How to Take Care of a Drifter

This is an essay I wrote in 2005 about the drifter who lived with my family for a year…and how we finally “took care” of him.
-Pete

“Just dig!” I say to my mom. “It’s going to get too cold soon, and then we won’t be able to shovel anymore.” I swing the pick ax several more times at the frozen dirt, trying to loosen up the rocks and frozen chunks of soil so that she can shovel them out.

“It looks like this is gonna a pretty shallow grave,” says my mother, huffing as she scoops out another shovelful of stones and dirt.

“Whatever…As long as he fits. Dad says the soil is acidic here, so the body will decompose pretty quickly.”

“Oh! His body is already stiff!” says my younger sister, fighting back tears.

“Don’t worry, just a few more inches,” I reassure her.

 

The guest bedroom. First floor. Back corner of the house. Smells like moth balls…or old paint…or something like that. It’s in the back, down a long hallway stacked on either side with old unsorted papers, boxes of children’s toys and Christmas decorations, bookshelves brimming with books. It’s the one pristine room in the house, amid all the clutter of twenty years of packratism. Unlike the rooms around it, the guest room sits there, completely empty, always waiting for our next visitor. There’s a bed, usually made with a fresh set of sheets and a blanket or two on it, ready for the very likely chance that we’ll have an unexpected guest.

Usually the people that sleep in the guest room are friends of the family, just pulling through town. That’s not saying they’re “usual” by any means. My dad’s oddball friends always show up at the most unexpected times. “Leggs,” my dad’s wildman friend from Kentucky has made the guest room his home on several occasions. He shows up at four in the morning, dressed in buckskin leggings, pounding on our door with his feral Grizzly Adams grin, hooting and hollering in his backwoods Kentucky drawl. My father, of course, welcomes him in with open arms. Leggs usually brings with him a good dozen lethal weapons (sheath knives, concealed handguns, battle axes, crossbows, spears, flint blades, assault rifles—you name it) with him, “For protection.” He places them carefully around the room, in strategic (and sometimes decorative) locations to make the room feel homier. Leggs may be illiterate and missing that finger from that bar fight where he killed a man – but “when the apocalypse comes,” as my dad often assures me, “you’ll want him on your side.”

The guest room is also a regular rest-stop for the 400 pound mammoth that everybody calls “Little John.” He makes that his bed when he travels from New Hampshire down south to Renaissance fairs to sell his hand-cast medieval ironware. The bed bows and creaks under his weight, and probably even has a permanent indent from John’s many overnight stays, but its antique oak frame has stood strong so far.

Then there are the exchange students. Far too many of them to count (even if you’re using your fingers and your toes). Most of them stayed with us for a few weeks or so. A lot of shy Japanese girls just passing through on their way to Niagara Falls, who are gone before we learn their names. “Was that one Rumiko or Yamada or Asanuma?” “Meh. It doesn’t matter.”

Paul, our German exchange student who could juggle and ride a unicycle at the same time, called the guest room home for an entire year. So did Christian, our lovely juvenile delinquent from Chile, who lived in the guest room when he wasn’t out painting graffiti and getting high. Shinobu, from Japan, lived there for a year too; she liked pressing flowers and washing dishes. Now the room is home to Ika, an awkward fifteen-year-old from the Republic of Georgia whose greatest joy comes from Photoshopping his head onto the bodies of the male celebrity lovers of Angelina Jolie and Halle Berry. The photos of Ika holding hands with Angelina on the red carpet are creepy beyond words.

Anyhow, our guest room has been home to more colorful characters than you could fit in a coloring book. My dad is just too inviting; he loves adding a fresh face to the mix to make things more exciting around the house…no matter how awkward, unsettling, intimidating, disturbing, or downright scary that face might be. Unfortunately for the rest of my family, when there was a knock on the door last September, my dad was the one to answer…

“Hello there! My name is Tim. I couldn’t help but notice that you have an awfully big house here. You wouldn’t happen to have a room you’d be willing to rent me, would you?”

Standing in front of my father was a balding, sixty-year old man with a ring of gray hair circling his head, and thick coke-bottle glasses pressed up tight against his face. He spoke in such a suave, rich baritone voice, that my father hardly noticed the black sweatpants and Velcro shoes that he was wearing.

In fact, my dad invited him right in. Ever the entrepreneur, it sounded to him like an easy way to make some money… The guest room was open, and my dad could use some extra money to help him pursue another one of his passions (the flavor of the moment was growing flax fiber in order to make his own linen cloth). Little did he expect that six months later, Tim would still be living in our guest room, having never paid my family a dime.

“So where you from?” my father asked.

“Santa Barbara. I’m here doing research for a documentary on Wyatt Earp and the O.K. Corral.”

“You’re make documentaries? My son wants to be a documentary filmmaker!”

“Well, I’m a mathematician by trade, but documentaries are a passion. I just finished a study on the odds of Las Vegas roulette wheels. I’m going to publish a book that could make you a very rich man.”

