Sal was thirty years old when his apple-green ’56 Jimmy truck rolled off the production line. It sits next to his pick-up, his battered convertible, his cigarette boat, and his catamaran. Like Tim, they are part of the flotsam that has ended up on his ranch in the Santa Cruz mountains.
Sal says it’s no way to meet someone, cussing like that, especially not a young lady. But James keeps leaving stuff all over the workshop so’s a person can’t find a damn thing, and it aggravates him so, and well, shit. Then he wipes his hands on his pants and steps out of the workshop into the sunshine, and says hello.
“Where’d you find her, anyway?” he says to Tim. I say, San Francisco, which is true for today and saves time. “Awn’t you a sight for sore eyes,” he says, in an old Long Island accent, admiring my dirty green tracksuit from neck to ankles. Correctness has made social eunuchs of my generation, except when we’re as hungry for attention as half-weaned babies. We don’t know what to do with a frank Fifties once-over, except laugh.
“She’s an Irish girl, Sal,” says Tim.
“An Irish girl! Look at you, all out like a little leprechaun. You know what a leprechaun is?”
I admit to having heard of leprechauns, most of whom probably now consult for Google in Dublin.
“There was a fella playing golf who hit a leprechaun,” he tells me. “Knocked him out cold. Fella gets down on his knees, gives him the kiss of life, and eventually the little leprechaun sits up and rubs his head. Hardly remembers what happened. So he wants to give the fella three wishes for saving his life. Guy says, aw, you don’t have to do that, I’m the one who hit you in the first place, I can’t accept three wishes.
So he goes on his way, and a year later he’s back there playing golf and the leprechaun recognizes him and asks him how it’s going.
‘Pretty good! I’ve been having a good year, he says. Leprechaun asks him about his golf game. Guy says, it’s the damnedest thing, he went from a 36 handicap to a zero nearly overnight. Leprechaun nods and smiles and says, how’s the money? Every time he puts his hand in his pocket, guy says, he pulls out a couple hundred dollar bills. It’s amazing.
Then the leprechaun says, what about the sex life?
‘Oh, you know,’ says the guy, ‘once, maybe twice a week.’
‘Twice a week?’ says the leprechaun. ‘Jeez, we can do better than that for you. Let me figure out what’s going wrong there and take care of it.’
‘God, no, no, no,” says the guy, “Don’t be doing that. I’m just a priest in a small village.'”
Sal says I’m the best-looking woman Tim has brought to the ranch in three weeks. Tim brings thirty or forty women up to party in a month, he claims, and they’re usually four hundred pounds apiece. “I think he gets ’em in the bulk department at the Trader Joe’s” he confides.
He has a shock of white hair cut like JFK’s, and the hard belly of a Chelsea boy. For years he taught shop at a school in East Palo Alto. Somewhere along the way he took on this ranch, and hammered together a batch of cabins and a diesel generator and a gravity feed from a ridge-line spring. He takes in strays–mostly human, mostly harmless.
He wanted to show Tim his saw-mill operation, housed at a friend’s sprawling ranch further up the mountain. He vaulted into the back of his white convertible and then waved at imaginary crowds while we sat in the front; a touring dignitary from Nassau County. On the winding roads I made myself carsick turning around to ask questions.
“What was your role on the PT boat, Sal?” I ask.
“My ROLE?” he says, and I hear the dippiness of the question. War isn’t a school play. “Well, I was eighteen years old. My role was to be scared out of my wits.” Then he says, “We figured out pretty quick I wasn’t much good for artillery. So they put me in the engine room, which was probably where I belonged.” I ask him why he volunteered for PT boat duty instead of something quieter. “When you’re a kid, in great physical condition, you go where you think the action is,” he says. “Then you’re sorry.” He talks about Kennedy. “John Kennedy had already written one of his books by then, he was older than us. He was known. People used to go just to hear him talk. Real smart guy. He wasn’t elected anything back then, but guys knew there was something about him.”
I ask if he saw Marilyn when she visited the troops in Korea. No, he says, he was stationed at a base in Alaska for most of that one, but he saw Bob Hope twice in World War Two. We chatted about Higgins’ landing craft, and Churchill, and why it took so long for the Yanks to get into the war.
His Tuscan father had never learned to read, in English or Italian. His mother was much younger and smarter, he said, and when Sal went to college on the GI Bill, she went too.
“Do you skate?” he asks, as we stand in his lumberyard and watch him feed a log into the saw-mill. “What size shoe do you wear? James and I are going rollerskating tomorrow.” James lives in the cabin below Tim’s. He is a golden, 30-year-old yogi, whose prep-school manners have buffed rather than eroded a natural ease that has let him move from Beverly Hills to the Bronx to Sal’s world. They are pals.
Size sevens, I say. He opens the trunk and shows me two pairs of white rollerskates, the kind I dreamed of when I was ten. “They’re size sevens,” he says, a little gruffly. “Fancy case and everything. Betty put a few hundred dollars into them. But I guess you’re going to work tomorrow.” He closes the trunk before I say anything.
