Another Sunset

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Arthur Penbroke enjoyed a life of semi-reclusion in Joshua Tree where he was employed under the table. He worked with and oversaw the landscaping and maintenance crew at a retreat center on the east end of town. The center hosted various events, mostly, but not entirely restrictive to, spiritual or religious-minded groups. As a legal American he didn’t need to be paid this way, and he knew that this form of pay was illegal. He lived in a cabin that he’d been remodeling over time. His art was writing and he’d been working on a novel: a “desert noir” involving a well-known musician hiding out in a secluded vacation rental recording an album by himself.

One Friday, Arthur was about to leave work when Margaret, the secretary, stopped him.

“Arthur,” she said. “Before you leave Susan wants you in her office.”

Arthur stood in the doorway of the office building and looked back at the plump, middle-aged woman seated at her desk. He was surprised to have heard her. She had a meek voice and may have been embarrassed by it because she rarely spoke up. “You know what for?” he asked.

A year or so before Arthur and Susan had briefly carried on an affair while she was separated from her husband Jim, but they had dissolved the relationship amicably when her marriage soon reconciled. They remained professional in their work environment, although sometimes they’d slipped into flirtatious talk. Often this left Arthur feeling a bit guilty, especially whenever Jim stopped by the office, dropping off supplies from Costco or bringing her something she’d left at their home down in Palm Springs. Arthur was sure that Jim never knew and he couldn’t imagine the shame he’d feel if Jim ever found out.

In the office Arthur usually tried to keep space between him and Susan, which was hard because she was the one who told him what to work on each day. Presently, he was hoping this meeting would be routine and formal. It was Friday and he wanted to grab a beer with Charles after work or something.

Margaret looked back up from her computer screen. “No. She just wanted me to let you know.” She shrugged to him, looked back to her screen, and then pointed behind her. “You can go in now.”

“I’m supposed to give Charles a ride home.”

Again, she shrugged.

“Yeah, alright. Tell him I’m in there when you see him?”

He looked in the office candy jar for a Tootsie-Roll but none were left. Walking toward Susan’s office, he sighed loudly. This could go one of many ways. Susan was unpredictable. Margaret looked up at him, but she didn’t say anything.

Susan’s back was to him when he walked in. Her desk was covered with pens and all sorts of paperwork: stacks of applications; folders filled with files on who-knows-what; a few tattered spiral notebooks; and a single piece of paper, folded as if from an envelope, lying over the face of her computer’s keyboard. There was also a plastic tray with her lunch leftovers (unfinished corncob, beet stains, and a picked-at salad) splayed across it. He looked at her long, curling, black hair. She turned around and met him with a pleasant smile. On some days you could see the forty-plus years in her face, but Arthur found her looking softer, that old tease he knew within her eyes.

“How’d it go today, Art?” She batted her eyes and then motioned with her hands. “Close the door. Sit down.”

“Not a bad week in all, really. We’ve gotten that water leak in Topaz Hall fixed and everything cleaned up from it.” He sat down in a chair before her desk. “Charles trimmed back the trees in front of Emerald and Juan did an insect spray over there—”

“Did Charles check the irrigation in the meditation garden like I asked?”

“I asked him, but I was over near there, and he hadn’t gotten to it yet, so I went ahead and checked it out.”

“Why didn’t he have it done? I swear Art, if they aren’t listening to you—and I know they aren’t listening to me—how are we going to get things done?” Her telephone began to ring, but she ignored it, moving in closer to him. “I’ve got a meeting with the board members next week. They want to see progress before allowing us another loan.” She moved back, again relaxing in her chair.

“Don’t worry. It wasn’t his fault, I happened to beat him to it.” He wiped his brow and pulled on the front of his shirt to cool himself. She kept a candle burning on her desk at all times, and it always smelled like an exotic rainforest. An oscillating fan also stood behind her chair next to the lamp, but he’d never seen it on.

“I’m glad to have you working for us. You know that.” She stood up, leaned toward him. “But you also know I like to have things done my way.” She walked around the desk to the other side of Arthur. He turned his head to face her behind him.

You know I know you do.” He paused, wetting his lips. Then he quickly realized she may have misread this gesture as a flirt. “Look, it’s not like these guys are doing bad work. Everyone gets a little lazy after a long day. They’re working a small under-the-table job and I’m not sure they take most of our clientele seriously.”

“Perfect. Why you’re here. We got a letter today about undocumented workers. Basically we’ve got to tighten ship and legally account for all workers.” Slightly snickering, she turned his head forward and began rubbing his shoulders with her small, yet strong, hands. It felt great, he had no idea where this was going and wasn’t sure he was up to finding out. His entire body quickly tensed up under her fingers. He jerked his body away from her hands and turned back to face her.

“What’s with you?” asked Susan. She was frowning, and it was pouty. It made Arthur worried that she had some sort of intentions he wasn’t grasping. “Something’s up.”

“It’s nothing,” he said. “What do you mean by ‘tighten ship’?”

“I mean that I need you and your crew to have legal documentation, social security, what-have-you, to Amanda. Fill out your W-2’s. All within two weeks at the latest.” Her face was red, but she couldn’t hold her smile back when she tried to be serious. Her eyes glowed. “We could get in big trouble here. I cannot lose our non-profit status.” She returned to her chair and picked at the papers on the desk.

“I’m not even sure how many of our guys are legal.” He looked down to the floor and ran his hands up and down his face. “Where else are they going to be able to find work? Those guys are assets to this place. They work hard—”

“You just got done telling me that they’re lazy. I don’t want to have to tolerate that. If they aren’t legal, then I’ve been doing them a huge favor and, sadly for them, the favors run out.”

He tried to speak up but was interrupted before he could start.

“Here are the W-2’s you need to disperse to the men. Don’t forget one for you,” she said, handing him a manila folder filled with papers.

“I didn’t mean to be so off-putting. I’m sorry.” He flashed a smile meant to be coy; a calm look filled her face. “Is there some way you can move these guys around this paper trail?”

“You’re my most important man,” she said. The red in her face was a blush now. She hesitated, as if considering what to say next. “I can try to make something work—for you—but if I can’t, I’m going to have to let those guys go. In the instance that this does work, it’ll only be a few. One or two.”

“I understand.” He began to stand up, brushing his left hand through his short, brown hair, but Susan leaned toward him, forcing him back down.

“Now of course, I mean that in all aspects, ‘my most important man’” she said. “Jim’s in L.A. and I’m staying on site this weekend. You’re not on call.” She reached to touch his shoulder once more.

“If you have any trouble you can call anyway,” Arthur said, rising from the chair. He was  ready to make his exit. “Nothing much planned this weekend. Reading. Maybe go for a hike.”

“What about this evening?” She seemed to be beckoning him to stay in the office.

He looked at the clock on the wall. It read 5:26.  “I told Charles I’d give him a ride home. He’s waiting out there. I’ll call you later this evening. We can talk more. But not here, you know that.” He turned to leave, but then looked back to her once more. “I feel guilty enough.”

“You’re right. You’re right. Drive safe.”

He walked out of the office and into the retreat center’s bookstore. Charles was sitting on the bench outside the French doors of the entrance, tearing the rubber away from the sole of his shoes. Arthur opened the door. He could smell the scent of wet creosote bushes. “C’mon, let’s get out of here,” he said.

Before moving to the desert Arthur spent a few years in Los Angeles. He had meant to begin a burgeoning singer/songwriter career, but he ended up waiting tables and playing a few open mics to near-empty rooms. The whole thing ended up being more stressful than he was willing to risk. The city life was overbearing on his nerves, and he could never attain a grasp on its pace and energy. After many sleepless nights trying to juggle everything the idea of fame grew weak-willed and he turned to writing fiction at home.

Some friends from L.A. who were into rock climbing had taken him out to Joshua Tree on one of their trips, and soon after he was making solo camping trips, getting better acquainted with the area and some of the community, which he found rich and thriving. He loved the openness, the vastness, the feeling of nature confronting you one on one. At night the sun would set into the San Bernardino Mountains, blending deep reds and purples across the entire sky. He listened as silence blanketed the night like the stars above. His writing, at the same time, had begun to make new turns; he felt that the desert had helped him reach a clarity.

On a bulletin board outside a coffee shop he found an ad for the small cabin for rent-to-own on the north side of town. Like a studio apartment, the cabin itself consisted of just one large room. There was an attached bathroom just outside the back door. It sat near the center of a five-acre lot on the north side of town. The nearest neighbor was nearly half a mile down the dirt road. Soon he had gotten the job at the retreat center and had made new friends like Charles.

Charles was in his mid-twenties, a few years younger than Arthur. He lived with his girlfriend and their infant daughter at his parents’ house on the south side of town, not far from the entrance to the national park. Charles had been hired about a year before, around the time Arthur had been promoted to head of the crew. He was the first man that Arthur got to really work hands-on with in the training. Every once and a while they’d go on weekend excursions with a couple other guys, camping and climbing. Charles’ car was in the shop, so Arthur was taking his friend back and forth to work. They lived on the opposite sides of town, but he didn’t mind. He was more worried for Charles’ job.

Arthur knew that Charles’ family had emigrated from Mexico when he was just a child, and they’d never gained legal status in the country. Somehow his parents had been able to get him into public schools, but since high school he’d been relying on under-the-table jobs like this one.

They got in Arthur’s old diesel Volvo and headed down the highway. The sun was glaring in the sky behind them as they rolled past the light into downtown Joshua Tree. The air conditioning didn’t work too well, so they had their windows down; the breeze of the desert air cooled them as it filled the entire car. “You want to grab a beer at the Saloon?” asked Arthur over the sound of the wind.

“I’ve got get home. The old man is cooking up a storm tonight. Eat with us if you don’t have anything going on.”

“Nothing planned so far.” Arthur remembered his boss. “Susan wants me to call her to discuss . . . things. I may go home and try to settle that out.”

Abruptly, Charles turned to face him. “Shit. Is that back on? She leave her husband again?”

“I don’t know what’s going on.” Arthur maintained his focus on the long, winding road that took them closer to the park. “Look,” he started. He explained to Charles not only about the W-2 forms for Amanda and how the payment at work was going to change, but how he was trying to work with Susan to get around it.

“Who’s Amanda?” Charles asked.

“She’s the accountant,” said Arthur. “Maybe you shouldn’t tell Becky about this yet.”

