Tuesday, November 26, 2013

I'm from Nowhere

It was a rainy spring morning, probably a Saturday because I wasn’t in school and I didn’t have one of those dull headaches you get on rainy Sundays. I was about eleven years old and with my friends Eric and Jim who were the same age. The three of us were walking around the neighborhood looking for something to do. The neighborhood was a subdivision that could have been the scene of an Updike novel if it wasn’t in south central Michigan. There were lots of two car garages but probably very few martini shakers. The people that lived here—our parents—seemed to have been sated by their moderate success. They found all the scandal they were looking for on TV and in the grocery store checkout line. The neglect of the subdivision was not as apparent as it would have been in a city. Still, it didn’t take much attention to see that signs needed painting and the concrete used on the driveways cracked after a few winters. The landscaped median was blowzy. The pine trees were surrounded by donut-shaped mantles of dead needles. The ornamental rocks were beginning to rust in places. The last time gravel had been laid down on the streets, it hadn’t been entirely cleared away and pebbley dunes washed against the curbs and hunched in the middle of the street. The cars that were closer to the ground occasionally hit shoals of gravel which made a sound like a shovel clearing an icy driveway.

The rain had dampened the gravel for the first time which resulted in the widespread smell of wet stone, a hopeless kind of smell on a Saturday. We were walking up a hill in the back part of the subdivision where the houses were spaced much farther apart and each driveway was afforded its own little hill. Some of the unsold lots in this part of the subdivision were large enough to feel like swaths of unexplored forest. In the middle of one we had a few boards that we had looted from nearby construction sites. We had one hammer and a couple of boxes of nails. But we got ahead of ourselves when we started construction. Instead of concentrating on measurements and where the door would go, we started talking about the entertainment center and how to get beanbags for the third floor ‘chill-out’ room. So we’d never gotten farther than a few boards hastily pounded onto a tree. About all you could do was sit on them, even then, they were uneven and you usually fell off.

Sometimes, we came back to the fort, as we called it, and tried to figure out what went wrong. That day we weren’t even interested enough to look for the hammer. We glanced around to see if anything interesting had been left behind by the other kids and then hopped back to the street, trying to avoid the wet grass lashing at our legs. Back on the street, I felt the water soaking into my socks where there was a hole in the back of my shoe. The walk toward the front part of the subdivision felt like work. We knew every fence, every dog’s bark, every car. We turned off the main street and took the short cut that led behind Jim’s house. We hadn’t been back there much that spring and the weeds had grown up quickly with no one to tramp them down. We had only taken a few steps before my socks and shoes were completely soaked. I didn’t say anything, but thought how nice it would be to be a wild animal and to not be inconvenienced by things like wet socks. If I were a wild animal, I thought, I could lie down in that swale of trees over there and listen to the rain falling on the leaves. If I were a wild animal, I wouldn’t even be bored or get cold. My wet shoelaces had come untied, they were trailing behind me and whipping ahead as I walked. The laces and the cuffs of my jeans were covered in those seed-sized burrs and a few of the big spikey ones. There didn’t seem to be any point to trying to get them off. I knew from experience that after a few days they usually fall off on their own.

When we came out onto Rickfield road I realized that Jim and Eric were covered in burrs, but I only had a few. They must’ve walked into a plant that I avoided. They stopped to pluck off the bigger ones that poked so far through your clothes they scratched you when you walked. The feeling of being scratched by burrs is especially annoying in wet jeans. Don’t ask me why. I absent mindedly picked a few of the bigger burrs off myself, but there weren’t many and I started to look around, trying to see if there was anything interesting on this part of the street we’d overlooked in the past. There used to be a skateboard ramp here, but that family had moved away, or at least the kid who built the thing had. The houses up here were the cheapest in the subdivision and only had car shelters rather than attached garages. The car shelters were slanted roofs to park under, about ten cars wide. It was easy to get on top of these roofs, but we had learned once you got up on them there wasn’t much else to do but get in trouble. They weren’t close enough to anything to jump from and they were completely open with nowhere to hide. If you climbed up on one of these someone would see you, yell at you to get down and then you’d jump off. That’s it.

