Our Golden State

“Now pay attention to me…”

Dad towered above, hands on his hips, sunlight filtering through a cross-hatch of sycamore branches, his smooth, pink scalp illuminated and glistening with sweat.  He wore grease-pocked tan Chinos savaged at the knees from planting radishes and carrots all morning in the backyard.  His canvass hunting jacket was fastened together at the unspooling seams with a foot-long patch of silver duct tape.

“…You can’t just cut their heads off.”

I shifted my weight, working the flat of one palm into the wet grass, adjusting my gaze so that Dad’s shoulder obscured the sun. Several score of yellow dandelions lay scattered across the lawn where I’d neatly severed them mid-stem.

“Why not?”

“‘Cause they grow right back, that’s why. These weeds ain’t no Marie Antoinette and King Louie, you know.” He hitched up his trousers by the belt loops and grimaced, estimating my acquaintance with the events of 1789, and then ploughed ahead just the same. “You can’t go decapitating these fellas like some crazed Jacobin.”

Dad was in a fine mood this Saturday morning, the cool spring air sharpened with the scent of bay salt and arsenic swept in from the landfill at the edge of town. He’d been up since dawn, relishing several hours of complete dominion over the yard.  In his hunting jacket’s inside pocket, he kept a small notebook and pencil stub, ticking off the chores and projects as they fell one-by-one.

Crazed Jacobin:  Almost certainly, this was a compliment.

“Here. Try this.”  Dad flung a nine-inch screwdriver into the lawn. It thronged.  I would have heard all about it if I’d been the one playing with tools.  “Dig ‘em out.  Every one of ‘em. By the roots.”

He stalked off and I rolled back on all fours, retracing the zigzag of luminous yellow petals beginning to wither and curl in the glare of mid-morning. Basically, he was saying:  Start over. I stabbed the screwdriver into the lawn, imagining it to be the fat belly of Superman’s arch-enemy, Lex Luthor.  Only this morning in bed, sheets pulled up to my neck, I had started reading the latest issue of Jimmy Olsen Comics – a three-part exploit in which Superman’s pal is mysteriously transformed into a human porcupine.  I suspected Luthor was behind these shenanigans.  (Shenanigans, meaning mischief, pranks, monkeyshines, or tomfoolery – whatever that meant.) I’d come across the word in a recent issue of Action Comics in which an inexplicable energy burst from inside a scientist’s laboratory strikes Lois Lane and gives her x-ray vision so she can spot Clark Kent changing into Superman in the men’s lavatory.  Comic books can be very educational.  On my third try, the screwdriver found a soft spot amid the gristle of Luthor’s belly and sank up to the handle.

My father did not object to comic books, but he argued that greater satisfactions could be obtained by making a necessary contribution to the household.  I plunged the screwdriver into the heart of a headless dandelion.  It squirmed under pressure, its stem mashed and slivered, but the root wouldn’t budge.  I leaned into the tool and we sunk another inch. Working from the wrist, twisting and flicking, I up-ended the weed at its tip and it flipped out of the ground and into the air like a little man in a flowery hat shot from a cannon.  Its crisp tail had broken off. That made me think of a carrot chomped a third of the way up, like Bugs Bunny on Saturday morning cartoons.  I was hungry. I wanted to go inside, get out of the sun, eat Frosted Flakes, watch TV.  Maybe spend some time later with Jimmy Olsen, cub reporter for The Daily Planet, a great American newspaper in the city of Metropolis.

A blast of water rattled the pipes along the side of the house. Almost immediately, my nostrils throbbed, registering the tang of iron. My throat burned.  Dad out back spraying the roses.

I sank the screwdriver handle-deep into the lawn and hurried into the backyard to watch him work.

Dad was leaning against the compost bin, cradling a brown plastic bottle like the head of a snake slinking out from a dirty coil of sun-baked hose. When he fingered the release valve, the fine, acrid mist of Ortho Home Orchard Spray doused a platoon of aphids tramping across our butter-yellow roses and I gagged.  Insecticides, said Dad, had won the war, along with plastics and light-metal alloys and radar and jet engines and a thousand other inventions and improvements.  Insecticides and herbicides had saved the bacon on Saipan, flushed Japs out of the bush on Guadalcanal, mowed down mosquitoes and chiggers and tiny blue flies that laid eggs in your eyes and killed men in twenty-four hours and otherwise would have cut a swath through the best army in the world.  They probably saved my uncle’s life in the Solomon Islands, said Dad – though Uncle Win pointed out that he seldom got to land unless it was by swimming there after being sunk at sea and it was the sharks he had to worry about then.

Yet my father did not apply Ortho to our front lawn where it might have done some good against the dandelions.  Mom disapproved.  Dad could do whatever he wanted in his backyard, but the front was public property – at least in the way it got used every day by us kids slithering through the grass, grinding ourselves into the dirt, soaking up through our open pores the lurking vestiges of modern science’s most recent realignment of the ordinary molecule, the poly-chlorinated hydrocarbons and biphenyls that made life out on the patio pleasingly free from gnats, that caused California’s Central Valley to blossom into the greatest fruit basket and the best-spread vegetable table the world has ever known, that gave the citizens of suburbia the green gushing pleasure of backyard horticulture, the companionship of flowers, fruits, grasses, shrubs, and trees all year long.

“You done in front already?”

I shrugged, sniffing the air.  The scent of Ortho was both repellent and delectable, like the rot of your own athlete’s foot.

“I guess so.”

“Why do you have to guess?”

“I’m not finished yet,” I explained more judiciously.  “Not nearly. But I want to help you massacre the snails.”

Dad peeled back his lips to expose a faultless set of alabaster false teeth.  The army had yanked all the originals, saving him a fortune in dental bills for the rest of his life.  “Okay.  Go get the Bug-Geta.  It’s under my work bench.”

When I returned with the green and orange cardboard box featuring a menacing gargantuan snail on the front, we sprinkled its contents across a patch of beets, onions, and spinach.

