Image Credit: Richie Bautista
Ramon towers above me.
DANGER. PELIGRO: Do Not Stand On Or Above This Rung, the stickers below his feet read.
He waves for the leaf blower and I pass it to him from my spot at the foot of the ladder. He grips the tool by the muzzle and looks down the length of overflowing rain gutters along the side of my house and calls something down but I can’t hear him with the two-stroke engine running at my head. And that’s fine. My blend of California surf bro and sophomore Spanish—along with what I picked up on the mission trips to Puerto Vallarta my sister and I took as pastor’s kids—it’s three countries removed from Ramon’s Cuban Spanish. Every time I can’t make him out about my sagging gutters or how happy he is to help, I feel something like shame even though we’re just trying to beat the full morning sun. And this is what neighbors do. That’s what Ramon seemed to say when he steepled hands in front of his chest and called, My friend, my friend, after seeing me shaky as hell with the ladder telescoped to its full 30 feet on the back of the house.
I had started on the back deck, where you clear the worst of it fastest. It’s a decent way to get some momentum going and you’re only five feet up. It’s hardly dangerous. I was going easy and alone but cursing the heat and trying to shake my guilt over last night’s last beer, over this hangover and always wanting a little higher or distant, as the case may be. I put something like The War on Drugs on in my headphones and gathered tools from the shed, which is also home to my writing desk, a few waterlogged novels, and some other reminders that I want to be something of a writer or I used to have the time to want to be. After clearing the barbeque and dragging my wife’s and daughter’s flowers a safe distance, I yanked the blower started and climbed onto the railing and aimed, pushing out closer and closer to the months of buildup, leaning further and further, the leaves holding until after a time lifting out of the gutter in large dark wings of the stuff.
At the section just off the deck, hitting the highest point of the house from the lowest spot of the property, Ramon appeared out of his place and called cuidado and mimed steadying the ladder or climbing it himself and I finally had to pull the ladder off the house and lay it in the backyard grass to show him that folded into a triangle it wouldn’t reach. I sweated and wrestled the complicated ladder and tried to laugh because it is pretty hilarious, what we’re afraid of—or at least what I am. Aside from everything, it’s especially this kind of stuff. I’d rather break my neck than be watched, even if it’s Ramon lounging against his Mazda, scrolling on his phone, caring too much about the world. It’s funny, too, how comedy isn’t all that funny in the moment, it takes time.
Now we’re set to race toward the shade of our dead neighbor’s wild looming walnut tree. Ramon scoops a handful of mud out of the gutter and drops it into a bank of weeds along the house. I hold the ladder like I matter and look up at him, his canvas shoes bending and balancing, but he’s not thinking much about any of it. He’s fittin’ to start, as they say in Tennessee, or vamanos, as we say—me and Ramon in our neck of the neighborhood—eight miles north of Nashville where we stay in Madison with mostly old and poor Whites, Latinos, African Americans, and a scattering of hipsters who can’t afford Nashville proper. And that’s how my wife and I fit after moving from Brooklyn after an MFA, after the adjunct teaching and hair salon jobs and adjucting some more before leaving the city because we couldn’t afford to start a family there and didn’t want to or couldn’t move back home to California. So we’re here, right off Gallatin Road, a block up from some halfway houses I pass when I take the long way from the bus stop, sometimes with a tall can of this metallic-tasting India Pale Ale that the corner store occasionally stocks and other times walking the dog and talking to my father on the phone.
There’s something about these places, the halfway homes. Maybe it’s the din of conversation I catch over the baseball game playing on my phone during what’s turned out to be another losing season. There are nights I go slow over the bridge across our unnamed creek we can hear running after a heavy rain, and I’m missing both coasts and playing music and touring, and maybe even at times I miss God, who, ironically, I shook some time after moving to the Bible belt and attending this Tuesday night service at a hipster church that scared the last bit of Christian out of me with a Fox News broadcast turned sermon about the glorious covert killing of Osama bin Laden and his family.