All the houses on the block looked dead, except one of the houses near the end of the street that had a garage. The garage door was open and a fat guy with white tennis shoes and shorts seemed to be moving some stuff around. None of us had ever seen this guy before. We sat on the wall where we had stopped to pick off the burrs, watching him. There was no car in his garage, but there were a lot computer CPUs, probably about fifty of them. Most of them looked the same, rectangular and white with slots for disks and CDs and eject buttons. The fat guy seemed to be sorting them, bringing them from somewhere inside to the garage. We gradually stopped picking burrs and watched him set one down and go back indoors for another. “Where do you think he got all those?” Eric asked. “Probably mailed in all his Twinkie wrappers for ‘em.” Jim said and we laughed. “I bet there worth a lot of money.” He added when we stopped laughing. “Yeah,” I said. The door swung back open again and we were quiet. The fat guy emerged with another CPU and went over to where he had the rest of them stacked together in the garage. He must’ve seen us. After he set the CPU down he looked out across the street to us and beckoned. We pretended not to notice but did a very bad job. “What the hell do you think he wants?” Jim whispered. “To eat us?” I suggested. We laughed, nervously. The fat guy had started to yell to us and was now standing at the open garage door. “Hey,” he called in a voice that was slightly high, almost like a kid’s. “Can you guys help me?”

I don’t know how it was with other pre-teenagers, but those years would’ve been much less turbulent for me if more strangers had asked me to help them. I didn’t give a damn about helping my parents with anything, but I loved being able to help people I didn’t know. I held open doors and returned shopping carts to corrals with the idea that I was doing something very mature that hardly cost me any effort. Eric and Jim were similar, but we hardly ever got to help anyone. Who wants the help of some punk kids with untied shoelaces? But this fat guy, this stranger none of us had ever seen before, was standing in his garage asking three eleven year-olds to come over and help him with something. It may have been his effeminate voice, the difficulty he showed carrying CPUs or our newfound haughtiness, but we decided that should he try anything unsavory the three of us could take him, or at the very least, get away from him. Maybe he really wanted our help. After a whispered conversation, we got up and walked toward the open garage, out of the rain.

“Call me Computer Joe,” the fat guy told us, “everyone does. I work on computers.” We shuffled nervously as Joe explained our task: to carry CPUs out of the house, stack them in the garage and, when they were all together to load them into his Bronco, which was still parked on the street. He showed us where the CPUs were in his furnished basement and then he disappeared upstairs. We all automatically grabbed a CPU and headed back up the stairs. We didn’t say much other than: “this is weird.” For the first few trips up and down the stairs we clung together, but as we began to work, we set our own paces and began to feel more confident, walking in and out of the house alone. When we passed each other on the stairs or in the garage we whispered jokes about how Computer Joe was going to eat us or pretended we were going to drop the CPUs we were carrying. What we were doing had become normal to us in a few minutes and no one had seen Joe since he left us in the basement. We hadn’t even heard him.

When we had brought all the CPUs to the garage, we stood there for a moment, awaiting instruction. Jim said that we should put them in the Bronco, since that’s where Joe had said he wanted them, but Eric and I thought it would be a better idea to ask him before we started carrying them all out to his car. Besides, it was raining. He would at least want to back the truck up closer to the garage. We decided to go in and call for him. Not knowing what else to say, we called for him using the name he had introduced himself with. “Computer Joe?” We yelled. “Are you there? We’ve got all the CPUs in the garage.” “Ok,” he called down from upstairs in his high voice. “Be right down.” Not knowing what else to do, we went and stood in the garage, next to the work we had done.
When Joe came out into the garage, he was followed by a little boy who was about three or four years old. “This is my son Levi.” He told us. We said hi to Levi, feeling like uncles, or at least older brothers asking him innate questions about the Winnie the Pooh shirt he had on and the ball he was carrying. None of us were from big families. We hadn’t had a lot of experience with babies but Levi didn’t seem to mind. I was really feeling like an adult, calling this man by his first name, patronizing his child and carrying heavy things around. “Joe, did you want us to load the CPUs in the Bronco now?” I asked, feeling like I was talking to the foreman on a construction site. Joe looked at the CPUs as if he’d forgotten about them. He considered the question and then waved his hands indicating his decision before saying anything. “No, boys, don’t worry about that yet. Just leave them here. Thanks.” We started to tell him that he was welcome and that it was no trouble at all. “Well, let me pay you a little for your help.” Joe said and reached for his back pocket. When he handed Jim a 20, I wanted to rush out before he changed his mind. We couldn’t have worked for him for more than half an hour and he was giving us twenty dollars. We were moving toward the door and thanking him when he handed another 20 to me and another to Eric. Sixty dollars! This man was paying three 11 year-olds sixty dollars to move some CPUs up a flight of stairs? We thanked Joe profusely and assured him if he had any more work that we would be only too happy to do it. Jim, who lived the closest, wrote down his phone number. “The three of us can help you whenever you want, Joe,” Jim told him and Eric and I agreed, our eyes practically shining with greed.

