Seamus Schneider, dancing on the skin of the earth, pedaling furiously in the rain, the drenching north London rain, a pair of garden shears balanced on the handlebars, wondered how he managed not to lose his balance. He presented a spectacle to the passing cars. The people in these vehicles, if they noticed him at all, must have thought Schneider represented the current shabby state of the nation's affairs. As soon as one hit the M-25 things improved, less likelihood of terrorists or lunatic fringe members disrupting one's journey. Then one was home and all of this was just more spectacle on the telly, bread and circus for the working classes.
Schneider knew that he presented this sort of spectacle. It would have been all right for a younger man, but he was getting pricklier as he got older and further afield. And the rain never stopped. But he didn't mind the rain as much as the blank, passive stare as at a goldfish, the beefy sneer, the wide-eyed momentary sojourn. The worst of it was that they, the ubiquitous they, were inside in cars and he was outside on an old bicycle. If anyone had enquired, Schneider would have insisted on the preference of being on the outside looking in, but if honest he was compelled also to ask himself where in the hell he thought he was going, and on a bicycle no less, purchased from some hoodlum at the Brick Lane market.
He once had believed, and the vestiges of this faith still trailed about him like flotsam, that the fetish for the acceptable curriculum had long ago ruined society. But he possessed not even the token of his passage, if one did not count the wife and the bicycle that both tied him to a seemingly ceaseless rota in this former sink of empire.
The shears were not his. They were only an encumbrance and getting harder to handle with the rain bearing down. The shears belonged to Lawrence. He knew him only as Lawrence. Schneider wondered whether Lawrence was a man of the cloth. He wore civilian clothes and affected a neutral, standoffish benevolence, but Schneider would have put money on his being a vicar. Not that he'd ever known any vicars. But Lawrence worked from the Flower Lane Church of England. The secretaries in the Good Neighborhood Scheme offices, in the Flower Lane church hall - the elderly women perpetually undergoing aerobic classes as if in a circle of hell next door on the basketball courts, treated Lawrence with the sort of respect due to a representative of God on Earth, but Schneider was never quite sure where he stood vis a vis Lawrence, let alone God.
The rain continued to fizzle in the air for a short time and at last stopped. Good timing. Schneider pulled up on the sidewalk to check the directory. He was not far off from his destination. Thin-lipped women with overgrown, sour-faced children in prams
congregated suddenly outside shop fronts, in some kind of mid-afternoon ritual of which he was ignorant. There was dissolution in the air. He could see it in the faces of people. Schneider welcomed the prognostications of global disaster made in the popular press. He longed to have been right all along about things. Bring on entropy, ye men of learning, said Schneider to himself.
He pushed the bicycle along the sidewalk. Rows of houses were empty, just this side of complete abandon, for sale signs teetering eerily on the overgrown patches of weed and brambles. Stray cats made dashes for cover across the street. Schneider
checked the directions Lawrence had scribbled on a piece of Good Neighborhood Scheme stationery. The house was at the end of the street. Thick, woody brambles overgrew the picket fence. Paint was falling in jagged patches from the front door. Schneider rang the buzzer. It still worked; he could hear it sounding inside. He heard footsteps, and then the door opened.
"Mr. Isaacs?" enquired Schneider.
The man, an older gentleman with a yellowed moustache, lanky thin hair combed across the scalp and black framed glasses, studied Schneider with a blank expression.
"Yes?" he said.
"I'm from the Good Neighbor Scheme. Here to cut your grass."
"Oh, yes. Seamus. Yes, yes. Come around the back."
"I've got the bicycle."
"That's all right. You see, I've been done by the bloody doctors for cancer. Haven't been keeping up with things around here like I used to."
"You are here to do the back lawn, aren't you?
"Anything you need done," said Schneider serviceably.
"Yes. Well, my name is Ron. Ron Isaacs. You can come around the back, Seamus."
Schenider pushed the bicycle around by the back gate. Ron was holding the gate open for him.
"What line of work are you in, son?"
"Oh, I do a little bit of everything," said Schneider.
"It's absolutely dreadful the way this government is running the country into the ground, isn't it?"
"I know it's hard for the lads to find any sort of steady work. I'm a roofer myself. Worked in the trade for 25 years. I've always been active. When you're a roofer you're always active."
Schneider set the bicycle against a rusted oil barrel.
"But I've been done by the cancer," added Ron.
The backyard was a scrap heap, piled high with rotted planks and assorted timbers, rusted pieces of machinery set among the grass. A small brown dog barked at the kitchen door.
"All right, Lady. It's been hard for her with the grass so high, you see," said Ron.
He opened the back door and the dog ran out on stiff legs into its former fields of glory, yapping and jerking into the thicket.
"There's a hedgehog in there, you see," said Ron.
Schneider took the shears and snapped them open and closed once or twice, loosening the hinge.
"You need some oil for that," said Ron.
"What I need is a decent lawnmower," said Schneider.
"You can use mine," said Ron, stepping over and removing the canvas from a push mower that looked like it hadn't been used for decades.
Ron was fairly alert for an old man, thought Schneider, as the two of them adjusted the blades on the mower and tried to get it to work. But then suddenly his eyes would lose their focus, and he would seem faded and gray, the spark gone. He went
back inside the house with the dog, letting Schneider carry on alone.
