Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The prisoner

He's out there already, I can tell cause the shed door is open and the light is on. I hear a radio too. He's probably wearing his cap, that greasy navy blue woolen thing he wears in all kinds of weather, pulled tight down to the tops of his ears, and I'm sure he's got his ever-present coffee and cigarette going. Fat Mike, the mesomorph, the tinkerer, the guy who still sharpens his own knives.

I tried to talk to him once but it was useless. He just stood his ground gripping a box wrench, squinting at me, and nodded once after I'd asked him how he was doing. Half-moons of mustard sticking to his fingernails, the smell of sauerkraut and tobacco. He looked away and made it clear that he had nothing to say. But it wasn't unfriendly, really, it was just his normal behavior, I guess.

Sweet Lou told me that Mike's younger brother -- Brian I think -- was killed in a car crash a couple of years ago, somewhere up near Middletown. It was a cold winter's night, he'd been drinking, and somewhere along the line he lost control of the car, skidded, and plowed into massive boulder about ten, fifteen feet off the road. Went headfirst through the windshield and died instantly. They lived together in the same house they'd grown up in. "Those two were inseparable, they always did everything together," was how Lou put it. Like him, they were big Jets fans. "Oh, he'd talk back then. Sometimes the two of them would come over on Sundays to watch the game on my TV. Frick and Frack. I offered them beer, but Mike would never drink. Only his brother. This was back when Klecko and Gastineau and those guys were playing defense. They loved watching the Jets sack somebody. I think they liked it even more than a touchdown. And Mike was always talking back to the screen, you know, shouting at the players to get it done. He loved that Klecko."

He's probably in there oiling his whetstone, cleaning and examining his knives. That's what he does most mornings, except for Sunday when he goes down to St. Mary's for early Mass. Sweet Lou tells me that Mike always stands in the last pew and just listens to the service, following along in the missal, reading silently. "You know, I've never seen him take communion. Not once. The seven-thirty mass has no singing, so it goes pretty fast -- most days you can get out of there in forty-five minutes or so. Once Father Tom gives his blessing, Mike shuffles out and heads home. Always the first one. I don't know, it must do something for him."

I know he doesn't have a regular job cause I see him at all kinds of hours, puttering about, in and out of the shed, going for a ride in his beat-up Ford Taurus to get groceries. He's one of the only people up here who doesn't even have a dog to keep him company. I think to myself, what does he do all day? Quist used to tell me that the worst prison is the invisible one that a man locks himself in. "That's a prison you'll never escape from, poot. Watch yourself and make sure you don't ever go down that road. It'll kill your spirit."

On mornings like this, listening to the crows arguing in their oak, watching the sun paint the eastern sky orange, thinking of friends and colleagues who are working their arses off trying to re-imagine the industry I love, bemused by the blue jays who have conquered the backyard yet again, the world doesn't seem at all like a prison. It appears to me a miraculous garden. Even so, there's a man much like me not fifty yards away, sitting silently in his tool-shed, listening to talk radio, drinking his coffee, sharpening his knives.

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