The crowbar was stuck. I couldn’t find the nail and I was trying to push the sill up just enough. My nose was an inch from the gap, sweat blurred both lens of my eyeglasses.
I didn’t hear the backyard gate open or a greeting, if there was a greeting, until the stranger’s head was right next to mine, one eye closed. I smelled beer. “Well, looks like you’ve got yourself quite a project here.”
I was too tired to startle. I turned in slow motion to get a better look, and he was perfectly blurry, which was a perfect metaphor for my life. I removed my glasses. The man pulled away from his inspection and returned to symmetry, feet shoulder length apart, hands propped on waist, sixty-degree elbow bend creating triangle windows through which I saw a U-Haul truck in front of the house across the street, the driver side door open.
“Too many knots,” he pointed at the wood on the ground. “The moisture will get right in there and you’ll have the same problem.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “Went to Home Depot or Lowe’s, right?” I nodded. “You want to go to a lumber yard. More expensive, but you get the right wood.” His voice trailed off and he looked worried. He said I could’ve bought it primed. “But you should prime it again. Extra protection. Honestly, the prime’s more important than the paint. And go to a paint store. Don’t listen to anyone at Home Depot.”
He ran his hand along the vertical edges where I removed the trim and said it didn’t look like it had been sealed. “The framings fine, though.” He jerked his thumb at the truck and said after he unloaded it if I had time this afternoon or tomorrow morning we could go to the lumberyard. I made eye contact with his knee and told him money’s a little tight. “But I’ll keep a close eye on the knots.”
“I know what you mean.” He motioned again with his thumb, then wiped his hand against his jeans and offered a handshake. “I didn’t introduce myself. I’m Mike. Your new neighbor.”
Mike’s face is red. Always. He’s the one that brought it to my attention. High blood pressure. Stress. Alimony. “I thought it would get better. My twin boys graduated from college this past May. They’re headed to law school. That’s good. I know. But they want to take a year off and travel to Europe and my ex is saying I should pitch in.” He looks at his lawn which is grossly perfect. No weeds. Freshly edged. Not a single dark patch where a dog might have found a favorite spot to urinate and I don’t know how that can be possible. “What gets me is she always says, ‘Of course. Of course, take a year off.’ And when I mention maybe they work at a law firm just to make sure this is something they really want to pursue, I’m the bad guy. That’s how she gets them on her side.” He looks back at his lawn. “She’s threatening to bring me back to court.”
The first time I ever denied my son’s existence was on a first date. One of those Internet match things. I didn’t plan the denial. It bubbled out like a burp.
It’s easier, now.
Of course, I could tell the truth. Of course. But people don’t know what to say, or they try to empathize by telling me about their cousin’s son or a friend of a friend. When Mike asks I don’t lie. I say Matt lives in Arizona. Unfortunately, Mike presses. He asks what he does for work. I reply you know and shrug my shoulders and Mike nods and says yeah, I know. But he doesn’t. My son didn’t graduate college and isn’t taking a year off to find himself before heading to law school. Matt’s two weeks in on his third rehab.
I’m standing on a ladder, trying to remove a tree from my gutter, trying to determine how deep the roots snaked beneath the shingles when I hear Mike beneath me. “You need to clean the gutters twice a year.” Mike is not being sarcastic. “June and December first will give you the most bang for your buck.” He says that December is easy to remember because you clean them before you put up the Christmas lights and as for June, well June is his birthday, so that’s how he remembers but he’s certain there are other systems. He’s saying how Memorial Day could work and then you get the long weekend to take care of it, but flag day might be better. Before you hang out the flag, clean the gutters. He nods to himself and smiles.
I look back at the tree and consider cutting it as close to the roof as possible. “I could help you,” Mike shouts. “Just not today. I have to pick up Luke and drive him up to Maine. But this December after I do mine, I’ll come over.” Before he leaves, he tells me that after I remove the shingles don’t buy any plywood if I see any rot because he has plenty of plywood I can use. He always keeps spare pieces of plywood. “Comes in handy for jobs like this.”
I watch him walk across my yard, filthy, baggy jeans falling off his backside. There’s a heaviness to his step like it’s difficult to simply lift his feet off the earth. Matt got that walk. But I don’t know when I noticed. I try to recall, fishing through memories. They all refer back to was he was using? How bad? Milestones like graduations, summer jobs, vacations have been replaced with jail, rehab, parole.
Looking at Mike’s house from my ladder I want to tell him that this is the first summer in seven years that I’m not working two jobs. Since the beginning of June, I haven’t worked over fifty hours a week. But he might ask why? Not a nosey, prying type of question. Just why. And I’d feel obligated to tell him. I’ve been trying for weeks to think of a clever analogy between the cost of law school and rehab to lighten the mood.
I’m surprised when Mike rings my doorbell. I’m making supper. He’s holding two beers, offers me one, and tells me he needs to talk. After he takes a long gulp I ask, “So, what’s up?”
