Herbert loved the backyard of his house. The house itself was modest, a two-bedroom bungalow in the Tahoe Park neighborhood of Sacramento, but the yard ran deep, all the way back to the neighbor’s fruit trees. Beside his mother’s vegetable garden was a patch of peonies that bloomed red and white each spring, and a stately oak, spared by the developers, centered the yard.
In the damp spring, or the foggy beginning to summer, Spanish moss thrived on the oak’s limbs, and in the high heat of summer the tree’s wide canopy sheltered the yard; sunlight slipped through its branches and boughs almost tenderly. In autumn the squirrels spirited away the fallen acorns and Herbert collected the remaining seeds in his pail and buried them in the sandbox.
He appeared to be a bright boy, though he was quiet, and his mother worried that he was slow to talk: shouldn’t he be singing along to the lullabies or saying momma and papa by now? When she finally confessed her worry to her husband, Grover said, “Look at him, Stella.” They both watched as the toddler gave chase to a squirrel, stumbled and fell. “He’s a healthy, happy boy.”
“But I see it more and more,” she said. Tears rolled quickly to her cheeks. “He looks at me and I know he wants to tell me something, but he stops. And he looks so discouraged. I find myself trying to coax words out of his mouth.”
“He’s only just a child,” Grover said. “He’s not in any hurry. I’m not so sure we should be.”
She took in her lower lip and picked the boy up. They stood together in the yard, silent a long while. “You’re probably right,” she said, and fixed a smile. “I’m just a worrywart.”
She didn’t want to believe there was anything wrong, but the signs piled up. For his third birthday he was given a fire truck, a beauty, fully outfitted with sirens and lights and hoses and ladders. After cake, and after night prayers, when he was tucked in and ready for sleep, Stella turned the switch for the siren; her heart sank when the boy barely flinched at the truck’s calliopean cry.
Their doctor concurred, Herbert was not responding normally to sound. He asked Stella if she’d had an infectious disease, like measles or mumps during her pregnancy, or if the birth had been especially difficult. He wondered aloud if the boy had suffered any trauma to his head or his ears, but his examination showed no damage to the inner ear. He ruled out a virus, as a virus generally afflicted only one ear. He feared the worst, damage to the auditory nerve, and referred them on to a speech and hearing specialist downtown.
“His hearing is detectable,” the audiologist told Stella. “But it’s not sharp enough to help him distinguish one word from another. So for instance—he can’t tell the difference between sh and th. We’ll try a hearing aid, but I’m not expecting any miracles.”
Stella sat in a child’s chair amid the rummage of toys whose whistles and bells Herbert had strained to hear. She folded her hands in her lap and steadied her breathing; the room felt tight and without oxygen. She worked to pay attention to the woman across the table. “He has his gifts,” she was saying. “And he’s a fighter. I mean, he stayed right with me through all these exams. It might not be an easy road, but with the right help, he’ll get along just fine.”
Stella formed a church and steeple with her hands and thought maybe she felt the weight of one burden lifting—the uneasiness of not knowing—but even here she checked herself. Hadn’t she known all along? And why in God’s name had it taken her so long to get here? “I’m sorry,” she said. “You were saying he’d have a rough road?”
“The hearing loss puts him at a pretty big disadvantage. It slows his ability to digest language, to read and to write. But we’ll work hard together.”
Herbert’s father believed their tree was two or three hundred years old. He had no basis for his belief, it was only a hunch, but in time the hunch metamorphosed into fact. “Just think,” he told his son, “our tree was growing here on the other side of this great country while Washington was fighting the redcoats!”
Herbert loved to share his father’s enthusiasms. When the New York Giants came to San Francisco, father and son rode the train from Sacramento to see their new team at the humble Seals Stadium, a temporary home till their ballpark on the bay was built. Grover told his boy to keep an eye on number 24, the center-fielder, a kid named Willie Mays. The Kid became Herbert’s baseball hero.
