Trimming Time with Tico
"All you have to do is trim this bush back, man. Dig it. I can do this in less than an hour!" somebody yells from my backyard.
It's late afternoon and I've just sat down at my desk to work when the shouting starts. Our landlord is selling the house and he's hired some help fix up the outside of an already decrepit suburban home. I look out from my window and see an old black man wearing sunglasses and a football jersey. He's leaning on a shovel. A short Latin guy struts around in shorts and no shirt, yelling and moving stuff from behind the garage. The backyard is covered with the landlord's junk: rusty birdcages, furniture, broken bikes, garden tools. It's stuff we moved behind the garage to keep it tidy. Now, all of it is laying on the grass of the backyard.
"Man, if you just let me cut this stuff back, it'll look killer," the short guy yells, his voice echoes over the quiet neighbourhood.
"You're crazy, Tico. Just leave that shit alone," the other says.
I close the window, draw the shades, and turn up the classical music. I try to get back to writing the article. The room is hot and stuffy. The yelling outside continues.
Later the sun dips into the horizon and cools the pavement. I open my window. It's quiet in the backyard. I get my bike and head towards the Altadena Dairy. One of the workers, the short Latin guy, is painting the front iron fence. He's wearing a floppy fishing cap, white socks and faded flower-print shorts, which could be boxers or pajamas.
"Hey brother, how's it going?" he asks, putting down his paintbrush and walking over. There are two swallow tattoos on his chest. "You have any cigarettes?"
I tell him that I'm going for a bike ride so he asks if could bring back a soda. When I return he's still on the sidewalk painting over the rusty white fence. I notice that he's also wearing white tube socks without any shoes. I hand him a soda and he asks for a smoke.
"My name is Terence but call me Tico, brother," he says, drawing on the cigarette. "I play music on Hollywood Boulevard sometimes and this producer cat wants me to write some songs for his movie. Dude, can you believe that? I'm 50 and I've played in hundreds of bands but was never asked to write for the movies. Far out, huh?"
I nod while still seated on my bike. The neighbours' sprinkles come on across the street.
"But I got some badass cuts," he says, pumping both fists back.
"Cuts?" I ask, eyeing his arms for trackmarks.
"Songs, dude. Ha ha!" he laughs waving his wiry tanned arms towards the oak tree above us. "You're a funny cat."
I smile and try to back my bike into the driveway. I'm looking for a pause in the conversation but Tico continues to talk -- very fast and very loud.
He taps my shoulder and pulls a tight smile. "Man, when I walked into this club the dude had all these fine chicks with big tits and a mountain of coke on the table." His brown eyes roll back into his skull. "How fucking cool is that, bro?"
I wince as a cute woman walks down the street with her daughter and their small white dog. They quickly cross the street before they get to my house. The loud drug talk is making me paranoid.
"You have a guitar in the house, man?" Tico asks. His pupils are wide black saucers. Speed or acid?
"No, it's broken," I lie to him.
"How many strings does it have?"
Tico tilts his head back and hollers, "Shit man, that ain't even a bass!"
When he drops his cigarette, I quickly sneak away and into the house. I close the door and peek behind the curtain. Tico goes back to painting the fence but now he's singing. The neighbour across the street gets into her car. Tico stops and waves to her as she drives away looking confused.
"Who's your new friend?" my roommate asks.
I shake my head and lock the front door.
Days later, I wake up early to go surfing. I have lunch with a friend, return home, work, run and then make plans for the night.
"Hey Robert! It's your favourite painter. What's up, brother?" somebody shouts from the front screen door. It's Tico. He asks to borrow the cordless phone. Today he's wearing black jean shorts. I see his T-shirt resting over the back of the porch chair. He smells of chaparral.
"Come check this shit out, man." Tico shows me to a corner of the front lawn where there is a small splash of white paint on the green. "That old man Leonard did that. Poor dude. He said this work was bullshit and split. So it's just me now, Robert."
"Um, OK," I say.
