I remember the times I’d go to his house, helping he and his family out with the odd household chore. The first two summers, the primary task at hand was paint-scraping — mindless, hot work if you’ve never done it. The name’s actually pretty apt at describing just what it is you’re getting into: you grab a putty knife, face the wall, and scrape; if you’ve any feeling in your arm after the first hour or two, more power to you. Most of the trouble might’ve been due to the fact that they live in a huge restored farmhouse from the turn of the century…after awhile, we began counting the layers of paint that sloughed off the way you’d count rings on a redwood.
But even though I’ve never being one for physical labor (or, well, for anything that deals with being outside), I was surprised by just how much I enjoyed it. Oftentimes, there was a gentle breeze rolling over the hill behind his house. Hell, even when the air was dead it wasn’t too bad; watching a six-foot Episcopalian minister sing along with the Al Green he’d put on the stereo in a rumbling, off-key basso has a certain way of taking your mind off the weather. Through it all, we’d chat about music, religion, favorite books, thesis research (he’d studied Jonson for his graduate work, whereas I was slogging through Milton).
But of course, it was the quieter moments that made it worthwhile. I think his belief in regular hydration would’ve given his clerical devotions a run for their money; every hour or two, we’d break to sit in lawn chairs overlooking his backyard, and sip iced tea or lemonade brought to us by his wife or daughter. Most of the time, we wouldn’t talk much — probably too damn exhausted, or too damn thankful to be out from under falling paint chips. But those rare words we did exchange were those in which a former teacher and his former student would share where they’d been, and where they were planning to go.