His house was safe mooring for curios adrift.
The lineup of objects in his yard was implausible, yet somehow inviting: stone birdbath draped in lemonbalm, marble cherub in peppermint, oakwood church pew in grapevines, cast-iron weather vane in lavender, bas-relief clay tiles in basil, barbells under reeds grown plumed in copper and pearl like the mane of an Assateague pony. All of it was salvage, all of it found or left behind. Even the wind chimes were rescued from the estate sale of neighbor Glorie, who in her housebound final days welcomed his visits to swap plant cuttings and muffin recipes. The yard had such a population of artifacts that one day the letter-carrier was pleased to deliver one letter addressed to “White house on N. Street with all the Stuff in the yard.”
In his weekday life he worked in sales. In the window of his business downtown he managed phones and accounts, always in a fresh looking white shirt and tasteful tie. His savvy sunburnt long-term customers drove up in their dusty pickup trucks, clinching cash on the barrelhead with a gentleman’s handshake. I never stopped in and interrupted, but one time he stepped outside and waved me in to see his new Facsimile Machine. “It can transmit a letter over phone lines,” he explained, writing his name on a slip of paper and then faxing it to himself while I looked on in admiration. “This is going to change the face of modern business.”
But on evenings and weekends he was free, tending a lush little world where timelessness was of the essence. There, edible flowers and flowering fruit twined over stakes and down stone arches or bicycle wheels or hanging baskets or glazed jardinieres or terra-cotta troughs. In the open back doorway, outdoor foliage met indoor flora, parsley and chives, aloe vera, blooming jade. The snug house had clean sloping wood floors and thick walls. And like a Gordon Lightfoot song, it held both ghost and wishing well. The well was the original water source, a disconcerting shaft just visible right between the bathroom baseboards. The ghost was known to neighbors as the previous occupant, who passed away upstairs and sometimes brooded here and there beyond the corner of one’s eye. I never got to see it, but the present owner did and left it respectfully alone to rest in peace.
He was a host in constant systematic motion, from the massive restaurant cast-off gas stove with several ovens to the butcher block cutting board to the seasoned iron skillets to the coffee grinder. Darting from post to post with tools in hand, he’d toss helpful tips over his shoulder and samples in my hand or mouth: yellow cherry tomatoes, river watercress, kumquat marmalade, roasted pecans, hot slabs of bread. He was 40 or so then, average height, trim and fit with muscled shoulders. After a day at work he favored jeans and flannel shirts and a black leather jacket for errands, or no shirt at all for garden chores. He had good chiseled features, thick dark hair just sparking silver, heated blue-green eyes; when he strode past, men and women swiveled for a longer look.
His temperament was simple and generous, with a steady dignity. He greeted everyone on the street, but brushed aside those pacing in sandwich boards with warnings about the fires of hell. (He told me about three years of crop failure back on the family farm, and the day his father could no longer pay his 10% tithe at church. The preacher called the head of the house to the altar, and condemned him in front of the congregation. “Last time I ever set foot in a church,” he concluded. “The day the preacher made my father break down and cry.”) He was always happy to see me. He expected me to drop by any time and help myself to food and books. One evening as I pored through his record collection he said “Stay as long as you desire. I’m off to bed; shut the door when you go.” For me he had only one ironclad boundary; twice when I replied to some kitchen instruction with a cheery “Yes Sir,” he turned on me like a steel trap. “Do not,” he blazed his eyes, “ever call me that.”
“Oh, that’s from Vietnam,” said Niels, my neighbor and good buddy. “He served with honor, but he’ll never talk about it.” It was Niels who introduced us, insisting that I make friends with the gardener of N. Street. One night after a lecture at the public library Niels walked me home, and we passed a white house with a lot of Stuff on the porch. The kitchen light was still on. I was too shy for a drop-by visit at 10:00 p.m., but our host opened the door and waved us right in, taking off his baking mitt to shake hands with me. He plumped the sofa cushions and brought me chicken pate on French bread. Soon the two men with their wine glasses were hornlocked in happy debate at the stereo, about the German lyrics in Carmina Burana.
Host and garden took me in as one more permanent fixture. While he worked out recipes from various gourmet magazines, I helped fetch his utensils and seasonings. We collected and told each other our favorite stories, often about overlooked people with underrated lives, remembrances salvaged and cleaned like eyelet linen spread to bleach on sunny grass. Once I found him in tears listening to a radio commentator; we didn’t catch his name, but judging by the topic it might well have been author Daniel Pinkwater. The narrator took his dying Malamute to the veterinarian, and ordered his dog to Stand-Stay on the table while the vet administered the last injection. He and the doctor were horrified when the staggering animal endured dose after dose of euthanasia drugs. At last, the commentator realized the problem. “At ease, boy. OK to lie down now.” At that command the dog finally collapsed.
