That night, my family and I gathered around the TV to enjoy the local news because, that night, I was the local news.
The story: BUXTON, MAINE SLUMLORD
The “Lord” was my farmer boss. I’ll call him Saul. I worked on Saul’s hay farm in my final years of high school. I was the foreman. Saul was also one of the song-leaders at my church. This made it difficult for me to realize I was working for a criminal. Good singers can get away with murder, and when good singers sing hymns, they can be slumlords.
The slum was a trailer park on Saul’s property, a park made up of two trailers and a dumpster. The dumpster was often overflowing, which turned the ground around it into a dumpster. The people who lived in the trailers were rarely visible, but I remember driving by on the little dirt road leading to the back buildings of the farm and seeing these folks a couple times.
A man from trailer-one was throwing a football over the trailer to a man standing on the other side. And that guy was throwing it back. Back and forth. With the precision of snipers.
All the people were outside. One man wore a dog mask over his head, a male or female German Shepherd mask, and was chasing members of both families. Everyone was laughing.
As it turns out, another thing the renters were doing was begging Saul to remove the garbage and take care of their septic systems, which had grown into hazardous little ponds from hell, and then they were going to the local newspaper to talk to them about the garbage and hell-water.
One afternoon, when Saul and I were loading hay into the back of a truck in his driveway, a great, white news van pulled in. As soon as Saul spotted the van, he said “Okay” to himself then walked to the house and inside without another word.
So, it was me out there, alone, foreman of the farm, just me and the news.
At that time in my life, I was looking to get married, and imagining the love of my life might be waiting around any corner, every corner. She might appear at the gas station, pumping gas while I pumped gas. Fate. We’d look up from our hoses at the same moment, share a smile, and then share the rest of our lives together. Or she might step beautifully from a news van in Buxton, Maine, a woman in navy blue with a tape-recorder in her hand, a recorder she would play back to herself later, to hear the voice that young, lush foreman again. There’s just something about him, she would think, breathlessly. I can’t get him out of my head —
“Tracy!” shouted her editor. “Get your head out of the clouds and write this story, damn it! What’s the matter with you?”
“I love him!” she shouted back. “Is that a crime!”
Tracy strolled up with her tape recorder and said, “We’d like to speak with your employer.”
I wondered what I looked like to her. I took a wild guess: Leather cowboy hat on my head. Horn-handled knife on my belt. Sweaty man? Yes, ma’am, but healthy hay stuck to my sweat. Man of the land. Raw manhood carved out of her dreams.
I looked like America.
“I’ll ask,” I said.
I went to the house and knocked on the screen door.
Saul, who was seated at the kitchen table, said, “Come in.” The look on his face told me he expected me to be Tracy. A pause. A change of expression from bright to boss: clearly he also thought Tracy was beautiful.
“Tell her I’ll talk,” he said, “but no cameras.”
What a wonderful thing to say, a line cut right out of the movies. Saul was a charmer. I found out later that the reason he was in Maine in the first place was because he had worked his charms in California so much that the entire state had chased him away, forcing him to move to the other side of the country just to have breathing room. He eventually charmed the eastern side in the same way and had to leave it too, and I imagine he’s now probably making a name for himself on the other side of the world.
I didn’t know these things then. I was charmed. Fooled by this larger-than-life Californian who stood at a height of six foot sexy, and sang “Amazing Grace” with his eyes closed like no one else, a man who couldn’t stop talking about how huge his hands were, his boots, his ambitions, a man of the world, and yet far too big for it, a man who could say, “I’ll talk, but no cameras,” like the two of us were scandalous presidents or movie stars.
I strode out of his house, out into the sunlight and lovely presence of Tracy. I was proud as Satan to be carrying the grand line, which I delivered to her and her camera crew flawlessly.
“He’ll talk,” I said, passionately, “but no cameras.”
She nodded. She understood this was more than me parroting my boss. Much more. I had tamed the words, breathed into their wild nostrils and made them my own. And did I detect the ghost of a smile on her honey-dripping lips? A smile and a moment’s hesitation? Did she forget why she was here in Buxton? Perhaps a new story was blossoming in her mind:
LOCAL REPORTER FALLS FOR SLUMLORD’S FOREMAN
“What is this rot?” screamed her editor as he waved the newspaper in the air. “This is all about some stupid foreman.” He read her work aloud: “‘His arresting gaze, those eyes of Atlantic blue-green, told a story as old as America itself, a story of the land, a tale of wounded yet dauntless vision.’ This is the worst thing I’ve ever read. Hey…where do you think you’re going?” “I have to find him, Charlie,” Tracy said. “The story…our story, isn’t finished. Yet.”
Tracy spoke quietly to her crew then went inside the house, and I stayed outside. There, with profound self-consciousness, I continued loading hay. Every bale I tossed and tucked into the bed of the truck was tossed and tucked with acute attention paid to form. I was the Greek Discus Thrower. I was Atlas, The Thinker. I was the David, naked in my mind and slinging hay.
And all was captured on camera. That sly Tracy had found a loophole in my “no cameras” order, a window that gave her eyes license to film her beloved.
She talked to Saul. I heard his laugh once and hated him. I didn’t hear her laugh. I pitied him. She left and took her camera with her, back to the newsroom to kill the lights and watch, in darkness, the brightness of the young man she would come to call her own.
That night, we watched the story of my boss. There were no images of him. That was his fault, but he had no grounds for complaining. “No cameras,” he had said. I’d said it too, but not for myself, so I waited to see what the camera had captured while I had worked my magic.
We heard Tracy’s voice in the background as we saw images of trailers and garbage and pools full of nightmare, and then, just as the story was about to end…there was the shot of me, back-to, a cowboy, his blade on his side, his sweat-shining arms throwing bale after bale.
I was on TV for 4 seconds.
But they were a long 4 seconds, and in them I sensed the cameraman had been directed by a mind hungry to take home a memento of the day: the foreman of the slum, a man who might have been mistaken for the lord of the farm, a man Tracy would soon seek out for a followup interview.
No cameras. Candles. Everything (our two hearts) on the table, and off the record.