This is dedicated to my friend, Phil
“The Jane & Phil Show”
I needed to hire someone to help with repairs on the dilapidated house I'd rented. My landlord had agreed to a reduction in rent if I took responsibility for making it inhabitable. He was relieved to have someone live there, since so many of the vacant homes had been occupied by squatters who use them as meth labs.
The house needed a lot of work. The roof leaked, leaving a small pond in the living room when it rained. The bathroom sink didn't drain and the toilet, with its cracked tank, sat in the middle of the dining room. There were broken window panes to replace and a host of other problems required attention. On the positive side of the equation, the shower worked and the house was situated across from the public library and up the street from a gas station, which both had public bathrooms. It was May, so the weather was mild.
After adding the positives and negatives, I'd concluded this was the only possible solution. I had nowhere else to go.
Almost 40 years had passed since I returned to the small town where I'd grown up. I'd left home one week after graduating high school. In the interim, I'd married, finished law school, established a law practice and become a law professor. I raised a daughter as a single parent, after her father and I divorced. She'd graduated from college a few weeks earlier and was about to start a new job.
I'd run into a high school classmate, who told me her brother needed work. I thought of the little boy who never smiled in any of our school photos. The one who had grown into a man, but had never stopped being a child.
Phil agreed to help me when he had time. He liked to talk and I enjoyed having some company as I worked. One summer afternoon, as we scraped thick scabs of paint from the porch ceiling, he asked me why I was no longer married. I explained that sometimes life doesn't work out, despite our best efforts.
"I don't want to get married," he volunteers, “my sister says I’m afraid to commit, but she’s wrong. I just don’t want to rush into anything.”
"Phil," I ask, carefully brushing tiny sharp paint chips from my face, “how old are you?”
“Phil,” I say, keeping a poker face, “you’re not rushing.”
A wry smile spreads across his face. He had a beard and a pot-belly at the beginning of the summer, but he has lost ten pounds and now shaves twice a week. Today his face bristles with a two-day growth of grey stubble. Sometimes he wears a baseball cap embroidered with “Jesus Loves Me” on his balding head; other times he wears a bucket hat that makes him look like Gilligan. I refuse to discuss any serious topic with him when he wears the bucket hat.
He removed the metallic signs from the side of his truck bearing the phrase “No hope in the Pope – only Jesus Christ Saves,” flanked by drawings of skulls and crossbones, after I told him they were scary. The placards warning of God’s vengeance are still attached to the tailgate though, and when I ride in his truck I tell myself I’m temporarily safe from errant bolts of lightning and plagues of locusts.
I left a batch of muffins on my counter when he returned to paint the ceiling after I’d learned he’d retrieved the two-week old heels of bread I’d thrown in the galvanized can where his sister keeps her chicken feed. He drove off without the muffins, but called later to ask if I’d bring them to the local diner in the morning, where he planned to eat breakfast before his Bible study class.
“Every day’s a new day to a goose,” I told myself. He’d also forgotten to ask me to pay him for the two days’ work he’d done at my house.
When he returned the next day, he said, "I took those muffins you made with me to work. He'd picked up another odd job, polishing anvils. "I walked some up to my boss’s mother," he continued, "she's really old. She bakes her own bread and everything. She said they were really good, and told me to tell you so.”
I recognized the value of this endorsement, since the old ladies who live here are the harshest of critics, and since I knew he’d fished the ends of the bread that had lived in my refrigerator for a couple of weeks from the chicken feed container, I felt I needed to ask the next question.
“What did you think of the muffins?”
"I just told you," he grumbled, "they were good!”
I put my hand on his arm, waiting for him to flinch. He didn’t. “Chill,” I said.
“That was some good spaghetti, too.”
Phil showed up at my house earlier in the week at 5:30 p.m., covered with dirt after polishing anvils all day, with a stock pot containing the remnants of the spaghetti and meatballs his 9 year-old niece and I had put together three days earlier. It had been reheated twice, so the pasta was a little gummy, but there were two small meatballs and some sauce, which I put on the stove to warm.
As I began slicing the loaf of bread I’d removed from the bread machine he said, “I like the heel.”
Dear, sweet, completely clueless Phil, who showed up at dinnertime with a bouquet of wilted day lilies he’d plucked from the side of the road, considered me a friend. It was at that point I realized I had begun a journey, without a roadmap, or a compass.