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Kevin Heath

The summer of 1986 was a summer of lasts–the 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.

Illustration by Dan McCoyThe summer being what it was, it was the last time I ever felt as imminently free from the complications of family and friends–a 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 angles–a 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 organs–a 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," I said.

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 home–she 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 windows–sometimes cupping his hands around his face for a better view–and 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, fetid mass.

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 knew."

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 car–moving 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 harmony–I 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 roofing job.

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 Smokey.

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 sight–my 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 me–my 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?" Paul snapped.

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 yes–knee 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 slept.

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 so–barrel 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 unconscious–eyes 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 her–pink, soft. Paul's step-daughter was there too.

"Hey, Randi," I said suddenly clear of mind.

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 well.

"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 it.

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? Who?


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