UP to My EYEBALLS

in leaves.  The first poem I fell in love with went something like this:

Leaves are fun in autumn/ on sunny days I found/ you can rustle them and bustle them/ with a crinkly-crunchy sound.

Yesterday I had a visitor to my garden. “Back so soon?” I asked.

“Yes,” the angel said, “I’m here to give you a gold medallion for having raked your ten trillionth leaf. We in heaven are impressed.”

“But you gave me a medallion two years ago,” I said.

“That was for your five trillionth leaf. You have upped your pace.”

Now I am having my doubts about that angel.

 

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Francis is a Man with a Beard like that

Francis Yount the Third fell in love with his beard. It wasn’t something he was planning on. He was not planning on having a beard. One day there it was. Obviously it took more than one day to come into existence but it was a singular day the second week of October when it stopped being maverick stubble. A beard at an early-in-life stage can, to some susceptible, be a provocation. Are you man enough to join the lineage of Moses and Santa Claus and John Brown of Kansas. Are you? It puts you on the spot.

For Francis Yount III that was not the question to answer. His beard was asking something else entirely. It was asking what it could do for Francis. Francis looked at it for what it was, a new arrival that would take some getting used to. It was very white, surprisingly white considering he still had a mop of mostly black hair.

The excessive whiteness was a sour note and so Francis, not someone to tolerate sour notes, made an appointment at the salon.

What did he want? He was undecided when he finally got in, and Rodolfo has no patience for hemming and hawing. Especially when you beg for an appointment like its an emergency.

Rodolfo ran some photos by him. One stood out, a geometric beard corrugated like Nebuchadnezzar’s. Well yes, that was the look he was looking for. Radical. They decided to wimp out with the dye; just some black to match Francis’s manly mop.

Francis fell into one of those delicious barber chair sleeps. It was magical. A carpet ride. A glide in the current, balm and bliss, and then he was yanked out it. Rodolfo was escorting him from the chair, another customer waiting.

The mirror behind the receptionist’s desk gave him his first good look at his new beard. It ended his love affair with his beard. A beard like that would cut off your head in your sleep. It was something he’d have to keep placating to keep happy. He camouflaged his thoughts of shaving lest the beard get wind of them.

A Handful of Air

A portly man with carrot-orange hair was tromping through my flower beds. Since the city decimated the privet hedge along the sidewalk above, I have felt more exposed, vulnerable to gawkers. This was the first unwanted incursion.

I stepped out the front door and assumed a stern tone. “What are you doing in my garden?” The man was pawing a perennial and said something I could not make out. “This is a private property,” I said more loudly, though I doubt I sounded more intimidating.

The man turned and looked at me with aggravation and fatigue. “I am looking for my nephew’s tennis ball. He tossed it over the fence and is afraid look for it himself. Do you mind? Once I retrieve it I will go.”

My garden is steeply sloped, carved from the hill on which I live. The footing on the crumbly rock is far from secure. As I anticipated, the man’s feet slid from under him and he slipped sideways, landing on his elbow.

“Madre de Dios,” he muttered trying to scramble to his feet and predictably sliding again. A runnel of blood ran down his arm. “Edward, Edward,” he shouted, “will you please come help me?”

A boy, ten at most, gangly from a recent growth spurt, came through the gate. He paid me no attention as he deftly made his way to the fallen man. He helped the man to his feet and let himself become a crutch as they made their way back to the stability of the path. I went inside for some cotton swabs and alcohol. By the time I returned the man and boy had proceeded out the garden gate onto the sidewalk above.

“What is that plant with the velvety leaves?” the man asked as I applied a band-aid. “The one I landed so ungraciously upon.”

“Plectranthus.”

“What has happened to my memory? Plectranthus, a lovely plant but an unlovely name. And what is yours, sir?” he asked. I told him. He offered his name,“Silas,” in a way that sounded like he was trying its fit. “Now Edward, introduce yourself.” The boy extended his thin arm and gave me handshake soft as cotton. “And somewhere around here is Jessica. Jessica, where are you hiding?”

