By Rob Sobel - May 20, 2017
The boy hasn’t seen a dawn in years, not since high school when he’d run two miles before a brief breakfast (always toast with fake butter), running again out the door into the cold after the hot shower he could never get out of. November dawns in preparation for basketball tryouts, unforgivingly the day after Thanksgiving. He remembers those dawns, those bluish heavy-eyed mornings, running in sweatshirts, those cold, throat-tightening breaths like the few serious injuries that have plagued him in his personal history, just as visceral and stinging, like the glass ripping open his arm that one time, the shattered garage window raining down on him because of an errant mock jump-shot, stupid playing ball in the garage in the first place, and how he somehow found the time, the personality even, to smile, waving to his childhood street lined with families and neighbors and dogs wishing him OK. He remembers smiling and waving to them through the car window keeping some gauzy thing on his arm to stop the excessive bleeding, his father driving in a direness unique to fatherhood. Everything after that moment registered hazy and opiate, maybe endorphins or something more mystical. The staircase up the side of a building made fabled and unrealistic through time and vague memory; the stitches in a poorly lit room of hard metals and a taciturn doctor of indeterminate age, one of those doctors with good hair and a pair of too-noticeable glasses. The boy bears the scar, the amateurish stitching there for all-time, even the miniscule dots where the stitches were looped, like brail dots on his arm in perfect spaces, perfect succession, making it look like a tattoo in negative of a many-legged bug.
He hasn’t seen a dawn since that high school November, the way the light would sort of break open into an aquatic rippling blue, and he made the team and those early-morning runs were worth the torment totally, and he should have learned something from that time, that effort, those dawns, but here he was years later, seeing the first dawn since then only because he couldn’t sleep the night before.
He drives past a parked BMW outside of his home, locks eyes with the man slouched in the driver’s seat, and they both seem to want to smile but can’t for some reason or other. He parks cattycorner in the big driveway and then punches in a code to enter the garage that gave him the scar when he was eight, bagels in a brown paper bag in hand, a boy with a degree in something he’s beginning to forget, and a job even more unmemorable.
In the kitchen his father is already awake and moving. The boy puts the brown bag of three bagels on the marble island.
“I got bagels,” he says, though he notices his father is already eating one, dressed and ready to go bowling, the Sunday activity when the weather doesn’t allow for golf. It’s November again—how the calendar keeps on looping like his scar, in leminscate, tightly-woven and successive. Golf season is long gone. “Your buddy’s outside,” the boy says to his father, preparing his bagel.
“I’m having day olds,” his father says, chewing loudly, the saliva swirl so deep and palpable in a quiet only a dawn creates.
“I got ‘em fresh,” the boy says to his father.
“We looked at each other,” the boy says. “When I passed. I tried smiling, but I don’t know how it came out. This early in the morning, you know? I don’t feel in control of my facial expressions.”
“What are you doing awake anyway?”
“I guess I just woke up.”
“You’re getting older,” his father says.
The boy spreads cream cheese onto a sesame bagel and says, “So this is the guy that’s dying. Anselmo.”
“And he still beats us every week. He’s an incredible bowler. To the death.”
“How old is he?”
“He’s sixty-seven,” the boy’s father says.
The boy bites into his bagel and says, “How does he keep on bowling in his condition?”
His father farts and puts the plate he was using into the dishwasher. “He can’t swallow a thing,” his father says moving around the kitchen. “Everything for him is pure liquid at this point. He could barely stand swallowing the liquids even. You should see him try to drink. The thought of a slice of pizza makes his head swirl. Makes him instantly depressed, he told me. He tells us that one day he will not be showing up to go bowling and we shouldn’t be all weepy about it. He tells us that he will be dead in a matter of days. He says hours, irreverently. He’s got tumors of all shapes and sizes in his throat. The doctors officially tried everything, he tells us.” The boy’s father grabs his wallet, keys, glasses, and stands by the front door to leave. “And he still beats us every Sunday.”
“You can’t make this stuff up,” the boy says to his father from the kitchen.
“He never smoked a cigarette in his life, Anselmo.”
“Second hand,” the boy says.
“His wife was a chimney. Died five years ago. She took him down with her.”
“And you’re making him drive,” the boy says taking too big a bite, hurting his jaw.
The boy’s father looks out the window at Anselmo parked. “He likes to drive,” his father says. “He told me it’s one of the few things he still likes doing. All dying people want one last drive. One last drive into a rising sun. It’s their final wish.”
The boy wonders about this, thinks there could be some deeper connection between death and driving, how you could seem to realize how therapeutic and nearly supernatural it is in such a state. How you maybe no longer fear an accident. “One last drive into a rising sun,” the boy says. “Be safe.”
The boy’s father laughs once before stepping out the door.
