What a Fellowship
Nick rises to an incomplete, hunched stand from where he has been crouching on the ground. He looks stiffly round the shop, hands on his knees, the shop floor now littered with tools and bits we thought might just prove useful. “I need…,” he pauses. “I need… a new body.” We both laugh.
He’s a decade younger than me but far harder worn, some gaps where I still keep teeth and hands much more long-battered than my own. I feel like we are friends, though we just met today and are the acquaintances of but three hours. Perhaps it’s the loneliness of the pandemic that does this. Or perhaps it’s just that bonds will form where two people try together to solve a problem neither are well equipped to manage. Or perhaps it’s just that we could both be counted sad.
Nick turned up at our farm early this morning when his truck broke down and he limped it into our lane to get it out of the dirt road. The trouble is the drive shaft, the failure of a patched-up job with bolts he did on it the first time that it failed. I wasn’t home when he arrived, so both my father and daughter talked to him first. He asked if we had bolts, but they had told him no. They neither of them know their way around the shop or barns and both were wary of a stranger who looked rough. He’d told both that he’d just wait there in his truck and call his mother to come get him. Both texted me to tell of him, so I made haste and went to talk to him. My husband is again away so I am the best we have out here just now for all that might be strange or challenging.
Nick was all apologies for breaking down in our lane, explained the trouble in language I could only partly follow, for I was occupied with that assessment one must do out here with strangers. So few ever travel down our gravel road that one does not expect a stranger. Most out here are either known by us or can become so through a few short words of genealogy. Some of our people will know some of theirs, they’ll be relatives of the people on that place out past where the creek regularly floods the road or it turns out their second cousin was in school with my uncle way back when. Genuine strangers are rare and, because of this, a source of some trepidation. We are not on the way to anywhere a person with no near ties or kin would go, so one wonders at a stranger, the possibilities unlikely to console. I was reassured that our stranger seemed to know this, acting by the unspoken code for such circumstances by staying seated in his truck, not coming out to speak with me, not so much as putting a foot on our ground so as to stretch his legs. And he had a happy, well-kept dog with him, so there was that in testimony to his character as well.
Impatient with my uncertainties and, really, with it all – with the fear and wariness so long upon us all for this year of crouching low in melancholy seclusion – I told Nick, whose name I had just learned, to come on down to the shop. Down there I have sufficient bolts to secure the world entire could I but locate where the loose joints are, so surely he could find the bits to make this little bit of broken world work more like the way it ought. So, too, I idly thought, he’d likely be out of here more quickly if he could just rig his truck rather than wait on a mother many miles from here, one so far disinclined, it seemed, to come. He did fix the truck, but it was not quick.
I directed Nick to coast the truck to the concrete pad that sits in front of the shop so that getting under it would involve less dirt and fewer ticks. Once settled there, we commenced a tour of the shop and milk barn in search of proper bolts, tools, and what else at all might be of aid.
The search for bolts of proper size and heft took the first half hour. That sounds a long time but owes to my grandfather’s genius for thrift as it combined with his still opaque to me method of organization. He kept anything at all that might prove useful and this included lots of bolts, but he never had the time or will to organize the too many useful bits he kept. There are handmade drawers slid in one of the shelves, each filled entire with bolts and nuts. There are coffee cans of more, some stowed in old tool boxes that long ago lost their proper lids, and more as well inside the old wheel hub that serves as anchor to one of our sturdy clamps. And, too, over all the bolts and nuts sit walnuts stored by squirrels, nesting made by mice, and stray bits of metal with functions yet to be determined. Our search for proper bolts began in concentration but soon turned toward other matters – mostly to a quest for this, quickly succeeded by a quest for that.
I won’t here rehearse the wonder of it all. Let it suffice to say that by the time his truck was running, we had dragged out some three different drills, a half dozen sets of bits, and several of the drill keys we’d had to try before we found a one to fit. We’d unearthed the welding gear, though we decided against welding when after long searching we failed to find a single rod and, in ensuing consolation for this disappointment, admitted to each other that welders with no experience likely ought not learn on a truck aimed for the highway. Wrenches and sockets by the dozen littered the floor – we, neither of us, being good at eyeballing bolts for size. Two heavy rubber gloves, now bereft of their cuffs lay like dead hands on the workbench. We’d needed something to make up a gap between the shaft and its housing and rubber glove cuffs, along with a bit of cork scavenged from the highest shelf just did the trick. I can recite this, and still more I’ll spare, about the leavings of our work because it would be days before I got it all put back in order. Every time I’d make a start, it seemed too melancholy a chore just then, the way that cleaning up after a party might be for those who like such things.