“Dad, can this stuff hurt people?”

We both studied the russet carpet of petrochemicals.

“You an aphid?”

“No.”

“A snail?”

“No.”

“A slug?”

“No.”

“Well, then…”

“But you wouldn’t want to eat it,” I asked innocently enough, “would you?”  Soon as we stopped talking, I’d have to return to the dandelions.

Dad cocked his head.  “Look,” he said, his voice rising in faint exasperation.  “I know what your mother thinks, but there’s people in India and China and what-not now that’ve got enough to eat two and even three times a day thanks to Bug-Geta and what-have-you.  There’s even a scientist, and this fellow’s got himself a Ph.D. from the university – a doctor of plants or animals or insects maybe.  And every morning during his coffee break, along with his Nescafe, he treats himself to a nice little meal of a bug poison with a funny name.  I believe they call it 2,4-D.  And what do you think it’s done to him?”

“Nothing.”

“Not a damn thing.  Said he’s even got to enjoy the taste.”  Dad grinned bumptiously at the audacity of learned men, at progress itself, and then he suddenly tightened his lips and his expression straightened like a clothesline. “Now don’t you go snacking on this stuff yourself.  It’s for snails only.  At least,” he said, clapping me on one shoulder, “you wait until you get a laboratory of your own.”

I laughed along as though I thought I might actually grow up one day to be a scientist, or a farmer, or even the guy at the nursery who sold us the box of Bug-Geta.  It seemed the perfect moment.  So I asked him.

“Can I have a dog?”

 

*                *                      *                      *                      *

 

Gil was the youngest brother of Mrs. Bingham, the butcher’s wife.  After two years in the army and an honorable discharge, Gil decided not to return to Mitchell, Nebraska, so the Binghams let him move into their garage. “Just until something opens up somewhere,” Mrs. Bingham explained to my mother. Gil owned a primer grey ’55 Buick that he planned to repaint sky blue and cherry out with chrome mags, headers, and a tach once he started working, but for now it sat on the curb outside the Binghams’ house and seldom moved before noon.  On the driver’s side above the gas tank, in four-inch ivory block print, Gil had hand-painted the name of his former girl friend:  Dee Dee Dinah.  They had been engaged back in Nebraska, but the girl found an older man who worked in a bank while Gil was fulfilling his military obligations.  Gil was stationed in Germany the same two years as Elvis.

“You ever see him?” asked Benny.  The Changs lived three houses down from the Binghams and Benny had talked me and Phil into tagging along. The garage seemed far too dark for the middle of a Saturday afternoon because the Binghams’ new boarder had covered the lone side door window with several layers of The Oakland Tribune’s help wanted section. Mrs. Bingham said Gil was still exhausted from active duty.

“More than see.”

Gil sprawled the length of his canvass cot, a relic of family hospitality that staggered and whined on its spindle legs every time he shifted his weight. He sparked up a fresh Marlboro and puffed lazy smoke rings into the rafters.

“What do you mean?” demanded Phil, fanning himself with splayed fingers.

“I’m not saying I was his closest friend, you understand. But me and Elvis, sure – we hung out together.  Now and then.  You see G.I Blues?”

“No.”

“You remember the part in the barracks, everybody singing along?”

“We didn’t see it,” explained Benny.  “None of us.”

“That’s me.  Standing next to him. My elbow’s leaning on his bunk.  He didn’t mind. He’s a cool head.”

Elvis Presley was a cool head.  Who could dispute it?  At our house, my mother only paid attention to the radio when she heard “The Theme to Exodus by Ferrante and Teicher or anything by Connie Francis (whose real name was Concetta Rosa Maria Franconero, though she changed it so the Protestants would buy her records, too). Dad preferred the news or a Giants’ doubleheader with Gaylord Perry and Juan Marichal pitching. It was Benny’s older sister Bernice who owned a copy of 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong with Elvis wearing a gold suit that hung on him like damp sheets of Cellophane.  If anything happened to his sister, Benny said he’d inherit all her albums.

“You ever see Elvis fight?” demanded Benny.

“Nah, he kept to himself.  Colonel Tom Parker ordered him to.  Didn’t want no bad publicity when he got out of the army like me.” Gil groped blindly under the cot until his fingers located the dial of his plug-in table radio.  Its vacuum tubes warmed to cast an orange glow on the underside of the canvass so that it looked like its occupant was being pan-fried. Twisting the dial through a hail of static, Gil settled finally on “The Battle of New Orleans” by Johnny Horton.

“I heard he knows judo.”

Gil yawned, his lips forming an infant’s perfect O. He was twenty-two years old, long and sinewy like a knotted rope. He wore thick black frame glasses in the style of Buddy Holly before his plane crashed and they made his eyes look like steelies, the chrome-plated marbles we prized above all others as the most devastating shooters. After the service, Gil had let his hair grow, lubricating the sides with Butch Wax, an indolent chocolate-brown wave teased over his forehead like a unicorn.  He clapped a hand over his mouth when he saw me staring.

“Do you know judo?” persisted Benny.  Sometimes Benny was like a little mutt with a rubber bone in his mouth that he wouldn’t let go of for anyone.

“Judo’s for babies.”  Gil puffed a smoke ring in Benny’s direction.  It landed and dissolved on the tip of his nose.  “I learned Karate.”

“My Dad’s got a black belt in Karate.”

“No, he doesn’t, Benny.”

“Benny lies like a rug, Gil.”

“I bet your hands aren’t registered as deadly weapons with the police.”

“I still got to do that,” admitted Gil.  He cranked himself up on the cot and surveyed the three of us. “You kids want to trade or not?”

“I got some Archie and Veronicas,” said Benny.

Gil nodded his approval.  “Where are they?”

“In my sister’s drawer.”

“Go get them.”

Benny threw open the side door, flooding the garage with the light of day.

“What about you two?”

“My dad doesn’t let me read comics,” said Phil. “He says they make you stupider.”

