“Dad hired a homeless guy today!” my brother, Ben, said.
“What?” I said, shucking corn at the kitchen counter.
“Yeah, it was weird,” my second oldest brother, Bill, said. “I had to work next to him all day. I kept wondering if he was going to steal my Coke or run off with the hammer.”
“Why’d he hire a homeless guy?” I asked.
“They’re re-doing the parking lot,” Ben said. “We’re pouring concrete.”
Their jeans were crusted in gray, their T-shirts hardened against their chests, their faces and necks sunburned. I should’ve known.
“It was uncomfortable,” Bill said. “He was drunk, too. When Dad sent Ben to the concrete store to get some materials, he said, ‘Hey, Jerry, tell him to bring me back a beer.’”
“So why did Dad hire a homeless guy?” I said again.
“It’s Dad,” he said. “Why not?”
My father’s garage is located in downtown Evansville, on Franklin Street, not far from the Pigeon Creek, where overhangs a bridge. Homeless people live under that bridge and routinely make their way to the shop, where they drink the coffee from the waiting area and use the restroom, which my brothers say smells awful afterward. “Dad cleans the bathrooms, though. We don’t have to,” they say.
“It was awkward,” Ben told my father at the dinner table that night. “I didn’t know what to say to him.”
“You saw how I talked to him, didn’t you?” my father said. “I talked to him like I’ve known him all my life. You could do that, couldn’t you?”
“I guess,” Ben said.
Bill was home from Duke for the summer, I was home from graduate school, and Ben had just graduated from Wabash. Since we’d all been away from each other for a while, it was nice that Tony gave us a common discussion topic.
That summer, I hadn’t found work yet, and Ben hadn’t figured out his post-graduation plans. “Do you have a job yet?” people asked him.
“I’m working on it,” he’d say.
“I bet your dad could help you out with that.”
“That’s the problem,” he’d say. “He is.”
According to my brothers, the homeless guy had come out of the Lamar Bar that day and stepped across the street, shielding his eyes from the sun with his hand. He stood there for a long while watching them tear up concrete in some areas and pour it in others.
Tony was not entirely foreign to the premises. Though my dad had never met him, he had seen him out by the dumpster, where Dad left our aluminum cans for recycling. Tony ran off with them, probably taking them to the recycling center himself to transform extra change into his pocket.
“I can pour concrete,” the man said when he stepped across the street. “I poured concrete all my life.”
Dad stood up, looking the man over, asked his name, wiped his hands on his brown work pants, smiled as he shook hands and agreed to let Tony on the job. I imagine Tony: a face tanned, wrinkled from smoking. Dirty brown pants with suspenders. A green button-up shirt, untucked. A straw hat torn at the edges.
“He thought of himself as a connoisseur of concrete,” Ben said.
“You’re doing it all wrong,” Tony said to them, wiping his head with his forearm, taking the screed from Ben’s hands. “There ain’t much I can do with it now, but I’ll do my best with what’s left.” He laid down each layer more expertly than the last, lashing the wet concrete from his putty knife. “There, like freakin’ magic,” he said.
“Like freakin’ magic,” they repeated that night. Everything in our house then became like freakin’ magic.
“Let me scramble those eggs,” Ben said, swirling the spoon around the pan, “like freakin’ magic.”
“Hey, are you making a pitcher of tea?”
“Yeah,” Valerie said, “like freakin’ magic.”
“Wait a minute, wait a minute,” Bill said, taking Kathryn’s pencil out of her hand while she drew her 4-H Project. “You’re not doing it right. This is how you draw a flower. Like freakin’ magic.”
Over the next two weeks, I grew excited when it was time for them to come home from work so that I could hear the next segment of the story. “What happened with Tony today?” I asked. “Did he do anything good today?” By good, I meant entertaining because that was what the idea of Tony had become for me. My interest mocked the anxiety my brothers felt about working beside the man. Was he going to steal Bill’s Pepsi? Was he going to carve something dirty in the concrete? His instability kept me on edge.
My father’s delivery of the events of the day was different from my brothers’. They would rush in and tell it. “Tony stuffed the bologna sandwich Dad gave him in his pocket!” With my father, it would take prodding. “What happened today?” my mother and I would ask, setting the table for dinner.
Dad would stand there and snicker a little.
“C’mon, what happened!”
Dad wouldn’t tell the story immediately. He’d let the anticipation build, and then once we’d sat down for dinner, he’d begin.
“Who lives down there with ya?” Dad asked him one day.
“A few other guys,” Tony said, “but I kicked ‘em out. They were actin’ like a bunch of idiots. Least I still got my dog.”
“Does Tony do good work?” my mom asked, dishing out green beans.
“He’s okay,” Dad said, “when he works.”