My dad ate up every word. He found Tim fascinating, and like every fascinating character he ever meets, he decided that he had to make friends with him—and let him move into our house. They agreed on a fee of $400 for two weeks’ board, and then Tim was going to move out, and ride off into the sunset (Wyatt Earp style).

 

Being away at college, I didn’t find out about Tim for a few days. I love my family, but I’m not the type to speak to my parents unless I have a specific reason. When I finally did call home to inform my mom that I needed more minutes added to my cell phone, she broke the news. Of course, she introduced Tim first as a documentary filmmaker, to which I replied “Oh, neat!” I asked her about more specific details, and she told me he was a sixty-year-old man from California, doing research on Wyatt Earp and the O.K. Corral, and he would be staying at our house for two weeks.

I grilled my mother for a long time about the details of this mystery man: where was he from, did he have any family, what was his last name? She didn’t know the answer to any of these questions. Apparently, Tim didn’t talk much about himself.

So finally, I asked her “So what do you think of him?”

A long pause.

“He’s eccentric.” That’s my mom’s code speak for saying that she didn’t like the guy. “Let’s just say, I won’t mind it when he’s gone.”

Despite my mother’s less-than-glowing description of Tim, I was eager to meet him myself, especially since I am such a documentary-a-holic. I wanted to find out about this Wyatt Earp film.

Three weeks later, I got my chance. It was Fall Break, and I went home to visit my family over vacation. I found out that Tim had talked my dad into letting him stay at our house for another week, and he would pay my parents in full when he moved out. On my arrival home, I hugged my parents and sisters, and asked excitedly about meeting our latest boarder. Before I got an answer, I heard across the house the foreboding sound of heavy footsteps: boom boom, boom boom, boom boom. They were coming toward me, up the stairs to our family room. Moments later, a crazy-looking old man wearing black sweatpants and Velcro sneakers stomped through the doorway. He moved like Tyrannosaurus Rex, leaning forward, his powerful legs smashing down as he stared straight ahead, his arms hanging loose in front of him. I put on my best smile and went over to shake his hand. Tim shook back with a fierce, bear-like handshake—the kind where you feel your arm might be ripped off. Scarcely after I had said my name to him, Tim said to me: “Your father says you’re good with computers, Peter. Could you come down to my room and help me with my computer?” The suddenness of his request rubbed me the wrong way, but I gave him the benefit of the doubt and agreed. After all, I wanted to see this guy’s documentary. Before I headed downstairs, I turned to see the reactions of my family. They had already scattered—except for my dad who said “Go ahead, Pete, help him!”

An hour later, I found myself nearly pulling my hair out as I tried to explain to Tim how to use his computer scanner to digitize his photos, and then email them to his friends using his laptop. Besides being entirely computer illiterate, he was half deaf, spoke in an increasingly loud and deep voice, piling up question after question and not listening to any of my answers. Eventually, I threw my hands in the air and just scanned and emailed his pictures for him, rather than teach him how to do it himself. I was already beginning to see why my mother and sisters tried so hard to avoid him.

After I had satisfied Tim’s computer questions for the time being, I asked him to show me some of the footage from his much-ballyhooed Wyatt Earp documentary. He dug out from a duffel bag on his floor a stack of early-‘90s VHS tapes and proudly popped one of them into his double-deck VCR. What I saw amounted to little more than a home video of a bunch of guys in cowboy suits running around in a tourist recreation of the O.K. Corral. It was shot on one of those big VHS camcorders that families used to shoot home videos of birthday parties and weddings with; the video quality bordered on horrific. Tim excitedly explained the concept for his film to me: after he had read through hundreds and hundreds of pages of transcripts and testimony from the trial of Wyatt Earp, he discovered a conflicting testimony that one of the cowboys killed in the shoot-out had been shot by a “horse” rather than a “house.” His entire documentary was based on a conspiracy theory over a 120 year-old typo. Tim looked at me, nodding elatedly. “You’re studying documentaries. Would you like to edit it for me? It’s all shot already.”

“Um…yeah…I’ll think about it,” I replied.

Just over Fall Break, Tim was turning out to be quite pushy and quite the creep. On a regular basis, he would stomp upstairs and call my family together for an announcement, like “I’ve rented Tango from the library. Come together everyone, we’ll have a family movie night!” The first few times, my family played along, thinking that Tim was just a lonely old man who wanted a family of his own; we might as well be nice to him. But when he started doing this every night, my family started to come up with excuses. The worst part was that more often than not, the film Tim wanted us to watch was Tango, Tim’s favorite movie of all time, which he rented it incessantly over the next few months.

Tim also decided that he wanted to play music with my sisters. Every day, he would schedule a meeting time with my sisters downstairs at the piano, so that they could play a duet. My sister Sara (age 17, who played saxophone) and Clara (clarinet, age 14) went the first few times out of pity, but after they started skipping meetings on a regular basis, Tim started to get more and more assertive about the duets. My sisters, on the other hand, began to get more and more put off by Tim’s “skeezy” (as they called them) advances. My dad, however, encouraged them to play along: “You might learn something!”

