Firewood with Buddy

By Stephen Scott Whitaker

Gratitude. An emotional quality that slips from me; I have to remind myself that I have a choice about emotions. Gratitude is a choice.

It’s Saturday morning.

At home, my family is still wiping away sleep’s grease; the coffee is hot, the fire is being watched. I’d rather be lounging with them. Doing nothing. American Zen. Screen time. Silence. Coffee or hot chocolate mist about the face, a cat curling, curling, curling.

But I’m out in the woods at the edge of a bank that overlooks Onancock creek. Buddy smiles and offers his hand for either a high five or a shake. When I misjudge and high five him he shakes his shaggy head, which in profile has already begun to form a half moon as he pushes his jaw forward.

“Don’t give me that bullshit. Handshake, man! Don’t you know that’s what watermen do? Shake hands?”

I smile. He laughs. He pulls the cord on the saw.

The chainsaw snorts, then starts.

He’s a man with nothing. By comparison, my small life is jam-packed overflowing with riches. Yet, he is grateful. Happy, even, scraping by. As long as he can stay out of the cage, he’s happy. There’s something to learn there, I think.

We begin to cut the white oak.

For a man who doesn’t have a job, Buddy works hard. He sells firewood out of his pickup. Cuts up limbs. Mows lawns. Performs odd jobs. Buddy claims he doesn’t have the mental fortitude for my kind of work.

He likes freedom.

At 6’2, Buddy lurches, shoulders forward; his broad back and thick arms make him appear menacing, like a scary police-blotter-Nick Nolte-look-alike. His hair is usually swept back in a ponytail, his white beard unkempt. I believe him when he tells me that as a kid he took too much LSD and got into a fight with a cop. 

A SSI check sustains him. Friends from the local network of spiritual groups offer him occasional donations of food, money, and friendship. He owns a 2012 Dodge, and a 30 foot sailboat, both gifted to him. One from his ex, the other from a close friend. The sailboat is basically a wood tent, in terms of habitat. Long, narrow, cramped. It has power, a small refrigerator, a kitchenette, a WC and a shower. The keel needs repair, and the motor needs a new drive shaft. An electrical hook up and water hook up cost him extra in rental fees. In the summer Buddy lives on the boat, and bakes in the heat. He goes days without showering, or washing his clothes, saving money to pay his own way.

“I haven’t been in this position for a while, Dr. Zeus.”

But with cold weather coming on, he’s worried about shelter. Last year, the ex served time for a DUI, and Buddy wintered alone. He’s hoping the ex will allow him to stay in one of her properties around the shore.

“She’s not in a good place.” And when Buddy shakes his head, he looks like he is about to cry. But with a minimal old school macho gesture, a shrug and a grunt, he sucks back the emotions and straightens up. The sun strikes his face. His white beard catches light. “Got to feel the feelings.” He wipes his face. “Let’s cut some wood.”

Buddy ended up on the Eastern Shore after a month long crack binge that left him destitute, lost, and living in a tent in the woods in upper Maryland. To hear him tell it, it’s taken him nearly ten years to get his mind back “normal.” Long harrows of time where he couldn’t read, much less string a thought together. Buddy did thirty thousand dollars’ worth of crack cocaine in two weeks, and went back for more.

When his grandmother died, the woman who raised him, Buddy repaid her kindness with self-indulgence. When he speaks of it he sometimes winces.  His people are old money rich, Silver Spoon-yacht club,-racing club types, and because Buddy’s mother disowned him in some way that is unclear to me, the family cut him out of his inheritance, leaving him with only a fraction of what he feels he deserved. Which, for someone in my tax bracket would have been a set-up for a comfortable-rest-of-you-life type of scenario, but for someone with his economic family tree was a pittance, presumably, to hear him speak of it.

So he took his inheritance and warped his mind on crack as if to show the family just what a fuck-up he was.  As if to say, You want bad? I’ll show you bad.

He relives the memory. “The things I’ve done. She always said, the bad things you have done will come back two by two.”

When he says this I know he is in the cage.

His ex is 6’4, gorgeous, wealthy, educated, and cannot stop drinking. She rescued him from a tent and they fell in love. How this occurred is not clear to me. Buddy’s temporal understanding is like my eight year old’s; convoluted sense of order, clarity with regards to details. I imagine the narrative to be this: Ex rescues Buddy. Bonds. They fall in love. Buddy recovers as the Ex slips out of control. Yeats’ gyres winding up, winding down.

 “Watching her go through this. It’s like what my son, and his mother went through. When I went through what I went through. The bad things you have done will come back two by two.”

The black dented Dodge crawled the back crowned road that had been underwater the weekend before. Coinciding with Hurricane Joaquin, a slow moving nor'easter wreaked havoc on the Eastern Shore of Virginia for four days. High winds and tides flooded the coast and in-bays. Trees were down all over the backpaddles of the shore.

