Chapter 38 – How I Spent My Off-Season
I’d say that overall, gutter season 2020 went quite smoothly. Although there had been that tumble that I talked about in the last chapter, the rest of the season went without serious injury and we managed to get all 337 jobs – that was the official total – done a whole two weeks before Christmas rolled around. Like, that’s unheard of. That’s insanely good for a three-man crew, especially considering the other two guys got “real jobs” of their own to deal with and – after having taken off a full two weeks to dedicate to cleaning gutters at the start of the season – were each only workin with me on their off-days thereafter. All the leaves fell early in the season and the weather really complied – there wasn’t much precipitation; no big snowstorms followed by deep freezes that shut us down for weeks at a time. Yeah man, I dunno – we got lucky. It was a good year. Like, the whole time we were out there, me and my brother’d been jokin that, “We got my man up there pullin some strings for us. He’s tellin God that, ‘Cmon! They got work down there! Give ‘em some good gutter-cleaning weather! Cmon!’”
I always like cleaning gutters with my brother. He’s just as good as I am, so the jobs get knocked out quickly and safely, and we have a good time while doin it. And we always laugh about stupid shit when we’re together too. I remember last year we laughed until my eyes started watering as we joked about discreetly takin pisses in our gutter customers’ backyards and hypothesized about what the confrontations would be like with said customers were we to get caught. Then we decided we should eliminate gutter cleaning from the picture altogether and just run a business where people hire us to come take pisses in their backyards. Just ring the doorbell, tell the people we’re there to do their job, walk into the backyard, whip it out and take a piss wherever I feel like, then charge ‘em a hundred bucks for the “service” and be on my merry way. On a different note, one customer last year asked us if we could remove this big old vacated beehive dangling from one of the branches on the tree in front of her house. I told her that it wouldn’t be safe to lean a ladder on a branch that small, but my brother Danny stepped up and handled the job by takin his shoe off and throwin it up at the thing. I got a “kick” outta that – not as big a kick as the beehive received – but a kick nonetheless. And most importantly in the year 2020, I thought it was cool Danny got to be there when one of my dad’s old fireman buddies who we’d never met before came up and introduced himself, and stopped to talk to us for a minute about our old man. Cuz like, runnin my dad’s business and bein around people that knew him all day every day, stuff like that’d been happenin to me all year long, but for my brother – as well as my sister and even my mom to a certain extent – livin in different parts of the city and workin in places where no one knew our dad, these sorts of interactions pretty much never happened.
It was about two weeks into the season. The other guy, Collin, the guy who took a tumble in the last chapter, wasn’t there for whatever reason. It was just me and my brother workin that day. It was damp, gray and overcast, but not horribly cold with a high temp of about forty. I was up on the roof of one of the many of those typical Chicago-style Georgians they got over in Edgebrook, and my brother was on the ground checkin downspouts and cleanin up when one of the neighbors came out and walked over – some dude in his mid-sixties, I’d say. I thought for sure that the guy was either gonna bitch at us for blowin shit onto his property or ask us for an estimate on his house. I saw that my brother’d shut off his blower and was talkin to the guy, so I decided to do the same so I could hear what was goin on. I heard Danny say, “My brother up there is actually the one who still runs the business full-time. I’m just helpin him out on my days off.” And the guy then looked up at me as I stood on the edge of the roof, and he said, “I was just tellin your brother here that I knew your dad from the fire department. We used to work together on the west side back in the eighties. He was a good guy – great fireman. At fires he’d just never get tired. He’d always keep goin.”
“What’s your name?” I said back down to him.
“Jablonowski,” he said. “Jim Jablonowski.”
“Ah okay,” I replied. “Sounds familiar. Think I’d heard him mention your name before.”
“Yeah…your dad was a good officer – so laid back. The guys loved him. And that’s a lot more than I can say about his brother, the chief!”
“Yeah, they were Irish twins, but complete opposites, those two guys.”
“Yeah, yeah,” he nodded. “The job though…it really takes it outta ya workin in dangerous conditions all the time and breathin in smoke and all that stuff.”
“Well,” my brother said, “our dad actually liked that stuff – not wearin a mask in fires and talkin about how much more smoke he could eat than anybody else.”
“Yeah, ya know…” the guy rubbed his chin with a contemplative expression on his face, “…he did like all that stuff! And then he was doin this shit on the side. Hell, bein out on roofs and ladders all day doin this shit’s more dangerous than bein a firefighter. Yeah,” the guy smiled, “I guess your dad really did like all that dangerous stuff.”
I like runnin into people I’ve never met before that knew my dad and wanna tell me somethin about him. I picture it as me tryin to do a jigsaw puzzle, and them comin up and handin me some of the missing pieces. I talked to one other guy whom I’d never met before when I was out workin by myself, tryin to finish off the remaining gutter jobs towards the end of the season. His name was Cradick. He was a retired cop. He told me, “I went to high school with your dad back in the early seventies at Gordon Tech. He used to call me Ace. That was his nickname for me. Then after high school, I didn’t see him for like five or ten years – we each had different jobs or whatever. But then I became a cop and he became a fireman, and I started runnin into him at fires all the time on the west side – cuz like, cops gotta respond to fires too, ya know? So your dad would be comin outta burning buildings with his turnout gear on and he’d see me standin there and say, ‘Hey Ace, what’s goin on?’ just like he woulda back in high school. Yeah…your dad was a good guy. Last time I saw him – fuck, it couldn’t have been more than a month before he died – I ran into him over at the gas station on Milwaukee. He didn’t look too good. I was pretty worried about him.”
