Pete Johnson is my neighbor. He lives in the house on the right. The guy on the left, I wish wasn’t my neighbor, but I guess, after all these years, I have to put up with him. Not much else I can do at this point.
This story is not about that guy on the left, though. It’s about Pete, my neighbor on the right.
It took less than two hours after I moved in for Pete and me to become acquainted. I was trying to organize my garage when Pete walked in with a six pack of beer and a bag of ice. He said he was looking for a place to hide the items from his wife. I kicked a few boxes out of the way and found an old ice chest. He said that would do the trick. Locating a couple of lawn chairs took a bit longer. But once they were found, we were comfortably seated in my garage, with the door open so we could watch the people as they walked their dogs. We each had a cold beer in our hand. There’s not many joggers in our neighborhood, except for the young nurse on the next block, but she only jogs early in the mornings, too early for a couple of beer drinkers like us. An occasional car drives down the street, but mostly it’s walkers. We spent that first afternoon drinking beer and getting to know one another. It didn’t take long and I was in the house pulling long neck brown bottles from the refrigerator.
Since I wanted desperately to stay out my wife’s way (always a smart thing to do if there’s the possibility of work somewhere in the vicinity), Pete presented a great opportunity to accomplish that very thing. He became my reason to stay away from the “unpacking” being done at the back of the house. When my wife asked for help I presented my case. She bought it. She unpacked while I entertained.
Pete and I have become very good friends these past few years. It seems Pete enjoys a cold beer now and then. So do I. We both like to be out of sight when the wives aren’t understanding what a weekend is all about. We each have a comfortable lawn chair, and have discovered where, on a hot day, the shade is going to be before it’s going to be there. That makes us the perfect match for a lasting friendship. That, and neither one of us cares about the brand of beer we drink, just so long as the suds are cold.
Throughout history there have been countless stories of generals and admirals and presidents who have done great things, and some things not so great. But you never hear much about the common man. You don’t hear about the soldier who totes the gun, the sailor who swabs the deck, the policeman on the beat, the nurse in ICU, or the man who just goes to work day in and day out to support his family. No, you don’t hear much about the Pete Johnsons of the world.
Pete is a story teller. One of those guys who was born a couple of generations too late. The throwback kind of guy you can imagine sitting around the old wood stove at the rear of the general store in a small town somewhere in the Heartland of America. He’ll be playing checkers with some other old guy from across town. They’ve been competing against one another so long they each know the other’s moves before the other guy knows he’s going to make the move. All the while they’re telling the same old stories that sound new to the strangers in town, but they’ve long since gone stale to everyone else. They’ve heard them a thousand times before.
Yes, Pete can tell a story. He’s a man with a tale to turn and not enough hours in the day to get it completely turned.
We, Pete and I, make a great pair. I’m a listener. I like to listen to stories, good stories. The kind that Pete tells. I just know that I’m not a story teller. Oh, once in awhile I can tell a tall tale. Not a good one, though. Not a story like Pete tells, but it’s still a story. Pete’s got the knack. I don’t. But I try occasionally.
Pete grew up in Hughson, CA during that period of time when people knew their neighbors and their neighbor’s neighbors. Those were the days when, in small towns across America, a child was raised by more than his parents. It took a community to chase a kid from birth to adulthood back then. Still should, but you don’t find that much nowadays. Oh, I imagine it can still happen in some of the small towns around the country, but they’re far and few between.
Being the only son of a widow, Pete was continually harassed (his word, not mine) by the residents of the small farming community in California’s Central Valley. These fine citizens (he always says this with much sarcasm) saw to it that Pete walked the straight and narrow. To hear him tell it, he couldn’t even spit on the sidewalk, and his mother would be standing on the porch waiting for him to get home and tell her what he’d done. She didn’t need to hear it from him, though. She’d already heard the story from Maria Bavarro, Trudi Jackson, Helen Franks, Jeri Martin, and a whole host of others.
When Pete finally made his escape from Smalltown, America the Vietnam conflict was in full swing. He had a limited number of options he was facing when he graduated high school. His draft lottery number was four, so there was that option. College was another option, but Pete didn’t care much for school and couldn’t afford it even if he did want to go. That was option number two. His third option was to join the military, the branch of his choice. The army recruiter that visited Pete’s high school during his senior year of high school was very good at his job. He had the young men dreaming of adventures in far off lands. When Pete walked up, the uniformed soldier went fishing and landed a sucker. Pete went off to war a boy and came home a man.