Tico proceeds to show me how he trimmed the front bushes and that he could finish the front gate if he had ten cans of white spray paint. He asks for a cigarette. I tell him I don't smoke.
"I was waiting for your landlord to come by and bring me some lunch," Tico says with his arms on his waist. "And I'm starving, dude."
I go into the house and come back with five dollars. "There's a Taco Bell around the corner."
"Right on, brother!" Tico high fives me and smiles. His teeth are brown and yellow. "Brother, I'll pay you back when I get paid," he says while putting on his shirt. "Hey man, can I borrow your bike?"
Something in my stomach rumbles. "Um, OK. Yeah, sure," I say, drawing out the words.
"Thanks man, I'll be back in five minutes!" Tico yells as rides away on my bicycle.
Over an hour later and there is no sign of Tico. I've cooked soba, watched some telly, taken a shower and got ready to drive to Palos Verde. But still no Tico. I get a weird feeling standing on the porch with my car keys. I think to myself that Tico probably took off with the bike. The early evening is heavy with the smell of jasmine. I go back inside to lock up. Standing by my car, I shake my head. "That asshole," I say to the cracks in the driveway.
"Who's an asshole? Let's get him, man." It's Tico sitting on the brick porch obscured by the bougainvillea.
"It's nothing. No problem." I see my bike resting against the fence next to Tico's gardening gloves.
"Thanks for the five bucks, brother. I'll pay you back for sure, man." He cradles a large burrito in his hand and lifts it towards a plane passing above us.
"Is everything OK, man? Are you mad at somebody? Did some asshole piss you off?" Tico asks. Tiny pieces of lettuce and bean drop from his mouth.
"No, I was just talking to myself."
"Hey, I do that a lot, too. We're the same, dude." He points at the swallows on his chest. "Artists do that, you know, talk to themselves. I like to sing a lot, too. You got that guitar fixed yet?"
I tell him that I'm late and drive away. He flashes me the peace sign.
A few days later I get some afternoon surf and come back to find Tico chopping away at the bougainvillea in the front yard.
He comes running towards me with large hedge shears. I take the board off my car and put it between me and him.
"Wow! Far out! You went surfing, dude. That's crazy!" Tico then tells me since we locked the garage he had to borrow some tools from the widow next door. Tico is wearing his black denim jeans; his curly gray hair is tucked under a faded baseball cap. He takes a break and uses the cordless. When I ask him how things are, Tico tells me that the landlord hasn't paid him yet for his work. His rent is due.
"I live in this studio in Hollywood and I do some handiwork so the rent is reduced." Tico takes a drink from the garden hose and washes his face. "But my ass is broke and I need to get paid."
He slaps me hard on the back. "Word! That's right, dude! You're funny, man! You know what I'm talking about!"
As soon as I bring my stuff into the house, Tico pounds on the screen door. He wants to borrow the cordless phone again. "It's a local call, dude. Don't worry, man."
For the next few hours, Tico yells my name, asks to borrow the phone, to get a glass of water or for me to open the garage door. Somehow his presence is not that annoying; in fact, when I'm sitting inside, I find some reason to come out and check on his gardening progress.
"Can I borrow your bike again?" Tico asks me.
He's gone for an hour. I find him sitting on the porch eating coffee cake he bought at the bakery outlet. "Hey man, do you want some cake?"
"No thanks, Tico." I go and get him a paper plate and a napkin.
"This shit is really good, man. You should try some of this. Oh! Check this out!" Tico says standing up quickly like a switchblade. From a plastic bag he pulls out a black letterman jacket. "I got this at the motel. You know, that they can't touch people's stuff that they leave behind."
"But they can give it away?" I ask.
"Damn right, man!" he shouts with bits of coffee cake crumbs falling from his mouth. He high fives me with his small but calloused hand. "Ain't this a badass jacket, dude?" As he lifts it up to the porch light a moth hovers around his head like a crazy halo.
"Sure, looks nice."