In spite of having had a very good gutter season, when it was over, I wasn’t in the mood to celebrate. I wasn’t feelin all that great to tell ya the truth. I actually felt very lost and confused. Empty inside, even. I mean, Dad died back in May and right away I took it upon myself as my mission to keep him alive via his business, and that kept me busy six or seven days a week for the whole rest of the year, but now it was December and I was done workin for the season and…I’m not gonna sugarcoat it, I flipped the fuck out sometime during the first week right after I finished. Retrospectively, it seems stupid and melodramatic, but what can I say – my life used to revolve around this guy and I just plain old wasn’t mentally well. My anxiety boiled over one afternoon and I started yellin in front of my mom and sister that, “I kept his business alive all this time! I did good! He was supposed to be waiting for me here at the end of the season! He was supposed to come back after I showed him how good I could run his business for him! But now I finished and he’s not here! Tell me – where is he?! Where the fuck is he?! He’s not fucking here!”
The rest of December was a fucking blur. As I’m sittin here tryin to recall it – like, it hasn’t even been a whole year – but I can’t remember Christmas 2020 at all. I can’t remember if my brother and/or sister were here with me and my mom or if they’d spent the holiday at the houses of their significant others or what. I’m drawin a total blank. I’m focusing as hard as I can, but am only taken back to Christmases of the past. Like, I can hear Dad’s voice narrating all the home videos he used to take of us on Christmas morning when we were little kids opening up all the presents that Santa’d brought us. And I can see my dad tossin around a football we’d gotten that year from Santa with me and my brother in the living room, probably pissin my mom off once we’d inevitably shattered another one of her Precious Moments knickknacks on the shelves and prompting her to shout, “Can’t I have anything around here?!”
I can picture myself as a young kid sittin in the back of our family minivan next to my brother and with my mom in the front passenger seat as my dad drove us through the suburb of Lincolnwood to look at Christmas lights. Was my sister with us back there in a baby seat? Was she around yet? I’m not sure, but there’s this one house there I remember that always used to buy an enormous tree…or maybe it was a fake tree they reused every year? I don’t know. It’s not important. Whatever the case may be, just inside the picture window of the first floor’d been the widest part of the tree all decked out with pretty lights, and through the window on the second floor of the house there’d been the middle part of the tree looking equally as splendid, and up on the roof of the house’d been the top few feet of the tree also lit up and with a shimmering star at its peak. Of course, now I know it’s just an illusion, but back then I believed my dad when he’d turn to the backseat and say to us that, “The people who live in that house like Christmas so much that every year when December comes around, they cut a hole through their floor and the roof of their house so they can fit that giant tree in there.”
I guess you can’t have the good memories without the bad, because then my mind inevitably drifts to how mentally ill my dad’d become in recent years and how he’d somehow gone from bein the guy I just described in the previous paragraph to bein the guy I knew as Miles (see Chapter 4) who wouldn’t spend any part of Christmas with us at all. One of those last couple years, I remember him comin up from the basement and my brother sayin, “Hey, check out my man, Christmas Boy! Has anyone ever called you Christmas Boy before about that?” Phrasing stuff like that – and sayin it in a goofy, playful voice – is an old joke we have in my house. My dad used to say shit like that to us when we were kids. For example, when out workin with him doin the windows, if you were to fall off a six-foot ladder into a bush, the next time he saw you around our house later that evening he might say, “It’s my man, Bush Boy! Has anyone ever called you Bush Boy before about that?” And me and my brother’ve used that formula so many times over the years in so many different ways. Like, one of us could be eating a gyro sandwich and the other one would say, “Check out my man, Gyro Boy – he’s eatin a gyro! Has anyone ever called you Gyro Boy before about that?” And I know it’s not somethin that’s laugh-out-loud funny – I mean, a lot of you folks readin this at home right now are probably thinkin how fuckin lame it is – but for us it’s just somethin that’s plain old entertaining to do. In fact, my brother and I still do it all the time to this day. And like, our dad always used to think it was fun – like I said, after all, he was the one who started it – but on that one particular Christmas when Danny said that to him, just before he left to go spend the day getting his miles in the woods by himself, Dad didn’t even acknowledge him beyond mumbling, “Christmas Boy, Christmas Boy – fuck you.”
