To understand how I heard the story of Terry’s present, you have to understand something about my mother. The kitchen in our home was my mother’s woman cave. When she wasn’t working, she sat at our round wooden kitchen table, queen of her domain. She had the television on in the background for white noise while she devoured a stack of library books, a Now 100 menthol cigarette burning her crystal ashtray. On the wall adjacent to the television was a land line telephone and when she wasn’t reading, she was talking to whomever would listen. My mother was an actress without a stage, so when she told stories – no matter the location or context – her voice would project. So, I could always hear her talking and repeating her stories.
During the summer after third grade, which would make me about eight years old, my parents wanted our house painted and the ceiling of our living room replaced. They hired an independent contractor named Terry to do some work on the house. Terry looked like Tom Waits with thick curly gray hair and a thick curly gray beard. He wore paint splattered white coveralls and his eyes were always bloodshot. He had two guys who worked with him, Jeff and Brett. Jeff was the older of the two and had moustache. Brett had long hair and looked like Uncle Jesse from Full House. I liked Brett better.
Brett and Jeff did most of the exterior paint work while Terry did work inside, completely re-doing our ceiling. The ceiling was old and stucco. He was repairing it to be brand new and smooth. He used these industrial metal stilts to do the work, rather than use a ladder. They were strapped to his feet and he could just walk around and repair. To third grade me, it looked awesome.
Terry, his work, and his lack of it were a hot topic for my mother that summer. I heard her in the kitchen talking about him to my father. I also heard my mother say, during a few of her phone calls, that Terry was an alcoholic. “So, I said to Jeff, if Terry’s an alcoholic, why haven’t I ever seen him hungover? And Jeff said, well, it’s because he’s never sober.”
Looking back, I don’t know how my parents found him or why they didn’t fire him. These guys were terrible at their jobs. I know that because I did it for a summer.
Between the summer of my freshman and sophomore years of college, I worked for a painting company in Rochester. This was a reputable painting company but I still got paid under the table and some of the guys that I worked with were some of the sketchiest dudes I’ve ever met. This one guy, Freddie, was a pitbull of a person. He was perpetually hoarse, with a mouth full of yellow teeth and curly red hair as thick as a sponge. At the end of one shift I remember, he took a half smoked joint out of his jeans, lit it up, took a hit and blew it at Don, another painter.
“Hey, Don, check it out!”
“Jesus, Freddie, put that away!”
Freddie gave me a ride home once in his car and the inside of the door had been torn off and there was no lock. In order to keep the door closed, he had attached a slide bolt, the kind of thing you use to keep a fence closed.
Freddie wasn’t typical but he wasn’t exactly atypical either but even Freddie could get a job done. We would set up a plank between two ladders which enabled us to go across an entire side of the house, scraping, priming, and then rolling paint. It was really efficient. So, the crew that I worked on, with three to five people, could paint an entire suburban house in about three days.
Jeff and Brett didn’t work that way. They each used one ladder to scrape away bubbling paint and then, later, used that same ladder to go up and prime the now exposed wood. I remember that summer seeing our house when pulling into our driveway the way our neighbors must have seen it. All of these random bits of exposed wood or wood that had been primed with white primer. It looked like the home of a bootlegger that had been shot up by tommy guns in an act of revenge.
It took Terry, Jeff, and Brett three months to paint our house.
I don’t know if Terry’s present had anything to do with it but I doubt it helped.
So, one day, my mom found a note from Brett that said, “Jeff, I have Terry’s present.” My mother confronted Brett about it. I guess he was a little frightened by the confrontation because the first thing he said was, “it’s not cocaine!” Even as an eight year old, I knew that this wasn’t the slickest defense. She pressed him further and found out that it was pot. And my mother said, “look, I’ve got an eight year old kid here. You can’t deal drugs at my house.”
I heard this story many times. I heard my mother telling my father. Then I heard her tell several friends on the phone and I could here her a few rooms away. And, when I was a kid, I was scared to death of drugs, even pot.
“So the note said, ‘I have Terry’s present’ and when I confronted him, you know what he said? It isn’t cocaine! Can you believe it? I mean, I’ve got an eight year old kid here.”
What’s funny to me now is that my mother was trying to shield me from this but I wasn’t shielded at all. I knew the details of the story pretty well from her repeated re-tellings. The guy my parents hired to do work on the house is an alcoholic. The guys on his crew, who seem to be pretty inept at painting, use and deal drugs, though not cocaine. Got it.
However, my parents remained friendly with these guys. I guess they were stuck with them until the job was finished.
One night, my parents let Terry stay a little late and he and my mother had a drink together. Again, even at eight, it seemed strange to me that if you know someone is an alcoholic, that you would have a drink with them in your house. But, on this night, I really didn’t care because Terry let me try on his work stilts. I walked around our living room, seven feet tall. It was really cool.
But then, as I was taking them off, apropos of nothing, Terry looked at me and said, “you’d better be careful.”
I said, “why?”
“Because,” he said, “if you’re not careful on those things, you might break your leg.” And then I’ll never forget this next part. He said, “you know what they do to you if you’re a horse with a broken leg, don’t you?” In my memory, his face took up my entire field of vision. It was slack with booze and his eyes were red. “They shoot you.”
I was eight.
Later, as I was brushing my teeth, I started crying. My mother laughed it off and said, “I’m sorry, sweetie. He didn’t mean to make you upset.”
I always try to talk to children like they’re adults. I’m not a parent, so I don’t have to scold or count to ten or bargain with bites of food. So, admittedly it’s kind of a luxury but I do it because I think that children understand more than we give them credit for. They may not have the words to describe what’s going on, nor the experience to put it into context, but they have gut feelings. They know when someone is talking down to them or being overly childish. Also, they know when something is sketchy.
A lot of humor is mined from being inappropriately adult in front of children. Looking back at Terry, I can see how the situation was comical if only for it’s stark incongruity. But, damn, man, at the time? There wasn’t anything funny about it.