“I got Jimmy Olsen,” I admitted.  I didn’t feel like I had any choice.

Jimmy Olsen, Superman’s Pal, or Jimmy Olsen appearing in Superman?”

“Both. I just read the story where Jimmy gets amnesia and thinks he’s an orphan and he only wishes he were Superman’s pal. But Supergirl’s living in the same —”

“Go get it.”

“Okay.  But what do you got to –“

“Go get it.  Then you’ll see.”

I hesitated.  It wasn’t that I didn’t want to trade, but I knew that my parents were bound to ask where I was going if I rushed out with an armful of Jimmy Olsen’s and I suspected that Gil’s garage was not the right answer.  Nobody had said anything directly against him.  Still, my father had a way of tilting his head whenever Gil got mentioned, while my mother nibbled her lips as though discretely swallowing some uncharitable comment before it escaped to run riot in the world. Gil was too old to trade comic books, even I could see that. And the last time, all he had were two issues of Casper, the Friendly Ghost, both of them smudged with grape jelly.  I was summoning the courage to ask if he had any Green Lantern’s when the kitchen screen door flew open and crashed against the wall.

“Gil, can I have a ride to the store?  We need some things for dinner.”

Sandy Bingham lined the door jamb, her torso a seesaw of triangles fastened loosely at the corners – the head of blonde curls bobbing across one shoulder, her hips filling out a pair of green-striped culottes and jutting the opposite direction. Sandy was only three years older than me and Benny, and for as long as I could remember we had all played together on the neighborhood’s front yards – Freeze Tag, Simon Says, Mother May I? But ever since starting junior high the previous fall, she had begun calling us as “the little kids.”

“What’re we having, cousin?”

“Pork chops. But we don’t have enough.”

Gil turned up the volume to “El Paso” by Marty Robbins. He ran his hands down the front of his t-shirt, ironing away its wrinkles. “Then we better get enough, shouldn’t we?  You know I love my pork chops.”

Sandy laughed way too loud and I didn’t see the humor. Gil read my mind.

“Elvis loves pork chops. You know that?”

“Un-huh.”

“Sure, you do.”

Gil shoveled his legs off the cot and reached under his bunk to pluck a midnight blue satin jacket from a nest of littered clothing.  He slowly rose, shook the kinks out of his legs, and with a serpentine shrug slipped both arms into the sleeves. A half-moon of hand-sewn gold letters spangled the jacket’s backside:  DUSSELDORF U.S. Army.

“You come back later with that comic book,” he told me, “and I’ll give you a Prince Valiant for it.”

“I don’t like Prince Valiant.”

“Come by tomorrow.  I might be busy tonight.”

 

*                *                      *                      *                      *

 

“What should we call him?”

“He’s so…” Mom ransacked her polite vocabulary for the proper word.  “Huge.”

“A whopping big name then,” suggested Dad.

“He’s great!” I squealed and knew I sounded just like a girl.

“Did you have to get the biggest one?”

“The biggest and the best,” said Dad.  “Am I right?”

“Right!”

“Oh, I don’t know…”

“We’ll name him after your people,” Dad offered. “After some dago.”

“We will not call him that.”

“One of your emperors.  Caligula.”

“Who?”

“Or Nero.  Nero means black in Italian.  Black as sin.”  Dad drummed both hands on the flat pan of our new family member’s rump, and his tail switched like a whip of steel cable lacerating my legs. “I bet your mother didn’t know that.”

“Why is he drooling? Are they supposed to drool?”

“No, not Nero.  Nero had a black heart. Fiddling around when he should have been governing.  Let’s call him – oh, I don’t know… How about Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus.”

“Your father was reading the encyclopedia all last night. I don’t know why.”

“It’s kinda… long.”

“Augustus.”

“Franklin, really. What kind of name is that for a dog?”

“Rome’s finest emperor.  Of course, they had given up on self-government by that point.”

I lay my hand across his forehead as though taking his temperature through the thick coal carpet of fur.  The distance from my thumb to little finger wasn’t long enough to span his two rheumy brown golf-ball eyes.  Part-Labrador, part-mastiff, part hound of indefinite origins.  “A mixed breed,” my father had explained at the pound as I pressed my face against the wire mesh cage and allowed his wet pink six-inch tongue to marinate one cheek and then the other.  “Just like you.”  Our new dog was eight months old.  Seventy-five pounds.  Almost big enough to ride. The animal control officer said he had the rest of the day and if nobody took him home, then that was that.

“Augustus!”

“So be it.”

*                      *                      *                      *                      *

Dad planted a bountiful Valencia orange as the sun shone intermittently between winter’s fog and spring’s drizzle. Alongside it, he placed a Meyer lemon of the improved dwarf variety.  In the shade, he tended columbine and rock rose in the sunlight, geraniums in a red brick planter box and pyracantha for the springtime rattle of scarlet berries.  He lavished care upon carpets of lamb’s ear surrounding the hop seed bush and phlox selected to attract butterflies and hummingbirds, along with stalks of crimson amaryllis and towers of agapanthus cast in shades of virgin pale and heliotrope. Our backyard remained treeless, but bushy – red azaleas stationed amid eggshell-white and lavender rhododendrons, the redwood fence corners flush with sticky, saucer-shaped ocher flowers branching from the flannel bush, a Fremontodendron named for John C. Fremont who drove out the Spanish, served as the state’s first senator, and now had a suburb christened in his own name down the road from ours. Dad told me all about him as we watered, turned the compost, and poisoned our enemies. Everything, he said, grew better in the west.

That was one reason they were pouring into California from everyplace now – our neighbors, our future fellow citizens. Seventeen million already and we drew another thousand, another fifteen hundred new people each day.  We had become the biggest state in the union, more populous than New York, which hardly seemed worth imagining now, or even Texas – where cowboys still roamed, where Davy Crockett had died defending the Alamo, a place that just sounded big, but we were bigger.  Bigger and better than anyplace that anybody had ever seen before.