A girl, clearly the boy’s sister, maybe a twin, stepped from behind the trunk of a sycamore. “Jessica loves to hide, and she loves to be found. Don’t you Jessica?” She gave a sliver of a nod. “Jessica, this is Matthew. We just met Matthew in his lovely garden. Wouldn’t you like to get a glimpse of it? Come over here.” The girl, like the boy, maintained the attitude that if you did what the adults asked without fuss, they would soon leave you alone. “Isn’t it lovely,” Silas asked. Jessica at the open gate remained noncommittal.

The boy wriggled free from the man’s weight and re-entered the garden, descending its opposite side. Carefully straddling the polypodiums, he reached out and picked up a green tennis ball. Upon returning he held the ball inches from Silas’s nose, a gesture that seemed at first rude but which later I apprehended as a response to Silas’s nearsightedness.

The children fascinated me. I had not seen them before in the neighborhood. After some prompting, they allowed they lived the next street down the hill, that they went to McKinley Elementary, and that in fact they were twins.

“We are on a walk in the neighborhood. We would be immeasurably honored if you joined us,” Silas said with a rumble in his voice.

I said I would be happy to, and we walked down the hill together. The bell of silence surrounding the children shattered in a burst of chatter as soon as they were distant enough to prevent us eavesdropping. It appeared that a negotiation or a mild argument was taking place.

With Silas progress was slow to the point of laborious. He stopped at every garden, peering intently, and when his gaze acquired a bit of purchase, he would expound on the plants in view, or which he thought were in view, with set opinions, presumably for the benefit of the children who did not seem to be paying attention, but who, I suspected, were. He was more knowledgeable than the casual amateur. When he talked horticulture the poofery of his talk evaporated. He was able to identify for me a beschorneria cultivar in a garden on Bismark Street. He knew which one I was talking about though we were blocks away.

We were were on the return leg of our trip when the boy slipped in next to Silas who was squinting at a ten-foot high prickly pear cactus. The boy had something to say to him. “Auntie,” he said, “we are going to need your space.”

A shadow crossed Silas’s face as he lowered his chin. He turned his back to the boy and resumed his trudge up the hill. At the hilltop was a mini-playground and an overlook with benches. The city, veiled in sheer gray light, spread westward below us. The boy and girl hung onto the ladder of the slide and did not climb. They looked toward us and not the broad vista.

From that high point we turned back toward my garden. Two blocks away Jessica appeared alongside Silas. I thought I might have misheard the boy, but her words were exactly his. “Auntie,” she said, “we are going to need your space.”

Silas’s face became impassive as stone. He raised his arm and grasped some air, then opened his fist and let it go as if there were nothing more to say.

The Empty House

The house was too big even when Lucas was alive, and he was a man who took up a lot of space. Unless there were guests, we never went into the three extra bedrooms. The living room bore the name ironically. The furniture sat like third cousins at a wake, never warmed by a body. Mary Bridget, my sister, urged me to sell and move to a smaller place near the center of town and live on the proceeds. She said I could walk to stores. It was something I would have done, that I wanted to do, but I couldn’t lift a finger. Grief is a soggy sack that hangs on your back. You stagger along, more or less vertical, and it is an accomplishment.

It was Lucas’s idea, his compulsion really, to buy this house, and not something I ever understood, what having a large house meant to him. He wasn’t raised in a shack so he wasn’t overcompensating. He grew up in Tulsa on a street with tall elms where the houses were modest and sturdy. There was once a neighborhood called Greenwood nearby, a black enclave that in its prosperity and self-containment aroused the envy and hatred of their white neighbors who burned the place down. Thirty-five blocks, wiped out. They dropped gasoline bombs from planes.

Maybe Lucas wanting this fortress of a house had something to do with that history stinking up the air of his childhood.

Let me be clear, this house is not one of those monstrosities you see in affluent suburbs like Cherry Creek. It was built not to accommodate an inflated ego but instead a big family. I did research. The family was Lithuanian. He was a builder. She was sickly. They had six children; the firstborn, coincidentally named Lucas, died of the flu at the age of three.

My Lucas and I have no children. I don’t know what to say, have or had. No children, though we went along as though we expected they would come. They did not, it was that simple. Neither of us felt, if I can speak for Lucas too, deep regret.

After Lucas died I went into a phase where I would go into the unused bedrooms and sit on the bed and imagine the lives of the surviving children. The brothers in two bedrooms, the sisters Eugenia and Martina in the other. I had seen photos of the girls in their high-necked dresses so it was easy to conjure them, see their dark curls and hear their bird-like screeches.

