By Ronald Kovach
Lately I have been studying the towering silver maple tree in my neighbor’s yard two doors down, and the burden it poses for me in an already trying time. Facing me are two highly undesirable prospects, and the chance of a third. The immediate problem: those of us with the misfortune of living close by must ready ourselves for autumn’s assault. Those leaves — you can’t imagine! They’re everywhere, an annual aggravation to me and the other neighbors (though we only grouse among ourselves, never to the tree’s owner). They fall by the thousands, brown and crispy, layered over lawns and flowerbeds, tracked into homes, snagged in shrubs and fences. For a couple hours you rake the stuff onto blue tarps, drag it to the street and empty. Repeat, endlessly. Nice to get out into the fall air, but not good for the back when you’re my age and out of shape.
But that’s not the end of it. Around mid-year the tree provides us our annual deluge of helicopter seedlings, each wishing to take root and flourish. Pull them out quickly by the roots or find yourself living in a forest of miniature maple trees, your life transformed into some odd children’s tale. Finally, there is the abiding danger of our increasingly weird weather smacking the tree a good one during one of our easterly storms off Lake Michigan and a huge branch – or worse – toppling into a yard or smashing right through a roof. It happens, you know.
We have a little east-facing place that looks out toward Lake Michigan in the Bay View section of Milwaukee. Allison and I kid each other about the bravery it takes to endure the fierce easterlies that occasionally blow in off the lake, slamming the waves into the breakwall down by the yacht club with powerful thuds, throwing explosions of spray fifteen feet into the air. One winter, around 2011, when we still had the original cheapo front door on our home, an easterly suddenly rose up out of the lake and blew blinding snow directly at our home throughout the night, as Allison and I slept upstairs under our warm down. In the morning, we found a cake-size mound of snow inside our front door, the flakes having been driven like bullets through the tiny vertical crack along the door’s edge.
This was when Justin, our now wayward son, was still living at home and immersed in his early attempts at drawing. That day, as the city brought in heavy equipment to remove three feet of snow clogging our street, Justin was up at his desk for hours with his watercolors, depicting the easterly as a giant silver-and-black-scaled reptile arising out of Lake Michigan and blowing enormous gusts of snow that topple buildings and bury the city. The creature had a Miller Lite firmly grasped in its claws. The drawing showed some talent, I thought, perhaps the promise of a lifelong hobby.
Justin is off at school now, UWM, living off-campus with three other juniors and turning into a goof-off. For a time he was on track toward a business degree. Now any semblance of a stable career in the making has gone down a rathole. His always natural ability at guitar – as I, an unmusical sort, perceived it — has taken over his energies. He has reduced his class load, joined a band, and started bartendering twice weekly. (I hadn’t realized his knowledge of alcohol extended beyond Budweiser.) He told me he’s thinking of “taking a little break from school” for a while. He seems completely at sea, dog-paddling. To Allison: “Remind me again why we thought it was so neat to give him guitar lessons at age eight.” I am beyond upset. “This is not how you build a life,” I add. “This is called: floating around like a jellyfish.” Allison: “Be patient.” Easy to say.
To return to the burdens of my neighbor’s silver maple, over the years I have managed to keep them mostly off my mind. Until now, I have always been so busy. Some small part of me even credited the giant tree for its shaded charm and golden fall colors. I should add that in our otherwise friendly neighborhood of closely tucked-together houses, I have never gotten to know the owner of this property, a retired fellow who drives an inordinately ugly, rust-splotched pine-green pickup, is reputed to be a grump, and is rarely seen. He is apparently clueless, or uncaring, about the labor his tree causes his neighbors. Here my wife sometimes interjects, “So Henry, do you expect him to spend thousands of dollars he doesn’t have to take down an enormous tree, just because a few of his neighbors hate raking up its helicopters and leaves a couple times a year? It’s part of urban living. Like barking dogs and closely packed houses. Deal with it.” A school teacher, Allison is the voice of reason. I wish she had been on my team at work.