“I don’t know man, she’s the mother of my child. If I lose this job, it’s going to be hard as hell for me to find something else.”

Arthur could hear the anxiety in his voice.

“I gotta tell her something.”

“I’ll figure out something,” Arthur said. He was trying to calm his friend, but he wasn’t really sure if he could fix this. He wasn’t an accountant, and he didn’t know if he could bring it to himself to use Susan. Of course she’d come on to him, but it wasn’t right to sleep with her, especially with her marriage back together. What a mess.

“I don’t want to tell you to do anything you might regret later,” said Charles.

“Yeah, yeah,” said Arthur. He let up his focus and looked over to his friend. “Who said anything about regret anyway?” Arthur tried to force a smile, though he felt that his attempt was read as half-hearted.

Charles’ road was rocky, and if you drove too fast down it you left a long trail of trail of dust in your wake. Arthur turned onto it, but crawled the car toward the house as to not piss off the neighbors.

They bounced down the bumpy dirt road listening to the local rock radio station. It was a mile or so before they got up to Charles’ family’s property. The driveway was marked with a handmade sign reading Juarez. The house was in the center of the yard and had many multi-colored additions that had been added throughout the years. The sides of the house consisted of scattered chicken coops, rusting children’s bicycles and old tires, random sheets of metal and pieces of rotting lumber. A low wooden fence, which met with a boulder-covered hill back behind the house, surrounded the perimeter of the yard. A few old cars, none of which appeared to be operational, dotted the yard. There was smoke rising from the backyard, and it smelled like barbeque pork.

Charles and Becky lived in the back of the house, so Arthur drove around there. “Sure smells good,” he said as he put the car into park.

Charles got out of the car and leaned through the open window. “Are you sure that you don’t want to stay? There’s more than enough to eat.”

“Maybe in a bit,” said Arthur. “Gonna go home and clean up. I’ll grab some beer on the way back.”

“I’ll hold you to that.” They shook hands. Charles turned and walked to the house and Arthur drove off.

On the ride home, Arthur remembered how Susan had once told him that she’d hired Charles knowing that he had a pregnant girlfriend and wanted to give the young family a chance. Arthur hoped he could convince her again, although he didn’t feel great about what he’d be doing to get that help.

Sometimes he felt Susan used her sexuality and their past over him. While they had cordially agreed to move on, she never really turned down the flirting. Maybe it was a part of her personality, but she seemed to enjoy making Arthur feel excessively awkward in the presence of Jim. Once Jim had stopped Arthur in the office and made small talk with him about sports, stock portfolios, golf tips, things Arthur had no interest in. It seemed to go on forever. In the background, Susan, noticing Arthur stuck in the loathsome loop, began to lick her lips and touch over her body, teasing him right behind her own husband’s back. Arthur feigned having to use the restroom to escape the situation. He had waited in the men’s room until he no longer heard Jim’s voice and promptly exited the building.

It had been well over a year since they had ended the affair. He had to admit to himself that he was still attracted to her. Besides the sex, she was actually someone he could talk to, a rarity. They used to watch sunsets, talking about literature and art. She’d helped him a lot with his book. Arthur didn’t really like to talk about his work with many people, but Susan was someone he trusted. She had good feedback and encouraged him to make the leaps that he’d felt he’d made in his writing since he’d come to Joshua Tree. She understood his sense of satire, and he was able to learn things he’d never imagined, not just sexually. Still, he hated the thought of  ruining a marriage, and he liked Jim. The guy might have been dull and, most likely, a hardcore conservative, but he didn’t want to break his heart.

As Arthur entered his home a rush of warm air pushed him back. He’d forgotten to leave a window cracked. Leaving the front door open, he quickly moved about pulling up blinds and unlatching windows.

A short dresser nearly six feet long stood near the entrance. There was an old record player, a pair of speakers in wooden cabinets, and a row of lined up record’s on top of it. Arthur’s bed, on the opposite side of the room, was covered with climbing gear and his folded laundry. He flipped through the LPs and pulled out Mingus Ah Um. After looking over the back cover for a minute or so he placed the vinyl down on the turntable.

Music filled the room, and he moved to the kitchen area. There were a few worn, wooden cabinets, a sink, and an old, small white stove next to its matching refrigerator. From the fridge he retrieved a bottle of Tanqueray, a two-liter bottle of store-brand tonic water, and some ice from its upper compartment. He cut up a small lime that had been lying on the counter. Grabbing the cordless from the wall, he went back out to his front porch, which was shrouded in the shade of the structure.

He sat in the comfy reclining chair he’d bought at a thrift store down in town. The tag in the store read twenty-five dollars, which was fine with Arthur, but when the guy at the counter rang him up, he was informed that there was a sale going on and it was only ten. Arthur felt bad getting the chair for cheaper, because he knew the money from the store went to different charities, and insisted that he pay the full, marked price.

He set his drink on the table beside him and decided to give Susan a call. When she didn’t answer he figured she was probably still in the office. So he called Charles.

When Charles answered he sounded like he’d already had a few drinks himself. “Becky says you can’t come back over unless you bang Susan for my job.” He laughed loudly into the phone.

“I told you not to tell her.”

“It’s cool. She’s just fucking around. What are you doing? Come over.”

“I’m having a drink on the porch.” He grabbed the glass and took a sip. “Tried to call Susan. No Answer.” He fixed the phone between his head and shoulder, stood up, and fluffed the cushion of the chair out. “I don’t know what to do. I don’t even know if she’s so shallow that she’ll trade sex for this. I almost hope not, in a way.”

“Shit.” Charles’ voice rose through the phone, creating static in the line as he spoke, but it was a voice full of anxiety, not anger. “You made it seem like she’s just dangling it in front of you.”

“What would that make me for taking it?” Arthur walked out into the fleeting evening sunlight, looked up at the sky. A few light clouds hung to the south. He tilted the glass back to his mouth until there were only cubes. “She’s fickle.”

“Hell man, you’ll figure it out. Why don’t you come on over? There’s still plenty of food, plenty of drinks.”

“I might do that.”

Arthur hung up the phone and made another drink. The side of the record had ended, but instead of flipping it over, he pulled out another one and put its side-B on. While he made himself the drink he laughed about Becky’s supposed suggestion to “bang Susan”. Sitting down with his drink at his small kitchen table, he tried to remember the last time he’d had sex and he remembered Jessie.

Arthur had met Jessie down at the Joshua Tree Saloon, not long after the tryst with Susan had ended. Jessie was twenty-one versus Arthur’s thirty, an age difference that was of concern to him at the time. He must have been suppressing the fact there was a wider gap between Susan and himself. The sex was alright and she was as stunning as any guy would hope for in a girl her age, but, looking back, it was too soon after Susan. Susan was better for him in so many ways. Jessie couldn’t stimulate him intellectually. He never even told her he was a writer for fear of what mass marketed trash she’d come to associate him with just out of pure ignorance. She only seemed concerned with text message conversations and gossip-talk about people he didn’t know. Not long after the last time they’d had sex, Arthur came to sort of realization of how inexperienced she was for him, and, over her sobbing, that’s how he had, maturely, tried to explain it to her. He hadn’t slept with anyone since.

Arthur heard the phone ringing outside the door. He turned down the stereo and went to answer.

“I saw that you called.” It was Susan. She sounded as bubbly as ever. “Called you back as soon as I noticed. Didn’t want to miss you.”

He imagined her on the other end, twirling her hair around her finger like a high school girl. “I told you I’d call.” The gin had lightened him up. “What are you up to?”

“I finally got out of the office. Just got to my room.”

He heard her sigh. She sounded as if the phone was against her lips. He sat down into the soft chair on the porch, sinking into it. “Working late on a Friday? Don’t you ever quit early?”

“I had a meeting with Amanda. Trying to figure things out for you.”

He sat up straight. “What do you mean?”

“Your little fit this afternoon. I told you I could try to fudge it. How many of these guys are illegal anyway?”

“I—I don’t know. What are you thinking?”

“Amanda figures if we declare most of the workers, especially including you since you’re presiding over them, that we could still hide a few on the side. We can bring some money over from the bookstore to make things appear clean.”

“Isn’t that a risk though?” Arthur was looking down at the ground, holding the phone with his right hand; his left hand rubbed the top of his head.

“I figure I owe you one,” she said. “The thing is, though, we can probably only save one guy. Maybe two, but I wouldn’t count on it the way the bookstore sells.”

“Thank you for even trying.” Arthur stood up and let out a big breath of air. He told her that he knew that Charles didn’t have documentation and that if he had any choice in the decision, he wanted Charles to keep his job. He reminded her about Becky and their child he was trying to support. She agreed to keep Charles for as long as she could keep up the ruse. The board could never know anything about it, and if anything came up he’d have to go. “I don’t want you to feel like you have to do anything, though,” he said.

“I suppose you’re busy for the night?” asked Susan.

“Just been enjoying the evening, having a drink on the porch. It’s beautiful out. The sunset is probably going to be great.”

“It’s lovely over here too. Maybe I’ll watch it from the meditation garden.” There was a hesitation in her voice.

“Why don’t you come over here. Watch it with me. I’ll make you a drink.”

“Are—are you sure? I know that sometimes I can be a bit—”

“Don’t worry about. I want you here. I’m already making your drink.” He shook his own drink for her to hear the ice clinking. “If you’re not here soon enough, I’m going to have to drink it myself.”

They ended the conversation. She was on her way.

Arthur called Charles to let him know that his job was probably safe for now. “I won’t make it over, but save me some food,” he said.

Charles laughed at him. “Don’t be coming to me with your guilt tomorrow.”

“No guilt. It is what it is.”

Arthur walked back inside. He cleared his laundry off of the bed, putting it all where it belonged. Then he made the bed. He cleaned some dishes that had been left in the sink and prepared the drink he’d claimed to already be making, along with another for himself. After closing the blinds throughout the house, he lit a few candles on the dresser and walked back outside with both drinks and waited for Susan to come.

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Obstacles (final draft)

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From a drawer in Grandma’s kitchen I grabbed a pair of scissors and began cutting out a Family Circus from the Sunday funnies. Jeffy, the boy in the cartoon, had traveled throughout his entire neighborhood; his entire path, including loops and other wild turns through clotheslines, tree houses, over fences, doghouses, and car hoods, was marked with dotted lines. After I finished cutting out the comic, I showed the comic to cousin Tom who was flipping through the Calendar section.

