For the first two years in our new house I was unable to successfully grow a tomato. It prompted me to listen to the gardening show, despite the host’s ludicrous name. On Herb Potter’s advice, I took a handful of soil in my hand and squeezed it, watched how it clumped, and how it broke apart. I smelled it to see if it had a “fresh earthy aroma.” I moved the tomatoes to more or less sun, tried them from seeds and from starts, added additional compost made from mushrooms and bat poop, sprayed the soil with emulsified fish oil, and brought home a bag of organic llama feces from the farmer’s market and turned it into the soil at the base of my robust but fruitless plants. I set slug traps of cheap beer, light, amber, and dark, and then, in desperation, a series of gourmet ones, brews by Belgian monks and local beers made exclusively by solar power. I even kept my cat, Henry, inside for a whole summer in the hopes that come fall I would be buried in tomatoes, spending my free moments cooking them down into sauce, making caprese salads, chutneys, gazpacho and bloody marys. Even the soil sample I sent to the laboratory showed a good pH, and a soil free of signficant levels of lead. And the plants looked great for all the effort. They were huge and sprawling and seemed to ache in our shared desire for fruits. Who knew that those scrawny little sad excuses, those ugly wrinkled yellow tomato flowers that I picked off with relish became the tomatoes? I certainly didn’t. My now ex-wife, while she had little interest in gardening , put two and two together, when in a gesture of reconciliation after a rather hellacious fight, I floated a handful of tomato flowers atop a cup of water on the toilet tank in our bedroom bathroom.
So, yes I was green but I didn’t have a green thumb, that is for sure. I was immature and unripe like my perpetually frustrated tomato plant. And perhaps that is why my wife and daughter now live next door.
It seemed the most reasonable of solutions at the time. When she declared, this just isn’t working for me anymore, there was no anger, no lack of tenderness, just a sense of exhausted resignation. When the house next door went up for sale we both thought we could co-parent Delia best as neighbors. Essentially, we had been amiable roommates for years now. Shuttling our daughter back and forth across town based on some arbitrary custody agreement seemed pointless. Instead she would see us both everyday, and Delia could stay at either of our places as she saw fit. And it worked well, just as we imagined it. Until Leonid that is.
I haven’t dated since our divorce. My libido has never been the same since an unfortunate episode of testicular torsion several winters ago. I’m not entirely clear on the details to this day. If I had to paraphrase my poor understanding of Dr. Mikelson’s explanation, things can twist and contract due to cold weather, particularly in men who have “bell clapper deformity,” which apparently has something to do with how and where all my parts attach inside my scrotum. That there were more than two parts in there was news to me. And because I waited a day to go to the doctor my testicle had died. I didn’t know they could do that. I still have one, a living one. But it doesn’t seem too interested in anything.
My now ex-wife started dating Leonid soon after she moved. He owned a gas station and had reprimanded one of his employees for giving my ex-wife a hard time when she forgot which side her gas tank was on. Leo refused her money and washed her windshield with royal aplomb. His bulging, veiny Ukrainian bicep had a tattoo of King Kong holding his dainty human woman aloft in his large and primitive fist. This had aroused some long buried part of my now ex-wife, like a dormant seed waking up and germinating, after a forest fire. Before I knew it, Leo had become part of our family, Delia would come home from school and complain to me about how stinky he was, his sweaty feet that smelled like milk that had gone off in the back of the fridge, the fermented oregano-esque smell of his armpits, and his exclamatory farts reminiscent of smoked jerky.
“I’m afraid to ask how in the world you know his feet and armpits smell at all…”
“Dad!” she defended herself, “He’s always shlumping around with no shirt or shoes.”
“I’ve seen, believe me. A hairy fellow that Leo.”
“All over his back.”
“Like a monkey.”
“Like an ogre.”
These were good times for me and Delia. We bonded over our discomfort as Leo, without either of our consents, inserted himself into our lives. It seemed that no matter where I was on my property, Leo was assaulting one of my senses. If I wasn’t watching the back of his bald head and the tufts of curly hair stuck to his sweaty back as he cleaned my ex-wife’s car, or checked her tire pressure, if I wasn’t subjected to the Ukrainian ogre’s King Kong tattoo as it hung across the shoulders of my ex-wife on her porch, his thick short fingers fisting a can of beer after a day’s work making something, anything, better at her house, if I was inside my own house minding my own business, sleeping, watching Herb Potter on public television, listening to Beethoven’s late string quartets, Leo found a way to declare himself present. Chopping wood early on a weekend morning, running an outboard motor in a tub of water in the driveway, listening to a Russian death metal band called Azazelo while he stripped the paint off her garage with the assistance of an open flame blow torch, Leo was in my face, and affronting all its orifices.