Pete is 70 years old now and he’s been married to Martha for 45 years. He doesn’t understand how he’s been so lucky to have such a great wife. Together, they’ve raised three daughters. Pete says that’s what’s wrong with him now, being imprisoned in the same house with four women. Through the years, his wife has booted him out a few times, but like a bad penny he always found his way back into the house. He claims she can’t live without him. She just rolls her eyes and threatens to show him the door again.
He told me he keeps a spare key hidden under the garden gnome next to the front steps, for the day she locks him out. And then there’s always the possibility she might change the locks when she does. He knows that day could come without warning, so he keeps a tent and a sleeping bag in his old pickup. Frankly, I don’t ever see him using the items. The rats will chew holes in them long before they’re used. Those two are like a couple of newlyweds most of the time. The rest of the time you’d swear they were next up in divorce court.
Today I’d like to try my hand at storytelling. Actually, it’s not really a story. It’s the sharing of the events in our town. I think it occurred on a Wednesday, but it could have been a Thursday, or even a Tuesday. It wasn’t a Monday or a Friday, and I can say with certainty this event did not occur on a weekend. So, pull up a chair, get a firm grip on your favorite beverage, and get comfortable. This is about Pete and his gopher. Well, it really wasn’t his gopher. It wasn’t like it was his pet or anything. He didn’t own it, and he didn’t want it. But, he did have it. He wanted to get rid of it, and I doubt very seriously he would have ever find any takers. I know I sure as hell didn’t want it.
So, here it goes:
One day, while drinking beer in his garage and discussing the next idiotic thing our current president was going to say, I tried to get Pete to consider his predicament from his gopher’s point of view. I almost had him convinced that the gopher had as much right to his backyard as he did. As a matter of fact, he probably enjoyed it more than any other living thing could enjoy it. I’ve never seen Pete or Martha rolling around in all that beautiful Kentucky bluegrass he has planted back there, and it’s for damned sure he’ll never let the neighborhood kids in his backyard for a game of flag football. So that just left the gopher. Oh, there’s the occasional neighborhood cat, but Pete always chases them off before they can get settled in.
Pete puts a lot of time and effort into keeping his yard looking like it came straight out of a gardening magazine. As a matter of fact, I even suggested he submit a few photos to the local newspaper. They might give him a big write up. He’s considering that. But he still has to convince the gopher that he doesn’t want to live there anymore. But I think it’s only right that someone, or something, takes the time to really enjoy the fruits of Pete’s labor.
If the gopher had a subscription to the much acclaimed Gopher Digest, I’m sure we could convince the little guy to invite over a reporter and at least one cameraman, two would be better. I’m positive that gopher would love to see his picture in the magazine. It could lead to a prize in the annual gopher tunnel digging competition. I doubt Pete would like that. But, he could be a proud gardener. And his gopher could be a proud resident. I could be the proud neighbor.
Well, Pete was as alert as any man could possibly be after an afternoon of beer drinking in a hot garage. The way he tells it, he might have been around the block a time or two, but his mind is still rock solid. It’s as sharp as a carpet tack and his memory is as dependable as his Weber gas grill, the one he claims he used to grill the steak that Reagan chewed on when he passed through the area during his presidential campaign, the first one, not the second.
So, it goes without saying that Pete didn’t buy my suggestion. But on this particular day, he did buy the beer. He probably shouldn’t have done that, though. Because that was the day the train went off the rails. I never really understood what that term meant until that day I watched Pete’s train completely jump the tracks and plow through the day like a tornado from hell. It was a mass of tangled arms and legs, and fur and fannies. Well, not so much fur, but I can tell you that it was not a pretty sight. There was gunpowder and lead, and two old guys with too much beer and too much time on their hands.
The day started out like all the other beer drinking days we’ve shared over the course of the past few years. This particular day we were in Pete’s garage. He’s got a real nice garage. I’m envious. Since his retirement Pete has remodeled the place. He built a small bar against the south side, right next to the small refrigerator he bought from the couple who moved out of the neighborhood a few years ago. He had to move his workbench to the back wall, which makes for a tight fit for his wife’s car, but since he installed the small concrete barriers she has stopped running into the bench. Whenever she goes shopping the garage becomes a shady place to sit and enjoy the day. We’ve got a full view of the street and enjoy making up stories about the people walking by.
