This church thing was scheduled for a Saturday, I think. Had to be. It was there in the bulletin, typed up in capital letters like they do to grab your attention: SINGLES WORK PROJECT. Usually there’s some guy with a name like Norbert or Edmund who’ll have this Thirteenth Apostle beard thing going shake your hand too hard and have a hobby that’s a little out of the ordinary. Maybe he has a hub cap collection or likes to write letters to people he’s never seen—a pen pal deal where they hook you up with a Polynesian girl who’s just looking for a boost Stateside. Of course, Norbert never sees it that way. He’ll just tell you she’s a sister in Christ.
Anyhow, there I was in the junior high school parking lot, checking out the depth of the tread on my tires with a Popsicle stick when I noticed a black-and-white Rambler idling cock-eyed to the curb. I don’t recall exactly when the woman got out of the car, but she surely did, and pretty soon we were talking. Her name was Josephine, and from what she said, I gathered that she was on some subcommittee of the committee organizing this work deal. Outreach. That was a word she used a lot. She kept going on about missions and community action, and I’d come back at her with a question about her car’s gas mileage or turning radius until we both realized that no one else was going to show up.
I followed Josephine out of the parking lot, making sure to put several car-lengths between us, in case she was one of those people who hit the brakes suddenly for no reason at all. She led me out past the Hill ‘N’ Dale Country Club and that frozen custard place where the man bit his tongue off, then down through those yellow stucco houses by the rope factory. The only time I actually saw the Rambler’s brake lights go on was when Josephine finally pulled up in front of a sorry little house on a dead-end spur named Corn Street. I didn’t see any corn growing, but there was a healthy crop of poison ivy around the house—colossal, hairy vines of it as thick as a fire hose.
Josephine already seemed to be having second thoughts about the whole project. I say that, because she wasn’t in any hurry to ring the doorbell. I told her we had our work cut out for us, and she didn’t disagree. Then she read the names of the owners off a candy bar wrapper: Skeeks, Luther and Rose. I looked at Josephine’s hips and wondered how many of those Zagnut bars she could put away at a sitting. Not that I cared. This was strictly the Lord’s work we were doing, with no time for any monkey-business. After all, to everything there is a season. Ecclesiates something, something.
Right about then the door started to open. Just a crack at first, then another six inches, then another three. I heard a voice say Nipsy? Nipsy, that you? It was an old voice, a man’s voice, all echoey and hollow.
Of course, I knew there wasn’t anyone named Nipsy on that cinderblock porch—in fact, I’ve never even met anyone who had a high-strung miniature dog by that name—so I piped right up, telling the gentleman who we were (first names only) and why we were on his property.
That seemed to satisfy him, because the door fell open and suddenly there he was: Skeeks, Luther. You ever notice how people start looking like their names—like the sound of their names? You take Skeeks. Now that name has a certain sound—kind of stretchy with something at the beginning and something at the end of it. If you’d seen Mr. Luther Skeeks that day, you’d know exactly what I’m talking about. I mean the man was just a pair of glasses and a pair of sneakers with about six feet-three inches of nothing much in between.
Mr. Skeeks rocked a little on his feet and grabbed hold of the doorknob to steady himself. He wasn’t feeling well, he said, but he invited us in just the same.
“I’d like you to meet my little sweetheart gal,” he said. “My little rosebud.”
I noticed that he called her just plain Rose when he yelled up the stairs for her to come down and meet us.
Now let me tell you about the interior, as they say in the real estate game. It was dark in the Skeeks residence (they throw that around, too), but not so dark that you couldn’t see the furniture—the appointments.
I saw a stack of Boy’s Life bound up with twine and jugs of hamster chow and a baby stroller and a typewriter set up in the window sill and a collection of gimp key fobs and a box of pancake mix on a bookshelf between a pair of high school yearbooks dated 1934 and 1935. I also saw sections of HO gauge model railroad track all over the floor.
