A fifth-grade bully, a blossoming romance, a late-night crash
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My uncle finally kicked me out, and I was living in the twenty-four-hour Kroger on Fairhaven Avenue in Tustin, California, pilfering food and sleeping at the coffee bar. One day Mr. Muniz pushed a cart through the frozen-foods section where I was fanning myself, and he stopped. I’d gotten ugly, my face wasn’t right, and I could tell he was thinking, What the hell?
He was white-haired, hunched over with a bowling-ball-sized hump between his shoulder blades. At the Chevron, before I got fired, he would put a gallon in his Camry, chew wasabi almonds, and talk my ear off over the counter. Now in the Kroger all he said was “Haden, son, come cut my grass.” And I did. I obeyed. He lived on Lemon Street — not far. His mower was a relic, but I figured it out, got it roaring. Pretty soon I was sweating like a horse and relieved by how normal I felt, pushing that loud machine up and down the backyard. I worked conscientiously — weird — and the next-door neighbor, watching out her window, hollered over, “Do mine while you’re at it.” So I did, and when I was finished, Mr. Muniz, this almond-chomper, growth on his back, who at the Chevron I used to wish he would shut up and get the hell out, said, “Keep the mower. Take the rake and the blower, too, and start yourself a little business.” He loaned me money to fix my Tacoma — radiator and new hoses — and by word of mouth I built up a lawn service: mowing, trimming bushes, blowing leaves, edging sidewalks, fixing sprinklers. I had twenty-one houses at a hundred bucks a month, so I was surviving, sharing a Santa Ana apartment with two strangers on the other side of the 55 freeway.
I had a friend helping me twice a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Her name was Sasha Vonts, and we’d known each other since Gunther Elementary. She was a UFO freak, and she’d also gone to college for a few months at U of O, which maybe was not random. She’d been an Oregon Duck, but it hadn’t panned out: the gloomy weather up there, no stars, no celestial sights, everybody clammy indoors, staring at screens and smoking weed. On the plus side was the color of the leaves on the trees, the oranges and fiery reds and yellows and purples. And the smell of the place, she said, the woodsy air in the fall in the Pacific Northwest — that was like a magic dream. But the social scene was “heinous.” So back she came to Tustin, where she started working as a server at Roma D’ Italia, the best they had, saving cash to move to New Mexico, where she could be nocturnal and watch the sky turn and listen to what the galaxies were saying — which was a lot, she told me.
She was short, about five foot two, all energy, with her dark, curly hair tied up in a lavender bandanna. The shrubbery was her thing. She’d see a fence overgrown with bougainvillea, and she’d start swinging the hedge trimmer like Ivanhoe, whacking away, the thorns leaving lines of blood on her arms. Then she’d stand on the blue eight-foot ladder, on the tip-top, on the yellow part that says NOT A STEP, and she’d rake the trimmer back and forth. For the long vines she couldn’t reach, she’d lean with the four-pronged hoe, pull the vine down, then hack until it crumpled.
I’d be making a lap with the Troy-Bilt push mower. She’d catch my eye and yell something over the noise. I’d yell back, grinning like an idiot. She’d give me a thumbs-up and get sawing again.
I didn’t have a type of girl I was looking for. I was awkward, with little experience. But there was a type of girl who noticed me, and that was short with a forest of hair. Maybe that sounds ridiculous, but a friend would say, “Six o’clock, Haden,” and I’d turn around, and there’d be a half-pint with a huge head of hair giving me a smile. Every time. From other girls it was scowls, but the little, stumpy ones with hair like trolls had a thing for me. So when Sasha volunteered to help me two days a week, I wasn’t shocked. I knew I had this special magnetism. As for the next step, however, I had no clue.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays she wore ripped jeans and a green U of O shirt tucked in, plus the bandanna. That was the uniform, and if the shirt came loose, she’d halt long enough to shove it back down her pants. She didn’t like her belly showing on the ladder, didn’t show skin, didn’t like attention that way. Crusty old Vans with smashed heels. A pigeon-toed walk. A peach hoodie down over her eyes on overcast mornings, fists in the pockets. “It’s fucking freezing,” she’d say and turn on the heater in the Tacoma.