“Family Circus is so lame,” he said.

“I like these ones with the dotted lines,” I said. “I like how he goes across all the yards. That would be fun.”

“What?” He had already turned his attention back to his part of the paper.

“It’d be fun to make a course like that. Maybe even map it out.”

 “We do that stuff all the time in Colorado,” said Tom. Then he shot up and walked to the window in the living room where he seemed to be examining the neighborhood. “Yeah. I bet we could do it here. We’ll need Ivan to help plan it out.”

I joined Tom at the window. We were both eleven, the fourth summer we spent together at Grandma Ethel’s house in Joshua Tree. Mom said us kids were good company for Grandma and that it gave me something to do all summer. Not much seemed to change from year to year, only little things like I was a little taller than him this year, a pretty girl about my age had moved in next door with her family, and the old people down the street with all the dogs seemed to have even more in the yard. The girl was what I thought about the most. Tom had spent the last few weeks talking about his girlfriend back in Colorado and I wanted to have my first girlfriend.

 Around the corner from Grandma Ethel’s house was where Uncle Bob and Aunt Jane and Ivan and Vicki, more cousins, lived. Vicki was older than all of us and we rarely saw her that summer, but Ivan was a few years younger than Tom and I and offered us most of the fun available in the desert. Everyday I hoped that I’d see that girl and go talk to her, but Tom and Ivan kept me distracted with big projects or games and toys and TV. Grandma Ethel’s house had a huge satellite dish that picked up hundreds of channels, but at Ivan’s house they only got a few channels that Uncle Bob picked up on the antenna. I could see the antenna on my uncle’s roof from the window in Grandma’s living room.

“Isn’t Ivan supposed to come over today?” I asked.

Tom turned from the window. “Aunt Jane will to drop him off after they have church.” He grinned this evil smirk he seemed to have developed over the last year. It reminded me of a bad guy from a Batman comic book. I think that’s where Tom got it from. He acted tough, but I’d seen him cry before. “He has to do church every Sunday like a good wimp.”

“When does that get over?” I asked.

Tom shrugged dismissively, returning to his gaze over the neighborhood.

I went down the hall to ask Grandma about Ivan but she wasn’t sure when he’d arrive. Her room smelled like the school library and she was watching a soap opera. It always smelled like that and she was always tucked back there watching something on TV. When I returned to the living room Tom was sprawled across the couch watching cartoons. I sat in the empty recliner, Grandma’s seat, and extended the footrest out. “Ivan’s supposed to be here in ten minutes,” I told him, guessing. I took a quick glance out the window, thought I saw someone coming down the street.

Tom didn’t reply. He continued watching the screen, laughing at the appropriate moments. After a few minutes without any response, I spoke again. “Did you hear me? I said Ivan should be here soon.”

Tom finally looked over at me. “Good. He can help me plan and make maps. He knows the neighborhood better than either of us.”

“What do you mean?”

“The dotted lines,” he said. “You said it’d be fun. Let’s do it. I was thinking you stay here and try to figure out how to get other kids around here to come do it too.”

I was confused. What kids to do what?

“Make a game of it, a race,” said Tom. He explained that he and Ivan could draw maps of the surrounding yards and then go out and find obstacles that they could jump over or use as landmarks for turns and whatnot, just like Jeffy in the comic. It sounded like the fun part but he wanted me to stay inside in order to, as he said, “rally the troops.” He was getting in over his head again. 

I was beginning to understand what he was getting at when I noticed Aunt Jane’s car in the driveway. I rushed out of the chair and to the front door just as she opened it from the outside.

“Hey there, Harp,” she said. “Where’s your grandmother at?”

With a smile I pointed to the hallway, and she disappeared down it. It was a minute or two later when Ivan, dressed in khaki slacks and a striped button-up shirt, finally came into the house.

“What took you so long?” asked Tom.

Ivan pushed him out of the way to make a seat for himself on the couch and then started untucking his shirt. “I saw Lydia next door and wanted to say hi—Hey, what’s this show?”

The kid was easily distracted, especially when hanging out with the two of us. He was always in a great mood and wouldn’t let anyone bring him down. It seemed like Ivan enjoyed having been born and raised in the desert. But we, especially Tom, often teased him for living in the middle of nowhere; we were both from crowded neighborhoods with paved roads and stop signs. Ivan liked to play out in the huge dirt yard that Uncle Bob had, covered with Joshua trees and weeds and holes that we liked to dig in the sand sometimes. When Ivan was inside he played with Legos, always. The kid loved Legos.

“This show is Rugrats,” said Tom. “Don’t you know anything?”

As usual, Ivan seemed to treat Tom’s sneering like a friendly handshake and just continued watching with a smile on his face. “What do you guys want to do today? I can bring over my Legos.”

“Ivan, I’ve a project for us around the neighborhood. Ask Gramma or your mom if we can go out.”

“Okay.” Ivan eagerly jumped from the couch and headed to the hallway. I followed him and stopped him near the hall bathroom.

“Hey Ivan,” I said. “When you were talking to Lydia out there, did she…” I started whispering. “Did she mention me at all?”

“Ooh.” Ivan’s face lit up. “You know Lydia?”

“No. I’ve seen her next door. Maybe waved to her a few times. We’ve never met.”

Ivan looked baffled. “Her mom is my mom’s friend. Sometimes we go over there and they talk a lot. We get to play her Nintendo games though.”

“But she didn’t say anything about me?”

“Why should she? You said you’ve never talked to her.”

“I’m talking to you about her now, aren’t I?”

“I guess so,” he said. He looked down at his tiny red sneakers and then he broke out with energy again. “Hey, you should go talk to her sometime. She’s real nice.”

I heard Tom calling me. After waving Ivan on toward Grandma’s room I returned to the living room and we watched the cartoons. I wanted to ask Tom why I couldn’t go out with them to scope out the obstacle course, but I didn’t want to get him started. Whenever he had a plan going he would be grumpy to anyone who asked too many questions. Soon Ivan came back saying the two of them could go outside. I told them I was to stick around and draw. Since I was staying at the house I got to thinking that maybe I would see Lydia out the window and I could go talk to her like Ivan said. He and Tom collected some pieces of paper and pencils. As they left the house into the hot, bright day, I could hear Tom explaining his plan to Ivan, including an insult about the Family Circus. I wondered why Tom had to be so cruel sometimes.

 

Sometime that afternoon Tom came back and took me into the bedroom we shared. He lightly closed the door behind him as if not to wake Grandma, who was napping in the next room. Tom asked me to close the blinds that I was standing near and peering out of. I accidently dropped them pretty fast, and Tom, looking busy preparing papers, sitting on the messy bed, must have heard the crash of the blinds against the sill.

“Hey goofball,” he said. “Be quiet, will you? You’re drawing attention.”

I leaned against the small wooden dresser and gave Tom the finger while pointing my tongue out at him. “Do something about it,” I said.

Now Tom was staring over toward the window. Harper turned to see what he was looking at. Daylight bled through the blinds, causing shadows to move across the room as cars drove by outside. Perhaps a car pulled into the house next door.

“Well, get over here and let’s get to business,” he said. I looked down at the dark carpeted floor and moped over. I sat at the foot of the bed, opposite Tom, trying not to make eye contact. I could’ve really cared less. First they wouldn’t let me go help them and now he was bossing me around. Putting a pillow between me and the wall, I made myself as comfortable as possible. Tom flipped through some pages marked up with words, numbers, shapes, dotted lines, and some little symbols that I couldn’t quite make out as anything with which I was familiar. The ceiling fan squeaked as it spun at a low speed.

“I’ll try to explain this simply,” he said. “I made some maps of the whole neighborhood and I think I’ve found our route.”

I slid off the bed, walked back to the window. I pulled the blinds back from the window a little and peered out. Without looking up, Tom continued speaking.

“I think we should do a few trial runs, at night of course, to avoid any early problems.”

“When are you planning to do this?” I asked.

“The trials? Tonight if you can find us a flashlight. Have you found others to help? Remember. That’s your job. Or you and Ivan.”

Still looking out the window, I finally saw her. It was Lydia and her father. Her long, blonde hair fell just past her shoulders onto a blue dress. Her father wore a fancy-looking suit, but he had an angry look on his face. Every time I’d seen him, in fact, his face looked as if he were mad. They walked from the front yard to the back yard, and as she passed through their wooden gate, I thought that she made eye contact with me. Just as I watched their gate close, I realized that Tom was standing right behind me and had been speaking to me.

“Look if you’re not going to pay attention or help, then get out of here and let me finish this.” Tom still held his paperwork in his hand as if he was so important.

“I’m sorry. I want to help.” I shook my head, trying to focus thoughts.

“Go out front. Ivan knows what to do.”

Outside Ivan was sitting in the dirt with a spoon, carving trails for 4×4 Hot Wheels. He squinted up at me as I approached him.

“Can you get me a glass of water and help me dig some tunnels for these?” he asked.

I looked down at him. He seemed so small, dirt at the edges of his innocent smile. “Sure, kid. Be right back.”

When I came back with some water, along with another spoon for myself, Lydia was standing over Ivan watching him dig. “Harper, I told Lydia to come over because you wanted to meet her,” said Ivan.

Lydia’s cheeks quickly flushed with a light cherry color and she quickly looked down to her twitching feet. “I always see you waving to me,” she said. “But you never come talk.”

When she looked back up at me I noticed her eyes. They looked like the pale blue sky behind her was showing right through her head. I’d never seen eyes so remarkable. From her yard, I heard her mother screaming for her and the chug of a car starting. Her mother was often yelling; you could hear her out in the street all the time.

“I have to go to the market in town with my family. Next time it’s okay to say hi.”

I figured my cheeks were probably nearly as red as hers at that point. I was only able to smile and reach out to shake her hand before she turned her attention to Ivan.

“See you later, squirt. Don’t ruin those tunnels before I get to see them.” She left. When her parents’ car pulled out of the driveway she smiled and waved to us. Ivan, seemingly oblivious to anything else, continued playing in the dirt.

“Aren’t we supposed to be helping Tom with his obstacle course thing?” I asked.

