I knew him before all the furor started, when no one thought much of him and never guessed who he’d become. I’m talking about other people. There were things on my mind, like my cousin Arnie in jail and my mom tiptoeing around like she was a mouse. Dad had taken off my junior year and then we lost our bungalow. And then there was Ginny Marston’s smile which looked like it belonged to a movie star, which was good and not good.
But since we lived above the three car garage on Mrs. Tilby’s property, I knew Michael. Mrs. Tilby, his mother and a widow, tended to not talk to us except to ask if we’d please pick up the mail for her at the gate or would we mind getting cough drops when we were going to the store. Little things that she didn’t feel like dealing with or didn’t bother to ask Michael to do. It irked my mom. But she was alright. She rented to us when few others would have.
So I thought of Michael as belonging to the property and maybe his mother. Some called him a mama’s boy, an only child still at home. Kept to himself. He worked three days a week in the family’s law business, fraud investigation. At twenty-nine, he seemed old to me.
I got to know him by accident. I was roaming the field behind their yard, trying to flush out rabbits. Crouching low, inching along. Then I saw pant legs which would have shaken me except I had just trained my eye on one plump, four-legged creature.
“John, right?” he said.
“Shhh!” Then thought to look up.
I saw it was our landlord. A backpack was dropped at his feet. He had the sort of boots I admired, sturdy leather, lace-up ankle boots.
I stood up. “Joel,” I answered, half-offering a hand which he ignored. “I’m just scouting rabbits.” I pointed to a clump of bushes where I had last seen them, now surely gone. “Is that all good with you?”
He shrugged, then stuck out his broad, dry hand.”I’m Michael. I’m sure mother wouldn’t miss a few. Not fond of rabbit stew.”
“I don’t hunt and kill them!” The idea gave me a shiver. “Deer, okay, but not rabbit. I just like being outdoors, watching things.”
“I see. You ever get a deer?”
“Not yet. I only hunt with Arnie, my cousin, and he’s…gone awhile. You?”
“Once. With my dad. Years ago.”
We just stood there, me in my jeans and dirty tennis shoes and stained hoodie. Michael shorter than I thought, bulky in a kind of bush jacket. Those great boots. He looked like he was going on a picnic or birdwatching. I saw he had a camera in hand. Maybe I had interrupted his fancy, urban wildlife picture-taking. But it was his place.
“Should I leave?”
“It’s okay. You live with your mom in the apartment. How’s that working out?”
My turn to shrug but it was more like a shoulder stretch as I stifled a sudden yawn. I wanted to get back to the rabbits, then get home. “Not bad for a two bedroom. Bigger living room than we had before. But weird living above cars. And a Cadillac…truck.” I turned my head at a sound. “Look.”
Two greyish-tan rabbits scattered, hightailing it to better cover.
Michael hoisted his backpack. “Well, we used to rent it to tourists who came for the fishing and all. It’s better having just a family there. But we’re all tourists however we live as I see it.”
He shot me a wry grin. I thought about that a second. I wasn’t sure if he was joking or being deep.
“Yeah, maybe so…”
He gazed toward the horizon. “Well, the light isn’t as good as it was, so I’m headed back. Enjoy the property, don’t make a mess anywhere.”
I watched Michael lumber along, zigzagging through grasses and weeds. He paused and looked up, pointed his camera toward a branch. Maybe it was a certain bird he was after. He snapped a photo and left.
We got used to each other. I’d see him pass in the distance when I roamed the woods. Sometimes we waved at each other as he was coming in from work or elsewhere. I sat on the balcony off the living room if it didn’t rain, watched the road and a pretty birch wood. Finished homework. His silver BMW gleamed in the fading sunlight, then disappeared into its bunker beneath us. I could hear him walk up the winding stone pathway to their gigantic back porch. A faint thud as the back door closed. I liked that he went in back.
Mom often noted Micheal was going to be one rich bachelor when Mrs. Tilby passed. I half-wondered if she wished she’d had a daughter so she could somehow marry her off to him.