But life is never simple. It would have been simpler if Leonid could have been summed up by this wellspring of irritating activities that he took to like an ant to a picnic, but the problem was he was a good-hearted soul. We’d often greet each other across the fence. At first it would be his disembodied voice,”That’s what that I sniff?” when I was picking basil for my pasta, “Working hard like soldier no?” when I mowed the lawn, or oddly, “You, olympic!” when he saw me high on a ladder harvesting figs. And if I came out bleary-eyed at dawn on a Sunday morning, with a poorly hidden tone of exasperation in my voice, asking him to wait a couple hours to break twigs and branches into smaller and smaller bits and pieces of twigs and branches, I was immediately disarmed by his effusive agreement, “Must that be pushing you crazy! So stupid of Leonid Dmitri Kosvloshenko to not think before you. My mother would have….” Ok, ok, I’d think to myself, I get it, but he would hold me captive on the porch in my pajamas far after he had made his point.
Leo drove me crazy, but drove my daughter into my arms. Delia was in that awkward post-puberty phase where parents were poison, and all the cameraderie she had had with my ex-wife as a young girl had evaporated, seemingly overnight, replaced by a stiff and chilly tension between her young adult self and her now too motherly mother. Leo’s clumsy attempts to be fatherly had unexpectedly turned me from my daughter’s father into her friend. When Leo took her aside to talk about the feathered birds and the bumbly bees I did not rise up in anger at being usurped, because I cherished her outrage, tears, and laughter, that she sought me out to share.
One finds that things, good things and bad things, tend to happen in threes. It took me three years to grow a tomato, three months to conceive Delia, three consecutive wonderful weeks of my daughter staying at my house every night before what seemed too good to be true became so. On the 21st day we learned that Leonid was moving in with my now ex-wife.
“And with Lukas,” my daughter spluttered through her tears. “His son. I don’t want a brother, a stinky gas-pumping brother.”
“A hairy stinky gas pumping brother,” I added, succeeding to resuscitate that nearly snuffed out sparkle in her eyes. The phone rang before she could answer. Expecting my ex-wife, I picked it up, “Silverstein Home of Neglected Daughters, how may I help you?”
“Dad!” Delia lunged for the phone, mortified.
Oh, uh I’m sorry. I think I, uh, I think I must have the wrong number…click.
“Who was it?” she asked.
The phone rang again in my hand. The same thin, warbly adolescent voice on the other end. Is a Mister, a Mister Silversteen at home?
“Stein. Like a beer stein. Silver beer stein, without the beer. Yes this is he.” I spoke this more to my daughter, performing an old ritual for her pleasure—correcting a caller for the umpteenth time on our family name–her tears now dry, her brow scrunched and quizzical.
I know, sir, I know this is a, a weird question to ask. And I apologize for interrupting you at your home.
“Just spit it out now, son.”
I’m sorry Mister Silverstein. Excuse me but did, did you donate, did you donate sperm, your sperm, in 1988? Or ‘87?
“What the…?” I muffled the phone against my chest. I could feel my heart ka-clunking against the receiver. “Go to your room, Delia. Dad needs to take this call.”
That marked the end of my three week honeymoon with my daughter.
Fifty bucks went a long way in the 80s. My work ethic twenty years ago was wanting, to put it kindly. I dabbled as a product-tester for home abdominal toning devices, a guinea pig for medical students learning to draw blood, listen for bowel sounds, or insert a catheter, and a participant in studies testing yet-to-be-approved pharmaceutical medications. It was there that Piper, a volunteer lucky enough to get the placebo in a study where an unlucky 14%, myself included, developed “anal leakage,” boasted of how much money she made harvesting her eggs for infertile couples, scoffing at those naïve souls who relied on the measly return from donating blood, or selling used books. “You could drip me dry of every drop and still I wouldn’t have as much as from one of my precious little eggies. I’d be vacationing bloodless in New Jersey rather than short an egg on the shores of Jamaica.”
This inspired my brief foray into self-selling. But as I found with my other ventures into easy money, it all either came at too much a cost or too little a benefit. Methodically, I worked my way from the top down. First, I grew my hair, twice, to sell it to Schleimel’s, a factory specializing in wigs for Orthodox Jewish women. But one can only produce so much hair on a yearly basis. It wasn’t until I reached my loins that I thought I had stumbled across a true income generator. In contrast to my grades, my scores here were high. They evaluated my celery sauce every which way, starting macro—volume, color, consistency—then micro, orchestrating a census of my groin—how many tadpoles were there, were they shapely (one round head, one svelte tail), did they swim, how well? And without even trying the answers were stellar: a lot, white, creamy, millions!, 90%, indeed, very well thank you.