“I already showed him around the neighborhood. He told me he had important paperwork to do and that I was too little to understand and that I’d better just play with my Hot Wheels,” he said. “So I did.”

“You shouldn’t let him be so mean to you.”

“I don’t mind it.” He kept on digging.

“Thanks for getting Lydia to come over here,” I said.

“I don’t get what the big deal is. I always talk to anyone I want to even though sometimes my mom says not to talk to people we don’t know. I don’t know why talking to them is bad. And sometimes I forget who we know and don’t know. A lot of people look alike.”

I got down and helped him dig some more tunnels and he told me about some other kids in the neighborhood that we could get to run Tom’s obstacle course. There was Brenton Trevor, this kid three streets down that had a house with a lot of old tires out front; and Nick Taylor, a boy that had his left arm in a bright green cast all summer and whose dog always followed him around everywhere he went; Kenny Wallace still sucked his thumb and was hard to keep attentive. Ivan said he’d ask his dad if there were more kids in the neighborhood that he was forgetting. “It’s almost dinner time though,” he said. “We won’t be able to talk to them now.”

 

Over the next few days Tom kept showing newer and newer maps with the path marked by dotted lines that he had been developing. Each map became more detailed as each path became more complicated. It was far beyond Family Circus at this point, but the spirit, I supposed, was there. Whenever I thought he was finally going to move on to something else there would be a new map or Tom and Ivan would return from another surveying trip through the neighborhood. Meanwhile I had been on the lookout for Lydia, having finally come up with the courage to try to talk to her again. It always seemed like no one was home over there, and when they were she never came outside.

Ivan and I went out Wednesday and Thursday, trying to find kids around the nearest six blocks or so. We mostly walked through the desert, play sword fighting with sticks we’d found. On Thursday I brought an old golf club I’d found in Grandma’s garage and used it as a hiking cane. Ivan and I would take turns hitting the fallen seeds from Joshua trees with it, watching the pieces scatter across the desert.

We found Nick Taylor and his small dog walking out there and told him about Tom’s plan. The dog kept jumping up on Ivan, so he stood back a few yards from us where the dog wouldn’t go. I’d never met Nick before, but he seemed alright. He agreed to do the obstacle course and knew some other kids that might want to do it too. He lived next to Kenny Wallace and would send the message over to him as well. We told him it would happen on Saturday at eleven in the morning beginning at our grandmother’s yard.

We never found Brenton Trevor, but on the way back to his house on Thursday afternoon Ivan remembered that that kid was going to New Hampshire for the summer to stay with his Aunt, another one shipped off for the school break.

It was getting dark when Uncle Bob gave me a ride back over to grandma’s house and I found Tom on the couch watching cartoons in the living room. He was playing a game where he responded to whatever characters on the screen were saying out loud. It was funny for a while, but then it started to get annoying when he wouldn’t let up. A little while later grandma made us dinner. After that he was normal, but he didn’t talk about the course at all.

We played a game of Monopoly. Ivan was supposed to come over, but he never arrived. Tom got really mad when I won the game after about three hours of play. He talked a lot about his girlfriend in Colorado, but he never said her name. He said he had a show box at home full of letters that she’d written to him in class. After he’d gone on so long I began to wonder if there really was a girlfriend or if he was just pulling bull on me to look cooler. I wouldn’t put it past Tom to have had a girlfriend before me though. If I would have accused him of lying he’d have been madder than losing a long game of Monopoly, and if I had mentioned Lydia he’d have just made fun of me somehow. So I just let him tell his stories whether they were real or not.

He was still up when I went to sleep, sitting at the little desk with the small lamp on. I’m not sure what he was working on. This was the third night he’d stayed up past me like this. 

It rained the next day and I spent most of the day watching TV. In the afternoon Tom finally presented to me the official map and path of his obstacle course. “Ivan and I ran through it today. You see here…” He pointed to a back yard on the map. “That’s the McKenzie’s slide. They have a loose board in their fence here and if you pull it back you can go through and then go up and down the slide and run along the house to the front yard and cross the street…” I had to admit I was impressed.

That night we went to sleep at the same time and Tom whispered to me in the dark. “I really wanted to do something fun this summer. We haven’t done anything but watch TV. When you cut out that comic and I got that idea, I don’t know, I just think it would be great.” He may have said more, but I fell asleep before I could hear him say anything else.

When I woke the next morning I was alone in the room. The blinds had been pulled up, revealing a cloudy day outside. After rubbing my eyes a few times I noticed Tom outside in the dirt driveway with Ivan. Tom clutched his paperwork while Ivan was carrying his tub of Legos. Ivan stopped whatever he was doing and waved to me with a wide toothy grin. Tom then began to pull him down the road, out of view.

  I was about to open the front door when Tom came barging through it. “Way to sleep in. I opened the blinds hoping it would wake you. It’s nine o’clock. Are these kids going to be here or what?”

I didn’t except Tom to be acting like this. “This thing’s not ‘til eleven,” I said. What’s your hurry?”

“No hurry. It just seems like no one wants to work with me. You just woke up and Ivan came over with his Legos wanting to play,” said Tom. “But I’ve got him going over the course now, making sure it’s all in place.” He pushed past me, walking further into the house toward our room and then he turned back. “Just make sure those kids show up and that they’re ready in time.”

 

At about 10:45 a bunch of boys, lead by Nick and his dog, started showing up in Grandma Ethel’s front yard, just as I’d promised Tom. After a while there were fifteen or so kids standing around, kicking their feet into the ground. Some of them began to wrestle and yell out, getting louder and louder as if to drown out the others. Dust was flying everywhere.

Tom hadn’t come out of the house yet when I saw Lydia over in her yard with her dog on a leash. I looked around at all these kids and decided that it wouldn’t hurt to just step over to the next yard. Besides, Tom had asked me to have those kids ready. They were ready.

When I approached Lydia I immediately tried to speak, but my voice came out a stammer. “H-hi. How ar-are y-you?.” My cheeks must have instantly brightened.

“Hi Harper,” she said. “What’s going on over at your grandma’s house? Why are all those boys over there?”

“My cousin Tom is planning an obstacle course.” I looked at her hair. It curled at the ends and seemed to float as a breeze swept between us.

“I’m walking my dog. I’m not allowed to go further than just down there.” She pointed her finger down a few blocks. “Do you want to walk with me?”

I looked at her and then down to her little brown dog and then back over to the crowd of boys, who were now wrestling and climbing all over each other, loudly of course, all the more wildly. I knew I was supposed to be helping Tom, but at that same moment I saw Tom walking up from the house to all those kids. “Yeah. Tom’ll take care of them. He doesn’t need me,” I told her.

“Aren’t you going to do the course thing?”

“It’s more sort of his thing. I’d rather walk with you.”

We walked down a few blocks until our houses were just almost out of sight and then turned around to retrace our steps. For most of the walk I was being shy, and I let Lydia do the talking. Mostly about her friends and what they were doing this summer while she was stuck at home with her mom. She’d look over at me and it was as if I didn’t hear anything. I just stared into those pale blue eyes. When I did finally speak I talked about playing with Ivan and Tom and how I liked spending this summer with my cousins. The more we walked, the more relaxed I felt. We stopped at the point she couldn’t go past and continued talking. I told her about life in Los Angeles and that I wanted to get a skateboard.

“Not so good out here, I guess,” I said, pointing down at the dirt road.

“Do you want to know why I am out here with my dog?” she asked.

“Aren’t you just walking it?”

“Do your parents ever fight?”

“I’ve never seen them,” I said. It was the truth. I’d seen them say rude things to each other often, even though they’d told me not to do such things, but they never fought.

“Mine fight sometimes. More like all the time lately.”

“What do they fight about?”

“Daddy always thinks mama is out cheating on him and he calls her names.”

It was quiet then for a moment and I didn’t know what to do or say. The small dog on the ground whimpered as a breeze came up. Lydia moved over quickly and grabbed me in a big hug. I put my arms around her back and squeezed her for a few seconds. 

“Thank you for walking down here with me, Harper,” she said when she pulled back. She tugged on the leash and we headed back.

As we were returning we heard a loud screaming. I thought it might have been Lydia’s parents still going at it and it made me sad, but then I saw what was happening. I saw all those kids dispersing about the neighborhood, down streets and through the desert. They weren’t on any obstacle course. They were entering houses, stopping and playing in other yards. Lydia and I got to Grandma Ethel’s house and found Tom down on his knees sobbing.

“I’d better go home,” Lydia said. She gave me another small hug and walked her dog over and into her house.

I stood over Tom. His messy clump of black hairs were shaking, and his breath was heavy. “What happened? Hey, where’s Ivan?” I asked.

Tom looked up with a soaked, pink face. “None of those dumb kids would listen to me,” he said. “Where were you?”

“Were you bossing them around like you do with everyone else?” I asked.

All he could do was tell me to shut up. I didn’t want to hear it from him . What he was crying over was nothing. He didn’t have any real problems. I ignored him and started walking away. I could hear him moving and soon he had jumped up on me and was hitting my back.

“It’s all your stupid fault,” he said. “If you would have been here and helped it would have worked.”

I was able to push him off, but by now I was feeling mad. I pushed him down when he came back at me and then I grab his neck in a head lock and pulled him down. “Tom. Stop it,” I said. “Get over it.” I forced him aside. He was flushed red and breathing heavy. Even his teeth were showing, but I knew wouldn’t do anything more. Part of me felt bad for him. He had worked really hard on the course. His attitude killed it in the mean time. I shouldn’t have hurt him, but I was glad that I’d gone with Lydia. I put out my hand in peace. “Let’s go inside,” I said. I helped him up and we walked back to the house with an arm around each other.

“Yeah, it was a dumb idea anyway. Stupid Family Circus,” Tom muttered.

When we got inside the house Ivan was in the living room sitting in the center of scattered Legos. His whole bucket’s worth was poured all over the carpet. He looked up at us and asked, “Want to play Legos?”

Tom looked over to me and turned back to Ivan. “Sure,” he said. “But maybe we should invite Harper’s little girlfriend.”

I laughed and we joined Ivan on the floor.

Tortoise Trap

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I had just gotten in from feeding the dogs and the tortoises out back and was feeling listless, lying in the recliner watching a Dateline report, picking through my beard for Ritz crumbs. Not an unusual situation for me, especially since I’d retired from the town planning commission. I was startled by the phone ringing loudly across the house. It was a Tuesday night. Naturally, I didn’t even consider answering it.