While I drove, she would mess with my blue multi-tool, which was irresistible to all passengers. She’d open the edges, jab me with the corkscrew, pluck hairs off my arm with the needle-nose pliers. We went way back, like I said; we knew each other’s histories. She knew all about my fucked-up family, my AWOL divorced parents. She knew my brother, Nash, who was three years older than us.
All my life I used to pray, God, let there be just one person in our family the world doesn’t casually kick the shit out of, by which I meant Nash, because he was the only real candidate, with his brains, his charisma, and later his photography, his art. He was that person, 100 percent. He was damaged, though, from drinking. He started in middle school, and alcohol got wired into his brain. Think of the great guitarists, who get their fingers on the strings by age eleven or twelve, and then they’re on track for life because the grooves get dug into their youthful lobes and hemispheres. Angus Young in his schoolboy outfit with the short pants on stage with AC/DC, that’s entirely what that’s about: he’s still that kid racing home to grab his guitar. It was the same with Nash and his alcohol habit: Permanent grooves from childhood. Eleven years of drinking by the age of twenty-four. He lived in an apartment behind the little Mexican seafood place on Katella, beside the Ace Books. He was a gentle drunk, not violent, but he’d lost patience with me. I’d worn him out, trying to make him quit. One day it turned into a fight, and he said we were through: “Don’t text me, don’t call me, don’t show up at my apartment.” Ticking off his fingers. Screaming at me in the sleeveless wet suit I’d loaned him, his shoulders bronzed and flashing in the sun like a chariot driver’s. He went across Fourth Street by the Alakazam Comics and disappeared down the alley, leaving me shaking.
After that, I got so lonely. I was desperate, honestly, for someone, and working in people’s yards I started to wonder if there had ever been some ancient person who was the original gardener, an expert on flowers and plants, like Euclid was the guy for math. I had a feeling there had been an old gardener named Decatur or something. So I started talking to him like he existed, and one afternoon when it was ninety-seven degrees, he just showed up. It was at this pink house on Hastings Avenue, a not-too-good area behind where the JCPenney used to be. I was digging a hole to fix a broken sprinkler, trying not to cut the earthworms in half, and suddenly he was standing there in the heat shimmer. He was built like a fire hydrant: thick fingers, dirt under his nails. Sandals and a robe, like you’d expect. Wavy hair like a cocker spaniel. I only saw him in my mind — I’m not crazy — but he was vivid, plain as day. I said, This is how we do it, Decatur. How did you do it in your time? He was very interested in everything and not arrogant in the least. My Tacoma intrigued him, and my phone. There was plenty of modern stuff he’d never imagined, so he was like, Holy shit, his eyes popping, but he stayed focused on the yard work, and we communed. He gave me advice — damn good advice, like he was the CEO of my mind. He convinced me Nash needed room to breathe. I needed to stay away. Do NOT text him, he said. Do NOT show up at his apartment.
So I minded him, but I did scout out some of the AA meetings in town, to find one where Nash might fit in. There was a Korean mom, Susan Lee, whose kids we knew from school, and Thursday was her night to run the meeting at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church. She was the one you wanted in the hopeless situations. She was going to greet you in fellowship before the meeting and love on you, and you were going to see genuine happiness with those people on her night. So I texted Nash one final time and promised to leave him alone after this, but when he was ready for AA, I said, he could meet me at the Mexican restaurant on Katella at seven o’clock any Thursday. Right outside his apartment. A standing offer. No judgment, no condemnation. I’d just drive him to St. Andrew’s. I left it at that. Clean. And that felt like the smartest thing I’d done in a while.
Because with Decatur it wasn’t like he crammed ideas into my head. It was more like he led me to things that were already there. Like he’d open a door and say, What’s this junk? Let’s organize. I’m not shitting you: he was the secret to my peace of mind that year. He was why I was thinking better. Laugh if you want, but that’s how I saw it.
And business was good. Sasha was with me twice a week, and I was respecting myself more, and in the mirror maybe I didn’t see Timothée Chalamet (that was Nash), but the ugliness was gone, and I woke up every morning thinking, If not for Mr. Muniz, and on Saturdays I went to Lemon Street with the Troy-Bilt and gave him the premium service at no charge, and he’d lift his head sideways (because of the bowling ball) and say, all cheerful, “Why, thank you, Haden.”
