Fiction: The Caretaker by Nathan Leslie

I am a volunteer at the county park. Once a week I drive fifteen minutes to the wooded, twenty five point seven acre lot which features tennis courts, a soccer field, a basketball court, a skateboarding “zone” and trailheads for hiking and biking, which lead cross-county, Northwest, roughly along the path already carved out by the power lines

I enjoy the caretaker gig. It distracts me from my rather mundane day job (I am an appraiser). It’s not a job I dislike. It’s not, however, a job which inspires me. I was, in a previous incarnation, a kind of local celebrity. I once was the traffic reporter for the local go-to radio station. As a result, every ten minutes I was in the public ear—a kind of human gnat (though with a helpful bent).

But back to the enjoyment facet for a moment.

I enjoy volunteering as a result of its purity and utterly nil expectations.

—Purity: since I don’t receive compensation for my services, I am highly appreciated no matter how little I accomplish. I feel “good” about myself before, during and after. I find it cleansing.

—Low expectations: I “check in” to the rec center and they inform me what needs to be done vis-a-vie the physical grounds—sweeping debris, picking up leaves or garbage, painting over graffiti. They are grateful for whatever I do. If I don’t finish, they shrug and thank me anyway for helping. It is a demonetized experience.

When I die I want my ashes sprinkled over the grounds of this park.

***

One day I was at the park shoveling snow. The tennis courts are covered with about four inches of heavy, slushy stuff. It’s moderately cold, but I’m working up a sweat, as one does. It’s bright and sunny.

I was so focused on the job at hand I didn’t bother to notice my surroundings (unlike me—I’m usually hyper-aware). I look up; there’s a man on the sidewalk which connects the courts to the parking lot and other park facilities. He’s outside the tennis court fence. I’m inside it (obviously). He has his thumbs hooked in his jeans belt loops. His legs are spread far apart and he wears a red and grey flannel shirt. He wears light tan work boots—the generic kind you might find at Wal-Mart. He wears Sunglasses. No hat or gloves or coat. He manipulates his mouth slowly, as if he’s chewing on a toothpick (I don’t see one).

It’s creepy as hell.

I am surprised by his presence. There’s nobody else out here and the guy is just standing there watching me.

I lower my head just a bit and stick up my hand in a peaceful, howdy-pardner manner. I smile.

“Hey there,” I say. “Nice day, isn’t it? A bit warmer than yesterday.” I sound idiotic.

The guy just stares at me. He doesn’t register this one iota. He continues staring at me, chewing his toothpick or Chiclet or cud, or whatever psychotics chew.

***

I used to be a male babysitter. I didn’t think of this as peculiar at all. At the time it was just another means by which a fifteen year old kid could make money—one of the only ways aside from lawn mowing, snow shoveling and other odd yard work gigs. In retrospect, however, it seems truly bizarre. What parent in their right mind would leave little six year old Joey alone with a pimply fifteen year old dude. It was a more innocent time. Or they were just, for some reason, fond of me, for reasons unknown.

Around fifteen I began to discover my affinity for electric fans. I’m talking window or oscillating, not coiling fans. Ceiling fans don’t properly disperse the air flow; they just churn meaninglessly, circulating the air without truly refreshing anyone. I discovered that if I turned my window box fan on while I slept, I never woke up. I slept peacefully as if nurtured inside a shimmying womb of slightly rattling white noise.

I always sleep with a fan now. If I travel, I bring a fan with.

***

So I go back to shoveling the snow. My thinking is that if I ignore the psychotic, he will either freeze from inactivity or from boredom—either way I will thusly find myself again with only the woodpeckers and grackles watching. I can deal with them. I tell myself not to freak out. I focus on my methodology, in some kind of Zen reenactment exercise. On such a large flat plain I find it generally more effective to “plow” with the snow shovel than scoop and toss. Also, though the scoop and toss method is more rewarding—as a result of the expanse—I must toss the snow for some considerable distance. This is neither good for my shoulder nor is it efficient. The “plow” method is chill, but energy conserving, and it also has the added benefit of reducing perspiration—always useful on a cold day.

I glance up and psycho lumberjack is still eyeing me like there is no tomorrow. My mind goes all whirligig:

—Is this a house owner who has hunted me down over a low appraisal? I heard the Prince of Qatar lives somewhere in Shady Woods. One of his henchmen?

—Does this guy envy my caretaker position and secretly want in on the shoveling? If so, he can spell me. I have no ego at stake in this.

—Is he on a rape and pillage mission? If so, can I outrun him? He looks a bit chunky in the middle. But I have ridiculously clunky snow boots, which would hamper me.

—Why didn’t I listen to Katrina when she told me to purchase a damn cell phone? This was her parting shot, as a matter of fact. This absurd scenario could certainly be an ad for Verizon or whatnot.

—Do I remember any Tai Kwan Do? I made it to….was it the green belt? I think it was the green belt. Maybe it was the yellow belt. That was still pretty good for somebody who didn’t care much about self-defense.

—If so, how do I go about dislodging the chainsaw or switch blade or ball peen?

***

Recently I’ve been losing things. I don’t mean forgetting things—my memory is clean. I mean misplacing them.

—The keys.

—My wallet.

—The latest issue of Harper’s Weekly.

—The chicken I bought for dinner.

—My glasses.

—My car. Where did I park it?

—My boat (canoe). Where did I leave it?

—My house (e.g., vacation cabin).