Soon enough Janice came in from the kitchen showing a careless smile that drew attention to her ruddy, delicate lips, and handed me the cordless. “It’s for you, dear,” she said, remaining near the chair watching Brian Williams on the TV. Her silver-streaked brown hair was pulled back in a ponytail, a frayed dishrag slung between her hands.

I brought the phone up to my ear and before I got out more than a breath: “Those fuckers are at it again with the solar field, John,” sounded an excited voice.

“Who is this?” I turned toward Janice, asking both her and the caller.

Janice turned back to her own business just as the voice continued. “It’s Morgan. Morgan Stone. Maaan, I’d hoped you’d be at the meeting tonight; it was a real doozy. You’ve gotta stop this shit.”

A vague image of the young man immediately hit me: a ragged, shouting head of brown hair. I recalled this hair vocally rallying behind me, agreeing with my viewpoints with ridiculous imprecision, often slipping into curses or attacking the more conservative members. His intent, in my opinion, was to intentionally create conflict and destroy any chance of moving forward with business. It was kids like him on the left that made me glad I was out of the game. Must handle this one carefully, I thought.

“As you know, I retired from my post almost two months ago,” I said. “The meeting is the furthest thing from my mind.”

“But you’re a man held up by the community. We’ve counted on your opinion to balance things. You defeated projects bigger than this before.”

“I’m sure they’re getting on without me.”

“That’s it though, John. Those fellas want to build that solar field off Sunfair Road. Just like last year. This time it looks like they may have the pull to do it.”

I knew of the past proposal, but was unaware it was still an active issue. Last I’d heard SolPlex, the company behind it all, was trying to lease land from the Bureau of Land Management. Well, apparently they got it. And further, Morgan, through his incessant ramblings, told me that there was already a planned Environmental Impact Report coming down the pike.

I was starting to think that if I didn’t get rid of this kid, he was going to be calling every week about this until it was over; I always hated that we had to publicly release our contact information. It could take forever for these plans to meet their ultimate pass or fail. Better to nip this one in the bud.

“I’d love to talk,” I lied.

“Oh man, John. That would be kick ass.”

“Just to be clear,” I continued. “Having stepped away from the board, I wish for them to continue their work without me and I respect whatever decisions they make.”

We planned to meet on Thursday in the library of the community college in Joshua Tree. It was just a few miles from the house and Morgan was enrolled as a student and worked on campus. In the short time since I retired from the board, it had already become clear that I had an abundant amount of time on my hands. Why not have a chat?

Later that night, lying in our bed and in the glow of David Letterman, Janice and I carried out what has become through our 38 years of marriage a nightly ritual of light conversation. She told me she was thinking about reintroducing the tortoises into the desert, letting them go Saturday afternoon. We’d adopted them from the Desert Tortoise Rescue a few months previous with the intentions of reintroduction into the wild. Since the kids moved out and started families of their own we’d been doing various sorts of similar projects; something to look after, I suppose.

“Do you think they’re ready?” I asked.

“Are we going to keep them fenced in forever?”

“I just wonder if it’s time.”

She looked at me with rolled eyes and then suddenly came to a thought. “Who was on the phone by the way?”

I told her about Morgan and our appointment, aiming for reluctance in my delivery.

“It’s cute that you have a fan,” she said.

The audience applauded and laughed at one of Dave’s monologue jokes, but I didn’t catch it.

“Fan? Hardly,” I said. “One of these new liberals. Dying to bring change without any thought.”

“Weren’t we—maybe more you and your buddies—called the ‘new left’ at some point?” She made ersatz fingers. “Wasn’t that what you were calling yourselves?”

Some friends and I moved out here to the desert to get out of the city, escape the structural confines that we felt living in L.A. in the seventies. Our intention was to provide for each other, to create a place to live a more natural lifestyle. We were under the influence of up-tight parenting, liberal arts educations, and the asinine Nixon administration, all filtered through assorted thought-inducing substances; the commune or whatever never really took off. I started to substitute teach in town for work (Janice wouldn’t leave the city until I was making some money out here), which eventually turned into a fulltime gig; and eventually time moved on and we all grew up and out of the times.

“But their agendas are confused,” I said. “Too much at once. Everything either redundant or catch-22. There’s a bigger picture; you and I see it; it took time, but you and I see it.”

“Why don’t you can engage this new youth movement to organize in a manner that is suitable to your specifications, Abby Hoffman?” She poked me in my ribs, making me smile. I kissed her and we caught the top-ten-list before turning out the tube.

When I went to meet Morgan I was slightly stoned from a joint I took a hit off while entangled with my coffee and New York Times and Guardian websites; sometimes it’s hard to get through the daily news without it. I’d never been to the school before, but the library was easy to find; the campus was so small. My mind had conjured memories of Williams Andrews Clark at UCLA, my alma mater; but in reality what I’d found was nothing more than a large room with a wall of partially filled bookshelves, and in the center sat some rectangular tables, each with four chairs around them. There were only a small handful of people in there.

I spotted Morgan at the far end of one of these tables. He had on a patched military-styled jacket and his face wore a pale, sunken look as if he’d just had his first shave in months. On the table were a few textbooks and notebooks; a small gray cell phone; a black laptop adorned with stickers; and two little paper cups of steaming coffee, one, I soon learned, for the each of us. I greeted him with an outstretched hand.

He quickly started clearing space on the table, apologizing, telling me that he had just gotten out of history class. Apparently he was also studying journalism, and getting the, as he put it, ‘boring math stuff out of the way.’ He even mentioned, in some sort of altruistic jest I’d hoped, that he was considering writing a story on me.

“No story here,” I said. “Hell kid, all you know of me is that I was planning commissioner for a small town for a short time. And before that I was an English teacher—”

“I was just hoping for some quotes. You know, on this fuckin’ solar field.”

I took a drink from the coffee and looked around the room for a clock. No luck.

“What’s your interest in it?” I finally asked. If he wanted to know my opinion, I had to know more about his.

“I admired your work on the commission. You have experience with this cause.”

“No. I mean, what’s in this fight for you?”

The boy’s face flushed a soft pink and then he cleared his throat. “I’m not about to let them screw ten acres of pristine land for their own financial gain. We are about preserving and cultivating this land naturally.”

There was something suspicious about this. “We?”

Morgan then told me about the ‘community-building network’ he was involved with, Transformation Joshua Tree. They were currently in the beginning stages of creating a commune-like living environment on Mojave Land Trust-owned property, not far from the proposed solar field.

That’s when I started putting things together. It seemed to me like Young Stone had a bias in the situation and was looking for Johnny here to reinforce the argument, make it sound more authentic-like, so they could just coast right in themselves. Looking back this may have been mere paranoia on my part, but you can’t immediately trust one’s intentions just because you’ve spoken to them a few times and they agree with some of your own agendas.

“Some type of get-off-the-grid idea, I imagine,” I said. “Down with the man.” I took a drink from my coffee, tipping the cup afterward with a grin toward Morgan to indicate the joke.

He smiled and again cleared his throat. “A small collective,” he began. “Very much a response to current affairs, not unlike the Occupy movement. But we feel that the problem with the Occupy protests is that these people want their share of the money. As if money is the answer. Money is the problem, and trying to get off of their system is the better protest.”

By then Morgan was standing, his voice volume bordering on inappropriate for the setting. I was getting worried we were bothering the other five-or-so people in the place. I adjusted my posture, making a small motion for him to sit back down.

He sat and leaned in toward me, now speaking at almost too low of a volume. “Look, I know you’re out, Mr. Jass.” He looked puzzled, or maybe it was desperation. “We’re just trying to build an argument against SolPlex to get something going.”

“Well, what do you want from me?” I asked.

“You should come to our workshop tomorrow night. Just come listen. Hear us out. Tell us what you think.”

“I’ll consider it,” I said.

In the living room that evening I read over the newest issue of National Geographic. An old Eric Dolphy record was playing low on the hi-fi. Janice just got in from work and was on the couch rubbing out her bare feet, which had been stuffed inside tiny flats all day, and trimmed her toenails. As she went about her self-styled pedicure, she told me about her day.

A customer in the little health food store she works at, a man about my age, she said, had a seizure right there in aisle two. Her co-worker Karen was on her lunch break, so she was the only one there at the time. She picked up the man, laid him across the backseat of the Camry, and drove him to the ER herself.

“And then once I get back to the store.” Her face now was red and her eyes seemed to pop from her face. “Karen pulls into the parking lot in that ol’ beat up diesel Volvo, wondering who the hell is inside working the registers. I told her: ‘Don’t get me started.’ Isn’t that funny?”

Just then the dogs started scratching on the back door. I put down my magazine and looked to Janice. It was obvious that she wasn’t going to get up, so I went and let them in.

“By the way,” she mentioned, just as I was getting back into my chair. “Did you feed the tortoises?”

I glared at her.

“Don’t worry, I’ll do it. I’ve got to make dinner anyway.”

While she was in the kitchen, I was thinking over the meeting with Morgan. I hadn’t yet decided a stance on the planning matter. I had left the boy saying I’d think about it. But what does that mean, ‘Think about it?’ Research each fact, read the fine print and weigh out the good and the bad until there is a definitive opinion? And about opinions, isn’t the thing about them that everyone has one and, well, no one can quite ever seem to agree with anyone on anything entirely. Am I right?

We were eating potpies for dinner and Janice brought up Morgan. “So what’s going on with that young man? How’d it go?”

“He seems to be crying paved paradise,” I said. “But I think it could be about his network wanting this land, not just to be preserved, but for their own eventual use.”

“Always the pessimist-intellectual, dear,” said Janice. “It sounds to me like they are environmentalists, less communist than the grandeur you’re willing to believe.”

“Always the optimist, dear.” I offered her a toast with a wink and we clinked our glasses of red wine together. “He wants me to come to their meeting tomorrow night.”

“You should go,” she said, taking her sip. “He seems to care for your thoughts.”

The next morning, outside while feeding vegetable scraps to the tortoises, I caught the sunrise from over the national park. It’s a sight I’ve seen many other mornings, but that Friday morning the hues of red and yellow that were unlike anything I’d seen before. Even God couldn’t have made this. I stood there watching the shadows of Joshua trees and brush shrink quickly from long ambiguous forms to solid definable reflections.

