"Legs" (from American Stories NOW)
Ron is sitting on a blanket, his thin legs covered by another one, near the shore of Ellis Lake in downtown Marysville, California. His two dogs, Poodle and Hank, are close by, chunky chow-and-boxer mixes ("They're also part wild, part timberwolf," he tells me). Ron's face is thin and stubbled with white beard; tattoos blacken his arms below his t-shirt; on his left shoulder sits a blue-and-white pigeon, tied at the ankle with a shoestring looped through Ron's belt. The pigeon, Ron explains, isn't tied because the bird might fly away (it can't, with one wing paralyzed and a mended broken leg). It's tied because, the day before, while Ron was busy repairing his leaky canoe with some silicone, he'd turned around to see a fat white cat with the blue-and-white pigeon in its mouth. He had just spent weeks repairing the bird's broken leg with a series of popsicle sticks. He wasn't about to let some cat have it. So now he kept it leashed.
"I'm not like some people. I don't see why you should have a pet if you're just going to ignore it."
Ron's canoe is perched at the edge of the lake, with a fishing rod and two life jackets stored inside it. He makes money by renting the canoe to visitors to Marysville's little oasis, which lies in the center of this Gold Rush town, surrounded by traffic and low, historic buildings. Ron has no home, although he does have a storage unit, he tells me when I sit down next to him, where he keeps a few things. "I could go live in my ex-wife's garage, but she's a drug addict. And she's raising my five kids to sell drugs. I can't bear to see it. But when I call social services to check on them, she finds out it was me, and then I'm not allowed to see my kids. Things aren't so good right now." He straightens the blanket over his legs. Ron has bone cancer ("my marrow is drying up"), and after a moment he pulls the blanket back to show me his bare, reedy ankles, and how one of his legs is longer than the other. MediCal had paid for two rounds of chemo and one of radiation. But now he was back on the street. He'd been living by the lake for months, with his canoe and its trailer and his bags of dog food and bird seed, getting by.
He seems to be a familiar sight to the locals; people pass him and smile and wave, then walk on. Ron calls out, friendly, smiling back. The bird rides his shoulder.
We talk for a while. "Have you always lived in Marysville?" I ask while stroking the big, friendly dog beside me, Hank.
"No. I'm a native Californian, but I've lived all sorts of places. I used to live in Houston working for Brown & Root. Once I lived up in Utah in the ski areas, and fixed snowmobiles. Have you ever been to Salt Lake City?"
"That Mormon Temple there, that white building. It's the most beautiful thing I've ever seen in my life."
All at once I felt something burning down my side. Hank had hiked his leg and was peeing on me. And my god, this was no ordinary dog piss. It was fierce, it smelled wild, of the woods, wolves, packs. And as strong as skunk. I leapt up.
What rattled me more than being marked by Hank was the look on Ron's face. White with shock and shame, every line along his thin mouth was saying: Someone finally sits down to listen to me, and this is what I let happen . . .
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry," he kept saying, abject. "I don't know why he did that, I'm sorry, I'm so so sorry."
"It's all right, really, it's no big deal. I have dogs." I pointed over to my motorhome, parked on the other side of the street. "He probably smelled them. It's all right, really, really, I have a change of clothes right over there."
"I'm so, so sorry. Hank . . . Hank . . ."
"It's really nothing."
But the shoulder that had been hoisting the pigeon is sagging. Ron is ducking his head, pulling Hank to him, and doesn't seem to want to talk anymore. The moment, hardly begun, has broken. Confidence is gone. I'm stinking of Hank, and know I have to go, and clean up. At the edge of the tame lake the canoe tugs.
I look back. The last I see of Ron he's sitting, a thin letter 'L' on his blanket, his two dogs standing guard beside him.
Photo credit: Bruce Barone