Alan barely gave me the time of day when I first started walking by his house on my way to the beach. He raised his hand when I waved and said hello, but never looked up from stacking wood or tending his garden. A wiry local in his 70s, he probably thought I was just another nosy newcomer to his coastal Maine village. He was right.
Something about him intrigued me, so I kept calling out and waving. One summer day, I finally cornered him. He was spreading seaweed on his small roadside garden, a lush tangle of squash vines, potatoes, and beans spangled with orange poppies. I asked him the first question that came to mind.
“Excuse me,” I said, “do you rinse the salt off seaweed before you use it in your garden?”
He glanced up at me for an instant, and started twining scarlet runner bean vines up trellises made from saplings.
“Nope,” he said. “I just put it on straight from the beach. Best fertilizer, and it’s free.”
I thanked him and said I’d try it at home in my garden.
The next time I walked by Alan’s, he looked up from weeding and hollered, “How’s your garden?”
I nearly tripped in surprise. He asked me a question.
“Coming along,” I stuttered.
From then on, Alan stopped his work to chat nearly every time I walked by his house. When I brought him a mess of peas from my garden, he gave me blue potatoes from his roadside patch. His reticence melted. He ranted about the news, which I often heard blaring from his open windows.
“We live on the outskirts of some terrible things,” he said one evening. “I like it right here.” He gazed up at the spruce woods surrounding his house, a small, shingled camp with a sagging, lichen-splotched roof. “Nice and quiet, and I’ve got everything I need.”
Alan and I discovered that we both loved nature. “Did you know mussels make glue that’s stronger than anything humans have invented?” he asked me one day. “And mussels don’t even have brains!”
From then on, Alan stopped his work to chat nearly every time I walked by his house. His reticence melted.
A few days later, we watched chickadees swoop into his front yard on a bright winter afternoon. They landed in a small balsam that he had decorated with blue and orange bait bags filled with suet.
“Nice tree,” I said.
“Foolishness.” He grinned and filled an old bucket with cordwood from his meticulously stacked pile.
Alan never volunteered much about himself, other than telling me that he had fished for lobsters in his younger days. I learned other things from his neighbors. One told me Alan wrote poems, and I later heard one read on the local community radio station. It was about a gull guiding a lost fisherman through a storm. Another neighbor showed me one of Alan’s paintings. A vivid acrylic of three Indians crouched behind trees watching a ship on the horizon, it was titled Before Columbus.
On a bright October afternoon, I brought Alan a butternut squash from my garden. He was sweeping leaves off the plywood walkway to his front door with a battered broom.
“How are you?” I asked as I handed him the squash.
“Not too good,” he replied, picking at threads on the frayed cuff of his green work shirt. “Cancer. I’m not doing chemo or radiation. When it gets bad, I’ll take care of things. Made all the arrangements.”
I started to mumble how sorry I was, but Alan changed the subject. He told me he didn’t have anything from his garden to give me, but insisted that I follow him into his backyard. He rummaged among tarps, 5-gallon buckets, and old car parts.
“Here,” he said as he handed me a long-handled garden tool that looked like a cross between a rusty trident and a hoe. “I won’t be needing it anymore. Good for weeding.”
A month later, I heard the news: Alan was gone. So was his house. The neighbors said he wanted it demolished after he died. One of them had taken pictures after the bulldozer tore away its front.
Weeks passed before I could bring myself to walk down Alan’s road. I couldn’t bear the thought of not seeing him on my walks to the beach. But on a glittering winter day, I pulled on my boots and set out the door. It had stormed the night before, covering everything with half a foot of fresh snow.
When I reached Alan’s, the snow had erased every trace of his house and garden. Even his perfect woodpile and tarps were gone. What was once his yard looked like a small roadside clearing in the woods. The air was still. Deer tracks freckled the snow.
A chickadee zipped out of the spruce woods and landed in a small fir tree in the clearing. That’s when I saw it: the tree was festooned with blue and orange bait bags filled with suet. I later asked Alan’s neighbors who did it. Everyone speculated, but no one ever fessed up.