“Jess..” her voice rasped through the phone, “would you go down and look for Roger? He had a fight with the fire department last week; threw his radio into the road and ran over it with his truck. The Ski company called me Friday and said he hasn’t been to work in two weeks. The phone at the house is disconnected… I don’t know where he is..”
Heaven forbid that she would actually express concern. I was momentarily struck speechless by conflicting images of this
cantankerous woman, who had never ceased to put the world down at every opportunity, and raised a constant diatribe against her son; now apparently asking for my help. Her son, Roger, was a perennially cheerful fellow who wasn’t likely to either skip out on a job, or –egad-, utter a word of blasphemy against the fire Department: his complete and utter faith.
“Uh, what?” I stuttered. So unprepared for the wild answers this sudden news impaled on my morning consciousness.
“Look,” she snapped. “I just want someone to go take a look. You know your way around.”
“Mmm, yeah,” I began, but she had already hung up on me. I wrinkled my forehead and put the phone down gently. Roger had been a friend since childhood. Like many children of abusive parents, he had been brilliant and mature as a child, but as an adult, something hadn’t quite made it. He was restless, hardworking, but terribly eccentric. We stayed friends, as some people will for a lifetime, but more than two hours of his company could drive me to exasperation.
He’d been doing very well for the past few years. Mechanically inclined to fix absolutely anything, Roger had been working for the Ski Company alternating between fixing snowmobiles and maintaining the huge power generators for the ski lifts. He liked his job and considered it a step up from being underneath an automobile. In his spare time he volunteered for the local Fire Department, and stayed on call 24 hours a day. The Department had been kind of a salvation for him; providing quirky role models, a place to go, and a reason to stay off drugs. It would take an act of I don’t know what for him to be on the outs with them. It couldn’t be a good sign. Foreboding tugged at my stomach.
And I did know my way around their property; a warren of sheds and woods that had been an unending source of interest to me when I was a
child. And their place was certainly more than a passing interest also to the building inspector, the fire marshal, the health department, or anyone else who stood for reasonable order. Roger’s father had started the mess. An intellectual drunk who made a living doing one thing or another between benders.
Even though his parents had split and now neither of them lived on the property, Roger continued to maintain and build upon their weird collection with unerring balance. I suppose it was a way of life or something. I never really understood it.
I sighed. Life had been difficult for Roger and I hoped that he was all right. I made another pot of coffee and ate another breakfast while I delayed, apprehension edging my appetite. No telling how long this would take. Things that were connected to Roger sometimes took on a life of their own, distracting me for days, sometimes months; depending on how well he could pull me in. Our last debacle had been building a hovercraft. It had taken most of a winter and all our spare money, and in the end of course, we’d wrecked it trying an utterly stupid stunt which cost us our season passes at the ski mountain as well.
Taking the car would alert him, so I stuffed a sandwich, extra set of clothes and my rubber boots into a pack and ambled off to the old railroad grade that ran near his house, a short walk that I’d made hundreds of times. Coming over the crest of their driveway I could see that his truck was parked at the house. My feet patted across the meadow, cool down in the tall grass that the river mist seeped through, with the morning sun warming the back of my shoulders.
The house itself lay between the woods and the meadow, with a bank of windows facing the early sun. Like many of the early ski bums, Roger’s father had built it long on labor and short of funds; the concrete had been poured over several summers by the wheelbarrow load, and in lieu of rebar, the waist high walls had been reinforced with bedsprings and other junk. The rust stains gave it an odd, water-colored appearance, as if it were a painted house on a book page. As I came up to the patio, I could see the usual rags and half-finished projects scattered about, which would indicate to me that all was well.
There was no answer to my knock. The door was unlocked, as ever, and I stepped inside and yelled for Roger. Just because I was secretly afraid that he’d died or killed himself for unknown reasons, I wanted to check every room. There was a path cleared in a zigzag pattern across the floor. Rising around it were too many pieces of furniture, each piled high and low with magazines, newspapers, stacks of books, and accumulated knick knacks. The house had a permanent spicy smell which I’d always liked; a combination of dry wood, pine needles and a touch of clove, or tea, or something. Even the chairs were piled with stuff. Near the kitchen door there was one empty chair, with a dresser corner cleared for three empty coffee cups, plus an empty pot pie tin.
