Dick Buford’s home smelled like drying paint, yeast and sausages. Dick himself was splayed recumbent on the couch, a plate rising and falling on his bare, hairy orb of a stomach. In his other hand he held a small canvas. Above him sat a hunting rifle, the one he’d used to fell the lion whose taxidermy head snarled beside it.
“Ham!” he said, giving me a wave with a sausage-skewered fork. Dick’s face was that inflated, ruddy kind that always looks like its owner is under considerable physical strain.
As I approached he twisted, burped, and, using his sausage, raked a tube of mauve acrylic paint toward him. I caught a whiff of hops on his breath and heard bottles tinkle somewhere deep in the couch’s cushions.
“Look at this,” he said, holding up a painting of what might have been a mountain but really looked like a monstrous tit, purple clouds circling its magenta areola. “I call it, Ol’ Benamuckee.”
I nodded and patiently let him explain to me the cultural insignificance of altitude among the natives of the Juan Fernandez Islands.
Dick Buford’s exploits were as legendary as they were true.
“They don’t worship height as we do,” Dick said. “Listen!”
I had been.
“Theirs is a worship of flesh…”
Dick nodded off. The plate slid from his stomach and shattered on the white tile floor. With a roar, Dick awoke. “The yeast!”
Springing from the couch, Dick bowled me out of the way and did that beer belly shuffle where his ass and legs oscillated around the orb of his stomach with splayed feet, knees wide. Dick no longer went on adventures to all points of the globe. He made bread now. Famous bread, of course.
“Ham,” he called from the kitchen. I followed.
My name is actually LeSean, but Dick just called me Ham because during our first lunch together I had decided to get a ham sandwich for lunch and Dick claimed it was my favorite and I ate it every day. I doubt he even remembered my real name. I’m Dick’s driver. I have been for ten years.
“You ever think about kids?” said Dick.
“Having them?” I asked.
“Of course having them you pederast.” The smell of yeast smothered the kitchen. The room was painted orange with countertops of white tile: a creamsicle of a room. Dick sprinkled a careful spoonful of light brown sugar on his prized bacteria.
“Sure,” I said. “I’ve considered it.”
“Right,” said Dick, slamming the yeast back into the refrigerator. The matter was settled.
“Well,” said Dick. “We better get going.”
I looked out the bay window behind the sink as Dick went to put on shoes. The sole foliage in the yard was an elm, its topmost branches withered, while the rest was a violent green. The lawn around the elm sloped long and emerald all the way down to the tree line. Dick had settled down in Nice New Jersey — a world away from the New Jersey everyone thought they knew.
From the other room, I could hear the grunts that came with Dick attempting to reach anything below his belly.
Why had I been driving Dick around for ten years? Sure, there were other jobs out there but this had been the most interesting. Plus, it paid damn well since I have to be on call five days a week. Dick chose not to have a weekend driver. Needed time with his yeast alone, he said.
Dick continued to work away at his shoes. Between his grunts were wheezes and peeps I’d only heard when he was getting really worked up.
“Toadpiss,” Dick said. I poked my head around the corner just to double check.
Dick was on his back beside the bench like a giant pill bug, grappling with his left boot’s shoelaces.
“Almost…” said Dick. I knew more than well enough never to offer Dick assistance when he was in a bind. He was a rugged individualist who’d grew up in an orphanage and made it his sole mission to never ask for anyone’s help again. I’d once asked if he wanted some help getting into his jacket only to find myself pinned against the wall with a Ka-Bar to my throat.
“I’ll just go get the car ready,” I said.
I sat in the car. I listened to country. I watched the other luxury vehicles native to Dick’s neighborhood whisper by. The sun had moved significantly across the sky by the time I decided to go back in. I’d become incredibly patient with Dick, but this had been too much time.
Beyond the wrenching squeak of his front door’s massive iron hinges, there was no other sound in the place. I found Dick nearly where I’d left him, sitting silently on the wooden mudroom bench, elbows on his knees, his head hung low. His shoelaces lolled onto the ground, still untied.
“Still want to go to the gardens?” I asked. We always went to the New Jersey Botanicle Gardens on Wednesday. Dick was silent. Two small dime-sized pools reflected up off the slate tile floor, just between Dick’s shoes.
Dick looked up at me with red eyes.