Later, amid o.j. and Cheerios in soymilk, I told to Janice that I’d resolved to sit in on the Transformation Joshua Tree thing that Morgan had invited me to but said it was just an attempt to see what they’re really about, purely inquisitive. I didn’t want to be brought into some sort of movement.

“It’ll be good for you,” she insisted. “Give you something to do.”

The Transformation Joshua Tree meeting went on much like planning board meetings had on slower agenda nights: the handful of folks in charge talked the most and the local opinion was more passion than articulation. The difference, however, was that instead of being held in the supposed prestige quarters of town hall, we were in a downtown art gallery. The exhibition hung on the brick walls epitomized surreal art nouveau, if I remember correctly, lots of greens and purples, very Max Ernst.

I sat in a cold, metal folding chair listening to group members in discussion. Their primary ideas were of resiliency and self-reliance. Although nothing new to me, their arguments impressed me; their discussion of the planned solar fields convinced me that their concern for the natural land was genuine and not for selfish purposes.

Later, Morgan introduced me to a few key players of the group. The range of their individual backgrounds surprised me: two yoga instructors, a former dentist, a Methodist reverend (female even), an aerospace employee, artists, musicians, schoolteachers, and plenty of kids with degrees, but probably no (or only low paying) jobs; . They all seemed like nice people, a rarity in these kinds of functions these days. Just inside the gallery door I spoke with Frankie, one of the yoga instructors, probably in her sixties, but, frankly, looked at least half it.

“We want to teach others how they can set up their own local Transformation Initiative,” she explained. “And to empower the community to tackle the BIG issues of peak oil, global warming, and this crazy economic mess we’re caught up in. These companies, SolPlex included, are stuffing the right pockets of the system. They sure got their EIR fast-tracked.” She looked me dead in the eyes when she talked to me, smiling warmly while I nodded along to her pitch, nearly hypnotized.

That’s when Morgan came walking up laughing. “Is she telling you all about our planned communist uprising?” He whipped an arm around Frankie, looked at me with a nod of his brow, sly as a fox. “I’m only kidding.”

I said, “Miss Andrews was merely breaking down the goals of your think tank here.”

“All about progression, John.” Morgan released the woman from his side as she began to wander off elsewhere. I waved goodbye and Morgan stepped closer to me, the same arm outstretched to pull me in. “Walk with me,” he said. “Let’s talk.”

Morgan and I shared a joint in the parking lot. The only cars around were those of the people at the meeting and whatever occupants there were in the nearby Thai restaurant. A single streetlamp lit whatever the incandescence from the storefront porches couldn’t; otherwise it was a dark, new moon night. Morgan was again in the army jacket, though it was a remarkably warm evening (I had worn only a t-shirt, shorts, and some sandals), and his hair was pulled back into a small ponytail. At first he seemed surprised when I sparked up, but the casualness of the whole thing, coupled with that fact that, you know, we were getting high, quickly calmed the young man.

Trying to handle the tip of the thing without burning my fingers, I said, “The problem I see with getting people against the fields is that it’s alternative energy. Big deal these days. It’s in your mission statement even—”

“But we feel that preserving the land is more impor—”

“Oh, I see that.” I looked up at the moon, holding in my hit. Exhale, small cough. “But that’s a hard sell these days. There’s a big push going in that direction.” I passed it to Morgan who looked at me, his eyes a clichéd red, reaching out. He said nothing. “It was a hard sell back in the day,” I continued. “Hell, what you want is why I came out here in the first place.”

“We’re not trying to sell anything. We want responsible progress.”

“This whole world is made of progress,” I said. He tried to hand the roach back, but I declined, waving it away with my hand. “But you can’t save land with progress today. Progress means building more things and eliminating wasted space.”

“Ah man, don’t tell me you’re on the side of that shit energy company.”

“No. I just question the change you’ll be able to make.” We started walking back toward the art gallery where it appeared that others were heading off for the evening.

“What did you mean when you said what we want is why you came out here?” asked Morgan.

“I guess I was idealistic like you. A few of us were. Me and some buddies from college. The idea was to get out of the city. Get out of L.A.”

“Start a commune?”

“We never would’ve gotten much off the ground. Like I said, idealists. Intellectuals, pseudo and/or otherwise.” I paused to laugh, remembering the reality of the former situation. “Mostly sat around rapping, talking up ideas, you know?”

We arrived at the gallery. Adjusting myself to the brighter lights, I shook whatever essence of nostalgia there was from my mind.

“I just hope you guys can do it. It seems like you’re going in a good direction.”

“I’ve got to go wrap this up inside,” said Morgan, pointing to the door with his thumb, hitchhiker style.

After he was gone I stood around for a while, admiring the warm air of the evening. I waved to Frankie when I spotted her driving off. Only a few cars were left now. It was quiet, the highway traffic sparse. I started thinking about the EIR they’d been talking about, the Environmental Impact Report. Great state legislation had made it a requirement. It seemed to me that this could already be a legitimate threat to SolPlex, but that only time would tell. Not much we could do. After a while Morgan came back out with a handful of papers and I decided to tell him how I felt.

“The EIR could be great, John,” he said. “But we’ve got to continue protesting these companies like SolPlex. Let them know we don’t need them in our desert.”

“If you really want a quote from me,” I said. “I hope that the report finds some sort of projected harm toward protected indigenous wildlife, and squashes the use of the land.”

Morgan was fumbling, trying to write down what I had been saying.

“As far as what we can do,” I finished, “less protest, more action, with attention to the smaller things. The local issues.”

He thanked me, didn’t ask much questions after that.

On the way home the night sky seemed especially bright for a new moon. Once I was on the dirt road I turned off the headlights and navigated by the light of the stars. And when I got home I lay on the hood of the car, leaning my back against the frigid windshield. Janice came out and joined me and we listened to the breeze of the air. Something in the distance moved through the brush. The tortoises in the yard chomped on pieces of lettuce.

That Saturday at about three in the afternoon Janice made some sandwiches, putting some lettuce aside for the tortoises, while I pulled the old Datsun pickup around to the front of the house. I put a thick layer of blankets down in the bed of the truck. After the two of us ate we loaded three of the little guys onto the blankets and tossed the pieces of lettuce in after them.

Once we got to the highway I drove east toward Twentynine Palms, and then north just past Sunfair. As I drove the only thing on my mind was the safety of the tortoises in back. When we got further from the highway, just past where Sunfair transitions into a dirt road, I brought the truck to a crawl as we climbed up the road. I gazed about around the general area, an expanse of dirt hills, Joshua trees, and dried up weeds and shrubs.

“I think the Transformation area is near here,” I told Janice, pointing to the northeast.  I drove a little further, up a small hill of dirt and rocks and sight-surveyed the immediate land. Finally, I spotted an area that appeared to be fenced off. Bingo, I thought.

Some light clouds had moved in, causing the sunlight to wash over the mountains and the valley with a shimmering yellow and orange filter over all of it. A giant white bird dropped itself in a spiraling motion before the truck, catching a breeze and then disappeared to the west. As if following it, I took my left turn onto a narrow, untrodden path. After a while any resemblance of the path was gone and we seemed to be driving over brush and cacti. Finally we got to the area I had perceived to be the proposed BLM land. I turned off the ignition and climbed out into the desert. There was a small, wooden makeshift fence.

Janice walked up behind me. “Is this the place?” she said.

I was inspecting the area, blocking the pre-sunset sun from my eyes with a flat hand against my brow, like a sailor at sea.

“This is it.”

At the more recent Transformation Joshua Tree meetings I haven’t told Morgan of what we did then that Saturday in the desert, although I mean to get around to it some day.

I went back to the truck, unlatched the tailgate, and climbed in with the tortoises. I secured a grip on the smallest of the three and handed it to Janice, who gently set it on the ground. She grabbed one of the small pieces of lettuce and tossed it a few feet from the animal’s mouth. This was repeated with the next one and then I personally carried the last one, the biggest one, out myself. Janice grabbed a small bag of carrots she’d brought from the cab, opened it up and poured the contents onto the desert floor.

“You know rabbits are going to just come eat those,” I said.

“Don’t they deserve it as well?”

When we drove home through the desert it was dark and there were far too many clouds to be able to view any stars, let alone what little moon was available. And when I awoke the next morning, after the clouds had all dispersed eastward, I witnessed a sunrise not unlike many sunrises I had witnessed before, the punctual orange slowly peeling, as if, in its obviousness, revealing its strings and the master behind them, not spectacular, but just as it should be.

Obstacles (in first person)

We were in Grandma Ethel’s dining room eating cereal. I sat at one end of the table slurping at a bowl of Captain Crunch. Milk had dribbled all over the funny pages I was reading. My cousin Tom sat at the other end, flipping through the Calendar section of Grandma’s L.A. Times newspaper, sipping leftover coffee that he’d swiped from the pot.

“Which one’s your favorite comic, Tom?” I asked him.

Tom drank the rest of the milk from his bowl and kicked out his chair, causing a squeak from off the linoleum floor.

Tom looked up from his paper. His black hair looked thick and greasy. Neither of us had gotten haircuts all Summer. He sighed. “I don’t read those comics. I read serial issues.”

“What’s that? Like Superman?” I got up and carried his bowl and spoon to the kitchen and then came back to the table and picked up the comics section. I went over to Tom’s side leaned against the adjacent counter top. “Well I like these funnies,” I said. “My favorite’s Blondie. I like when he makes the huge sandwiches.” I shoved the newspaper in his face.

“That’s dumb,” said Tom. “Have you ever read any Frank Miller?”

“Which one does he—Ooh! I want to cut this one out.” I jerked the paper  back to get it to fold. In the kitchen I grabbed a pair of scissors and began cutting out a Family Circus comic. Jeffy, the boy in the cartoon, had traveled throughout his entire neighborhood and his entire path, including loops and other wild turns through clotheslines, tree houses, over fences, doghouses, and car hoods, were marked with dotted lines. After I finished cutting out the comic I gave Tom a closer look.

“Family Circus is so lame.”

“Not always. I like these ones with the dotted lines,” I said. “I like how he goes across all the yards. That would be fun.”

“What?”

“It’d be fun to make a course like that.”