This year I have much more time to deal with the leaf problem. In fact, over a couple days I’ve already raked the mess in my yard, front and back, all the way into the rear alley running along the garages. Recall, I could have brought the leaves out to the front curb for pick-up. But I have a different plan. I form my leaves into a pile roughly eight feet long and four feet high and slowly, methodically, begin to move my bounty forward, on a direct line to the garage apron of the maple tree owner, Mr. Grumpy.
I have always tried to be helpful, and I fashion myself a man of generous spirit. I am a good neighbor. It is how I am put together. I join, I volunteer, I participate, I help, I try to make things work, or to make them work better. In the neighborhood you can find me running the snow blower up and down the street when blizzards come, collecting for charities, and hosting big neighborhood cookouts with my wife. At Our Savior Lutheran, I’m a longtime member of the vestry (just as my father was), usher most every Sunday, and help coordinate the after-service socials featuring freshly baked white bread with strawberry preserves (which, unfortunately, have added five pounds to my already chubby waist). At work, as a veteran and fairly high-ranking employee, you could always find me on committees, collecting for United Way, charmingly (if I may say so) leading our occasional building tours for visiting groups, helping to plan the company’s holiday parties, earnestly grilling the burgers and playing ring toss with our top execs at our annual “Welcome to Summer” tent lunch, even invariably leading a vigorous round of “Happy Birthday” at departmental lunches in my passable baritone. I had a great staff; it was the least I could do.
You may think, given these admittedly fluffy workplace activities, that I was a lightweight. Wrong. I was good at my job, which I attributed to three things: analytical savvy, a bucket load of experience, and an ability to focus for many hours with the persistence of a pit bull with a juicy bone (or, if you wish, given what happened in one of our Bay View parks recently, a finger). I had even managed to keep up with technology, not easy for my generation. A few months shy of age 60, I felt I had reached a new level of effectiveness. My written evaluations were, for the most part, glowing; I kept copies of them filed at home, where I could read them at any time. I won’t bore you with them, but they’re in my Ego File, for those dark, rainy days.
My superiors said they liked to put me on committees because of my experience, my rigor, and my “easy, folksy manner.” I always appreciated hearing that, though there were times I felt my calm exterior fooled people. I was appointed one of the early leaders of Customer Focus: Building Efficiency in the Workplace, spearheading a new program aimed at getting our three hundred employees to think about their external and internal customer needs in an informed way. The program’s good intentions appealed to me from the start. Granted, it required a never-ending round of mandatory monthly departmental meetings filled with official note-taking and long silences, but I kept my eye on the long-term benefits. I labored my group through the awkward pauses, even calling on people for discussion — which, Justin reminded me, is just the thing you dreaded in school if you were shy or unprepared. “Dad, don’t call on people,” he said when I mentioned this at the dinner table one evening. “People hate that.”
Everything got written down, circulated for review, and codified in enormous red Customer Focus notebooks. I don’t think the Ten Commandments in stone ever looked this good. It was all sort of biblical, really. And then, in a couple of years, you started the whole process all over again, revisiting the same round of topics. I had never read Kafka, but I heard a couple of our more literary types at the company call the process “Kafkaesque” on a number of occasions. Fortunately, Customer Focus had the buy-in of our top people, who made it clear that snide remarks would be looked upon with corporate disfavor. The message was: Get on board. Then I started hearing quiet cracks about our “North Korean-style work environment” and, even harsher, “Like we have time for this silliness with the company headed into the crapper.” I got on board.
Having completed the strategic relocation of my leaves, I start in on Joe and Doris’ lot three doors down, again raking in the disciplined manner you would expect from me and moving their leaves to my existing pile in Grumpy’s driveway. I try to stay in the moment; once I start looking back and remembering, in no time at all I feel lost and lonely. My present labor serves as a welcome distraction. I aim to thoroughly preoccupy myself for some time. This will take some doing.
At work, my Customer Focus leadership was well underway when I was asked to head up the first of a company-wide series of Thinking Smart workflow assessment sessions led by Jeb Walters, a consultant hired in from Houston who had a buzz cut and a persistent, inquisitive manner. I had long been pushing for this kind of outside review as a way to know our systems and procedures better. When I made the rounds of my colleagues in the company, I would fill them in on how Thinking Smart was going. “Very focused sessions, good discussions about where we’re at, how we get our work done, where it’s all going,” I’d say.
