The first time I met Egon a tree had fallen across the dirt road leading to our house. My then-coworker-and-eventual-husband and I had taken the financially daring plunge of renting a place on a couple of acres in semi-rural Atascadero – me because I was tired of neighbors, him because he wanted a dog. The house was a low-slung ranch style with yellow wood siding and a big stone fireplace, a chipped linoleum kitchen floor, cheap wood interior accents and twine running along all along the edges of the ceiling to hide the fact that the wallboard didn’t match up. It had, in the parlance, “character.”
So did Egon. Tall and wiry, with a shock of white hair and a carelessly trimmed beard, perpetually in jeans and a battered Navy cap, he talked in a sing-song drawl and walked as if he’d just climbed down from a day-long stint as a scarecrow in a field. That first day he was leaning on the fence with a beer in his hand – back then he always had a beer in his hand – as we pulled up and stared in dismay at the felled oak blocking our path. There was a wicked sparkle in his eyes as he said, “Well look here. Whatcha gonna do?”
We had both just moved from apartments, and though we own a chainsaw now we didn’t back then. I shrugged my shoulders. “Call someone?”
Egon walked away laughing as we left our car and climbed over the tree, heading for the house with mildly heavy hearts. We’d spent a lot of money on the deposit and moving van; paying for someone to cut up an oak wasn’t an expense we’d expected or were entirely prepared for. I had just pulled out the phone book and was paging through it when we heard the whine of a saw. There was Egon, beer perched on a nearby fence post, neatly slicing up the tree. He took half the wood, and left half for us.
During the time we were there he often lurked by the fence, always ready with a story or three or four. About riding his Harley into a wall. About the allure of Thai prostitutes. About a madcap search for grass. Skip and I had been working in the yard and only half-listening but looked up puzzled. “You mean…sod?”
Egon winked broadly. “You know….GRASS!”
We looked at one another blankly. “Ohhhh….marijuana! Got it.” And the story went on.
About killing skunks with a shotgun. “Gave him both barrels,” that wink again, “gotta be sure, you know?” A cackling laugh. “It was like a wet rag!”
And he was the source of stories for us as well. The chainsaw returned to figure prominently in one. Egon had spent the day as he usually did – drinking and singing and puttering with his cars, when on a mid-afternoon whim he decided to cut a branch off one of the oaks in the field in front of our house. He leaned an extension ladder against the branch and – beer in one hand, chainsaw in the other, climbed up and began to saw on the side of the branch closest to the tree. This created certain logistical problems regarding, if not descent from the ladder, certainly controlled descent, that seemed obvious to my husband and I but apparently not to him. So we watched with a certain horrified fascination, phone at the ready to call 911.
After cutting about three-quarters of the way through the branch he turned off the chainsaw, climbed down, folded up the ladder and put it away. We ventured outside. “Whatcha doing, Egon?” we asked (it was sometimes hard not to fall into his cadence).
“Waiting for 3:30,” he replied as he walked away. He returned at the appointed hour and stood some distance away from the tree, contemplatively sipping his beer. Then the breeze kicked up, as it did every afternoon, and shortly thereafter with a creak and a groan the branch cracked off and fell to the ground. He gave us that impish grin again and walked away laughing.
I admit sometimes I felt impatient with him. I was young, and busy, and didn’t always have time for the old man with the two Aussie shepherd mutts that he yelled at liberally but who were devoted to him anyway. His singing was loud and not particularly in tune, and the half acre that separated us wasn’t enough to dampen the noise, especially if the peacocks that I don’t think were his but had taken up residence in his yard decided to join in the chorus.
We lived in that Atascadero house for about a year and then moved to the Bay Area. A few years later we were back, in a neighboring house that we could now afford to buy. Egon was still there, still tinkering with his cars, his house slowly crumbling around him. This was a bone of contention with his siblings, who had joint ownership of the house. Eventually one of his sisters bought out their shares, remodeled and moved in, allowing Egon to stay on. As the years passed he grew more eccentric and more frail. His doctors warned him to stop drinking after a bout of prostate cancer and he did, but that mischievous sparkle left his eye. No longer the master of his fate, fate was increasingly the master of him, and it felt as if he knew it.
One of his Aussies died, then the other, and he found another one, just as devoted. When she died he didn’t replace her. A few months ago the paramedics pulled up and took him to the hospital. Then again a few weeks later. His care needs far too much for his equally elderly sister to manage, he agreed to move into assisted living, but he was only there a few weeks before another hospitalization and a move to a nursing home.
He died on Tuesday morning. Before his final hospitalization the nursing home staff reported that they were having trouble keeping him in bed, that he kept trying to get up even though he couldn’t possibly keep his balance. I had seen him just a few days before, propped in a bed in a hallway while his room was being cleaned. I’m fairly certain he didn’t recognize me, though he knew his sister. Gone were the blue jeans and the blue cap. Instead he was swathed in white, from his gown to the sheets and the blankets. It struck me that if he hadn’t been in such a state of confusion, if what concentration he had left weren’t devoted to taking this breath, and the next, and the next, that he would have hated it.
When our old black lab Harley – the dog my husband adopted when we first moved to Atascadero – was sixteen and approaching death from kidney failure, she kept trying to run away. She always headed for the river, and though of course we couldn’t know for certain what she was thinking we felt as if she were trying to die. On her own terms, in her own way, just as she’d lived her life.
And hearing of Egon’s death I couldn’t help but wonder what he would have wanted. Maybe to be laid in his old boat and left to drift on Santa Margarita Lake where he spent so much time fishing, the water lapping against the side and the sun on his face until he drew his last breath.
Rest in peace, Egon. And if there is a heaven for you may it be full of oaks and chainsaws and late afternoon breezes.