“We do that stuff all the time in Colorado,” said Tom. He got up, walked to the window in the living room, and looked out at Grandma’s neighborhood. “I bet we could do it here. I’ll plan it out.”

I joined Tom at the window. That was our fourth Summer at Grandma’s house in Joshua Tree. We were ten, the Summer my parents broke up. Not much seemed to change in the desert from year to year, just little things. A cute girl about our age had moved in next door with her family and the old people down the street with all the dogs seemed to have even more in the yard. Mom said we were good company for Grandma and it gave me something to do since she and dad had to work all the time. We were living in L.A. in ’92, so mom drove and visited some weekends. Around the corner from Grandma Ethel’s house was Uncle Bob and Aunt Jane’s house where Ivan and Vicki, more cousins, lived. Vicki was older than all of us and we rarely saw her that Summer, but Ivan was about two years younger Tom and I and offered us most of the fun available in the desert.

I could see the antennae on his uncle’s roof. “Isn’t Ivan supposed to come over today?”

Tom turned from the window. “I think Aunt Jane’s going to drop him off after they have church,” he said. He grinned widely. “He goes to church every Sunday.” The he burst into a spirited laugh.

“When’s that over?”

Tom shrugged dismissively and returned to his gaze.

I went down the hall to ask Grandma about Ivan. When I returned to the living room I found Tom sprawled across the couch watching cartoons. I sat in the empty recliner, Grandma’s seat, and extended the footrest out. “Ivan’s supposed to be here in ten minutes,” I told him. I took a quick glance out the window, thought I saw someone coming down the street.

Tom didn’t reply. He continued watching the screen, laughing at the appropriate moments.

After a few minutes without any response, I spoke again. “Did you hear me? I said Ivan should be here soon.”

Tom finally looked over at me. “Good. He can help me plan and make maps. He knows the neighborhood better than either of us.”

“What do you mean?”

“The Family Circus thing,” said Tom. “The dotted lines. You said it’d be fun. Let’s do it.”

I was confused.

“I want to make a game of it, a race,” said Tom. He explained that he and Ivan would draw maps of the surrounding yards and then go out and find obstacles that they could jump over or use as landmarks for turns and whatnot.

I began to understand what he was getting at when I noticed Aunt Jane’s car in the driveway. I rushed out of the chair and to the front door just as she opened it from the outside.

“Hey there, Harp,” she said. “Where’s your grandmother at?”

With a smile, I pointed to the hallway and she disappeared down it. It was a minute or two later when Ivan, dressed in khaki slacks and a striped button-up shirt, finally came into the house.

“What took you so long to come in?” asked Tom.

Ivan pushed him out of the way to make a seat for himself on the couch. “I saw Lydia next door and wanted to say hi—Hey, what’s this show?”

I was still standing near the door, pretending to laugh at Ivan. It often seemed that Ivan enjoyed having been born and raised in the desert. But we, especially Tom, often poked fun at him for living in the middle of nowhere. Grandma Ethel’s house had a huge satellite dish that picked up hundreds of channels, but at Ivan’s house they only got a few channels that Uncle Bob picked up on the antennae. Ivan mostly liked to play out in the huge yard that Uncle Bob had, covered with Joshua trees and weeds and holes that we liked to dig in the sand sometimes. When he was inside he played with Legos, always. The kid loved Legos.

“This show is Rugrats,” said Tom. “Don’t you know anything?”

As usual, Ivan seemed to treat Tom’s sneering like a friendly handshake and just continued watching with a smile on his face. “What do you guys want to do today? I can bring over my Legos.”

“Ivan, I’ve a project for us around the neighborhood. But first ask Gamma or your mom if we can go out.”

“Okay.” Ivan eagerly jumped from the couch and headed to the hallway. I followed him and stopped him near the hall bathroom.

“Hey Ivan,” I said. “When you were talking to Lydia out there, did she…” I started whispering. “Did she mention me at all?”

“Ooh.” Ivan’s face lit up. “You know Lydia?”

“No. I’ve seen her next door. Maybe waved to her a few times. We’ve never met.”

Ivan looked baffled. “I can introduce you sometime. Her mom is my mom’s friend. Sometimes we go over there and they talk a lot. We get to play her Nintendo games though.”

I heard Tom calling me. After waving Ivan on toward their Grandma’s room I returned to the living room.

Ivan came back soon saying they could go outside. I told them I wanted to stick around and draw. I was secretly hoping I would see Lydia out the window and maybe talk to her. Ivan and Tom collected some pieces of paper and pencils. As they left the house into the bright day, I could hear Tom explaining his plan to Ivan, including an insult about the Family Circus. I wondered why Tom had to be so cruel sometimes.

Early in the afternoon Tom came back and took me into the bedroom we were sharing. He lightly closed the door behind him as if not to wake Grandma, who was napping in the next room. Tom asked me to close the blinds that I was standing near and peering out of. I accidently dropped them pretty fast, and Tom, looking busy preparing papers, sitting on the messy bed, must have heard the crash of the blinds against the sill.

“Hey goofball,” he said. “Be quiet, will you? You’re drawing attention.”

I leaned against the small wooden dresser and gave Tom the finger while pointing my tongue out at him. “Do something about it,” I said.

Tom was staring over toward the window. Harper turned to see what he was looking at. Daylight bled through the blinds, causing shadows to move across the room as cars drove by outside.

“Well, get over here and let’s get to business,” Tom said. I looked down at the dark carpeted floor and moped over to the bed. I sat at the foot of the bed, opposite Tom, trying not to make eye contact. Putting a pillow between me and the wall, I made myself as comfortable as possible. Tom flipped through some pages marked up with words, numbers, shapes, dotted lines, and some little symbols that I couldn’t quite make out as anything with which I was familiar. The ceiling fan squeaked as it spun at a low speed.

“I’ll try to explain this simply,” he said.

I looked up.

“I made some maps of the whole neighborhood and I think I’ve found our route.”

I slid off the bed, walked back to the window. I pulled the blinds back from the window a little and peered out. Tom continued speaking.

“I think we should do a few trial runs, at night of course, to avoid any early problems.”

“When are you planning to do this?” I asked.

“The trials? Tonight if you can find us a flashlight. We should find others to help. That’ll be your job. Or you and Ivan.”

Still looking out the window, I noticed Lydia and her father next door. Her long, blonde hair fell just past her shoulders onto a blue dress. Her father wore a fancy-looking suit. They walked from the front yard to the back yard, and as she passed through their wooden gate, I thought that she made eye contact with me. As their gate closed, I realized that Tom was standing right behind me and had been speaking to me.

“Look if you’re not going to pay attention or help, then get out of here and let me finish this.” Tom still held his paperwork in his hand as if he was so important.

“I’m sorry. I want to help.” I shook my head, trying to focus thoughts.

“Go out front. Ivan knows what to do.”

Outside Ivan was sitting in the dirt with a spoon, carving trails for 4×4 Hot Wheels. He squinted up at me as I approached him.

“Can you get me a glass of water and help me dig some tunnels for these?” he asked.

I looked down at him. He seemed so small, dirt at the edges of his innocent smile. “Sure, kid. Be right back.”

When I came back with some water, along with another spoon for myself, Lydia was standing over Ivan watching him dig. “Harper, I told Lydia to come over because you wanted to meet her,” said Ivan.

Lydia’s cheeks quickly flushed with a light cherry color and she quickly looked down to her twitching feet. “I always see you waving to me,” she said. “But you never come talremk.”

When she looked back up at me, I noticed that her eyes. They looked like the pale blue sky behind her showing right through her head. I’d never seen eyes so remarkable. From her yard, I heard a female voice call for her and the chug of a car starting.

“I have to go to the market in town with my family. Next time it’s okay to say hi.”

I figured my cheeks were probably nearly as red as hers at that point. I was only able to smile and reach out to shake her hand before she turned her attention to Ivan.

“See you later, squirt. Don’t ruin those tunnels before I get to see them.” She left. When her parents’ car pulled out of the driveway she smiled and waved to us. Ivan, seemingly oblivious to anything else, continued playing in the dirt.

“Aren’t we supposed to be helping Tom with his obstacle course thing?” I asked.

“I already showed him around the neighborhood. He told me he had important paperwork to do and that I was too little to understand and that I’d better just play with my Hot Wheels,” he said. “So I did.”

“You shouldn’t let him be so mean to you.”

“I don’t mind it.” He kept on digging.

Over the next few days Tom kept showing me up to date maps with the path marked by dotted lines. Each map became more detailed as each path became more complicated. Whenever I thought he was finally going to move on to something else there would be a new map or Tom and Ivan would return from another surveying trip through the neighborhood. Meanwhile I had been on the lookout for Lydia, having finally come up with the courage to try to talk to her again. It always seemed like no one was home, and when they were she never came outside. On Friday night I was finally presented with the official map and path.

“Ivan and I ran through it today. You see here…” Tom pointed to a back yard on the map. “That’s the McKenzie’s slide. They have a loose board in their fence here and if you pull it back you can go through and then go up and down the slide and run along the house to the front yard and cross the street…” I had to admit I was impressed.

Just before we went to sleep that night Tom whispered to me in the dark. “I really wanted to do something fun this summer. We haven’t done anything but watch TV. When you cut out that comic and I got that idea, I don’t know, I just think it would be great.” Tom may have said more. He may have talked all night: apologizing for how he talked down to Ivan just because he was smaller; confessing that he too liked to read the funny pages sometimes, at least the Sunday ones; laughing after a dirty joke he’d learned back in Colorado; or maybe, even, sobbing, softly, a secret that I had never known about him, and never would, because I had fallen asleep before I could hear Tom say anything else.

When I woke the next morning I was alone in the room. The blinds had been pulled up, revealing a cloudy day outside. After rubbing my eyes a few times I noticed Tom outside in the dirt driveway with Ivan. Tom clutched his paper work while Ivan was carrying his tub of Legos. Ivan stopped whatever he was doing and waved to me with a wide toothy grin. Tom then began to pull him down the road, out of view.

I was about to open the front door when Tom came barging through it. “Way to sleep in. I opened the blinds hoping it would wake you. It’s nine o’clock. Are these kids going to be here or what?”

I was taken aback by Tom. “This thing’s not ‘til eleven. What’s your hurry?”

