Sunday, April 27, 2008


The e-mail arrived on a Saturday morning.
     “Clear out of the blue,” I explained to my neighbor, Charles, both of us up to our laces in the muddy bank of what he liked to call his “trout stream”, an over-sized creek running along the back of our shared property. “I haven’t even thought about Stuart Phillips since probably the tenth grade,” I emphasized.
     Charles was busy performing his daily ritual, tossing handfuls of canned corn into the fast-moving water, swollen to its banks from the previous day’s hard rain. “Just feedin’ my fish, Johnson,” he claimed, like he always did. I never questioned it. “You gonna answer your ‘emale?” he asked, scooping the last of the wet corn from the can.
     I shrugged. “Why should I?”
     “He was your friend.”
     “Come on, Charlie – that was about thirty
years ago – we were just kids.”
     “You do something to make him mad at you?”
     “No, pretty sure I didn’t,” I replied, not wanting to sound apologetic. “Things just changed – you know how kids are.”
     “You ever go to your reunion?” he inquired, turning to gaze down at me, his eyes all but hidden under an red, oily cap. Charles Skimmerhorn was a large man. Even stooped with age he was easily six foot three. A John Wayne of a darker shade.
     “High School reunion? No way!” I laughed. “School was a loooong time ago.” I watched the yellow specks of corn rushing along the churning, brown water, suddenly feeling nauseous. “I’m not living in the past, Charlie – not like some people, apparently. An e-mail like that is an intrusion – a nuisance – it’s
disrespectful. Don’t you think?”
     Charles snickered, reminding me of a dog in a cartoon I loved as a kid. “Just about most everything’s an “intrushen” to you, Johnson,” he said, now sounding quite grave. “You wouldn’t even take my sweet Rosie down the coffee shop. You’re gonna be a hermit, Johnson – not too long from now.” He’d been trying to get me to date his younger sister for some two years, ever since I’d moved into the first floor apartment directly beneath his. God knows why he’d want to inflict me on anyone.
     “I didn’t
ask for the e-mail, Charles,” I declared, trying not to sound defensive, failing. “I mean – it was cordial – I suppose – but –”
     “Cord-jul,” Charles snickered again, pitching the now-empty can halfway across the rushing stream. We both watched it bite into the dirty froth, bobbing right side up, the roughly-opened lid pointing to the sky as it began to pursue its scattered contents down the racing, muddy soup. Charles turned to look my way, this time showing me his clouded eyes. “Downstream, Johnson,” he breathed, removing his cap and holding it to his heart, revealing a head of sparse, grey hair, all velvety on his brown scalp, like a tarantula. “Downstream, that’s where they go – every single one of them.”
     “You know what his message said?” I went on, becoming frustrated. “It said: “
If you aren’t the artist known as Joseph Johnson that used to live down the road from MacArthur Airfield then please accept my apologies and disregard this message, but if you ARE the Joseph Johnson I used to visit almost every week in the 70’s, then please respond so I can ask how you and your sister and brother and family are doing.” Like the time between had never happened. What’s wrong with people today, Charlie?”
     “You got a brother an’ sister, Johnson?”
     “It’s not important,” I replied, wishing I hadn’t volunteered that bit of information.
Charles grunted and began to trudge his way back up the bank, his waders making sucking sounds as he went. I followed, an ache growing in my gut. “So – you gonna reply to your old friend, Johnson? Mebbe get yourselves a coffee?”
Sure,” I laughed derisively. “First thing tomorrow. Rosie can come too.”

It was early afternoon.
     I found myself drawn to the computer again. I couldn’t keep away from the damn thing. the sender’s address read.
     I typed into my search engine and all that came up was some network service advertising more search engines, ones designed to track down lost family by surname. I then tried Stuart Phillips and got a list of links with a bunch of Stuart Phillips, none that sounded anything like the Stuart Phillips I remembered.
     I reached for my cup of whiskey, angry with myself for even caring.
     As I sat there, sipping my medicine, blinking at the screen, images began to flood my head; Stuart and I, making his little sister giggle by holding her against Mr. Phillip’s leather recliner, the one with the built-in electric massager; us sneaking out of Rhinebold’s Newsstand with comic books stuffed into our snow boots; getting caught with our heads inside the church bell; Stuart’s mother, making popcorn at home to take to the movies. So many small, unimportant moments, things that had no right staying in my memory, not after all that I’d been through during the intervening years.
     I quickly finished off my cup, cursing myself for ever having gotten a computer in the first place. I wouldn’t have, not if Charles’s sister hadn’t shown me how hers had more than doubled her sales.
     Rosie Skimmerhorn was the only person I knew who still practiced the art of calligraphy. She did invitations, weddings, funerals, communions, baby showers, that sort of affair. A crazy thing to do nowadays, calligraphy, kind of like bullfighting on paper, if you know what I mean. Still, she managed to convince me that my paintings would sell better if I had a website like hers.
     I paint trees. Nothing fancy, mainly birches, some poplars and oaks, maples, the occasional spruce, sometimes even an apple or pear. I paint them on scrap wood. Rosie told me this was my selling point. “It’s ironic, Joe – people love ironic art! You can charge more for it! You definitely must highlight this on your site.” “Rosie,” I’d replied. “There’s nothing “ironic” about it – I paint on old wood because it’s cheap.” But she just ignored me and went ahead and found a re-conditioned computer and got her friend’s whiz kid nephew in Boston to build I now move about four or five paintings a month, for up to a hundred and fifty dollars a pop. I once sold to a fella in Madrid, of all places. He told me he was originally from Delaware and was homesick for birches and tired of looking out his window at his olive trees.
     Sales like that cover my basic needs, it’s pretty inexpensive out here in nowheresville. It sure beats the string of lousy punch-the-clockers I had before the internet came along; tire center, mailroom, pet shop, liquor store. That last one became a bit of a conflict of interest, I’ll be the first to admit.
     Anyway, that’s how Stuart Phillips must have found me – my website. Might as well have left my door open with the lights on. What I can’t figure out though is why he would want to look for me in the first place. Was he going through all his old school friends? Could he be that bored? That lonely? Maybe he just got a computer himself and was wasting time, like everyone does at first. Maybe he wanted to sell me insurance. Maybe his wife and kids left him and he was trying to start over and figured contacting tree artist Joe Joseph would be a good place to start.
     Was he ever wrong.
     “I don’t welcome unannounced company. Got THAT, Stuart Phillips?” I declared to the screen, shaking the fourth or fifth cup I’d filled since morning, almost spilling it on my keyboard, something Rosie told me never to do. “You – you’re an invasion of a man’s privacy! How dare – what makes you think – makes you think you can just reach through the years like that? Huh? What? WHAT?”
     I sighed, settling back into my chair, suddenly exhausted.
     I knew all this “cyberspace community” stuff was baloney. If I’d really wanted to be connected to the world I’d have done something more with my life. Hell, if it wasn’t for those four or five paintings a month, I’d have chucked the damn computer right into Charles Skimmerhorn’s old trout stream.