Mom collected magazines that trumpeted the good news and piled them on the end table in case relatives from Massachusetts should come to visit:  evidence that she had made the right choice.  Newsweek put us on the cover, declaring:  “No. 1 State:  Booming, Beautiful California.” Time called California “A State of Excitement.”  Life said, “California Here We Come – and This is Why.”  We were building houses, highways, hospitals, new universities up and down the state and the best public school system in the country. Just stand at the kitchen sink and you could see the scope of our ambition emerging from the stainless steel faucet, the end result of the California Water Project with its eighteen pumping stations, nine power generating plants, and hundreds of miles of canals and levees.  There was nothing like California back where folks came from, nothing to match us in distant forgotten Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, Iowa, Alabama.  California was a desert, but we were making it bloom.

I concentrated on the dandelions. Every afternoon after school, I plucked at least fifty from the ground. But they kept growing back.  Perhaps I’d miss one or two – even Dad admitted that you couldn’t get them all – and they’d explode the next day into starry blossoms, thousands of taunting yellow flowers arcing towards the sun only to collapse overnight, turning into prickly globes obliterated by the slightest breeze, their seeds and parachutes unscrewed from their cushion heads and sailing, lofting, floating, and finally descending into the hundreds of hospitable perforations I had created in the moist ground with my screwdriver.  The more I picked, the more grew back.  A half-dozen sprouted from a hole where a few days before I had evicted a single weed.  Each night as I fell asleep, the dandelions etched themselves onto my eyelids, their green stem plumbing, their flattened yellow helmets, their wicked beige taproots and insinuating tendrils that I could never, ever extirpate for good.

Our neighbors sought long-term solutions for their front yards. The Sandersons paved over their slope of Merion wonder grass and painted it South Seas green, calling to mind a pool of lime Jell-O. The Changs introduced ivy, and then sat back to watch it run rampant through the course of a single thirsty summer. Some homeowners did nothing at all, allowing their property to revert to a state of nature, which entirely missed the point of living in Washington Manor where our lawns were meant to be aligned as indistinguishable patches of one-and-one-half inch tufted emerald carpet reconstituted as a garden of endless duty:  as Eden.

In March, Dad and I drove to the nursery to purchase three twenty-pound sacks of Scott’s Turf Builder.  In April, Dad sowed grass seed in the spots that had parched and spoiled, sousing the soil with a frothy ammoniac blanket of Cope to suppress grubs.  In May, we layered more fertilizer and inspected the ground each evening until the seeds sprouted.  We watered once in the morning and again at night during the summer – then spread around Weed and Feed to bring the clover to its knees and replace the gobs of nitrogen it otherwise drew from the air and injected into the ground.  We attacked the crabgrass with Clout and Kansel and pummeled the remaining insects with another aerial barrage of Cope.  When in doubt – it was like washing your hair with Prell – we lathered up and did it all over again.

But mowing and feeding and watering and mowing again had no end. To my father’s way of thinking, this was the price you paid, though sometimes he spoke of a devil’s bargain.

Leaves had begun to yellow and fold on the Bearss lime – Citrus x latifolia, also known as Tahitian or Persian lime according to Sunset’s Western Garden Book. The culprits appeared to be ants.  Dad pinched his thumb and forefinger at the crown of its slender stalk and watched a dozen misdirected workers scramble across the back of his hand.  He had worried about lime blotch or scab or greasy spot or even red alga, but the man at the nursery said he’d probably just over-watered, flushing the ants from their nest and weakening the tree until it turned ripe for invasion.  We purchased a half-dozen Grant’s Ant Stakes. Active Ingredient: 1.0% Hydramethylnon.  The buggers died quickly.

Two weeks later, they were back – and twice as many.

 

*                      *                      *                      *                      *

 

“Is Dagwood and Blondie all you got?” asked Benny.

Gil sparked up a Marlboro, inhaled rapturously, and blew the smoke directly into Benny’s face.

“Why? You don’t think Blondie is bitchin’?”

Benny shrugged.  Augustus was sprawled across the cold concrete floor close to the door where a slim margin of light leaked in through the crack.  In the gloom of Gil’s garage, my dog looked like a big black boulder, dense and immovable, except when he was licking himself.

“Think about it,” advised Gil. “Blondie is bitchin’ – that’s a fact. And you can have her for two Betty and Veronicas.”

“How come two?”

Gil swiveled around on his cot and squinted in my direction.

“What about you, kid?  What’d you bring me today?”

I made a face that I was glad Gil couldn’t see in the dark.

“Speak up. Whaddya got?

I rolled my copy of Jimmy Olsen, Superman’s Pal into a periscope and casually surveyed the garage.  I’d read the issue three times already, but still wasn’t sure about trading it.  In the featured story, Jimmy drinks a vial of serum that temporarily gives him the ability to stretch every part of his body like a rubber band that will never break. As Elastic Lad, he can peek over tall buildings like the world’s biggest giraffe and tie villains all up in knots with his rubber fingers. Once he grabbed a bank robber down the block without leaving his chair (and then he made a crack about the long arm of the law).  Serums had previously turned Jimmy into a werewolf, a giant turtle, a Bizzaro World version of himself, and an incredibly fat freak.

“Betty and Veronica,” purred Gil, his voice syrupy and spit-filled.  “I wouldn’t kick either of ‘em out of bed.  Ronnie’s got those big tits, man… I’d come all over them and she’d probably lick it right off.”

Benny’s head tipped back like he’d been winged by a slingshot.  “Man, you’re gross, Gil.”

“Betty’s not so bad, either.  Little Catholic girl, probably.  Wearing her uniform all innocent like.  Hell, they can’t keep it out of their mouths.  You know what I’m talking about?”

Benny and I glanced at one another, admitting that we probably did not.

“It’s just,” said Benny, easing away from Gil’s cot, “that I already traded you this one before and I’m not really interested in reading it again.”

Gil flopped down on his back and sighed. His head rolled my direction and we locked indifferent gazes.

