of 1986 was a summer of laststhe last summer I won a city
championship in tennis, the last summer I lived in my hometown before
leaving for grad school in a far-off part of the mid-west. It was
the last time I read Carlos Castaneda and the last time I tried
to brood like Van the Man Morrison, himself trying to brood like
the last of the holy men. It was the summer the first of my sister's
three marriages wouldn't last, and the summer I would last have
to find the manic notes my afflicted mother left for my father in
the silverware drawer or taped to the medicine cabinet mirror: "What
A Slut!! Eat a Rita!!" one of them read in shaky handwriting, poetry
from my parents' underworld.
summer being what it was, it was the last time I ever felt as imminently
free from the complications of family and friendsa considerable,
if guarded, relief. I thought I would be as good as gone soon enough,
and I wanted to believe that everything that could have happened
had happened. At the close of one difficult part of my life and
before beginning another that for all I knew might be equally forbidding,
it felt for that moment like this: as if I was under no pressure,
at last, to be anything at all.
At the end of that summer, my father found
me a job on a roofing crew, the last he would arrange for me. The
crew boss, John G-, was the head janitor at the college where my
father was president, and thus I was to be the boss' boss' son.
I was introduced to John late that night in the administration building,
the halls dark as a rectory and John a silhouette in front of a
brightly lit supply closet. My father had long believed in manual
labor as an educated man's rite of passage, and this job was his
last chance to make that point. "'A knight who is ashamed of bad
clothes and bad food is not fit to be consulted,'" he told me on
the ride home. "That's Confucius."
On the first morning of the first day
roofing, I climbed a long ladder, hooked one foot over, and walked
up the incline of the gritty roof to the ridge, where Smokey and
Paul waited, sitting against either side of the chimney. Paul had
his eyes closed. Smokey was about to smoke. His lips were clamped
around a fresh cigarette and his hands were at work patting his
pockets for his matches. Did I smoke? he asked me through some space
in his lips I could barely see, and meant by it Can I smoke yours?
All that first morning Smokey smoked and talked, his voice louder
when he had the cigarette in his hand and out of the way of the
stream of words coming from his mouth. A puffing locomotive of runaway
conversations, he talked about Christians who had Jesus wrong and
about the race of giants in the book of Genesis. He talked about
James Earl Ray's brother, who had, in fact, lived in our town for
awhile and with whom Smokey claimed to have shared a drink or two.
"I got what they call the mono-vision,"
he told me during one of his recitations. He held a hand over one
eye and slowly rotated his head. "This one here sees close. This
one here far away."
I nodded like I took him at his word.
Smokey had a gossamer blonde afro so sheer
it looked back lit, golden and pink. The devil cometh as an angel
of light, he quoted. He was bony and bowlegged, all anglesa
body like a disassembled bicycle. He wore cut-off jeans that were
short enough to make underwear redundant and from which, when he
squatted or sat just so, a putty-colored glans might peek or a testicle
might loll. Smokey bared nearly all of his body to the sun and the
sun had bared itself right back. His skin was beyond tanned, permanently
and sub-cutaneously tanned, down, I imagined, to the organsa
heart that if removed would come out hot and dark as pot roast.
"It's a fact that women cannot resist
men on their roof," he said about us all, but meant specifically
him. Paul reminded him where we were standing and against whose
chimney he sat: on the ridge of the roof of my parents' house. He
glanced at Paul and squinted at me. From a hole in the corner of
his buckskin lips, he pushed out another raft of smoke.
"You got a foxy mother?" he said.
"She used to model for department stores,"
Smokey looked to the heavens. "Oh, Lord."
That first day we rough cleaned the gutters.
We tore the shingles off both sides of the roof with spades, repaired
sheathing where wood had rotted, removed old nails, and then in
the late afternoon, papered the roof with felt, slicing and patching
the wrinkles where the felt had bunched. After we papered, I hauled
bundles of shingles up the ladder, balancing them on one shoulder,
one arm around the bundle, one hand grabbing the next rung on my
way up. It was strenuous work. The bundles were heavy and scoured
neck and collarbone and trapezium muscle. I refused to let the exertion
show. I could guess at the low opinions Smokey and Paul might form
of me, but weak-willed would not be one of them. I'd spent four
years playing college tennis and many years before that training
for sports. I could deal with heat and fatigue and ambient antagonism.