We weren’t even half a block away when the absurdity of what had just happened caught up with me. “What the hell was that!?” I yelled at the other two, who I noticed also had their right hands in their pockets holding their twenty dollar bills, as I was doing, afraid that if we let them go they would somehow cease to exist. “That was awesome.” Jim said. “Yeah,” I agreed, “but wasn’t it also a little weird? Why did he pay us so much? He probably could’ve carried those up himself. He didn’t look crippled or anything.” “He’s fat,” Jim argued. “What? Fat guys can’t lift anything? C’mon, man. Why did he pay us so much then? And who was that kid?” “He said it was his son. What’s wrong with you?” “Man, I don’t know. Maybe you’re right. Maybe he’s just a nice guy. It just seemed weird to me.” “Hey,” Eric said trying to broker a peace. “At least we’ve all got twenty bucks.” And the three of us went back to our separate houses to put our twenty dollar bills in a can or a box where we kept the rest of our money and spend the rest of the rainy day thinking about how we’d spend it.

I had almost forgotten about the incident about two weeks later, when Jim came up to Eric and me at school during lunch and told us that Joe had called him the day before. We had another job. He said it would take most of the day, but that he’d pay us for it. I wondered if he paid us 20 dollars for half an hour how much would be pay us for an entire day? I still had my reservations, but when I saw that I was the only one, I readily agreed.

When I got back home from school my mom was standing in the kitchen with her arms akimbo. When she was mad about something at night she stood with her arms folded. When she was mad about something during the day, they were akimbo. It smelled like chopped white onions and warm canola oil in the kitchen. My mom was making dinner. With her arms still at her sides, she began to talk. The kitchen radio was turned up so loud, I couldn’t hear what she was saying. “Huh?” I said, reaching for the radio to turn it down. “Don’t touch the radio,” my mom said, bringing her hands up, one of which was holding a wooden spoon that had tomato sauce all over it. “Well, I can’t hear you.” I said, dropping my hands. “Let’ go over here,” my mom said, gesturing with the sauce spoon to the living room. There was some kind of problem with the radio. The volume and the station couldn’t be changed. It could only be turned on or off. Anything else caused some kind of problem so we were always having to yell over the thing.
I sat down at the table. I could hear my sister bounding around upstairs. She was listening to her favorite record Ten Girls Ago, probably one of the most annoying songs ever written, especially when it’s played on the wrong speed the way she likes to listen to it. My mom set the spoon down on her plate. “Who’s this Computer Joe?” She asked me. “Who told you about that?” I asked, caught off guard and not knowing what else to say. “Yvonne called me about half an hour ago and told me that Eric had come home telling her you guys were going to work for some guy named Computer Jon tomorrow.” “Joe,” I corrected her. “What?” My mom asked. “Joe, Ma, his name’s Computer Joe.” “I don’t care if his name’s Computer Bob Dylan. I don’t want you working for someone I’ve never met.” “Ahh, c’mon, Ma!” I tried to argue. “We’re not stupid; it’s not like he’s paying us in candy or asking us to work in our underwear; he’s just some guy who needs help with his…uhh… computer stuff.” BEEPBEEPBEEPBEEP the smoke alarm began to beep. “The garlic bread!” my mom jumped up and ran to the oven. A cloud of acrid smoke spilled out as she opened it and pulled out a pan of charred bread. “I mean it, Jonathan. I don’t want you working for some computers person I’ve never met!” I probably could’ve argued with her some more, but I didn’t care that much. I was already reluctant to give up my entire Saturday just to make money. It struck me as being a dubious trade off even if there wasn’t anything weird about Computer Joe. “Fine.” I mumbled for propriety and stomped up to my room.

