The Instructive Case of Mr. Andrews
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
“The Road Not Taken” has been on my mind. I, too, doubted if I should ever come back, but lately, as if with a mind of its own, my car crawls up Wagner Avenue past the house I called home 50 years ago.
Why? First, why not? I have a fondness for the past, but no desire to move back in. I’ve no ghosts to confront, no traumas to unearth. And unlike the beloved poem’s speaker, I’ll never say, “I took the road less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” (Those “two roads diverged in a yellow wood” are “about the same.” The speaker’s sigh “ages hence” will be self-deception.)
No, my visits home are meant to invoke the dead. I especially wish Mitchell Andrews would appear. He should know that his house next door to mine recently caught fire, though he and wife Marcella have long been ashes to ashes themselves.
Mickey was a grouch. That’s what we kids thought. Mr. Andrews, that is. Adults were always Miss, Missus or Mister. Was such formality for the best? I doubt it, but won’t argue the point.
What I do believe is an adage that has grown trite with wear: Everybody has a story. Manners were expected in my childhood, but not so much the patient peeling back of other people’s layers to understand behavior and find compassion.
I reconsider Mr. Andrews now because of his burned-out windows and obituary. Back in the 1960s and early 70s, what I cared about was my basketball bouncing over our fence and onto his property.
To be fair, he fussed only once, and that when a ball steamrolled his romaine lettuce. Fairer still, one afternoon Mr. Andrews arrived at home precisely as an errant jump shot landed in his yard. He got out of his pickup, bent over for the ball and without a word tossed it back to me.
Now I wonder. Was Mr. Andrews mean mostly in my imagination? This isn’t sentimentality or guilt talking. I’d love to know.
His obituary suggests good reasons to be ornery. “He was employed as a core maker at the Standard Stoker Co. and Bucyrus.” My father, a tool and die man, explained that Mickey worked in a foundry—a hot, filthy job. He carried a metal lunch box, seemed always to need a shave, and spat snuff juice. At 5:00 p.m., the man looked as though he had been blasted with powdered charcoal.
To a boy preoccupied with not getting hollered at, the idea that a disagreeable job might sour a grownup’s disposition never occurred to me. “He was an avid fisherman, hunter, and gardener.” On Saturday mornings he left early, towing a small boat behind his truck with those retread tires that are illegal now. Did he want to be alone?
And what about my neighbor’s old memories? “He served in the US Army during WWII with the 625th Battalion, 10th Army, and received a Victory Medal, American Defense Ribbon, Asiatic and Pacific Ribbons, and a Bronze Star.” That last one was for meritorious conduct in a combat zone. Did Mr. Andrews kill? What did he see?
He certainly had courage. Me: If medals were given for whimpering in a foxhole, my chest would glimmer with them.
I want to ask him how it was to get shot at and was the foundry all that bad. Did he always fish by himself? And what about Mrs. Andrews? She stayed inside mostly.
In truth, Mr. Andrews’ bravery was one day found wanting. He had mouthed off to another driver, a brawny father with a car full of kids who followed him home and marched up to his truck. No punches were thrown. I watched from our porch.
“How are you, Mr. Andrews?” I asked afterwards.
“Not too goddamn good,” he answered, crying like a child.
I would never ask him about this. Some memories want privacy. Still, if I had him in front of me today, I’d keep our visit alive as long as he stood still, lolling his Copenhagen and wiping his lip.
“I’d be a mortician if I were you.” Such were the few meaningful words he ever gave me. “You’ll never be out of work.”
He can do better than that, though. A man who saw combat and labored in hell would have plenty to teach me.
And, yes, I get it. Mr. Andrews’ way has led on to way, and he should never come back. But he deserves whatever redemption is mine to grant. Therefore, as I pass his house and my own, I say this much, wishing he could hear: “Mickey Andrews was more than the neighbor who scared me. I just know it.”