Tuesday, August 30, 2016

That Day in the Yard

More old writing from grad school below... This piece came out of a prompt for class to write about "regret of a small incident" which I always thought evoked interesting elements.  As a short story, I am not sure it hangs entirely together. Someone somewhere along the line told that switching point of view in a short piece is a no-no. But I'm not much crazy about rules, and I still feel OK about the multiple voices; that is, for me, the absorbing element of the story, that different narrators tell different stories. I am likely more interested in the subjectivity of reality than most though.

That Day in the Yard
Fenced View
          Maddy’s father never hired that tree company again, although perhaps that was because there were so few trees left in the backyard by then that he could trim the remaining bedraggled twigs himself.  After the big elm came down, killed by a local resurgence of Dutch Elm disease, the backyard hosted only small squat trees, angry trolls.  Still, for months afterward, Maddy found herself looking for the Collins Brothers Tree Care's white van around the neighborhood.  Shortly after they dragged away the stump of the elm, she heard her father complaining at a barbecue, and she wondered if he’d put a word-of-mouth hex on the Collins’ business.  One rainy day ten years later, she looked for Collins Brothers in the telephone book under Gardeners, Trees, Trimming, everything she could think of, but the company was gone by then. 
            On that day in the yard, she watched the expression on Tim Collins' face as her father berated him.  From her view on the kitchen steps of the house, she couldn’t see her father’s face, only the reddish tint of a flush that had crept up the back of his neck, and his hands rising and falling as he illustrated his case.  He pointed once, and she saw Tim Collins’ eyes as they followed the path of her father’s bony hand to two broken panes on window of the garage.  As his eyes swept back from garage, they paused and stayed on Maddy standing in the shadow of the house.  He tilted his head ever so slightly to the left, and squinted his eyes. She understood then that Tim knew, and also that he wouldn’t argue with her father. 
            The only person who witnessed the breaking of the windows was Maddy, when she methodically put her fist through first the bottom right, and then bottom left pane of the window, an unsuccessful experiment in self harm.  Tim must have assumed that Maddy would lie to her father if he accused her, and her father would likely believe his daughter over a stranger.  There was nothing that directly linked her to the broken windows, although there was plenty that would have or could have or should have exonerated the Collins brothers. 
The windows had been broken for over a week by the time the Collins Brothers Tree Care first came to take down the elm tree.  After breaking the windows, she had taped cardboard over the empty spaces, and put a Band-Aid on the one small cut across the back of her right hand.  She hadn’t even known the tree trimmers were coming the following week.  She did know the breakage would be discovered eventually, but why rush it? She’d already spent the week arguing with her parents about SATs and college applications.  She decided if she were confronted, she’d say yes; by then, perhaps the dark burning feeling might have lifted.  She thought she could confess under examination, but her father never asked.  Instead, he made assumptions on the Collins brothers’ carelessness.  And she stood and watched her father yell – or not yell, as Davies only “politely discussed” – at Tim Collins.   She just stood there and did nothing. 
            Her father had theorized that the Collins brothers had backed a ladder into the window, and then covered it with cardboard and tape.  But why would the Collins brothers have gone into the garage to tape the windows? Opening the gaping carport door would have called attention to the invasion, and the side door was (however pointlessly) kept locked.  Had they broken the windows from the outside, they would have scattered glass inside the garage, where it would rain down behind the garden hoses and piles of scrap wood, not settle in the dirt outside.  Maddy had assumed her father would recognize the inconsistencies. 
            She watched as her father gesticulated at Tim Collins, who finally got a word in and they both nodded, an agreement reached.  The next day, she would see Tim out there, replacing the glass panes himself.  He worked efficiently, completing the task in an hour, but it was still time away from his business and supplies and labor she was sure her father would not be billed for.  Tim Collins paid the cost for her inability to confess. 
On that day in the yard, Tim followed Mr. Davies' hand to look at the broken windows, and as he turned his gaze back, his eyes met those of a scrawny teenage girl with messy hair hovering by the back door of the house.  When he saw her, looking so scared, he continued to half-listen to condescending tripe the father was laying on him, and he knew what had actually happened.  The panicked look on her face, the way she couldn’t quite look at him but also couldn't look away, well, he couldn’t help but feel bad for her.  He’d break some windows too if this guy were his father, the way he counted out every error and never missed an opportunity for indignation.  What a pain in the ass these suburbanites were, with that river of crap rippling under all those private school educations.  Now he’d have to spend an hour fixing the window, all because the dim old man couldn’t tell his perfect little daughter, standing there with one arm wrapped in against her chest like a rook harboring a busted wing, was so hung up or strung out or just plain clumsy that she broke windows.  Scratch clumsy, it couldn’t be that.  No one accidentally breaks two windows - unless, as Mr. Davies was taking pains to point out in detail, he were carrying a ladder to put against an elm tree. 