At the top of the ladder, I leaned forward and using what leverage
I had left in my thighs and calves, heaved the bundles from my shoulder
to the roof, where they landed with a cavernous thud. Paul and Smokey
carried the bundles to the ridge, assembly line style, only Smokey
talking. A summer storm had been building in the west that first
afternoon, and when the sky darkened and the air went precipitously
cold, we hurried to spread tarps across the roof and to secure the
tarps with the bundles. Smokey finished last and shimmied down the
sides of the ladder like a logger down a tree.
That night, I ate alone. My parents would
be away for the week working on their marriage, while the work on
their home was ongoing. "As long as you're under this roof," my
father used to threaten. "As long as I'm paying for the roof over
your head." I might have done this sooner, I thought, to ensure
another measure of leverage in those arguments. After the storm,
I walked outside. The air had stayed thin and cool. The tarps had
held. The storm had left puddles in the folds of the tarp and branches
were everywhere, but no edge of it had torn loose. Cubist patterns
of spent shingles lay wet and black on the ground where we had missed
the dumpster when we had thrown or shoveled courses over the roof.
Cigarette butts and filters, now wet, had sprouted like fungi. I
picked up shingles. I let the cigarettes be. I found trash that
the storm had blown into our hedges, wadded it, and lobbed it into
the dumpster. I returned inside and tried to read Genesis chapter
six, the race of giants, and a few pages of a book on roofing I'd
checked out of the library when I'd learned I had the job. "When
a roof is steeper than six inches of vertical rise for every 12
inches of horizontal run, you can slip at the peak, claw and struggle
as you slide down the shingles, and pick up speed all the way to
the ground. No fall is a good fall."
Monday morning we stocked the roof by
re-spacing the bundles that had held down the tarp. We began the
starter course and carried it completely across the roof. We laid
the second course and then as many courses as we could before the
roof turned hot and we scarred the shingles. I climbed down the
ladder and stepped backward away from the house to get a broader
look, my turn acting as spotter. Paul told me to check for fish
lips, flaps in the shingles where nails weren't flush with the roof.
I studied the courses for lips and misaligned water tabs, the vertical
notches that are aligned every other row. I was tired and stiff,
asleep on my feet. The tabs and the imbricated edges of the shingles
wavered into hexagrams whenever I let my gaze reconfigure them.
Paul wore a sweatband that pushed his
hair up and revealed a widow's peak as dark as if drawn there in
charcoal. His teeming hair was so dense it fell over itself and
around his head like fern leaves. Hair on Paul's neck and shoulders.
Copious hair again in armpits, tangled as orioles' nests. His body
odor radiated off him like a magnetic hum. Paul, husky and quiet
and kind, had a wife who packed his lunch. He had a step-daughter
with a boy's name: R-a-n-d-i, he told me. Of Paul's life,
I inferred the wife from the wedding band on the ring finger of
the hand I observed during lunch. I inferred the well-packed lunch
from the wife symbolized by the band on the hand. I saw the red-headed
daughter when I gave him his ride homeshe was on a small trampoline
in her bathing suit. She was in the front yard of a yellow house,
spruce as a shoebox, beside a steep blacktop driveway on the left.
He offered the step-daughter's name when she bounced off the trampoline
and landed with her arms raised and one knee to the ground, in the
front yard on the street where every house had the same steep driveway.
"You look like you could use a good night's
sleep," Paul said before the door slammed shut.
Blue Thursday in the early morning. We
hoped to run courses to the caps, finish the new ridge cap, and
run the rest of the courses we'd started on the garage roof. Smokey
arrived early in a t-top black Trans-Am with a phoenix breathing
a jet of gold fire painted on the hood. The car was missing an exhaust
system. What oil was in the car was spilling into the manifold,
so that when Smokey started it, a cloud of blue smoke billowed around
it. On Thursday morning the car rolled to a stop in a sapphire fog
with Shelby, Smokey's woman, hard at the wheel and Smokey sitting
close by, looking philosophical as he listened to his car sputter
and knock to a standstill.
Shelby had come to help finish the job
and to spot me for the afternoon. The city tennis tournament had
started, and after a first round bye as the number one seed in the
men's bracket, I had a second round match scheduled for four o'clock.
If we hadn't finished the job by then, the rest would be left to
Paul and Smokey and Shelby.
Paul and I waited on the roof watching
Shelby strap a leather work belt around her mighty waist, the belt
jangling with a hammer, a trowel, red and yellow chalk lines. Screwdrivers
hung from the belt like pistols in holsters. May you go forth in
war, I thought. Smokey joined us on the roof, stretching and groaning
and, like us, watching Shelby. "She was so good last night she made
me holler my own damn name," he told us sleepily, shaking the match
he'd lit and keeping his eyes on Shelby, who hitched her belt together
one notch tighter and used the sole of her boot to rub out her cigarette
on the driveway.
