Archive for ‘Deep Dives’

What To Do About Leonard?

There was so much to do, both inside and out, at my first new-to-me home. While the interior was far from perfect it was at least functional. My yard, however, was a disaster zone – I had tossed carpet, linoleum, fake wood paneling, tree trimmings, and weeds onto the decades of junk that Pauletta (the previous owner) had left behind.

Disgusted by the pile I rented a trailer so I could haul it all to the landfill. My first challenge was backing the trailer into my driveway which took far longer than I would like to admit. Though I am an excellent driver I am still not fond of backing up trailers!

My relief at finally maneuvering the trailer into my driveway quickly evaporated when I noticed the size of the pile compared to the trailer – it was going to take more than one trip!

Feeling overwhelmed I glanced up to see my neighbors from across the street walking over with work gloves on. After quick introductions they explained that their motive for helping me was entirely selfish – they’d been looking at this messy yard for years and they were tired of it!

After two trips to the landfill, as we shared some well-earned liquid refreshments they regaled me with tales from the ‘hood. Teri and Doug had bought into the area a decade earlier so they were a wealth of information. I laughed ’til my sides hurt at the antics of Willie Boy (Pauletta’s son).

After he lost a leg in Vietnam he returned home to live with his parents. Willie Boy never attempted an honest day’s work, though he did need money in order to support his drinking habit. According to lore, there was no limit to Willie Boy’s get-rich-quick schemes. Though some of them sounded like an awful lot of effort to me! Apparently, he was a bit like a squirrel, stashing “treasures” in special places to be used at a later date.

Doug was certain that Willie Boy had buried some items in the yard and warned me with a wink to be careful when doing yard work. Doug’s words would float into my head and make me smile every time I grabbed my shovel over the ensuing five years.

I worked hard on my corner lot: sculpted the former lawn into a series of water-retention basins, planted attractive native plants and shade trees, finished the block wall in the backyard, laid a brick walkway and patio, and designed a small water feature for the birds. In other words, I did a lot of digging.

As predicted, I often found things while excavating but I wouldn’t go so far as to call them treasures; the head of a Barbie doll, plastic beads, and an old wooden toolbox with a couple rusty tools are a few of the items I remember. Their only value was to remind me of my home’s original owners and their quirks.

That all changed one morning in the fall of 2004. There was only one spot left in my yard that I hadn’t disturbed because that’s where Pauletta’s irises grew. I had no idea how long ago she’d planted them but their vibrant blooms cheered me every spring. It was finally time to separate them.

I watered them thoroughly to moisten the soil, knelt down, and went to work with my trowel. The weather was still warm so the sweat was trickling down my back when I hit something solid. I couldn’t budge it with my trowel so I fetched my shovel and kicked in hard.

After another ten minutes of grunting, I pulled a heavy, metallic, rectangular box from the ground. It wasn’t like anything I had ever seen before. I turned it over to see if I could open it but it didn’t have any hinges. Finally, I washed it off. As the mud squirted away I noticed the bottom was engraved, leaning in I was able to partially read, “cremains of Leonard…” What the hell?! Yes, I’m ashamed to admit, I dropped the box. Sorry Leonard!

I was flummoxed. Pauletta or Willie Boy had buried their dear husband/father in the front yard and forgotten him? Who does that?! Needless to say, I didn’t finish separating the irises that day!

I didn’t know what to do with Leonard; I didn’t want to bring him in the house, too creepy. So I placed him on the front porch under the bench where he could enjoy the yard. Thoughts flitted through my head; it was illegal in the city limits to bury anyone on your property (for obvious health and safety reasons), he should be buried but I couldn’t afford that, and I didn’t have any way to contact Pauletta.

Who could I ask for help that wouldn’t hold me financially responsible? I called Teri and Doug and asked them to come over, I had something to show them. Doug erupted into laughter which was sacrilegious, but contagious. Besides, just what exactly would have been the proper response?

Once we regained our breath Teri provided some background information. After all, she was the neighborhood repository for juicy tidbits. You know, the one who doesn’t repeat gossip so you better listen closely the first time.

Apparently, Pauletta and Leonard’s relationship had soured in its final years. In the late 1980s Pauletta discovered that her husband had an affair with someone in the neighborhood. Shortly afterward, Leonard had a sudden heart attack. He was rushed to the hospital where he lingered for a few days but didn’t recover.

The scuttlebutt was that Pauletta had helped Leonard on his way. She was known to dabble in black magic and had a reputation in the neighborhood as someone to turn to when you needed an unorthodox solution. Teri wasn’t sure that Pauletta had caused his death but she was certain that Pauletta had left Leonard behind on purpose!

Somehow it was reassuring to learn the history but it still left me with a conundrum, what to do about Leonard? That actually became my private joke when dealing with difficult problems, “What to do about Leonard?” No one understood me but it made me smile! I greeted him every morning as I stepped out my front door before finally moving him into the garage for the cold winter.

Leonard still had a surprise in store for me. I almost fell over when I picked him up because the box was so much lighter than before. The box was still intact, so what had changed? Then I realized the difference; I had watered the irises before I started digging that fateful morning, so Leonard had gained water weight. Sorry, Leonard, but that was hysterical!

A year later it was time to sell my house and move. I knew I couldn’t leave Leonard in the garage for the new owner, so under the cover of darkness I buried him in the utility easement, just north of the garage. I felt comfortable with this decision as the land still technically belonged to the house so Leonard would get to stay home and there isn’t any reason to dig around back there. Hopefully, no one else will ever have to wonder, “What to do about Leonard?”

