catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 4, Num 12 :: 2005.06.17 — 2005.06.30



This past Memorial Day, Vicki, my wife, came in from the back porch and said there was a woman outside asking for money. She?d been walking down Campbell Street, apparently, saw that somebody was out on the porch, and came up and asked Vicki through the screen if she needed somebody to clean the house. When Vicki told her we didn?t really need anything like that right now, the woman asked her if she could have some money so she could buy some baloney and bread to feed her children.

We bent into a tense and frantic huddle for a couple of minutes?Vicki only had a twenty, and I only had a couple of dollars and a twenty. Emilie, my twelve-year-old, volunteered to throw in a five, giving me one of those ambivalent moments where you?re proud your kid is so willing to be generous and sorry she?s stuck with parents who are so inept. Finally, I stumbled into a moment of clarity, snatched a package of hot dogs and buns out of the kitchen, and took them out to the woman who was still standing at the bottom of the stairs to the porch. A couple of minutes after she left, I couldn?t picture her?axe-blade thin, skin espresso-dark, and a collapsed mouth. It reminded me of Willie.

I don?t think we?d had anybody come to our door asking for money before we moved to Tennessee. Most of the time it?s men with rakes or lawnmowers, walking up and down the streets, looking for somebody whose yard is sufficiently unkempt that they might be willing to hand over twenty or thirty bucks for an unscheduled lawn intervention. They?re usually black; sometimes they have children straggling down the sidewalk with them; most of the time they want to tell you the story about how the factory they worked at was downsized and how hard it is to find a new job. I turn them down, mostly because when we first moved in the man who does yard work for several people in the neighborhood asked if we could use him, and, having just bought my first lawnmower, I told him no?and if I hired somebody off the street, I know the news would get back to him. Also, having strangers come to the door and peer into our house makes Vicki almost pathologically uncomfortable, so I try to discourage that. And I just don?t like being put in the position of being a white guy who?s hired a black guy to do menial labor. With some men, I?ve offered to be a reference if they want to apply for a job at the place I work. Occasionally, when I say I don?t have any work available, somebody will just ask for money??I just need twenty dollars for food. I don?t have anything in the refrigerator.? Then, if I?m thinking clearly, I?ll go rummage through the cupboards, trying to find something that will at least stave off starvation: granola bars, canned peaches or chili or peas, half a bag of white bread. Most of the time, they take the food, but they don?t come back.

Willie did come back. Maybe it was just that when I turned him down, he offered me other options??I could clean off your front porch here, get it nice and clean. I could sweep out your car port.? Maybe I was beaten down by knowledge that it was already spring and the back yard was still wasn?t completely raked, and waxy, prickly leaves were starting to fall (in spring!) from that strange, Southern tree whose name I still don?t know. Maybe it was because he told me his story about not being able to work because he?d injured his hand on a construction job more than a year before and the disability money was still tied up in mediation. Whatever the reason, he borrowed our rake and started attacking the leaves in the back yard; I hovered over him until he?d worked for twenty minutes and then said that was enough: I was only going to give him ten dollars and felt paranoid that I was going to take advantage of him.

I gave him money for a couple of small jobs after that?sweeping the porch and the driveway. Most of the time, though, I?d tell him that I didn?t have anything for him that day and give him whatever singles I had in my pockets?six dollars, four dollars?an advance, I told him, on work I?d have for him later. Even after the financial transaction, he?d stand on the porch for a while, talking about the future and the past. The West Tennessee African-American accent can sound knotty to Midwestern ears?a friend told Vicki he?d spent some time in the hospital and she thought he?d taken a horse pill?and Willie was missing his front teeth, which didn?t make him easier to understand. The basic outline is that he?d had a good job in a factory in California, but the plant had been moved down to Mexico, so Willie came back to West Tennessee and lived with relatives while he worked putting in floors. And then he had the accident. He?d hold up his hand for a second, and I?d look for the damage, wondering if the dark line running down the back was the scar. He used to be able to work hard, he?d say, but now it hurt to close it, and he didn?t have any strength. He talked a lot about his hearing coming up in June?you could tell he felt his life had closed down when he had his accident, and it could start up again once he got the disability money. His lawyers had told him not to get a job?he wouldn?t get as good a settlement if the other side could show he?d had steady work.