There would be less of me on the roof
that day, less of any of us but the prodigious Shelby, who worked
like John Henry. When we discovered, only a few courses from the
ridge of the garage, that the second row, the one I had started,
was misaligned and we would have to tear all the rows off and start
over, it was all we could do not to gnash our teeth. I decided I'd
quit on the spot. Smokey lit a cigarette and looked to the horizon.
Shelby gave me a glance, took up the shingle eater, and sheared
the shingles away like kernels of corn.
"Holy hell," I heard Paul mutter.
We ran the new courses to the ridge, finished
before lunch, and ate in the shade, stealing glimpses at the imperturbable
Shelby, resting on the trunk of the Trans Am with her boots on the
spoiler. Had we come from other lands, other primitive times, we
might have sung a song of her.
Live, Shelby, live!
With one arm she clears the roof!
With the other she lays the shingles!
After lunch, I knocked off early and took
a shower before leaving for the tournament. I rested in bed with
my hair wet and a towel around my waist. I closed my eyes. I listened
to the three of them above me, Paul and Shelby saying little, Smokey
on the distant or near part of the roof, demanding answers to his
questions, yelping at his own jokes, his own best listener. I waited
for spaces of silence or lowered voices and when they came, wondered
how much the three of them might have been saying about me. Enough,
I assumed, and understood it if they were: the boss' boss' son,
etc., etc. So be it. Lying on the bed, arms folded on my chest,
this was the educated man's rite of passage: what I didn't know
better than Smokey and Paul and Shelby was roofing. What I did know
was how little it took to learn.
Arriving at the tournament, I had another
moment of illumination: manual labor sets educated men apart from
other educated men. I felt tougher for the work, pushy and confident.
The tennis court was hot as a roof, but I was ready, and I was anxious
for the diversion of a game. I was in a mind to play well and more
so because I knew I'd be on the roof tomorrow and someone would
ask about the tournament, or no one would ask and I would know anyhow.
I make no apologies for acknowledging that I enjoyed the idea of
myself as spectacle, an elitist in both groups: a deer among cattle
with Paul and Smokey and Shelby, a bull among china at the tournament.
My first opponent was a man my father's
age, an antiques dealer and furniture store owner with the moody
look of a ballet director, who wore white wool sweat socks primly
folded, white shoes, white shirt and shorts, two new white wrist
bands. We loosened up, met at the net to determine service, and
wished each other luck. If I have played tennis any better that
afternoon, I have forgotten it. Shots poured from me. Muscle memory
and no pressure. My shining mind. During crossovers, I sat with
a towel around my neck. Earlier, it had rained a little. I thought
of the crew and knew they'd have likely quit the roof because of
the rain. I was taking in the humidity that had been building during
the afternoon. My opponent was sipping something pulpy and homemade
that he poured in small amounts into a plastic cup and swished before
drinking. He kept his eyes closed and repeated to himself, "You
can do great things, Roy. You have been your own worst enemy. You
can do great things."
I waited and leaned the back of my chair
against the fence, happy as a man with a woman on his lap, feeling
at that moment in command of many things, laborer and scholar and
natural athlete, as satisfied as Smokey himself.
The next morning on the roof we did a
final inspection and then the clean up. Paul walked the perimeter
of the yard studying the roof for imperfections. Smokey kept close
to the house with a rake, looking for cigarette butts, stealing
glances inside windowssometimes cupping his hands around his
face for a better viewand combing the grass for nails or self-sealing
strips from the backs of shingles. I swept the roof down with a
push broom. Shelby cleaned the gutters using a horsehair brush and
pieces of step flashing, and then she flushed the gutters out with
the garden hose. For those gutters blocked with leaves and the loose
grit I'd swept from the job, Shelby stuffed the nozzle of the hose
down the top of the downspout and jammed rags around the hose to
seal the top of the downspout tight. At her signal, a faint nod,
I cranked the spigot on full, while she held the hose and the rags
with one hand and using the heel of her other hand, beat on the
side of the downspout until the blockage came loose in a black,
John G-, the crew boss, arrived later
in the morning in brown-tinted eyeglasses and a blue windbreaker
that he managed to wear superciliously. He was built such that he
protruded from the front and was flat on the back, like a gourd
split in half. He asked me how the job had gone.
"You might ask them, John," I said nodding
to the others beside me.
"I already have," he said behind his hand.
"And the reviews are im-pecc-able."
He climbed the ladder and walked the roof
with Paul, going over it with a disproportionate amount of care.