“Man. I think I need to play my boys off one another like they’re doing to me, you know?” I don’t and I don’t hide my confusion. “Like I can tell Luke, that Dave really doesn’t want him applying to the same law schools as him because he wants some space. You know something like that. Or tell Dave, Luke doesn’t think he can get into an Ivy League school, because he can’t and then he wouldn’t get in.” He shakes his head. I’m staring at his chest because I don’t want to make eye contact. “I know it’s a shitty thing to do and it’s not like I want them to hate each other or anything but I can’t afford both of them going to law school. And Luke’s the smarter one.” He spots a picture of my son on the fridge. He walks over, unsteady.
“There’s got be financial aid or loans.”
“I thought about a second mortgage but I just got the mortgage on this house.” He removes the picture from the fridge. Matt looks good. It was a month after his second rehab, the one he said, “Worked this time. Really worked.” Mike is teetering a bit back and forth, holding the picture. I think how I always refer to that picture as the one taken a month after his second rehab and not four days before I found him passed out in the bathroom. A day later he left. I remember his sponsor telling me addicts have a way of finding other addicts. I still don’t know what that’s supposed to mean.
“Man it sure would be easier with just one.”
“I’m not so sure.”
“Nah, it would be.”
I want to say he’s in rehab. I want to watch Mike’s face, then listen to him tell me about his cousin’s wife’s brother who got addicted to painkillers after hip surgery. It was tough. Sorry. It’ll work out.
The phone rings. It’s an unfamiliar number which I know means its New Beginnings Recovery Center.
I pick up and the counselor goes through the usual rigmarole. It concludes with, “It’s not going well.” Of course, this is in direct contrast to what he just said before that—patience, time, it’s a process. I tell him it’s been less than three weeks, but in my head I’m trying to figure out the exact number of days Matt’s been there because I dropped him off on Sunday at six pm and that can’t count for a whole day so it’s really only been nineteen full days. The counselor doesn’t say much else, but it still takes him a good fifteen minutes to reach the big finale. “He has to want to get sober. He needs to make an effort.”
I’m thinking once I get off the phone, I’ll look at the contract.
Mike leaves and misses the step off the porch. He stumbles, catches himself, then tilts his head back and drains his beer. “You know, we see a lot of addicts and we can tell pretty quickly which ones might have a chance,” the counselor says. He coughs and quickly corrects himself. “I’m not saying he doesn’t have a chance. Everyone has a chance. What I’m saying is he has to give us a chance. Make an effort, you know?”
I say yes and go to the bedroom. I page through the contract, looking for reimbursement. He keeps talking and I keep saying aha, and he finally asks if maybe I could speak with Matt.
There’s an awkward silence and when I think Matt’s on the phone I say, “Hello? Matt?” He gruffly answers, “Yes.” And I attempt a joke, “Matt, why don’t you let those guys do their job and earn their money. Go to a few of the therapy sessions.” There’s silence on the other end. I stop flipping through the contract.
The next voice I hear is the counselor’s. “Well, let’s hope for the best.”
Mike comes over when I’m mowing the lawn. He motions for me to turn off the mower. “Look I can help you with the weeds.” He spreads out both his arms. “I know a guy who owes me a favor. But he won’t touch dandelions. Not allergic or anything. Principle. Says people should be able to take care of dandelions. That’s a matter of effort.” The phone rings and I tell Mike I’m expecting a call which is a lie. “Of course. Of course.”
The voice on the end of the line says, “Matt’s split. He stole two bottles of Percocet.” I don’t know who is talking. I mean, I know who is talking, its Dr. Seth Learner, head of New Beginnings Recovery Center but I’ve never met Seth.
“I don’t think he’ll use them.” Dr. Learner says. “He might use a few but not use use them. He’ll sell them to buy alcohol.” He muses on whether addicts with selective substance abuse are more difficult to help than those that will get high on anything. “Although the worst are those that hop onto anything.” He drags out anything like its four words. “Gambling, shopping, sex, eating. Anything in life that provides the tiniest happiness. Terrible.” The doctor talks and I watch Mike on his knees digging in the earth with what looks like a long screwdriver, but I’m sure it’s some special dandelion removal tool. Each one he holds up to the sky and inspects. Sometimes he wipes the dirt off the tap root. The counselor says I should call them if Matt calls me. Also, I should tell him to go back to the Center. Regardless of his condition he should return. And if Matt tells me where he is, call them. They will go pick him up. Or try to.
I watch Mike crawl along the lawn. He pulls out a mini bar bottle from his pants and unscrews the cap. He looks at his little pile of dying dandelions then downs it. I thought he would look around. Or at the house. But he finishes the bottle with two gulps and shoves the empty in his pocket pushing his pants down exposing his butt crack.
He’s not trying to help me.
I head into the bedroom and grab all the paperwork from New Beginnings Recovery Center, the pamphlets with pictures of people smiling who you know are actors but want to believe aren’t, notes I scribbled on sticky notes, and all the legal stuff which I never read. I push everything into a bent manila folder, then go outside.