My companion put down his mortar and pestle to dry his eyes. “Who doesn’t need that?” he murmured. “Somebody beside us to tell us it’s okay to leave.”
One day we sat on the back steps with our toes near the sprinkler, trimming string beans. He brought me an apron, five vitamin pills, and a spoonful of mead from a stone bottle in the pantry to wash them down. “There’s all your B Vitamins. For depression. Or whatever that is, weighing on your mind these days.”
I shrugged and took the pills with mead and put the apron on. But soon I was staring off at honeybees instead of helping out, and confessed everything on my mind.
I was worried about our friend Niels. A few days before, Niels had made some casual side mention of being gay. It was the shock of my life. As a girl, I’d been warned about that ominous big-city subculture of catcalling men on street corners who throw tantrums and high heels. Thank goodness, so far in life I’d been able to avoid ever running into any of them. But, how could such a thing have happened to our Niels? “Niels is in that research lab night and day,” I reminded my host. “Where did they even find him to put those notions in his head? And if he’s like that, how will he ever get married? Who’s going to take care of him and fix his dinner now?” I was heartsick at the thought of our friend going through life with no wife to pick up his socks or even pat his hair and read the thermometer when he was ill. The truth was that I would have liked the dinner-fixing and sickbay job myself, though Niels was neat as a pin, enjoyed radiant health, cooked beautifully, and in lieu of dinner preferred a green apple and saltines at midnight right at his humming mainframe.
What really distressed me was a sense of guilt. Doctors explained that the cause of Being That Way was aggressive or overbearing female figures in a man’s formative years. Well, that would be me. All year I’d been nudging my pal’s shoulder on the street, snatching off his stocking cap to fling it at him in the snow, even hugging him with backpats last Christmas when he brought me a gift. Clearly my manhandling revolted sweet owlish little Niels and sent him over the edge. And if a wholesome boy like him could consider that exotic lifestyle, then who was safe from it? “What if any other people in my life are like that?” I fretted out loud. “If it happened to him, then no one is safe from turning out that way — not even me.”
My host listened, gazing intently over the ornamental plume reeds into the distance. Then he got up to smoothe a kink in the hose. He broke off a thick handful of blue lavender, warmed its volatile oils with a brisk chafing, and handed it to me. He took back the string beans and trimmed them himself. He picked some cherry tomatoes and sugar peas and lettuce and nasturtium flowers and herb sprigs here and there, then went to dish up the poached salmon and new potatoes. He brought my plate outside. As I ate in the lovely garden, he turned off the sprinkler and settled beside me with the hand barbell, putting in a few thoughtful arm curls. The afternoon calmed in toward day’s end with its fragrance of lavender and warm brioche, sun-flicker through the arbor vines, Glorie’s chimes, bees in balm.
When the dishes were done he threw on a flannel shirt and grabbed his black leather jacket and the car keys. He drove us over gentle hills through open country, drawing me out of myself with thoughtful insights about the native trees and grasses all along the way to the Lake. He parked on a scenic sunset overlook. He put Mozart on the tape deck. When I started hiccuping with sobs, he put me on his shoulder for a little cry.
Over the next year, he did a lot more listening. When I had questions about relationships he would dole out answers, carefully chosen healthful insights, cooked up in manageable portions for an ignorant panicked 25 year old. They were all about relationships and safety first and excellent self-care and integrity and honesty and honor, and appreciation for small and ordinary blessings on the way. After I grew a few wits of my own and two feet to stand on, he began to share trusting confidences about his own experience of making his way in the world as a young man. It was a privilege to hear his wisdom seasoned with dry yet daffy humor.
But that evening he said only one thing. “Well, whichever way you are, your life is not over. I’m gay, and my life isn’t over; I’m right here.”
That tied my tongue for minutes on end. Him? How did that happen? He grew up in cornfields and served with honor in the Army! Now I had two of them! They even knew each other. What were the odds of that?
Well, one thing I’d always learned is that women mustn’t crowd men like that. But here was I leaning right up to his arm. I clambered upright to give him some proper space. But he opened his jacket and gathered me closer. “I’m right here,” he said again.
And he was. He had a few years to go until his heart attack. Then it was Niels himself, a professor by then back at home overseas, who called me with the news that we’d lost him.
But for that night my host held the pain in someone else’s heart instead. We sat with sunflowers and stars, the hay-sweet breeze off the lake, the far plaint of coyotes and the near creak of leather at my ear.
“How do people sort it all out?” I asked him. “How does anybody find anybody? Where do they start?”
He settled a palm on my hair and gave me my next step. “First? Breathe.”