Paul led him to the areas that we had had to fabricate and that
Paul had personally seen to: valleys, the double weaving where the
two roofs met, the vent flashings Paul had bedded with mastic. John
squatted, touched them, spoke something over his shoulder to Paul.
"I'm always telling him he oughta write
a book about roofing," Smokey went on to himself, or me, his cigarette
bobbing as he talked. He repeated it when John and Paul came down
from the roof.
"I was just telling him that I'm always
telling you you oughta write that book about roofing, big John,"
Smokey said. "You probably forgot more about roofing than I ever
John gave him a generous smile and winked
at me. "And I've told him I can't think of anything
I have less time for," he said.
He congratulated us on the job, told us
about our next, and reminded me to advise my father that he had
sent the warranty information on the shingles to the manufacturer.
It was negligible, like the roof inspection and was meant to impress
my father by way of me, or me by way of my father, but no matter.
I told him sure, I would. John then handed us our checks, one by
one, Smokey last. John looked him up and down.
"A fool and his money are soon parted,"
he quoted, winking a last time for me. Smokey obliged by taking
a long whiff of his check.
"I smell me some trouble then," he said.
John said goodbye and drove away in a
brain-shaped carmoving up the boulevard toward an island of
pines that composed the neighborhood cul-de-sac, around the island
and briefly out of sight, and then reemerging, coming toward us
once more until, all of us giving a wave or nod, John and the car
whirred softly by. We lingered, leaning against the side of Paul's
truck, under the canopy of honey locust trees that lined our driveway.
There was nothing whatsoever pressing us, and having finished the
job, we were in good spirits, the smell of cigarette smoke and asphalt
paving and gasoline from the shop rag serving as the truck's gas
cap, the dry summer air and the whir of the 13-year cicadas above
us in the musky treetops.
There are two ways to choke during a tennis
match: to hit the ball too tentatively or to hit the ball too hard.
My opponent in the singles finals pampered his moments of desperation
by using measured breaths for his pre-serve routine or by holding
his hand up before I served, the better to give himself time to
walk in a circle with his head down, contemplating his racquet strings,
stretching like a bear and then suddenly straightening up, skipping
in place, and looking confident and aggressive again. He was so
preoccupied with his rituals for taming the defeatist in himself
that he had less time for our match. As free as I seemed to be from
my own negativity, I won a close first set and a nearly uncontested
second during which I had a sense of clairvoyance about my opponent's
shots and my replies. My emotions in check, all balance and harmonyI
was in the zone.
"They should have made a film of you,"
my father said afterward.
They would two days later. The local television
station named me the WGEM "Athlete of the Week," for which I would
have to be filmed and interviewed and for which I would have to
request time off (a summoning of the great Shelby) from our next
That night, feeling godlike, I read from
a New Age book "dictated" to the messengers Mark and Elizabeth Claire
Prophet. "The God of very gods is within you and is you,"
they had come to confirm. Even in my triumphant mood, it was hard
to take seriously. I knew better about myself and was sure God knew
it, too. I called John G- and told him I'd need time off for the
interview on Monday. He said he'd relay the message to Paul and
When I showed up late in the afternoon
on Monday, Paul, Shelby, and Smokey had done the hard work of the
tear off, which mattered to Paul and Shelby, who looked put out,
but which didn't seem to matter to Smokey.
"So tell us, Mr. City Champion, what do
you do with your balls during a game?" he asked me, holding an invisible
microphone with one hand and keeping an invisible earpiece in place
with the pinky finger of the other.
"I got a boy named Smokey who handles
those," I said.
I packed shingles. Up and down the ladder
I went, and then we tacked tarpaper during what remained of the
afternoon. I talked. I joked more with Smokey. I told stories about
the newswoman who interviewed me, which moved Smokey and me to bawdier
renditions of my interview. The tournament done, the end of the
summer in sightmy tongue was loosed. I had it in mind that
I'd work for no more than another day or two because what did anything
count now? It was the last of the last days of that summer. I went
on magnanimously about the world, grad school, the life of the mind,
gesturing with the swing tacker as if it were a Bible in my hand.
Smokey chattered explanations to Paul and Shelby and nodded at memy
amen corner. Paul ignored us as if we were nothing more than the
background country music coming from the radio he'd set on the chimney.
Shelby, despite Smokey's pleading and with Paul's encouragement,
broke her silence to tell the story of Smokey walking off the roof
that morning and falling onto the carport, bent cigarette still
in his mouth when he climbed back over the side onto the roof again.
