The physical manifestation of Milton’s strength ripples just under the skin on either arm as he pulls a metal file toward his chest. The bureau nearly finished, and perhaps his greatest handicraft to date, it only needs those last few strokes to round off the empty circle that will hold an antique mirror Estelle found at a yard sale.
A toothpick dances between his lips, looping and lunging from one corner of his mouth to another, his tongue peeking through with encouragement. Though his laser eyes pierce the soon-to-be rounded corners of maple, perhaps a magical softening technique, you can’t tell. Milton’s glasses are as black as tar. They are the kind of lenses you’re certain only he can see through.
First impressions aren’t lost on Milton. He can tell if you’re a good person by your handshake and smile. Even distracted greeters are pegged. He has a mystical connection to others, like an old sage from mythical lands. The first impression most people have of Milton is that he must be a blues singer.
“Oh, yessir,” he’ll say. “I do enjoy me a good tune now and again.”
Then he’ll smile a smile that stays a while and hum some little song.
Milton and Estelle were across the street when we moved to Hickory Hollow. He was in the garage, staining a toddler’s table and chair set. Estelle was taking down the Halloween pumpkins she and said toddler carved. I sat on the end of the moving truck, my aching back forcing streams of sweat from everywhere.
Estelle dropped the pumpkins in a wheelbarrow and noticed me. She waived with a smile and disappeared inside. Minutes later, she and Milton were standing at the end of the driveway.
“You must be my new neighbors!” I said, putting down a box marked “KITCHEN.”
“Lawdy, child. You looked like you could use some tea. I’m Estelle,” her voice sang as she held out a glass and patted the hand that met it.
“I’m Milton,” sort of slid out from underneath a door like a deep, mysterious whisper and my free hand was quickly embraced by a warmth I’d never felt. His other hand held my arm beneath the elbow, the way men symbolically hug one another in formal settings.
“Logan … Logan Patterson. So glad to meet you.”
The toothpick stood like an exclamation point on the punctuation end of the biggest, brightest smile I’d ever seen. It could have been the stark contrast between Milton’s skin and teeth, but the handshake, the voice … the whole experience of meeting Milton just tingled with otherworldliness.
Estelle also smiled a beautiful smile, but a friendly, open-mouthed smile where teeth hide behind a shimmering grin. She looked as if she would just laugh any minute.
In the years since, I’ve grown accustomed to wandering across the street to see Milton’s latest woodwork and sneak a glass of Estelle’s tea. Southern women know how to make sweet tea. Southern black women know how to make it fill your soul.
Estelle dotes on my son and asks after all the little playmates who come by. Milton hums little songs as he sands and scrapes, hammers and saws. He is retired from years at the Ford plant, she from years of watching him go off to work while she raised three children who don’t come around as often as either would prefer. Their life is simple now.
“It baffles me how you can make a square piece of wood so round and smooth, Mr. Jamison. What kind of tools did you use for that mirror casing?”
“Oh, just a little patience mixed with some tenderness. That electric sander sure don’t hurt much, either.”
“Amazing. I wish I could do something useful with my hands. I can’t even put together particle board crap that comes with all the parts and instructions.”
“Just gotta let it come. Patience … it just takes patience.”
Milton moves around the bureau in a method that could be titled patience. I’ve never seen him do anything fast. He’s also never done anything without perfection. The toothpick glides and pokes, disappears then rolls into sight again.
Then he’ll smile a smile that stays a while and hum some little song.
When the trouble with Stewart started, which is to say upon the moment I met him, Milton would glance up from his carving and watch us argue. Milton’s side garage faces mine and he has a full view of our backyards, which border one another. Stewart asks me for ridiculous favors and intentionally pushes my buttons asking me how the Pirates are doing, knowing full well they’re awful and below the Cubs in the standings.
