I never set the alarm on Sunday mornings because I’m hopeful for just a few precious hours of additional REM. Unfortunately, the rooster next door doesn’t understand the concept of weekends and his shrill crowing shatters the morning silence just as rudely on Sundays as he does on Wednesdays. The kids have named him “Bieber” but right about now I’d like to name him “Sunday Dinner.”
Stumbling downstairs to start on breakfast I could hear the booming voice of my neighbor next door, singing a hymn (“Comfort, Comfort Ye My People” I think) as he headed out to his barn to retrieve a harness. I smiled as I fixed the coffee. I’ve known ole’ Pierce since we moved in and he always has a hymn on his lips as he tends to his planting or works in the barn, but on Sundays I think he sings just a little louder in the hope that I might get the hint and attend service with him and his family. He never gives up. I opened up the screen door and walked out back.
He glanced over and frowned a deep crease across his weatherworn face.
“That ain’t no way to dress for service son, and just what does ‘Springbreak 84' mean anyways?”
“Oh, just an old shirt I like to wear to bed Pierce. The pits were stained yellow so I cut the sleeves off and now I just wear it to work out or to bed.”
He shook his head, “Bit of bleach could’ve saved that shirt, have the Mrs. speak to Ma, she’ll show her how.”
He turned back toward his house and resumed his hymn as I turned to go back inside. Pierce had always been a great neighbor, save for his singing he kept very much to himself. His backyard was immaculate even though it was considerably smaller than what he owned back in 1832. He took great pride that his land was the best tilled in the county. He was never intrusive but always quick to remind me when he saw a plant that needed watering or a shingle that needed to be hammered back in place—I'm pretty sure Pierce didn’t own a drill.
I noticed the cooler from last night’s family BBQ was still sitting on the deck. I thought about how often Pierce and I exchanged greetings but how we never really had the chance to talk. I saw him so infrequently I was beginning to think he was a ghost.
I popped open the cooler and reached inside. “Hey Pierce!” I called out, ‘”You want a beer?”
He shot me a disapproving look as he ran a bony hand through his snow white hair. Glancing back over his shoulder he stared at his kitchen window and stroked his chin.
“Is it Schlitz?” he whispered.
“Of course,” I said, pulling two frosty brown bottles out of the ice.
His frown slowly arched into a half smile. Pierce seldom smiled so when he did it was like seeing the farmer in Grant Wood’s American Gothic break into a belly laugh.
“Say ma!” He called over his shoulder, “Man next door needs another pair of hands on his crosscut saw. Be right back.” He shuffled along the fence and through the gate and I handed him hops for breakfast. Glancing nervously over his shoulder he discretely took a long sip, ever watchful that Ma might be peeking out from his kitchen window.
We stood in silence for a while listening to the distant sound of the BNSF rumbling through Main Street station. I wondered if he’d noticed the fence needed fixing. It’s hard not to feel self-conscience in the presence of a man who made all his own furniture by hand. I studied the deep creases in his brow as he drank his beer, thinking of something meaningful to say. It’s not every day you have a beer with the founder of your village.
“You ever take the kids to a picture show at the Tivoli,” he asked.
“Sure! We took them just a few weeks ago to see Kung Fu Panda, it’s a beautiful place.”
“I took Ma to see the Jazz Singer a few years back, Al Jolson right here in town, singing just for us,” he said. “I'll never forget it.”
I smiled at the thought of Pierce and his wife singing along to “Toot Toot Tootsie” and sharing a box of Snowcaps.
“You’ve been here a long time, huh Pierce?”
“Long enough to remember when the Oak Groves were thicker than frozen lard and Denise Richards before she got all famous.”
“A lot of changes, huh?”
He rolled the neck of his Schlitz bottle between his calloused hands. “Traffic’s worse, ain’t no place to hitch a wagon anywhere downtown anymore.” He tossed back the last of his beer and set the bottle gently down on the deck. “Plenty a’ places to get I-talian food but nowhere to go to sell a pig or a basket of eggs. I sent Ma down to that new place, The Lemon Tree, just last Sunday. You know something? Ain't no tree anywhere near there, and no lemons neither.”
I was about to explain it to him but changed my mind, it's best not to make a man feel foolish when he owns a sickle and knows how to use it.
"You know they named a school after me.”
He was staring straight into my face now, the morning sun highlighting the twinkle in his eyes, like a spark frozen in mid air.
“I know, Pierce, we plan on sending the kids when they’re old enough. The town has some amazing schools, you should be proud.”
“I am,” he said firmly, and I could feel the satisfaction in his voice. “Sometimes in the morning I walk over to our old homestead, it's still there you know, so is the well. It looks the same as the day I dug it, no water though. I watch all the good people walking up with their youngsters, droppin’ ‘em off for a day of studies, far cry from the place I went to school.”
“I was a pioneer, I was busy with the land and my family but I always kept myself educated on the affairs of the day. At one time I had the biggest library in the state, you know.”
I smiled. “Didn’t know that Pierce, not too many simple old farmers can say they had such an impressive library.”
His smile was unmistakable now. “I was a farmer, and I was proud to be, but of all the crops I planted this village is the one I’m proudest of.”
We sat in silence for a while until Pierce gathered himself up to get his family to church. He extended a hand to shake mine. “Thanks for the beer neighbor, best we keep that to ourselves, Ma wouldn’t approve of drinkin’ on the good Lord’s day, you know.”
I smiled. “I understand Pierce, mine neither. I’ll have the Mrs. ask your wife about that bleach stuff for this shirt, ok?”
“Sounds good, son” he said as he walked back slowly along the fence. Without looking back he rapped his hand against the boards. “I’ll be happy to loan you a hammer when your ready to mend this fence of yours, it ain’t gonna mend itself.”
Damn, he noticed.
I was turning to step back inside when I remembered something. “Hey Pierce! I shouted, “Are you ever going to return the lawnmower you borrowed last summer?”
But he was gone. I stepped back inside, from over my shoulder I could hear a soft voice humming “Amazing Grace” and the distant traffic on Main Street heading into downtown.