To the naked eye, there was nothing noteworthy about the dreary brown house across the street from where I spent my childhood: a slowly decaying neighborhood of once identical, pre-fab cracker boxes. It was inhabited by a frail widow in her mid eighties, and Cliff: her sixty-ish derelict son. Cliff didn’t have a job, and didn’t want one; always much too occupied with whatever scheme he was working on in the garage to seek gainful employment. He and his mother kept to themselves, and didn’t bother anyone else. Occasionally, you could hear her call from the house, “Clifford – suppertime!” just like you could hear the other mothers in the neighborhood call for their children.
Cliff had children too: Ricky, Randy, and Rhonda; although they lived in Florida with his ex-wife. They were my age: eight or nine; and every summer, they’d come up to stay with Cliff and their grandma for a couple months. In the course of playing with Cliff’s kids, I began referring to him as “Uncle Cliff.” My mom referred to him as “Uncle Filthy,” as he seemed incessantly clad in a white T-shirt, camouflaged with smatterings of grime, and sporting a perpetual five-o’clock shadow. Though he wasn’t too popular with the local parents (as derelicts seldom are), he was a delight to kids. Even when Ricky, Randy and Rhonda weren’t staying with him, I’d gravitate to his garage whenever I saw him busy in there.
Most of the time, he would be disassembling discarded electric motors that he’d pillaged from one of the local junkyards, so that he could uncoil the windings, and sell the copper at the salvage yard. When any of us neighbor kids came to visit, we would help. You could always find a box or five-gallon pail to sit on, amidst the wood shavings, scattered hand tools, and empty oilcans. As he would show you how to unravel the wire, he would tell you what it was like, back in the “good old days.”
I still remember many of the tales he told about gangsters and boxcars, and hobos and moonshine. He could make your spine tingle as he would tell of digging graves at night in Arkansas, while the wolves would bay at the moon: “They could burrow their snouts into that soft black soil, and when they would howl, you couldn’t tell where it was coming from. A number-two shovel ain’t much of a weapon when there’s a pack o’wolves howling around you.” His elocution made you feel like you were there.
He was a carpet cleaner when they had the big shoot-out at the Lafayette Life Building. There used to be a bank in there, and a couple mobsters with tommy-guns stepped in and mowed people down. That carpet just didn’t want to get clean. He had to roll it up, and haul it out. Then he worked for the bootleggers when Lafayette was known as “Little Chicago:” a convenient supply point between Chicago and Indianapolis. The revenuers knew better than to stray down the old tow-path that followed the river on the city’s south side, or they wouldn’t come back.
That was back in the twenties, and when he was sharing all this wisdom with us in the early seventies, he still spent a lot of time at the river. He was a “river rat,” according to my old man. His running-buddy with the pick-up, that dropped off the junk motors, would come back to cash in the copper. They would go down to the river at night, and set-up trout lines to catch fish. If it was legal, they could’ve done it during the day.
One day, sitting in his garage, I spied a brand new basketball net, sitting atop some tools, looking out of place. When I picked it up, he told me that he had made it for his boys. Then he held up a piece of wood, and told me that it was called a shuttle (a tool he had made to weave nets with), and showed me how to use it; an art I never mastered. He used the shuttle to make the nets with which he caught his nighttime prey.
That wasn’t his only talent. When he wasn’t cannibalizing appliances, he built flat-bottomed boats by hand out of wood. That’s why the happy aroma of turpentine and forest green, oil-based paint permeated his shop. While he would build, he would explain the difference between regular and marine plywood. Most 8-year-olds don’t know that redwood doesn’t rot, and that’s why you frame your boats out of it. He could take a scrap of it, and carve anything you wanted.
I didn’t begin to grasp the extent of his abilities however, until the last time I saw his kids. We were playing outside together the day before they had to return to Florida, when Uncle Cliff interrupted us to announce that he wanted to send them off with presents. As we assembled ourselves in the garage, he disappeared into the house, reappearing with a violin case in hand. He produced the violin, and taught us how and why to rosin the bow. After a bit of plucking and tuning, he played it for us. Well now: this old has-been had some culture in him. He gave the violin to Ricky, and vanished into the house again, reemerging with another instrument case. This time he pulled out a cornet, and showed us that it was shorter than a trumpet, but worked the same way. Then he played it, dazzling his audience. Giving it to Randy, he disappeared again, resurfacing with charcoal paper and oil pastels; and rendered a drawing that, to my untrained eye, rivaled renaissance caliber stuff. That was Rhonda’s memento from dad.
In retrospect, I’ll bet few of those upstanding citizens who looked down their noses at old Cliff: the good-for-nothing son of that poor old widow; could hold a candle to him. He could compete in their world, if he wanted to. He showed us that. He just didn’t want to. But could they compete in his?
I moved away later that summer, and have no idea what became of any of them. I don’t think about them much anymore – don’t have time to. I stay pretty busy, darting between my job, and school, and my dreary house, nestled amidst a slowly decaying neighborhood of lack-luster cracker-boxes. Occasionally though, as I weave my way through the streets, I’ll catch a glimpse of some old guy, working in his yard somewhere, and it will strike me: something from beneath that tired exterior will cast a ray of character: a glimmer of nobility.
It makes me want to turn around and go sit in his garage to hear his stories.