Relay: The Chore of All Chores

“Next they’ll have you sweeping the sun off the roof”

In “The Hurt Locker,” directed by a woman, Kathryn Bigelow, nine years before social media movements put a bullhorn to just how rare that was, we see a bomb squad specialist played by Jeremy Renner at loose ends back home from Iraq. To top off the boob-tube-and-supermarket boredom, a gray afternoon of clearing leaves from the gutters of his modest house helps put him over the edge. 

He rotates back in.

We see him again at movie’s end, suited up in his padded impact gear, large-limbed and huge-helmeted, resolutely waddling away from the camera like a blocky Minecraft character in search of the next I.E.D. The Baghdad street is dusty and leafless.

Movies aren’t life, but they do tend to drive the important points home. I’ve thought of Jeremy Renner miserably scooping leaves on three occasions recently — each one as I balanced atop a cheap four-foot Home Depot aluminum ladder, my feet covering the words “do not sit or step,” the ground uneven and softened by burrowing rodents, as I blindly reach for the collected detritus, inevitably mushy in this wettest of falls, one handful at a time, time after time, the ladder scooted in three-foot increments down the length of gutter, again and again, back of the house then front, slowly filling one plastic grocery bag after another. 

The pointlessness puts me in mind of the mocking words of a secretary I once worked with: “Next they’ll have you sweeping the sun off the roof.”

And just what kind of fall is this? If it isn’t pouring, it’s around the freezing mark, the damp driving the chill bone-deep. 

I used to like the cold. In my early 30s, near the end of a seven-year experiment in living simply on a maximum of $8 an hour west of the Mississippi, I worked outside every day for two full Fairbanks, Alaska, winters, one of them as a laborer on a construction site where a Schucks Auto Supply store was being built, and for 20 straight days at the beginning of 1999 the temperature didn’t reach as much as 20 below, with a low of about minus 50. (I remember because I record such things in calendars, Brett Kavanaugh-style, only without the artistry.)

That was an exceptional cold snap, and if in the depths of it I once carelessly left my earlobes exposed, frostbite swelling them into two small pieces of reddened fruit, that was just part of the adventure. 

When it comes to appendages, the ear, that odd cup of cartilage hung with a teardrop of flesh, is relatively insensate. Hands are another story. So the other day when I dipped mine repeatedly into gutters holding a quarter-inch of late-November rainwater, I thought it a fine idea to do so wearing nitrile gloves — you know, “the latex-free alternative”? The kind you don’t want to see your doctor pulling over his extended index finger? 

I was soon gasping in pain, having stumbled inside to run my hands under warm tap water for relief. It’s the moisture, I’m telling you, that brings the hurt. Fairbanks may be cold, “but it’s a dry cold,” to invert the old Johnny Carson joke.

Then there’s the matter of all that dead matter. I was get-a-beer friendly with a couple of English professors in college — a couple of a couple — who would say how the sight of bare trees always made them want to die. Or at least contemplate the idea of death, like Snoopy used to do, always with great profundity, from his doghouse as he watched the leaves fall.

At the other end of the spectrum is the opinion, equally an old saw, that the coming of crisp fall brings new life.

Well, which is it? Somehow, the prospect of cramming a half-acre’s worth of leaves into oversized brown paper bags kills the discussion.

Baylis Greene is an associate editor at The Star