In the Tacoma between houses Sasha would say things like “I went to a reading in Eugene to hear a famous poet, and he never stood up out of his chair, Haden. Wrapped in a blanket like a dying dog. The saddest man I’ve ever seen in my life. How can that be?” Or she’d say, “You don’t understand how big the universe is, Haden. You think you do, but you don’t. You have no conception.”
She’d say those things out of the blue, and at first I’d think, This is regarding what? But then I’d see she was wanting me to ponder something. That’s what I did behind the mower — ponder things Sasha said, with Decatur leveling it out.
One night, back when I still worked at the Chevron, my girlfriend (the only one I’d ever had) drove in and said, “Take a break.” So I let the Chevron fend for itself, and we walked across to Peppertree Park, and I said, “What’s up?” and she laid the news on me that I was a hoarder of my emotions. It was a pretty heavy accusation at 2 AM behind the horseshoe pits, with the bats flapping past our ears and the possums licking the barbecues. Megan was her name. “You’re supergenerous with things,” Megan said, “but I don’t know you, Haden, and I never will.” She went on for a while until she’d made my coldness clear, backed by lots of evidence. I’m only giving you the gist, but trust me, it was a lecture, and I spiraled afterward. I even drove into a tree. If you were wondering why a bulletproof Tacoma would need a new radiator, now you know.
So after Sasha’s third week of working with me, I went to the Marketplace and walked the aisles of Diane’s, the craft store with the lofty warehouse ceiling, and after a lot of confused wandering under all that high white light, I bought a slice of wood with the bark still on it — a round slice of pine tree an inch thick. I also got some antique-looking parchment paper. I planned to write a poem on it, but the poems I found didn’t send me, to be honest, so I started writing my own thing, a little song from my heart about Sasha, and it came out great, way better than any of the poems I’d read, so I was stoked. I burned the edges of the parchment to give it an old-fashioned look, and I varnished the wood and glued my poem in place, then clear-lacquered it for that extra gloss. Several coats of lacquer, because I fell in love with the brush, which was creamy smooth, with a light aluminum handle. It made you feel like Rembrandt, like you could do no wrong. So I did go ape-shit with the lacquer. The parchment was encased in it, you could say. Kind of a retro look, but in a good way I hoped. Made with genuine feeling. I gave it to Sasha in the Tacoma. Just handed it over. I didn’t want to overdo it, because the poem was already full of admiration, and she was suspicious of flattery. But I’d done my best.
“Don’t read it right now,” I told her.
Way too early to be giving her that kind of gift. But we hugged. Her smell like sun on a plum. And I looked through the windshield, and there was a violet cloud lined with fire. A jet went sluicing through it, escaping John Wayne Airport, and my life felt bigger, like there was more daylight.
The Troy-Bilt Mr. Muniz had given me was maroon, twenty years old, with a two-stroke engine. You had to mix oil with the gas. It smoked like a chimney, and the clippings flew into my face through the ripped bag. I had to jiggle the intake to start it and mash the throttle with my thumb to kill the engine, but I loved that machine. I’d pull up to the curb, drop the tailgate, and ease the mower down on two boards. I’d whisper a few words to it, then choke it, wait three seconds, and yank the cord for all I was worth. I could feel the neighbors’ eyes on me, like, Look at that mechanical wizard. The Troy-Bilt would be vibrating, shaking. It made a deafening racket, like a helicopter with a broken rotor. Only for me, though. Nobody else could even make it cough.
It had a wild blade. The wheels were notched on high, but the blade was hungry, and if you blinked, it shaved a circle of lawn right down to the roots. Hit the littlest hump in the yard, and it would leave a brown moon — no fixing it until the grass grew back. The trick was to lift the handles, work the handles so the weight was on the front wheels, the back wheels, or sometimes tilted to one side. A lot of finesse, a lot of artistry. And then there’d be this perfect lawn, sweet as a Mormon churchyard. I’d stick my orange-and-white business card in the curlicue of the metal gate as an advertisement: HADEN’S LAWN & GARDEN. It was class, and it was poetry, the way Haden and garden went together when you read it out loud.