Now, three years later, I walk down Harrington Avenue talking to old and young folks who’ve been bussed up here to be reborn in stone, manor-style homes. They’re all gathered around plastic furniture drinking Mountain Dew, smoking, laughing and playing cards together. I stop by their mailboxes, which are planted in concrete set in plastic garbage cans or giant clay flowerpots, and turn down my game and hide my brown-bagged beer and hang for a round of conversation about our heavy summer—until another hand is dealt—until the house manager opens the front door to see what I’m about.
When he starts, it’s like Ramon’s painting, with easy, short strokes along the top layer and then long, deep passes as the leaves and dirt lift up and waterfall onto the driveway next to my daughter’s room. He spins toward the yard, and when he comes to where telephone lines and a tangle of electrical wires braid in front of him, he moves one strand aside and threads his head and shoulders through the opening and continues clearing the rotting leaves.
I look up at Ramon, and he’s not afraid, this man my age who stays with four other refugees. I only know they’re refugees from talking to a cousin of theirs who speaks English. He told me that they were placed in Madison and how it’s harder now for the rest of the various family members to join them because of what’s happening with Trump. It’s this night or another I learn Ramon is working to get his wife and daughter to join him here. He makes an airplane with his hands when he shares his future plans and the plane always lands in between our yards and we amen with a smile and a pause and pick up with something about my daughter, who Zoey, their house’s matriarch, loves and calls “linda” (beautiful) over the chain link fence when she sees Esmé picking dandelions or chasing our pit bull around the back deck.
When this is over, I’ll hide in my writing shed and put down a few details in my phone I worry might reduce Ramon to a character: t-shirt from some Nashville charity—rhinestoned pockets on his jeans—a powerful detergent clean—the leaves from my tree and from Williams’ in the end—how bright the sun shone, how silhouetted the leaves were—how haloed Ramon was in the light.
How holy a moment becomes. How high and low a morning, I think now.
Since I moved in a few years ago, I’ve taken notes like this about staying in Madison, about living next to a hoarder who scared us with his broken-tooth laugh and mismatched tennis shoes, who died one day and then was gone. I’ve got this tangle of lines about Madison I’m trying to straighten out. Fragments about nights sliding over to Sir Pizza after shifts at the Public Library—the 8-dollar buckets of flour-covered bottled domestics—the dusty medieval knights that line Sir’s walls and windows and floors—talking to my dad about God in that same parking lot—wandering that lot heavy with worry about money and loneliness—writing things like: Maybe God is only perfect in time—or over the course of it during another standstill shift at the library where the librarians are always complaining about finding another forty (ounce beer) in the bathroom—another patron’s watching pornography—I’m complaining our branch doesn’t carry The New Yorker one week I’m trying to brag about one of my successful writer friends with another cartoon or poem in the magazine. It’s a bric-a-brac section of feelings I’ve felt terrible having because I believed the scuffed-up soul of the place was only amusing to me in a shameful way rather than a sublime one, in a way that would prevent me from ever writing anything about a town that in some ways I chose and many of my neighbors did not.
Ramon and I circle to the front of the house. I peer up until my neck burns and I look down again and pray no one’s around to see I’ve Tom Sawyered Ramon into yard work with my ineptitude and my fear of falling.
I don’t see Bob but I bet he sees us through his tinted storm door or one of his security cameras that aim out at the street. He’s a retired military man and he carries a piece, he tells me, and he’s not afraid to use it, he tells the bums and the junkies and kids drinking on the bridge next to the dead man’s property. Our other neighbor, next to Bob’s duplex, I know he’s home too because he doesn’t work—no, he doesn’t go to work, is what I mean. He sells a steady series of something-or-other cars with For Sale in white on all the windows but never the price, year, or the mileage. He flips nearly a car a day, some weeks, so that’s all the time we have with any of his nondescript Hondas I can’t find on Craigslist. And I can’t figure where he finds the cars or how he’s become so good at unloading them. But the cars keep coming and they keep going and I keep watching because this is my life now—spending mornings before going to work writing this kind of thing in our driveway in our Toyota RAV 4, studying our sullen neighbor amble in and out of his house to meet people who rev off toward Gallatin and back and usually disappear after a cash transaction and not much chit chat the way it takes me when I buy something—anything—cautiously considering how old I’ll be by the time it’s paid off.
