When I was in fifth or sixth grade, my friend Greg and I went on a mission trip with our church to this place called Dungannon, Virginia which is in the very bottom left hand corner of the state. We were there mostly to help people re-tar their roofs for a week, but this cool scary old guy named Oscar led us all through the woods to this really cool natural rock water slide and we spent a lot of time there.
On the way home, at a rest stop, Greg tried to do a backflip off a water fountain and landed on his back in a puddle really hurting himself. His shirt was soaked and all the clothes were packed away in the luggage van but I happened to have an extra shirt in my little backpack. It was my favorite shirt. It was a Detroit Lions Barry Sanders football jersey and I didn’t want to let Greg wear it but I didn’t really have much of a choice. I remember being really nervous the whole time he was eating his french fries and dipping them in BBQ sauce because I didn’t want anything to stain the jersey.
A bunch of years later Greg and I went on a hiking trip in the Shenandoah Mountains in central Virginia. We hiked along a river for days and would set up camp in the trees, hanging out food from branches so that bears couldn’t get to them. We hiked all the way to an eighty foot tall waterfall expecting it to be cool but when we got there, there were people everywhere pretty much ruining it, so Greg and I scaled the rocks to the side and made our way to the top where there wasn’t anyone at all. We were lounging in a really cold little pool for a while off to the side and then Greg got bored and started walking around. I didn’t see him for a while so I looked out and peered over the edge and there he was all the way down below standing where the water ended up. He gave me a thumbs up and I went back to lounging until a half hour later he was back near the top yelling out my name so I gathered my stuff and made my way over to the side trail where he was and then he told me that he had slipped and fallen right off the top and all the way down the waterfall to the pool below. I couldn’t believe it. “I thought you saw me and that’s why you looked over the ledge,” he said. “That’s why I gave you the thumbs up.”
“I had no idea at all,” I said and then after a minute or two I asked him if it was fun at least.
“I lost my glasses,” he said, “but when I got to the bottom and stood up there was this guy just sitting in the water in his lawn chair staring at me. After he realized I had fallen he said, ‘I just thought you was one of those thrill seekers.’”
A few years back I was living on a sustenance farm in South Carolina not far from this little town called Pickens which is way out there in the North-West corner of the state right near the Smokey Mountains, across the way from Tennessee. I spent every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday working on the farm, just tending to the green beans and the tomatoes and stuff, and every Tuesday and Thursday working about ten miles away helping this guy named Matthew build a straw bale house. When my dad tells people this story he likes to make a joke about the three little pigs, and how I must never have learned anything from that tale. Anyway, this guy Matthew didn’t know anything about construction or about straw bale houses or farming or anything. He grew up in the suburbs of Washington D.C. and went to college to become a statistician or something like that, but one day he was riding his bike and got hit by a car pretty bad. He became a paraplegic and was in the hospital and therapy for a long time and one day while in his hospital bed, he saw an article in a magazine about straw bale houses so he decided to take the money he got from the settlement and buy himself some land and build a house.
So he went about and learned some things from books and talked to some people who had done it before and he got himself out of the hospital and fixed up with one of those cars that you can drive with your hands, and a nice wheelchair. He bought land in South Carolina because it was pretty cheap and there were far more lenient rules about what kind of structure you were allowed to build, and he went to it. He paid people to lay the foundation and get the frame up, but then he decided to do the rest of the work with volunteers, which is what I was. He paid me a stipend of a hundred dollars a week, which came out to something like five bucks an hour. And I liked the work, it was pretty interesting and I got to solve lots of problems and come up with good ideas on how to do things, but Matthew was pretty picky about what ideas he thought were good ones and what he thought weren’t good. Mostly his ideas were good ones and anyone else’s weren’t. But I can understand that I guess, wanting to be in control of the house you’re building, that’s fine and all, but he also had real problems dealing with his volunteers. I was there helping him only about two years after he’d had the accident and he seemed to still have a sort of entitlement complex, like the world owed him something, and maybe it did, but he wasn’t too nice to people sometimes and he would throw a lot of fits. Like if he had an idea for something and he wanted you to implement it. I would try and if it didn’t work out I would explain to him why and how it needed to be tweaked or something, and half the time he would just huff and huff and then wheel himself away saying, “If I could just get up there and do it myself, but I can’t.”
After a while, I was his only volunteer left which I didn’t mind because he seemed more open to other ideas when there wasn’t anybody else there to hear him concede his, but when we’d break for lunch he would often start talking about something like dwarf apple trees and end up spilling his guts about how he was afraid he’d never find someone to love him because it would be a lot of work for them.
On my way home from his place one day I saw a little box turtle crossing the road in front of me so I stopped my car and watched it. I must have been there two minutes just watching it and then a few cars started to pile up behind me, then a few more minutes, a few more cars. Eventually they started beeping at me and I went to make a motion in the rearview mirror that I was waiting for a turtle to cross but I didn’t know what kind of motion to make so I just threw my arms up and shrugged and pointed at the road in front of me.
Another thing that happened while I was living in South Carolina is we had a funeral for the cat. They had this orange tabby cat who was really old. She had mange and smelled horrible and could barely even eat her food. It had been that way for quite some time they told me, long before I got there even. They figured she would just die naturally one of those days out in the woods somewhere but she always came on back in the morning. I don’t think she ever left. I think she just crawled under the deck every day and came out only to try to eat something. For some reason they decided to finally have her put to sleep. Maybe it was just that I was asking questions about her and they started to feel bad or something. Like, “Oh, yeah, her. She’s still here? Huh, how about that.” I wasn’t trying to say they should put her to sleep or anything, I was just curious about her.
But they took her into town to the vet and had her euthanized and then they brought the body back and came knocking on the cabin door with her. I answered the door and they said the wanted to have a little ceremony for her and would like for me to be a part of it so I said sure and I followed them down the hill and out to a little clearing near the utility shed. Jamie dug a hole and started to wrap the cat in an old towel he found. Ellen was crying. She stopped him and said, “Can’t we find something nicer to put her in?”
“She’s just going into the ground,” Jamie said and then stopped himself and said, “Okay, yeah, I’ll find an old shawl or something,” and he did. It was black and white. They wrapper her up and laid the cat into the ground and we each shoveled a little bit of dirt on top of her. Then Ellen handed me a book and asked if I could read a poem from it, for the occasion. I took the book and looked at it, it was a collection of poems by Wallace Stevens, this old poet guy from the early nineteen hundreds who I barely knew. I flipped around through the pages to try and find something but it was taking too long so I just picked a poem and read it and it happened to be just about the worst possible poem for the occasion. I’ll find it for you.
That strange flower, the sun,
Is just what you say.
Have it your way.
The world is ugly,
And the people are sad.
That tuft of jungle feathers,
That animal eye,
Is just what you say.
That savage of fire,
Have it your way.
The world is ugly,
And the people are sad.
Matthew Savoca was born in 1982 in Pennsylvania, and now lives in New York and PA where he works as a carpenter. Publishing Genius will put out his novel “I don’t know,” I said in 2013.