He wears a Cubs hat when he gardens. He is not a Cubs fan and they are not his team. I say this because his ignorance of baseball is such that I’m certain he thinks Ryne Sandberg is still their second baseman. I reply with smart-aleck retorts and random acts of vandalism. Milton watches and bounces with little pops of laughter.
The only time I’ve come close to physical assault was when Stewart asked if I didn’t mind moving my compost pile closer to my house because it was too close to his precious rhaphiolepis shrubs.
He trotted over to the fence, waiving me down while I mowed the lawn. I shut off the mower and took off my headphones to hear the request. My glare made him shrink six inches. Without saying a word I pushed “Play” and yanked the mower to a noisy buzz.
Out of the corner of my eye, I caught Milton’s head bobbing with laughter.
“You shouldn’t let that Stewart fella get under your skin so bad,” Milton said as Estelle’s tea cooled my forehead. “He’s lived here 17 years and run off four sets of neighbors. We kinda like you and Michelle and Chappy. Hate to see him get to you like that.”
“He doesn’t bother me. I just like making him think he does. He’s just such a selfish prick about everything. He’s never asked me for anything that didn’t involve putting me or my family out, so he or his pink bushes can get optimal Chi or some shhhhtttuff.”
I try to not swear around Milton and Estelle. No reason, really, other than it doesn’t feel right.
“Patience, my man. Patience. You don’t have to accommodate him any more than he has to accommodate you. But if you lay low, he’ll get fidgety.”
“Then you win.”
Milton enjoys my antagonizing of Stewart almost as much as I do. He knows if Stewart is more uncomfortable with me as a neighbor than I am with him, the entertainment value of Hickory Hollow will go up. That won’t get you much in the way of a better asking price, but that’s okay. You won’t want to move.
Milton’s family is from Louisiana. While I’m not sure of the details, I get the sense a visiting relative had a run-in with Stewart years ago and made some references to auras and spirits in thick, Cajun dialect. Stewart thinks Milton and Estelle know voodoo, so a smile and wave are the extent of his interaction with them.
A couple months back I put a garter snake in Stewart’s mailbox. Milton watched me investigate the find, grab it from behind, wrap it around my hand and walk down the block as he primed a bookcase he’d finished earlier that day. I could almost hear him chuckle as I dropped the little thing on the cover of a copy of Plants magazine and closed the front.
The shriek was dramatic enough to coax Mr. Haynes, the Boo Radley-esque legend of Hickory Hollow who lives across the street from Stewart, to his front steps. Stewart fled to his porch, screaming like a little girl covered in cockroaches, which was the intended effect. His insistence that the snake was of the cobra variety was passionate enough that no neighbors wanted to attempt freeing the thing. Someone called Animal Control. When Milton saw Stewart point them toward my house, he put down his brush and patience-d over to make peace.
Milton talked with them a few minutes. Stewart went inside and Animal Control took the snake off in a bucket. If they got the same vibe most people get from Stewart, they drove around the block then tossed the snake in his precious shrubs.
The next day I helped Milton lift the dried bookcase into his truck bed.
“What did you say to Stewart yesterday to get him all calmed down.”
“Not much. Said there were some kids from the new development down the road running around the creek earlier that day who probably thought a snake in a mailbox would be funny. Told him he shouldn’t get all upset.”
“He thought I did it, right?”
“Oh yeah. Told Animal Control you probably fell under their jurisdiction.”
“Sweet. Thanks for covering for me.”
“I didn’t lie. Told him I didn’t think you would ever put a cobra in his mailbox.”
“Sometimes I’m tempted.”
“After the animal control people got back in their truck, I did give him something to stew on, though.”
“I told him he’d best watch out for you, that your aura was dark red and the spirits were unsettled around you. Then I said something with a thick Cajun.”
“That’s fantastic!” I laughed.
“Oh, you got him where you want him now, there Mistah Logan. Just make sure you do one thing.”
“Don’t get caught.”
And Milton smiled a smile that stays a while and hummed some little song.