“I bet you two would rather fuck Little Lulu.”

“No, we wouldn’t!” I objected.

“I bet you would,” sniggered Benny, the traitor.

“You don’t even know what it means, Benny.”

“I do, too. My sister told me.”

“I don’t even like Little Lulu,” I protested.

Gil kept puffing on his Marlboro, his puckered lips surrounding the glowing red dot.  His waterfall was greased thick with Butch Wax.

“You two are a couple of real poker players, aren’t you?  Holding out on me until I bring out the good stuff.”

Benny and I didn’t say anything.

“You’re pretty smart, aren’t you?  Be honest.”

“I am,” admitted Benny.

Gil wiggled his way to the edge of the cot and sat up straight from the belly, like he was still in the army.  He muttered to himself about how we had really pulled one over on him this time.

“You,” he ordered, pointing to Benny.  “Get my duffle bag from underneath.”

Benny dove for the concrete, slipped under the cot, and hauled a big duffle out from the shadows.

With two hands, Gil yanked open its string purse and sunk one arm down deep, blindly fondling its contents.

“Here it is.”  He flapped a magazine onto the cot.

I could hardly see anything except Gil’s ball bearing eyes vibrating above the glow of his dwindling cigarette.  He reached for the flashlight he kept under his cot. A milky beam splashed across the cover.
“Cool!” said Benny.  “Look at his face.”

Famous Monsters of Film Land, an issue featuring Lon Chaney as the Phantom of the Opera.  He had hardly any hair parted down the middle and the worst set of rotting teeth you ever saw.

“I’ll trade,” I said.

“No,” objected Benny, “I will. Gil asked me.”

“Gil asked us both, Benny.  I said it first.”

“That’s a good lesson for you, kid.  Take what you want.”

I firmly held Jimmy Olsen between the pinch of my right hand’s thumb and forefinger until my left felt Gil loosen his grip on Famous Monsters.

“Wait,” Gil told Benny, “I got something for you, too.”  His hand slithered back into his duffle bag. He grunted with the effort of further exploration. “Yeah, here, it is.”

He trained the flashlight on his open hand. Stretched across his palm was a long skin-colored balloon with a puffy tip at the end, like a rocket ship.

“You know what this is, right?”

“Yeah.”

“What?”

Benny’s voice dropped to a whisper.  “A Trojan.”

“That’s right.  Your sister tell you about them?”

No. I just know.”

“Gimme Betty and Veronica.”

Benny handed them over.

“Wash it out before you use it.   If you know how to use it.”

I wanted to get out of there, but Benny was already at the door.  He cracked it open and the light pressed hard against our eyeballs.  I grabbed Augustus by the collar and dragged him to his feet.

“And hey, kid,” said Gil, settling back down on the cot to read at his leisure Jimmy Olsen’s adventures as Elastic Lad. “Your dog stinks.”

“He does not,” shot back Benny.  Benny always stood up for dogs, but he especially respected Augustus.  Augustus was huge.

“Smells like a barn in here,” said Gil.

Benny straddled Augustus’ haunches, hunched over his big head, and sniffed.  “He smells good,” he reported.  “It stinks in here ‘cause of you, Gil.”

Gil didn’t even hear him.

“And hey,” he said from behind the comic book, “you tell your sister I want her to come by and visit me sometime, okay?”

 

*                      *                      *                      *                      *

 

I longed for super powers.

Usually, they descended upon an ordinary, but virtuous mortal by accident. An unduplicable error in the student chemistry lab.  A lightning strike at just the right angle.  A bite from a radioactive insect.

In comic books, only the villains plotted to acquire the powers of flight or invisibility or blinding speed, and then they invariably paid a great price. Banishment to the Phantom Zone.  Being hurtled to the furthest reaches of the universe by a superhero’s shove of superhuman strength.  Finding themselves reduced to a quarter of an inch so they fit snugly into the municipal jail of Kandor, the former capital of the planet Krypton that was shrunk many years ago by the green-skinned supervillain, Brainiac, and sealed in a bottle that now safely resides in the North Pole inside Superman’s Fortress of Solitude.

In the shower, I watched the water roll off my shoulder to trickle down the naked sleeve of my straightened arm and I wondered what it might take (thunderstorm, earthquake, strange brew radiating from the municipal waterworks?) to transform my molecular make-up so that I was granted the sudden power to shoot streams of water from my fingertips with the concentrated force of a fire hose? Better yet, Yosemite Falls! (Someday we were going there for vacation.)  I pictured myself as Shower Lad, blasting villains against brick walls, reducing them to a piteous slosh – a technique I’d seen on the TV news in Birmingham, Alabama. I’d join the Justice League of America, along with Superman, Batman and Robin, Wonder Woman, Flash, and Green Lantern. Together we would battle and bring to justice Brainiac, Bizarro, General Zod, and Mr. Mxyztplk, the imp from the fifth dimension. Almost certainly, I had a vocation.

“When’re you gonna clean up after that damn dog?”

I lay on my bed, arms stretched wide and fastened at the wrists, feet strapped to either corner, staring up at the ceiling and into the bald-headed face of evil genius. From a trembling steel cable, Lex Luthor slowly lowered the boulder of kryptonite and I was rendered defenseless into the clutches of the merciless supervillain.

“You hear me? Quit daydreaming and get out there and clean up after that dog or he’s going right back where he came from.”

Luthor’s smooth, pink, evilly hairless skull hovered above, glaring down at me – until I realized that, of course, it was Dad. I bolted upright and slid off the bed and hurried out into the yard.

Next to the compost bin, in the dirt, covered with straw and grass and a conspicuous wide stripe of his own shit smeared across his rump, I found Augustus, sleeping.

One eyelid flapped open, spotted me, slammed shut like a gate.

Augustus was always sleeping.