Mr. Skeeks started wobbling again, so I suggested that he sit down. Josephine and I did the same, though not on the same piece of furniture. I thought we made a nice picture, sitting there: me and Josephine and Mr. Skeeks and his smile.
“My lovely bride will be along presently,” he said. Then it was Rose! Rose! again.
My chair gave me a fine view of the staircase, so I stood up when I saw Mrs. Skeeks coming down.
Mr. Skeeks said, “We’ve got company, Rose. Church people.”
I guess she didn’t hear him, because she said, “Is it Nipsy? Did Nipsy bring the Chinese?” She was still on the stairs, still creeping along like an inchworm, her right leg always moving ahead, then waiting for her left leg to catch up.
Mr. Skeeks just waited until Mrs. Skeeks was all the way down the stairs, then repeated what he’d said before: “Visitors, Rose. Church folks.”
Mrs. Skeeks said “Oh” and “Oh, my.” Then she said, “Do they like Chinese, these church people?”
Mr. Skeeks sat like Abraham Lincoln with his hands on his knees and relayed the question.
“Chinese food?” Josephine asked.
“I like Chinese food,” I said, just so Mr. Skeeks wouldn’t have to keep moving his head like that.
“That’s a shame,” Mrs. Skeeks said. “That’s a shame, because Nipsy only brings us two kinds of Chinese. Two little cardboard suitcases of it. Luther gets the Emperor’s Chicken, and I get the sweet-and-sour pork. I’m partial to fatty meat.”
“Who’s Nipsy?” I asked.
“Nipsy’s my boy,” Mr. Skeeks said. “He’s seen some trouble, but he’ll be all right. Nipsy’s got personality.”
Mrs. Skeeks said she was sorry there wasn’t enough Chinese to go around, but she hadn’t been expecting company.
Josephine said never mind, we were there on behalf of C.L.A.C., the Church Local Action Committee. We were there to extend the hand of Christian love to our brothers and sisters in need. She said a lot of other things, too—things that sounded so noble and important that it surprised me to hear them come from her thin, bashful lips. But it was too late for pretty words. Mrs. Skeeks and Josephine had gone off in search of munchies. That was Mrs. Skeeks’ word, not mine..
I didn’t catch much of anything after that, though, because Mr. Skeeks had started flapping his mouth like a bluegill on a riverbank. His eyes were still closed, and he had a good handful of shirt balled up in his fist.
“Mr. Skeeks,” I said. “Can I get you a glass of water? Would you like that, sir?” I said it nice and slow and easy, just like I was talking to a little bitty baby.
Of course, any fool could see that Mr. Skeeks had plenty on his mind. The man’s color was khaki going on olive drab.
“Mr. Skeeks,” I said, “you wouldn’t happen to have a telephone lying around here, would you, sir?” You would have thought I was asking for stick of Juicyfruit or a number two pencil, I said it so calmly.
It was just me and Mr. Skeeks there in the parlor. What would you have done in my shoes? I wear an eight-and-a-half C and favor a generous heel on account of my height, and you probably go in for something low-slung with a tassel, so I’m talking about a hypothetical situation here.
Me? I started praying. That’s right, I rang up The Man direct. No operator, no waiting, no charge. I kept it simple, with none of that thee and thou stuff. Somehow, I never took to the idea of the Lord talking like Lawrence Olivier. At least he never spoke to me that way.
I got through to the Boss on the first ring, laid out the facts as I knew them,, then wrapped things up with an over-and-out Ay-men.
When I opened my eyes, I noticed two things: first, there were dark sweat stains like wedges of honeydew melon under my arms; and,second, Mr. Skeeks was sound asleep with his chilly hand locked around mine like a pipe wrench.
That’s when Josephine came back with a melting Moon Pie in her hand.
“What are you doing?” she asked in a tone I didn’t like.
Mrs. Skeeks took one look at her husband lumped in the chair like somebody’s dry cleaning and said, “Oh” and “Oh, dear.” To me and Josephine, she said, “You children do whatever you think needs doing around here. Any little thing would be a blessing.”
