An elderly lady, named Nadia, who was of Eastern European descent, appeared one day and stayed with us for several months. She spoke very little English and was extremely high strung. She would sit for hours, gently rocking back and forth, singing softly to herself, a cast iron skillet clutched tightly in her hands. We surmised that the skillet was her weapon of choice should the “Bad Manses” ever show up and attempt to take her away. She disappeared one day as quickly as she had come.
We had a trio of cyclists pitch tents and camp in our front yard for a few weeks the summer I turned eleven, they were trekking across the country and needed a break at the halfway point. How they ended up with us remains a mystery but I am certain that the stench of marijuana and cloud of smoke hanging over their makeshift camp had a lot to do with it.
Easily the most interesting – and disturbing – stray, was Barbequed Bob. He started out as just plain old Bob, a long haired, scraggly looking fellow with hollow eyes and twitchy limbs who could seemingly materialize out of thin air just in time to scare the living shit out of you. He was too quiet for my liking. Quiet people had something to hide.
When he would pop by, unannounced and late at night, my Mom and him would sit up for hours talking about the strangest things. I would glean the tiniest fragments of information about Bob’s troubled mind by sneaking out of my room and eavesdropping on their conversations. He was haunted by the ghosts of his past, crippled with paranoia and imagined enemies and lost to humanity. I first learned big, scary terms like schizophrenia and mental illness during my covert spy sessions and began to understand that the human brain was a complicated and peculiar machine.
I also learned a lot about my Mother. I was witness to an unexpectedly nurturing and caring woman who listened and sympathized with his plight, who had tremendous insight and empathy and offered sanctuary to a complete stranger. When she would place her hand upon his arm in a moment of unforeseen tenderness or hold him while he sobbed I saw a whole other side to her that stirred my soul. She was a woman who was easy to sell short. A woman who too often allowed her crippled side to dictate her responses and suffered greatly for it.
I think, in those rare, stolen moments, they taught me about compassion.
Slowly, as I watched my Mom interact with Bob more and more, my fear of him began to subside. Sure, he was an oddball and had trouble communicating like the “normal” people I knew, but he was also different and utterly fascinating. I knew what it was like to feel different and so a sort of kinship developed between us, one that eventually allowed my preconceived notions of who he was to fall away and reveal just another human being who struggled. One who knew what it meant to hide.
A few months after his arrival into our lives I began to visit him at his place, riding my bike over after school and staying until dinner. We did not talk very much. Bob spent most of our time together feverishly scribbling in a tattered notebook while I played with Freud, his German Shepard, or perused through the piles of books he left scattered throughout his space. He had books about everything, large, intricately bound volumes by people with unpronounceable names like Solzhenitsyn and Kierkegaard which contained impossibly long words that I could never dream of understanding. There were stacks of filled notebooks everywhere that I dared not touch. Not for fear of reprisal from Bob, but because I was too afraid to see what he had written inside.
“You have a lot of books,” I remarked once, casually, almost to myself.
He dropped his pen and looked up at me inquisitively. “Sure I do,” he said, “books are everything.” Then, after a pause, “books are the way out.”
“Out of what?”
He smiled, pointed a finger at his head and went back to his writing.
That Christmas, after Bob had not dropped by in over a week, my Mother instructed me to head over to his place and check up on him, she handed me a tin of homemade cookies, a small gift-wrapped box and a copy of Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland that she had borrowed. It was bitterly cold and by the time I reached his driveway my toes were beginning to go numb – which is probably why I noticed that there was no smoke coming from his chimney. Freud bounded up to greet me at the front door. He was more excited than usual, barking and nipping at my arm and darting around like a dog half his age. His food bowl was empty and his water dish had frozen over. After scooping him a few cups of food I knocked and called out for Bob. When after a few moments I had received no answer, I pushed the door open and went inside.
The house was bone cold and it was apparent that it had been so for several days. A half-full glass of water on the table had developed a thin layer of ice and I could see my breath as I called out again. I set the packages on the kitchen counter. A window in the living room stood open allowing the frigid air to swirl chaotically thru the space, rattling my teeth against one another and madly flapping the pages of an open journal. The bedroom too was empty, the bed made and unused. It was evident that Bob was not home. I surmised that he had not been around for at least a couple of days.
Before leaving I put down more food for Freud and filled his water dish. I sat on the back steps petting him for a while and noted that the only tracks around belonged to the dog and myself. This was odd because it had snowed a lot five days ago, on Friday, the last day of school before Christmas break. Bob had to have been gone since before the storm or his footprints would be in the snow.
I related all the odd findings to my Mom upon returning home.
She told me not to worry.
When my Dad went to check out the situation the next day he found Bob’s charred corpse lying frozen in the snow about a hundred yards from the house. He had doused himself in gasoline, struck a match and burned to death. Freud, who had gone without food for as long as he could, had partially eaten the body to survive. I did not understand why they had to put him to sleep. It was not his fault.
I got to sit in a police car that night, while I told the officers everything I had already related to my Mom. Everyone was very relieved that I had not discovered the body, as if a real tragedy had been avoided by my good fortune. I wanted to remind them that a man – and now his dog – was dead but nobody seemed to care very much so I kept it to myself.
It was a few days later, well after the body had been removed, when I returned to Bob’s house. Nothing had changed except for most of his journals were missing. Taken as evidence, I assumed. I sat in his space for a while, thumbing thru an old photo album looking at pictures of a squandered life. He was the first person I knew that had died. To kill himself seemed like such a waste. There were snapshots of him from childhood, where he looked happy and free, playing on a beach with a tall man who may have been has Dad and running in a windswept field with a kite streaming above his head. I found a picture of him – around my age – and slipped it in my pocket.
I noticed the Christmas present from my Mom when I was about to leave and it filled me with sadness. The colorful box, with its bright red ribbons, seemed garish and tragically out of place in the somber surroundings.
I opened it.
Inside was a Rubik’s Cube and a note from my Mother that read: “Who in the world am I? Ah, that’s the great puzzle.” She attributed the quote to Lewis Carroll and had signed beneath it: “Love, Robbie.”