[Published 26 Feb 2019 in the Broad Street Review and reprinted here by permission.]
The only way I was leaving this house was feet-first. Jackie didn’t like that kind of talk, but I’d resolved that I was finished with moving: I wanted to get through life without my calves hurting like that ever again. For weeks afterward, I shuddered whenever I saw a U-Haul. That was 21 years ago. I was 42. And now we’ve moved again.
But this time, for the first time, we hired movers. I recommend it. I also recommend moving once every five years, just to clear out your stuff, a kind of intestinal hydrotherapy for your life. For you I recommend it, that is—not for me. The only way I’m leaving this house is feet-first.
He’s on his knees, unscrewing my desk from itself, to get it downstairs. He used to be a manager at a Wawa.
“Why’d you give it up?”
“The people got worse.”
“No, the customers. Everything’s Facebook, Instagram. My day, you walked two blocks to your buddy’s house. And, he might not be there. Now, everybody’s face is stuck to a phone and what they want isn’t in front of them and they start yelling. Like what I wanna do is hide your chips so you can yell and drive my customers away. Like I wanna do that.”
Life is better now.
“This is nicer. Moving houses is hard, but people appreciate you. And no need for me to go to the gym, I can tell you that. I gotta keep up with them. They call me O.G., the Old Guy.”
“You’re not old,” I say.
“I’m 42,” he says. I wince.
There are six movers, two to a truck. Each one of them says “Excuse me” when I’m in their way, like it’s their fault. They’re strong, and fast. We couldn’t get the Post-Its up on the doors quick enough: Bedroom #2, Living Room, Downstairs Office.
We have two Amish-built picnic tables, two-inch-thick lumber bolted and over-engineered, from Zern’s (R.I.P.) in Gilbertsville, each one the weight of a small pony. One huge guy carries one all by himself. One little guy carries the other. “Excuse me,” says the little guy behind me while I’m watching the big guy.
The Ikea shelves don’t fall apart, but those slide-in backs don’t work. The glorified cardboard warps and pop out of its grooves; nails attempt holding them against the frame but give it up after about two months. Sweden, please work on that back design.
With the units empty and prone in the new living room, I try re-establishing contact, nailing into new particle board, straightening backs that won’t straighten, a three-arm job.
Eric, who’s been fixing—well, tearing down and rebuilding—parts of the new house, walks by.
“That’s a mess,” he says. I nod.
“I got some one-inch trim,” he says, producing a tape measure. “I could attach them here,” he points, “and here, hold the backs against the two fixed shelves, pop some nails in the side into the trim. That’ll flatten the backs and pull the sides in, keep ’em tight.”
“Yes,” I say.
“Would you mind nail holes on the sides?”
“No,” I say.
The table saw screes. He brings in four pieces, loads his nail gun. I, like a 6-year-old, help him hold the trim piece in place. Wham. He hands me the nail gun for the other side. “Oh,” I say, never having used one before.
“Just keep that end straight, where the nail comes out. Use the guides, the nail will be centered there.” Wham. I hand it back. “Yeah, next one, move your holding hand back a ways, I’ve seen ’em go through thumbs.” I look at my thumb for no reason. “But they sure make life easier.” I nod.
O.G. assembles my desk at the new place. “I’m not from here. My wife and I split. It’s tough, you know? Because I still think about her.” He adds for emphasis, “Oh, yes.”
He looks up from the desk. “I’ll be with some other woman, and she, you know, she wants to get married and I dig her, and she’s a good person, too, but I have to walk away. The thing is,” he breathes, “I’m still in love. With my wife. My ex-wife.” He breathes again. “What can I do?” He speaks the question like a statement.
We’re north of Philadelphia now, on top of a hill that swoops into a small wood and a creek. Just over two acres. Used to be four acres, all the way into the creek, but in 1970 the government claimed the land along the creek because it’s a flood plain. So, part of the black walnut and sycamore and tulip tree is ours, and part is nobody’s, or everybody’s, or at least nobody goes in it. It does stay marshy two, three days after a rain.
I’m sure that smart people—water people and terrain people and rock and plant and animal people—figured out the eminent domain, but I view governments as I do kitchen knife commercials and real estate listings. I’d like to take them at their word, but not once have I ever seen the government pull someone over who’s driving slow in the left lane, and slow drivers in left lanes are at the top of my list of Things Government Could Fix if It Wanted To. I guess it isn’t on their list.
But they have tree people and topography people working for them. Well now, I worked for them, sending music to orchestras—how about that, that was government, that was the City of Philadelphia. And a water guy lived down the street from us, and library people, cops, human services people, a firefighter.
Property into the creek would’ve been nice. But I’ll take this. I can look at the trees and animals that aren’t mine, and that isn’t so bad.