My dabble in loinal donation was short-lived, however, despite my pride at effortless excellence. The discomfort of being offered porn with my collection cup by my nurse who expected me to masturbate and then, upon return of my “sample,” look her in the eyes as if nothing had happened, despite her knowing that everything had, was just too much. My female friends unanimously scoffed at my awkwardness. Now you know what it is like for us every time we have to put our feet in stirrups for our female exam, they would say. No, I’d answer, it would only be equivalent if you had to masturbate to orgasm before the exam, the doctor knowing exactly why your cheeks were so flushed as he snapped on his rubber gloves.
I zipped up my career in easy money and closed up shop, took my fifty bucks and bought a Zippo lighter, a vintage one with a sexy woman on it, leaning forward on her high heels into the wind, lighting a cigarette. Over the years I learned how to light it in countless cool ways, snapping my fingers against the flint wheel, rolling it down my thigh, flicking open the lid and flipping the wheel in one well-practiced fluid motion. When I first met my non-smoking ex-wife she was initially amused by these moves weaved into our courtship, but it was quickly clear that my smoking days were numbered. My Zippo’s spark no longer necessary, it became a mere mantlepiece knickknack.
I learned a lot about Josh in our increasingly frequent phone conversations. His mother had just passed away from breast cancer. He had been estranged from her, and his father, an “amoral corporate whore” who worked in agribusiness. Josh was taking a long break from school, where he dabbled in environmental studies, not because of his mother’s death, he was already taking a break when she died, but because he needed to figure out who he was. He blamed his parents for his diabetes, for not breastfeeding him, for introducing cow’s milk as a substitute. An ardent vegan for two years, he not only now avoided meat, fish, eggs and milk but also honey and surprisingly many wines and beers. Gelatine from sturgeon bladders, from cow and pig hooves and connective tissue, he explained with an air of outrage and disgust reminiscent of my own early twenties passionate obsessiveness, were used to remove impurities in the alcohol before being filtered out themselves. Could some miasm of my own youthful kookiness been passed down to him when I ejaculated into that cup during a time in my life when I too was lost and desperately seeking to avoid the responsibilities of adulthood? I balked at trying to answer that question, still unable to truly believe this was a lost son of mine.
How many more sons were blowing in the wind? I had no time to wonder, not with Leo’s sudden shift since moving in with my wife. Still friendly and loud, he now displayed an unneighborly territorialness. The first time we met at the fence line after the Ukrainian invasion he broached the subject of my dwarf magnolia hedge. “Don’t get the idea wrong. We neighbors now. I cause no harm my son Lukas cutting branches or leafs that cross or touch our side across property. I cut straight up, just keeps simple for you.” Leo said this so matter-of-factly, without aggression, without any trace of evidence that these confrontations pained him, or were even confrontations at all. I wanted to educate him about the city code, that he must respect the health of the tree even when pruning it on his side but it was easier to grumble to Delia about these conflicts or inconveniences. Whatever these encounters were, they were multiplying, they were more than the sum of their parts. A Leo and a Lukas didn’t make for double the pain but instead brought it more alive, with an added quality as if hearing the same song but in stereo for the first time.
“Delia, when you bring in the salad greens and carrots make sure you wash them extra well. Lukas is up on mom’s roof tearing shit down around the chimney and throwing it over the edge into the back of their pick-up.”
Delia, just weeks ago, would have said something snide about Leo’s pick-up truck, with the American flag flapping from the antenna, the Love it or Leave it bumper sticker, and the Playboy bunny mudflaps. But all she pushed out was a perfunctory “so?” as she grabbed the garden scissors. Was it Leo moving in with Mom? Was it Leo moving in with his son in tow? Or was it Josh? Or perhaps it was just too much to get a stepbrother and a hal- brother the same week, the same day. Perhaps she didn’t know why herself, but if she did she wasn’t saying.
“Soak the greens in vinegar water, rinse ’em well, twice, and make sure to peel the carrots and potatoes. Construction dust is wafting over our garden beds as we speak, every time Lukas drops another load from the roof. Dust of who knows what, lead paint, asbestos, napalm, plutonium.”
Delia didn’t even crack a smile. She hadn’t cracked one since the day we learned Josh was coming to meet us, traveling by Greyhound bus as we spoke. I busied myself in anticipation of his arrival. My ex-wife’s sewing room was adjacent to Delia’s bedroom. Now absent a sewing machine and loom, the room was unused, unfurnished, and useless, a vestige of my married life, an evolutionary dead-end like a tailbone. But I now had the excuse and motivation to revive it from its ghostliness. I went futon shopping, bought assorted furniture at IKEA, scattered various magazines I thought Josh might enjoy around the room, and stocked the refriegerator with soy cheese, rice milk, soy-rizo sausage, non-dairy ice cream, and a tofurky.