Working, I was happy. You know how it is. When you’re hustling, sweating, reeking of gasoline and grass cuttings, slamming doors on the truck, changing the nylon line in the edger, feeling tired in the driver’s seat as you reach for the ignition — that’s when life is good. But at night I thought about my brother. I pictured him sitting at the Mexican restaurant patio table, trembling with a hangover. Little sparrows at his feet eating broken tortilla chips. Waiting for us to pick him up — “us” since Sasha came with me after work on Thursdays to see if he’d be there. We always drove through the parking lot together. We hadn’t seen him yet. But one day. I believed that one day we’d shout in unison, There he is! and we’d help him into the truck and drive away softly to find Susan Lee.
“And that will be massive,” Sasha would say, poking me with the multi-tool’s Phillips screwdriver.
And while she jabbed me at a red light, I would wonder if Nash arriving at a good place would clear the way for me and Sasha. I felt it would. It would free me. I’d be able to unhoard myself all the way, not just in bits and pieces. I hoped that was true. And I have to admit, that had become part of the whole thing for me.
Then Decatur would say, That can’t be in the equation.
And I would say, Shove it, Decatur. You’re from two thousand years ago.
Which was harsh, because he was, like, my soul. But I did say it, and I’m not going to pretend I didn’t. To tell a story, you have to put yourself in the lie detector. Otherwise you’re just wasting everybody’s time.
So there we were, stirring it up in Tustin, California, and one Thursday in August at 410 Thrush Street — an avocado-green house with a Craftsman front porch — Connie Wheeler, the owner, came out wanting to chat, being her usual self, a little batty but also smart, with interesting facts about the zodiac and her blooms and the weather patterns. So we had to shut down the operation for a few minutes.
She had a snaggletooth in the lower left of her mouth and when she went on a ramble, talking about something, you’d get mesmerized trying to see that crocodile fang, trying to check it out and finally solve the mystery — like, what is that thing? The tooth knocked her tongue and gave her a lisp, but you only saw it in glimpses, and you’d want to say, Connie, can I go get my flashlight for one sec? but out of politeness you’d stay and just keep staring down her mouth. I thought it was a tooth behind a tooth, two teeth wedged together, but Sasha said it was one tooth split open like granite, like a boulder in Yosemite.
Connie’s front yard was regular lawn, but her backyard had no grass, just swept hard dirt, like you see in the funkier parts of Santa Barbara: California old-style. Colorful ceramic pots everywhere and flowers and potting benches and plaster statues of Saint Francis and bird feeders and hand-painted signs that said LOVE and KINDNESS and raised beds with tomatoes and zucchini all lush and exploding. The first time I did her house, I took the mower right through the gate to the back. I saw no lawn, but I didn’t want her to think I was a shirker, so I started mowing the dirt. The Troy-Bilt immediately sent up a dust cloud like Kansas, like Auntie Em, and I couldn’t breathe, but I kept going, trying to finish, earth in my lungs. Then Connie came out shrieking and waving her arms like an umpire signaling, Safe! Safe! But she actually meant, What the fuck are you doing? She was very forgiving, though. I hadn’t really hurt anything, just made a big Santa Ana wind. That’s what she called it when she brought out a pitcher of iced tea: “Just a big Santa Ana, that’s all.” She was great, obviously. She was one of those skinny walkers, out early every morning to get her exercise, going fast with her elbows high.
Connie had a UFO fragment at her house. She had a lot of knickknacks, but this fragment was prominently displayed in a terra-cotta bowl with “Golden, NM” scratched into the clay. It was small, only about four inches long, made of white silver and alabaster, indicating that aliens flew lovely ships, so beautiful, if only we knew. Connie had bought the fragment at a tiny store in New Mexico. She said the owner had seen the spacecraft in the clouds and that there was a photograph thumbtacked next to the cash register. The photograph wasn’t of the spaceship itself but of the exact place in the sky where the ship had been. That was the part that gave Connie the shivers. Fortunately the woman had a few pieces of the spaceship for sale (I never understood that part of the story), and Connie brought one home.