The kitchen table was piled high with motorcycle parts, and all of its chairs were occupied with interesting and useful tools, parts, and books. The cat bowl was overfilled with a small mountain of cat food. This could be Roger’s regular method of feeding, or it might mean that he was planning to be gone for a few days. There wasn’t much food in the fridge: a hunk of cheese and old leftovers. Crackers on the counter. The electric coffee pot looked well used, the counter stained around it.
The other rooms were dustier and filled with stale junk, obviously just storage areas now. Roger’s bedroom was sparse, and smelled pretty much like a mechanical area from the grease and gasoline emanating from his clothes. The cat was on his bed, content on a bright red wool blanket.
I skipped down the stairs and let the screen door snap behind me. The sheds started on the east side of the house and ringed the garden, now overgrown with raspberries and Rhubarb, and then were sprinkled through the woods. Some were storage lockers, others were little cabins with woodstoves and sleeping lofts. Roger and his brother had built some, Rogers’ father had built others and even lived in them from time to time. Shelters from the family living room. I could see that in the interim, Roger had been filling them up. The first one had car parts neatly stacked in its’ woodshed. Inside the building was an enormous collection of ropes. The door wouldn’t even open all the way. The others were the same story, different ingredients.
Behind the last shed was the trail to the river. I stopped and pulled on my rubber boots. The trail started small, disappearing into a thicket of willows, choke cherries and aspen saplings. This was always my favorite part of the property. I stopped halfway to the river, and waited for the gentle sinking of the path. I looked down, and saw between the grasses and shrubs, the strange mechanical designs in the ground, now gently covering with water. Roger’s father had for decades been hauling in engine cases from anywhere he could find them, and dumping them off the shore of this river bank. Gradually, they filled in with sediment and sprouted plant life, and little by little that piece of real estate expanded. Like a floating sponge of magnesium and steel, the entire bank would sink a bit as a man walked across it. Although it was despicable, and polluted the river, I had always found it to be a magical place. Otherworldly and strange.
Continuing to the river, I sat on the big snag that had settled there and gazed down into the green rushing water. Nothing here seemed amiss, but I was nonetheless dismayed by Roger’s expanding collection and his concurrently shrinking space. On one hand, he didn’t seem to have much of a life; just the edge of a chair and the corner of a dresser. On the other hand, his life seemed to have gotten so big, and so much in it, that there practically wasn’t room for him in it. I couldn’t decide which one was right. I went back to the house lost in thought.
As I was coming up the garden track behind the kitchen, I heard a big truck coming up the drive. It was Alex’s towing rig. Alex was another personality from our childhood and an eccentric of another kind. Stern, a man of few words, Alex roamed quietly with his big towing truck, making money when it pleased him, disappearing when it didn’t. They pulled up noisily to the corner of the garage, and Alex and Roger jumped out. Alex glanced my way, lips flattening in what passed for his smile, and Roger waved and shouted his usual cheerful greeting;
“Well, hey, ho! What’s going on?” and without pause he and Alex disappeared around the edge of the building. When I caught up to them they were busy inside the garage getting a little Ford mustang ready to take away. Roger always had work on the side like this. I let them finish their business, and lent a hand while they got the car hooked up to tow. Alex left with his usual briskness, and I waited for Roger to fill me in. He looked fine, and I was relieved. But he was darting around busily and avoiding my eyes. The Fire Department radio was missing from his stained leather belt.
“Well, I got to go pack,” he said. “I’m taking off for a couple of months. I just can’t take it anymore”.
“You’re gonna love this,” he wagged his head. “Come on inside and I’ll tell you about it.”
“Why?” I replied. “There’s no place to sit.”
“Yeah, ain’t it a shame?” Roger grinned. And he bounded into the house. Grudgingly I followed. He kept chattering. “I got me a houseboat, and I’m going to Lake Powell for the summer. I got plenty of money, plenty of food, maps and tools. I just wish that I had somebody to go with me. You could come. We’re leaving tonight!”
I was fascinated by the dreadful thought of being trapped for months on a boat with Roger, and the allure of walking out of my job, out of my life for the summer. On a houseboat. With Roger, who could do anything.
“What about your cat?” I said stupidly, a little dizzy.
“Well” he said, and he paused and looked me in the eye. “You can stay here and feed the cat or you can come with