Thursday, February 23, 2012

Alvin Greenberg

 He Gives Things

      He gives his best friend Nathan a large, black, twist-tied, plastic garbage bag full of lawn clippings.
      “Here,” he says to Nathan, “I want you to have this.”
      Nathan is underwhelmed:  “Wha’?”
      He wants Nathan to understand that what he is giving him is an essential part of his life.  These are fresh green clippings, of course, from this very morning’s mowing, but he has been mowing the lawns of houses where he’s lived since he was ten years old, first at his father’s insistence with a rusty old reel mower, once with a riding mower (ah, so much lawn then!), lately with a small electric Sears Craftsman.  Mowing has been an integral part of his life–his spring, summer, and early fall life, at least–for nearly six decades.  What else has he ever done so consistently over such a long period of time?  He’s not just giving Nathan a bag of fresh clippings, he’s giving Nathan something almost as central to his very being as a kidney.
      Nathan still doesn’t understand.

      Even though it costs him a fortune to ship it halfway across the country, he gives his ex-wife an antique oak armoire, which he thinks of as a shifferobe, a term from his parent’s generation that he suspects no one knows or uses any longer, including his ex-wife, who is none too happy when the delivery truck pulls up in front of her house on a rainy morning when she is just getting into her car to go to work.  The driver explains that refusing delivery is not an option; if he and his helper can’t put it in the house–anywhere in the house she wants, he emphasizes, signaling to the kid in the cab to get down and lend a hand--they’ll just have to leave it on the sidewalk.  Ten minutes later she is on the phone, staring at this huge thing sitting in the middle of her living room and demanding to know what the hell he thinks he’s doing, sending her this piece of furniture that was nothing they ever owned together, no family heirloom–where the hell did he get it, anyway?–and nothing she has any use for, certainly no match for the rest of her Danish modern furnishings, and not even particularly attractive.
      “I just wanted to give it to you, he tells her.  “A simple ‘Thank you’ would do.”
      In a long, narrow box purchased at the UPS Store, he gently places all his ties, the ties he wore to work for many years, the ties he wore on evenings out, the ties he wore to weddings and funerals, the ties that went out of style almost as soon as he bought them and the ties he got to hate over the years, the gift ties he never wore, the impulse purchase ties he only wore once, wide ties, narrow ties, knit ties, Italian silk ties . . . all the ties he has ever owned.  He wraps the box in Christmas wrapping paper, the only wrapping paper he can find in the house, tiny white snowflakes on a pale blue background, sticks a large red bow on the top, lays it on the back seat of his car and drives it to his sister, the quilter.  He stands on her front steps holding it in his arms, where except for its wrapping it would look like a box of flowers, long-stemmed roses perhaps, though she isn’t fooled for a minute.
      “Now what?” she says, taking the box from him.  They exchange quick kisses on both cheeks, a European custom they have long since adopted though neither has ever been to Europe.
      “Oh my god,” she exclaims when she opens the box, “this is too much!”
      “Too much,” she repeats.
      “It’s always too much,” he replies.

      He gives everything in his attic to the Goodwill:  boxes and boxes of stuff:  old LPs, cassette tapes, CDs; Christmas tree decorations; overstuffed file folders; cookie jars and toaster ovens and extension cords; he doesn’t even know what’s in most of these boxes he’s packing into his Chevy Cavalier coupe with its tiny trunk and even tinier back seat.  It takes him eleven trips across town, and by the fourth or fifth everyone who works at the unloading dock is coming out to greet him, saying, “You again!”
      “Yep,” he says, smiling, “me again.”
      “You movin’ or somethin’?” they want to know.
      “No,” he says, getting back in the car to go for another load, “not really.”
      When they’re finished pulling the last load of unboxed stuff out of the car–rolled up throw rugs, rusty space heaters, typewriters, Venetian blinds–he hands them the keys to the Chevy.
      “Registration papers in the glove box,” he tells them.
      “You want a ride home?” one of them asks.
      “No,” he says, “not really.”

