other farm owner when he calls him, and how to deal with his current boss. He tells me about his girlfriend—about being too tired “to pop” some nights, and about forgetting whether or not they did, others. It’s more information than I need—we were never really friends, were we?
The neighbor kid’s out of jail, but shouldn’t give me any trouble, he tells me —he’ll see to it himself. He tells me if I need a new mower, he’ll talk to a dealer he knows.
“We’ve known each other a long time, Jimmy—I’ve got no problem putting in a good word for you,” he says. “You know me.”
Better than most, I think, and say, “Thanks.”
That was in Michigan. I don't know how he's doing—last I knew, he didn't have a phone. But I think about him from time to time ...