We’ve been underground for what must be two months now. Maybe three. The kids are really thriving, growing their own food. We’ve found we talk less, just enjoy one another’s company, really just enjoy the company. We play this game where we lose one of our sensory things——eyes or ears or mouth or feeling in our hands and feet——and see what happens then. We’re getting good.
It was the neighbor kids that did us in. The drought was bad, but those kids, with their rancid rubber boots on, even in the sun, and the child-sized fatigues. Their parents won’t let them war in their own yard because the grass’s manicured and glossy with pesticide, so they trampled ours, smote our little sons a hundred times a day. Raised clouds of dust so persistent Mary and I coaxed muddy snot into tissues all summer long.
It was still hot, that night, almost time for the neighbor kids to head home. I sent them tromping upstairs for a wipedown so their mom wouldn’t think we’re trash. Isn’t that just the way. They’re the ruiners, and my wife’s stuck cleaning up the mess, every day, with that same dingy washcloth she saves special for them. This one that we got for our wedding, part of a set, peach-colored. A rag.
I stood in the settling dust and surveyed the scene, hands on my hips like a farmer.
Brown. Everything brown and dead: stiff, hapless grass in patches poked up between paths worn down by half a million little bootfalls. In just three months. A topography of destruction. “The hell,” I said, then remembered not to breathe through my mouth. I headed to the front, where maybe the air’d be better, today. Nope. The kids weren’t even supposed to play out there (no fence, makes them snatchable) but I suppose it’s the danger that draws them. Same little boot prints in the flower bed, between the stumps of butterfly trees I accidentally cut down too far last year, so they never came back.
I walked all the way out to the——whatever it’s called, strip between the sidewalk and the street. It wasn’t green but it had a little dampness underneath, a little give, a little life yet. Was that even my property? Must have been, or why did I mow it. I stood there facing away from the house, hoping this was mine. Pretending everything I had was at least this good.
The neighbor kids’ mom usually called their cells to get them home, but that day their dad pulled up in his house-sized truck, so we had to say something to each other. “Hey, Brookes, any time, not a problem. Well, and the wife puts snacks and juice on the back steps, you know, to keep ‘em outside.” Why did I say ‘the wife,’ I never say that. I lied because I didn’t need him picturing all that displaced dirt in the house like it was, puffing out of couch cushions, choking our cats. It’s no way to live. “Yeah, you can see what they do to the grass. Ha, yeahhh, I’ve tried to seed it a couple times, and sod it, and, well you know: high-traffic area.” He promised to give his boys a talking-to if I could just put up one of those little grass-guard fences because “kids do best when boundaries are clear,” but I could tell by the way he glazed over at words like seed or sod that he never talked to his kids. Not really. They ran down from the back, and he saw how filthy they were and said he’d meet them at home. Then he drove his 500 horses ten miles an hour down the street after his sons, who sniped his brains out, bazooka’d his car, and dove headfirst into a hedge.
Inside, I squinted for my family. “Are my eyes still adjusting…”
“It’s the dust,” said Mary.
“Bad,” I said.
Through the haze, I could see her at the stove, waiting to flip a cheese sandwich. She turned the top half of her body towards me, looking like some Grecian statue. I kissed her. Grit between our lips. I pulled away to look into her eyes, which were pink and wet. “I know,” she said. “I unwrapped the cheese slices in the fridge, so their insides should be okay.”
After dinner, we strapped the little one into the stroller and walked. I went first, so the air would part around me in tiny currents, then Joad, then Mary pushing Jack. I could hear Joad oof and hiya, punching at the whorls of dust.
“Stay behind Daddy,” Mary said.
“Yehhhhsir!” Joad shouted like a man.
We walked in slow-motion. Every lawn in sepia tones. “Are these as bad as ours?” I asked Mary, “Are they?” I wanted to start knocking at every house, ask to smell other people’s indoors.
At the end of the block, perpendicular to it, facing us all, was the big house where the little soldiers lived. The hulking truck looked out of place on the far side of the glamorous wrap-around driveway. Sinister. Peeked out from behind a lush mound of garden like a suburban guerrilla.
“That’s Decker and Bunker’s house,” said Joad. He stuck his feet through the bars of the wrought iron fence and pulled his belly against them.
“Yes it is,” said Mary, “You wanna wave and say hi?”
“HI DECKER AND BUNKER!” Joad yelled across the distance. Jack wriggled in his stroller, so much that the canvas almost inverted.
