There's a guy down the alley on the other side of the street--I don't know him--who put a new roof on his garage. He was up there for days in these last glorious warm fall afternoons.
The first day he was up there, he was lifting the old asphalt with a pitchfork, jimmying up those old snarly things and the nails that kept them there with a screeching and squawking that reminded me all too well of my few roofing adventures. Twice I did my own house--not by myself, of course, but under the direction of people who knew what they were doing. Twice I stood on my own deadly inclines, armed with a pitchfork, and ripped up asphalt and wood and dust and roofing nails--it's an awful job that most carpenters would much rather simply forego. If you want to start some kind of building business, you start with roofs because nobody else will do them, I'm told.
Once upon a time, I helped with a neighbor's house, an old couple who lived right next door. His roof was as steeply pitched as a barn roof, but I was young enough, acrobatic enough to stay up there without pinwheeling off the angle myself. What made the job memorable, however, was the pot-bellied farmer, my age, son of that neighbor, who came to help too.
I live in a college town, and I'm a prof. That makes me, by rep, a lightweight, a dork, an egghead, a guy who doesn't get his hands dirty. I'm not sure why--who on earth would choose to stand up in front of tons of kids who'd rather be texting than taking notes?--but in a town like this, ordinary working men think profs an alien wuss species. They may be goons, but we're just plain goofy. I know.
Anyway, up there on the roof this paunchy farm guy made it very clear that he wanted it known far and wide that his testosterone ran deeper and richer than this prof guy, so we had ourselves an unspoken competition, as men will do. So as long as he worked, I did--I wasn't going to let him call me soft. As hard as he worked, I did--and, thanks to his rubber tire, I think I beat him.
At a cost. But, who cares? I beat his butt--is all I cared about back then. I went home proud and smug, then closed the door behind me and fell over in pain. At least he didn't beat me.
For years I've been haunted by a old story about Jesse James, who used to pull train heists, stroll onto passenger cars with his .45, examine men's hands, and then take wallets only from those men who had no callouses. Good night, I'd have lost everything.
But this week I didn't hazard a step toward that neighbor down the block, didn't lift a hand because the last time I was up on our roof I told myself, while forking old wood shingles, that it was going to be the last time. My balance, like other attributes, wasn't what it was and certainly isn't today, umpteen years later. I knew that back then, but wouldn't have admitted it to anyone.
So I watched that neighbor up on his garage, smiling all the while because age has some privileges. Nobody would have expected me to lend a hand--the old bald guy across the block.
And as long as I avoid passenger trains, I suppose I'm safe these days. And Jesse James is long gone.
Still, these fingers on the keys and the hands they belong to, are, I must admit, preacher's hands.
And even if I don't have the old balance, I got memories. Hey, listen, once upon a time there was this overweight farmer. . . or did I tell you that story?