Thursday morning, I hauled my backpack, laptop, guitar and toolbox to the sidewalk outside my apartment building and waited for my friend, Dan, and his son, Januario, to pick me up. My belongings were lined up on the curb like the poor targets of a firing squad and all I could think was That’s it? 37 years old and that’s what I own? There was a slight urge during my wait to ponder the decisions I’ve made in life – to ask a million “what ifs” – but the urge was replaced by a graceful and sudden peace as a new thought came in through an earhole, which was, Yeah, that’s it, and I’m totally fine with it.
When Dan and Januario drove up, I loaded my life into the rental car and we split town, bound for Asheville, North Carolina. Dan and his wife, Wren, owned a house in the mountains about 30 minutes outside of Asheville, which they rented. Old tenants were moving out and Dan and I were headed down to fix the place up for the new tenants who were moving in a couple of weeks hence. I’d been to the house several times, but the last time was five years ago. I was looking forward to seeing the place, seeing what’s changed, or stayed the same. Dan’s brother, Mikey, and his family lived in Asheville, too. I was looking forward to seeing them again.
We followed the 18-wheelers through New Jersey, Pennsylvania, crossed the Mason-Dixon line into Maryland, West Virginia flew by, and as we cruised into Virginia that heathen-littered Godless North was shrinking quick in the rear-view mirrow. We followed I-81 into the South, a Godful country should one take into account the giant white crosses that towered along the road – in front of giant Baptist churches. And the crosses kept comin’, a giant cross and giant Baptist church greeted us as we cruised into Bristol, Tennessee. We passed an even larger cathedrel – the Bristol Speedway, the NASCAR racetrack. It’s, of course, an open air establishment, so the exhaust won’t poison the fans, and so God can see all of his children watch the cars go round and round, singing in praise of the holy drivers.
In just a few moments we were out of Tennessee and in North Carolina. Darkness had fallen. I-26 into Asheville is one heck of a piece of interstate that – when viewed from a helicopter – may look like a giant snake afflicted with palsey. We wound up, down and left to right, through the mountains that are most beautiful to gaze upon – in the daytime. At night, it may be compared to stumbling through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. I was driving, but I feared no evil. I was too tired. I steered the wheel as needed and we twisted and turned on the abrupt curbs and through Spacetime. I leaned like a race driver with each turn – sometimes believing it helped.
It was past midnight when we made it to Mikey’s. It was good to see him, but we simply said hello and good night and went to sleep in the entertainment room in the basement. Dan and little Januario got the bed, I got the couch. And that was that. I remember commenting to Dan that Mikey’d done a real nice jobe converting the basement. Five years ago, it was little more than a dungeon, resembling a dark place where nocturnal bad people might plot bad happenings. But what a difference five years makes.
We drove out to Dan’s house the next day. We drove up, up and onto the Blue Ridge, always in the shadow of Mount Pisgah, one of the highest peaks east of the Mississippi. Though it’d been some time, the area looked familiar. But many of the houses looked much nicer. They’d either been fixed up, or painted, a yard had been planted, or a garage was being built. Nice, cozy log cabins nestled on the sides of the mountains would peek out to see who was driving down the road, then quickly – shyly – hide behind the tall green trees. Houses that I remember were being fixed up five years ago now looked complete, content to be lived in by their owners. Other houses were in various states of repair, and renovation, and the owners were fine living in them, the way they were.
“I guess people around here fix up their place when they can, or when they got the money,” said Dan.
“That’s the way to do it,” said Mikey. “A little bit everynow and then when you can afford it. That way you own everything. It’s your home, afterall, you’re gonna be there a while. Might as well take your time and not get into $150,000 worth of debt right at the beginning.”
Dan’s house was in good shape. No holes in the walls, weird stains, or broken windows. The previous tenants did neglect maintenance of the lawn mower, however, and its engine was probably frozen up beyond repair. The pathetic machine looked like a metal creature that had lost confidence in itself and so voluntarily stepped off of the food-chain and waited patiently for the scrap-iron predators. Its brand name was printed on the hood – a brand stamped to its metal hide that roughly translated into English as Planned Obsolescence. The chainsaw we brought with us wouldn’t start, either. Real quickly, the million things we’d planned to do dwindled into about five. Dan grabbed an axe, I grabbed a shovel, and we set about tackling those five things.
During the chopping and pulling of many, many thorny things, I heard the sound of children from all around. Five years, ago, Dan and Wren were only thinking about having a baby. Now, that thought was a blurry streak of flesh as four year old Januario ran passed trying to catch up with Mikey’s two sons (ages 7 and 10) and his step daughter (age 8). The kids ran, got tired and played, ran again, got tired and played again – over and over – partaking in that happiness that adults have so much difficult partaking in – the sheer joy of being alive.
Dan chopped down a tree. I cleared brush behind the house. I looked over the property and soon I was thinking that we could make it look just like it did five years ago. There would be no difference. We could go back in time in those mountains – go back and be our younger, crazier selves and live only for our own hedonistic concernes. Trim a few tree limbs here and there, repaint the house, and we it’s done – only five years but we can go back there with today’s wisdom and reshape – even if very subtly – those five years. We’d just have to remove all the mirrors. And never look at each other. And find a babysitter. And temporary illusions always crumble so brutally and abruptly that they leave a person with one hell of a bad karma hangover that leads the sufferer to the certainty that it’s ultimately better to accept the here and now head on, and accept every gray hair and sore knee and idiotic mistake and it’s even better to accept the fact that eating at Sonic with tired hungry kids is just gonna get loud. Because for all the kids’ pining and manipulative tears, in their eyes is that damn joy to be alive. You feel it radiating off them and hope to god they don’t trade that joy for any of the temporary illsusions that you did, along the way.
That evening, Mike fired up the grill on the back yard deck of the house he’s making a home of, one step at a time. Below the deck was the hot tub he’d installed a while back. Down at the end of the back yard was the tree house he built for the kids, and the adults. None of it off was on a payment plan. He owned what he built with his hands.
He cooked up a beef heart for dinner. Man, a lot of meat comes from a beef heart. I’d never eaten beef heart, or any heart, that I could remember. I didn’t really want to, either. I’m not big on eating the innards of animals. But Mike reminded me that the heart was a muscle.
“It’s like the strongest one, dude,” said Mikey. “You totally depend on it every minute of everyday. It never takes a break.”
It was enough to try a bite, at least. Turns out, beef heart has a lot of flavor, and I enjoyed it. I wouldn’t have if I didn’t put my fear of trying anything new aside. I guess that comes with age, because when the kids found out that it was heart meat they all shouted GROSS! and opted for hot dogs and chicken, instead. It’s funny how that works, it looked like regular meat. You’d never know it was the heart if no one told you.