A few weeks back it was a black Ford Ranger.
One thousand, he says after I finally offer quantos, understanding no matter the price it’s too high because we’re broke and we’ve been that way since we moved to Nashville, or at least that’s when it started to matter. We even tapped my retirement from a teaching job I had in my twenties. It was tainted money, I tell myself about the 8k I saved teaching To Kill a Mockingbird and Li-Young Lee poems the students liked to antagonize. It came during a time I learned I had anxiety that couldn’t be prayed away and it ended in a stretch of weeks where we watched my parent’s marriage end and my dad, who’s lived as safe and pure a life as a person can, break his neck because of cancer we didn’t know he had. It was during that time my wife and I decided to leave his church, my father’s, to find how quickly most people will ghost you if you don’t happen to walk into the same old theater in Soquel Village every Sunday morning.
So it’s true I can’t afford the Ranger or to fix the shed so it will keep out the summer heat and am writing in the car, watching my neighbors—the old man on the porch next to me this morning included, who’s religious about shuffling out at 6:30 every morning to watch over the neighborhood. By the time I finish this essay, he’ll have migrated across the street to the car-flipping neighbor’s driveway for no discernible reason but to sit under their leafless pear tree and stare out to Gallatin in white grocer’s gloves that make him look like a mime waiting for his curtain call. And whenever tomorrow is (from now), I’ll still be typing on this 3-thousand dollar (work-issued) MacBook Pro in the passenger’s seat. The reason might be the fall frost rather than this late summer heat, but I’ll still be drinking coffee from this stupidly specific thermos, listening to the same Bright Eyes song over and over. And it’s not lost on me—the irony, the caricature I’ve made myself into. But it takes a while, that ironic bite. And it slides in over time how Ramon is longing for his family to join him in a town I hated because it wasn’t Brooklyn. And finally this guy across the street—my age, tattooed as I am, wearing filigreed jeans and a white t-shirt—slinging last-leg cars I can’t afford because I’m trying to start to pay off a Creative Writing MFA.
As things go, the black truck sells and then another—an SUV maybe—and then one morning a cobalt Mustang, wheels angled like you’d see at the dealership—decent blue and silver rims to match. I have a closer look from my mailbox, one of the few planted in the sidewalk cement rather than a trashcan, and I see the passenger’s side wheel is flanked way out, unnaturally like a broken leg. The brain skips. Busted like this, the axle cockeyed, the Mustang looks like a toy—a parts car we’re going to have to live with until every last piece is picked.
A week rolls by and I learn there’s some bleak magic to mid-nineties Mustangs that attracts creeps. Like the overweight white guy in a tiny polo shirt who holds his family captive in their minivan while he pores over every last detail of the Mustang one evening—never to be seen again. My neighbor is cool with these drive-bys, these black-glove-wearing characters redlining the Mustang in his front yard. The most savvy rev the engine from under the hood—smiling, yanking the throttle until the car roars and kicks up dust. But they all leave. And without saying much other than maybe, Thank you or I’ll be back. It’s like they’re really saying, Thank you for letting me believe I could own this car or that it’ll run again. I try to find my version of this ‘90s Mustang, what it would take—how we’re always believing there’s still a chance.
A few days later I come down our street with an overly full backpack of work shit and a can of the metallic IPA and Bob yells, Get a haircut, longhair! like he always does and I walk to his yard and we do what neighbors do—we face out the same way, he on his side, me on the street-side leaning into the fence. We look out at the road like something beautiful is happening.
