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SET IN STONE

ROY NEAL FOUND HIS CALLING THROUGH TROWEL AND ERROR.

In the beginning, there was beer. "About three hundred beers," remembers Bill Jones, who owns and manages Reiver's restaurant on Old South Gaylord. "We got to chatting over at least that many drinks. I don't drink anymore and neither does Neal, but that was then."

Then was a culmination of the years that Roy Neal had spent leaning on Reiver's bar. How he got there in the first place still mystifies Jones.

"It may have been that he was working on a project right down the block, laying bricks or something," Jones says of the customer he knew only as a "workingman's" mason. "I'd see him every day for months, eating lunch by himself at my place. Then he started drinking here. It was one of those relationships where you don't realize a guy is becoming a regular until suddenly he is."

One day, this regular turned to Jones and, quietly slurring his words, announced that he intended to do him a favor.

"He took me out back to the patio and said, `I'm gonna build you the best fucking fountain you ever saw in your life,'" Jones recalls. "I said, `Yeah sure, that sounds great,' and forgot about it. A year later he showed up with drawings."

Jones liked Roy Neal's drawings. Though not terribly specific, they seemed to indicate that the back yard at Reiver's could be turned into a sort of turn-of-the-century secret garden. Not at all certain that Neal could accomplish what he'd sketched, Jones gave him a tentative okay--after stressing that he couldn't afford to pay a lot for it, and after receiving Neal's assurance that he wouldn't charge a lot. Neither man ever clarified what "a lot" represented in dollars. They were equally vague about the project's timetable.

"It was supposed to take two weeks," Jones remembers, "and it stretched out into two months. Actually, I wish it had taken a year. I sat out there mesmerized, watching it fall together. Neal showed up with his partner, a guy he was buddies with in Vietnam. They were joined at the hip from battle experience. Every day at noon, I'd take them out a big lunch and we'd start drinking. We went on and on till about nine at night. I can't remember the things we talked about, the suggestions I made."

Brick by brick, a floor took shape. Neal pried off a prefab fountain bolted to the wall and replaced it with water-spouting gargoyle faces he'd designed and molded himself. He put in plants and arches, a small sculpture of a naked mother and child, and a curved brick wall at a level no one can see unless they're on their knees hunting for a lost contact lens.

"And he is a total perfectionist," Jones adds. "He kept coming back for over a year. Adding plants, changing bricks. After a while, I just said, whatever you want, Neal."

By the summer of 1993, Neal's work was technically complete--and bore almost no resemblance to his original sketches. But that didn't matter to Jones, who says he was "pleased and amazed" with the outcome. The final bill came to $3,000, but Jones paid Neal $4,000.

"It wasn't enough," Jones adds. "I was embarrassed it was so cheap. I mean, talk about a surprise. A burned-out Vietnam vet who does work like this? I'd like to think he'll never finish. I'd like to think it's a work in progress."

By this past summer, though, embellishments to Reiver's patio had slowed substantially, because Neal had surrendered to a new project and an even more trusting client.

"The first thing I saw was the arch," says Clarissa Pinkola Estes, best-selling author of Women Who Run With the Wolves, who has been in the habit of lunching at Reiver's for years. "I mean, have you ever tried to build an arch? It's not easy."

Pinkola Estes contemplated the Reiver's arch for some time, and then began to covet it. Whoever built it, she thought, could bring one of her dreams to life. "I wanted a grotto," she explains. "A brick archway for a Virgin of Guadalupe statue, a little concrete thing I'd bought in Mexico." As for design, Pinkola Estes had in mind the half-buried bathtubs she saw in Mexican neighborhoods everywhere.

Jones thought Roy Neal could do the job, and Pinkola Estes put in a call. She waited several months for a reply--Neal, she later found out, was in Rome, working on a cathedral restoration with craftsmen who'd learned their skills from their fathers.

When Neal finally called, she asked him if he could "just build an arch, a small one--three feet, maybe. I didn't know who I was about to meet," Pinkola Estes laughs. "I had no idea."

Roy Neal has a slightly different take on his work for Bill Jones. "He told me he wanted a mother-and-child sculpture," Neal says. "I made this one." He holds out a snapshot of the Reiver's bas-relief, with its slender, Botticellian mother and an almost-newborn-looking baby, both naked. "Bill told me he was afraid I'd come back with something modern, saying, `The big rock is the mother and the little rock is the child.' When I didn't, he was relieved. He let me run wild, really."

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