As many who know me already know, I am a fan of the novelist Stephen King. Leave it to the master of horror fiction to craft a tale that relates and reminds, resonates, and stirs echoes, if you will. In his latest work, a four-novella compendium titled If It Bleeds, the first tale is called Mr. Harrigan’s Phone. The story revolves around a young boy and his relationship with a wealthy, elderly neighbor. As I read more and more about how this acquaintance grew into a friendship, I was reminded of my own childhood experience with an elderly neighbor.
I never knew my grandparents. My father’s parents died before I was born. My mother’s folks … my Korean grandmother passed away in 1953-ish and my Korean grandfather, well, that’s a story for a different day. There’s more to the grandparent narrative, but, that too will have to keep for now.
When I was four years old, we moved into a duplex on Michigan Street in Rochester, N.Y. We lived in the upstairs flat of a house that had oil heat, a spacious backyard, and a two-car garage with a basketball hoop affixed to it. Chain link fences on either side separated the backyard from that of the two next door neighbors. Eventually, we moved to the downstairs flat.
I vaguely remember the neighbors whose house and yard were adjacent to the empty lot at the end of the street, but I remember the neighbor who lived on the other side. My memory is fuzzy on a lot of the details and you’d think the internet would be able to help me fill in the blanks, but you’d be wrong.
That’s all I know of the man’s name. That’s all I never needed to know I suppose. I think that’s how he signed the birthday cards I used to get from him. And I think his return address labels only displayed “McKinley” above the street address. See, fuzzy on the details.
If you have ever seen the movie Monster Squad, then you’d know about “Scary German Guy.” I often confuse this character with the experience the kids in The Sandlot have. Mr. McKinley and his yard were an amalgamation of the two. However, his yard wasn’t unkempt and full of drooling, growling, baseball eating terrors. It had a basketball puncturing menace instead.
I am no botanist and I couldn’t even begin to tell you of the flora that grew in Mr. McKinley’s backyard. I do remember mums, tulips, rhubarb (who the hell plants rhubarb?) and rose bushes. Those goddamn rose bushes. More on those in a moment. Mr. McKinley’s rows and rows of perennials and annuals made my parent’s fence line of geraniums and marigolds look like weeds.
As I mentioned, my garage had a basketball hoop and my driveway might as well have been the Boston Garden from roughly 1976 – 1984. From one-on-one to damn-near five-on-five half court, my driveway was the place to be for basketball. Sure, we could’ve gone to the park on Santee Street that was what, a quarter mile away? What fun was that?
A stray basketball is how I met Mr. McKinley. A carom off the rim and a bit too much air in the ball would sometimes result in a bounce over the fence into Mr. McKinley’s yard, and more often than not, a rose bush and her thorns would grab the rebound. I can’t tell you how many basketballs those thorns ruined.
If he was nowhere in sight, we sheepishly hopped the fence as fast as we could and retrieved the errant basketball as fast as we could, and hopped back over as fast as we could.
If he was out working in his garden, Mr. McKinley would reluctantly return the ball, usually without a word and usually with a scowl on his weathered reddish-pink face. He was approximately 6’2″, 200 pounds or so, his hair was shock white tinged with yellow. He always seemed to be wearing gray slacks, some sort of button-down shirt, and sturdy shoes.
He wasn’t German. He was Scottish. And he wasn’t wealthy. If he was, you’d never know it. I don’t remember when his demeanor toward me changed. Or why.
Before long, Mr. McKinley was routinely inviting me over to help in his garden. I helped weed the flower beds and mow the lawn with one of those god-awful manual push mowers. You don’t know lawn care if you’ve never used one of those suckers. His garage always smelled of fresh-cut grass and motor oil. Did he have old license plates tacked up on the wall? I think he did.
Helping in the garden graduated to sitting in wicker chairs on his closed-in porch and drinking lemonade, and spending interminable Sunday afternoons watching golf on his console television in his austere old person’s living room. I still don’t like golf. I don’t remember what we talked about. If memory serves, much of the time we didn’t.
Mr. McKinley was originally from Scotland, lived alone, was never married, his house had three bedrooms (according to real estate web sites, it only has two), and he slept in them on a rotational basis, and then made all three beds at once. He explained this during the 50-cent tour. He had a sister I think. I think I remember meeting her once. Funny the little details you remember, and the big ones you don’t.
Once you got past the Scary Scottish Guy bluster, Mr. McKinley was a sweet old man who had taken a genuine interest in me. I came to view him as a surrogate grandfather.
In August 1984, we moved one block over to Curtis Street and I’m sad to say, I never saw Mr. McKinley again. At least not that I remember. I don’t know why. I rarely traveled the enormous distance of one block to Michigan Street except maybe while I was out for a bike ride. Most of my friends lived on Curlew Street which ran perpendicular between the two streets or I made new ones on my new street. Before long I was lost in high school endeavors and more provincial pursuits.
In 1987, I graduated high school and joined the Navy. Over the course of the next 10 years a lot of things died – my dog, a few cats, my first marriage … Mr. McKinley. I remember being sad, but I don’t remember when my parents told me he had passed. I’ve tried looking him up – real estate records, obituaries, etc., with no luck.
The houses on Michigan Street are still there, but the garage in my old backyard, the backdrop for many an epic basketball game, is long gone. My old neighborhood is long gone. Mr. McKinley and his wonderful botanical garden are long gone.
I try to live life with no regrets, or as few as possible. I regret I never went back to see Mr. McKinley and offer to help in the backyard or sit on the porch and drink lemonade, or watch a round of golf, or just say “hi.” I was a selfish kid, and in many respects I’m a selfish grown-up. As I read King’s story, I was stunned by what I remembered and what I didn’t, and I was shocked at how well it resonated.
People come into your life at certain times for certain reasons. Some are just passing by, some sit awhile. Mr. McKinley stepped into the breach when he saw an only child next door who needed a wise, older person besides his parents to guide him. I just wish I would have remembered the greatest lesson he ever taught me a lot sooner. Sometimes, it’s just about stopping by, sitting and talking (or just sitting), even if for just a little while. I wish I had remembered to go back and see him and I wish I knew why I never did.
Rest assured, I’ll never forget him.