“I just think he’d be a nice husband–quiet and smart–and anyone can see they would be secure.”
“Not like us, you mean. Kinda poor. Well, he’s a little young for you, mom.” I was anxious to get over to see Ginny. “And you havent; signed the divorce papers.”
“Joel, you know better…! Anyway. Just wondering what he’s about. I see him with his mother or running errands, strolling the streets. He’s always snapping pictures of this and that.”
“He’s not that happy.”
I don’t know why I said it. But I knew it was true. I’d seen it on his face alot.
“And you know this because…? Special observations from your balcony perch? Some people say–“
“Mom, I’m going to Ginny’s. Call Caroline if you want to gossip.”
I wasn’t interested. But I thought he was probably really bored. How could anyone so obviously enjoy the outdoors and stand being stuck in an office? I was going to be a forest ranger, I hoped.
Their gigantic, sprawling house was at the edge of town. Michael’s grandfather had bought a lot of land to protect and enjoy. I got mad when Ginny said she was sorry we had to live over a garage. I loved the quietness. I felt lucky to have all that land I could walk. I felt even less sure of Ginny when I heard her telling a friend how we had to live above expensive cars and I had not once driven one of them. Yet, she added. There was a breathless edge to her voice that reminded me of Arnie’s. He’d gotten locked up because he liked other people’s cars way too much.
Michael and I sometimes crossed paths on the Tilby acreage. I had gotten to taking a book or my cheap binoculars. I liked to spy on the animals, look into undergrowth or close up to a nurse log. I saw Michael doing the same with high-powered ones–he let me look once–and he always had that camera in hand, too. We might talk or not and usually only a few words. He seemed to crave solitude like I did. I noticed he always wore those boots and jacket with lots of pockets, a uniform, I imagined, for his real life. I pondered his statement about being tourists on earth. It struck me as smart.
One Saturday we both ended up at Skinny Creek that wound through trees. I kept hoping it would run wider and deeper, flush with fish, but no luck.
“You like your job? I don’t think I could do that all day.”
He chuckled. It altered his wide, jowlly face, made it friendlier.”I like having work to do but not so much that kind.” He pointed at a yellow winged bird high above as it flapped away. “You like school?”
“No. But I can get through it. I have to be a forest ranger, definitely.”
“Ah. My grandfather lobbied for preservation of forests all over the state. My dad, less so. He liked three-piece suits a great deal and fine booze, and the rest.”
“Money.” I leaned over the creek bank with a finger and watched a turtle creep down a thick wet branch.
“Yes, indeed.” He squatted. I looked at him. His eyes were deep-set. They flicked to mine, held steady. “Money matters. But not so much as people think. Take me. I have some. But I love photography more than anything. And nature. But I’m expected to stay in the family business. She’s alone now. There are many expectations. So I take photographs as much as I can. And wait.”
“I have those, …expectations, I mean. But wait for what?”
I picked up the turtle and set it down on my knee. I figured he might mean until his mother died or until he got the nerve to leave. It felt a little too personal but at the same time, we were just tossing out thoughts. It seemed natural out there.
Michael sighed. As if he didn’t want to have to explain anything but would if he had to, because I had nicely asked.
I shifted and got steadier in the muck. “It’s okay. I have to wait to leave this fishbowl town and go find mountains. But could be worse.” I replaced the turtle on the stick and got up.
“You’re right, Joel. I meant wait until something bigger happens.”
Michel took some shots of the creek and turtle, leaves falling and another bird. We walked together a little, then he split off. On the way back I thought how if I had gotten an older brother, someone like Michael would have been okay.
Days, then a couple of weeks went by. I got more busy with school, football, spent time with Ginny less, then sometimes Val, a new girl in town who liked to hike.
Then it happened.