It didn’t take as long as you would have thought for me to figure out that it was going to be up to Yours truly to supply the necessary elbow grease for the work project. Josephine was real good at what she called administrating, but she was less than useful at everything else.
“Somebody has to be in charge,” she said, and I had to admit she had a knack for it, scribbling up little lists and diagrams on blue-lined paper, making checkmarks in a column marked Tasks when I finished banging the dents out of the Skeeks’ mailbox or got through knocking a wasps’ nest from a drainpipe with a badminton racquet.
By the time the sun had ducked under the trees, I was having a go at some of that poison ivy, slashing the fuzzy vines with a rusty machete I kept under the front seat of my car for security purposes. Every time I took a whack at the stuff, the blade would bounce off like I was hammering on steel pipe. It would have been a real hoot if it weren’t for the fact that I could see Josephine lounging around like a showgirl on the hood of the Rambler every time I brought the machete up on the backswing.
Then I heard a voice say, “You’re working too hard, boy.”
It was Mr. Skeeks himself. He was wearing the same gauzy Mexican shirt and the same checkered pants with the same belt that went twice around his waist and the same floppy blue sneakers with protective rubber toe caps, but he’d added a porkpie hat. I could picture Mrs. Skeeks setting it on his head at a jaunty angle and saying, “This’ll take the chill off” or “My, but you cut a dashing figure.”
“How’re you feeling?” I asked.
Mr. Skeeks said, “Every breath’s a gift, son,” and you could tell he meant every word of it. At least I could.
It was around that time that his legs began to shimmy, but he paid them no mind. None whatsoever. Instead, he said, “How old do you think I am?”
I told him that I wasn’t too quick with figures. Told him I’d gotten walloped in Algebra 1 and had never caught up. You could lay out a simple word problem for me—rate x time = distance, for example—and you’d get a different answer from me every time.
“Come on,” he said. “Guess.”
I told him he didn’t look a day over seventy.
“I’m fifty-four,” he said. Then he smiled that smile. “I’m fifty-four years young, but I’ve got a cancer in my bones. You ever snap a celery stalk at a buffet dinner?”
I told him that I had, though not at a buffet dinner.
“Then you could snap my bones if you wanted to,” he said. “That’s how weak they are.”
I told him I didn’t want to snap his bones. Or anyone else’s for that matter.
“Don’t you go feeling weepy for me,” he said. “The Lord’s got a use for each one of us. Now I might be a pair of pliers. Or an eight-penny nail. Or I might be a two-by-four. But he’s going to keep me around till he’s used me up, see.”
The way Mr. Skeeks was shaking put me in mind of an oscillating sander, but I didn’t tell him that. I told him that in the Lord’s house were many mansions. Then I asked him when he wanted us to stop working.
“Knock off when you’re finished,” he said. “When you’re through.” He looked around at the dandelions and the crabgrass and the poison ivy, then he crept back toward the house, one shivery, quivery step at a time.
A year and fourteen days have passed, and there’s still always something to be done. So we’ve never actually gotten around to stopping, Josephine and I.
Neither has Mr. Skeeks. He’s gained weight, grown a full head of hair, and puts us all to shame when we bring out the Parcheesi board on rainy days.
On any given morning, I’ll roll out of bed and put on one of Nipsy’s flannel shirts and a pair of his patched dungarees, then go down to have breakfast and read the list that Josephine always slides under my cereal bowl. You never know what she’ll put on that list.Today, it was Spray bushes for Japanese beetles and Plant Big Boy tomatoes behind carport and Sort soda bottles by state of origin. I did them in reverse order, just to remind her that she’s not calling the shots.
Later on, Mr. Skeeks came out to check on my progress and shoot the breeze. We usually talk about life’s mysteries—like why fish have nostrils or why every world culture eats pancakes—but he always likes to wind things up by having me tell him about the place in the Good Book where Jesus says, “In my Father’s House are many mansions.”
Mr. Skeeks says he won’t be called up until he knows what he’ll do with all those bathrooms.