“Wake up!” I lifted his long black rope of tail by the tip and wagged it for him.  “C’mon, boy!” I scratched his head with both hands, drumming my fingertips upon the flat plate of his skull.  “Thatta boy, Augustus, good boy!”  I slipped my arms around his neck and shoulders, lowered myself on to his back, taking care to avoid the putrid smear at his other end, and I squeezed. His planet head slowly rolled into one shoulder, his features materializing like the man in the moon.  A wide ribbon of red tongue washed my mouth. “Good boy, Augustus.  Want to go for a walk, boy?  Do you?”

Augustus pushed himself up by the front paws, assumed the sitting stance that I tried to teach him, and began to bark.

“Quiet, boy.  Quiet.”

Augustus kept barking, his pace quickening, the singular yelps now blending into an air raid siren ululation, a hearty yowling with long gummy ropes of saliva dangling from his cavernous maw as he threw back his huge meaty head and gobbled the air for no reason at all.

 

*                      *                      *                      *                      *

 

Dad used a licked-clean root beer Popsicle stick to ladle the fresh pollen of a pink cotton-candy hybrid tea called Bewitched onto the stamen of a lavender Lady Banks climber – forever altering the destiny of his roses. Creating something aromatic, beautiful, or peculiar, something new – that was the thing! When cross-pollination failed, Dad resorted to simple grafting, placing five varieties of pears on a single rootstock, showing anybody who cared to observe (I watched, but my mother did not) how to execute a whip graft, cutting both the branch and scion at a shallow angle, binding them together and sealing the joint with candle wax. Nursing along the graft, watching it take, flourish, blossom, fruit.  Sometimes Dad sang to his plants, as Luther Burbank had done, coaxing them along with “They Call the Wind Mariah.” Something about vital forces, he explained, an instinct surpassing mere cell division.

And yet reminders of the susceptibility of all living things to accident, pillage, and decay also littered his garden.  Rust attacked the roses.  Gophers raided his staggered rows of peas and carrots, pulling them underground like Morlocks devouring the Eloi.  In the side yard, next to a wreath of wound-up hose and nozzle, Dad planted a regiment of snowy freesias. Natives of South Africa, he bragged, tough as nails and sweet as honey to the nostrils.  Augustus thought so, too, and one afternoon he devoured a half-dozen aromatic funneled flowers, leaving only the tooth-sawed shoots.  My dog foamed along the pink and black folds of his blubber lips and his breath smelled like Dial soap.  We staked him out back with enough rope to slink into the shade once the wrathful sun began to cross our yard.

“You come in now,” suggested my mother.  “You’ve been out here working all morning.”

Dad snapped shut his Army-issue teeth like an angry tortoise. He glowered at mom as though she had straight out called him a failure.

For whatever refused to thrive, Dad had nobody to blame but himself, and so he always did.  But he also bristled and fumed at the positioning of the sun, the stab of a late spring freeze, the stinginess of seeds bought cut-rate and hoarded over too many winters to produce what they had originally promised.  Earlier that morning, I had watched him fling a shovel across the yard and then throttle a wilting sunflower, yanking it out of the soil by the throat.

My mother folded her arms across her chest and stared far over my father’s shoulders, the corners of her mouth pinned tight.  The end of our block was still fenced off with barbed wire warning against hunters on the prowl and game birds honked overhead every morning:  not a town at all, she sometimes grumbled, but an empty place still making itself up.  If a snail devoured his shoots of red chard and spinach, it really wasn’t her fault.

I sat on the concrete walkway, both arms wrapped around Augustus, his neck as thick as an elephant’s foot.  I could sense my parents’ uneasiness as each gauged some rivalrous absence in the other.  The bay breeze fluttered through my dog’s matted black fur and I felt frightened and cold.

One Sunday afternoon, I was surprised to see Dad cheered up within the barony of his bushes, fruit, and flowers by a visit from Uncle Win. They stood alongside the trellis of wisteria, its stalk of violet petals sputtering in the breeze like Roman candle fire.  Their heads tipped towards one another in concession to the blood tie and neighborliness.  I couldn’t even smell an argument.

Dad hefted a lightweight black plastic pot off the ground and fit it into Win’s clutches. Then he stood back and beamed.  They both admired the plant’s tangled sunburst of tiny petals, the center of the flowers swollen into the shape of raspberries.

“Now you need to plant this fella someplace with plenty of sun, and water him good. You understand?”

My uncle nodded. “Sure, Slick.  I’ll do it today.” He seemed touched by his older brother’s tenderness towards the flower pot.

“Maybe drop by the nursery on your way home and pick up some fertilizer.  Feed and water is the secret.  You be sure to feed and water this youngster and you’ll get results before you know it. Maybe I’ll even rustle you up a few more for your back yard.”

Win wrestled the pot into a surer grip, resting its edge against his belly.  “What’s it called?”

“I’ll write it down for you.”  Dad extracted his notepad and pencil stub from his jacket’s inside pocket and bore down hard on the page, studying the results as they materialized.  “The scientific name is Nilkanrf’s Deew. Think you can remember that?”

“What is that, Latin?”

“Old Norse.” Dad tipped back the brim to his cap and ran an open palm over the smooth dome of his skull.  “The Vikings brought it to Greenland long before the Spanish and the Portagees even set sail.  It took a spell to get to California.”

“I appreciate that, big brother.”

When my uncle left, we all took a lunch break in the kitchen.

“What did you give Win?” asked Mom. She removed a frosted pitcher of blue Kool-Aid from the fridge and found a glass for me in the cupboard. Then she pivoted to face the stove and stirred a pot of Campbell’s SpaghettiOs. The kitchen smelled like boiled catsup, but sweeter.  It made me hungry.

“What’re we having for dinner?” wondered Dad.

“There’s Rice-A-Roni, if you want.  Or I can take the Chef Boyardee pizza out of the freezer.”

“Pizza!”  I had already decided.

Dad sampled a mouthful of SpaghettiOs and issued an extravagant sigh of satisfaction.

