Retired guy across the street, Buster McGrath, is a get-things-done sort of guy. I know this because sometimes, when his garage door is open, I can see in there. Tidy. Buster has his own air compressor. Guy who owns an air compressor gets things done. I'm not sure what, exactly, Buster gets done these days, but I know he used to be a ferryboat captain. Bins. Man's got a lot of bins in that garage. Always listen to a guy who keeps his stuff in bins.
If you can.
The one time Buster offered me advice, I wasn't in a position to take it. Part of me regrets that. Sure, some things would be no different if I'd paid heed. My dog would still be dead, for example. But at least one guy — Sullivan Waite, two streets over on Poplar — would be in a better place, mentally speaking.
Here's how it happened. Marie, my ex-wife, showed up one chilly November morning with a U-Haul and her boyfriend, a Portuguese professor, to collect her last worldly possession — a piano — from the home we used to share. Buster must have seen me at the bottom of my porch steps, watching the van pull away, probably looking like I'd just been mugged.
"How you doing, Buster?" I said as he crossed the street, something he almost never did.
"No complaints," he said and shook my hand. He looked down Willow Street after the U-Haul. His tousled white hair and creased, radish-pink face gave the impression that he was perpetually leaning into a gale. "Was that a piano?"
"It was," I said.
"Was it yours?"
"Technically, no. But I played it once in a while."
Buster nodded. "One of my grandsons plays the piano."
"He any good?"
"Not at all."
Buster turned in the other direction and looked up the street. "We've got new neighbors," he said. "In the big rental at the corner of Allen."
"Is that right?"
"It is." Buster turned back to me. "Africans. Not African Americans. Actual Africans."
I wasn't sure what to say. Frankly — and Buster had to have known this — there was nothing unusual about Africans living in Ralston. I suppose, at one point, there was probably something unusual about it. But, as long as Burlington had been a destination for refugees — decades — people from far-flung places had been settling across the bridge here in Ralston. While most New Americans lived on the west side of the island, it's not as if New Americans were anything new here. Not even actual Africans.
What Buster couldn't have known was that I was planning to run for a seat on the school board that March, so I wasn't inclined to speak too casually with neighbors about such sensitive matters as immigration. School board would be my first move in a larger political strategy that was partially to blame for my split with Marie. Partially. She doubted that my intentions in running were altruistic, that I really wanted to serve my community and not just become a larger fish in our small civic pond. I resented her doubt, as well as her lack of support in my quest to do something more with my life.
Marie wanted me to do something more, too — we just disagreed on what that should be. I had my eye on elected office. She wanted to have a baby. That was the other part of our breakup.
Anyway, my more immediate goal in that conversation with Buster was to get out of it. This goal took on urgency when I spotted Sullivan coming down the sidewalk. "Well, the Africans may be in for a shock," I said, which seemed neutral enough there on the cusp of winter.
"You can say that again," Buster said, laughing through his teeth in a vaguely sinister way. At the sight of Sullivan, he shook his head, huffed under his breath and crossed the street.
I was glad to avoid having Buster, my possibly bigoted neighbor; and Sullivan, the left-leaning linchpin in my political career, in a confab at the bottom of my porch steps. And I understood that, by ignoring Buster's subtle message — the retreat to his immaculate garage, the shake of the head, the huff — I'd turned my back on one path and was about to face another.
Sullivan was abreast of my house in a few confident strides, looking like he'd stepped onto Willow from the pages of a high-end outerwear catalog. He wore a new-looking barn jacket rimmed with fleece at the sleeves and collar, pressed blue jeans and a pair of high-tech day-hiking boots that I knew cost as much as a good set of used snow tires. Even his simple brown toque with the scarlet-lettered Ralston Youth Hockey patch looked stylish.
"Kelly," he said, extending a hand. "Just the person I'm looking for."
"What's up, Sullivan?"
"I've got a proposal for you."