January is usually the month when I jump on a plane and head outta the country to go explore the world and I normally don’t return to Chicago until March or April when there’s work to do around here, but with my depression weighin me down and all the crazy covid restrictions makin international travel a certifiable pain in the nuts, I said fuck it and ended up not makin any plans for the early winter months of 2021. During that time, I was pretty sure I eventually wanted to do this writing project, but’d still been too deep in denial about my dad actually being gone to be able to face his death and to start exploring all my feelings surrounding it. I wouldn’t end up mustering the courage to do so until closer to the one-year mark sometime in late April, thus the title of this book – One Year After. In the meantime though, so I wouldn’t forget anything, I spent those months takin notes about any memories or topics I thought of that I might potentially wanna write about. I mean, that was just here and there in my day-to-day. It wasn’t somethin I sat there and actively dedicated myself to.
That said, what I did do to pass the time until mid-March when all the customer calls would start rollin in again, was spend about six or seven hours a day, seven days a week, up in my bedroom studying Spanish. I would read, listen, study vocab, and talk to someone from a Spanish-speaking country for an hour a day via this app called italki. If you include Puerto Rico as its own country instead of just a US territory, I think there’re twenty-one countries in the world where Spanish is considered an official language, and it’d been my goal to speak to at least one person from each of those places on italki. I think I ended up getting sixteen outta twenty-one. I didn’t talk to anyone from Panama, Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republic (which I probably should’ve), and also didn’t speak to anyone from Cuba or Equatorial Guinea which – because of their restrictive governments that I’m sure don’t allow ‘em to have apps like italki on their phones – I didn’t expect to. Nevertheless, I still consider my efforts a success. I learned a lot not only about the language, but also about what life’d been like in all those different countries during the peak of coronavirus from people that, for the most part, had been fun to spend an hour of my day chatting with. The way I see it, it was kinda like I was traveling without actually goin anywhere.
So yeah…that and shoveling a lotta snow is how I spent the early months of 2021. Then sometime in March, my buddy Mike who’s a social worker called up me and that guy Collin, and told us he’s got a job for us if we want it. Mike said that one of his clients – some elderly lady – had recently passed away. He said that her family wanted all the shit cleaned out of her house ASAP so they could put it on the market, but also added that they had no interest in doin the job themselves. Not only did they not wanna do the job themselves, they also didn’t wanna deal with findin a company to hire to do the job for ‘em, which is why they asked Mike to handle it. So Mike calls us up and says, “Listen…I’ll get a couple estimates. I’ll have 1-800-GOT-JUNK come out to gimme a price and I’ll also get a price from one of their competitors. I’ll tell you guys those prices and you’ll undercut ‘em by a couple hundred bucks and maybe throw in the added bonus of sweeping and vacuuming the floors once you’ve cleaned all the shit out in order to make your service stand out above the others. Of course, the family has the final say in the decision, but they don’t really seem to care as long as it gets done, so I’ll recommend we go with you guys and I’m sure they’ll bite. All you gotta do in the meantime is get an LLC so you come across as a legitimate business. Call yourselves whatever you want – Windy City Extreme Clean, fuckin Hoardbusters – I don’t care. It doesn’t matter. If you want the job, just get an LLC by the end of the week and I’ll take care of the rest.”
So, I won’t get too deep into detail here, but we ended up gettin the job and took care of it a couple days before Easter Sunday. Instead of hiring a dumpster company to set one of their receptacles in front of the old dead broad’s house and just loadin it up to the max with all her worldly possessions and then havin ‘em come haul it away for us like we shoulda done, we decided to rent a huge U-Haul truck and fill it up then drive all the shit over to the dump ourselves, which proved to be a big old pain in the dick. I dunno, call it a beginner’s mistake. But apart from that – apart from it bein annoying – I found the task of erasing someone’s life to be kinda depressing.
I mean, setting a garbage bag up below this lady’s shelves and using my hand to sweep every last thing on ‘em into the trash just kinda felt wrong. Like, all these things’d once meant something to this person recently deceased, so like…as a fellow human being, shouldn’t that mean something to me as well? I dunno. Maybe I was overthinking things. I mean, someone had to do this job, right? Life goes on and someone else who’s still alive could be using this living space. And better us clearin out her house than her family. What a guilt-triggering emotional landmine such an action woulda been for them to hafta carry out. I myself actually felt kinda guilty at one point because the lady was super religious, and like I said, it was either Holy Thursday or Good Friday, and here I am takin about a hundred crucifixes and rosaries off her walls and shelves and stuffin ‘em all in the trash. Like, if hell really does exist, after havin done that, I’m sure there’s now a special place down there reserved just for me. Whatever though – I don’t mind. Sinners have more fun anyway. Hell’s probably just like one big giant party.
One thing that really did get to me though while trashin all that dead old lady’s shit – and still bothers me very deeply to this day – is the thought of my beloved family photos one day rotting away at the bottom of a landfill somewhere. All these images of precious memories I’ve shared with my loved ones over the years that mean the world to me will surely have no value whatsoever for future generations – like, maybe my kids or grandkids might hold on to ‘em for a bit out of guilt – but beyond that, there’s no doubt they’ll one day be discarded as carelessly as me and Collin’d junked every last belonging in that smelly old dust-laden mouse-shit-covered house. Like, how hauntingly tragic our fate as human beings really is – cast aside, forgotten as if we never even existed. The thought alone is more than enough to break the heart of this here sentimental fool into a million little pieces.