The Parkers, father and son, came over to introduce themselves when we moved in, five years ago. Dean, the father, was slow to speak, awkward when he did. But Rick was talkative, his eyes roving inquisitively over us and our boxes of possessions. A fuzz of reddish stubble covered his neatly rounded head and pointed chin. His voice was soft, almost velvety, with a sprung quality, each word like a plucked banjo note. He told us he did a variety of odd jobs in landscaping and construction. Tree work was what he enjoyed most, the more difficult the better. He would climb up in a harness and spiked boots to drop limbs from trees that stood too close to people’s houses to fell conventionally, or he’d drive out in his pickup to haul storm-tangled, half-blown-over trees out of each other’s branches, then cut them up for firewood. Any jobs like that you need doing, he told us, I’m your man.
Some time after that visit my wife and I passed two small children climbing the steep slope of Vanderbeck Hollow. They were both in tears, and we stopped to see if we could help. Their mother had put them out of the car for fighting, they told us, and they were walking home.
Home, it turned out, was Rick’s house. Rick had met their mother, Faye, a few weeks earlier, at a Harley-Davidson rally, and she’d moved in, bringing her kids with her. Rick’s father had already moved out. Faye herself we met when we dropped off the children. She didn’t seem to care about our interference in their punishment. She was a thin, black-haired woman with pitted skin, bright blue eyes, and a dab of hard crimson at the center of her upper lip. She didn’t say much.
They had their first baby the next year, a girl. Rick used to tuck her into his hunting jacket while he worked in his front yard, fixing his trucks or sharpening his chainsaw blades. He liked being a father—from the start he’d treated Faye’s two elder children as his own—but it was soon apparent that his new responsibilities were a strain for him. After a day operating the stone crusher at the Andersonville quarry or cutting rebar with one of the construction crews in town, he’d come home, eat dinner, then turn on a set of floodlights he’d rigged up to the house and start cutting and splitting firewood to make extra money. He sold it for seventy dollars a cord, which was cheap even then. I often bought a cord or two for our woodstove. Once, he asked how I made my living. “Gaming the system,” I replied, intending to sound amusingly cryptic. “You must be good at it” was all he said, pointing to our new Subaru.
He bought a car for Faye, cutting wood later and later into the night to pay for it, renting a mechanical splitter from the hardware store and erecting huge log piles all around his house. A note of exasperation entered his talk; he seemed bewildered by the difficulty of making ends meet. Here he was, a young man in his prime—able to take care of his physical needs, to plow his own driveway, to fix his own roof, to hunt and butcher his own meat—and yet every day was a struggle. If it wasn’t money, it was offenses to his pride, which was strung tight, like every other part of him. He was always recounting (reliving, it almost seemed) insults and slights he’d received from various bosses and other representatives of the official world, along with the defiant ripostes he’d made. When Faye got a job on the night shift at Hannaford and was kept past her clocking-out time, he called up the manager at the store: “I told that freakin’ weasel to get off her back,” he said to me with a satisfied grin. She was fired soon after.
To blow off steam he would barrel up and down the hill in his truck, churning up clouds of dust from the gravel surface. Or he would carry a six-pack up to the woods above the road and sit drinking among the oaks and ashes along the ridge. I would often find a can of Molson by a rock up there in the bracken where he’d dumped it—his gleaming spoor. He was building a little cabin on the other side of the ridge, he told me once. It was state land there, but he figured no one would care. What was it for? I asked him. He shrugged. “Just somewhere to go . . .”