Wednesday, June 8, 2011

70 sticks in my head

Within the shadows of the only tree on our block lived a guy also named Joe.  I say "also" because there were no less than five Joes living on our street.  Everyone appreciated this particular Joe.  He volunteered his time for all kinds of odd jobs for people; he never charged anyone a dime, and refused money.   His obstinancy ignited fights which briefly smothered any admiration for him.  He preferred to accept a beer or a piece of fruit.  At best these contrived grudges lingered for a day.  None could stay angry with him.

Joe had two older sons and no wife who I ever met. Although, one son sometimes silently came and went from the house, we never saw Joe with his sons.

I said hello to one son.  He squinted at me over his shoulder.

Joe finished jobs with patience and then took his time to sit for an hour with a beer.   He knew the inside and outside of every home.  Laughing and gesturing with his black-stained fingertips, Joe’s good will towards others filled a need of his own.

Few visited him.

Sometimes my friend Joey and I would have catch in front of Joe the plumber's house.  When he came home from work, Joe stood and watched us before disappearing into the dark and empty row house.

My family invited him to some special dinners and holiday celebrations. Joe the plumber scrubbed himself a disguise of fresh clothes and soft hair. Yet, his fingertips would be always blackened. Military tattoos inked his thick forearms.

He had a dinner date one night.  Joe the plumber cooked a turkey in his oven.  It burned.

He grabbed two towels and ran with high and awkward knees; he huffed and puffed the turkey fifty yards down to my split-lipped Aunt's house.   He left a trail of dark smoke from his front door down to her door.

"Connie! I burned the turkey!"

My split-lipped aunt stood up from her folding chair on the front stoop and waved him into the house like a 3rd base coach, holding the screen door open for him. It slammed familiarly behind her. Joe plunked the ruined bird down on the kitchen table at the back of the house.

Six of us gathered and gaped at the still-smoldering turkey.

My split-lipped aunt, my 80-year-old cousin from Italy, Beppa, my mom, and my split-lipped aunt's friend, Mitzi, snapped to work and all at once their bodies churned throughout the tiny kitchen. They grabbed knives and bowls and vegetables and bottles and towels and cutting boards and the water in the sink ran nonstop.  Arms and fingers pointed, gripped, and hugged.  Someone yelled to put on a pot of water.  I watched bright peppers, lettuce, and tomatoes chopped and mutilated--a spilled can of nuts scrambled across the floor, oranges rolled through all of their feet.   With the pride of Caesar crossing the Rubicon, Beppa slid a cutting board of fresh pasta into a boiling pot of water.  They boiled water all day just in case of an emergency. You never knew when someone would need ravioli.

Everyone and everything was in the way and was not in the way like the guts of a fine watch.

"Joe, go home and get washed. We will make it a Waldorf salad!"

"I am clean, Connie."

A voice added, "And ravioli!"

The women ignored him. In the silence of cooking, without a word, good-hearted Joe the plumber disappeared through the open door of his house to scrub his fingers and hands better.  Joey and I follwed him and then had a catch.  We kept peering into the open door left wide open.  Traces of smoke lingered like a low fog in his house.

I never learned how the date went.

When he emerged he didn't seem any cleaner.  He wore a stiff white shirt now.  With the sleeves folded with precision, a tattoo made of smudged blue ink curled from beneath the cuff and around his forearm.  I liked it.  It was a hula girl. Covered now, but higher on his right arm a tattoo of an anchor hid beneath most of his work shirt sleeves--I caught a glimpse of it once when he worked on our bathroom sink.  Same smeary blue ink.  The words and the numbers under it were never clear enough to be read.

Joe the plumber was the only guy I knew who was murdered.

Someone broke into his house in the middle of a quiet night and stabbed him repeatedly in his sleep. The number 70 sticks in my head.

Paul Cezanne: Peasant (Le paysan) ca.1891

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