"How'd you like to save money, your back and the planet when the snow flies this season?"
I crossed my arms as if to ponder the question. Deep down, I knew that, no matter how crazy Sullivan's proposal might be, I'd accept it. I needed to get on Sullivan's good side. Anyone who wanted anything in Ralston Wood — or just "the Wood," as our tree-dappled neighborhood was known — needed Sullivan's approval.
The source of Sullivan's power had never been crystal clear to me, but I assumed it originated with his father, Silas Waite, a former and famously anti-business Ralston mayor who oversaw a rezoning of the neighborhood to strictly residential use back in the 1960s. Silas Waite passed along some shadowy political clout to Sullivan, who started a firm specializing in environmentally friendly historic home restoration.
As the head of my own small graphic design firm, I sensed a grudging respect from Sullivan — grudging because my enterprise laid no claim to being "green." I suspected that some of Sullivan's influence also emanated from his omnipresence. The guy volunteered for nearly every community event of any size. He also founded the Ralston Farmers Market, inaugurated the Winter Carnival fundraiser at Ralston Elementary and, every year, organized the Wood's float entry in the improbable yet popular Magic Hat Mardi Gras parade in Burlington — always with some eco-friendly theme.
Sullivan liked to be in charge of things, especially things with a liberal tinge. And people — especially Wood liberals — liked letting him be in charge. "Passive progressives," I called them.
"I'm intrigued," I said, which, true or not, sealed my fate.
That's how I became a one-third owner of a brand-new, battery-powered electric snowblower. The other members of the collective included Sullivan and a married couple up the street, Caroline and Rachel. At a summit on Sullivan's front porch, we — that is, Sullivan — established some bylaws: Transfer the blower to the next user with a full battery charge. Make your intent to snowblow known to your comrades by posting a message to a page titled "Sustainable Snowblowing" on Sullivan's blog, the Good Denizen.
My only request was that people latch the gate after retrieving the blower from my backyard shed. My golden retriever, Dipsy, liked to run around back there, and I liked not having to worry about her taking off. I was afraid that, if she bolted, she'd run straight to Marie and her Portuguese lover boy.
A fairly heavy snow fell on the day after Thanksgiving, but I'd neglected to reserve the rig, so I sat out the inaugural day of snowblowing. The next dump came on December 19. I remember the date because it was Marie's birthday. After work that day, I stood for a long time in my kitchen, nursing a whiskey and staring out the window onto my two-car driveway, wondering if I should call or email Marie to wish her a happy birthday, or do nothing.
At some point, after I'd nursed more than just that one whiskey, I noticed snowflakes passing across the beam of the streetlight at a rate that any local would know meant accumulation. I took out my phone and posted a reservation to Sullivan's blog for first thing in the morning. I knocked back one last drink and called it a night.
I wasn't so naïve as to think I was going to save the planet by using an electric snowblower. I was, however, expecting the machine to blow snow. The rig handled the plow bank easily enough, but when I started blowing a trough up the length of my driveway, it began to flag. I cleared the blades of snow cakes, but the rig still faltered.
I removed the battery — about the size of a kid's lunchbox — and carried it inside, where I plugged it into an outlet in my home office. I figured that, having used the snowblower for an hour, I needed about an hour's charge to restore it to full capacity. I could spare an hour before going to work, but that wouldn't leave time to finish the driveway. So, while the battery was charging, I finished shoveling the old-fashioned way. Then I stuck the battery back in the snowblower and the snowblower in the shed, and went to work.
My disappointment with the snowblower's performance didn't occupy my thoughts for long. I had a busy morning packed with meetings. Plus, I'd decided to announce my candidacy for the school board.
I walked to city hall and filled a petition to run. Back at my desk, I wrote a press release, which I fired off to The Islander, Ralston's free weekly; Vermont Public Radio; and, just for good measure, two media outlets across the bridge, the Burlington Free Press and Seven Days. I didn't notify Sullivan directly, hoping that, when he heard the news, he might think positively of my not sucking up.