Over the years I’ve always been ultra-reliable about things. Perhaps I’ve exposed myself to too much sun. Perhaps I’m simply growing distracted and flaky, though I don’t think of myself as such.

Someone told me recently that he only, in all probability has eighty dental appointments left in his life. He explained that this is assuming he goes for a biannual checkup and that he lives an additional forty more years—which is to say, he could be overestimating. As he admitted, it’s a terrifying, macabre thought. It shook me.

I linger on these insights too much. My mind floats. This is why I lose things.

As a side note, I’m thinking of patenting an invention: a digitalized “sticker” which can be affixed to any household object linked to a central sensor. As with a car or a cordless landline, you press a button and the item beeps—you find it that way when you lose it. It’s not an altogether bad idea.

***

I’m even about to blurt out my sensor invention idea to Red Flannel Shirt when something happens: another caretaker walks down the path. It’s Ratty, or so he likes to be called. Ratty is a chain-smoking thirty year old Korean guy who lives with his parents and spends most of his time out at the tennis courts. We’re friendly.

“What’s going on, Fred?”

He’s trudging laconically, almost digesting his unfiltered Camel. He makes small slurping sounds. Ratty has two red shovels. He brushes past the psycho and onto the half-shoveled court.

I wish he hadn’t used my name.

“I’m glad you came out,” I say, pointing at the starer with my eyes.

Ratty exhales smoke from the side of his mouth and smiles.

“Yeah, that guy.”

Our voices are down to a whisper. Ratty is usually a shout or upwards.

“Do you know him?”

“I tried to talk to him,” Ratty says. “But nothing doing. That’s just the way he is.”

“What does he want?”

Ratty shrugs and does his Ratty sardonic laugh. As if to say, Fool, what do any of us want?

***

I’ve never liked being watched. It’s the pressure of eyes. I can feel them crawling up my skin. It’s why I’m pee shy. Can’t use a urinal unless I’m guaranteed a pee in solitude. Usually it’s not worth taking a chance—someone will walk in. Concerts and plays are a nightmare. I just hope I get lucky and find an open stall.

This is another reason I like the caretaker gig. The moss and lichen don’t have eyes (I’m fascinated by moss and lichen). Even animals with eyes are fine by me. Sometime I’d like to dabble in beekeeping. Those eyes wouldn’t bother me. This, by the way, is despite being stung many times—most notably dozens of times by yellow jackets in 1979. I’d imagine bees would calm me—the animal equivalent of fans.

***

Ratty brings food. Sometimes Kim-Chi, other times cold lasagna in a sandwich bag. Oranges. Grilled potatoes. Whatever he can snag from his mother’s fridge.

He hands me a hardboiled egg. He has one, also. He says his mother gave him the eggs in lieu of a sandwich. He doesn’t use the word “lieu.”

We don’t know where to crack them. Maybe the back of the shovel, but given the dirt, I reconsider. I opt for my head. So I tap the egg against my skull, then peel the shells off into the snow.

If Charles Manson didn’t have much to watch before, the sight of two men cracking eggs on their heads might capture his interest.

Ratty sprinkles some salt and pepper on his from little packets he swiped from Burger King. I decline. Good eggs, though just a tad dry (I prefer mine with a dab of mayo).

The guy hasn’t changed position. Still staring holes through us. Perhaps he’s a mime, I realize. A living statue. A performance artist. It’s a real possibility.

Ratty and I shovel. He gets one side of the court, I get the other. I’m plowing. He’s scooping and tossing. It’s easier with Ratty there; I disappear into my labor.

When I look up the starer is gone. Poof.

***

When the weather warms-up the starer reappears every so often, freaking out the ladies in particular. Several ladies threaten to call the rec center desk, call the police. Several do. The starer doesn’t negotiate; he doesn’t react to what others say.

He unnerves the park patrons as they go about their daily activities. Nobody knows if someone who may or may not mean them harm is watching. He’s a specter.

I’m out there one afternoon in April when couple of tennis players confront him. “Get lost, freak! Go back to your freak nuthouse where you belong. Stop bothering us.”

He doesn’t move. He doesn’t speak or protest. I almost feel bad for him. He’s the Gandhi of stalkers.

But something somebody said must have stuck because by May he’s gone completely. I ask around and nobody has seen him. I haven’t, in my limited time at the park.

By August I almost miss him. It’s hot and humid and a little oddity might keep me alert, I think. I wonder if I almost needed the threat of him.

In September I stop by the main rec center and on a whim ask about the starer at the front desk—ask if anybody has heard about his whereabouts. One woman shakes her head and says she has no idea. The beefy guy at the computer lifts his head.

“No, didn’t you hear? He was killed by a train some point in the summer. He apparently was standing on the tracks and didn’t move out of the way. He wouldn’t get off the tracks. The train ran right over him. At least this is what I heard.”

Nathan Leslie’s nine books of fiction include Root and Shoot, Sibs, and Drivers. He is also the author of The Tall Tale of Tommy Twice, a novel, and Night Sweat, a poetry collection. His work has appeared in hundreds of literary magazines including Boulevard, Shenandoah, North American Review, and Cimarron Review. Nathan was series editor for The Best of the Web anthology 2008 and 2009 (Dzanc Books) and edited fiction for Pedestal Magazine for many years. He is currently interviews editor at Prick of the Spindle and he writes a monthly music column for Atticus Review. His work appeared in Best Small Fictions 2016. Check him out on Twitter and Facebook as well as at http://www.nathanleslie.com.

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