That was 1958, the summer they joined the Little League, Grover as coach and Herbert as second-string outfielder. Grover attributed their lack of success to a late start; Herbert was ten now, and most of the kids had started when they were six or seven years old. Midway through their first game, at substitution time, Grover walked down the bench and tugged on his son’s cap: “OK, buddy,” he said, “hustle out there and play some right field for us.” The boy put on his mitt and pounded it several times, like he’d seen Willie Mays do, and looked up at the coach. “Which one id wight field, dad?” he asked.
As the season wore on, Grover noted that each team’s star player seemed to be the coach’s son; this put Herbert and his teammates at a big disadvantage. Grover changed his focus from winning to teaching a few fundamentals, and losing gracefully. One of the kids’ parents accused Grover of ruining their summer. He apologized, told her he was new to coaching baseball, and that her son was a natural ballplayer, a joy to coach.
Herbert learned the fielder’s “ready” position—legs at shoulders’ width, butt down, mitt open, grazing the top of the grass, and chin up, alert—and this helped stop the ground balls from skipping between his legs. What he hadn’t yet learned was how to flip his mitt, from palm down to palm up, to catch a ball traveling higher than his waist, so that when the unusual occurred, a line-drive hit out to right field that he happened to be in position to catch, he found himself defenseless against the ball and it struck him just above his right eye. The cut required several stitches, and his mother thought it best that Herbert sit out the remainder of the games; Grover coached the balance of the season without his reserve right-fielder. When one of the parents would ask him which player was his son, Grover looked down the bench and pointed to whomever had homered last. “That’s my boy,” he would say.
Father and son were both quietly relieved when baseball again became a spectator sport, and on a warm Saturday evening, after Grover had closed his Grill, they would ride out to Edmonds Field to root for the Solons, their Pacific Coast League team. When the Solons packed up and left for Honolulu, in 1960, Herbert and his father searched out new pastimes. They drove to the Port of Sacramento and watched the cranes lift cargo onto ships, great tractors and combines dangling high in the air, like small tin toys. Or they’d head east, to the Mather Air Force Base and hope to witness another takeoff or landing of the magnificent B-52 Stratofortress.
They’d spread their blanket in line with the runway on the slight slip of grass outside the fence, and pass the binoculars between them. At a standstill, with its wings swept back and four jet engines appended to each span, the plane was a vision of muscle and might, tall as a steamship and wide as a football field. On takeoff it bolted away from them, to the east, toward the mountains, and Grover imagined the pilot firing through the gears, amassing more power with each shift, the B-52 already high in the sky, a majestic ship, like a cathedral, sailing over the mountains.
Herbert loved the landings because the bomber came in directly overhead, low over the fence, roaring, like a hurricane. The air crackled and the trees trembled. In the whirlwind and their jubilation, Herbert and his father shouted inaudible shouts and they clapped and laughed.
At the time he began high school, his mother took a job behind the womenswear counter at the department store downtown; on Saturdays, she would drop Herbert off at his father’s Grill, on Stockton Street, on her way into town. Although it began as a caretaking mission for Grover and Marianne, Herbert showed a ready aptitude for restaurant work and soon became an asset. He bussed tables for Marianne, baked the biscuits, and, in time, worked the grill.
His father praised his work and Marianne flirted with him in a playful way, in the manner of an indulgent aunt. Grover mimeographed new menus to boast his part-time staff addition: under the GROVER’S GRILL banner, and beneath his drawing of a cheerful, well-mustachioed man in a chef’s toque, he listed himself as Proprietor, Marianne as Head Waitress and Herbert as Apprentice; in a final flourish he drew a ringing telephone beside the Grill’s number.
There are several ways a boy growing up can distinguish himself, mix with like-minded souls and excel: athletics are a common outlet, and some boys find the arts; others seek expression in scholastic eminence. Herbert understood he was no athlete, and in the intramural games at school he did all he could to stay out of the way. In art, he never advanced much beyond his kindergarten drawings of stick people. He didn’t hear the music and none played in his head. And, as had been foretold, schoolwork was a slippery riddle to him, always just outside his reach.