Tony spent a lot of time drinking. He sat a bottle in a paper bag in front of him when he worked.
“Maybe you can tell him you’ll only give him the money if he doesn’t spend it on booze,” my mother said.
My father laughed. “That’s not how it works,” he said. “You can’t tell people how to spend their money.”
My mother and I felt bad for Tony and had grown invested in him. I hadn’t found a job yet that summer, but I had a place to go home to, food to eat, family to take me in. I wondered how a man came to that point. A man who once had a wife and a job pouring concrete, how did he decide to live under the Pigeon Creek Bridge? Some days, instead of sitting indoors, quietly writing, I wished I was out there with my brothers, getting dirtied up, sweating, and fearing the homeless man. It sounded exciting. My brothers still didn’t like working with him. While he half-assed the job and showed up on an inconsistent basis and at different times every day, they came home at night exhausted and sunburned, but only complained when our father wasn’t around because he worked that hard every day.
Once at midnight, Dad got a call from the concrete truck company. “Okay, boys,” he said. “Get your shoes on. We’ve got to go in and unload a truck.” My father got his concrete from leftover concrete jobs, a trick he’d learned from my grandfather, who’d found out that the trucks got rid of their extra concrete by giving it away. They weren’t allowed to sell it. Getting it was competitive, though. Once it happened to be around Easter, so my grandpa went and bought a cartful of chocolate bunnies and announced over the trucker’s radio waves that Muensterman’s had bunnies in return for concrete. He heard the truckers then, announcing it over the intercoms to each other: “Take your concrete to Muensterman’s. They’re giving away chocolate rabbits.”
“You’d be surprised what a damned chocolate rabbit could do,” my grandpa said.
That night as my brothers left with Dad to collect the load, they rolled their eyes at me as they walked out the door. Tony would never have to help at midnight, I’m sure they thought.
About a week after Tony first showed up, my father and brothers came through the door laughing one night.
“What happened now?” I said.
Dad couldn’t quit laughing. “Tony’s in jail,” he said.
My mother gasped. “What happened?”
My father shook his head. “He stole a hotdog from a gas station. He stood there and ate it and walked out before paying his two twenty-five.”
“How do you know?” my mother said.
“The police stopped by,” he said. “They said Tony said he worked for us. The police said to me, “Is this yours?” and handed me my hammer.” The hammer had my father’s initials. It had been hanging from Tony’s belt. Tony had the money, he said, a whole twenty-four dollars in his front pocket, likely money from my father. “I don’t know why he didn’t just pay it.”
After a night’s rest on a prison bunk, Tony returned for another day of work. Dad told him he had the job covered for today. The same thing happened the day after. The following day, Tony offered to work for free, but Dad said the job was well taken care of.
“Don’t you want to give him another chance?” my mother said. “Are you sure you don’t want him back? Let me fix him a sandwich for you to take to work. What kind of sandwiches does he like? Should I use ham instead of turkey? I think it’ll last longer if he puts it in his pocket.”
“I can’t have someone who’s not honest,” he said. “He could take tools from the garage and sell them.”
“You should give him another chance,” I said. “He was probably just hungry.”
“I can’t,” Dad said.
“But he spreads concrete like freakin’ magic,” Ben said.
“I have to be careful,” Dad said. “There’s equipment. There’s customers’ cars. I can’t watch him every second.”
“But he spreads concrete like freakin’ magic,” Valerie said.
“I’ll make him a sandwich for you to take him at least,” my mom said.
“He eats down at the shelter for lunch and dinner,” Dad said. “He told me. You can’t help someone who doesn’t want to help himself.”
Tony hung around only a little while longer, realizing his help wasn’t needed. He showed up in his suspenders and brown pants and watched the men work, but my dad and brothers and the other workers ignored him. Every now and then, Tony would say, “I could help you smooth that out better if you want,” but nobody responded.
After nearly a week of these exchanges, Tony went up to my father who had stood up and stepped back to drink a Coke. “Well, Jerry,” he said, “if you ever need me, you know where to find me.”
And then, one day, Tony stopped coming altogether, and the stories ended. “Did anything happen today?” I said when my dad and brothers came in the door.
“Tony didn’t show up,” Ben said.
I found myself surprisingly saddened. I hoped Tony would return the next day and the day after, but he never did.
I imagined Tony, gazing out across the Pigeon Creek, his dog stretched lazily in his lap as he leaned against the wall of the bridge, alone and much more at peace since he kicked out the bunch of idiots.
“Will you pass the potatoes?” my father said at dinner the night I realized it was over. I half-expected him to bust out with a joke or a story about Tony every time he or one of my brothers asked for something to be passed, but he never did. None of them did. They ate contentedly, quietly. Ben asked what my mom and I and our sisters did that day, but we didn’t have any good stories, not really we didn’t.