"Real leather!" Tico's voice crescendos. His back bends forward and then snaps back. "This is one bad fucking jacket, dude."
"And it's free," I point out.
"Yeah! Ha ha! You're right!"
Itıs nearly eight-thirty in the evening when I step outside again and see Tico still working. He's waiting for the landlord to come by and pick him up. I'm standing on the yard and watching Tico stuff the green rubbish bins with thorns.
"This shit is really thorny, brother. You gotta watch yourself with the branches and all," Tico tells me.
"It's 8:30, Tico. Maybe you should cut out for the day."
"Yeah, I want to but your landlord is suppose to come by and pick me up. I'm just waiting for his ass to come and get me. Can I use your phone again?" Tico calls the landlord and leaves a message: "Hey man, It's Tico. I'm here cleaning all this shit up and you still haven't paid me and I need a ride back home. So come by. OK? Please. I need that money, man. I mean it. Thanks."
The nice widow next door comes by to get the tools Tico borrowed from her. "Any takers on the house yet?" she asks. I tell her I donıt know but my roommate just bought a beautiful house in the hills where we will be moving soon. She says to let her know before we leave. A very sweet gentle person.
Suddenly, the sprinklers across the street sputter. An airplane passes overhead as a sliver of moon appears. Somewhere down the block a dog barks.
"Man, I am done with all this shit today," Tico says while rolling the rubbish bins to the side of the house. With the garden hose Tico washes up and dries his face with his T-shirt.
"The garden looks good, Tico. So does the fence," I tell him although he only partially painted the fence.
"Thanks, brother. I can do the whole fence if I had ten cans of spray paint. It'll take no time," Tico tells me as he puts his gloves on the fence. "Hey, are you going out tonight?"
"Probably the other direction away from Hollywood."
"Well, dig it: maybe you can drive me up to the landlord's estate so he can pay me my money because I'm flat broke and I need money to get by."
"I don't know, Tico. I think I'm going to Santa Monica tonight."
"When are you leaving?"
"Um, I don't know. Soon, I think." I look at the ants crawling along the brick flower bed. "I don't know if that's a good idea to just show up at the landlord's house."
Tico folds his arms over his thin chest. "Man, I don't care. I barely have money for the bus and I've called him all day and just got his answering machine."
"Well, I'm sure he'll pay you tomorrow, Tico. You've done a lot of work on the property."
"You're right, man. He better pay," Tico says sitting on the porch. "When are you guys moving?"
"In a few weeks. Just waiting now really. My friend bought this really beautiful house in the hills. I'm excited though I'm only going to stay there for a little while."
"It must be nice to buy a house, brother. It must be really nice," Tico says.
I sit next to him on the porch as the night unfolds its royal blues and stars. Down the street we see a young couple place their child in the backseat before driving away.
"You got kids, brother?" Tico asks me.
"Not that I know of."
"What? Ha ha! That's great, man!" He slaps me on the back. "Yeah man, I got a son. He's almost 25. Trippy, huh? I could have had all that house and family stuff, man. Maybe I didn't want all that, too. I just got off track and into some, well, you know, shit I shouldn't have been doing, right?"
"But hey man, my life ain't that bad. I have a roof over my head, work once in a while. I have my music and all the pussy I can handle. Ha ha ha!" Tico gets up and packs his things into the plastic bag.
"Here, dude. For the bus." I hand him some money.
"I can't take this, bro. I already owe you for lunch and all that other stuff."
"No problem. Don't worry about it."
We shake hands and he leaves through the front gate.
"Tell that crazy landlord that I need my money soon and if he comes, tell him that I went that way to catch the bus. Thanks for everything, bro. I'll pay you back when I see you tomorrow," Tico tells me as he walks down the street.
I wave to him and he lifts up his plastic white bag. Slowly the street lamps start to flicker on and bathe the neighbourhood in pyramids of light. Tico flashes me the peace sign and smiles. "See you tomorrow, dude."
I haven't seen him since.