When he showed up with two suitcases worth of clothes I fretted over Josh’s expectations, of how long he expected to stay, a topic that was never broached on the phone. But we quickly established a rapport, and frankly the timing couldn’t have been better. My ex-wife asked me, understandably, to take care of their house and yard while her and Leo and Lukas went on a week long camping trip. Of course I was thrilled at the prospect of a serene lawnmowerless, outboardmotorless, toxic dustless, Leo-at-the-fenceless week. But my ex-wife mentioned that Delia had asked if she could come along. I could feel Delia slipping away from me but could not imagine her freely electing to be trapped in the backwoods with the Cossack King Kong and his spawn.
Fortunately my life wasn’t merely withering away like a wrinkled ant-eaten fig, or a testicle twisting itself dead from its own source of blood. New life and opportunity was also sprouting up around me, was sitting across from me at my patio table, the sired son I never raised.
“I was in their backyard watering their tomato plants. By the way, their tomatoes are huge. Unnaturally so. Attack of the Killer Tomatoes so. Colossal, Dad.” An awkwardness fell down upon us like pigeon shit. Dad. We both know he had said it. And I wish I could have shoved it back in his head. But Josh paused and cocked his head sideways, like an abandoned puppy at the pound. He looked so pathetic I expected him to perk up his ears, let his tongue droop out of his mouth, and wag his behind. “Can I, can I call you Dad, Dad? Howie? Do you mind, sir?” I smiled and nodded my assent, genuinely, my resistance melting away. He continued, perking up. “I was suspicious of those tomatoes Howie, Dad. So I rooted around in their garage and found all sorts of horrible things. They have a toxic poison for almost every living creature.”
Josh smiled. “I didn’t see that, but bugs, slugs, and rats for sure. And dandelions. You should keep Henry from going over there. Pets that roll around in that shit get lymphomas.”
Finally a boy to my heart. He got it. He got that there was a hypocrisy in Leo’s wanting to be literal and inflexible about the property line, while letting all the intangibles, his noise, his dust, his chemicals float over into my life. I brought Josh inside and took the Zippo from the mantel. “This, son, is the Windproof Beauty.” I spun it around between my fingers making sure he saw it from all sides, and the engraving in all its wind-blown sexy splendour. “Stand back amigo.” I palmed the lighter upside-down, hinge side toward me. And pointed two fingers of the same hand at Josh as if I was pointing a gun. “I’ve got you now you big Ukrainian slug!” I swept my free hand toward me as if cocking the gun, knocking the lighter open and lighting it at the same time. The flame leapt upward as if coming from my hand. Josh looked mesmerized. “That is ‘The Gun’, and this,” I slapped the lighter into his palm and pressed it there, “is for you.”
Josh began practicing “The Gun” move immediately, aiming at Leo’s pickup truck or at the corn stalks in my ex-wife’s garden that looked awfully tall this year. I even caught him aiming at his own reflection in the mirror in the bathroom, his legs stanced ready for a shoot out at the O.K. Corral. That was my boy. Heading over to bring in my wife’s mail I imagined Josh courting a girl someday with my Zippo of old.
As the week neared its end, I had trouble enjoying its final peaceful moments, much like a beautiful fall day that hints at the winter to come. I mistook a rumbling engine for Leo’s RV ready to hover over our backyard once again, but it was the UPS truck. I accepted a large cardboard box, three feet by four, for Josh with no return address. Had he mailed this to himself before he left to come here? The door to his room was ajar. I watched him, sitting on the edge of the bed, rolling his pant leg up mid-thigh, and pinching the muscle in his hand. He held the needle up with his free hand and uncapped it with his mouth. Casually, without hesitation, the needle disappeared into the flesh of his leg and he emptied the plunger while staring at a National Geographic splayed open on the bed beside him.
His head tilted as he recognized he was being watched.
“How often do you have to do that?” I pushed the door open.
“Just once a day for this. The long-acting stuff.” He cocked his head to see what was behind me in the hall. “Hey, my first package arrived.”
“What’d you get?”
“Stuff,” he dragged the box into the room, now suddenly full of silence. An awkward unspoken cue for me, the Dad, to leave.
It wasn’t Leo or Lukas or even Luther, the German Shephard puppy they came home with, that brought our week to a close. Oddly it was happiness, Delia’s, whistling from the kitchen. “Oh, Dad, it was the best. I saw an otter and an eagle. We ate a deer and it was so good. And Lukas knows how to move quietly in the woods. You just have to see it.”
I wasn’t sure how to respond so I helped her put sliced ham, cottage cheese and eggs into her backpack. “What are we doing exactly?” I asked, squatting beside her in front of the open refrigerator.
Delia looked at me with pity in her eyes. “Oh Dad, you look so kerfluffled. It was fun that’s all.”