One of my underlings, a capable but persnickety fellow in supply chain management named Mike Samuels, said he had had experience with a similar “work assessment” group at his previous employer in Kansas City and that what it really was was a cloak.
“Define what you mean by cloak,” I challenged him. I had heard his naysaying before; I was not in the mood.
“You watch, Henry,” he replied. “This is the prelude to a downsizing; this becomes their pretext for sizing up perceived redundancies and getting rid of people.”
“Michael, with all due respect: no,” I countered firmly. “That is not what is going on. You are not there; you are not seeing the whole picture. We’ve got the big pad out on the easel and Walters is keeping us all on point and jotting down all of the relevant points about who does what, when and how our workflow works, and the whole makeup of the department. How all the pieces fit. What is essential and what isn’t.” I was really rolling now. “It’s refreshing to get a sense of just what a well-oiled machine we are, and how we might get even better. This is a real opportunity for departmental analysis, that’s all.”
“Well, the machine can limp along with a few more parts missing,” Michael said. “Henry, do me a favor — don’t turn your back on Walter. And you need to ask yourself why the company comptroller is always in on those meetings. And why the bean-counters have scheduled these sessions just ahead of the Strategic Review.”
By now I’ve achieved a pile in Grumpy’s driveway roughly twelve feet long and six feet high. My project—at least as I initially conceived it–seems complete. I stretch out on my back on the grass to rest, my limbs diagonally extended, something I haven’t done since childhood. What’s next for me, snow angels come January? I look out at the choppy lake and see the Michigan-to-Milwaukee ferry approaching its dock at the end of a run. Grayish black clouds are slowly moving in. I feel a sense of unease. Justin texts to say he plans to pop over to pick up some paints and chalks from his old room. I text back: “Not a problem.”
A couple months after my encounter with Michael, it was a beautiful day through the windows, about 11:30 in the morning, and Fred, my boss, had me walk down with him to Chad’s office. Chad’s a VP. I go back a long ways with both of them. Great relationships. We’d even socialized together outside work, with the wives and everything.
I figured we’d joke around a little, as per usual, then settle down to some workplace discussion. There was always some new initiative to work on, and I usually had good analytical insights to contribute. Fred hadn’t told me what was on the agenda that day, which was unusual. Perhaps it was an unscheduled raise. I had gotten a few of those over the years. Terrific — I’d take it. Put it toward the Mediterranean cruise two years off that Allison and I had been planning.
Chad’s tone of voice didn’t change at all – it was the same old Chad – when he immediately launched into the thing that must happen that very day due to “the long revenue slide” the company had been in.
And of course they were pulling my leg — I understood that, I wasn’t born yesterday. They were just toying with me. Guy humor. The joke was coming. There was a punchline in there somewhere. I waited for it.
Chad kept talking in a monotone. I was still half-smiling, waiting for the joke, when I felt the blood start to drain from my face. And then I was into an out-of-body experience, a parallel universe, and found myself unable to talk.
Later I would wish I had said, “Chad, once more – with feeling.” And, “A thank you for all my great work would be appreciated too.” But, of course, you never think of those things at the right time.
I could not form whole sentences. I was permitted to finish the day but then, it was somehow made clear, I must be out and gone – permanently disappeared, as it were. Like someone who had been fired for incompetence, or who had a horrible infectious disease.
But this I could not do; I could not finish the day and knew I must leave as quickly as possible. It was such a beautiful day out, sunshine filling the well-kept grounds. I noticed the usual stream of trucks pulling out from our adjacent warehouse. I passed a few colleagues in the hall as well as Jeb Walters. They nodded or said hello. They had no idea. Also, the carpet seemed so loud for our kind of company. Why would you go with red and blue plaid squares in a straitlaced place like this? I felt it shouting at me.