An arm shot out of the window of the Dodge. I slowed my truck, a no frills 2001 Frontier, an elf to Buddy’s beaten giant. I am struck how Buddy’s life would be much smaller if he didn’t have that truck. Or the sailboat he lived on in East Point harbor. 

He barked out the window.

Buddy gestured toward the red oak laying down across a nest of pines and black locust. Having secured permission to hunt and cut the dead trees, he had twice before gone round the bends and turns of Burton Shore. He was giving me the tour. His shaggy head kept poking out now and again to point to a tree. 

“Maple?” The twisted silver tree lay thirty yards from the road. A sloping clearing soft with brown pine needles lay between us.

His tail lights flared, and the truck purred to a stop.

Buddy sprung out, his cigarette flaring at the tip. He stroked his silver hair back across his skull.

“Gotta look. I think there’s a hickory beyond.”

He loped across the weather worn ditch and stepped across a line of briers that rose like a fence. Then a soft beaten field of pine needles. The shade overhead dark, the October trees still green, but just barely.

The sun’s sharp brightness lays down on the winter wheat. The green jumps off the ground, the trees around the field molting; few great colors are left. 

Buddy’s hyped. Two big hickories, a red oak. There’s at least two cords between the three hardwoods, blown down since the first of April.

“That’s a gold mine!” He shouts the last syllable and his echo reports across the field.

Buddy laughs and jumps across the ditch.

“I could use boards to come across here and move the truck in close.”

 He doesn’t wait for me to respond and instead cuts a line through scrub pines, small oaks grown up over the summer. Neither one of us are wearing blaze orange. This worries me.

“Cut it here, here, and here.” He gestures to the base of the first tree. I walk on up to the red oak. It’s sixty feet long at least, and the top of it vanishes into the overgrowth. The limbs are thick. The trunk is four feet around.

 “Make a cross cut here with the big saw, and then down the crotch.” He’s next to the biggest hickory, five feet round, seventy, maybe eighty feet. When I look back to see him, I am struck with how alien the forest appears, the trees root balls rising twelve, fourteen feet high. Packed earth, twisting root system. “A fox made its nest here, look, look.”

He points to a black locust half fallen over. It’s still alive, though its root ball is half out of the ground. It makes me think of Ents, and how slow they are to do anything. Maybe this one is still in the process of moving.

“I bet I can cut it too.”

“It’s still alive,” and I’m still thinking about the tree as if it were an Ent.

But he’s thinking of money. $140 truckloads of split hardwood. He claps his hands together and we walk towards the truck.

Last fall, I began to help Buddy in exchange for free, or discounted services. The man knows his way around a chainsaw. The Mama Bear Fisher stove in our dining room/living room of our old Victorian requires about four cords of wood to heat the house in the winter. The morning’s find yields at least a cord and a half. We cut up half of it and load it into the truck. Buddy’s groaning. The wind whips.

What started out as a search for hickory and oak has yielded permission to cut forty foot cherry limbs, and clean up a red oak fallen by the water. 

“There’s a reason I came down here.” Buddy looks off towards the sun. He spies an eagle turning circles over a clearing. I don’t see it at first. But he keeps pointing.

Sure enough. A bald eagle.

The only noise is our own breath.

 The truck is stacked. Three additional loads remain for Buddy to come back and haul himself. He keeps checking his phone, half muttering, half processing the feelings.

 “She’s in a bad place. This worry. All this worry. Co-dependence is no joke, man. I’m still there. Still in the cage.” He laughs like a madman in a B movie. 

 Before I leave he slaps me on the shoulder.

 “Thank you, man. I need your shoulder.”

 Buddy wants an ear. I can offer almost no help, other than sympathy, or empathy. And that’s all he wants. Someone to listen to his crap.

“The ex texted me while we were cutting up the wood. She says I can live in the cottage. No one wants to rent it so I might as well live there.” He makes a drinking motion with his hands. “That means I have to babysit her when she comes to visit. Make sure she doesn’t get into trouble.” He grunts and half-laughs. He wants no part of it. “I’m grateful for this. The wood, the eagle, the truck. Maybe it’s a sign. Her being nice to me. Or maybe I’m stupid. What do you think Dr. Zeus ?”

 I don’t say anything. What is there to say?

And as usual, Buddy answers himself. “It’s a choice, right?” He sighs and lights a cigarette. “Beautiful day.”

And for a second, my heart is grateful too; that eerie emotional moment when you can feel another person’s joy. And later as I drive home, my own truck loaded down with firewood, my own self-indulgent anxiety, and depression falls away. All of my problems are small, high class even. I take the road slow. I choose happiness, gratitude. The air in the cab faintly smells like hickory. And when I get home I don’t see the weeds, the sunny autumn street is too bright, and the fall colors faint, but holding on for dear life.