“Say, when’re you going to make that Tunnel of Fudge cake again? I enjoy a good Tunnel of Fudge.”

“What did you give Win, honey?”

Dad pulled his pipe out of his shirt pocket and began stuffing the bowl with a sack of Lucky Strike Half-and-Half.  He sparked a match, and I remembered him telling me that years ago they used to sell the strike-anywhere variety under the brand name of Lucifers.

“I offered him a nice little specimen of common ragwort.” His false teeth parted in a smoky rictus.  “Nilkanrf’s Deew.  That’s Franklin’s Weed spelled backwards. It’ll be all over his yard by the end of summer.”

I laughed.  Dad puffed grey clouds over the SpaghettiOs.  Mom slammed my glass of Kool-Aid down hard on the Formica table, its blue wave lapping over the rim.

“There is something mean about you,” she told him.  “Sometimes something mean and small.”

I drank my Kool Aid and they didn’t talk.  When we finished lunch, Mom joined me in the front yard, down on her hands and knees, rooting out the dandelions with an awkward pull on a foot-long screwdriver that didn’t begin to get the job done.  I snuck a glance at her face once or twice when she was stooped over on all fours and found that her eyes were as empty and bored and faithless as I feared my own must be.

 

*                      *                      *                      *                      *

 

I came home before dinner to walk Augustus, but he was gone.  In the backyard, I found paw prints in the radish patch and a large pile of dog doo that turned out to be cold when I prodded it with my index finger, but no sign of my dog.  I thought he might be sleeping behind the fireplace out back, but all I found was his muddy hole and a broom handle ravaged with tooth marks. I wondered if somebody had left the side gate open by accident.

Maybe me.

I jogged into the middle of the street and whistled.  Augustus never came when I whistled.  I called out his name, though I wasn’t absolutely positive that he knew it.

I cut a path down Brook Street, crisscrossing at Yale, Harvard, and Princeton.  No Augustus sprawled across the hot tar, no dying dog flopping on his side like the goldfish I’d won at St. Bernard’s Easter Festival the year before and spilled one afternoon onto our kitchen linoleum.

Of course!  He must have headed to the park.  Augustus loved to mark his territory, kill squirrels.  He would have remembered the park.  Augustus was smart, probably.

Augustus!”

I pictured him at the edge of the swimming pool, lapping up refreshment, urinating into the gutter, diving into the deep end with a deafening splash and sinking to the bottom like a boulder wrapped in bear’s hide.

I gripped the cyclone fence with two hands, pressed my face into its mesh, rattled the screen.

Augustus!”

No dog in the swimming pool.

Maybe the eucalyptus grove where he chewed the bark off saplings and bayed at the sea gulls.

“Here, boy!  Come home, Augustus!”

In the parking lot, beyond the grove, I spotted a familiar car:  Dee Dee Dinah inscribed in pale ivory above the gas tank.  I dashed to the driver’s window, breathless and full of hope. My head bobbed at the open window.

“Gil! Did you see my dog?  Augustus?  He’s black and huge.”

Gil gripped the steering wheel with both hands. He cocked his head in my direction and squinted as though he couldn’t quite place me.  His upper lip curled like Elvis.

“You talking about a nigger?”

Sandy Bingham was crumpled in the corner of the passenger seat. For some reason, she was crying. She turned her head, concentrating on the eucalyptus grove.

“Did you see him, Sandy?  You know my dog.  He’s gigantic.”

“Go away.”

I ran home two blocks.  The front door was open which meant my mother or father must be there.

Mom stepped into the living room as soon as I shouted for her.

“Mom, Augustus got out.  I looked all over for him.  But he’s disappeared.”

She hesitated, shifted her weight from one foot to the other.  “Your father,” she stated, as though that explained everything.  Her eyes scoured the carpet as if it were rippling with grubs and maggots. “Your father brought him back to the pound.  You weren’t living up to your responsibilities.”

“What?”

“He was too big for here, honey.  He was a big dog and he needed a place to run.”

“He brought him to the pound?”

“This morning.  He felt very bad about it. He did.  I could tell.”

 

*                      *                      *                      *                      *

 

The existence of Superman raised questions.  Why didn’t he go back in time using his super-speed to visit Germany before the Nazis and strangle Hitler in his cradle?  Why didn’t he squeeze coal into diamonds and pass them out to everybody so everybody could be rich? If he was so powerful and so smart and so good, why didn’t he irrigate the Sahara desert somehow – he should have figured out how – and turn it into a place where everything grows with plenty of room for everybody and everything.

Superman did not exist. So you didn’t need to worry about it.  You didn’t need to talk. I didn’t say a word for days.

I felt sleepy and restless, blurry, vacant – every part of me down to my fingertips too sensitive to the touch like my skin had been scoured down to the nerve endings.  I didn’t cry.  My father passed me in the front yard while I was rooting out dandelions – I didn’t see him.  I refused to see him.  I felt sick when I heard his voice.  I stopped listening.  I plunged the screwdriver deep into the green belly of the lawn, but I didn’t think anymore about Lex Luthor.  I dug up that lawn with a thousand puncture wounds, my screwdriver like a dagger to the heart of every innocent dandelion.

I missed Augustus:  I must have.  I thought about the times I stuck my nose into his collar of fat, wrapping my neck around his neck while he panted his meaty bad breath and I inhaled the loamy odor of dog, my dog.  Then I forgot about him for a day. Forgetting made me furious:  I squeezed both hands into bloodless white fists when Mom called me for dinner, retreating into the backyard for as long as five minutes.  If they were both sitting at the kitchen table, waiting, I might place the heel of my Keds on the tip of a white freesia and mash it into the soil or yank a radish and lob it over the redwood fence into the yard of some stranger.

Dad said maybe someday we’d try another dog and that made me feel like my insides were bleeding, my guts riddled with BBs.  I hated him.  I told Mom that I hated him.  She said that I didn’t and offered to help me outside with the rest of my job.  We worked together on our hands and knees, not talking. In an hour, there were hundreds of dandelions scattered across the front lawn like tiny corpses in their silly, stupid yellow-flowered hats.