I looked down at the now half full backpack and back up at my daughter’s face.
“I’m moving some of my food over to Mom’s. Not all of it. See I’m leaving the grapes, and the peanut butter.”
“What do you mean, your food?”
“Dad, you know exactly what I mean. You pushed all my stuff into the back corner of the fridge last week.”
“I pushed our stuff. He’s a vegan. I didn’t want to offend him.”
“You just don’t get it, Dad.”
“I don’t get why you went on vacation with them.”
“God! Get a clue!”
Grow up were the last words I heard as Delia stormed out of the house.
A wicker basket left on the countertop spilled over with vegetables. The tomatoes, a blemish-free uncanny red, ready to burst forth in fertile glory, surrounded a watermelon-sized zucchini and two exemplary ears of corn, each kernel as plump and yellow as the next. A card written in my ex-wife’s girlish hand, the dots over the “i”s and “j”s hollow like little bubbles, thanked me. Howard, thank you for watching the house while we were camping. Enjoy our bounty!
Henry brushed against my leg, meowing an “I know just how you feel” meow. We went out into the backyard to inspect our garden. Leo’s RV now casting a shadow over my south facing raised bed for several hours each day, I had an abundance of perpetually green tomatoes, several small squash persevering, if not growing, despite the leaves succumbing to powdery mildew and the squash flowers serving as a boarding house for itinerant slugs. I plucked two ripe tomatoes, and collected salad greens and parsley. Meanwhile, Henry grumpily wedged himself between the side of the house and a blueberry bush to fertilize the soil, flustered and off-put by Luther’s yapping from the other side of the fence. “There is only so much we can do furry man,” I lamented to my feline compatriot.
Inside, I threw two ears of my wife’s corn in boiling water, cooked up some chili with texturized soy protein, and took out the tub of non-dairy margarine, in anticipation of Josh returning for dinner. He said he was looking for a job.
“I’m famished. I looked into some canvassing jobs, with Greenpeace and PETA, but they require a lot of work for very little pay. I think I’m gonna step back and consider my options before looking again. It’s exhausting.”
I plopped down a steaming ear of corn on his plate. He chomped at it with verve and industry. I sat down and spread the margarine across my kernels. Josh looked up while I did this, smiling from behind his cob, but then his eyes looked past me. Perplexed, they squinted, then went flat and unfocused as he processed something in his head. All at once they snapped awake, growing large and alarmed. His nostrils flared and a weird gurgle came from his throat as his shoulders curled forward. A stampede of half-chewed corn kernels fought to be the first to exit his mouth. Some froze mid-air, momentarily suspended by strings of saliva, others tumbled, en masse, onto the plate, like a flow of undercooked chowder. Josh pushed back from the table and stood up, wiping his face with his forearm. His outstretched arm pointed and shook. Henry hurtled through the pet door.
I looked behind me expecting to see something to warrant this disgusting display, but nothing was there.
“Is, is that, is that corn Leo’s?” Josh said, but pointing at the remaining zucchini and tomatoes in the basket behind me.
“Jesus, man. Get a grip. We got the food as a gift. I washed it. It isn’t possible to be pure, Josh, to avoid all exposure to pesticides all the time.”
“You don’t und…”
“You don’t need to act like an animal. It’s a gift.”
“Fuck you, Howard!” he said storming to his room.
I could hear him talking to himself, pulling open and slamming drawers closed, stomping back and forth in his room, while I sponged down the table. Howard. That stung.
I heaved the basket of remaining vegetables on to my shoulder and walked them out to the compost pile in the far corner of the yard. I rolled the giant zucchini and fire engine red tomatoes, one after the other into the rotting mass of leaves, grass and food waste. This superrace of vegetables, for all their symmetry, and perfection, would soon be like any other, food for the bugs and worms. A perfect waste of perfectly good food.
I sat down on the bench beneath the cedars at the back of the yard and lit up a cigarette. Spiderweb silk glittered in the early evening sun. A meaty brown spider did maintenance on her web as it swayed, suspended between the fig and vine maple. Another sat at the center of her elaborate mesh, motioneless, waiting for her food to be delivered. I remembered when we first moved into this house, before these trees were even planted. I was convinced someone was stealing our lilies, surreptitiously surveying our home and cutting them when we weren’t around. A blush of shame colors my face even today, when I remember the makeshift sign I hung on the lilies still blooming, devised from a notecard and twine: I know what you are doing. And I will catch you! I could never live this down with my wife. She would bring it up–this and the tomatoes– whenever we fought. “You are the most unseemly combination of paranoia and incompetence!” she would say at her most exasperated moments.