I?m worried that the way I?m telling this story makes me look better than I really was. Most of the time, my aim in scurrying around finding dollar bills or boxes of store-brand macaroni and cheese was to get Willie off the porch, and I looked forward to June even more than Willie: when he told me the hearing had been continued to August because his lawyers hadn?t filed the correct papers, I felt doomed. And from Willie?s perspective, I was a disappointment?instead of offering him a regular source of cash for odd jobs, I?d hand over plastic bags filled with the rejects from my cupboard. Sometime after Memorial Day, when I told him there wasn?t anything for him to do and offered to get him some food, he said, with undisguised irritation, ?Man, I need to get me some meat.? I scrounged up three hamburger patties that time, and the next time I pulled out a turkey breast that had been in the freezer for almost a year, but after that encounter I felt like we both knew the score.

Whenever he showed up that summer, it seemed like he always had bad news: he?d borrowed his nephew?s car to go to Memphis, but his hearing had been continued until October. Another time, he said his sister kicked him out of her house, and he had to stay with a friend. ?Do you think I need to get myself a new lawyer?? he said during one visit. We stood together on the porch, looking out across the street. I was surprised he?d asked me about something like that. He said he?d had an appointment with another lawyer in town who said he?d get Willie a settlement in exchange for what sounded to me like a hefty percentage of the total. ?I don?t know,? I said. ?Don?t you think changing lawyers at this point will just cost you more time?? I gave him the name of a friend who worked at Legal Services, but I never heard that he called her.

One rainy night after school had started, I walked from room to room, wondering why I smelled cigarette smoke. Our doorbell clanked?it?s been broken for years and sounds like a teaspoon clinking against the bottom of a cereal bowl. It was Willie. ?I came up on your porch to get out of the rain,? he said. ?Thought I?d let you know so you didn?t get nervous.?

?Do you want to come in?? I said. Since the last time I?d seen him, I?d realized that I?d never invited him to come in off the porch and felt like I?d unwittingly betrayed him.

?Naw,? he said, gesturing at his clay-colored pants and shapeless shoes, ?I don?t want to get your house dirty. I?ll just wait until the rain stops.?

Even though it was nightfall, you could tell the rain was coming down like pitchforks and bowling balls. ?I don?t think it?s going to stop raining for a while,? I said. ?Could I give you a ride somewhere??

He refused and I offered again a couple of times, and we finally ended up driving through the dark streets, peering at houses through a film of rain my wipers couldn?t keep up with. As I tried to follow his directions, it occurred to me that of all the porches he could have ducked onto, he?d come to mine. In some way, even though I?d treated him with a minimum of grace and hospitality, he?d seen my house as a shelter.

?Here it is,? he said, pointing to a house on the corner. There wasn?t a driveway, so I pulled over to the side of the street.

?Do you need an umbrella?? I said.

?I got this,? he said, holding up a plastic grocery bag.

?Take care,? I said as he got out of the car.

The next time he came to the porch, I told him I didn?t have anything for him to do that day, but I?d have something the next time he came, and I gave him twenty dollars as a kind of pre-payment. He took it a little reluctantly, telling me, ?I?m ready to work, anything you want.?

?Don?t worry,? I told him. ?I?ll put you to work next time.?

I haven?t seen him since. October turned into November, and I still half-expected him to show up on my porch, if not to rake my leaves or clean my gutters, then to let me know that he was all right. But maybe that?s like expecting the guy who spent months in intensive care to come back and report to the people who changed the bed-pans and cleaned the floors. Sometimes all you want is to get the smell of the hospital out of your nostrils.

I?d like to think things worked out for Willie: his lawyer worked out a settlement that made him happy; he?s able to work a steady job where his injury is no obstacle; he saved up some money and finally got to visit his kids in California; there?s even, I hope, somebody in his life who feels a little empty when he leaves the room and can?t wait for him to get back. Another part of me is confident he?s had nothing but pitfalls and blow-outs and backstabbing since the last time we talked: he?ll end up on my porch again, thinner, shakier, with more scars and fewer teeth. And the next time he needs me I?ll wind up failing him again, but this time, I can only hope, in a different, more generous, less skeptical way.

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