"You're nice people," the road man says. "I can tell you're not from around here."
Well, this puts me in a bit of a bind. I hadn't planned on being a nice person. My husband did that yesterday. Standing out here on our dirt road with the men in charge of maintaining it, I'm here as the heavy.
"Most of the old farmers around here won't let me even cut down a dead tree," he says, reaching for his chain saw.
"That's one of the things I wanted to talk to you about," I say.
He looks at me suspiciously, a sideways glance. Don't tell me you're one of them.
This, I already know, is going to be exhausting. This is a dance. This is the way it works out here in the country, where taxes are low and, so, municipal services are often favors. Everything is personal.
Living on a dirt road is personal. If the road man forgets about you after a hard rain, you have ruts, and you have to call him to come smooth things over. If he likes you, he'll come right out. If he doesn't, then you have to call again and again until he comes out, and then he likes you even less for nagging.
We have a new road man, and he forgot us a lot last winter. We tried not to take it personally. He was still trying to figure out who was who. So yesterday, when my husband heard the man's truck rumbling by, he dashed out to introduce himself and to impress him with his kindness. The two men stood there for nearly an hour, laughing and telling stories. We figured it was a home run.
I dashed out this morning when I heard his truck rumbling by because I'm worried my husband may have inadvertently given the road man permission to cut down the trees on our property. He went a little overboard with the niceness, I think, saying how cooperative we are, how we don't mind if the crew wants to dig a ditch for drainage, and if there is a tree in the way, of course take it away. Of course? Well, now wait a minute. I love my trees. I don't care if they are just old locusts and chokecherries. If there's one that needs to go, I demand to be consulted. This is what I am here to say.
"I'd like to talk about which tree you're concerned about," I say.
Now his gaze is pure impatience. "Let me dump this stone; then we'll walk over and look," he says, climbing into his truck.
The assistant road man, the skinny one who has not yet said anything, takes the opportunity to win my trust. "It's a good thing you're here," he says. "He was in a mood to chop. He would have taken out the whole row. Sometimes he gets the bug."
"Oh, God," I say. "Help me. You must help me!"
The main road man comes back, extends his hand. "God should have made me a lot smarter or a lot dumber," he announces. "What's hardest for me is all the understanding."
I'm pretty sure he's not talking about my trees. "The reason I went into politics was to change things," he says. "But people like me are never going to change things."
People like him, I learn, are middle class, nondrinkers, good fathers, decent hardworking husbands who value fair play. Politics is in reference to his post as a township supervisor, which carries with it the obligation to spend some time maintaining the roads. "I get paid next to nothing for this," he says. "I'm just a good citizen. Maybe that makes me a chump."
"No," I say, earnestly. Soon he is telling me about how his daughter died in a car accident -- left behind two kids, whom he raised. He tells me how many times he had to go to court to keep custody, how much money it cost him to defend himself for just doing the right thing. This brings him to international relations. "I say America should be nice -- but only to the people who are nice to us. How hard is that to understand?"
"It's not," I say. I am trying to be understanding. What I am understanding is that these thoughts may be the ones the road man had planned to take out on my trees. It's the trickle-down effect. One day a man is frustrated by the system, and the next my chokecherries are in the chipper.
He's on to Iraq now, concerned about military spending. "Listen," he says. "If you and I get into a fight -- if we have a legitimate reason to come to blows -- I'd beat the tar out of you, right?"
"Um -- "
"And then do you think I'd stick around to rehabilitate you? What is that about?"
"I never thought about it that way," I say, hoping that he's starting to like me, which I think he might be. I can see it in the posture of the skinny guy, now all relaxed. Sometimes a person just needs to vent.
"God should have made me a lot smarter or a lot dumber," he says, picking up his chain saw. He points to an overhanging limb and says, Let's get it. I tell him okay, and that is that.
Jeanne Marie Laskas's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.