But the lessons most deeply learned are those from the most painful mistakes. I would never forget—never ever—that the tomato flower became the tomato fruit, or that the stems of our lilies, once the blooms had fallen, looked as if they had been cut, but truly had not been. Josh must be caught in the grips of a similar delusion. What else could explain his corncob conniption? I hoped for him that he would learn as enduring a lesson from it, as I had mine. I watched a cloud of cigarette smoke drift toward the house and wondered what exactly that lesson would be.
“You don’t get it,” Josh said upon my return inside, waving a National Geographic in front of him. “I’ll bet my left nut those are genetically modified vegetables. My dad, he brought home ones just like it, from his freak experiments at TerraViva Technologies.”
“Cool your jets, cowboy. I composted them.”
He beelined to the compost pile. I followed, catching the screen door before it slammed in my face, incredulous that he didn’t believe me. But instead, oddly, he pulled out the zucchini and tossed it in the trash can, and then gingerly extracted tomato after tomato as if they were delicate porcelain and splattered them unceremoniously atop the zucchini.
“Smoke?” I showed him the pack of organic additve-free cigarettes and he joined me on the bench.
Josh unfurled the National Geographic as if to read to me, but mostly shook it or waved it in front of him as he spoke. The article, Seeds of Deception, was about the creation of the terminator seed, a seed that only bore sterile fruit, created to prevent farmers from saving seed for next year’s crop. Each year the farmers would have to buy the seed anew from some greedy corporate behemoth like Josh’s father’s, seeds that not only were reproductively impaired but genetically modified and patented.
“Even if you are growing totally organically,” Josh said, his eyes wide and ablaze, “100% responsibly, minding your own business, if pollen blew from a field of frankenfood on to yours, your plants would be owned by TerraViva Technologies, and they could sue you.” His voice rose in a swell.
“I get what your saying, son. It sounds horrible, it does. But realistically, nobody is going to sue me or some other backyard gardener if Leo’s pollen drifts over here,” I protested. “It’s not a reason to spit your food all over the place Josh. C’mon now.”
Josh’s face flushed. He pointed at Leo’s corn peeking over our fence. “Pigs eating GMO corn have trouble getting pregnant. Farmers say some of theirs are giving birth to sacs of water. And, and farmers, in the Phillipines, I think, got sick from breathing corn pollen, and, and,” he furiously flipped through the magazine, “here it is, ‘and the modified genes, altered for antibiotic resistance, have been found in the DNA of human intestinal bacteria. The implications of this are yet unclear.’ Do you want me to go on?”
I admit, I was impressed, proud of my son’s smarts, and on the verge of being downright scared, that is, until his impassioned plea devolved into science fiction, about as believable as a lily bandit stalking someone’s house day after day. I shifted uncomforably as Josh described a food supply so divorced from nature that we now put honeybees and salmon in trucks, that we drove them around like harried soccer moms, shuttling insects from farm to farm to pollinate our crops, careening down the interstate with carpooling fish to bypass the dams responsible for their dwindling numbers.
I rested my chin in my hand, arranging my fingers across my mouth, in the hopes of hiding my disbelief at his description of overworked honeybees revolting, going on strike, leaving their hives in increaisng numbers, their populations plummeting across the country, our food supply teetering on the edge of collapse because of it.
“And, and amazingly, only a few people are standing up to this at all,” Josh said. “In Europe they’ve lit GMO fields on fire and driven bulldozers into McDonalds.”
I must have smiled at this point, a wrong sort of smile I suppose, because Josh looked me square in the eye, and said in a tight and reedy voice, “I swear Dad, I’m gonna prove it to you.” He flung his arms into the air and broke one of the spider web’s silken anchors, causing it to flap lazily like a flag in the wind.
“Maybe we could erect some sort of mesh to keep the pollen from coming into our yard?” I offered half-heartedly, thinking of the spiders, but realizing how stupid it sounded even before it left my lips. But Josh was already gone, having stormed back into the house. I took a deep drag on my cigarette and blew the smoke after him. The spider hung tight to its partially unmoored home. Leo’s corn stalks swayed uneasily in the wind across the property line.
Upon returning to the house, I discovered the Zippo lighter back on the mantel, lying askew against a photo of 6-year old Delia in her theatrical debut as a munchkin in an elementary school play, as if it had been tossed there without a thought. Yet I knew it had been returned there with painful purpose and in anger. Josh had held tight to his new talisman from the moment I had slapped it in his palm. And yet here it was, a mere mantelpiece knickknack once again.