I simply could not speak. Hugs from my coworkers. Distraught looks all around. I was looking down at myself from a distance. Who would pack up my things? Seventeen years’ worth. It was not going to be me. All the money in the world would not make me step foot in this building again.
I stay sprawled on my neighbor’s grass, remembering. My mind is swimming in my river of autumn leaves. Each of them has served nature’s function and been discarded—jettisoned, if you will–to float aimlessly about.
From Joe and Doris’ place I move on to LeRoy’s, then John’s. Good neighbors all. I bring out some stale chunks of bread for John’s beloved birds. I sweep the leaves out of their backyards and garage aprons and the alley itself, merging their mess with mine. Talk about helpful. Too bad everyone’s away at work; not a soul around to bear witness or thank me. It’s OK. I do not require applause. My generosity keeps me going.
I knew that if I placed a phone call to Allison at the school where she taught and told her what had transpired, she could be distracted enough to get in an auto accident on the way home. I dissembled. I simply told her I was not feeling well and that it would be helpful if she could come home as soon as possible to provide some TLC. She bought it.
Two hours later, we were sipping a cup of tea and still analyzing. “Henry,” she said, “did it ever occur to you that you may have been an instrument in your own demise?”
I chewed on that a bit. Alison could be quite articulate.
In the alley I grasp how I can easily expand my vision. I get out my leaf blower, spread about sixty, seventy feet of orange extension cord, and plug the beast in. I move much farther down the pathway now – two hundred feet or more – to add even more leaves to my monument. I blow everything toward Grumpy’s garage.
At my stage of life I could not grow new stripes. It was too late for me to learn a new trade or to move. I was unable to miraculously increase the number of job opportunities in my field, or in my mid-size city. Nor could I look younger.
The job counselor heard so much bitterness in my voice about the sudden manner of my departure that he suggested I “journal” my feelings. Now there was a first for me. It felt weird. But after a few false starts I wrote, “The brutal abrupt-departure approach for valued longtime employees has the stench of paranoid lawyers and HR theorists who are robots at heart. All of my years of good work have gotten me this? To be suddenly treated like a leper and shoved out the door?” I kept going: “Makes me think of what Allison and I had the misfortune of witnessing when we were vacationing in Cape Cod last summer – the cute whiskery brown seal off Chatham Pier suddenly gone. Where did it go? Into the jaws of a shark – chomp — right in front of a hundred vacationers, in their shorts and sandals with Starbucks in hand, gathered at dockside on a beautiful sunny day to take in the view and enjoy nature. Ha! The seal had done his time, and now it was time. Big spurt of blood gushing into the air. Nothing personal, seal. Just business.”
There’s simply no more room for leaves in Grumpy’s driveway; the alley there is completely full right up to the top of the door of his garage and the one facing it. Unless I wish to get up on a ladder and keep adding to the height, there is no more possibly to be done.
I set up my ladder, a twelve-footer, tear open a fresh box of big black plastic bags, and begin stuffing them full of leaves. In all I slowly make about fifteen trips up the ladder, enjoying the novel view from on high. The clouds over the lake keep blackening. They’re really something. Despite my growing fatigue, the day still feels fresh with possibility.
Sometimes in the early afternoons in my basement den, when I was bored, listless, and worn out from the incredibly boring search for a new job at my highly inconvenient age, and Allison was away at school, I would hold my head in my hands in despair. But I never let her see this.
When I stood in line to register for unemployment benefits, the people were a study in diversity, though I seemed the oldest. I acutely felt my years, my chubbiness, my baldness, even my outdated eyeglasses. Would handsomeness, hair, and slenderness have made a difference right then? No. No one knew me and no one cared in the least about my accomplishments or abilities. Repeat ten times, with feeling: No one cares who you are or what you’ve done.
As I was waiting in line, I would feel my body start to disappear. I was there, but unseen. I felt completely invisible: All that I was. All that I had become in my life. Allison sometimes would use “invisible” to describe the feelings of middle-aged women caught in the undertow of youth. At last I got it.
