by William Michaelian
There was an old man living in a shack in the middle of an abandoned muscat vineyard about a mile west of our house. Raleigh was his name. Everett J. Raleigh. Dad said Mr. Raleigh used to pick cotton in the valley with the Okies, but he wasn’t from Oklahoma, he was from Colorado. At least that was the last place he was from. According to local legend, he wound up in our neck of the woods somewhere around 1950, after falling out of a boxcar in Malaga. That was one story, anyway. Another story was that Raleigh cracked up while serving in World War I, then fell on hard times when his well-to-do wife divorced him and left him without any money. Where that came from, I have no idea. The same place as most stories, I guess. Like the one that said Everett J. Raleigh wasn’t really Everett J. Raleigh, but a guy who had escaped from prison and changed his name. Or the one that said he’d been shot at from a moving train by the mayor of Bakersfield because he’d been carrying on with the mayor’s wife.
By 1960, though, Raleigh was no longer able to carry on with anyone, if indeed he ever had. He’d dried up considerably and grown several lumps on the side of his neck, making him look like one of the lizards doing pushups on the unpainted walls of his quiet country villa. He spent most of his time sitting under an old umbrella tree that shaded the west end of his shack. His garden consisted of two or three tomato plants, corn, squash, and a few scrawny melons. His diet included jackrabbits, doves, and roosters, plus the eggs laid by a few hens that wandered around the yard. Like us, he dined royally on whatever fruit was in season, then resorted to beans and oranges during the winter, the big difference being, we had my mother’s baking and imagination to fall back on while the best he could manage was fried dough.
For a kid living in the country, a visit from Everett J. Raleigh was a big event. The smell emanating from our neighbor was an even bigger event, one that also served as a warning. My mother was never too pleased when she saw him hobble into our yard, because she was afraid my brothers and I would catch whatever Mr. Raleigh was obviously dying from. From a child’s point of view, the lumps on his neck were no more dangerous than lumps on a gourd. They were more interesting than anything else. One thing I’d noticed, the lumps varied in size from day to day and week to week, as if they might be registering a change in the weather. This fascinated me. Had I been a little younger, I probably would have asked their owner where the lumps came from and what he intended to do with them. Unfortunately, I knew better. I say unfortunately, because, knowing Mr. Raleigh, he would have given me an answer.
During these visits, Dad was expected to act as host, even if he was out working in the vineyard. When he was, Mr. Raleigh waited patiently under the mulberry tree in our yard. If any mulberries happened to be ripe, he’d nibble at those, while Mom kept an eye on him through her kitchen window. Much to his credit, he understood his lowly status and didn’t seem to resent it at all. On the contrary, he was quite content.
While we were waiting for Dad, Raleigh would strike up a conversation with me and my brothers. He knew more about frogs and polliwogs than all of us combined. He was also an expert on the habits of birds, snakes, coyotes, and horned toads, and knew the name of every kind of tree and every blade of grass that grew in the valley. A walking encyclopedia, he told us about the weather, and why it acted the way it did. He even knew what the dirt under our feet was made of and where to sink a well. I remember telling Mom once how smart Mr. Raleigh was. It made her laugh. But then Dad said it was true. You have to respect him, he said, in spite of the way he looks. Mom said that was fine, as long as we respected him from a distance. In time, though, even she came to appreciate him, for what he knew, and for the fact that he’d managed to learn it all on his own.
Dad enjoyed talking to Raleigh. He didn’t always have time for their conversations, but he took the time anyway. There was a lot of repeated information, but that didn’t matter. For instance, right in the middle somewhere you might learn something new about bees, because once upon a time Mr. Raleigh had worked for a beekeeper.
Eventually, though, my brothers would get bored and start a game of football or catch in the big open space between our house and the vineyard where we boxed raisins in the fall. Usually I went with them, but not always. Sometimes I just couldn’t tear myself away. Listening to the men talk was a satisfying experience. And I learned as much about Dad, I think, as I did about Everett J. Raleigh. I learned about the time he spent traveling around the country during the war, before he was sent to Europe. In the space of a single summer, Dad learned to fly, smoke cigarettes, drink beer, and play poker, all before he was twenty. He also had a brother who died as an infant. He took me to the cemetery once and showed me where he was buried. It was a lonely spot that would eventually be the final resting place of his parents, who at the moment were alive and doing well in a nearby town called Selma.
What I gathered was that it was safe to talk in front of Mr. Raleigh. And Mr. Raleigh certainly held up his end of the bargain, because he could talk a blue streak. The voice coming from his narrow skull seemed to originate from behind his eyes, rather than in his chest and lungs. For all I know, he may not have had any lungs, and was surviving instead by oxygen taken in through his skin. His eyes were pronounced, and had lost most of their color. The wrinkles around them, and those on his face and forehead, made for a humorous, surprised, weary expression I loved. He never wore a hat. What little hair he had wasn’t enough to deflect the rays of the sun, leaving his scalp a dark, leathery brown.
There is one visit I especially remember. Dad and I had been in town on errands for about an hour, and my two brothers were chopping weeds in the vineyard. When we came home and drove into the yard, we found Mom and Mr. Raleigh talking to each other under the mulberry tree. They were standing about ten feet apart. Mom was wearing an apron. The thing I remember is that she looked like she was enjoying herself. Dad parked the pickup in the shade and we got out. As soon as we did, Mom excused herself, saying she still had a lot to do in the kitchen. A few minutes later, she came outside again. In her hands were some cookies she’d wrapped up for Mr. Raleigh. Concerned and a little embarrassed, she asked if he liked molasses. Politely, he said he did, although it had been years and years since he’d had that kind. She gave him the cookies. He thanked her for her kindness. After a brief silence, Mom smiled and went back to the house.
Later, I asked her what she and Mr. Raleigh had talked about. Oh, nothing, she said. Your dad wasn’t here, and the boys were in the vineyard, so I went out to say hello. That’s all. Do you like him? I said. Mom shrugged. He’s all right, I guess. As long as you’re standing downwind. Then she changed the subject.
The truth is, Mom liked Everett J. Raleigh a lot. She liked him and felt sorry for him, though the latter wasn’t really necessary. I understood this even then. Our neighbor had next to nothing, but for him it didn’t pose a problem. He was living his life the way he always had, which is to say, one day after the other. True, there was a time he may have benefitted from a trip to the doctor. But by now there was no stopping the disease that was eating its way through his body.
He visited us off and on for another couple of years, then stopped coming. Finally, Dad went to check on him and found him dead. When Everett J. Raleigh’s name was published in our local newspaper, it scarcely made a ripple. No relatives surfaced. Soon thereafter, he was buried in the same cemetery as my baby uncle, beneath a stone just large enough for his name.
A few months later, someone new took over the property he’d been living on. They dug out the old vines and burned them along with the shack.
No one lives there now.
William Michaelian’s newest releases are two poetry collections, Winter Poems and Another Song I Know, published in paperback by Cosmopsis Books in San Francisco. His short stories, poems, and drawings have appeared in many literary magazines and newspapers. His novel,
A Listening Thing, is published here in its first complete online edition. For information on Michaelian’s other books and links to this site’s other sections, please go to the Main Page or visit Flippantly Answered Questions.