Herbie was a slow, heavy, dark-skinned man who kept himself clean and well-groomed. In the summer when the weather was warm, he dressed in cotton short sleeves and plaid Bermuda shorts, and he always carried a white handkerchief to clean his wire-rim glasses or wipe away the beads that constantly reformed at the end of his large nose and hung upon the thick, black, cropped hairs of his nostrils. Mostly, he worked in the yard of his adopted mother, old Mrs. Lawson, slowly cropping hedges, crouching to collect windfall, or weeding the garden, always careful not to trample the flowers or chop the good roots.
He, forty-something and slow of thought, and I, eight and fatherless, lived a house apart on this shady college-town street where, despite his stilted speech, stutter, and constant monotone humming, he was my guardian across the green meadows, cherry orchards, and on to the college frontier. While I played on the fringes among the dirt piles, straw bales, concrete drainpipes, and lumber stacks, Herbie supervised construction from under the yellow helmet given to him by the workers, humming smoothly within the greater engine of bulldozer, crane, and backhoe.
Later that summer, a professor’s son who lived nearby came occasionally from his books and his very own playhouse to journey with us, and under the high arching sun, Billy and I devised a game called GOON in which Herbie was always it–the designated monster who, upon nearing us, would raise his humming to a strange moaning sound and flush us out screeching from tree, bush, or shed to flee in terrible ecstasy across the browning lawns. So we played on, finding secret nooks in the farther shadows until one early twilight, when the second breath of August stirred the leaves to uneasy whisper, Billy suddenly burst hysterical from the shed: “Herbie turned violent, Herbie turned violent!” Of course he had not really; he had merely hammed up his role, revving his engine to shake in its mounts, the pitch of his drone playing the reedy clapboards of the old shed where Billy cowered in a bin of discarded dolls.
On phantom evenings at the end of one summer, he, forever forty-something and I, now twelve, stood at fifty paces on the college lawn where I instructed him on the art of throwing a baseball–not pinch-armed from the ear like a girl, but more roundhouse, elbow cocked wide like Whitey Ford or Don Drysdale. Although he cooperated, he barely progressed and never really learned the trick of it, and would eventually, at old Mrs. Lawson’s nightly yodeling across the neighborhood “HERbert, HerBERT!” leave me alone there, tossing easy poppers into the mauve dome above the embers of this day now gone.
If I want, I can still see him: a series of porch lights record the lean and switch of his shadow across the lawns, and because I knew him as the figure of both man and child, I find comfort in the prospect that there is a God somewhere like Herbie, composed of forbearance and diligence, who, in his droning procession is always careful not to trample his lovely gardens.