After about the first hour, our talk of needed tools and strategies to fix the truck gave way to other matters. We talked of Nick’s dog Blue, who idled near the barn to sniff out rabbits while the work went on. Blue saved Nick’s life, he said - although not in the tedious way of dogs like Lassie, as if Nick had fallen down a well. Unless of course, like me, you count the human condition itself too often like a well too deep. Before Blue, Nick had two good dogs he’d counted as his heart, the sort of dogs that keep one alive when life’s other tethers thin to breaking. But then those dogs had passed and, left alone, Nick met with other troubles that made him want to die – troubles Blue couldn’t solve but over which she could and did provide protecting salve.
Nick had spent time in jail, both in Springfield and in Poplar Bluff – the food, he said much better at the first than at the second. His multiple crimes – at least those of which he spoke – are just that thing that often sends the poor to jail, the local paper’s crime page a recitation of all the “failures to appear.” With a warrant out for this, a traffic stop can quickly turn to jail, and so it was for Nick, and more than once. The phenomenon seems but a modern sort of debtor’s prison, I could almost think.
Before coming back to our county to live with kin, Nick and Blue lived in a tent for two years over in Springfield, in a bit of woods there. This bit of history made me see his being out by us as a fact no longer needing explanation. He’d early asked about a nearby conservation area and I inferred he hoped that he might settle there, was on a jaunt to scope it out. His homelife was the sort one has without a proper home. He lately stayed with cousins some, though most times with his mother. She’s an alcoholic, a fact she will confess when drunk but not while sober. She goes into the bathroom for long stretches, there to drink and cry, emerging swollen faced to say she should get treatment. By morning, she forgets all this again so nothing changes, a fact to wear upon the soul of a good son. In truth, I don’t know if Nick is a good son or not, or even what that means in a family like his.
The truck broke down outside our shop is new to Nick. He had a better one, he said, but one his own aunt had stolen. Some several months ago, he’d parked it on the street beside her house and when it disappeared, she claimed the county came and took it. But the county had no record and the manner of his aunt in this false telling told Nick all he thought he ought to know. He’d had nothing but a bicycle for months, each trip out a devil’s choice: stay isolated out on the rural highway where his mother lives or bike the many miles to get to town. The highway where his mother lives is one familiar to me, though I have never there seen one mad or desperate enough to take it on by bike. The pavement drops away to brush and wilds, with no margin for the some extra that a bike alongside trucks and cars would take. It’s a pleasure in a truck, the hills all rolling out like curled ribbon, some steep enough to send a stomach in a plummet if you take them nicely fast enough. But those hills are not the stuff for bikes or if they are, they’d be for those who bike in helmets and tight pants, masochistic sportsmen who want a bit of torture, not people with no other transportation.
Nick said he mostly stayed away from town. Said that by the time he could even get himself to Dollar General, the store closest to his mother’s place, he’d be so worn down by biking in that none of what it offered could any longer tempt. He could not stay away entire, for he’s in the care of the local mental health clinic and must attend his appointments. That clinic is another three miles in, though at least the streets by then have largely leveled off. Nick said he mostly sought there for reasons he should keep on living, but the pills the doctors gave him didn’t provide reasons or even offer up a better way to look for some. He mostly didn’t fuss with them, he said, though he continued on biweekly with his visits, visits he had hoped could be improved upon if he could drive instead of bike. All of this is but to say that Nick’s truck was meant to be the most ambitious sort of blessing, the kind that changes life entire.
Nick’s new truck is a beater, bought from a guy who was taking it to the salvage yard to sell for bail money. Nick used all his savings, some $400, and took it off the guy instead. He’d already rigged that drive shaft once, though he’d then owned it only for three days. The rigging job he’d made was not the best, so we throughout sought to do better, our hopes pinned on the cork and rubber glove combination as a bid to make a better fit, something to keep the bolts from shearing off from the vibrations as he drove.
