“Just sit with him, just talk with him,” Jeanne would say, directing me through the living room, out the sliding glass door, onto the deck that overhung another garden, lots of gardens in this yard, no formal boundary with the forest, where Howard would be.
She always had that prep note, just the one, though it took different forms.
I’d wonder what else she thought I might have done with him that required this elucidation. Crack his spine? Cup his balls? Find a football and throw him a fade pass to the back corner of the deck?
Then I’d curse myself for being a brute. Quiet brute, in my head. People said the word “brute” a lot back then. A brute, weird, or a stranger were not things you wanted to be. Also, drugs were bad. You were to say no. Howard and I were not strangers. I didn’t want to be a brute, so I would offer him one of the two beers I had brought over from my yard, and say, “How are things, Howard?”
They were the first people to live in our development. Felt like the kind of people who always had been first, first to settle, the elders of the tribe, but they were not very old, probably early seventies, which was older then.
The development wasn’t a development at all when they got there, us not long after, just woods, going miles back. Plots gridded out, with wood stakes and twine, autumnal checkerboard you’d have to blow clear of leaves in order to play, perhaps move rocks around as magmatic crowns, get up in a tree-stand for a bird’s eye view and command your serf where to make your next move.
I was our serf, of course. Champion feller of trees, which I got a bit of a taste for, admittedly, and got an early start with too, on Saturdays, best day for cutting, as they say. Nobody actually says that. But the neighbors did say that I was Chainsaw Charlie, though Charlie is not my name. They were nice people.
The leaves swirled at my feet when the real estate agent took us out. I liked it. A good swirl would show a snake, sometimes, just garter snakes, harmless, uncovered, they didn’t even have teeth, which didn’t stop them from popping the backs of frogs. I imagined air coming out, green air, though I know it wasn’t like that.
Marissa wasn’t keen on anything that “squiggled,” as our daughter would eventually put it, which compelled her to plea, “Get that one, Berg,” and “kill him, quick,” “take him out now!"—which was suggestive of either a dinner date or the bad mob movie she had watched the night before, or both—which I pretended to do by stamping my feet, thus earning appeasement and making the realtor smile, who was cute, but not as cute as my wife.
This was probably a strange gig for her, too. “To the left of that beech tree, we have a hornet’s nest, and behind that, a vernal pool where a fox is said to visit under the pale moonlight, but never the orange of a harvest moon for he does not like to color clash, being somewhat foppish.”
Marissa was pregnant with Kaya. I just didn’t want her to trip. You couldn’t call people back then by reaching into your pocket. You had to find a way to get in touch with them, or talk to them when you were with them. Doctors were further away. Everything was further away. Well, people felt closer.
Howard was a retired professor. I was an adult who didn’t know until later that the olive markings on his face and mostly bald head were called liver spots. One of the first words Kaya said was when she pointed at Howard, sitting on my lap on his deck, and declared “splotchy!” She liked their fat old cat, too, who lived outside, and must have been the only corpulent outside cat.
Marissa and I couldn’t figure it out. Outside cats required fitness we figured to catch their assortment of mice, voles, birds, but maybe this one used its zaftig stature as a ruse. Mr. Red Breast wandered up close, then clang went the jaws, needles through beak, eyes, coverts. Calico-ish, trending to sunburst, cat, no camouflage, classic big-bellied tabby, commonly addressed as Tabs, whose full name was the regal Tabula Rasa, the condition of “blank state.”
“Dates back to Aristotle,” Howard informed me, ever the former professor up to that point, sipping our beers, Tabs finishing the remnant of a jay on the deck railing. Tubby Tabs had no problem perching up there. I’d look at him like, “You are a bounder, sir,” and he’d shoot me back a glint of his eye, not losing the rhythm of his repast—still chewing—like he parried with “Just trying to eat a tasty jay, man.”
I was sad that he got a jay, to be honest. I liked jays. I liked to think that a jay would be smarter than to allow itself to be bamboozled by this slow-moving, tawny blob. Jays can bury a seed in the ground and remember where it is thirty days later. I got that from one of Kaya’s nature books.
She loved them. Took them with her into the woods on our walks, then slept with them in her bed, arranged at the edge of her pillow, like if she had to grab them fast. She loved turtles the most. I asked if she wanted one, we could clean out this old terrarium in the garage. She looked at me as if I had proposed forfeiting our house, which we were the only family to have lived in, having had it built for us, to the beasts of the forest, and we would take up residence in a burrow or den between rocks, everybody do a switcheroo. I told Howard, quoted her.
“’That’s not how it works, dad.’ She shook her head at me, like she was saying, ‘you’re going to need some work, still.’ Then she said, ‘goodnight, lights off, please, on the way out.’”
“Young Miss knows what she wants.”
“Yes. She does at that. How’s your beer?”
We listened to the night, we listened to ballgames on the radio. I thought this was what it meant to be part of a town, community. Work hard, spend time with the kid, read her to bed, take her admonitions in stride, leave the wife with her book on the sofa, kiss her forehead, grab a couple beers, say you’ll be back, going to check in on Howard, the neighbor, hope maybe you’ll get lucky when you get back. The ballgame announcer made Shakespearean references, which is what I think Howard primarily listened for.
“’Come live with me and be my love.’”
“What’s that, Howard?”
I had had a few beers before I came over that night. Permissible under the circumstances to have missed a reference or two. Hard enough with radio sometimes just to know how many guys were on base.
“It’s what I said to Jeanne in Dayton. Long before we got here. Long before you were born.” I did some quick math in my head. I wondered how old Howard thought I was. Sire of a child at fourteen? Well, I wasn’t firing blanks that time. Just into socks. It didn’t matter. “It’s Donne,” he added. There was an extra little beat to the word. Not somebody’s name, then somebody’s name.
“Well, these things happen,” I said lamely. Desultory. So I tried to firm up with some specificity. “And that’s how you got married?”
Crack of wood. Like a tree branch, thick and dry, bit into by an ax. Maybe Chainsaw Charlie had a nocturnal cousin. Harry Hatchet. But it was just ball against bat on the radio, the attendant crowd roar a reminding splash to the ears of the sound’s source.
“Yep,” Howard said.
People said “neat” a lot back then, too.