It was later that same afternoon. The rain had started again.
     I spotted Charles sitting on a stump in the front yard. He was holding something, staring at it.
     Pulling myself into a hooded sweatshirt, I headed outside.
     “Getting wet – aren’t you?” I called out.
     “I figure it’s a raccoon, Johnson – got to be a stupid fuckin’ raccoon!” Charles cursed, still looking at his hands.
     I could see he was clutching one of his corn cans. Each morning, rain or shine, he launched another into the trout stream. He’d been doing this ever since they released him from the hospital, when he passed out and fell half way down the stairwell leading up to his apartment.
He’d been poisoned by vapors, fumes coming from the previous first floor tenant, a fella who stripped the finish and paint from old furniture and resold it as new. The front door was kept open, but this didn’t stop the solvents from wafting straight up through the floorboards, right into Charles’s little place. Charles never complained, not for almost two years. Rosie says he once told her the chemicals were “good for his chest”. “He’s never been the same,” she claims. “
Something happened to his brain.” 
     “Not going to sail today, Charlie?” I asked, stopping only inches before him.
     “See this, Johnson?” he barked, thrusting the empty can my way. “They’re not supposed to return – not like this one did.”
     “Found it over by the wood chipper – the wood chipper’s upstream from the launch spot – only thing stupid enough to fetch a corn can from downstream to here is a raccoon – probably got a nest and babies nearby,” he explained, in a rush of calculated words, as if he’d been considering it for some time.
     “I guess it’s surprising it hasn’t happened before,” I said, offering a weak grin.
     “Ain’t had raccoons about here for a good few years – not since the junkyard got those hounds,” he replied, his voice hoarse, rattling in his chest. “But then one gets itself into some radiator fluid and ends up in the truck bed, kicking like a landed salmon – and ‘cause of that, the others all get sent away by the animal welfare people – and now here come back the stupid raccoons!” He spat angrily, heaving the rusty can into the wet sod at his feet. “I ain’t supposed to see these things – never – never again. That’s the whole idea, Johnson – you understand?”
     “Maybe you can re-launch it?” I suggested, trying to sound encouraging.
     He pushed up from the stump, grunting. “You don’t understand! Yesterday is downstream, Johnson – not today – today’s right here. That raccoon had no right – no right at all.”

It was evening. The rain had stopped.
     I clicked on my delete box and there was Stuart Phillip’s e-mail, lingering like a bad smell. I started into reading it again and quickly stopped. I knew it was time to delete it for good. I reached for my cup, only to find I was out of whiskey.
     When did that I happen, I wondered, stumbling to the kitchen for another bottle.
     All of a sudden there was a loud bang from outside. Once, twice it sounded. I put my nose to the window. It was after dusk, but I could just make out Charles’s red cap. He was standing near the wood chipper, rustling about under one of the mangy bushes that lined the junkyard fence.
     I made my way out the back door, still in my slippers. “Charlie?” I cried out. “You okay there, Charles?”
     He slowly turned my way. I saw the shotgun resting against his arm. “Stupid raccoon,” he snickered.
     There, on the grass about the bush, I saw reddened bits of fur, not much else.
     “Found three more of my cans, Johnson, but not no more – I made sure of that,” he grinned, pointing with the barrel of his gun to the vitals of the dead raccoon, clinging to the underside of the bush like Christmas garland. “Downstream’s stayin’ downstream, Johnson. I fixed it now – fixed it permanent.”

A few minutes later, I was sitting in the dark once again. The blueish light of the computer screen was burning at my eyes.
Dear Mr. Phillips, I began to type, better than I had any right to. I thought it best that I reply to let you know about Joseph Johnson. I’m not him, not the Joseph Johnson you’re looking for, anyway. But I get messages for him sometimes. People get us mixed up, like you did. That Joseph Johnson, class of 1981, MacArthur High School, Wexburg, Pennsylvania, he died some two years ago. Ironically, I received an offer for handwritten invitations to his memorial service. Go figure. Crazy internet, eh? Anyway, sorry about your old friend. Yours Truly- Joseph Johnson.
     I quickly hit SEND.
     “Fixed it,” I smiled, reaching for my cup. “Fixed it permanent.”

Jeremy W. Eaton