I was wasting time until meeting friends and wandered further than usual. There was an abandoned Ford truck in the middle of a field. I could see the cab. It was maybe nineteen seventy-something. It had been blue; now the paint was chipped and faded. The body was more rust and blemish than good clean metal. Tires were long gone. Windows windows rolled down or gone. Weeds grew high like a protective fence around it. A little lopsided, the bed of the truck had branches in it, leaves, dead wildflowers. I wondered how many others had been there. Some crushed beer cans lay on the torn plastic bench seat. They were from way before my time.
I climbed into the bed and jumped on it a few times, then piled up the branches in a corner. Grabbed an oil-stained rag, the lid of a can and a torn up t-shirt stiff as a board. Set them in the corner, too. I climbed atop the dented cab and threw out my arms to the sky. I felt good lately. My mom was perking up, getting her sense of humor back. My cousin was out of jail. Maybe we’d go hunting with his dad. And Val was getting interesting.
“Yes!” I shouted, my fists pumping into the open sky.
I jumped down again. Did a little dance on the metal bed, making a racket. Ordinarily I was very quiet out there but what the heck. I saw a few tiny flakes of snow. I felt a surge of adrenalin and danced a little more. Animals would figure it out or hide. After that I sat on the hood and dangled my feet. Greyness seeped into the sunlit sky and the blanket of clouds thickened. I’d smelled snow coming all day.
It fell. On my cheeks, on my eyelids, jacket. I climbed up to the cab and held out my hands, smelled deeply of the icy-silvery-wild-apple air. Soft white flakes fell faster, sailed and whipped around, a snow dance. I closed my eyes and listened to the wind until cold tunnelled its way into my jacket.
I slid off and down as dusk fell, ran out of the field. Through the clumps of trees. I glimpsed Michael heading to his house in the distance but kept on, then burst into the warm apartment. My mom was pleased I fell onto the steaming chili with a mean appetite.
Two days later she tossed the slim newspaper in front of me. My phone was ringing but I didn’t answer.
She pointed at the picture on the front page with a look of confusion and surprise. It said: “Joel’s Place”.
It was me, kicking up my heels in the back of a beat-up truck. I’m jumping about a foot off the bed, knees up and feet splayed, arms stretched up, head thrown back. Face half-covered by the hoodie I wore under my jacket. But you can tell it’s me. It’s my smile, my mug, alright. The November woods, the light snow and field looked beautiful. I had been there, after all. So, apparently, had Michael.
“Did you know he took this? Michael Tilby! It’s good, Joel, you look really good. His mother showed me and seemed baffled. Not upset, she thinks her son is talented. But still–“
“Wow. My gosh! I’ll explain later–have to call Val back.”
“Famous already, huh?”
That’s what Val said, and we laughed. We didn’t know what was coming.
Some kids thought it was weird. Arnie found it amazing I personally knew Michael. I thought it funny so much fuss was made of it. Still, the picture was special. It looked old-fashioned, black and white and sorta raw. The way he caught the angle of light, the different shadows. Almost like you could walk right into it, too. It was surprising Michael had gone unnoticed. But I knew he’d had lots of practice getting his best shots. He was likely there first. And waited.
I had felt happy, confident; there it was for everyone to see. Mom said I was going places. She said it was the best thing to happen in our family in a long time. It made me feel proud.
Michael, it turned out, had taken quite a few pictures of me screwing around on that broken down truck. So I gave him permission to publish more in a couple of magazines. Then he sold several. Eventually he got a fancy photography award for the series. And then another one for a shot of me standing on the cab, eyes shut in the snow, winter’s magic moodiness right there.
So he moved on. Success gave him the freedom he wanted. His mother is okay; we watch out for her. “I’m still just a tourist, Joel, you, too,” he says when he calls. He’s thanked me too much, offered to help me with college, which is scary–means I have to work harder. And I felt good when they were published, sure. But it was more than that. Michael welcomed me onto his grandfather’s land. Then he made it official with a picture, a title, my little nutty moment. His kindness, man–that’s what no one seems to get. That was more than enough for one year in my life.