As you can imagine, I was eager to see Sasha’s stunned reaction to this shard. On her first visit to Connie’s I left extra time so she could sit with the piece of silver in her lap, imagining the other worlds it had traversed, but when she saw it in its shrine, she picked it up and put it down again carelessly, like it was a sweet potato at the farmers market. “That doesn’t turn me on, babe,” she said, which shocked me, honestly. “It’s clutter,” she said on the way outside, and to prove it, she took an empty Tecate can that had been rolling around in the truck, and she plunged the second-biggest blade on the blue multi-tool into the aluminum. Ten minutes later she’d cut herself and was sucking on her finger, but she’d created this thing she was holding out to me.
“Check out my ‘UFO frag.’ ”
I knew she’d been an art major at U of O, but still it was eerie. A perfect forgery. Airy and floaty, in silver and red. Anybody in New Mexico would have bought it.
So I said, “OK, you win,” and she hung it from the rearview, where it swung with the bumps in the road.
But on this Thursday in August, while Connie was talking to us about her flowers, I noticed she had a bunch of candles around her fragment — short, heavy candles in glass jars, arranged in a circle. I asked Connie if they had always been there, and she said yes. She said, “And I light a candle every night for Nash.” Because over that pitcher of tea, my first time at her house, when I’d had dust in my ears and up my nose, I’d made an effort to unhoard, and I’d talked a lot about my brother. It was easy to share with Connie. She talked like a swift river, and before long you’d start unwinding, too. Now Connie said that the day I’d created a dust storm in her backyard was the same day she’d started lighting a candle for Nash.
I said, “And you never told me?”
She just winked.
So that warmed me very much, and I was talking about it to Decatur — who thought Connie had a lot of grace and humility and compassion — when I came out from the side yard and saw Sasha on the ladder, pulling the cord on the trimmer to no avail. It was out of gas. The gas can was empty, too, and the bougainvillea was still an uneven mess. And she was cornered, because Connie’s creepy neighbor had stopped on the sidewalk, talking to Sasha, trying to flirt.
He was in his late sixties and rode a three-wheeled electric scooter, red mica, with side-view mirrors and an orange safety pennant that jittered on a skinny pole. He was scolding her for not wearing safety goggles, and she said, “I just do this,” and she squinted at him like she had soap in her eyes. She was cool about it, sitting on the top rung, but I noticed the tuck on her Oregon shirt was fresh and firm.
“OK, little girl,” the neighbor said. He was way too relaxed and comfy on the scooter, his gray shorts squished into his groin. His red-and-black tank top said, Porsche, with eagles and laurels or whatever the fuck the company’s logo is. He lifted an arm to the August sky and scratched his naked lat. Condescending as hell. Dillrod, I think his name was.
“Let’s go,” Sasha said, ready to argue. “Keep bringing it.”
He gave her a hesitant look.
“You’re giving up? C’mon. Create some dialectical tension. Let’s have the debate about why I should wear safety goggles.”
He scratched his other arm, buying time. You could tell he’d thought she was as stupid as me. He didn’t realize the college shirt was for real.
“She was a Duck,” I warned him — too late because he’d already been spanked.
He changed tactics. He nodded toward Connie’s house and said to me, “You know she prays to that metal scrap, right?”
“No, I didn’t know that.”
He leered again, not at Sasha, exactly, but in the direction of the blue ladder, and then he rolled down the sidewalk. Atrocious behavior, but he was always like that.
We went to get gas for the trimmer so we could finish Connie’s hedges. As I drove, I thought about Nash when he was nine years old and I was six. He still went by Steven then — Steven Nash Barteau — with his eyeglasses. We were being removed from our parents; our aunt and uncle were taking custody. Aunt Liz had piled all the clothes she said I would never wear again into a heap upstairs, and she was letting me chuck everything out the window into the yard, where Nash was trying to catch the clothes in a cardboard box. It was all headed to Goodwill or wherever. But what I remembered was Nash running in circles on the grass, trying to catch the rain of socks and shirts and short pants. He told me if it was underwear, I had to yell, Mayday! or, Red alert! and I was giggling my head off, making fart noises, screaming, “Red alert!” and Nash was stumbling over the tree roots with his green-and-white Bekins box. The most hilarious moment of my life. I don’t know why. I guess because I was six and in shock. I don’t know where Nash got that. That little game. Not from our dad. It had to be something that was just in him.
“Do you think tonight’s the night, Sasha?” I asked. “Will Nash be at Mariscos? Are you feeling it?”
