I drove out to a small upstate town to buy pump jacks so that Gary and I can fix his house, which is structurally-impaired in the back because of a long-neglected roof leak. (80 years old.) I took the wrong exit off Route 32 and had to call to locate the place. I had timed it perfectly from East New York, and would have arrived exactly at the appointed time of 3, if I hadn’t turned late.
He gave new directions and I found the house about 15 minutes later. It was on a quiet tree-lined road with acreage between homes in the same town of Highland Mills, where I had lived for a couple of years in what seems like another life.
I saw a nice-looking couple of kids walking a big friendly dog with golden retriever and yellow lab mix, and stopped to ask where that numbered house was.
“It’s my house,” said the kid. I had expected an older guy; he was 17.
I pulled into the driveway, and they walked up with the dog, which was very anxious to meet me. We met. I ruffled his wintry fur, told them that he reminded me of my great old dog Finch, who’d had a similar mix. Finch might have been his great-grandfather, since he had been an experienced rope-breaker and unregenerate dog-womanizer all over the same town.
He put the dog back into the house, which was large and freshly-sided with a nice light gray vinyl. We walked to a back shed overflowing with tools that revealed a lifetime of working, and he showed me three pump jacks with extra braces. I had expected only the two he’d advertised.
He had told me on the phone that he was selling his dad’s tools.
“Your dad’s not working anymore?” I inquired.
“How about I give you $75 for all three,” I offered.
“Sure,” he responded. The girl was standing nearby and didn’t say anything.
So I gave him the money and we carried the stuff to my van and loaded it. I was happy to get three jacks. It meant Gary and I could work the whole back of the house at once, and not have to relocate a jack in order to do it by halves.
“That’s a nice house,” I remarked as we finished loading. It occupied a small hill and had a big front porch and a long graveled driveway under a side entrance portico.
“It burned down,” he said simply. “It’s just been rebuilt.”
“It burned? You mean the whole house burned?”
“Yes, the whole thing.”
“Well, what for? I mean, what caused it?”
“They don’t know. Nobody knows. Inspectors were at it for months, and they still don’t know what caused it.”
“Could it have been arson? An electrical fire?”
“Nobody knows. My dad was in it.”
I was stunned.
“God! That’s terrible. I’m so sorry that happened,” I said lamely.
He nodded. He’d heard it before. He would be hearing it for the rest of his life.
He was a great-looking kid, clear skin and nice build, alert eyes, polite. He was going to be a strong working adult. But now I saw the resignation in his eyes. He had seemed older on the phone, and when I first met him I had thought he was mature for his age. His manner was mild, quiet, and accepting.
“That’s a life-changer, man,” I said.
“That’s right,” he said.
“I lost my dad when I was 15. He got run over by a car. It changed my life, my mother's, my sisters’ lives; everybody’s life would have been different if he had lived.”
“But it will hurt less as time passes,” I continued. “You’ll never get over it. But you can deal with it. I see you already are dealing with it. That’s pretty much what life is, a trial, a pretty hard trial sometimes, and all we can do is our best and deal with it as it comes. Whoever said life was easy was full of it. Life is hard, and maybe it’s supposed to be hard.”
He said he understood.
“You didn’t just lose your father; you lost your best advisor. Every time you make a mistake, you’re going to wonder what he would have advised you to do. When I got older, I wondered what my dad would think of me now. It’s a tough question. You see, you’ll never get to prove to him that you’re a man now. You’ll never see his approval when you do something right.”
He lowered his eyes and agreed.
“Is your education provided for? Do you have money for school and everything?”
“That’s taken care of,” he said. “I’m starting school next year.”
“What are you going to take?”
“He was an architect and engineer. I’m going to study engineering.”
“Yes! What kind of engineering?”
“I don’t know. I’m interested in architecture too. I want to be a builder.”
I was relieved somehow to hear it. The thought of his father burning to death had to be burning him up too every time he thought about it. When Sid had died, I kept imagining his living body being dragged down the Airline Highway by a car braking from 75 mph. I could almost feel it sometimes; tumbling and flipping and scraping and limbs being torn off, muscles being ripped, bones breaking, flesh tearing like wet paper, skull-crushed. Bloody tires. Did they roll over his eyes?
We shook hands goodbye and he went back in the house. She had gone in after the sale.
I sat in the van without starting it and thought about it. I felt like I had taken advantage of him with the extra pump jack. I walked to the side door and knocked.
When he answered I handed him two more fives.
“I didn’t come out here to make an unfair bargain,” I said. “That’s all I can afford for the other pump jack. People usually need at least two, and seldom just one."
“That’s right,” he said. “Thank you.”
I kept thinking about him on the way home through the coagulating stream of vehicles into New York. His whole future beclouded by an ugly memory, but himself fresh, fit, alert, and fragile but unbroken by a horrible family tragedy; and continuing anyhow with the realization that his life could never be the same, and there was nothing he could do about his dad dying in a fire but accept it.
The thoughts brought raw emotion out of me. I cried, feeling his loss.
I remembered that exact feeling when the bus had left New Orleans for Houston as Hurricane Audrey approached Cameron, La., in 1957. I had looked out the window of the Greyhound at New Orleans receeding under gray clouds and thought, “My life will never be the same.”
But I don't remember crying until 40 years later, when I finally let myself feel the enormity of what had happened when and after Sidney Havenar died on the Airline Highway.
Gary was as happy as a cat with a raw egg to see the jacks. Now we can get started fixing this house before hard winter arrives.