People in Alaska still surprise me. By now, having lived here for nineteen years, I felt I had encountered most types that venture so far north. Rugged outdoors types, living in and out of the bush, still panning for gold or setting up traplines. Native Alaskans, coming to Fairbanks for conventions and meetings, living in small settlements that can be reached only by boat or bush plane. New migrants, drawn by adventure and a new latitude, who either flee south after the first winter or stay a lifetime. A motley assortment.
Then I met Lyle.
He came to us one summer, looking for work.
“I can do most things,” he offered, standing just beyond the front door, dressed in Carhartt pants, boots, a flannel shirt. Painting, gutter cleaning, pressure washing, tile regrouting, winter snow preparations. “Mostly, I like outdoor work.”
He had a manner of going off on tangents when he spoke, gesticulating wildly into the air when a topic arose that excited him. Often, he lost his train of thought. “What were we just talking about?” he would then ask, brow furrowed, until we directed him back to the conversation at hand. We had to smile.
His work, a little unorthodox in manner of execution, was always eventually completed. When faced with the task of cutting the brome hay on the steep hillside behind the house, he tied a lawnmower to the hitch of his pick-up truck, levered the mower down the hill, and then ran the truck back and forth on the driveway above. When I asked him to help string up Christmas lights on the spruces outside, he came back with a long pole and hook which he circled, haphazardly, around the trees. The end effect was what he called “natural-looking”. He took me proudly one day to show me the cottonwood he had neatly sawed and stacked but was crestfallen when he learned he had piled them on top of my raspberry bushes.
Lyle’s tasks were always preceded by a text message. They came to my phone, with no punctuation or regard to spelling and grammar:
“Hello how are you doing next day or two I’m going to try to make it up there for the breast removal.” Breast removal? He meant brush removal, I realized.
At times, we questioned whether he smoked pot, particularly when we thought we caught its scent one day from behind the woodshed. Sometimes, we wondered if the job at hand would ever be completed. Or whether he would ever return to pick up his equipment, rakes and sleds and gasoline containers, which he had deposited at the end of our yard. We shook our heads and asked ourselves why we kept him on.
One day, he brought me a decorative hummingbird, powered by a tiny solar panel, to hover and swivel over my peonies. Another time, some interesting rocks that he lined the flower bed with. He had a soft side for children and dogs, I noticed, when I heard his stories about taking his grandchildren to look at fossils etched into the red rocks near Healy. When Buddy, our older dog, was spooked by fireworks and ran away, causing us to frantically look for him in the middle of the night, Lyle came promptly the next morning to build him a safe dog enclosure.
What did I really know about him, I thought, except that he was trying to make a living, not only for himself, but also for an extended family. I learned he had lost his wife early, years ago, and was now helping his single daughter and her children stay afloat. He shared his earnings with those needier than himself and found room in his heart to construct little gifts for me around the garden. All of a sudden, it didn’t matter that the jobs were done sporadically, somewhat eccentrically. Be kinder than necessary, the saying goes. I must remember to take an example from him.