In the lunchroom on Monday, Jim fanned about 60 dollars’ worth of ten dollar bills in front of Eric and me. “Man you guys should’ve come to work on Saturday. We hardly did anything but hang around the garage, talking and listening to music and I made sixty dollars.” I was almost glad my mom hadn’t let me go. The idea of hanging around that garage all day Saturday for sixty bucks didn’t seem worth it. I didn’t mind half an hour, or even an hour, but I had no desire to spend my whole day off hanging with a computer guy for sixty dollars. “What did you do?” I asked. “We just moved some stuff, like last time.” “Who else was there?” “Some other guy who was there to help,” Jim said. He had one of those adult complexes that some kids develop. He liked to do just about anything if it seemed adult to him. We were the same age, but to me, adult stuff was boring and I wasn’t going to do any of it unless I had to. Working with Joe was better suited to Jim anyway; I figured that he could keep the job. I was probably never going to go back.

Jim worked for Joe about once a week for a few months. It had become such a commonplace thing he hardly mentioned it anymore. “What are you going to do this weekend?” I’d ask him in class. “I’m working for Joe.” He’d respond, as if hauling computers around was the most natural thing for a sixth-grader to do on Saturday. Eric and I saw less and less of Jim on the weekend. While we’d blow our ten dollar a week allowances on toys or movie tickets every Saturday, Jim hung out at Joe’s all day and never seemed to be around to spend his money with us. I assumed he was just saving it for something. I would’ve felt bad for not seeing him much anymore, but he didn’t seem to mind.
One Thursday, Jim came up to Eric and me after school. “Hey, guys, I know you don’t want to work for Joe, but you should come out with us this Saturday. We’ve got to rewire a radio station out by the highway. It’s going to take all day, but the pay’ll be good. Joe said he really needs people to help.” In less than two months, Jim had gone from hauling computers up stairs to rewiring entire buildings. It seemed slightly ridiculous to me, but my sense of pride was slightly wounded. Jim had mentioned some of the things that he’d learned from Joe before. It seemed like Joe had taken Jim in as a sort of apprentice. I didn’t have much interest in learning about electronics, but figured it might be valuable to learn a little about rewiring radio stations while getting paid to hang out in an empty building all day. Maybe there’d even be some old windows to break or something. I told Jim that it sounded good and that I’d mention it to Eric and tell him not to say anything to his mom about it.

On Saturday morning, we met in front of Jim’s house early, around eight and then walked over to the house where we had met Computer Joe a few months before. Everything felt different than it had that day we had helped move the CPUs. We had been walking by, stopping into this guy’s house didn’t interrupt anything and we had all been bored, anxious for any kind of diversion. Now, we had gotten up early and come over here so we could get in this man’s car and drive across town to an abandoned building. I would’ve felt much more suspicious, but in all the times Jim had worked for Joe, he’d never reported anything even slightly odd.

Joe was as I remembered him, slightly baby-faced, always blushed and with large ankles packed into white tube socks. He came out to greet us as we walked up the driveway. As he did so another man came out with him, a man who was much less friendly-looking. He was skinny, wearing clothes that were ripped and spattered with paint. His face and neck were bumpy and red, covered with dark stubble and he had a nervous look. No one introduced him and he didn’t say anything. I didn’t like the guy, but Joe’s son Levi was there again and I figured nothing too unsavory would happen with a kid around.
The truck was already loaded with a few spoils of wire and very little else. The unshaven guy opened a door and held up his seat so Jim, Eric and I could climb into the back. There were a lot of fast food containers and soda bottles on the seats and floor. We had to push a bunch of old wrappers and bags onto the floor to make room to sit down. As Joe climbed in and started the car, I thought about making up an excuse and asking to be let out. I knew it would be painful to hear what happened to Eric and Jim later on, but at that moment, I only cared about me. Rewire a radio station? What the hell had I been thinking? I was eleven years old? I didn’t know anything about wires and how could I really help with the work? I wasn’t very tall and didn’t have very much upper body strength. This didn’t make any sense. I started moving to make for the door, but Joe had already gotten in. The door was shut. I’d have to ask to be let out and at the time I was more afraid of embarrassing myself than being murdered. I leaned back and said nothing. No one did. The ride out to the radio station was almost completely silent and the only one who seemed comfortable was Jim. I noticed that even Levi just stared out the window, like he wanted to be somewhere else.