“You wanna say hi too?” Mary said, and unclipped him.
“DECKER AND BUNKER!” Joad yelled again on his tiptoes, his body wavering back and forth on the radius of his skinny little arm. Jack tried the same, but the weight of his toddler head was too much, and before I could catch him he swung backward and clanged against a bar. He rattled more than it did. Mary and I dropped to comfort him, “It’s okay, honey, you’re fine, baby bear…” Somehow his little hand wouldn’t let go of the bar. Just as his look of surprise melted into a scream, the roar of a John Deere rider mower took us over.
Oh, hi, we gesture to Brookes, contort our faces to say, Oops, and sorry, and You know how it is. Brookes finally killed the engine. Jack’s screams cut through the exhaust. Joad wrapped an arm through the bars and covered his ears.
“He’s fine, he’s just startled,” I say a couple times.
“You guys wanna come inside? Put a little ice on that noggin?”
Sure enough, Jack had a little goose egg raising up under the wisps on the back of his head. Mary and I looked at each other, our mouths stuck in different vowel shapes, trying to guess what the other was going to say.
“Well sure, Brookes,” she finally said, “That’s nice, thanks.”
“DECKER AND BUNKER!” Joad shouted.
The stroller wheels echoed across the marble as we followed Brookes through his front doors. A blast of cool air lifted our hair.
“Fresh air,” Mary whispered.
“Fake air,” I whispered back, over Jack’s head. His cries had died down to a random obligatory whimper. His big brown eyes reflected the white of the walls around us.
“Can I get you something? Diet Coke?” Brookes said, “Decker and Bunker are upstairs in their rooms, but I can buzz them.”
“Oh, that’s fine, thank you,” Mary said, and brushed a hand over Joad’s face before he could yell again. She hoisted him onto her hip. “It’s just about bedtime, isn’t it.” Joad touched her neck absent-mindedly, then lay his head against it, cooling.
We just stood there while Brookes went for the ice pack. Stock still, looking up , listening to each other breathe. The whole house was smooth, seemed to spiral upwards and open like a lily into the bright blue skylight, acres and acres above our heads.
“We’ve really got to go,” I said when Brookes returned, a gel pack in each hand. “Thanks for the ice.”
“Take them with you,” he said.
By the time we rolled up home, the sun was down. Jack snuffled in Mary’s arms, Joad sat half-asleep in the too-small stroller, dirty legs splayed. I started to work my hands down Joad’s sides, to pick him up and carry him in like he likes, but he started to whine at my touch, “Uhhnn, hahhhht…” His feet slipped off the baby-sized footrest, narrowly missing my stones.
“I know,” I started to say, “You’re gonna have to help me out a little, bud…”
The west-side neighbor Ray came around from the back of his house, tugging his hose behind him. Shirtless as always, shorts and tube socks. He grew up here, fifty-some years. Used to have the best lawn on the block.
“Whatcha doin’, exercising?” he smiled, pointed at our boy-luggage. “They’ve more got the idea.”
“Hi Ray,” Mary said, exhaling, like with relief. The comfort of familiarity. By now he’d seen us at our worst.
“Could ask you the same thing, Ray,” I said, “What kind of futility you getting into?”
“Ha ha, don’t do no good, does it,” said Ray, and waggled his hose. “Gotta keep busy somehow, though.” He flicked the spray towards the stroller and Joad giggled in spite of his possum play.
“You wanna hose him down, go right ahead, Ray,” Mary said.
“Oh, no, I don’t mean to interrupt…” said Ray.
“Oh, I mean, not if you don’t want to spend the water, Ray, I mean——”
Ray tilted his head back and looked at Mary under his pink tinted aviators. “I’m gonna spray you next, you keep that up,” he said. “Jumpin’ Joad, you ready for this?”
Joad rose from the stroller with a single, fluid movement, silent and beatific, tilted his head to the side and stuck a finger into the corner of his shy smile.
“I’ll set it on ‘Monsoon,’” said Ray said and winked at us. He let loose a torrent that slapped Joad’s skin in tiny thuds, sounded like ecstatic frogs hopping in the mud. Joad squealed with glee and stripped off his shirt, then his shorts, before we could stop him. His Mutant Man whities clung to to his hip bones as he sucked in for air between sprays, laughing and screaming. He spread his arms out and spat at the sky, spun in a little circle so the water pooled at his feet. I watched Mary smile at him, her face flecked with droplets that shone in the yellow street light.