His father comes back around noon, waking him. He had slept and wonders if he should call it a nap or a continuation of sleep proper, the distinction seemingly necessary for his general approach to the rest of the day. The dream was a repetitive sampling of images all in reference to his job and his inabilities, his inadequacy—pencils snapped; computers dropped thunderously; coffee spilled on white office tile; bosses’ lips so close the ridges in them zigzagged and rose like mountains; pens emptied of ink; technology with no signal. Angry lips.
He wakes at his father’s entrance and feels as though his breaths were staggered, un-patterned, unhealthy while he slept. He feels, physically, as though he had not slept at all, but he had the horrid dream of repeat images as evidence.
They meet in the kitchen again. His father puts a brown paper bag onto the marble island. It feels like déjà vu to the boy. His head goes airy and his eyes feel zapped, cloudy.
“What did you get, three dozen?” the boy says, confused. He looks in the big bag and sees bright colored clothing inside. Polo shirts, khaki shorts, many double-knitted, some expensive looking, men’s clothing in a brown paper bag.
The boy takes a step away from the bag.
“I thought you got bagels,” the boy says.
“We already got bagels,” his father says looking at his son. “We got fresh and day olds now.”
“What’s with the bag of clothes?”
“They’re Anselmo’s,” his father says, moving towards the refrigerator for a drink.
“So Anselmo died?” the boy says. “He was just alive this morning. He drove, didn’t he?”
“No. He’s dying. I thought we talked about this,” his father says to the inside of the refrigerator. “Was it you and me talking this morning or was that a dream?”
“But why do you have his clothes?”
His father moves a bottle of ginger ale to see if something is behind it.
“These are clothes that don’t fit him anymore,” he says to his boy. “Because he’s gotten so thin.”
The boy appraises the bag before him on the marble countertop. “Why did he give them to you?”
“I told him I had a son. I told him, there’s a son that lives in my house and yada yada, he wears shirts of a kind to the place that he works for very little money.” He takes the orange juice out of the refrigerator, looks at it, and then puts it back where it was.
“These clothes are for me, you’re saying,” the boy says.
“I said I thought this son of mine may have been exactly your size when you were a strapping, musclebound Anselmo, et cetera.”
The boy takes out the top shirt, a yellow polo with thin blue horizontal stripes. He tries it on. He takes out three more polos from the bag and tries them on. He puts on the khaki shorts. He looks ready for a golf vacation. The boy tells his father to turn around and look. His father turns from the fridge and laughs, leaving the fridge open. They go on laughing a while in the extra light. “How do they fit though,” his father says.
“They fit good,” the boy says.
The boy puts the clothes back in the bag. “How was bowling?” he says.
“Anselmo killed us.” His father closes the fridge and goes over to the kitchen sink and lowers his body and dips his head sideways so he could drink water from the faucet. With both hands on the countertop and with knees bent he drinks for ten seconds and then rises up. He breathes heavy looking at his backyard out the window over the sink. “Imagine that man young,” he says.
The boy imagines Anselmo young, though he only has the heavily skewed dawn profile of him to go by, when he drove past earlier that day with his bag of bagels. “He must of been some kind of bowler,” the boy says holding the bag of clothes now, ready to take to his room, to hang and make his own, and his father’s face tilts down towards the faucet again.
His father naps on a brown leather couch in front of a muted TV. At around one the boy notices a white truck parked out front where Anselmo was parked that morning. A man gets out and walks towards the house. The boy opens the door before the man rings the doorbell. He’s in his early sixties, the boy thinks, with a white mustache and reddish cheeks, wispy-grinned and kind-eyed. He says hello to the boy. “Hello,” the boy says back, though he does not know who the man is, or why he is at his house.
“Your father around?” the man says. The boy notices a clipboard under his arm, a small one.
“He’s taking a nap. I can wake him. Was he expecting you?”
“Oh, no. Let him sleep. Any chance I can just get into the backyard? Take a look at the patio?” The man removes a measuring tape and holds it aloft so it is in the boy’s line of sight.
“My father never mentioned anything with the patio.”
“He called me to take a look. See if I can salvage the thing.”
The boy thinks that the backyard would be OK for a stranger, but not inside. He makes the decision seemingly at once, that he would not allow the man inside the house. Beyond that, he would be as cordial as possible.
“Alright. Yeah,” the boy says.
“I’m the patio guy. He didn’t mention me?”
“No, but the patio is a mess. I understand. Cracks everywhere.”
“Been fixing cracks for decades,” the man says sticking out his chest somewhat like a superhero.
“Let me get a coat. I’ll come around with you.”
“OK. Thank you,” the man says, setting his shoulders at ease.
They appraise the cracks together. The boy wants to rise to the man’s level and speak in the aphoristic swing of the blue collar man, the one-line kings of the streets. The boy says, “Is it fixable?”