With a truck that mostly worked, he might gain back his profession, get a “real job,” and escape sometimes his drunk and weeping mother. Nick is a hairdresser by trade, certified, he said, by one of those familiar names that shows up on shampoo – Vidal Sassoon? Paul Mitchell? I can’t now recall. I don’t know what took him out of his profession, whether it was the jail time, the homelessness, or the depression. He still cut hair when he could but this was not often since it must be done from home, and never brought in much. I assume that’s how he accumulated the savings he’d invested in the truck.
Throughout this recitation of his life, I mostly only listened. Sometimes I think we mainly need someone to marvel with us at life’s woes – not one to carry on or pitch to solve them, but one who can just say and mean it: Damn, that’s hard. So that’s about all I had to say. This might suggest the conversation was one-sided but I would never call it so. Just as he’d reached some new height of sorrow, Nick would coast back down with the laughing style of freedom that comes with telling up so one can shuffle off the worst. “So,” he’d say, “that’s what my mother is like – how’s yours?” Or, “well, now you know my whole life story, so tell me yours as well.” The only bit I found uneasy in it all would come when he would became self-conscious about the hours we were spending and the need for my hands on the task as well as his. He would then say that he was sure I had better or more important or more fun things to be doing than this. Or he’d ask what my real plan for this day been. I did not want to say.
How does one go about saying that one had planned to spend the day writing on a book about death? It seems such a breathtakingly stupid thing to try to do and one easily traded for a broken drive shaft. Both are problems I know not at all how to solve, but only one has good company and conversation. Better, clearly, to learn about the mashed potatoes in the Springfield jail, to admire, out loud and together, the salutary, singular consolations of a good dog, to triumph in that last drill bit, the only one that refused to break – to speak, ultimately, in all our wild loneliness while we solved this one trouble among all the stubborn rest.
In truth, my will for what I call my work is weak. There are times I find it but embarrassment to be a philosopher. One day when I’d been doing outdoor work to make one filthy, my uncle marveled out loud at me and said something I’ve long struggled to forget. Retired and joyful with it, he said, “You know, I worked all my life so I could at last just sit down to read and think.” The implication is the too familiar curiosity of my job to most out here: I get paid to sit and read and think. Too often, I don’t really want to do those things. I also tire of being the stone in an otherwise fine pot of rice, the bit of buckshot cooked into the meat, the stuff to crack a conversation’s tooth. Owning up to being a philosopher, to being what I sometimes have to be, is an ending. Years ago, as I was still earning my PhD, one of my cousins eyed me warily and said he wasn’t sure he’d like to talk to me. Now that I was studied in philosophy, he fretted that I’d “be able to tell what everyone was thinking.” I think he confused me with a psychologist, since philosophy has never yet made me near to understanding, of all things, people. I here drift into all I thought but did not say to Nick. Being a philosopher, for me, amounts to never wanting to own up out loud to what you are or should be doing. There’s just no good way to tell a man in sorrow that were it not for his broken drive shaft, I’d be thinking about death. So I just don’t. We talk instead about my hair.
Nick offers to give me a haircut, both in payment for my labor and tools, as well, he says, “in friendship.” I take his number just in case I someday want a haircut, but I think it is unlikely. The last time I had my hair cut by someone else was for my wedding, a history I tell to Nick. He cuts his own as well, so he is not dismayed. We compare our current hairdos, both adorned with dust where we have lain beneath the truck, both shaggy with sweat and work. We conclude together that we look just fine, just as we are. But all the same, Nick does allow, it is a good that people don’t know that they can cut their own hair and will pay someone to do it. “You gotta find something someone will pay you to do,” he says. Maybe it’s not terrible after all that I get paid to think about death.
After more than four hours at it, Nick’s drive shaft is fixed, at least enough so he can risk our highway, then his own. I send him off with peanut butter crackers and a Coke. My day is my own again, but I will not think of death just yet. I will think instead of chance and fortune. About how things you struggle up against with others go better than the ones you face alone. About how things, so many things, can be so damnably hard. About how small success might be the most success of all. About my grandfather’s bolts lain by and furred with dust are gone now down the road and how much I hope they hold. Let fortune, just for this and just for now, be once kind.