Tim couldn’t prove otherwise.  And even if he could, he wouldn’t, because cripes, just look at her.  Like he wanted to add to that.  He would fix the windows early tomorrow, and she would see the repair, and then maybe she would relax because clearly, this girl needed to relax.  From his peripheral vision, Tim saw Mr. Davies turning to see what Tim was staring at, and so Tim pulled his eyes away from hers and faced him.  The shift created a pause in Mr. Davies’ monologue of complaints. 
“I’ll fix the windows tomorrow,” Tim said to him.  And Mr. Davies nodded his approval, although Tim could tell, his reputation was sunk here.  Good thing most of the other elms in the area had already been pulled.  He’d had enough of this neighborhood. 
Tim did have one more job a few blocks away, just a few weeks later, and he admitted to himself, as he detoured to drive down the Davies' street, he wondered what happened to that girl.  He never even spoke to her, but every once in a while, her face would pop up, nervous and pinched, and he’d wonder if she’d made out okay.  Later on, after he got married, and his wife was pregnant, he hoped for a boy.  Fathers and daughters, it was too hard.  He remembered that from his own sister, when she’d slammed out of the house at seventeen.  Monica, his wife, had a boy, but after that, they had a girl, Abigail, and he and Mitch sold the business, moved into carpentry instead, more artistry, more reliable work, more money.  He didn’t want his girl breaking windows one day, but of course, he didn’t know how things would go.  He hoped for good days ahead. 
On that day in the yard, George Davies thought, if the kid just showed some remorse, he’d feel better about the whole thing.  Instead, what was that tree kid doing but staring toward the house, looking so intently that George felt obligated to turn and look as well, and what did he see? – his daughter.  This tree-trimming window-breaking boy was making goo-goo eyes at his daughter.  For god sakes, what kind of a fool idiot was he? And Maddy just stood there in her baggy clothes and that strange crumpled stance she’d adopted over the last few years.  What did this kid, who was much too old for her anyway, what was he thinking? George took a deep breath, and the kid must have remembered himself, and turned back to face him, and met his eyes calmly, politely.  And that shifted something for George, slowed his thinking down and he remembered.  He was like this kid once, checking out every girl, practically out of reflex.  He remembered the raging hormones.  Some days, he still felt that way about a stranger next to him in the elevator, like a chemical explosion roiling right over him.  Not that he didn’t love his wife, just that, after so many years, the terrain was so familiar.  Maybe this kid broke the windows on purpose, just to spend more time at the house.  Maybe his Maddy was a little Juliet.  Maybe this kid wasn’t careless, but smitten. 
And good luck to him.  God knows, getting Maddy out of the house was a chore.  He had had to practically set her on fire to get her to take the SATs again, and she should have known, after that last dismal performance, that she couldn’t let those scores stand.  She was smarter than that.  He didn’t know why she didn’t try harder sometimes, why she couldn’t apply her talents.  Sure, she wasn’t as smart as Cory, but she was a girl; she didn’t need to be.  What she needed was to perform to her ability, and sometimes, he wondered if she was lazy like her little brother Miles.  At least she stayed out of trouble.  But then, she’d mostly stayed away from boys too, boys like this nincompoop tree trimmer, staring at her like she was a six-layer cake and he had a big fork.  George opened his mouth to continue his speech to the lovelorn little sicko, but the boy started speaking before he could say anything. 
“I’ll fix the windows tomorrow,” the kid said.  And George nodded to himself, thinking, just the window.  Stay away from my daughter. 

Later on, he’d think of that boy, whatever his name was, Don Juan or Romeo or whoever he was.  And as the years passed, and there was Maddy, getting older and older, just making do, coasting, he wondered if maybe he’d sheltered her too much.  She never ended up accomplishing much, job, career, awards.  No marriage either, no grandkids.  He couldn’t quite figure out where things went wrong.  Of course, he was careful to say to himself that it wasn’t that he didn’t love her – his flesh, his blood, his child.  He’d cut off his right arm for her.  But sometimes, she was a mystery to him, a code he couldn’t decipher.  Sometimes, for no reason he could think of, he thought maybe he should have done something different that day out by the tree, asked Romeo in for lemonade, made something easier for her.  But then, it wouldn’t have made any difference.  It was just a day in the backyard with two broken window panes, the glass shining in the dirt near the remains of that dead tree.

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