Some nights as I was falling asleep or tossing about in the throes of sleeplessness, I found myself listening closely to the warning whistle of the trains coming through Bay View. I’d get a lonely vision of just a conductor or two in the front-most locomotive as the only human beings on board a winding, mile-long line of freight cars — a moving, softly clanking mass of steel in the pitch black, destination unknown.
And on those mornings when the lake was badly fogged in as a freighter headed into the Port of Milwaukee, I would hear the ship’s foghorn not in my usual romantic way, as an appealing manifestation of centuries of brave men at sea, earnestly moving the world’s commerce, but rather as an alarm that the pilot was actually lost and afraid, and flailing about in confusion. It was as if his vessel has become a ghost ship, unseen and ignored. The series of breakwalls that could punch a big hole in his ship were coming up soon, perhaps any second, but precisely where, he wondered, were they in all this whitish-gray soup, and would his instruments show them in time? Or, was he just helplessly adrift?
I heard the early morning jets leaving Mitchell Airport nearby and I wanted so badly to be on a flight right then with Allison, headed to the Mediterranean (or really, anywhere), escaping to 30,000 feet to evade, or at least put off, my near future. But the Mediterranean trip had collapsed, along with a portion of our well-laid financial plans.
Inspired by the view from my new elevation, I am moved to expand my project into the rest of the alley. If only I can keep this up, I’ll eventually have the entire length of the alley—ten houses’ worth– packed fifteen feet high. I wonder if the Guinness Book of World Records might take an interest.
I was not going to retire, at least not by choice. I had too much ability, I wanted to work, and we needed the money.
So many pleasant relationships I had at work — coworkers all over the building. I knew that despite what had happened, they were all rooting for me and would be sure to stay in touch. The enjoyable web of relationships I had that extended beyond the strict topical limits of “work,” would be maintained; I was just an email away, after all. I was gone so quick that last day that I’m sure they’re still catching up to the news and are planning to contact me at some point soon.
I still took my long walks with Allison. We’d run into neighbors and chat. “I’m staying busy and staying in the hunt,” I’d tell them with forced cheerfulness. I didn’t tell them what it was really like feeling completely unmoored and getting nowhere in my job search. I’m not sure what was worse, the formal rejections of my job applications, or the certain feeling that they had gone into a corporate black hole never to be answered at all.
Justin dropped by for dinner soon after I lost my job, his way of showing concern. He gave me a hug, and on his back I felt a strange clump of hair that I eventually concluded was a ponytail. This took me a minute to process. Allison had made a great pork roast, with a fabulous underlayer of garlic. I smothered the meat and mashed potatoes in her sublime gravy. Good food and family as centers of gravity. You could do worse. Soon enough we got on the topic of Justin’s future. The hybrid lifestyle he had cobbled together, he said, felt great right then, but was always subject to change. He was practicing guitar a lot, was getting pretty regular gigs with the band, and was now back to drawing and painting with discipline and purpose. He’d been spending a lot of time systematically visiting all of the local art galleries, often in the company of a girl he had met in one of his courses, and was planning to alter his line of business courses in favor of some art classes. He was also developing a rhythm and personality as a bartender that was generating a decent amount of tips, he says. “It’s partly a show,” he said. What next, I wonder.
Allison was more encouraging than I was. She felt he was simply a work in progress. Part of me felt too worn down to argue. Though I must admit, Justin seemed happier and less confused than you might expect.
If you actually saw how huge my leafy ark has become, would you believe your eyes? You would think you were hallucinating. I am willing to warrant that no one has seen anything quite like this. In fact, no one does see it. There’s not a neighbor in sight, nor has a car passed in the last two hours. Strange. I keep at it.
While in my new life I was not the greatest company for her, Allison was amazed at my energy and organizational skills around the house. “Well, how do you think I got to where I was?” I blurted out. I felt multiple emotions crowding into that uncharacteristic outburst. So much was packed into it. She felt the heat in my words, and looked at me strangely.