“Don’t paddle the boat, sugar.” She twisted the rearview and took a long look at the mower in the back. I’d been promising her a crack at the Troy-Bilt, and she was getting impatient. “Let me practice mowing somewhere,” she said. “It’ll get your mind off it.”
“I asked you not to sit like that, with your shoes up. It’s disrespectful to my truck.”
She slid her Vans down off the dashboard. “We can go to an abandoned field that nobody cares about.”
“I’ll think about it.”
“Pleeeease? Please, Dad?”
I might have laughed, but the physical gap between Sasha and me was starting to make me lose my mind. I needed that gap to close. I needed Nash to get his shit together. Nash healthy; me and Sasha together. If A, then B. That’s how it had to go. Had to.
We waited at a light, Sasha singing along to the music in her head. When the light turned green, I said, “OK. I know a practice field.”
At Twillman Middle School I drove around by the trailers, where the field was filled with holes from the ground squirrels and the grass was always shin-high. I got down the Troy-Bilt, fired it up, and handed it over. I shouted some instructions, but it was like talking over a hurricane. Sasha nodded, all confidence. I held up the empty plastic gas can and shook it. “I’ll fill it up and come back!” I shouted. She shooed me away like a fly and rolled the Troy-Bilt off the edge of the pavement, hitting the grass hard, like a pigeon-toed linebacker. It wasn’t even that it was so sexy; it was just so right. You see her, Decatur, I said. But he was silent, asleep or off using the bathroom. I hopped into the truck and drove north. I knew I shouldn’t do what I was about to do, but I couldn’t stop myself.
That apartment complex where Nash stayed was not livable. It looked like a dive motel: Coral-colored stucco and red door after red door, all in a row. The parking lot full of beaters with a few old Mercedes mixed in. A swimming pool marked off with yellow caution tape. An unplugged ice machine in the corner. Next to it was Nash’s motorcycle, a scratched-up Suzuki 600. He’d laid it down in traffic once, and in the winter, drunk, he’d gone off the road along the back bay — leaned too far into a turn and bottomed out, the bike scrubbing the pavement, frame instead of tires on the road. I wasn’t sure he even had his license anymore, but there sat the bike. I put my hand on the engine. It was cold.
I went up the stairs to 241, at the very end. Red paint peeling from the door. The metal was scorching hot, the sun full on it. A few flyers were jammed underneath. The screen in the window was torn, the venetian blinds bent. No lights inside, no sign of life. Except I thought I heard music: thud-thud-thud. I knocked and waited. Knocked again.
“Nash? It’s Haden.”
“Hey, as you know, it’s Susan Lee tonight at AA. Open meeting, everybody welcome. I can pick you up in the truck.” I looked at my phone. “It’s 5:30 now, so . . .”
“Nash? Seven sharp. Mariscos Mocorito.”
I waited for five minutes. Just standing there. “Cool. OK. I have to go.”
Back at Twillman Middle School the field looked like mortars had hit it: thrown-up earth, brown circles scorched into the grass. “How’d it go here?” I asked.
I felt weighed down, heavy, certain I’d fucked up by going to bug Nash, but Sasha looked so fine. You could tell the Troy-Bilt had rattled her bones, made her limber, like a visit to the chiropractor.
“You look happy,” I said.
“Sometimes you just know. Don’t you believe that, Haden?”
It was in the air. She was feeling it, too: something was happening tonight, one way or the other.
There wasn’t time to finish Connie’s hedges by seven o’clock, so we drove around, listening to music, cruising, stretching it out so we wouldn’t get to the Mexican restaurant too early.
In the passenger seat Sasha pulled down the sun visor to use the mirror and started wiping dirt off her face. She yanked at the lavender bandanna, shook out her hair, flipped the tangle this way and that, retied the bandanna, looked at her left-side profile, then her right side, put her chin down, put her chin up, made little expressions with her mouth.
Suddenly a painful thought struck me like a thunderbolt: You think she wants you? You think it’s just random she helps you on Tuesdays and Thursdays, you idiot, when you might see Nash? It was like I’d climbed into the attic where I was afraid to go and pulled the chain on the light bulb: a horrible revelation. A wave of humiliation rose from my feet to the top of my head. Then agony, like battery acid eating through my intestines.
