He likes to call me when he is drunk, the old man. The phone call always starts out the same.
"Hey, Hamm." Hamm is short for Hammond.
"You find a house for me?"
"You ready for one?"
He doesn't know if he's ready for a house. When I first met Hamm he was living in a log cabin in the woods near a lake. The cabin reeked of cat piss and I refused to go inside. He wanted to sell the place and move into something new. Presumably because it reeked of cat piss and maybe he wanted to start over. There might have also been mention of not getting along with his neighbor.
I didn't ask. My job is to create real estate miracles. And right in front of me was a miracle just waiting to happen.
A few months later Hamm's house was sold to a man who weighed a good 350 pounds who sandblasted the interior and painted it white so that it no longer smelled of cat piss. He put red-checkered curtains in the windows. Definite miracle.
Hamm moved to the other side of the neighborhood into a run down log cabin that looked exactly like the one he'd just sold, just less smelly. He didn't call for a while, until a few years later.
"You know that house you sold me?"
"I think I want to sell it."
Hamm is a large man. His skin is ruddy from drinking and being outdoors all the time. His hands are huge, like baseball mitts at the end of his arms. He says he has trouble getting around now. He anticipates some health issues.
He's built a rabbit hutch to the side of the house. It's quite a structure built solidly with scavenged material. Despite that you can tell Hammond has carpentry skills. I will not find out until later that in his younger days he lived off the land and raised a family in the woods a gazillion miles from civilization.
We circle the rabbit hutch and he tells me all about rabbits. I admire how adorably cute they are. He mentions they are good eating. I should have known he wouldn't keep rabbits as pets. That's what the 20 cats he has are for. I don't know what I was thinking.
That day he hadn't been drinking yet. We always schedule our appointments for in the morning when he's rational because he's a different man later in the day when the bottle is near-empty. One time he told me, "I never know how good a time I'm having until I get this month's phone bill." Hammond likes to drink and dial.
The market is a little soft when Hamm decides to sell. He's decided living in the country is getting too hard for him. When he talks about life being hard he always holds out his hands as if they are a metaphor for his difficulties. They look puffy, raw. We stand in the driveway, both of us looking at his hands, nodding. It is decided he will move to an apartment in town. His rational mind knows this is best, but I can feel the sadness of his surrender. I wonder if this will cause him to shrivel up and die. I wonder who will find him in his apartment if he does die.
In Hamm's front yard is a large tripod from which hangs a big Rubbermaid storage tub filled with dirt. From the bottom grow tomato plants upside down. From the top grow cucumbers that cascade over the side. Hamm assures me this is the best way to do things and he has a very productive growing season with this contraption. I do not tell him then that I don't like tomatoes.
Hammond gets frustrated when I cannot make this second miracle happen fast enough. By now he has infused this new cabin with his cat piss reek and bachelor filth. When I show the house I refuse to go inside. I schedule appointments for the morning or for when I know Hamm has gone to town. Or when I know he has run out of money and can't afford his booze. He is sometimes unpredictable.
"Sold my house yet?"
"Not quite yet, but I'm working on it."
Later in the conversation he insults me by making reference to my matronly form, followed up by something snarky about my hormones.
"I don't have to listen to this, Hammond."
I hang up on him when he is like this. Sometimes he remembers and calls me back the next day, apologetic and ashamed. Sometimes he doesn't remember at all.
"I'm sorry about yesterday."
"I know. But you can't do that. It's not right. I don't want you to call me anymore if you're going to be mean. You are better than that."
"Well, then I deserve better than that."
"I know, Kiddo."
We sit in silence. I know what he is thinking, that he needs to stop.
"I need to stop. I'm going to stop."
"Okay. It would be better for you if you did. You're a good man. I know you are."
I don't believe he will do it.
Over the next few months no matter when I call Hamm he is good, bright, clear. He mentions a few weeks in that he has stopped drinking. We made another miracle happen and he is now in his new apartment in town. He buys five-pound bags of dirt that are shipped from Alaska and pans for gold in his bathtub. He doesn't believe he will ever find any gold but he likes doing it. He likes the anticipation, the thrill of being a prospector.
He misses his rabbits and his chickens and his garden, but he knows a lot of farmers and he buys catfish from a guy out on Hwy 336 and he buys tomatoes from an old man on Hwy 95 out by where the buffalo statue is in the field by the big curve. He buys about 400 pounds a year.
"How can you eat 400 pounds of tomatoes in a year, Hamm?"
"I don't eat them. I make juice out of them and can it."
"Do you want some?"
"No, thanks. I don't like tomatoes."
There is a silence as he ponders this.
"It's good for your postate. That's why I've lived so long." He pronounces it "postate." For some reason hardly anyone where I live gets that word right.
"I don't have one. Maybe because I don't eat tomatoes."
"You're lucky. Because, I don't want to go into details, but trust me... you don't want to have a postate when it's time for your doctor checkup. They just get rude with you."
* * *
Seven years pass and I periodically see Hamm around town -- at the library book sale, the farmer's market. And then in my office where he shows up and tells me he can't take it anymore. He wants to move back to the country.
I give him his options and he calls me late the next day.
"Are you sober?"
"Yes. Are you?"
We talk for a while about the house he wants to go see. He explains again how much he wants to get back to the country, how he feels stifled. Around me my boys run and shout as they get ready for an event we have to attend. My husband taps his wrist where a watchface would be if he wore one.
Hammond and I negotiate a time for me to pick him up. He says if I wait too long it might not be good. Because... you know. I tell him I know. I try to gracefully get off the phone. It's been ten minutes and there is household upheaval because I won't get off the phone and help everyone get ready.
"I really have to go. We'll talk more when I come get you."
"Fine, sure, go on with your life. I've been pushed aside by better than you."
I can't tell if he's joking. Maybe he is, maybe he isn't. I realize it doesn't matter.
"Well, then you should be used to it by now. See you tomorrow."
Tomorrow he has changed his mind. He thinks, perhaps, he has been hasty. Maybe he will go to a different county. Someplace north of here. He's just fidgety, he says.
I tell him to call me anytime, that I'll find him a place if he wants.
He says he'll call. I wait.