“No hurry. It just seems like no one wants to work with me. You just woke up and Ivan came over with his Legos wanting to play,” said Tom. “But I’ve got him going over the course now, making sure it’s all in place.” He pushed past me, walking further into the house toward our room. He turned back. “Just make sure those kids show up and that they’re ready in time.”

At about 10:45 a bunch of boys started showing up in Grandma Ethel’s front yard, just as I’d promised Tom. After a while there were fifteen or so kids standing around, kicking their feet into the ground. Some of them began to wrestle and yell out, getting louder and louder as if to drown out the others. Dust was flying everywhere.

Tom hadn’t come out of the house yet when I saw Lydia over in her yard with her dog on a leash. I looked around at all these kids and decided that it wouldn’t hurt to just step over to the next yard. When I approached her I immediately tried to speak, but it came out a stammer. “H-hi. How ar-are y-you?.” My cheeks must have instantly brightened at the attempted greeting.

“Hi Harper,” she said. “What’s going on over at your grandma’s house? Why are all those boys over there?”

“My cousin Tom is planning an obstacle course.” I looked at her hair. It curled at the ends and seemed to float as a breeze swept between us.

“I’m walking my dog. I’m not allowed to go further than just down there.” She pointed her finger down a few blocks. “Do you want to walk with me?”

I looked at her and then down to her little brown dog and then back over to the crowd of boys, who were now wrestling and climbing all over each other, loudly of course, all the more wildly. I knew I was supposed to be helping Tom, but at that same moment I saw Tom walking up from the house to all those kids. “Yeah. Tom’ll take care of them. He doesn’t need me,” I told her.

“Aren’t you going to do the course thing?”

“It’s more sort of his thing. I’d rather walk with you.”

We walked down a few blocks until our houses were just almost out of sight and then turned around to retrace our steps. For most of the walk I was being shy, and I let Lydia do the talking. Mostly about her friends and what they were doing this summer while she was stuck at home with her mom. She’d look over me and it was as if I didn’t hear anything. I just stared into those pale blue eyes. When I did finally speak I talked about playing with Ivan and Tom and how I liked spending his summer with my cousins. I told her about life in Los Angeles. The more we walked, the more relaxed I felt.

As we were returning I could hear a screaming across the sky. Once I saw what was happening, noticing most of the kids dispersing about the neighborhood, down streets and through yards, I realized they weren’t on any obstacle course. They were entering houses, stopping and playing in other yards. Lydia and I got to Grandma Ethel’s house, finding Tom down on his knees sobbing.

“I’d better go home,” Lydia said. She gave me a little hug and walked her dog over and into her house.

I stood over Tom. His messy clump of black hairs were shaking, and his breath was heavy. “What happened? Hey, where’s Ivan?” I asked.

Tom looked up with a soaked, pink face. “None of those dumb kids would listen to me,” he said. “Where were you?”

I wanted to tell the truth, that I’d walked off with a girl instead of helping him, but I knew that it would just upset him more. “Let’s go inside.” I helped Tom up and we walked back to the house with an arm around each other.

“Yeah, it was a dumb idea anyway. Stupid Family Circus,” Tom muttered.

When we got inside the house Ivan was in the living room sitting in the center of scattered Legos. His whole bucket’s worth was poured all over the carpet. He looked up at as and asked, “Want to play Legos?”

Tom looked over to me and turned back to Ivan. “Sure,” he said. “But maybe we should invite Harper’s little girlfriend.”

I laughed and we joined the Lego builder on the floor.

Paragraph I’m working on

“He’s a veteran,” Brinkmeier says. “Of sorts.” He relates Larry’s background a little more deeply to Hank. Beverly and Larry had a brother, Walter, who died in Vietnam, part of Operation Texas Star they called it. Larry had been close with Walter, who had written him letters, one every two weeks or so, since he’d gone the previous Fall. Beverly had received a few as well, each one, she’d said, seemed sadder than the last. When news of Walter’s death came back over, Larry, eighteen that Spring and just about to graduate high school, broke down in a manner that Beverly had never seen anyone break down up ‘til then or ‘til she passed. For a few years Larry had seemed to take on Walter’s personality, convinced that he’d had all those experiences of the war not a scratch on him. He drifted for a while in the mid to late seventies, following around a rock band. At some point in there he was committed, but when California started releasing people the mother took him in, though she was about on her way out by this point.

Ivan’s First Day (early draft)

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“Ivan! Are you getting ready?” called his mother from the kitchen, preparing a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

He stood hiding, small enough to be unnoticeable, behind the wooly grey of the living room’s love seat. Red pajamas enveloped his entire body, except for his head, with its matching red hair, and his hands. Every once and a while, he would peek over to see if she was watching. When the top of her brown head was no longer in view, he trudged through the house seeking her.

“Can I wait to start til tomorrow?” he asked upon finding her in her room, her petite frame half naked, dressing for the day.

“Honey. You’re a big boy now and this is a big day for you.”

“I don’t want to go!” exclaimed Ivan. “I won’t let you take me.”

“Why, Ivan? Why are you being so persistent?”

“I’m afraid of other kids, mommy. They won’t be any fun and they won’t think I’m any fun and we won’t have any fun like we have fun.”

She slumped with a sigh, lightly grabbed him by the arm, and pulled his limp body to his room where she removed him from the pajamas and then redressed him in clothes he had picked out. His first day of school attire consisted of dark denim overalls, which covered a white t-shirt that had two cartoon horses walking away from each other printed on it. The shoes his mother had bought him the previous week, red Converse all-stars with dinosaurs on them, were already filthy, and his mother wanted him to wear his nice Sunday shoes, but Ivan insisted that if she was going to make him to pre-school that he must wear the dino shoes.

As they left the house, feet sinking into the sandy beach of the driveway, they both squinted from the brightness of the day. Ivan closed his eyes hard, trying to stop the orange-pink from poking through. Realizing he could block it out with his hand, he raised one to his forehead and the other to his mother’s palm, swinging near his shoulder.

In the car, she listened to male radio voices talking about things Ivan was too young to understand or care for. His mother probably did not care either, but she seemed to enjoy the man’s voice. Perhaps it was for Ivan’s sake, to have a masculine voice telling him about the world. She’d later claim to have never been with a man since Ivan was conceived.

He watched the scenery move by outside, noticing mailboxes, fences, weathervanes, and a fallen tree, broken from its stump still stuck in the ground. He wondered if he could take a nap at pre-school and thought about his toys, especially his Duplo blocks, wishing that he had them to play with.

When they arrived at the school, Ivan noticed two little kids inside the fence, his age, playing tug-of-war with a piece of rope. They pulled and pulled each of their ends until finally the rope broke and they both tumbled down. As his mother opened the car door, he could see the teachers running over to the small children to see if they were hurt.

“Come on now, Ivan,” said his mother. “Let’s go meet your teachers before I have to go to work.”

“Mommy, I don’t want you to leave. I don’t know these people.”

“It’s going to be okay sweetie. They’re nice people. I’ve met them. It’ll be okay,” she said, pulling him into the fenced courtyard before the building. “Mrs. Johnson. I’d like you to meet my little Ivan. Ivan, this is Mrs. Johnson.”

Ivan stood behind his mother’s left leg trying to hide, but he was too big. His face was a flushed pink, mixing with the orange of his skin’s freckles.

“Well hello Ivan,” said Mrs. Johnson, leaning down closer as if to examine him. “You’re going to have a fun first day today. We’re working on crafts today.  But first, we have a playtime. Just promise to be a good little boy for us and you’ll love it here.”

“Yes Ivan, make sure you be good. Mommy’s got to work now, but I’ll be back to pick you up this afternoon. If you are good maybe we’ll stop for some ice cream before we go home.”

Ivan still didn’t want her to go and clung to her legs as she walked back to the fence.

“Ivan, honey, please,” his mother pleaded as she lifted him off her, exiting the gate.

He stood at the fence, watching her enter the car. The faux wood station wagon kicked up clouds of dirt as it headed down the dirt road, back toward the highway. Watching it disappear after making its turn, sweat building on his brow, he held hard to the cold of the chain link fence, crying for her return. The daycare teachers rushed over, pried him away, and took him inside with the other children to begin the day.

None of the other children were crying; plastic toys filled their hands. Boys in the corner pushed yellow, metal dump trucks while girls on the opposite side played house with dolls and child-size dinette sets. A few children came to Ivan and asked him what was the matter. He told them, through pouting fits, that he wanted his mommy to come back. The other children reached out their toys to him, wanting to play. One boy showed Ivan a rubix cube, but he did not really know what to do with it. Another handed him a GI Joe figure, but after Ivan began playing with it the boy ripped it back from his fingers.

Ivan moved toward the back of the room where he found a large plastic tub full of Duplo blocks to play with. With the blocks he began to build a town, starting first with the street layout and then the buildings, side by side in rows. He used red blocks on one side and blue on another.

When he was nearly complete, some other boys came over to ask him his name. When he told them, they giggled and asked what he was building. He told them he was building a big city and then a dinosaur was going to come and destroy it. The boys sounded with “oohs” and “ahhs,” asking him where the dinosaur came from.

“I am the dinosaur!” said Ivan as he got up and smashed all that he had built so far.

At first the boys stood there watching him, but then they joined in, smashing the city Ivan had built.

They all giggled together until Ivan asked, “would you guys like to help me build an even bigger city and we can all be dinosaurs and all destroy it together?”

All of the boys began building a big city, requiring some boys to sneak over to the girls’ side of the room and seize some of the pink and pastel Duplo blocks they had stashed with their toys. It took them all day long, progressing around naptime and craft making, but they finished their city.

Just as the boys were discussing their attack plan, parents began showing up to pick up their children. With some of the boys leaving, they decided to make their attack the next day. When Ivan’s mother arrived, he told her all about the friend’s he had made like Steven who liked building houses with flat roofs and Paul who chewed on blocks as he thought about his next placement. He even told her how excited he was to go back the next day.

“I can’t wait to go back tomorrow mom for our big attack. Our big city that we built, we’re all going to attack it.” Ivan’s excitement quickly subsided however when his mother told him that the teachers probably clean up all the toys at the end of the day, just like she’s always reminding him to do at home. Ivan thought about this, hoping it was perhaps untrue, that the city would still be built, ready to demolish in the morning, and he realized that if it was true, then the city must be built again, but this time quicker, and maybe more efficient. Either way, it would be built and they would demolish it, together.