Upstairs again, I moved the second fan from Mary and my room to the boys’. Aimed it towards the window from across the room, so it’d blow over their beds. The box fan in the window’s supposed to pull the hot air out, but this would double up.
“It’s like a vortex,” I said to Mary as she scuttled the boys in their room, dried and tooth-brushed.
“My bed feels funny,” said Joad.
“Chitch,” said Jack, and they scratched at their little bare chests with fingers pink and helpless as worms.
I picked up Jack and pounded the grit off his bed and into the wind, then Joad. “You wanna dream about cowboys?” I said, and they yeehawed at Mary while I grabbed handkerchiefs from our room, one red, one blue. When I tied them over their noses, the boys held so still they barely breathed. Then their hands turned hard and they shot up the room, rodeoed ‘til the bedsprings whined under their bucking. Last thing we saw before I switched out the light was the lipless shadow in each of their mouths as they sucked their bandanas in and out, in and out.
“Babe?” From the back porch I hear Mary’s voice inside the house. I could picture her in her nightie, her hands pulled inside it while she lotioned them up. “Whatcha doing?”
I headed to the garage, grabbed the shovel.
“What are you doing down there?” Mary said from the upstairs window, “You gonna dig up everyone else’s yard? Feeling green?”
“Ha, No way” I said, looking out over fences into the dark. Above me the blinds clacked, Mary’s laugh faded into the house. “Don’t know the meaning of the word,” I said, and headed straight for our biggest bare patch, the fighting ring, big as an above-ground pool.
Inside, outside, there wasn’t a thing left for us that wasn’t dingy, gray, used up.
“No way,” I said, and stuck my shovel in. I liked the way it sounded under my boot, like I was really doing something.
I don’t remember finishing the hole, but by the time our boys ran down in the morning, I’d got it dug, wide like a respectable patio, deep up to my knees. I was lying in it, and they laid all over me, “Daddy, daddy,” natural as anything. I rolled around with them, tackled them, one in each arm, kissed their bellies, pretended to eat their heads. They giggled and smelled so good.
“What’d you think?” I asked them, “This is all ours…”
“Our fort?” Joad said.
“Yeah. Do you think Mommy will like it——go get Mommy,” I said, and they careened off into the wild blue yonder. What should have been blue. I pushed the back of my head into the ground to get a better look up through the four sod walls, deep brown. Brown and blue, how nice and cool and wet that would feel. I stretched out my palms and pressed them downward. Dug my hands in and squeezed. Through the haze, the sky looked green.
Ray walked up, no shirt, baseball cap.
“The hell you doing down there?” he said, fake angry, “You know I hate talking to the cops.”
“Ray!” I said, “Hey!” Together, we’ll beat this thing. “Hey, I wonder if you can give me a hand.”
“Sure thing,” he said, “Shoot.”
In a minute Mary appeared at the edge of the hole with the shovel. My God, she was beautiful——legs wide, holding the thing like an AK-47. Ray took it from her, gentle.
“Thanks, Ray,” she said. She looked at me for a moment, then at Ray, then at the boys. She brushed off her shorts, stepped on in and stretched out next to me. The kids watched her, squeezed down between us, tried hard to be still. They’re good kids.
“Ok,” I said to Ray, “Lay it on!”
“Lay it on!” the kids yelled, and closed their eyes tight. I started to explain, as the dirt hit our faces, but Mary got it. Ray, he got it. He used to have a knack for lawns. He wants to see this thing turn out as much as we did.
This morning——what I think is morning——I wake up staring at dirt. I stick my tongue out and move it around. It tastes good, rich, like me, like Mary. Breakfast. We’ve taken to eating what grows into our mouths, and let the plants take, too, whatever they need. Oxygen, C.O. two, however that works. An exchange.
I hear a muted voices up above. The ground is heavy on us. “Yep,” (that’s Ray) “Grass sprung right up like a goddamn miracle. You ever seen a greener lawn?” A murmur of admiration. The earth shifts as people come and go.
A hollow tramping approaches, Joad giggles in his sleep. “Watch it, there,” Ray says, and, “You wanna control your boys? Ain’t you got your own lawn to wreck up?”
“Not like this,” I hear Brookes say. “Real nice property here. Real nice.”
“‘Bout to dig in myself,” Ray says. “Never did see a greener lawn.”
Front page image by Adam Farnsworth.