e was thinking about better days when the mower bucked in his hands and died, down at the far end of the big lawn, where the brush was stalking in, reclaiming territory. He pulled off the red sweatshirt he wore for yard work and gave the cord a pull. The engine coughed, the blade spun once and then stuck on something. There was the cry of a bird or a child. He looked toward the house. Nothing on fire.
He needed to replace those shingles. And the siding. And a new coat of stain on the deck. Inside, the kids would be playing with their toys. Making believe, she called it. Making a mess was all he saw. They were old enough to start taking on responsibilities. He gave the lawnmower a kick. Life was not all skipping and tra-la-la.
He pushed. He pushed some more. But it wouldn’t move. Mired in the deep. She’d have a field day with this. She’d told him he’d let the grass get too long. He strained. He struggled. He leaned into the mower with sisyphean commitment and quixotic tenacity. He just wanted the best for them, that was all. Wanted more for them than head in the clouds, feet in the shit.
He flirted with strokes, coronaries and aneurysms. He pushed and with a final tearing sound, the mower moved a few inches.
On the ground where it had been were the scattered chunks of red spotted mushrooms. Maybe some kind of fungus in the sod he’d laid down last fall. He’d bought it cheap off a shifty looking fellow with an ugly cat and a penchant for black cloaks. Always cutting corners, she said.
He went down on one knee, searching through the grass. The shreds of some white fabric, like a tiny pair of pants from one of the kids’ dolls. He looked back at the lawnmower. Where the bag bulged, there was a dark liquid seeping onto the grass, staining it the colour of midnight and old dreams and ocean and blue, blue, blue.
He’d clean the mess up quick. They wouldn’t have to see.
n here, one of the men said, stumbling into the darkness of the alley. The other one, hood drawn up, hugged a plastic grocery bag to his chest. They squat down on the concrete behind the dumpster. Black trash bags piled, oozing. Stinking. Spoon. Syringe. Light. Light. Lighter. I’m going first, one of them says. Like hell, the other. The flash of metal. A splash of blood. Patter of feet like gunfire and silence.
He lay, curled up and burning like an autumn leaf, trying to hold it all in. There wasn’t going to be any final cinema reel of his life. He was just going to sputter out, like he began. Then, the sound of a bellows, breathing. A large shape from the shadows. Something reached for him. Like a lifeline cast out from a sinking ship. He grabbed hold. Warm. A long limb. Soft. Furred like Grandma’s shag carpet. Looking up into sad, sad eyes.
The shape watched the man as he died. It remembered the laughter of children like bells tripping up and down the street. You kids! yelling the old shopkeeper. But they weren’t kids anymore. They weren’t invisible. They could never stop seeing once they saw.
he holds the roll of bills bunched tight in her fist. Like a strong wind would be all it would take. Her savings gone like that, tumbling across the pasture. The address is right but the place feels wrong. Empty fields, a barn drooping like a sick dog, the paint on the farmhouse left or leaving. Not the kind of place to start a family. She shuts the door on the sedan and walks up the humpbacked drive.
The doorbell chimes like a death rattle through the house. Nobody answers. Nobody ever answers. Eyes shut at night, all of her bunched up into hoping. She has enough stored inside her to bring this whole place to life. She bangs on the door, ready to cave it in if she has to. Somebody yells for her to come round the back.
She follows a trail of busted and broken paving stones around the side of the house. A fat man sits in the shade of the porch. He pours her a glass of lemonade and smiles. He has a small black tooth and she tries not to look at it.
They say a few nice things and when he asks for the money she gives him it to him. The bills wadded with the sweat from her hands. The quiet desperation of last resorts and rites. He takes a long time filling out the certificate. He waves it when he’s done, to dry the ink. It even looks legitimate. The more she stares at his tooth, the more she feels like she’s tumbling backward into darkness.
He leads her through the furrows. The field not fallow here. The soil rich and dark. Fronds of cabbage, still young, the leaves curled inward, keeping things hidden.
At the far end of the field, he leans down and grabs hold of an iron ring set in the ground. The door comes open with a puff of dust. Concrete steps leading down into darkness. The stink of cabbage. And then the sound of crying. Small forms wriggling down there in the darkness. Potato faces, dabs of eyes. All of them reaching out. Pick me, pick me.
ell you know my name is, he started, but he didn’t know what came next. Simon, the nurse said. Nice to meet you, he said. No, she said, That’s your name you old fart. It didn’t sound familiar to him, but who was he to argue. He reached into the pocket of his bathrobe and pulled out a fistful of busted chalk. Give me that, the nurse said, and left him with nothing. Well. There were only whiteboards now anyway. Nothing to draw on. No way to leave an impression.
He took off his glasses and closed his eyes and imagined the darkness was just one long scroll of blackboard. He could draw anything on it. Only he didn’t know what. So he drew nothing and rolled the scroll back up tight instead.
Someone was tugging at his robe. He opened his eyes. A little boy, a brat. Somebody’s grandchild in for a visit. Somebody looking apologetically his way, pulling the little boy off.
He turned to look out the window at the old garden wall. The wood was falling to rot, but there was a workman out there on a ladder slopping white paint on it. As if that layer of skin could hold back the years.
What are you doing staring at that old thing, the nurse said, There’s nothing over it but a junkyard. I’m hot, he said. You’re nothing of the kind, she said. But she still jammed a mop handle under the door to prop it open.
When she focused her torment on someone else, he snuck out into the lane. The workman was doing a piss poor job of it.
What’s on the other side, he said, and the workman said, Nothing but an old junkyard. And he continued on with his piss poor job. Then he said, I need to piss, and went inside.
There were eleven steps, each one an odyssey. The ladder creaked and so did his bones. When he reached the top, he wasn’t tall enough to see over. He grabbed the top boards, his hands sticking to the paint, and stretched.
What can you see, a voice said. He looked back down. The brat, the little boy, was there at the bottom of the ladder.
Nothing, he said.
Oh, the little boy said. He kicked at the weeds in between the flagstones. It wouldn’t be long before he would be tall enough to look over his own garden walls at all the junkyards of the world.
Not nothing, he said, turning back again. And then the blackboard scroll inside him unrolled, roaring with colour and laughter and magic. All of everything. Dipping his tongue into the words and painting. And the little boy listened, letting the pictures take him, take him over.
o one accused him of being the world’s best father. His kids had been in and out of therapy for years. He’d used them for his own experiments, it was true. And he’d almost eaten his son in a spoonful of cereal. But not on purpose.
It didn't matter that he tried his best. He always made the child support payments on time. They wouldn’t speak to him anymore. He left messages. He kept scrapbooks, meticulously filed, bragged about every one of their accomplishments to the neighbours. When they’d listen.
The university had pulled the funding years ago. It was a forced retirement. He’d expected, like from out of one of those old B movies, that some general would show up on his lawn in a Sherman tank and demand the plans for his machines. They’d blast the shrinking ray at whatever nation had the most oil, or make 50-foot soldiers. But it never happened. It was always easier to blow things up the old fashioned way.
All he cared about were his children. He thought, if I could only invent something to make them happy. Protect them from pain. He rehearsed the line, You were my greatest inventions, over and over, but he never got to use it. He still spent most days and nights in the attic, toiling away. Tinkering. Building up, breaking down, rebuilding. Every day was a new kind of ruin.
Remember when you were a minipop, and you saw that film, you know, the one you loved that never had a sequel? Well, let's say it did. And it was just like you imagined it, only a little bit worse.