After the Wednesday night poker game this past week, so I guess it must have been Thursday, it was Pete’s turn to play host. But we were a little short on long necks. So before we got started I offered to drive down to the local stop and rob to load up on the day’s supply. We grabbed a 12-pack and some chips and salsa, and a big bag of pork rinds. You can never have too many pork rinds. By the time we got back the garage was devoid of the eco-boost sub-compact Pete had purchased for his wife last year. My wife was a passenger in the little car, so it made for a quiet day for both Pete and me.
We were a couple of beers into the day when our conversation turned to lawn care and what each of us thought about the use of fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. We each grabbed a fresh brew and walked through the door leading to the patio. Pete was proud of the bluegrass he had so lovingly nurtured without the use of expensive chemicals. Unlike me, Pete is a man who stands by his convictions that petrochemicals will be the destruction of modern civilization.
Pete had only taken two steps onto the patio when he stopped and began to mutter. He got red in the face and his breathing became labored. I was concerned for his health so I steered him towards one of the wicker chairs that surrounded the table next to his gas grill. He refused to sit. He stood and pointed, mumbling something that sounded like a foreign language from a faraway land, his entire body shaking like it was attached to a giant vibrating sander being used to smooth the surface of freshly installed wood flooring. My eyes traced the length of his arm, down his pointing finger, towards the middle of his yard. There, next to the bird bath Pete’s wife loved so dearly, was a fresh mound of dirt. It wasn’t a very large mound, but it was definitely out of place in that perfect yard of perfect grass surrounded by a variety of colorful blooming flowers.
The blood curdling scream that erupted from my dear friend caused my hair to stand on end. My goose pimples sprouted goose pimples of their own, and I was sure that the next sound I would hear would be the sirens from the police who had been summoned by the nosey old lady that lives on the corner of Oak and Maple. Pete dropped his beer. The glass bottle shattered when it hit the concrete pavers. He then dove off the patio, and two somersaults later was digging with his bare hands through the freshly mown grass. Dirt began flying through the air, and chunks of Kentucky bluegrass vied for position in the race to fill the sky with organic debris.
I was concerned for my friend’s wellbeing. By the time I got to him Pete’s left arm was elbow deep in a narrow hole he had unearthed in his lawn. He seemed intent on forcing his appendage further into the earth. I gripped his shoulders and spoke softly and soothingly to him. That seemed to do the trick. I don’t think it was so much the words I said, but the way I said them. By the time I got him seated he had calmed down some. He was still upset, though. I figured a cold brew and a friendly conversation would calm him down to the point that I could relax knowing that he would not stroke out.
I ran to the refrigerator in the garage, the one he’d gotten from the couple that had moved away. By the time I got back with a fresh bottle of beer Pete had disappeared. Frantically, I searched for my friend. The yard was small, so it took no time at all to determine that Pete was gone. The gate was still locked so I knew he hadn’t gone that way. The tree in the corner wasn’t large enough to climb and the shrubs offered no place to hide. That left only one other option—the sliding door into the house. It was open, so I stepped through. Pete was on his way out. We nearly collided when I stepped around the corner into the hall.
Pete retired after 40 years with the postal service. Most of his time he walked the streets, through all kinds of weather, delivering letters, magazines, bills, and small packages to the people who lived in the neighborhood. He knows everyone and everyone knows him. Pete is a likable guy. He’s even-tempered and friendly to a fault. I don’t think he’s ever had an argument with anyone but his wife. And those, I’m sure, have been small and subdued in comparison to some you read about in the newspaper and on the internet. I doubt he’s ever been bitten by a dog, either.
Well, that day Pete was not himself. I’m sure you’ve heard the term “going postal?” I thought it was just a saying. I didn’t think it really meant anything much. Sure, some people get out of sorts from time to time, but mostly they get over it without creating too much of a problem. Most times things just work themselves out. That day was not the case. The gopher in Pete’s backyard was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Pete went postal.
When we nearly collided in the hallway I saw that Pete was armed. He had his 12 gauge Benelli in his right hand and a box of shells in his left. I was blocking his path. He had that wild look in his eyes. I feared for my personal safety so I stepped out of his way. When he passed, I turned to follow.
Good night, Mrs. Jackson, wherever you are.