Schneider was glad for the mower for one big reason, and that was the dog turds he kept coming across, slicing wet and sliding between the blades. He would have hated to go through them with Lawrence's shears. Somehow the dog got back outside again and was running around sniffing the gory remains of the past. The dog was on its last legs. It relished being alive and then seemed to founder, like Ron, staring into the tall grass in memory of the ancient prey, the hedgehog. The sun was out now, and steam was rising from the grass as Schneider worked. He kept coming across rusted tools in the grass, pliers and wrenches. He wondered if Ron would miss them. Probably not. Ron appeared with a cup of tea for him. Schneider took the cup. Ron smelled strongly of tobacco and some sort of medicinal odor Schneider could not identify.
"You're doing well," said Ron. "I would have done it myself, but you see I've been done by the cancer. This is the scar here, see?"
Ron lifted his shirt to show Schneider the scar, yellow and grisly like an old rope burned into the pale folds of his stomach. Schneider sat on the concrete porch by the back door and drank the cup of tea. Ron folded his shirt back in his pants.
"How long they give you?" asked Schneider.
"Two weeks or two years. Nobody knows for sure. I've already ordered my coffin." Schneider looked away, unable to take Ron's stare.
The radio was on in the kitchen, broadcasting Parliamentary Questions. The Leader of the Opposition was blasting the Prime Minister. In the same way death rebuked life for not fulfilling its campaign pledges. It showed in Ron's stare. He was talking about his career as a roofer. He had been responsible for the introduction of neolite, an asbestos tile, into the Wembley area. Schneider listened with interest. The man was making a summation of himself. Schneider was witnessing something important.
"Say," said Ron. "Maybe you can help me cover the roof of the shed. It's been leaking all winter, and I'd like to have it covered."
"Sure," said Schneider, looking over at the shed. It was leaning dangerously against the side of the house. He thought there was no way Ron could be serious. But he was.
"This was my motorbike here. Used to get around everywhere on her."
Ron was peeling plastic off the motorcycle in the shed, revealing a fairly new Yamaha 250.
"...ride her down to Bournemouth regularly. I'll sell it to you if you like."
"I don't know. It's certainly a nice bike."
"Does seventy on the motorway."
"How much would you want for it?"
"Three hundred quid."
Ron went back inside, vital with the old struggle for survival gurgling once again in his veins despite the large proportion of his insides riddled with decay. Schneider thought he could use a motorcycle. Man the wanderer, homo migratorio was Schneider, sailing over the grass, rolling down the street. He never wanted to end his days with the stink of his own decrepitude in his nostrils. Schneider believed in the practice of mobility. Luckily, the wife was not yet settled back into local society. Schneider would not give her the chance if he had his say.
There was an old rake of Ron's he used to pile up the cuttings. Then he snipped the brambles back from the edges of the lawn. Lady would have the upper hand once again in the struggle for backyard supremacy with the hedgehog.
"You've got to help me with the shed now," said Ron, highly excited. Lady yapped loudly around his heels. Schneider felt like going home before the rain descended again. But he knew he had to help Ron. It would give him an infusion of strength to work on the shed. He was already rolling out the sheet of plastic he intended as a covering, trying hard to control the shaking in the hands that had once introduced neolite, the miracle tile, to the Wembley area.
Ron and Schneider worked at covering the shed with the plastic. Ron led the way down the narrow alley between the house and the shed. Together they threw the plastic over the shed. Then the old man insisted on climbing the ladder while Schneider held it steady below. Schneider could see the arc of the man's life as he climbed the ladder, his vanity and strength just enough to keep away despair. Ron tried adjusting the plastic.
"Hammer, please," said Ron. Schneider handed up the hammer. Ron began to hammer. His trembling hands made it hard for him to get the nails into the rotting wood.
“Why don't you let me do it?" asked Schneider.
"That's awright," said Ron. Schneider could see the condensation forming on the inside of his glasses. The hammer slipped and crashed to the floor. Schneider picked it up, letting go of the ladder. Somehow Ron got down off the ladder without falling. Sschneider was grateful for that. There were some nails on the floor and
Schneider went around the shed with them, reaching up to hammer the plastic down to the rotten siding of the shed.
"Good. Well done," he said, wiping his glasses.
Schneider was sick. The whole idea had been to give Ron a sense of pride in himself, and he'd had to go and do it himself. Schneider tried to make it up by coming inside with Ron and meeting his wife. He had a difficult time looking at Emma. Her lower teeth were missing and her legs were swelled from poor circulation. She was otherwise a cheerful, ebullient sort of woman, and Schneider saw how much the two loved each other. She told Schneider about her two sons, both wonderful fellows, one an accountant in Watford. Schneider wondered why they didn't help out with cutting
the lawn if they were so wonderful.
"Seamus helped me cover the shed, dear. It should keep dry now," said Ron.
"Oh, that's very kind of you," said Emma. "How much do we owe you?" she asked.
"Nothing. The scheme pays me. It comes out of the council budget."
The two of them were Labor party supporters, old style socialists. Ron had campaigned for the local Labor candidate, but someone in the neighborhood had stolen the billboards from the front lawn. Schneider thought a decent interval had passed and made to go.
"About the motorcycle. I'll get back to you, Ron," said Schneider as the old man showed him to the back gate. They were best of friends now.
"What price did I quote you, son?"
"Two hundred," said Schneider. Ron's eyes faded to gray.
The rush hour traffic was growing menacing and threatening to whip out of control. Soon Schneider would be home, but still he cursed and made faces at the cars, hoping indignation would keep away misfortune.
Anthony Caplan's latest novel, Savior, will be published April 18, 2014, on Amazon's Kindle by Harvard Square Editions. Read a sample on his website at: http://www.anthonycaplanwrites.com/savior