 

A few weeks after I returned back to college, I learned that Tim hadn’t left yet, and still hadn’t paid my family a cent. Tim would help out with occasional chores, like walking the dogs or unloading the dishwasher, but most of the time he just made messes and dirtied dishes. Worse yet, my father had given him free reign of the kitchen, and he was eating all of my family’s food. Ten or so times a day, he’d tromp into the kitchen and start fixing himself something to eat. Although he still promised to pay my family for the room and board, it was becoming increasingly clear that he was never going to pay. My mom told him that if was going to keep eating from the kitchen, he would have to buy food to replace what he had eaten. Tim took this very seriously, and every few days, he would come home with a huge bag of food – which appeared as if it came from a homeless shelter. He would stock our cupboards with sacks of bread heels, government cheese and more Ramen noodles than an army could consume. “Thanks, Tim. Thanks a lot,” my mom would say.

 

As my mother and my sisters got more and more fed up with Tim, my dad developed a strong working relationship with him. My father’s latest million dollar idea was to create a new industry to cultivate flax seeds on the East Coast of the United States. In his mind, he had worked out the designs of a new machine that would harvest, thresh and strip the linen fiber from the plants in one single step on the field. He was also in talks to purchase a defunct fiber mill in South Carolina to be his base of operations for this process. So far, of course, this was all just a big idea in the mind of a dreamer, but my father would talk about it endlessly to anyone who would listen. Tim, the only one willing to put up with my dad’s dream talk for more than a few minutes, soon became my dad’s partner on this project. In his hours and hours of free time everyday, Tim would research flax on the Internet and write up reports and grant proposals for the flax project. My mother kept on prodding my dad to kick Tim out, but he kept on delaying it, partly because Tim was now a good friend, but mostly to help perpetuate his latest pipe dream.

 

Eventually, my mom had had enough. After about the fifth month of Tim living with us, my mother had stopped talking to Tim completely. She either ignored him, or glared at him as he stomped through the kitchen and the family room. Tim got the message and reciprocated. He knew that she wanted him out, and he did everything he could to stay away from my mother so that she wouldn’t kick him out sooner.

Over Winter Break, I recall my mother getting into a loud, angry argument with my father about Tim when he was just across the room. Fortunately for Tim, he’s half deaf and didn’t hear any of it.

“He’s a mooch! He’s just using us, Bob! Can’t you see?!”

“But Cheryll, I need him for the flax project!”

“Forget about the stupid flax! This guy is ruining our family!”

But my dad still dragged his heels. Meanwhlie, Tim continued slinking around the house, enjoying his free ride.

 

Eventually, the end of January came, and it was time for my dad’s annual trip to Florida with Leggs to go spear-fishing. Tim, of course, was still freeloading off my family. Although my dad was glad to let Tim stay, my sisters, my mother and I had given my father an ultimatum: Tim had to go. But before my father built up the guts to go tell Tim that he had to leave, Leggs was pounding on our front door, telling my dad he was ready to take off for the south for three weeks. To make a long story short, my dad ended up leaving and doing nothing about Tim, telling my mother that he would take care of it when he got back. As soon as my dad was out of sight, my mother vowed that Tim would be gone by the next day.

Now, it just so happened that at the same time as my father had left for his trip down south, our oldest dog, a twelve-year-old beagle name Tubbs, was on him death bed. We were all sad to see him go, but she was an old dog that had lived a full life, and she had been struggling for the past two years. Although Tim was technically supposed to take Tubbs for a walk everyday, as per the rules my dad had established when he realized that Tim wasn’t going to be paying any rent, Tim had neglected to take care of the dog for several weeks. In the meantime, my mother and I were feeding him, comforting him and walking him during his final days. As we expected, during the third week of January, Tubbs finally passed away. Although it still pulled at our heartstrings, we knew it was coming. Tim, on the other hand, was completely oblivious.

The day that Tubbs died, my mother went to confront Tim about taking care of the dog. She asked him when the last time he took Tubbs for a walk was, the last time he fed him, and the last time he gave him a bath. Tim’s answer to all these questions was “this morning,” which was a blatant lie: Tubbs was dead.

Rather than get in a yelling match with Tim, my mother merely signaled for him to follow after her. She took him to the blanket where Tubbs laid, dead, and my sisters and I sat mourning. When Tim saw this, his mouth dropped. He apologized profusely, telling my mother that he was very sorry, and it wasn’t his fault, and he took care of Tubbs every morning except for this one and so on. But he knew he was digging himself into a hole.
My mother just turned to him when he finally lulled on his apology and told him: “I want you out of here. Today!”

Tim tried to reason with her. She would have none of it. “Today!”

Within a few hours, Tim had all of his belongings packed up in his van, with California plates. Tim left our house without a single good-bye. And we haven’t heard a word from him since.

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