Couldn’t have happened in a better place, Bob says and stretches his arthritic fingers out in the chain link fence.
A women on a street bike buzzes by. I eye the Mustang on the other side of the fence and take a drink of beer.
It just locked up right there, he says.
The woman on the bike howls back by us and waves at Bob.
I think I must know her, he says and smiles.
He used to ride too. Bigger bikes, he says, but his body’s given out for that sort of thing. But, I had bikes back in the day, Bob says, Harley Davidsons. He’s got a Harley sticker on his Corolla and faded, ghosts of tattoos swarming his forearms. There’s no reason not to believe Bob used to ride.
It was like something was holding the Mustang back, like it was tied down, Bob indicates. I’ve seen our neighbor race out of the driveway with the fury of a jockey peeling onto the track. He’ll speed back in five minutes sometimes to lap the block an hour later. It’s easy seeing that he gunned it and it locked up and he rocked it back and forth and pushed the thing until the axle snapped or what likely happened, the ball joint broke off.
I ask about our dead neighbor’s place and what his kids plan to do with their father’s property that’s been sending even more cockroaches and feral cats our way since the old man passed.
I’ve got the keys, Bob tells me. If you ever want to have a look inside, we can.
Yeah, I’d like that, I say and turn toward my place.
Be safe, Bob calls, the way he’s done ever since we moved into the neighborhood, and it rings in stereo because it’s the message I got from my mom every day before leaving the house.
Be safe. DANGER. PELIGRO. Be careful out there in the world.
The leaves rise above Ramon and me and shadow with our dead neighbor’s Kentucky Coffeetree. By the time this is finished, I know my gutters will be full again. And I’ll learn my father’s cancer numbers have risen. The corner store with the beer I like will disappear overnight and a church for people in recovery will open a few doors down from the corner store and they’ll plant a large vinyl sign that reads PRAYER on the corner of our street.
I’m finding no matter how far I push it—God or the memory of one—it returns like chronic pain, a lot like cancer it jumps into my body, arcing between my memory (heart) and my mind (brain).
Here’s the church and there’s the steeple. Open the door and see all the people.
Here’s my father going upstairs. And here he is now, he’s saying our prayers.
And on my mother’s side of this: Fearing your life is holy. It’s a bell-toll-of-a-message that was only amplified by our Evangelical church, this white-hot fear she and the others fanned that she doesn’t know about and it’s better that way. We need to stop letting the past lap around us. Some things are over and that’s okay, I tell myself.
Today I’m someplace between my mother and my father, spending another morning watching a middle-aged man hustle down our street against traffic with a pitching wedge by his side when there’s no golf course or driving range within any kind of reasonable walking distance. I’m a few thousand miles from my family, living in the south, thinking about our coastal Pentecostal lives as I come onto our street last Tuesday with an IPA as the sun neons Gallatin in the distance and the trees and telephone lines overhead and I find peace and a livable absurdity in the no-name neighborhood where my instruments from a past life of making music are rotting in the attic—this when we’re so close to the electric mystery of Music City, our sweet Third Coast, where we drive roads Johnny Cash trucked and hear the howl of the train he sang about bleed through the windows of our humble little house. It becomes clearer and clearer next to Bob and Ramon and the others, you’re here now, there’s no use or honor in denying what’s in front of you.
The next time I clear out my gutters none of what’s fallen will have grown while William was alive, which was his name, the dead man whose son found him on a rare visit that was prompted by Bob. William was a veteran who grew Christmas trees he sold in and out of season. He told me once as he was trying to trim his walnut tree, If I fall, don’t go calling an ambulance—you let me be. On more than one occasion I watched William climb the creek bank after pissing or possibly shitting in the creek, pulling a navy blue jumpsuit over his frail shoulders to return to hacking at his bushes and sometimes ours with a scythe. He was a prolific painter. Bob tells me that between benders over the years, William painted scores of hand-stretched canvases that filled his house and the outbuildings that are now all lousy with feral cats and other homeless animals.