Just north of the junction for 94 and 127 there’s a place with an old radio tower and a satellite dish next to it. It’s one of those places you’d never notice unless you were scouting foreclosed property. It was like an overpass with nothing underneath it, or a dead-end street with nothing on it but weeds and broken sidewalks. When we pulled up to the building, it was like it suddenly leapt through my memory. Whereas before every time I had imagined this stretch of highway, there was an empty plot here there was now, and always had been, a salient, but empty radio station.

The parking area was packed down paving stone that had matted grass growing through it. There were ancient piles of Quikrete that had solidified with parts of bag still stuck to them. Behind the place, there was all kinds of construction trash: empty cable spools, a workman’s boot, crusted paint cans with petrified brushes stuck to them and a few rusted circular saw blades. Weeds grew through all of this. I felt panicked looking at it. No one had been to this place in years.

The inside was no better. We got out of the car and walked through a doorway with no door. The walls, ceiling and floor were intact, but everything else had been stolen, mildewed or smashed. Shards of fluorescent light crunched beneath our feet, the smell of black mold stretched out from dark corners and rats could be heard scurrying through their urine-soaked nests above and beneath us. It didn’t look like a place that needed to be rewired, but a place that needed to be torn down. If anything, it needed to be cleaned out first and the structural damage assessed before anybody started with the wiring, even as a sixth-grader I understood that. Since we had arrived, my heart had been knocking against my chest. I tried to keep my distance from Joe and the stubble-faced guy. If they decided to pounce, I wanted to be the one standing closest to the door. We were pretty far from everything out here, but there was the highway, I could always run there and try to flag a car down or if that didn’t work I could run to the Red Lobster. I hoped I’d be able to save my friends.

Joe went out to the truck and came back rolling one of the spools of wire that we’d brought. He took it up on a ladder with him and started to show us how to thread it through the beams and the other wires. I noticed when he did this that there was already some new-looking wire up in the ceiling. It stood out because it was the only new thing in the place. Joe seemed intent on explaining the wiring to us. Watching him talk and wince when the old dry wall dust got in his eyes, I began to realize he was serious about wiring the place. He and the stubbly guy were going to do anything. I looked over and saw Levi jumping up and down on an old piece of particle board. I smiled and then looked back up to Joe’s explanation.

We worked for the day climbing up and down the latter, joking with each other and passing the spool of wire over and under the beams and other wires. Joe walked around checking various things, and the stubbly guy was working in another room. Levi had been left with us and we kept an eye on him and even played with him a little. He seemed grateful for the attention. At the end of the day, we had looped wire through most of the building. I hadn’t really understood much about what I’d been doing, and I doubt that we even did it right, but at the end of the day, I felt good about it and for years when I drove past that building, I pointed it out to people as the building I wired. No one ever questioned me about it. Nobody seemed curious to know how an eleven year old ended up wiring a building. Everyone either believed it or assumed I was making it up for some reason and said nothing.

After the wiring job, Computer Joe disappeared. I don’t mean the next morning his house was empty and his car gone but he disappeared from our lives. Summer vacation started a few weeks later and maybe those warm and adventurous days dissuaded us from thinking about work. After that day we wired the radio station, no one mentioned Joe again until an August afternoon a few months later. The three of us were walking around, trying to think of something to do when I remembered Joe. “Hey, let’s go over and see if Computer Joe’s around; maybe he’ll even have some kind of work for us.” But on the way over there, we passed a basketball game. We refused the first offer to play, but as we were walking away, the other kids started insulting us and our basketball playing skills and we had to defend ourselves(even if they were right and we weren’t very good). The first game was so close that we decided to play again and then best two out of three. By the time we were done, I had to jog home to make it back before it was completely dark and when I burst into the kitchen my mom was standing there with her arms folded because it was night and she was mad. By the time I got to my room, I had forgotten all about Computer Joe.

Just before the end of the summer we did make it over there. Taking the shortcut that came out on Rickfield Road one afternoon, Eric, Jim and I walked right by the house, but the garage door was shut and the Bronco wasn’t there. Like the kid who had once built the skateboard ramp, Computer Joe had gone. We didn’t say much about it. Somehow, I think we’d already assumed that he’d moved away. “I wonder who he really was,” I heard myself say out loud as we walked past his driveway kicking rocks and listening to the hum of the transformer at the end of the block. No one answered. Either no one heard me or no one had an answer.

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