"I dropped like a stone, brother," he
said to me, rolling his neck and shoulders. "But I thought to make
my muscles go slack before I hit."
"You screamed like a girl," Shelby snorted.
"No fall is a good fall," I quoted.
"What the hell's that supposed to mean?"
The next day when Paul and Shelby and
Smokey and I arrived, only Paul and Shelby worked. Smokey had a
shabby green splint bandaged around his wrist, which he moved with
great care when he needed use of it for smoking. I lit one of his
cigarettes. "Gracias, brother," he said quietly, wincing. He now
claimed to have temporarily lost consciousness after the fall. He
hadn't yet, he said, fully recovered his senses.
"How many fingers am I holding up?" I
asked, playing dumb while Paul and Shelby ran shingles.
"What's them big dogs over there?" he
replied, covering his close-range mono-vision eye with his injured
arm. They were two horses grazing.
I worked as listlessly as I could that
day and the next, and then I quit without telling the others. I
called John to thank him for the job, met him at night at the college
for my check, and spent the rest of the week packing for the move.
With the money from roofing, I drove across the river to a going-out-of-business
sale at a men's store and bought a set of clothes that I imagined
teaching assistants at Michigan State University might wear. Tan
corduroy jacket. Salt and pepper Harris tweed sports coat. Dress
slacks with hidden belts. A pair of leather oxblood loafers with
soles as thin as bowling shoes. Pastel shirts. Oh yes, oh yesknee
socks. I would be, as it turned out, laughably overdressed, but
no matter: my life was about to be a new enterprise.
On the day before I left town for good,
the past laid last claims on me. In something like a ceremony in
front of his closet, my father handed me necktie after necktie he
no longer wore: ties too wide, ties too narrow, one bicentennial
tie with eagles and Liberty bells"The ties that bind!" he
joked. My mother cooked enough for a wake and wrote a long, brokenhearted
letter about her love for her only son, which she left in my Bible,
which she left on my pillow of my freshly made bed. My room had
the sealed look of a historical site, the bed where little Tad last
And as a reminder of how closely one could
come to never leaving home at all, later in the afternoon, on returning
from a last errand, I witnessed a violent car wreck, which I was
fated to be a mere few seconds too late for. The vehicle in the
oncoming lane veered into mine, leaving the road on my passenger
side and then leaving the ground altogether after catching the guardrail
just sobarrel rolling mid-air above a brown creek and the
trees many feet below. I was the first to reach a phone and thus
one of the last to look over the rail into the culvert at three
high school students, whom I took to be dead rather than merely
unconsciouseyes shut, clothes bloody, and bodies in poses
that suggested a long fall from the sky.
That night I saw Paul at the Knights of
Columbus carnival. His thick hair was wet and combed into a loaf.
He introduced me to his wife. It occurred to me that Smokey had
never once mentioned her in any of his several soliloquies on sex,
and I could understand now why. I shook her hand and for the rest
of the night, whenever my hand came near my face, it carried to
me the voluptuous smell of herpink, soft. Paul's step-daughter
was there too.
"Hey, Randi," I said suddenly clear of
I asked Paul about Smokey. He shrugged
and said he thought he was around. I looked to the tent roofs and
tree tops, half expecting to see Smokey's gargoyle shape watching
the crowd and having a smoke. Too bad. I told Paul to tell him thanks.
He said he would. We shook hands a last time and wished each other
"Don't study too hard," he said.
"Don't roof too long," I replied and didn't
exactly mean it that way.
I left the fairgrounds and drove everywhere
I could think to drive: to the bottoms by the river and the fishing
cabins, to the Tower of Pizza above which my sister lived in a rented
apartment, to an old girlfriend's house where the lights were off,
to the tennis courts at Quincy College where the lights were still
on, to Madison Elementary, to the very end of 30th street
where the ag-industrial plants were, between the silos and under
the elevated conveyors at the seed factories. I drove for as long
as I had time and for as far as the road would take me around the
town I'd be leaving in the morning and on which I was now giving
this final benediction: from everlasting unto everlasting.
When I got home, I took the ladder from
the garage and leaned it against the roof as quietly as I could.
I climbed to the peak and sat against the chimney. Here was the
crow's view that late and lush last night between past and future:
my father's rose bushes, the stone patio, the barbecue grill, the
light by the door that led to the garage. Beyond lay the yard, the
white property fence, the twisted crab apple tree that hung over
I watched all of this for many more minutes.
The roof of sky above me, the light of moon, the simplicity of breeze,
my feet touching no ground. These were the last moments of that
last summer, and I was letting my dizzy soul wonder to itself. Who?