I entered a subsequent phase. “Renovation” sounds planned. I painted the kitchen cream with green trim. It was something I’d been wanting to do a long time but when someone is ill in your house everything else falls away. One afternoon I came home and the pressure condensed into insistence: those brown cabinets and beige walls were not to be endured one second more. I drove to the paint store and without much deliberation chose the paint. I worked all afternoon and through the night, worked until the sun came up and I collapsed on the couch in living room. That is where Mary Bridget found me at noon, in my housedress blotched with cream and green paint. She thought I had had a stroke.

You always hope you have the right color and when it gets on the walls often you see you have made an awful mistake which, unless you start over from scratch you will regret for years. This was not that way. I was gratified in a way I had forgotten I had the capacity to be.

This surge of whatever, joy perhaps, propelled me to take on the funereal living room. I washed the windows, hung new curtains. I rented a machine and cleaned the couch and the carpet. I could have had it done by professionals but I had time. What else but time?

The effluvia of Lucas’s boyish enthusiasms cluttered shelves: geodes, feathers, skulls, hummingbird nests. I arranged as many of his artifacts as I could on the credenza, constructing a shrine I dramatized with a dozen candles. I put the rest of the stuff, two boxes full, in the trash, withstanding the fierce self-criticism the act aroused.

Seeing the shrine Mary Bridget shook her head. “Get a roommate,” she said, “before you burn the place down.”

So I did. Even before she said it, I had been finding out that having a beautiful house with a cream and green kitchen and sheer curtains billowing from crystal-clear windows created a collateral vacancy in me. I wanted another pair of eyes to see what I saw with the same pleasure.

Because of my former job, City College was the first place I put up an ad, the old-fashioned method of pinning a card to a board in the union. Instantly I had ten messages from students. Vita was the first person I called back and the only. I picked her for her name. Vita. Life. Bring life into the house. Magical thinking. She described herself as Asian, though she had no trace of an accent. She said she was studying engineering but thinking about being a writer.

I tried not to appear surprised when I met her at my door. I expected a bright, polite thin Chinese girl but here was this force. The word pugilistic came to mind. Coiled, on the edge of vaulting. If I had thought ahead, I would have claimed there were other candidates, etc. But this was not an interview, not in Vita’s eyes. She had brought her three suitcases and she moved in.

Vita, I think, got a kick out of being mysterious. One of the minor mysteries was how from those three suitcases so much spilled out. Her room was like the drop-off at a thriftstore. Sometimes I resented the disarray but why, as long as she kept her door closed here and there were no malodorous smells.

In truth, there were only sweet smells. Lavender. Coconut. I found a bottle of her shampoo in my shower. I don’t know how it got there. I used the shampoo before I returned it to her bathroom. I bought some similar. Lemon verbena. I spend my days with that smell like a shawl around me.

I wanted her to talk more, so I talked too much. Her face remained immobile, unthawed by the small fluctuations that indicate empathy. She blinked with metronomic regularity, infrequently. Once she mentioned she liked the natural history collection on the credenza. She didn’t have any inkling of its meaning. Her blankness liberated me to talk about Lucas directly, to show her how raw, how scoured I felt inside. She listened. She blinked. That was all.

She kept irregular hours, not the kind of schedule that creates expectation but still I found myself anticipating her being home, and being disappointed when she wasn’t. I presumed she had dropped out of school but I didn’t ask. Nor did I ask what she did when she went out.

Mary Bridget was suspicious of Vita from the start. She said I should find out what Vita was up to, make sure she wasn’t doing something illegal. I reminded her that me getting a roommate was her suggestion. She asserted she would not have chosen one by her name.

One day Vita approached me with her hand upturned, rubbing the tips of her fingers together. “See this? It’s sawdust. You got a badass termite infestation.”

This terrified me, but Vita said, “I can handle it. Non-toxic method. We’ll rout those buggers.”

By the following week my house smelled like overripe peaches. I didn’t inquire about the treatment nor its chances of efficacy, merely thanked her for her good work, costly though it was. If the house fell down around me I would remain ignorant and unruffled in my denial. I asked if her field entailed construction, or house repair. “My calling is reflexology,” she said. “Foot massage. You ever have one?”

“At the nail salon, And once in Hawaii from a Seventh Day Adventist nurse named Una. It was torture.”