Betty was Sal’s girlfriend of ten years. She died of a heart attack last month. He hasn’t talked about it much, Tim says, though I’m not sure if it’s because the guys haven’t asked him. Sal is handsome, and he knows it. He turned down dinner on Saturday night to go on a date. “That guy gets more ass than the rest of the ranch put together,” Tim says.
At the ranch he lives in a near-constant state of exasperation with the tenants he shelters from a crueller world. Geoffrey has long, tangled hair and beard, and carries on long, tangled conversations with himself as he walks the grounds (sometimes belly-laughing at his jokes.) He is gentle and paranoid, and hand-paints lovely traffic signs that are as off-kilter as the surroundings. Sal says he doesn’t mind Geoffrey coming into his house and using his telephone to make four dollar sixty cent long-distance calls to his sister, but it gets aggravating when the chief of the Baltimore Police Department starts returning messages about The Plot on Sal’s answering machine. “I’ve told him, I’ve told him, no more calls to Washington. And now he gets registered letters from the NYPD instead.”
Susan was in a car crash fifteen years ago, and a head injury left her so disoriented that she was homeless for a while. Now she potters in her little garden, chatting loudly to her worried-looking dog, Lucky, and to any neighbors who pass by. When Tim plays music, she dances.
Bob has the wizened watchfulness of a civil-war deserter, and he doesn’t much like to talk, at first. He’s just here to tend to his horses. 25 years ago he was the world champion endurance rider, and these hills right here have the greatest trails you’ll find anywhere, he says. In the mornings, his two-year-old horse follows Tim’s car with a toddler’s hopeful curiosity. He’s not broken yet. It’s wrong and cruel, Bob says, to ride ’em before they’re four or five. The cartilage isn’t set, and the bones aren’t ready. Racehorses don’t make it much past five or six because they’re ridden too early, but his first horse is just coming into his prime at 22. He brushes the pair of them with a fierce tenderness that makes me cry.
Rick is a master plumber and woodworker who helped lay Tim’s new floor. He drinks alone, mostly. He says this is the most stable group of tenants he’s seen in his fourteen years here. Sal’s savior trip has lightened up a little, he says, and it’s made it easier on the rest of them.
“Jeez, he used to drive around Oakland or East Palo Alto and find people in a terrible state and bring them back to the ranch. They’d have real bad mental problems, drug addictions, alcohol needs, you name it, and they’d be stuck up on the ranch with no transportation, off the grid, no means to get the food and medicine. And he thought the rest of us should take care of them. This one time, I came back from a trip, and he’d parked two crystal heads in a trailer in my yard. You want to have heard those fights, man, those domestic disputes. It was bad. Eventually I said, Sal, I can’t have a meth factory in my yard.
Then there was the time he brought this guy in from the streets; real bad alcoholic, just roaring. _Rarrr-arrrr._ Sal thought he could dry out up here, try his hand at learning a few skills, but the guy just kept drinking and yelling all hours of the day. Eventually Sal just hitches up the trailer, with the guy in it so drunk he doesn’t even notice, and drives him down to the road. After that he kind of eased up a bit on the lost causes.”
“Why do you think he does it?”
“Compassion, mostly. But he’s on his own trip too, like the rest of us. He has a program. If they’re not progressing fast enough for his liking, they’re out.”
Tim has rigged up solar panels and storage batteries, and takes a gravity feed from one of the mountain springs. There are 12-volt track lights, a stereo system, laptop and phone chargers (though little phone signal), and even–at Sal’s insistence–a TV and DVD player for Netflix evenings. Since he ripped out the bathroom to retile it, the shower is outside, fitted up with a stock-tank hot tub. (Sal growls, ‘When you gonna finish that bathroom?’ He is used to cleaning up when his tenants’ attention span runs out.) Everything works on the solar power except blenders and coffee grinders, so he uses a pestle and mortar now. Sal’s diesel generator powers the common washing machine.
Tim is Sal’s most promising tenant in a while; a solvent, cheerful sort who can and will fix things; a life-long pet of woodshop teachers. In spite of his day job in San Jose, Sal harbors ideas of having Tim run the ranch so that he can turn to other things.
There’s a lot Sal says he wants to do. He wants to see the movie Crash, the new one about racism in LA. He wants to go to Australia. On the PT boats he supported the invasion of Borneo led by the Australians. They were good soldiers, he says, and he’d like to see the place. He never got to go anywhere metropolitan in the service, he says, unless you count Manila, and it wasn’t much then.
Three weeks ago he bought a boat–two, in fact; a deal from the one guy. There’s a little Hefner-style speedboat with red vinyl seats, and a small cruiser. He wants to pull the cruiser up to Oregon and putter around the lakes up there. He thinks the other boat will be great for waterskiing just as soon as he tunes the engine and replaces the fiberglass with something really nice.