Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Dietzes

It was snowing, and that meant shovelling out the Dietzes. I would walk backwards against the wind that howled around the big bend in the road, and then struggle up their steep driveway to the detached garage. I knew where the snow shovel was. Everything was neatly stowed, exactly where it was the previous time, as if time stopped between my visits. I also knew where the Dietzes were; in their 80's, with no family in the state, they couldn't be anywhere but in their house. Smoke from the chimney confirmed it, and I knew they would be in their kitchen.

Mr Dietze liked his long walk shoveled just so. Perfectly crisp on both sides, right to the edges of the meticulously laid blacktop. I started at the garage door, clearing the side and front of the perfect little building, then I'd start the long job of clearing the path to their front and back doors.

Halfway to the house I had opened my jacket, and the cold wind felt good. At some point Mr. Dietze would have appeared at one of the windows, and waved. By the time I finished and went inside, I was tired and damp with teenage perspiration.

"So, Clemens, you've come to try your luck again, gambling your wages, eh?" he would greet me, in his merry way, German accent around the edges even after over fifty years work in NY State as a tinsmith and roofer, now retired. I had tried to correct him about my name, but had given up. They were nearly deaf, and they just didn't remember the correction from one visit to the next. It was easier to be Clemens. I found out, later, after we had moved, that Mr. Dietze had somehow found out my real name and was puzzled and a bit hurt that I hadn't set him straight.

The air indoors seemed opaque with heat and haze. Both Mr. and Mrs. Dietze chain smoked skinny hand rolled cigarettes, filling them from big yellow tins of Top tobacco. Mrs. Dietze would set out a plate of the usual thin dusty cookies, with only the most generic of brown flavor, and Mr. Dietze and I would begin the games. I can't recall what I was offered to drink.

The first time I shovelled for them and Mr Dietze suggested we play, double or nothing for my wages, I was panicked and confused. I'd just worked pretty hard for several hours for the five dollars I hoped would buy some books. My father had handed down his science fiction habit, and I had it bad, but not wanting to hurt the feelings of this puzzling, charming old man, I agreed. We played card games. We played a game where a steel ball rolls uphill as you let it slip between two metal rods, with Pluto or Neptune as your goal, so you can beat your last score of Saturn. Mars will lose you the round, for sure. We played scrabble, full of interminable pauses, and Mr Dietze making up outlandish or plausible fictitious words to see if I would call him on it. Then he would get out his big, dog-eared dictionary, eyes twinkling, and wet his thumb and look for the word, hoping that this time there might actually be such a word. Every so often he would stop to roll and light another of his skinny cigarettes - I don't recall him ever needing a match. After the first winter I knew he would always let me win, and I usually left with exactly double my wages, even though I might be double or quadruple in the hole before it all came out right, and it might be dusk before he finally let me get ahead.

The long afternoon would end with Mr. Dietze showing me his latest animal tricks. With infinite patience, he had trained his large fantail goldfish to sit in the palm of his submerged hand. He also could lure chickadees and titmice to take sunflower seeds from the corner of his mouth, or from his outstretched hand.

My final task would be to go back to the garage for two large bottles of Genesee, from the stack of cases neatly stored beside their dark blue VW fastback. He inevitably slipped me an extra dollar for this last trip.

Then I would head home, worn out, glad to have given them something different to do, but hoping it wouldn't snow again too soon. Because when I got to our house I would strip off my smoky clothes in the cold sunporch and dash upstairs for a shower, and it would take at least two days to get the smell out of my hair. Many times, in those late 70's New York winters, snowflakes would be in the air again before the last visit's smoky trace would fade from my pillow.

(Painting above is "Winter" - one of my first watercolors after I started painting again. It's always a New York winter in this piece, even though that's a North Carolina winter sky, and the trees are loblollies from a recently logged portion of Duke Forest. The stairs are just wishful thinking.)

1 comment:

linda said...

for some reason, this made me cry...