“This is different,” Vita said. “This will bring your husband back.”

I assumed she was joking, but with my foot in her lap, her fingers investigating its intricate machinery, Lucas spoke to me, loud and clear. He said, “I am only here.” Through my right foot. I remain convinced of it, though I continue to ponder what “only” means.

Vita has moved out of the house. She has gone to London. Now she wants to be a dancer.

It’s a-happenin’

Book Launch

Thursday, Jan. 24, 7 p.m.

The Green Arcade Bookstore

1680 Market St.

San Francisco

Come on down!

Whites and blues (a holiday tale)

My mother-in-law caught the flu the day that she, my father-in-law and her brother Uncle Al, were to drive up from Connecticut for the traditional Christmas visit, so Uncle Al came by himself. He’d never done this on his own, neither before nor after Aunt Sylvia died.

I confess I resented his coming, having to navigate the congested holiday streets in the rain to pick him up at the train station, when all I wanted to do was dive into my recliner and go unconscious until the tiresome holiday season passed.

He stepped off the train and without a hesitation headed doggedly in the wrong direction. I called but he kept trudging on, going god-knows-where. I had to run to catch him, not fun on my bum hip. When I touched his back, he wheeled around, blinking as if hoisted out of a deep dream.

The rain did a good job of filling in the silence in the car on the drive home, the initial moments of our first time together alone. Neither of us could come up with much to say. Prior to his arrival, I thought of him as someone with a good sense of humor but who liked to stay on the sidelines. In the past Amy’s mother, Al’s big sister, shepherded him around family landmines and picked up the dropped threads of conversation. I wondered how without the generational scrim he would situate himself.

He got a little more animated when he greeted Amy, shifting into guest mode, the role he was familiar with. Here was the tree in the living room, here was Frida the cat rubbing his leg, here was the sofa bed where he slept. Beneath his black woolen coat he was wearing a satiny, raspberry red, billowy garment, unbuttoned to his clavicle, exposing wiry gray chest hair. I did not know where to look.

Our kids took to him more than I expected. He talked to them in the same singsong he used to wheedle the puppies on our only walk through the neighborhood. He told them elaborate, daffy tales, from what I could tell. I eavesdropped, mostly unsuccessfully. In my presence his monologues dwindled. He clammed up around Amy in the same way. I was glad it wasn’t just me.

Amy had the foresight to have a present for him under the tree, a pair of leather gloves. When he opened the box he responded indifferently, and I didn’t see him wearing them once while he was here.

The days passed as they do. I think nobody was happier than him when the day arrived to go home. It snowed overnight, and the sunlight beat like a mallet on the whiteness, every angle curved and softened. My car wouldn’t start, but the buses were running, and I accompanied Uncle Al downtown to assure myself he made it to the station. He sat in the aisle seat, our upper arms touching. He was vibrating, one knee bouncing allegretto. With no forewarning he rotated toward the slumped woman in the seat kittycorner and said in a penetrating voice, “Why didn’t they give the teddy bear any more food?” She lowered her slow eyelids, compressing her view.

Because they could see he was already stuffed,” Uncle Al shouted before she had a chance to respond. A laugh burbled through her body with reverse peristalsis, emerging in a chortle. It was reluctant. She looked out the window.

Uncle Al’s bobbing subsided as he relished his joke’s success. A few stops from the station the woman heaved herself up, and pulled the stop cord. Awaiting the stop, facing the doors, she was directly in front of Uncle Al. Seduced by a captive audience, he shouted, “What do they call a gull who flies through the Golden Gate?” The doors opened, the woman stepped down. “A bay gull,” Uncle Al broadcast to the whole bus. Every passenger was conspicuous in their lack of reaction.

Saying goodbye at the station is inevitably a moment that would be better scripted. Do you hug? Shake hands? Sprinkle little lies, nice of you to come, it was wonderful. We did all of that in a mumbly way, and he got on the train. As the train rolled out of sight, almost as if it were scripted, an old sadness, the post-holiday blues, washed over me. I numbered and rued all my withholdings, the pinched wariness and suppressed impatience. I knew with complete certainty we would never see him again, that this was his farewell tour, and we had failed him.

It wasn’t so. He came again the next Christmas and things went about the same.

The bird has landed

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