I heard from him sooner than I expected — but not about my candidacy. He texted me just as I was returning from lunch.
Sullivan was "miffed" — strong language for a neighborly exchange in the Wood — to have found the battery below a full charge when he retrieved the snowblower.
I texted an apology back to him. But, unless I was mistaken, he shamed me in his next post on the Good Denizen blog anyway. He didn't mention me by name, but in an item titled "Good Words Trump Good Fences," he wrote the following: "We know that we're neighbors — true neighbors, people of a common ilk — when our words, our promises, are the chief currency in which we trade."
I try to be considerate — I really do — but I couldn't seem to avoid violating the snowblower collective's code. Ignoring the fact that I could never clear my driveway on a single battery charge, Sullivan was quick to note any occasion when I returned the machine with less than a full charge. He started complaining that I never wiped the machine down after using it, something to which we'd never agreed, since — I mean, come on — a contraption that plows through snow is bound to get wet.
To be fair, I sometimes did forget to toe the line, such as a few days after Christmas, when I did a good deed for my neighbor Kate Patenaude. She's a lawyer — divorced, with two teenage sons I'd never seen lift a finger around their property. So, after plowing some of my driveway that morning and letting the battery recharge, I cleared her plow bank that night. And who should drive by just then but Sullivan.
I avoided making similar mistakes from that point on by not using the snowblower at all. Until one day when I really had no choice.
This was toward the end of January. The whole northern part of the state was swatted by a briskly moving nor'easter. Nearly everyone was caught by surprise. I had to get to an important early meeting that morning, and there was no way to get out of my driveway in time without the snowblower. But I hadn't reserved it. Plus, I knew that I wouldn't be able to charge the battery in time for anyone else to use it that morning.
So I did what I had to do: snagged the mower from Caroline and Rachel's place, cleared my plow bank, and posted a notice to the Good Denizen blog indicating where the snowblower now was — in my shed — and offering a brief but sincere apology for any inconvenience this breach of protocol might cause. Then I went to work.
I was feeling jittery after my meeting, and the cause wasn't just low blood sugar: I wanted desperately to know where I stood with Sullivan. This whole snowblower arrangement had come to seem like a cruel test to which he was subjecting me, a test of my loyalty to the Wood's communal causes, over which he presided like a cross between Mister Rogers and Mao Zedong.
By noon, I couldn't concentrate on my work any longer. I sent an intern to get me a sandwich and called up Sullivan's blog on my computer.
The first image to appear on the screen killed my appetite: Sullivan, Caroline and Rachel manually shoveling out the driveway at the corner of Willow and Allen. Assisting them were a few African kids — three boys and two girls between the approximate ages of 9 and 16, the girls' brightly colored hijabs fringing heavy parkas, the boys' heaping shovels of snow the apparent cause of laughter. The caption read: "When the Mapendos' landlord and property manager were too busy to help, some neighbors made the time. NOT PICTURED: A certain candidate for school board and his snowblower."
As if he were monitoring my presence on his blog, Sullivan texted me: "Disappointed. I have the sb now."
When I arrived home that night, feeling pretty down, I was further disappointed — and puzzled — not to be met at the front door by Dipsy. Never, in the 12 years or so I'd had the dog, had she failed to greet me at the door, tail wagging, usually with a shoe in her mouth. But there she was lying on the living room floor, looking right at me, panting. I called for her, and, with considerable effort, she stood. After taking a couple of steps toward me, she lay down again. As I approached her, I caught a whiff of the unmistakable scent of vomit. Scanning the room, I found a slick pad of frothy saliva mixed with kibble splattered around a coffee-table leg.