Phil asked about Augustus and I explained that he was a big dog and needed room to run.  Benny never mentioned him, but he stopped coming by our house for nearly a week.  At school, on the playground and in the halls, he wouldn’t look me in the face.

Then one night, I heard a small fist pounding frantically on our screen door and I knew Benny was back.

The porch light blazed above him and from behind the grill, he looked like he was shattered into a million pieces. Benny was hopping up and down, actually hopping.

“‘C’mon, hurry!  Mr. Bingham’s got Gil treed.”

I slipped out the front door and we tore across our yard, down the block, and onto the sidewalk in front of the butcher’s house.

Gil had climbed to the top of the Bingham’s sycamore, perhaps seven feet high, and he was now inching along on both feet across the only branch sturdy enough to bear his weight.

Daddy, stop!” Sandy rocked back and forth, her hands wrapped around either shoulder like it was impossible to stay warm.

Mr. Bingham stood next to his daughter, directly below the sycamore, arching up on his toes and swiping at Gil’s ankles with a meat cleaver.

“Ernie!” shouted Mrs. Bingham from the end of their walkway.  “You’re not making it any better.”

Mr. Bingham took another swing at Gil and barely missed.

Gil crept further out on his limb, balancing on hands and knees. He was talking fast to Mr. Bingham, not looking down at the ground, not making much sense I thought.  Mr. Bingham’s white t-shirt was soaked with sweat and his face had turned red and gold.

Gil froze on the far end of his limb.

Mr. Bingham wrapped both hands around the cleaver handle, bending back so far that his spine looked like it might snap, and then threw all his weight forward. The blow severed the branch cleanly, though I could almost swear I saw it freeze in midair for an impossible instant like in the cartoons when the Road Runner screeches over the cliff but doesn’t realize it yet – and then it crashed to the ground with a crack and bounced several times across the lawn along with Gil who rolled over twice and tried to scramble to his feet, but fell, and was curling himself into a ball when Mr. Bingham got close enough to kick him twice in the stomach, hard.

Lucky for Gil, I suppose, the police were there by now – a pair of squad cars rearing up over the sidewalk with cherry tops flashing, the policemen hustling Gil out of the way of Mr. Bingham’s feet, scooping the meat cleaver off the grass, and then placing either of them in separate backseats.  They drove down the street and around the block, and disappeared.  Everybody went home after that to get ready for work or school or whatever the next day was going to bring.

 

*                      *                      *                      *                      *

 

“What’re these?” asked Dad.

He studied his plate. A large heap of greens occupied the center, pooled in oil. To me, they looked familiar, though oddly placed.  Dad sucked on his teeth and kept both eyes pointed down at the table.

“Your dinner,” said Mom. She ladled two large spoonfuls onto my plate.  “Soffione.  It’s a southern Italian specialty.”

I scattered them with a fork, searching for yellow blossoms. The light from the overhead milk glass fixture bore down on us like the sun.  “Dandelions?”

“With garlic.”

I could smell the garlic.  Some people said it stunk, but I never thought so.

“This all we having?” asked Dad.

Mom served herself before answering.

“Yes.”

Dad didn’t touch his silverware.

“If you don’t like what I give you, you can always fix yourself something else. Nobody’s helpless around here, are they?”

Dad prodded his mound and fished up a long green stem on the tines of his fork. He studied his dinner.  Then he eased it into his mouth, nibbling delicately with his front teeth like a rabbit.

Mom sampled a forkful.  She made a little face and patted her mouth with a napkin.

“You’re excused,” she informed me.

“I’m hungry.”

“Make yourself a Pop Tart.  There’s strawberry.”

“I like apple-cinnamon.”

“Mind your mother,” said Dad. But his blue eyes roved easily in my direction and he vaguely smiled.

I found the Pop Tarts in the cupboard over the kitchen counter.  Cherry.

“I’m going back to work,” announced Mom.  “They need a secretary at the elementary school.  Somebody with experience.”

Dad kept working the dandelions around his plate, concentrating very hard on swabbing the greens into one of the puddles of oil and garlic that had accumulated at the margins.  He didn’t look up.

I dropped two cherry Pop Tarts into the toaster and poured myself a large glass of Cranapple.

“He’s old enough.” Mom pressed the weight of both elbows onto the table.  “He can come home and do his homework.  He can watch television if that’s what he wants.”

My mouth was full, but I spoke up anyway.

“I’m not picking any more dandelions.”

“You don’t have to,” my father conceded, his voice raised to warn off anybody who might think that I did.  “You done a good enough job already.”

Mom placed her fingertips against the rim of her plate, pushing it to the table’s edge.  “If you want, I can still be home in time to make dinner.” Her voice was trembling. “If that’s still what you want.”

Dad eased back from the table, chewing his lower lip.  He drew a long breath, his chest swelling indecently before it collapsed. Then he remembered me and winked without actually turning his head in my direction. “Long as we don’t get too many more nights of these dago greens, right?”

I watched my mother refuse to smile.  Her face looked like marble, pretty and cold.

“‘Least we’re not eating snails like those French people.  Right outta the garden, they pop them in their mouths for a little snack.  Maybe some parsley and a glass of froggy red to wash ‘em down.”

I didn’t say anything.

Dad forced another forkful into the side of his mouth and ground them with his back molars. “Hey, these are all right.”  He rose from his seat and scooted over to the stove.  “See here – I’m going to help myself to more.”  He scooped out a generous second serving and set the ladle across his plate.  For a moment, he stood at the stove, paralyzed:  wondering, I suppose, about that little twitch of unhappiness, his fear and restlessness, where it comes from and how it worms its way into our hearts.  What and who, when you came down to it, was really to blame? He was still trying to decide how to return the ladle to its pot while gripping his plate with both hands, knowing that everything now depended on him getting back to the table and finishing dinner without uttering another word.

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