My own father will die and I pray no one has to find him. His cancer numbers will climb but we don’t know the timing. For now we talk on the phone and in my way I try to convince him people are generally good and don’t need God—not the one they talk about at least—and he, in his way, says, yes, we can be because of God. I rock back and forth on what Martin Luther King Jr. said when he claimed, “The arc of the moral universal is long, but it bends toward justice.” I get everything mixed up with time and the idea of God working all things or any things together for good—in the moment or over the course of them. If it’s true, what Dr. King said, then fine, but maybe God’s redemption is dependent on ours the way Norman Mailer suggests in On God when he says, “We are here as God’s work, here to influence His future as well as ours. We are his expression, and not all artworks are successful.”
I pose a lot of these Mailer lines about redemption to my father. Like when he cites the Irish saying: “When God made time, He made a lot of it.” And Mailer adds, “So God could be spontaneous [in intervening], but why would he want to be?”
My father listens and he prays.
We catch up again as the baseball season is ending. We’re at the edge of winter in Tennessee and in California another Indian Summer is burning on and my father wishes I was home instead of in Tennessee, where I’ve driving my sleeping daughter around afternoons trying to find which of the countless churches have steeples and which steeples end in spires and crosses and which of the towers have clocks. Before the bells and clocks we know that the tower—the steeple and in some cases the spire, too—is what told time. And that’s rattling me, how those steeples coming off some of those old buildings were sundials and pointed to God and time at once.
I think how with church, there’s safety in numbers—in a mass of people in a theater of soft furniture singing songs tailored for our nervous American lives. But maybe my daughter needs a community of believers. I still don’t go but if I did, I’d want a church like Ramon getting us just high enough—something of a church in people of reaching doubt and cracked up teeth with roaring and necessary salvation stories. I can go on because it’s not out of my system—any of this God stuff, any of the church shit from three decades of fear of living or being myself—fear not fed by my father but his church and surrounding ones full of folks who’d kicked rock ‘n’ roll and drugs and sex with Jesus. Like David Bazan sings in his song about leaving the Christian faith and is true here: “It just takes a while for me to unfeel a thing. And the opposite of what you think, for that bell to unring.”
New leaves fell like prophecy, you might say, and a friend from college is helping me clear them and we’re no Ramon but we try even though we’re both afraid. I think of Ramon, my back arched as I looked up at him and beyond and my head bows to what’s coming out of the gutters and in that moment all I can think is, Get bent.
There’s a certain safety in numbness too. I’ve given myself good to it the past decade—in just enough beer, in staying just connected enough to people for them to trust I’m still there, in never putting myself in any real danger. And speaking of distance and God, there’s safety in metaphor as well. In keeping things just far enough removed. Like, “God is a rope.” This by way of C.S. Lewis in A Grief Observed and by way of my father when he’s telling my sister and I about his broken neck and his cancer. This list of comparisons of God to things we can sort of understand is ragged and long and no matter how I unravel it, it seems like we’re just ticking hearts with shelf lives and maybe God needs Ramon more than we need God.
I’m tired of getting burned, is what I managed to say that day to my dad and sister in some business park in Scotts Valley after hearing how God is a rope hung over this precipice of a life. Since letting go to at least an old idea of God, the hate and confusion have faded some. A lot of the shame about my life has too, and that’s left room for moments I can’t explain where in the middle of the night in bed or hearing my neighbors argue in Spanish I think, dear, God, have mercy, and it’s pure and on the positive side of that arcing bolt. I feel grateful and calm, in awe of life, catching the barn owl screech into one of William’s trees. Or there’s this easy drunk singing along with a Kenny Rogers song at the bar one night I’m working on this and it’s not everything and it’s also not nothing—these flashes of Ramon and his Mazda—Bob and his glorious tomatoes this past July—or over in William’s yard the unattended Christmas trees still trying to make it.