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Thursday, April 28, 2016

Chapter Eight - Dennis the Menace


We bought the house right about the time the housing market took a turn for the worse. Hellers frequently have awful timing. It isn't much, but it sits atop the hill on the Bel Aire Platte, not far from the old metal walkway bridge that crosses Westnedge, so it won't ever flood. And it has a double lot, nice and flat for easy mowing, big enough for all the stuff that kids like to play with.

So what if we're still under water, even with an entire presidency having nearly gone by since the turn for the worst? What mattered most was the Kalamazoo Promise, the guarantee that Charlie would get a free ride to college (more or less; it only kicks in after scholarships and grants) anywhere in Michigan, even the Mighty U of M if he got good enough grades.

But he didn't want to move away from home. He wanted to be a Bronco. My Dad taught there. Three of my siblings got degrees there, including Charlie's Mom, who was the first WMU grad to get a post-Baccalaureate certificate in GIS, and a Masters Degree in Geographic Information Science, the first woman ever to get one. She could have made bank if she'd ever had the gumption to tear up roots and go where the money is in GIS, the Gulf Coast, or Florida, California, where they pay people well to hunt for things like oil and natural gas.

She didn't want to, though, she wanted to be a stay-at-home Mom to Charlie. She always said she waited 20 years for Charlie , since as an unwed teenager, she gave up for adoption her daughter Courtney, who went on to become a law librarian. They reconnected right around the time Theresa found out she was pregnant with Charlie. Two miracles came true for her at the same time, and that after three other pregnancies that ended with medical problems. She didn't want to work full-time and miss out on her son's life, she said.

And it's a good thing she didn't, because The Lord, He Giveth... And He Taketh Away.

Charlie was beloved in the neighborhood. Not that his Mom let him "roam the streets", like we did when we were in those pre-teen years. Far from it. If he was outside playing in the yard, she would listen to his singing or whistling or adventure-pretending. She always told him to make noise when he was out of her sight so that she would know he was okay.

Recovering from surgery in bed that day, groggy from pain and the medication prescribed to ameliorate it, she still knew her son was playing outside, and she became aware that she had not heard him for a while. She asked Renee what Charlie was doing. Renee said he was just outside kicking rocks in the yard. She asked again a few minutes later, and Renee said with one of his friends maybe, and an alarming knock hit the door.

Who the hell knocks like that, Theresa thought. It was a neighbor lady whose dog, Bruiser the Pomeranian, Charlie sometimes walked for money (that was Charlie the Merchant for you, always raising funds for his own endeavors). She was in speechless horror at the sight right there in the front yard, blocked from the inside-the-house vantage point by a large desk which was anti-serendipitously placed in front of the window.

The rest, you already know, sadly... We don't have the desk anymore either.

Anyway, everybody knew Charlie. He was a fixture from the age of three. One of his best friends in the world was Jim across the street. Jim, the American Classic. Worked for Checker Motors right here in Kalamazoo, making those big iconic yellow taxicabs of yesteryear. Cigarettes, beer, motorcycles, pool table in the garage, basketball hoop above it, American flag next to it (on the appropriate days).

Jim's laconic speech and deep voice, combined with his mastery of observation, made him a joy to talk to every time you got the chance. That's the neighbor everybody needs to have. His general attitude: Call it like you see it. When the guy next door's wife left him, and he stopped mowing the lawn in his understandable funk, Jim was the one to mutter, "Everybody's got problems, mow your fuckin' lawn."

Every year, Charlie would be showered with Christmas gifts, from all sides. The best ones always came from Jim. A T-Rex that walked and screamed on its own. A two-wheeled flexible skateboard. A remote-control off-roader that ran faster than a raped ape. Once a year, Jim spared no expense on Charlie.

Because of Jim, young Dennis Charles Wolf will always be a member of the Young Eagles, a program run by Jim's friend, a pilot named Jim Butcher, who every year takes kids up in his small airplane at the Air Zoo. (Charlie loved to go to the Air Zoo. After he passed away, they were kind enough to allow his year-long membership to be transferred to one of his cousins.)

Not that Jim and Charlie didn't have their issues once in a while, as boys who are friends will occasionally do. Charlie once knocked over Jim's beer with his bike tire, which pissed him off (he tried to make it look like an accident, Jim said). Another time, he and one of his friends broke Jim's dog run by using it as a zip line. On that one, he implored Theresa to get Charlie into baseball or something, so he wouldn't turn out to be a bad kid.

"Like I was," he said. I don't know, though... Even if Jim was a bad kid, he sure turned out to be a great man. That's why he was listed as the emergency contact person with Charlie's schools for his entire life - officially, through the sixth grade.

Their affection for one another was not hard to spot. Charlie sometimes would introduce himself as Dennis (at school, in particular, he preferred to go by his first name), and Jim knew that. Charlie had also seen all the cheesy Hollywood send-ups of Dennis the Menace, so he would gleefully holler at Jim as he ran past, or biked past, or scootered past, or even when we drove past, hanging out the car window, "Hi, Mister Wilson!"

Jim would always hold the one hand up over his head and intone, "Hi, Dennis." Quite a character... Just three weeks before it happened, Jim and Lori came to the schoolyard with all of us on the 4th of July, the schoolyard where all us Heller kids had attended from Kindergarten to Third Grade, to set off a good, long run of magnificent fireworks. Between Larry, my brother Vince and me, we probably exploded $600 worth of stuff.

They also came to our party on the Sunday before Labor Day, which was our Celebration of Charlie's Life Party. Larry was there, too, and so was Mick, honking on the harmonica to my 12-bar blues in E. We had fireworks on that occasion, too, but there weren't as many, and they didn't seem as loud.

Last I saw of Jim, it was on a police car dash-cam video (Officer Stolsunburg's, I think). The view is from the South, looking at the scene from over their shoulders. Jim is holding my sister in the road as the police and EMT's frantically work on Charlie in the front yard. He stays with her, keeps her upright with his big hands, until our parents arrive.

The detectives and the police interviewed most of the people in our neighborhood that night, but for some reason, they didn't ever interview Jim. I know this in two ways. One, his wife told me so. Two, I have all of the police reports from July 26, 2015 in my possession. And none of them mention any interview with them, even though they knew him most of his life and could have spoken volumes to his nature and character.

Well, they sure can't ask him anything about it now. Jim Yonkman died a few days after Thanksgiving, 2015, losing a long and painful battle with cancer. He held on long enough for his son to come from California for the holiday with the twin grandkids. He had never seen them before.

After he had lost so much weight as to become heartache thin, Jim asked me to mow his lawn for him last summer, because he was too weak to do it anymore. I did so, religiously, even after Charlie died. He always gave me twenty bucks and a 12-pack of cheap beer, no matter how hard I tried to refuse. I'm doing it again this year too, looks like. No charge, Lori.

Because I already hear Jim's words of wisdom on these increasingly warm weekend mornings, when I awake to sunshine, the sound of birds... Soon enough, cicadas, buzzing in voices almost as low and rich as Jim's:

"Everybody's got problems, mow my fuckin' lawn!"

pH 4.28.16


NEXT WEEK: Chapter Nine - "Links and Knots"

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