There’s a fresh cake of suet hanging from a limb of the Ohio buckeye in the backyard. Bug flavour. It is there to attract woodpeckers: pileated woodpeckers with their red punk Mohawk crests during the winter months and then their smaller less showy cousins, downy woodpeckers, at this time of year. In the morning the birds beat out competing dead wood tattoos. A southside story of turf and territory demarcated by the back alley.
We are working in the backyard. There is heat in the sunshine and ice in the shade. Ann is turning the flowerbeds. Some shoots are showing through the earth. I’m refinishing parts and portions of outdoor furniture. Wire brush, sandpaper and stain. Sturdy wooden utilitarian pieces her late father had designed and assembled before the Beatles broke up. One of the patio tabletops is a large and heavy triangular slab of slate which probably should not have been purloined from one of our national parks, especially by a judge.
Ann says, ‘Dad always said he’d come back as a woodpecker.’ Why, he never revealed. Maybe he appreciated our need for natural noises in these days of digital cacophony. Maybe it was just a joke. Knock knock.
Three of the best books I’ve ever read were loans from him: Wallace Stegner’s Wolf Willow, a unique single volume of history, memoir and novella; Blue Highways, William Least Heat Moon’s American travel odyssey; and Son of the Morning Star, a clear-eyed look at Custer’s comeuppance at Little Bighorn by Evan S. Connell.
We were passing acquaintances in real life. I’ve come to know the man a little bit better because his library is shelved in our basement. There is great fiction, from the sea stories of Patrick O’Brian to the works of Gore Vidal. I was thrilled to happen upon his edition of Hard Times by Studs Terkel as I’ve enjoyed and learned from other Terkel oral histories: “The Good War”, Working and Will the Circle Be Unbroken?. There are more volumes of history, from Waterloo to World War II. Books on birds which I now refer to frequently. And like my father and me, he had an evident fascination with the secret world, the night watch. These spines, these authors, these titles – all this type – aid in my composition of a portrait of a man I never got to know all that well.