Note: This is a combination of what I originally posted on three separate days - Feb 24, 25, and 26 - into one long post. It's less confusing this way:
Saturday, February 24, 1973
(After I finished college in 1969, I worked in the computer biz and wrote unpublishable novels. By 1973 I was having doubts about both career choices. In February, 1973, I took my carpentry tools out of storage.)
He had a shaggy mop of reddish-blond hair and a bushy mustache. He looked to be about my age—25. He walked into the garage where I was setting up tools and asked, "You a carpenter?"
“Sorta.” I was touching these tools for the first time in four years.
“You make furniture?”
“Sometimes,” I lied.
Which is how I got the job of building a chest of drawers. Dewey was my downstairs neighbor. We shared a stucco box that was basically a three-car garage. My wife and I lived above the garages; Dewey lived behind them.
Dewey had scavenged six drawers that somebody had left out on the street. My job was to build something - anything - that would house the six drawers. He wasn’t going to tell me how it should look because, he said, “You wouldn’t want some clown tellin’ ya what to do.”
Our garage box home was located a block from Highway 101 in a neighborhood of struggle: Cooley Avenue, East Palo Alto. We were bathed in traffic noise and there was the occasional drug-war murder, but the rent was as cheap as it ever gets in California.
Dewey had two cats: one with a limp, one with no tail. The no-tail cat liked to climb the ivy and stare into my second-floor kitchen window. One night stark naked I walked into the kitchen and saw a pair of eyes staring in at me. I told this to Dewey, who seemed to have decided to spend the afternoon in my garage, and he said, “That’s Nilsson. Yeah, he’s kinda friendly that way.”
Dewey kept a 1961 blue Chrysler in the middle garage and used it as an office. There was a two-drawer file cabinet in the back seat. He'd created and sold several posters which were popular in college dorms. He’d also published one book of sketches. Every page was a cartoonish drawing, and every image was some variation of a penis.
“Some people say I have a phallic obsession,” he said, “but I don’t know where they get that idea.” He said he had a second book ready - drawn in a different style. Then he said, “Do you mind if I talk to ya? I’ll try not to be too depressin’.”
“You’re not depressing.”
“I just killed Sinatra.”
“Gray cat? Limp? Fed her some downers and she went to sleep peaceful. Purrin’ till she stopped breathin’. I just buried her in that garden there.” He pointed to the house next door. “Don’t tell the girls.”
Two female graduate students - “the girls” - lived very quietly in the house next door. I wondered if one of them would try planting flowers soon, turning a spade of earth and finding a surprise.
“There’s a gallery in Frisco wants to show my stuff,” he said.
“Cool! Are they - like -?”
“Dongs? Naw. New style. I’m goin’ up there tonight. Put on my best blue jeans and all. Get the final word.”
“I quit the Post Office.”
“You were a mailman?”
“That was after I quit the clown profession. Actually, maybe mailman was the same profession, new venue. Anyway, I quit yesterday. You heard of Dewey Paints?”
“Chain of paint stores in Denver. My father owns it. Named for me. Or me for it. Me and the stores, we both started about the same time. I’m supposed to run it when I grow up.” He laughed. “When can you make the drawer thing?”
“I have to get some wood.” Also, though I didn’t say so, I’d need to quickly study a book about furniture-making.
The next day, I began...
Sunday, February 25, 1973
I began building the cabinet for Dewey.
Woodworking soothed my soul. The street became my workshop. With the garage door open, I cut plywood on the sidewalk. The flow of life on Cooley Avenue was like an impromptu circus, and I became one of the acts. It was a neighborhood of transience. Rentals.
From a house down the street a trio emerged: Dewey, holding hands with a woman on one side and a little boy on the other. The woman was round-faced, red-haired, with shiny skin and a ready smile. She gazed up at Dewey with unabashed fondness. The boy, also red-haired, was unsteady, lurching. One of his legs was twisted. Dewey walked slowly so the boy could keep up.
In front of the garage, the woman said, “Bet you thought I was gonna invite you to stay for dinner ha ha.”
"Gotta let me go, Beep." Dewey knelt while transferring the boy’s hand to the woman. “Keep on truckin’, Beep,” Dewey said, and he tousled Beep's hair.
Woman and boy walked slowly away.
“How’d it go with the art gallery?” I asked.
“Sucked,” Dewey said. Without a glance at the cabinet I was building, he stalked around the side of the garage to his rear door.
Half a block away, boy and mother had stopped, turned around, and Beep was waving.
I waved, subbing for Dewey. With the sun at my back, all the boy could see would be my silhouette.
Holding hands, boy and mother walked into their squat little house. Next to the house was a chain link fence, and beyond the fence was the belching roaring freeway. Face it: Cooley Avenue was for the cash-impaired. For most residents, it was short-term - or so we hoped. A ramshackle purgatory.
I knew something about Beep's condition, metatarsus varus - known as pigeon toe - because I was born with that condition. Sometimes mild cases cure themselves as the body grows up. My less mild case required putting my leg in a cast (with everlasting side effects). A serious case requires surgery. Beep was a severe case.
Poverty can seem romantic when you're young, especially when you know it's temporary. When your boy needs surgery, the romance fades.
Sometime during the night I heard the clatter of glass bottles. A motor started in the garage below our bedroom. A behemoth car pulled out and drove away.
Monday, February 26, 1973
In the morning as usual, Nilsson the cat was staring into the kitchen window. On the sidewalk was a garbage can full of empty wine bottles. On top, four bottles had handmade labels which said:
TO OUR ESTRANGED MASTERDewey’s garage door was open. Gone was the gas hog tailfinned monster Chrysler with a file cabinet in the back seat.
FROM MRS. CLOWN AND BEEP.
I was putting the final touches on the chest of drawers when the woman with the shiny skin stepped into the garage. The boy was not with her.
“Will you feed the cat?” she said. She had a friendly smile.
“He left it behind, didn’t he?”
“Gone to sell paint in Denver.”
“Yes. He left the cat.”
“It belongs to Beep. But it keeps coming back here. Which is a lot better than wandering out on the freeway.” She noticed the wine bottles in the garbage can. Wincing, she ran her fingers over them. “He really means it,” she said sadly. “Letting go.”
I drummed my fingers on the top of the cabinet. “I was building this for Dewey.”
“He couldn’t have paid you, anyway.”
“He conned me?”
“No. Please don’t think like that. Dewey is a hopeful person. That's why he was a mailman.”
"Um, how is that...?"
"He was better as a clown. Except the money part."
She contemplated the empty bottles on top of the garbage can. “Bye bye,” she whispered. “No grudges.”
I felt like a cat staring into her window.
She turned to me. “Thank you for waving to Beep,” she said.
“Oh,” I said. “Cute kid.”
“Not everybody thinks so.”
She smiled. A sunbeam. “Bless you.” Her face became serious. "Dewey wasn't the father. Please don't think - whatever. It's never so simple."
I never saw Dewey again. In fact, after that day I don’t believe I ever saw Nilsson again. Or Mrs. Clown. I heard she moved back home to Napa County and reconciled - somewhat - with her parents. And Beep had the surgery.
Thirty-eight years later I still have that first cabinet I built. Sturdy, crude, it's stuffed with my socks and sweatshirts and in the bottom drawer, an errant blessing, one empty wine bottle with a handmade label.