      Almost everything in the fridge and freezer fits into three large grocery bags, which he takes next door to give to his neighbors, Derek and Lucinda.  He’s got two heavy bags in his left arm, clutching them from underneath because they’re so packed he’s worried the bottoms might give way, and the other one, in his right arm, he’s juggling to reach the doorbell when he sees Derek’s already standing in the doorway in his pajama bottoms.
      “You need some help with those?” Derek asks, taking one bag from each of his arms.  “I thought I heard someone coming up the steps.  C’mon in.”
      In the kitchen he’s carefully setting the last bag down on the counter next to the two Derek’s already placed there when Lucinda comes in, wrapped in a terrycloth robe, her hair still wet from the shower.
      “Wow,” she says, “look at all this.  Your fridge break down?”
      “No,” he explains, “not exactly.”
      “I’m not sure we’ve got room in the fridge for all this,” Lucinda  says, looking at Derek.
      The three of them stand quietly in the kitchen, staring at the three overflowing grocery bags slumping on the counter.
      “I’m sorry,” he says, “I didn’t realize it was so early.”

      When the twice-a-month cleaning lady leaves the next afternoon he helps her load her car up with the vacuum cleaner, the broom and dustpan, the mop and bucket, and a grocery bag full of things guaranteed to abolish dust, grease, smells, worry.
      “I guess you won’t be needing me anymore,” she says, standing on the sidewalk, jingling her car keys.
      He closes the trunk of her car, worried now that all these cleaning supplies might be the absolutely wrong things to have given her, these second-hand implements of her daily labors, of, in fact, one of the jobs she no longer has.
      “Wait here a minute,” he tells her.  “I’ve got a set of wine glasses for you.”

      Later, he pushes the lawnmower through the neighborhood, along the sidewalks, across the curving streets, to give it to Nathan.  Children playing outside in the evening, scrawling things on the sidewalk with colored chalk, step aside for him.  Cars slow down to give him time to cross the street.  Dogs follow him across a yard or two before losing interest.  Giving the lawnmower to Nathan seems the appropriate thing to do, something that Nathan will finally understand, but when he gets to Nathan’s house, there’s no one home, so he leaves it by the garage door.  Still later he returns with the rake, the edger, and a snow shovel, but now the house is dark–either there’s still no one home or they’ve gone to bed early–so he lays them on the asphalt driveway, beside the lawnmower, hoping that Nathan won’t drive over them when he returns home or when he backs out of the garage in the morning. 
      The next day he gives his toaster to a little boy pulling a red wagon down the sidewalk in front of his house.  The kid neither looks up nor stops as he places the shiny aluminum toaster, cleaned of its years of accumulated crumbs, dead center in the little red wagon.

      He gives that day’s mail right back to the mailman, who has just slid it through the slot in his front door.  “Please wait,” he says, opening the door to hand the few envelopes and cluster of flyers to the mailman.  He returns in a moment with a pile of old mail he’s scooped off the dining room table.
      “Let me give you this, too,” he says, “and please don’t bring any more.”
      The mailman isn’t sure he can do that.
      “It’s OK,” he tells the mailman.  “Trust me.”

      A dog meanders across his front lawn, a sad-looking Irish setter, its head hanging, its tail drooping.  He rushes out to give it a rib eye steak, the one last thing he’s kept in his freezer.  The dog takes it in its mouth and rambles off, looking no less sad than before.

      He flags down an old woman driving down his street in a white Cadillac, wanting to give her the two pillows off his bed.  She rolls down her window and looks at him long and hard.
      “Put them in the back seat,” she says. 
      For several days he sits on the bare wood of his living room floor pondering the question of who to give the electronics to:  the computer, the printer, the copier, the fax machine, the cell phone, the DVD player.  In the end, he simply puts them out on the sidewalk in front of the house.  In the morning, they’re all gone.


      Days pass.  He gives time its due.  He gives the house key to the garbage can and the garbage can to the garbage men, who shrug their shoulders and toss it into their giant compactor of a garbage truck.

      And then he’s at my own door, and even while I’m thinking it’d be a bad idea to let him in, he slips past me and just like that he’s standing in my living room, holding his empty hands out in front of him, insisting on giving me his story.
      “No,” I tell him, “I can’t take it.  If I take it you’ll have nothing left, nothing at all.”
      “I know,” he says, dissolving into a puddle of tears in the middle of the room, “I know, I know, I know . . . .”


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