Jerry, at the Construction Site
By Samantha Kirby
“This way,” Rich said, and made an abrupt right turn at the corner.
“This way?” I asked, shuffling a bit to keep up. “Why are we going this way?”
“Jerry’s working in the old East End Theater up here a couple blocks.”
“Oh.” Classic Rich. He was always doing this – stopping without warning: stopping to buy fertilizer or garden tools, stopping to have the car looked at, taking the long way round just to impress you with his knowledge of the back roads – always forcing detours, always springing his projects and his friends on you while he had you balled up as a prisoner in his fist. Jerry was at work for God’s sake. Rich pulled out his cell phone and gave him a ring.
“Hey man, whatcha doin’?” A pause. “Oh, nothin’. I was just down here by the East End Theater and I thought I’d stop by and say hey – can you spare a few minutes?” Another pause. “Cool man, I’m right outside.” I’m right outside. Why not we? Classic fucking Rich.
“So how’s Jerry doing?” I venture to ask.
“Oh he’s doing fine. You know Cameron just got married.”
“Yeah, I heard about that – isn’t she like….”
Rich read my mind. “She’s nineteen, yeah. They’re living with Jerry and Sandy.”
“And Uncle Nate?”
“And Uncle Nate.”
“That’s quite a crowd.”
“Well, that’s just how they’ve got to do things out in Moody.” I wasn’t quite sure what that meant, but I let it slide.
Jerry was our dad’s cousin, and I had probably thought about him without his name being mentioned or without him being physically present a grand total of five times in my entire life, that of course being a generous estimate. I didn’t consciously avoid him, or at least the thought of him; it was a simple matter of him doing his thing, me doing mine. A simple, textbook example of two strangers who happened to be tenuously related, one of whom was to the other a representation of distant, half-baked imaginings, the other of whom was doubtlessly to the first just another absent name dropped at Thanksgiving.
The East End Theater was a relic from the 1930s, an ornate stone building stretching for half a block in either direction from its corner view of the last few numbered avenues of Northside. It had closed down in the eighties, just like most everything in this Southern city, when stalled progress turned standards of living belly-up and everyone who could afford it flocked to the suburbs. But recently urbanization had taken on a trendy hipster feel, and the children of the very same emigrants who fled the city to raise them in relative affluence were flocking back like chutes and ladders, revitalizing and restoring and trend-setting and envelope-pushing, and in just one and a half generations the city was making a comeback, baby. Problems never die, of course, but every nadir has its zenith, and we were on the upswing, you could feel it in the air. Jerry’s construction outfit was just the next sign: an old theater with an old history being converted into a new theater with an old history. At the current moment Jerry himself, a graying man in his early fifties, was stepping over its threshold.
* * *
He was wearing a faded, oversized grey t-shirt streaked heavily with sweat, and loose-fitting Levis over leather work boots. In his hand was a hardhat, which cradled a water bottle and a thin piece of cloth cut from an old cotton shirt to be used as a buffer between the hat and his balding cranium. His face was worn, his eyes tired, his chin covered with a careless layer of stubble. A thin mustache peeked out from under his rounded nose. His face had always reminded me of a woodland creature: a fox, or a groundhog, or a squirrel. Something small and shifty, energetic and reactionary.
“How’s it goin’ man?” Spoken with a muted yet very extant country twang. He swung a scrubby hand out wide, and caught Rich’s in a chummy grip.
“Oh, you know, doin’ good, just walking around town with Izzie here –“ he clapped me on the shoulder “ – and I thought we’d stop by an’ see if you were workin’.”
Jerry gave me a long, absent look, as if he were trying to figure out who I was. Or how come I was so old. “Yeah, man, yeah, I been down here for a few months and I reckon I’ll be down here for a few months more.” He indicated the theater on the corner. “This place was pretty run down, ‘s takin’ a lot of work to get ‘er back in shape.”
“Well I hope we’re not keeping you,” I said apologetically.
“Naw, we’re actually on our lunch break, so I got maybe ten minutes left to spare. ‘S nice to get out into the air, y’know? It’s so still – stale – in there.”
Rich nodded enthusiastically. “Aw, yeah. Yeah, I bet. Must be pretty tough in there in this heat.”
“Oh yeah, gotta drink a lot o’ water and just be careful with the breaks, ‘specially when it’s ninety-five, ninety-eight degrees like it’s been past few days. We ain’t got no air or nothin’ in there, so we just gotta be careful. They got ‘lectric fans we can use, so that’s okay.”
“Well, I sure do feel for ya, man.”
“Naw, it ain’t that bad. Sure it’s hot, it’s damn hot this year,” he plucked at the front of his shirt to get a little ventilation, “but ‘s nice to be workin’ on one project for so long. Y’know, so often we’re just called in for repairs or touch-ups and we’re in an’ out in a week. But we been here a long time. Th’ foundation alone took us over a month to…to resurrect, y’know, an’ to reinforce. Everything’s so old, and we’re tryin’ to…to resurrect, to…to salvage, as much of the old building as we can.”
“Are you keeping the façade?” I asked.
He turned around, as if to make sure the ornate exterior hadn’t been blasted off while we spoke. “Oh yeah, these new owners, they want to preserve as much of the old building as possible, that’s why it’s takin’ us so damn long to fix anything up. But that’s what’s happ’nin’ to the city these days, all these renovations and whatnot with old buildings, an’ people wantin’ to keep everything same as it was fifty years ago.”
“I think it’s wonderful that they renovate rather than demolish.”
“Oh yeah, sure. It’s the only history lesson most of us’ll ever get anymore.”