“Cracks. Whoa baby,” the man says.
“Yeah, I told you,” the boy says, smiling.
“In all my years, I don’t know. Look at this thing. How old is it?”
“How old are you?”
“Me? I’m twenty-five.”
“Was this thing here when you were still in short pants?”
The boy looks at the patio for the answer.
“Yes,” the boy says. “All my life.”
“Well, there you go.”
“Can’t remember it not having cracks.”
“Could be older than you, this patio,” the man says.
“I don’t doubt it,” the boy says, and it starts to feel good for the boy to talk like this, to this man holding a clipboard underarm and a measuring tape in hand. “So, you think it’s fixable?”
“It’s not the noblest art,” the man says, “but I don’t see why it isn’t, my line of work. Fix it, I don’t know. Need to redo. Remake. Clear it out. Thing is dead.”
“Start from scratch,” the boy says.
“You tell mom and dad their patio went on and croaked back here. We need to dispose of the dead. Looks to me it was a painful death, too. There’s a sad story here but the patio ain’t going to be telling it any time soon.”
They look at the patio a while and scratch their cheeks.
The man says, “Next week we’ll give it a memorial service and I’ll make the patio look Bermudan, Alaskan, Californian, whatever mom and dad wants. You let them know. Been doing this for decades. Been making gravel dance and go where I want it to. Not the noblest art, but I don’t see why. Here the artist always goes unnoticed. Me.” The man smiles and points to himself with his thumb and the boy realizes that the man has probably used that spiel maybe several hundred times. “Let mom and dad know about my visit and we’ll go from there.”
“My mother actually passed away,” the boy says.
The man lifts the clipboard higher under his arm and gives the boy a mock-appraising look that seems to transcend words and it somehow sets the boy at ease.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” the man says.
“It’s OK. I was pretty young.”
“Boy. How did she pass?”
“She had breast cancer.”
“Sheesh,” the man says.
“I don’t much remember her.”
“That doesn’t make it any less heartbreaking.”
“Yeah,” the boy says.
They stare at the patio together and scratch their cheeks. The boy wishes his fingers made the same sweet sandpaper sound on his cheek as it does on the man’s.
“I’ll go ahead and tell my dad this thing’s time has come,” the boy says. “Thank you.”
“Yeah, thank you. Go ahead and let him know if you could. I’d appreciate it.”
“I will let my dad know,” the boy says. “I’ll tell him an artist stopped by.”
The man taps the boy on the shoulder in a prideful way, happy the boy is keeping up with him and has pivoted the conversation back to where it had been moments before. “Tell dad we’ll have to start anew.”
“I’ll impart that as well.”
“What is it you do by the way? You work? I’ll give you a sledgehammer. You’re a young, strong boy. I used to be you, you know.”
“I’d love to,” the boy says, realizing at once he would wholeheartedly enjoy sledgehammering away at an old, dead patio.
“I always could use a young man to do twice the amount of work I can. You tell dad. We need to dispose of this thing here. It turns out to be some kind of project when this happens. What is it you’re doing next week?”
“I’ll put a sledgehammer in your hands and we’ll unearth this thing once and for all.”
“I’d love to. I actually would. I guess I’ll be working though.”
“Well, alright. That’s fine. That’s good. You work in an office?”
“Yes. Yes, I do.”
“You tell your dad I’ll get him a Bermudan little set-up back here. Or Alaskan. Or Californian. Whatever he has in mind. I can put it whichever which way he wants it. We’ll bring it back to life.”
“I’ll let him know. Thank you,” the boy says.
The boy goes and sits with his father on the other side of the brown leather couch around three. His father instantly wakes from his long nap, an elongated yawn and the smack and peel of the leather couch against his body curling and flailing awake.
“A man was here,” the boy says. “The patio guy.”
“Oh, good. He take a look?”
“Yeah. We both went out there. I didn’t realize just how bad the patio actually was.”
“Oh, it’s bad,” the boy’s father says and yawns. “So what’s he going to do with it?”
“The patio is dead. It died. These are his words. It passed away tragically. A painful death.”
“And he can do it. But he’ll be starting from scratch. He needs to rip apart the whole thing and then he’ll give you whatever patio you want.”
His father curls, tumbles, makes the leather whine. “Good,” his father says. “Been meaning to do this for years.”
Two weeks later Anselmo’s daughter calls to let the boy’s father know that he had died and what the funeral arrangements were. She calls on a sunny, cool Saturday with this news.
The boy and his father both ineffably move to the living room once they have this news and they look out onto the front lawn through the window where Anselmo used to park and where the sun’s sheen looms large, crows alighting and ungracefully swooping and flapping on the house across the street, landing like gargoyles on sills.