“I couldn’t,” he said. “Couldn’t…” He held his open palms above his untied shoes, looking at his outstretched fingers with growing hate. “Protesilaus…”
“What?” I asked.
“Go home!” said Dick, rising and stepping out of his shoes. “Get out.”
I left quickly. I never questioned a direct order from Dick.
The next day I came the same time I always did. Dick was in none of his usual spots. The couch was bare. The kitchen was as we’d left it yesterday. Only the smell of sausage had dissipated, the caustic smell of yeast and wet paint remained.
I found Dick on the back porch, wearing sandals and the same clothes as yesterday, his hunting rifle stretched across his thighs. On the lawn, the elm stood straight ahead of him.
“Ham,” Dick said. His voice sounded thick and he was curled in a way that suggested a stomachache. He sat with his back facing me.
“Huh,” I said. “Fired?”
I approached him from behind.
“Stop,” he said. Commanded. “Envelope. The table. Take it.”
Dick didn’t move. It was the first conversation I’d ever had with him that he hadn’t looked me directly in the face. Where he hadn’t made sure I broke eye contact first. Alpha male dominance maneuver he’d learned from the Surma of South Sudan.
On the teak picnic table next to me was an envelope, no name written on it.
“What’s this?” I asked.
He still hadn’t turned. Hadn't moved at all, in fact. The words he had managed seemed squeezed out of him — like an automaton with just enough energy to force them out. He stayed stationary, looking out at the elm, that hunting rifle draped across his knees.
The envelope was thin and I could see the silhouette of one of Dick’s signature rainforest-themed checks. I ripped open a corner
“Not now!” said Dick.
“OK,” I said, putting the envelope into my jacket. “Sorry.” I didn’t want to leave it like this. I wanted to shake Dick’s hand, or at least thank him for the job and companionship if you could call it that.
“Can I at least give you a hand shake?” I said.
“No!” Dick barked.
“Well,” I said, wringing my hands. “Thanks, Dick. For… um, everything.”
It was a lame goodbye.
“Leave the keys,” said Dick.
In my dusty car I opened the check. Its contents had been written with deliberate effort, though the penmanship was still shaky. Even in his writing he’d tried to hide his loss of control. I wish I could say it was for a million dollars or ten million or something, but it was still an impressive five thousand dollar bonus on top of a month’s pay: something to help with my mortgage.
You might wonder why I didn’t call an ambulance for Dick. Why I didn’t try to help more. You don’t know him like I did. Help in his time of greatest need would have been a knife in the back, twisted — the ultimate betrayal.
The next week Dick’s obituary appeared in the paper. No service. No next of kin. No cause of death. But I knew what it was.
You might wonder why I told this story, since it’s sad and it’s anticlimactic. I told it because it feels like the sort of story that actually happens, rather than the kind anyone wants. That’s what I like about it. It’s a story that makes us know we’re not alone. That bad things happen to everyone all of the time and that everything hard and terrible in the world has been endured before. That especially in loss and in grief we’re closer to everyone else than we are in happiness — though it always feels the opposite. I think that’s the sort of story that really matters. But that’s just what I think.
Gritty McDuff’s — Gritty’s — was the first brewpub in Portland. Essentially, it was the seed that became the forest of brew pubs we Portlanders now enjoy. You can nearly feel the rich ambience oozing out of the bricks while sitting at one of the picnic-style tables at their Portland location. Unfortunately, though the culinary landscape of Portland has evolved, Gritty’s seems in stasis. Is their menu extensive? Absolutely. Is their food made with care? Check. Is it just fine? Yes. But that’s just it. It’s fine. This is the undisputed first brewpub in Portland! I want the food to be amazing.
Just your societally agreed-upon bar food prices. ~$10 burgers/sandwiches. Normal-price Beers.
Gritty’s shines when it comes to two factors, ambience and brew. The Portland location especially warms the cockles of my heart with its convivial atmosphere and sense of monument-like solidity in the heart of the Old Port.
The bartenders and service staff have been tip top. They know how to handle a crowd.
EAT OR SKIP:
I’m breaking convention here because I really do like Gritty’s. I like the mugs — of their exclusive Mug Club — hanging above the bar. I like how much they’re involved in philanthropy in the Portland community. I like that they’re the pioneers of the Maine microbrew explosion, and their beers continue to delight. It’s simply their food that could stand a 21st century renaissance to match the excellence of everything else they offer.