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The House, Note the Irises Under the Tree to the Right of the Gate, Tucson, Arizona 2004


09-1999 - Erin May

Alaska, September 1999

Looking back on it, I can see that even though there were times when I felt my life was meandering wildly, I often ended up exactly where I needed to be. Case in point, the summer of 1999.

That year I drove from Tucson to Alaska on a wing and a prayer in late May. Unlike previous summers, I had not pre-arranged a job. Thankfully, I had a strong track record working with national park concessionaires in food and beverage. I arrived at the small cluster of lodges and restaurants near the main entrance to Denali National Park on a Sunday and I was in uniform working for the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge by Wednesday.

As the last employee to join the team I was given the least lucrative shifts but I didn’t complain, I knew I was fortunate to have the gig. There was no way I was admitting defeat and returning home early. It was an awfully long way to drive just to flame out! And, full disclosure, I doubt I would’ve had enough money to make it back anyway.

I was a recent college graduate, who majored in a field that wasn’t exactly lucrative. To make matters worse, though I’d dreamed of being an archaeologist since childhood, partway through my studies it dawned on me that I didn’t have any desire to actually work in that field. Too late to change direction, I stuck with it, rationalizing that my Masters degree would be in my preferred field. (Spoiler alert: I never did go back to school, life had other plans.)

During my second week of work, a scruffy man ambled in during happy hour. He was clearly not one of the “cruisers” (most of the customers at the Lodge were retired folks who had added an inland excursion to their “dream” Alaskan cruise).

I am not exaggerating when I say he could’ve been a Jack London character in a story about the Klondike Gold Rush. He was a true sourdough; full beard, worn and stained denim overalls, with gnarled, hard-working hands, and a tired air about him. After a long swig of beer he placed his right fist on the bar and ordered another one.

As I delivered the second mug, he pulled his right hand away and said, “That oughta cover it.” There on the bar were two, small gold nuggets.

He watched me with a keen eye, judging my reaction. For a second, I was dumbfounded. Thoughts flashed rapid-fire through my brain: “Was it really gold? Do locals pay with gold? Should I demand cash? What was an ounce of gold worth? How could I weigh it?” Of course, I could answer none of those questions and instinctively, I knew it wasn’t about the gold, it was about my character.

I quickly realized there was only one thing I could do to gain his respect (and for some inexplicable reason, I wanted it); I swept the nuggets into my pocket and paid his tab with my tips. My action was acknowledged with a slight nod of his head. Apparently, I passed his test.

I couldn’t blame him for challenging me that way. By all appearances, I was a young, blonde woman fresh from the Outside (as Alaskans call the lower 48), indoctrinated in the belief system of the American Dream. The latter was something I would later learn that Foster had strong feelings about.

He became one of my regulars and he’d regale the bar with his outlandish stories: peeing outside in the winter when it was so cold that his urine froze in mid-air and tinkled on the snow like tiny pieces of glass, the wolf that followed him on his trap line and gobbled up whatever Foster would share but never stole from him, the grizzly bear that ate so much salmon from his drying rack that he fell asleep on his doorstep blocking Foster in his house. I was never sure what to believe but up there, outrageous, tall tales were generally true.

When I wasn’t busy behind the bar, our conversations took on a more philosophical tone. Foster was adamant that I not jump on the hamster wheel of American life, where working just to buy bigger and better things took precedence over everything else. My views were filled with the naïve hopes of youth (some version of peace, love, and happiness), while Foster’s beliefs were scarred and burnished through tragedy.

He eschewed material things, he derided the “rat race,” and he vehemently despised people who bobbled through life without asking why. For some reason, it was imperative to him that I learn these truths. I already wasn’t exactly a follower of that lifestyle, I mean, I drove by myself to Alaska, sleeping in the back of my truck that I had converted into a camper. Clearly, not your typical young woman.

Piece by piece over the summer, I learned that Foster had been a successful businessman in Chicago, with a wife and two kids in the suburbs, living the American dream. All that destroyed when a car accident killed his family. After a full day at work, and a long commute, he pulled up to an unusually empty home. The blinking message light on his answering machine an unwitting indicator of life-altering news.

Since nothing else mattered any more, Foster walked away from everything. Literally. He left the house full of belongings, didn’t even bother locking the door. Not caring if he lived or died, Foster headed to the middle of the Alaskan wilderness to fight his demons and God.

Apparently, he won those battles because I met him thirteen years after. His was a sparse life; he resided in an old boxcar he’d found and eked out a living running trap lines, taking photos, occasionally working on the Al-Can pipeline, and panning for gold.

Tenets of belief are formed in different ways, some are definitively shaped by a crucial experience, while others build through chance moments, layer by layer like a pearl. That summer, I was the fortunate recipient of Foster’s hard-won wisdom.

We stayed in touch for a few years after, though eventually our long letters were reduced to holiday cards and then ceased altogether after I moved (yet again). I wonder about Foster from time to time, and I hope he is still up there, surviving in spite of the odds, and sharing his unique perspective with whoever will listen.

After all, Foster, more than anyone else I’ve met knew what Horace meant when he said, “Carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero.” “Seize the day, put very little trust in tomorrow.” It’s been over twenty years and I still carry Foster’s nuggets with me, both the gold and the wisdom.