I would perfect and control what I could. Inside, I cleaned and organized my workshop (long overdue), threw out old files, shredded twenty-year-old checking account statements. Outside, I slowly but persistently pulled out a couple seasons’ worth of weeds. We budgeted $250 max for some long-needed improvements, figuring I might as well use my new-found free time to jump on them, in between the job-hunting. Over a week, I installed a smart-looking pink brick border across the front flower beds and planted a few shrubs at key spots. In the garage, I took all the tools and implements off the walls and dropped them in a large pile. I laid down tarps, put on plastic gloves and a foolish-looking shower hat, then hooked up the powered sprayer and applied a handsome creamy coat of pre-primed white all over the interior walls. I was sore for a couple days from all the bending, but there was more to come. After the walls dried and I felt better, everything went back up and the garage floor got three coats of heavy-duty concrete paint in medium gray. Walls and floor, it was a lot of work. When I finished, though, I had a garage I actually wanted to spend time in.
I get a lawn chair and sit out by the alley. Who sits looking at a three hundred foot leaf mountain when they have a lake view? Answer: He who built the mountain. What if my neighbors come home? What will they say? What will I say? Suppose Grumpy comes home in his pickup and sees me here, sitting with a rake and a leaf blower, in the shadow of his entombed property? Never mind. I am too filled with wonder to consider consequences at this moment. Unlike Rome, my Leaf Empire was built in a day. Amazing.
I’m not sitting long at all when a chill Canadian breeze starts coming up from the lake bluff and I head inside for a jacket and a hat. I also grab a beer and my copy of Originals: How Nonconformists Move the World; if I read one more book about job-searching I may scream. When I step out of the house, the wind is coming up much stronger. I see the surf slamming into the breakwall now, making its dull thuds and violently shooting spray. I zip up my jacket, and just after I do, an easterly arrives in force. This one is so violent that it tilts our birdfeeder in its base and snares a white plastic grocery bag littering our flower bed. The bag darts about in a frenzy, like a kite without a string.
Gusts tear into my giant project and start blowing and scattering all of it, this way and that, the scratchy sound of a million leaves on skittering little feet, my Leaf Mountain, my masterpiece, redistributed now all over the entire neighborhood, leaving no trace whatever of my ferocious labor, of my generosity, nor even the obstacle in Grumpy’s path that was its genesis.
Soon enough, the alley is empty. So am I.
Just then, Justin arrives in his beater. “What have you been up to, anyway” he asks. I picture his incredulous look were I to tell him the truth. I debate my answer. “Oh, just kicking back,” I say. There’s a line he’s never heard from me. His new dad.
And here comes Grumpy himself, returning in his pickup from some errand, ignoring me as he passes by. He taps his garage door opener and drives in. The door lowers and he trudges inside. Perhaps he’ll spend the rest of his afternoon pulling the wings off flies.
“So what have you been up to today?” I ask Justin. The ponytail’s gone and his long hair is parted in the middle. Still a trace of acne. None of his dad’s tubbiness. A nice smile. “Busy weekend,” he says. “A shift at the bar tonight, playing tomorrow at the Nomad. Trying to get into this small gallery show for ‘emerging talent.’ Studying.”
“Well, do what you want,” I say, without an edge but with a tired feeling about my own life. “More power to you.”
He takes that in, then blurts out, “Whoa! Dad, we’ve got to move it indoors now, it’s getting seriously nasty.” A few fat raindrops plop down. A sudden gust tears off a lower branch of the silver maple and sends it flying toward my lawn. Any moment the sky will let loose entirely. As Justin hustles to fold the lawn chairs and close up the garage, I take one last look back. It’s as if I hadn’t done a spec of work in the alley.
The wind knocks over one of John’s garbage cans. I’m expecting a big mess of trash all over the alley, which of course I will feel compelled to clean up. Instead, only a few green corn husks come spilling out, their golden strands fluttering wildly. The wind catches the husks and flings them about like they’re nothing, formless and weightless. As I follow my son into the house, I find myself laboring to keep up with his stride. It’s like he’s off to the races.
About the Author:
Ronald Kovach is a writer, editor and musician in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. After working in newspaper journalism for 24 years, he held high-ranking editorial positions in three national magazines. “Easterly” is his first published fiction.