“Exactly,” I agreed; Rich ignored this exchange. “Yeah, me and Izzie were just walkin’ around downtown while we had the chance. She’s been here visiting for a few weeks, you know she’s going back to Vancouver on Saturday.” He said Vancouver as if it were a tiny island nation in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
Jerry looked at me again. I looked at him. His eyes were a shade of pale blue that could not have been naturally occurring in any other place on this earth. “Is that so?”
“Yeah,” I said. We swapped embarrassed disinterest.
“I ‘member hearin’ ‘bout when you left. Sure do think about you over there. Must be real cold up in Vancouver.”
“Yeah, it gets a bit chillier than it does here, that’s for sure.” Rich and his tactless braggadocio. What does Jerry care if I’m in Vancouver, or Norway, or Japan, or right here at home, a half-hour deep into the suburbs? You might as well tell him I’m going back to Mars on Saturday. Jerry was giving me that same look again, as if trying to remember who exactly I was, and I got the distinct feeling that Rich was simultaneously trying to show both of us off, as if to say “I am the proprietor of these relationships, the one as much as the other. I am the bridge between these two worlds, and all traffic must come through me.”
Well he was right, in any case. I never saw Jerry except in Rich’s presence; for three long decades he had been our one and only indelible link, stolid and for the most part ignorable, like a bridge over the Mississippi to two parties living on opposing coasts, and our tacit indifference was testament to the space that lay between us.
The last time I had spoken to him had been nearly a decade ago, him lounging in the grass drinking beer and making rude jokes with his teenage son. I had always been a bit wary of him, with his air of recklessness and what I perceived as denial; his unrepentant [cheerful?] insularity had always brought me to a screeching silence. What could I say? If it fell outside the circle of family and estate, it was of no consequence. It was trope, it was trite, it was illusory.
“Hey, how are Mel and Cameron doing?” I ask. “I hear they’re both married now.”
Jerry nodded, but did not smile. “Yeah, they’re both married. Doin’ good, doin’ good; Cameron and Bill’re stayin’ with Uncle Nate, and Mel and Jessica’re stayin’ with us in the house. We’re a crowd, but Sandy likes having a bunch o’ people ‘round all the time, so it’s good for her. I ain’t home much, really, but ‘s nice to have a bunch o’ people, y’know, sayin’ hello when I get there.”
I didn’t agree, but I know nothing. “Has Uncle Nate got his own place, then? Where is he living now?”
“Oh, y’know he’s had that trailer for years now, an’ so we’ve just let him park it in our yard, right beside the driveway, right there, and it works out, cause he ain’t movin’ around too good anymore an’ all, and retirement don’t go very far these days. Was good of Cameron an’ Bill to stay over there with him, help him out some and all that.”
Rich interjected. “Yeah, I been meanin’ to come out there and say hello to Uncle Nate, but I just got so much to do that I can’t seem to find the time.”
“I know, everybody’s just so busy these days,” Jerry took another look back over his shoulder at the theater. “I got this job here, and Mel’s doin’ some construction out in Moody here an’ there, Sandy’s part-time at the Dollar General; that’s another thing that’s good ‘bout Cameron and Bill stayin’ with Uncle Nate – he got somebody lookin’ after him all day long. In case somethin’ happens, y’know, while we’re all gone.
“I tell you, that sure does put my mind at ease; last time I was out your way I left worried sick about him.”
“Yeah, he’s in a bad way sometimes. Doin’ okay now, though. Got the kids to keep him company. And his dogs.”
The two men spoke more about Uncle Nate, about the work to be done at the house, about the work to be done that couldn’t get done because of other work to be done. I half-listened, thinking about Jerry at Mel’s wedding some years ago. Today I did not see the same man. There was a recklessness in his eyes, but it was veiled, tired, kept out of sight like an invalid slowly fading away in a stuffy back room. His breezy demeanor seemed merely mechanical, ticking slowly down to a final acceptance, that shrewder cousin of complacency. He spoke as one who had surrendered, not out of cowardice but out of necessity. Out of prudence. He had conceded the victory to those fixed points in life, the ones which have occurred and therefore cannot be undone, all those cogs toothed in other cogs that when rotating rotate together.
For after all what use is guilt or resentment or any other feeling that looks constantly backward, or that attempts to predict consequence? These things will not change. These things are photographed, chiseled, steeped in permanence. There was instead in his eyes a focus, a spotlight, on those things that are as yet unwritten, beginning with this, the current moment. This very moment, ever-changing, ever contingent on choice yet bound to nothing and to no one.
Suddenly I felt that I had finally grasped just a little bit more about who Jerry was. I was confident that I would never truly understand him, but in all those thirty years leading up to this surprise encounter, in that handful of thoughts and memories of the man, I had seen less, had known him less, than I felt I did at this moment. We seemed as distant as ever, at least in my mind, but he had emerged from that theater a little less fallacious and a little more human than he had ever been to me before. I got it. I was getting it.
“Well, we don’t want to keep you,” I heard Rich say, after a short pause.
“Oh you’re not, you’re not. But thanks for stoppin’ by, it was nice seein’ y’all. Good to see you ‘fore you leave, Izzie. You take care up in Canada. Stay safe, now.”
“I will. It was nice to see you too. Good luck with the construction.”
“Thanks, I sure do appreciate it. Got a long way to go.” Don’t we all, he seemed to say, have a long way to go. He picked up his water bottle and hardhat from where he had rested them at his feet, and we turned away from each other.
Rich was talking but I wasn’t paying attention. I felt as though I had been let in on a secret. Something important, something vital, but something that I had not quite understood, like a coded war message. Maybe we really were from two different worlds. Two languages, two cultures, two bloodlines. Or maybe it meant something, that I was finally beginning to notice. Maybe we weren’t as far removed as I had thought. I was still trying to decipher this feeling several blocks later when Rich’s voice came floating back to me on the hot, humid air:
“It’s just another way of living.”
Maybe for once he was right.