“You know what,” the boy’s father says, sitting on the living room couch. “Those crows. Could you believe this?”
They squint together towards the crows. They look big and their wings look sharp, violent. One swoops down onto the lawn and seems to catch something, some bit of detritus, and it rises back up and lands on its gargoyle sill. The boy doesn’t respond to his father. He just watches the crows flourish in the impinging light.
“I saw those crows yesterday and I knew he was dead,” his father says with his arms relaxingly outspread on the couch, taking up an enormous amount of space. “I know it’s ridiculous. Stupid, even.”
“Anselmo,” the boy says standing by the wide window.
“Have you ever seen crows around here? These black, pointy figures?”
“Look at them. They’re death messengers. It’s no joke. Perfectly framed in this window. They were here yesterday and they came with the message that good Anselmo was dead. Could you believe it?”
The boy laughs at this thought, briefly, instinctually.
“My son. You should believe in a little mystery.”
“What? The crows…?”
“Believe in a little magic once in a harvest moon.”
The boy decides he won’t respond to this. They watch the crows sit up high with their messages.
“So, are one of those crows Anselmo you’re saying…?” the boy says.
“No. I’m just saying to believe in a little mystery.”
They watch the crows for a good while. The boy tries remembering his mother, though he can’t. He was only three when she died. He tries imagining two of those crows out there being Anselmo and his mother and he’s hit with a sensation that makes goosebumps appear on his arms and the shorthairs stick up blonde in the sunlight. He shivers and illogically feels bad for his father, like his dad has been left out of some club he really wants to be a part of, left out of some congregation all of his loved ones seemed to have joined without him.
“I’m sorry about Anselmo,” the boy says.
His father’s arms drop off the couch and he leans forward, making preparation to rise onto his feet, but he seems to need a moment to garner the strength. “Sorry?” he says to his boy, pulling himself up, falling, rising. “He’s eating pizza and driving a Maserati and bowling all at the same time right now.”
They laugh hard together and take one last look at the crows looking down from the gutters before leaving the living room and going their separate ways.
The boy’s alarm clock wakes him horribly on Monday morning. He takes one of those hot showers he can never get out of. He does not do his hair. He notices he’s losing it. He notices the front will go before the back. He wonders if he would rather have it go the other way, from back to front, but is not sure. He worries briefly about losing his hair and then gets dressed for work, this job that he does, and he puts on Anselmo’s yellow polo with the blue horizontal stripes and tucks it into his pants without much thought. He puts on his shoes and runs out the door and gets into his cattycornered car and rushes to the job he works—the job that constantly reminds him of his inadequacies, his inferiority, the very thing that may be yanking the hair out of his head. And he makes his way through a day in Anselmo’s shirt and he begins feeling it around him, around his shoulders, the way a dead man’s shirt can take shape, can live on in its own time and dimensions, the way it remains alive hanging in a closet, on a body. The boy shakes hands with people, he types notes into official documents, makes checks on a page, does all these simple, everyday actions while being in Anselmo’s shirt, and he feels the man around him, hugging him, coming closer, and he feels like he’s in conversation with the man in some metaphysical way, like he’s getting to know him for the very first time, learning about the man by being in his shirt. He wants to tell people around him about this man named Anselmo, how he’s in his shirt, how we’re all in shirts that will outlive us, how there is a deeper thing than this, whatever this is exactly that we are all doing here—this job yanking the very hairs from our heads—but all he really has of the man is that image, Anselmo’s face through the pane glass of his car, the skewed image as he passed that morning, the man’s face in profile, bluish and surreal, either from the dying or from the dawn.
He takes a sick day on Wednesday when the patio demolition is finally scheduled. He surprises the man and meets him out back in work boots and sweat pants and a heavy flannel shirt. The man smirks at the boy’s arrival and wordlessly hands him a sledgehammer. “It’s not the noblest art,” the man says, “but boy will you feel it in your arms.”
They let the hammer hit the dead. The boy feels it all through his back. They hit the hard old patio a while together creating a kind of music.
“I should hire you full time,” the man says. “But I won’t match that office salary I imagine.”
“But I would be an artist,” the boy says, letting the hammer hit.
“You bet your ass you would be.”
“I’d be muscular and fit,” the boy says, letting the hammer hit.
“The blood would flow effortlessly through my veins,” the boy says, letting the hammer hit.
“I sure think so.”
“I’d have forearms like bricks, and biceps like balls,” the boy says, letting the hammer hit.
The man stops hitting and watches the boy hit.
“I’d have a neck like a buck,” the boy says, letting the hammer hit.
The man keeps his hammer upright, resting his hands on its base, one hand over the other, and he watches the boy.
“I’d have a back like a beetle,” the boy says, letting the hammer hit.
The man begins to say something, but the boy speaks first.
“I’d be alive,” the boy says.