As I was helping Dipsy into my car a few moments later, I noticed the gate to the backyard was open. Apparently, when Sullivan had collected the snowblower, the prick had forgotten to latch the gate: the one condition I'd placed on my membership in the snowblower collective. One simple request. A common courtesy — like something Sullivan himself might have written about on his officious blog.
Somewhere between the gate and my car, I decided that this affront from the know-it-all Prince of the Passive Progressives wouldn't go unaddressed. Someone had to take a coat of paint off that guy. For the greater good.
About an hour later, a soft-spoken young veterinarian who looked vaguely like Marie's younger sister was showing me Dipsy's X-ray and breaking the bad news: liver cancer. A lot of it. An hour after that, after Dipsy had eaten her fill of the Ben & Jerry's vanilla ice cream I'd run out to get her, the vet put my companion down. Yet another hour later, I was standing on Sullivan's doorstep, ringing his bell.
When he answered, I handed him a flyer with Dipsy's picture on it below the words "Have you seen this dog?"
Sullivan studied the flyer for a moment but didn't seem to connect the dots.
"Dipsy's gone," I said.
"What do you mean 'gone'?"
"You left the gate open. She got out."
"But..." Now Sullivan seemed perplexed.
I paused to let him sort it all out.
"I left the gate open?" he said.
"Did you come to get the blower?"
"Well, then." I turned toward the street. "You mind if I put one of these on that telephone pole?"
"What? Yes. I mean, no, I don't mind. Kelly, wait."
I turned back to Sullivan. He looked on the verge of tears. "Has ... she ever run away before?" he said. I swear his lower lip quivered.
"No," I said. "But then, I always keep the gate latched."
I began descending his front steps.
"Kelly," he said.
I took a few steps before stopping and facing him again.
"I'm so ... sorry," he said.
I shrugged. "Maybe she'll come home. Not much I can do."
"I'll tell everyone I know. I'll—"
"Thanks," I said. "I've done nearly everything already. If you could just keep an eye out."
"I will," Sullivan said as I headed home. "I'll do that."
Sullivan called me a few times over the next couple days to see if Dipsy had returned. He sent email and text messages. More than a few. I tried not to overdo it with the grief, but I let him know that my house was a lonely place without that innocent, affectionate animal. The less grief I showed, the more guilt he seemed to suffer. He said he wanted to make it up to me somehow, but I assured him there was no way to replace a pet like Dipsy. I began to see Sullivan out at night, walking the sidewalks of the Wood with a headlamp and flashlight, as if looking for something he'd lost.
Sullivan became my biggest campaign supporter. I heard he'd talked me up at Winter Carnival. Toward the end of February, he formally endorsed me on the Good Denizen blog. Come Town Meeting Day that March, I was elected to the school board.
I ran for school board to make a difference in my community. That's not a lie. Truth be told, I also ran because, while I don't consider myself a natural leader, I very much dislike being led by the kind of clowns who sometimes get involved in city government. So, the route I took to get elected doesn't read like a civics textbook. Still, I stand by the work I'm doing — for liberals, sure, but also for conservatives, even though I'm not one of them. For families and kids and dogs and cats, even though I don't have them. For Buster McGrath no less than for actual Africans.
I'm not positive what my next move will be, politically or personally. I'll probably get another dog. I miss Dipsy. I also miss Marie and the comforting notion that we were going to share this odd journey through time and space. I'm not complaining. I have it better than most. I have a mortgage I can afford in the nicest neighborhood in the city.
I was at the hardware store the other day and noticed that electric lawn mowers are on sale. I'm thinking of buying one, seeing if I can get some other people on the block to chip in for it.
I'll ask Sullivan first. I know he'll be up for it. Sullivan Waite — now there's a good neighbor.
Burlington native Erik Esckilsen is the author of three novels for young readers and a frequent contributor to Seven Days and Kids VT. "The Ralston Snowblower Collective" is one in a cycle of narratives set in the fictional city of Ralston. Erik also teaches rhetoric and digital storytelling at Champlain College.
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