It was just Henry and I now. Over the weeks, Josh became a skulker, a shadow who hugged the walls, who sulked in corners, or played angry songs in his room on the guitar that had arrived in the mail shortly after our argument. Delia, annoyingly happy, flitted in and out of the house like a hummingbird, a fleeting glimpse of her here and there, she gathered her cheer mostly elsewhere. Henry and I, two aging bachelors, devolved on the couch, watching reruns of Herb Potter, napping, eating pizza. I peeled off the cheese for Henry, but now and again I’d eat some, or even order half the pizza with sausage and think “Take that Josh!” each time I plucked a piece of meat from the gooey surface, plopping it into my mouth instead of Henry’s.
During the day we dived into gardening, to implement Herb’s advice from the night before. Henry chased moths and bees while I pruned, he munched on weeds, or turned the soil, while I added coffee grounds around the rose bushes. Leo and Lukas, waterproofing the front porch of my ex-wife’s house, stirred buckets of stinky sealants and waxes in the driveway abutting my property. But I was at peace with it, because I knew it could be worse. At night, I had nightmares of Delia atop my wife’s house, throwing chunks of asbestos over the edge, wiping beer foam off her upper lip and belching. Or I’d discover her checking the tire pressure of Leo’s pick-up truck, her buttcrack leering over the top of her pants as she polished his hubcaps, prompting me to lurch upright in my bed in terror, the image of King Kong on my daughter’s burgeoning bicep tattooed indelibly on my brain. I was grateful each day for the status quo, what little remained of it and its diminishing returns.
One day, Leo was waiting for me by the dwarf magnolias. I knew something was up before I approached. He stood stiffly, as if fighting himself still, his arms akimbo, his jaw set, his face drawn.
“Neighbor!” he waved me down. Lukas, squatting by a bucket, stopped stirring the goo inside it, as I approached them. “She said it’s greater if she talked to you. That I don’t control well. But, it’s greater still man facing man.”
“I’m not following….”
He scooped up his puppy Luther and wedged him in the nook of his elbow. “Someone’s been inside the house.” I watched his stubby fingers pull at the loose skin behind Luther’s ears, kneading it. “Someone moves things. Someone opens things. Someone spilled seeds in our rooms.”
“Seeds? Leo, I don’t follow.”
“Neighbor. I believe fair and square. Your side, my side. You come my side it’s square no longer. You mess my side we have big, big problem.” His eyes ceased to blink. His bicep flexed. A big tortured vein popped up in exclamation above Luther’s ears.
“I don’t know what you are talking….”
Leo’s fingers unconsciously clamped down on Luther’s head as I spoke. The puppy let out an anguished yelp.
“You understand me?” Leo said to me. The dog squirmed out of his grasp, tumbliing to the ground.
I was still nodding, stunned, as I burst into Josh’s room. He had been napping, loosely clasping the guitar across his chest. He yelped as the door banged open, instinctively grabbing the guitar neck as if ready to wield it as a weapon. He loosened his grip and sat up when he saw who it was and cradled the instrument against him like a breastfeeding mother.
“Were you in their house?” I yelled, lifting a stack of his folded shirts to see if there was anything hidden beneath. “Were you?” I pushed over a chair and walked into his closet. I rifled through a stack of papers, peered inside his shoes, looked behind a tin of cat treats. I didn’t know what I was looking for. I figured I’d know it when I saw it.
“It’s over here. It’s by my CD play….”
“Have you been feeding Henry?” I came out of the closet with the tin of chicken livers. “I swear I don’t know what the hell you are doing in here half the time. He has started begging between meals.”
Josh stood and lifted up a big bag of seed from beside his stereo. “This is why I was over there. To prove it to you. That it is all frankenfood terminator shit. Just like I thought.”
He pressed the bag into my hands. I didn’t look from his face.
“Aren’t you going to say you are sorry?” Josh asked.
“Me?” I guffawed. “Me say I’m sorry!? You broke into their house not me. And I’m supposed to apologize? You are going to march over there right now, young man, and admit what you did and then you are grounded. For two weeks.” I grabbed his guitar from the bed and held it behind me.
“Give me back my guitar.” He stepped toward me.
I shook my head and widened my stance. “Give me back the key to their house and go apologize.”
“Fuck you. You were the one who didn’t believe me. You should be grounding Delia not me after what I caught her doing with Lukas over there.” I slapped Josh hard across the face. He staggered backwards and I slammed the door shut.
“And she wasn’t sucking on a lollipop Howard,” Josh yelled from the other side of the door.
“I want you out of my house by morning,” I yelled back, though immediately I wondered if I was going too far.
That night Herb Potter’s words ran through my brain with a new meaning, a soundtrack to the unceasing images of Leo’s son defiling my daughter in every way imaginable. When saving seeds pick the healthiest, most robust specimens. Do not save seeds from spindly, poor performing plants. They will pass on their unwanted characteristics to next year’s crop. Loud, boorish Neanderthal genes—genes damaged from years of pumping gas, spraying pesticides, eating genetically modified food, thinking stupid thoughts, and inhaling fumes from endless inane projects—mixing irrevocably with mine, strands of our DNA intertwining in one long embrace, for generations to come. Anger buzzed through me like a swarm of fed-up bees. Henry jerked and shook next to me, deep in a dream, chased or being chased, while I ruminated, burping up, again and again, the coupling of Lukas and Delia, of Kosvloshenko and Steinberg, like a cinematic Kama Sutra from hell.
