I hadn’t seen Jack since Thursday’s cold needle rain, sprinting down the mud path, Strodes Ridge a brief memory, but there he was, huffing up the ladder, smiling Newcastle Ale, ready to talk.
Our eyes met as the breeze rocked the treehouse. The gnat-covered light bulb swung and spot-lit the six paintings leaning against the back wall. Acrylics had splattered purple and scarlet over the greens already meshed in a years-old congruence at the base of the wall. “The Old Man and the Sea” fell from the shelf onto the knock-hockey table.
Maybe tonight the shelter would drop from its oak perch, collapse and fold back into the earth.
“One of these days I won’t make it up here,” he said, clutching his quad. The waning light streaked his forehead orange. Brown curls dropped between his eyes.
“Are you ready?” he said.
The boards supporting us could have been pounded together in 1582 as part of a parish foundation from which a monk could observe God’s birds. Or in 1972 by a confused Little League coach trying to gain a son’s love.
Some days reds and violets, magnolias, fern and rosemary seemed to explode from the sills. Bengal tigers and baby elephants lurked below in the emerald lush. Pirates sailed too close to ocean beaches not even a mile away.
Other days the treehouse was deadwood, the forest clear-cut.
He took off the soft tan leather hat he stole from Brodie’s on University and Main, the theft justified because “nobody has the right to charge a forty-spot for a hat.” He returned the thin book to its place on the shelf.
“You know,” he said, “there’s still some light left.”
We packed our gloves in the saddlebag and rode his Goldwing out to the old meadow. The ball soared, black against a silver sky.
“Serve your country,” he said, in between catches. “Serve God. Serve the customer. The customer is always right.”
“The Price is Right,” I answered. “A new car!”
He laughed and lobbed one over my head.
We put gas in the bike, got to the bar and ordered red wine. Jack told me I wasn’t talking. He was right, and he took off, grabbing his glass and walking to the pool tables, letting his eyes start long-distance relationships with the girls in his path.
That’s when I knew what to say.
“Something happened to me the other day.”
He pulled the chalk off the tip and raised his eyebrows.
“Yeah. I go into Courtesy Honda, over on Raymond. I’m pretending to buy a car. And of course all you have to do is say that and these guys jump all over you.”
“And I pull up to the front of the place, there’s a line of six guys, all wearing white oxfords, beige chinos and the tie of their choice, because I assume Courtesy Honda encourages individuality.”
“And courtesy, right? You learn this during the intensive seventeen-week training program at the airport Hilton.”
“Exactly. So these six guys are spaced perfectly from each other, like guitar strings or something. One of them picks me, starts giving me the spiel.”
“Oh yeah. And he sounds like he’s from Chicago, but when he asks me where I’m from and I tell him New York, he tells me that’s where he’s from.”
“I ask him if I should buy or lease, what separates the DX from the LX, and soon enough credit reports come into the conversation, and that’s when I have to tell him that I’m kind of out of my league here. I want a car but I can’t really afford one.”
“Laying yourself bare. I dig it.”
“Yeah, I figure he might drop his act, too. Like maybe, just for a minute, we can no longer be Car Buyer and Car Seller. So he says, ‘I’ll be right back,’ and he comes back with a new deal, a better deal, saying he realizes my situation, young, working guy, maybe some credit problems in the past, responsibilities, pressure, stress. He’s flying through the routine now.”
“Honed in rigorous telemarketing sessions, no doubt,” Jack said, striking the cue ball with a little extra oomph, sinking the seven.
“I think it’s at this point that he’s realizing it’s very possible that I won’t buy a car, so he tells me he’s pouring out his heart now.”
“Ah, yes. Love for the common man.”
“He offers me salvation in the form of his girlfriend’s four-year-old Hyundai Elantra, available, of course, because he understands my situation, as he said before, for only eight grand.”
Jack pulled up from the felt of the table and cackled.
“Well, what did you say? You had to say something.”
“Nope. I didn’t say anything. I just got out of there as fast as I could.”
We bought a six-pack before riding the lights back to the jungle. There, we grabbed paint cans, all colors, from the mudroom. We made trips up the ladder.
“Where do we start?” he said. “How do you want to do this?”
I shrugged and dipped my roller into red, coloring a dark corner. He followed in white and dabbed some green on edges.
“I guess the important thing is survival,” I told him as I covered the ceiling splinters with blue. “Just do what we do. Don’t stop. And don’t worry.”
For the first time that night, Jack didn’t answer.
He glared at me, smiled like he’d just become a spelling bee champion, and put the last dab of yellow on the window frame.
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