Still looking at the mirror, Sasha said, “What’s your brother’s essential quality? I know what I think, but what do you think?”
I exhaled and said, “Loyalty? It used to be. I don’t know.”
She flicked a piece of leaf off her ear. “You’re right. That’s it. He’s faithful to his little brother.”
“That’s why . . .” She paused, still making faces at herself. “What’d you say that guy’s name was? The scooter guy?”
“That’s why Dillrod doesn’t understand Connie. She’s not squeezing her fists, closing her eyes, wishing for a miracle. She just has faith. That’s what the UFO fragment is: faithfulness.”
I felt myself getting angry. “So you believe it’s going to happen? Nash will show up tonight. In about five minutes.”
“Don’t talk about it, Haden. Just have faith.”
Everything was tense. Right at the stroke of seven I turned left across traffic into the Mariscos parking lot. The outdoor tables were full of people eating shrimp tostadas and aguachile botanas. No single parties. Nobody slumped in a chair like they were about to die, like they’d yakked their guts out that morning.
We drove through the lot.
“He could be in the alley,” Sasha said.
We got out and walked around. It was a long strip mall: the restaurant, the Ace Books, a bail bondsman, an AutoZone, a Dollar Tree, a real-estate office, a thrift store.
We waited ten minutes, then we sat in the Tacoma for another ten. We didn’t talk or order food, just leaned out the windows and watched people at the outdoor tables.
It hurt, just like it did every Thursday. I thought I’d gotten used to it, but the emotions were always the same. I sat staring at the August clouds. Then Sasha said, “Look over by the fountain.” And there he was, my brother, sitting on the salmon-colored concrete rim, head in his hands, hidden in plain sight the whole time.
We went over and helped him up, got him into the truck, drove two blocks to the Episcopal church, and walked in all three together. We were late to the meeting, but Susan Lee smoothed it out. She worked her wonder. We stayed the whole time and then hung out after. It was the first night of Nash getting better. But that’s a story in itself — Nash’s, not mine.
By the end of the meeting I could see Sasha looking at me like everything had been upended. Or maybe she was the same, and it was me; I had been upended. Decatur was silent, still off on a journey. But I felt myself climbing to eight thousand feet.
When we got back to Connie’s house to clean up, it was after ten o’clock, and the streetlights were on. I walked with Sasha across the lawn to the sprawl of bougainvillea. The blue ladder was still open. Sasha climbed it and sat on the yellow top, her feet on the step below. It was too dark to trim, but I started to rake the cut branches from the grass. Rake, rake, rake. In the hedge a mouse or two scrambled, and maybe a skunk. Nighttime creatures.
Sasha was looking at the starry sky. It was a cloudless night, and you could see the Milky Way despite the millions of cars and all the people sitting in their lighted kitchens.
I kept raking the bougainvillea she’d hacked up earlier. Twenty-four tines of dark-green metal rattled together like a foul ball hitting a backstop. A weak foul ball hit by a Little Leaguer. A lovely little noise.
After a while the adrenaline emptied out, and peace came into my heart.
Sasha said, “I feel so good.”
I was counting my blessings: Mr. Muniz giving me a chance. Decatur descending to earth. Connie hiring me. Nash catching underwear in a cardboard box. At age nine Nash had to have been already running from things, already suffering. But for me he’d transformed it.
A shard of moon rose over Connie’s roof. “What are they saying up there?” I asked Sasha. Because the galaxies were gathering now.
“Climb up and listen for yourself,” she said.
I dropped the rake and reached for the ladder.
“You know,” she said, “about your plaque—”
“I never told you . . .”
My hands were bumping her feet on the rung. She scooted over as much as she could. My heart felt huge in my chest. We had to move cautiously up there, carefully, which made it more adventurous. It was a little bit like “doors of heaven,” which was a lovemaking game we played in later days. We had a lot of games because there was no hoarding anything, we gave it all away — but on the ladder we were chaste, Sasha’s shirt stayed tucked in. And after a while Connie came out, hugging herself in her long sleeping shirt, and she said, “Did something good happen tonight?” And Sasha found my hand and surrounded it with hers and said, “Yes, ma’am, it did.”