I was a college kid looking for some cheap digs for the summer. In particular, there was one road I wanted to live on. It bordered some woods and had a lot of little old houses tucked away here and there among marshy fields running wild with scotchbroom. It was hilly too—lots of rolling ups and downs, just the kind of ride I liked. Biking along it one day just before the end of the semester, I saw a guy tacking a For Sale sign up to the telephone pole in front of a decrepit little house that clearly needed some love. Its quaint front porch and the spreading arms of the apple tree in the front yard suggested to me, in my total ignorance of all things real estate, that it had promise. I told the man that if he let me and my friends live there for the summer for free, we’d fix it up for him. Put up new siding, fix sagging floors, paint walls, clean out the accumulated trash and whatnot. He gave me a funny look, but said, “What the hell. I was going to demolish it and sell the land. But that can wait.” How I got the brass ones to make such a suggestion, when I’m not even a carpenter, is utterly and completely beyond me now. But that’s what I did.
After checking out the interior, I realized I would need some friends as crazy as me and some rat poison. Trouble was, I never did have any friends as crazy as me. But the house had five bedrooms after all, so I advertised for roommates and found a lady who wasn’t afraid of anything and a guy with some experience doing carpentry. They helped me get rid of the vermin and tear out the bathroom floor, which was soggy and sagging and threatening to collapse. Then we found a girl who seemed nice. She put herself in charge of painting the living room and occupied one of the upstairs bedrooms. Then came Hans, who arrived with a lot of musical instruments he couldn’t play and entertained us constantly with his crazy stories. Hans had a friend named Pickett.
Pickett was always in the house, either helping out or just flirting with all of us girls. We liked him a lot and lamented that there were no more rooms to fill. But one day he came inside, asking “What’s that playroom all about?”
None of us had even noticed it before. It was a little falling down shack out behind the house, in a clump of trees. The concrete floor was still painted with colored chalk and strewn with ancient dolls and broken toys. The walls were collapsing, but the ceiling looked okay. “It’s a good foundation. I think I could do something with this,” he said. And the rest is history.
Maybe he had some carpentry experience, but I doubt it. He was just the world’s cleverest, thriftiest individual. He got lumber from the refuse bins of construction sites. He got doorknobs and hinges by dumpster diving at hardware stores. He talked somebody into giving him a wood-burning stove and stocked the place with thrift-store hurricane lamps, claiming he could do without electricity. I suspect that there was theft involved in all the windows he managed to procure. He was smart, determined, mysterious, and bad. I fell in love.
The playroom became a thing of beauty. Sure, the planks were uneven, the construction was piecemeal, and the many windows were all different sizes and shapes, but that added to its allure. With the stove burning on a cool evening and the hurricane lamps casting dramatic shadows all over, it was cozy and sexy and utterly romantic. He collected pieces of colored glass from broken bottles and vacant lots and set them on the windowsills, where they reflected the sun’s rays and cast colored reflections playfully around the unfinished boards that made up the walls.
We lived there through the summer and into the school year. On vacations, he’d make a big show of kissing me hard, then heading off to do something like hop a freight train to the east coast. He’d come back eventually, saying he spent some time in jail and was sure glad to be home now, in the playroom. Pickett was a total con artist, could talk anyone into anything, and was always showing up with “incredible finds” you knew he didn’t just happen to run across by the side of the road, as he claimed. Well, he talked me into loving him, and I enjoyed every minute of it.
But that kind of thing never lasts, and by the time the year was up I had had it with six roommates that didn’t do their dishes, a house that turned out to be overrun with carpenter ants, and Pickett, whose mysteriousness was eventually too much to handle. But sometimes I run into old friends who knew him, who still see him around. They say he has become a teacher at our old college.
“What in the world does he teach?” I say, “Rebel 101?”