Henry usually awoke with the birds. Just before the dawn they would sing and he would meow for breakfast. I would typically stumble downstairs and feed him and roll back into bed for an hour or more of early morning sleep. But,on this sleepless night I was up and around, unusally active, before the dawn, before the birds, before the fire engine, that illuminated the still dormant neighborhood with its swirling beacon of light. I walked out onto the front porch. Many neighbors, also on their porches or peering through parted curtains, watched one of the fireman speak to someone at the front door of my wife’s house. Josh shook my shoulder from behind in a panic. He pulled me back into the living room with him.
“I didn’t do it. I swear. I, I swear Howard, Dad. I didn’t do it.” He glanced repeatedly at the mantel. “I swear, I didn’t take the Zip …”
I turned his face back toward me and held it between my hands, his cheeks still plump with baby fat. “Josh, I believe you. I know you didn’t. I’ve been thinking, what sort of father would I be if I didn’t trust my son.” I could see his packed suitcases just inside his open bedroom door. “Hurry along now, and go unpack your things.” I pinched his cheeks and let them go. “We’ll sort things out over breakfast.”
My ex-wife, huddled within a babyblue terry cloth bathrobe, nodded to the fireman’s questions, a police officer, filling out a form behind him. It wasn’t long before she noticed me watching her. The fluffy ears of her rabbit slippers, the ones I had bought for her during her depression after Delia’s birth, flopped up and down, as she traipsed to the near end of her porch, until I could see the whites of their plastic eyes, their pupils swirling in opposite orbits with her gait.
“I told the police about your son.”
Her stern face, girded against her susceptibility toward feeling guilty about disappointing me, the same face she assumed when she needed to muster a determined resolve, the you-are-driving-me-crazy-but-I-feel-bad-having-to-tell-you face, the this-isn’t-working-anymore face, a face that had hardened into a permanent mask since she had left.
“My son?” I said, supremely irritated. “Why Josh?”
“Don’t play dumb Howard. This has all happened since he arrived. Someone could have died.”
“And you call me paranoid! Why not Leo’s son? This has all happened since he arrived too. C’mon now Carol, you have always scolded me to not jump to conclusions. I’ll vouch for him.”
We could hear Leo’s curses from the backyard, going off like fireworks amidst the early morning birdsong.
A smile flitted across Carol’s face and vanished. “You should be glad he doesn’t know you are here, Howard. This is as bad as I’ve seen him.”
“Is that a threat? Am I supposed to be scared?” The idea of Lukas atop my daughter, inside my Delia, inonculated me from fear.
“Then, why exactly were you smiling, huh? Because your boyfriend could beat me up if he wanted to? Is that it?”
“Howard! Get a hold of yourself.” She pulled the bathrobe tighter around her. “I smiled because he basically called you something in Russian that translates as ‘little old man who farts frequently.’” She wanted me to laugh. She smiled again, meekly, testing me to see if we could find common ground. But I wasn’t amused.
I caught a glimpse of Henry walking towards our backyards, atop the fence between our houses. I leaned forward and looked down the side of the house. The back of Leo’s bald head glowed a purplish red from the first rays of daylight, that fleshy Ukrainian orb hovering over the fence where the corn stood just hours ago. The fence, now blackened in places on my side–my cat, walking nobly, atop its uncharred top edges–was much worse from where Leo stood. One solitary black stalk of corn wobbled feebly in the wind.
I spoke without looking at her, watching daylight capture the orange in Henry’s fur. “Your boyfriend’s seed has been blowing all over my yard. I’m going to have to dig up everything and start over.”
“Howard, what in God’s name are you talking about?”
I turned back to look at my ex-wife but could not see her face. The sun blinded my eyes. I stared into it instead, the first fiery red edges of a new day, and did not answer.
“You are so fucking impossible!” she growled.
I shielded my eyes, and watched her walk away from me on the porch in a huff, the two bunny tails, the same ones our baby girl once called boonies, bobbing a furry farewell.
“Hey, Carol!” I yelled, as she reached the screen door. She paused in the doorway. “Do you remember this, from our first date?”
I fondled the still warm Windproof Beauty in my right pocket, nestled next to my still living testicle. I flipped open the lid, for the second time that day, and let the flint wheel graze my thigh as I brought the lighter into view. I leaned into the breeze, the spark, the flame, the day glowing anew.