There was a rope tied through the loops of his green work pants, a rope instead of a belt, a bohemian flourish, I thought. If he was 60 it was an enviable 60, I was thinking this even before he spoke, the head of russet hair flecked with white, and how do you get a body like that but by swinging a hammer, climbing on roofs, setting beams in place, and eating only what you need? His friends came in after, calling a name I wouldn’t have guessed for him, or for anyone, really. Hey Kiki. It roused him, and he turned and found them, leaning around me to make them out, his two work-dusted confederates. They were a good 15 feet away and I turned sideways to see them myself. I don’t know why their mouths and eyes turned up as they did when he called back, but it was easy to guess, it sure did seem, he was someone they had been thinking about. How are you feeling, Kiki? one of them asked. They were younger than he was, in gray and black t-shirts and Carhartt pants, and there was a respectful concern that flattened the expression from both their faces. “You know, in a million cases, you’d see the kind of cancer I have maybe three times?” Wouldn’t you know it? Of all the dumb luck? Would you believe? That’s how Kiki said it. It was different than asking someone to feel sorry, I thought, and I was sure of it when he started talking about his wife. She was taking care of everything. The house, the animals, even the business they ran. “There’s nothing she doesn’t know how to do over there,” he said, about a place he called the lodge—The Lodge—I imagined it to be a fish camp, or an inn, even a bed and breakfast. He drifted from his place in line, crowing about the house-swap his wife found them in Portland. It was like a magic trick, finding useful stuff on the internet, and the house was just blocks from the hospital, where they would be in a few weeks, the hospital in Portland to have his tumors removed. He was standing beside me when he said this, facing his friends at the back of the post office as I stood facing front. That he had not one tumor but tumors was a grimness to overhear, and it made me wonder about his weight, if the rope stood in for a belt that no longer fit. And what did it mean that his doctor wanted him to stay in Portland for six weeks after? Still, he bounced, his voice did, his body did, he was buoyant with energy outside of any discernible infirmity. I was in Alaska for five whole weeks that summer, sending a postcard home from Homer, and I don’t know why the line was long that August afternoon. Ahead there was postal business, an ongoing murmur of inside voices, of customer and clerk, and after Kiki made it through, I made it through, and I went back to my room and wrote down what I’d heard. Back in Massachusetts the shifts in my own life would seem radical, even more than the change of seasons, as my parents, divorced 40 years and living in separate states, would get cancer at the very same time. There was always the next thing to do then, the next thing to do for them, and one could get lost in it. I heard Kiki tell his friends about a house he was building. “You should see this piece of land I have,” he said. “Most days, it’s just me and the dog out there, and it’s beautiful.” It was the last thing I heard him say before he said goodbye. He was building a house. When he got back from six weeks in Portland it would be fall approaching winter, and even if he paid somebody to keep his worksite clear of snow, what kind of shape would he be in, working in the cold? I wondered about this in the notes I took, and those notes are more than six years old. My parents are both gone now but I know it can work the other way too. That Kiki could get better. His wife was taking care of things to give him what he needed. But she was taking care to give him what he wanted, too—what he wanted to do with whatever time he had. He could get better. But even if there were days after Portland when he could not raise a hammer, even if there were days when he could not raise himself from bed, days and weeks in the spring that stayed frozen, Kiki would have his work—and would always have it, if he wanted it, if he could raise it in his mind and hold it there.
VICTIM OF A CRIME
He was inching his way across the bridge, this gray-skinned man dressed for business, when two punks ran by and took his briefcase. I wanted to call them goons but that would imply a kind of criminal professionalism. They were just punks, rogues, delinquents, in the middle of the 1970s, and on another day they were running around with their clothes off or selling fireworks to suburban kids, playing at being mobsters in the old Italian neighborhood. They were 10, 15 feet past the gray-skinned man, running away when one of them launched his briefcase up and over the rail of the bridge, over a channel of water so cold it would kill you. They never broke stride, it was like running the bases, so easy, and my brother and I could barely believe it. The briefcase flapped open and stayed open, like a mouth with tetanus, one that was coughing up hundreds of white papers over those gelid waters. I watched it from the back of my dad’s green Toyota, in traffic on the bridge, wipers going in the rain. Even as it whirled on toward its apex, the flying attaché, the purloined portmanteau, on past its own slow scatter of papers, my brother and I were saying, You see that? It was just the one brother for me, and I preferred laughing with him over the gift of his elbow in my face. Maybe we were like the punks, my brother and I laughing, and maybe the punks were like us, too young or too lucky so far to have been the victim of any crime. Not so the gray-skinned man, who was halfway across the bridge when accosted. The papers, the illusion of control, he was frozen to the iron walkway by these sudden losses. Can you imagine? You’re just trying to go to work, nudging your life along, and now what are you going to tell your clients? When the traffic began to crawl again he stayed standing still, a chance monument in our day of sightseeing here in the big city. This was in Boston, 200 years after men flung crates of tea into the same water under cover of a night. In feathers and beads and animal skins they ran off the ship, and how could they not be snickering, like the punks laughing over their shoulders as they ran away. Like my brother and I sniggering in the back of the station wagon as we turned off the bridge. Like me, alone, twisting in my seat for one last look, and still he had not moved.