Though he was held back only once (he repeated the second grade), and was granted many charity C’s, more for his sweet demeanor and earnest effort than any real achievement, he viewed school as a long battle, with rhythmic skirmishes (an overdue paper, a quiz or a major test). He accepted that his classmates regarded him as the kid with the speech impediment, a little odd, maybe a little lonely, and as the bell rung on an onerous day he only wanted to go home.
But he found his metier at the Grill. He and his father and Marianne seemed to have formed a pact with their patrons, that within the ambit of the cozy Grill, its counter and six booths, all was well despite the many woes waiting just outside their door. Diners looked up from their coffee and smiled at him, and Herbert felt a rush of pride in doing his work skillfully; he savored the miracle of his success and more and more begged his father to take him along to the Grill on schooldays.
On those days when Grover gave in, he braced himself for trouble; he disliked fibbing to the school, and Stella’s rebukes grew sharper. “You just can’t do this anymore,” she said. It was the beginning of a new school year and she had taken the school’s absentee call that morning. “He only falls further behind when he skips.”
“He told me he thinks he’s learned all he’ll possibly learn at school. He’s miserable there, Stella.”
“But you understand that he needs at least a high school diploma, right?”
“For what? He’ll own the Grill.” Grover moved to hold her but she twisted away from him. She was in no mood.
“Who’s to say the Grill will be there for him? You’ve told me yourself that the change in the neighborhood has hurt your business.”
He had no choice but to concede her this. The Grill had been bypassed when Highway 99 was re-routed away from him and many of his regulars had moved on. And the neighborhood houses that appeared so prim and fresh twenty years earlier looked more derelict now, and many of the yards were overgrown. As the original owners sold, the prices declined and the community regrouped with those a step further down the ladder. Grover did not view this as a reason to leave. “Business will bounce back,” he said. “We had a good crowd this morning.”
Stella shook her head. “I won’t lie to the school for you anymore.”
“I’m not asking you to lie for me, Stella—from now on, have them call me at the Grill.” The heaviness of words not spoken and an unnamed guilt weighed on him. “I’m only doing this for him,” he said.
“For him? Are you sure it’s not for you?”
“The customers at the Grill love him—he’s a hero down there.”
“A hero? C’mon, Grover, grills don’t have heroes. Baseball fields have heroes.” She paused and Grover saw that her dark cloud had risen—there was no stopping the storm now. “You’re in some make-believe world, Grover, where everyone loves everybody else. Hey, there goes Mr. Sunshine, look at him smile! People like you because you’re so desperate for them to like you—you make them like you. And that includes your son.”
“Is that fair, Stella?”
“You wanna know something that isn’t fair? The way you talk to him, like he’s got ultrasonic hearing or something. Do you even realize he can’t hear you?”
“But he understands me.”
“Of course he understands you. You give him anything he wants. Why don’t you give him—and me—what we really want: a nice house away from here.”
Midway through the year Herbert abandoned his schoolwork altogether, and then the school stopped calling. Grover was not yet ready to relinquish the house or his tree—unwilling to forsake his noble oak for the puny sapling planted in the yards of all the new houses Stella liked. The tree was his sanctuary, his retreat, where he unwound after each day’s work with his newspaper and where, after dinner, he’d sit at the picnic table he himself had built, and read aloud the stories from the Old Testament; Herbert sat on the bench opposite him and memorized these stories by reading his father’s lips.
Business had been hurt worse in the downturn than he let on. He considered running off five hundred copies of the Grill’s menu and finding a couple kids to hand-deliver them to the neighborhood homes—make sure they all knew where they could get their bacon and eggs and an honest cup of coffee—and he smiled at the memory of his earlier, failed attempt to do the same. Years ago, at the Grill’s inception, two crew-cut, freckle-faced kids would stop in for French fries and a Coke, and he asked them if they’d be interested in making a few bucks: he had printed five hundred “Grand Opening” flyers and he needed them delivered to the neighboring houses and businesses. He quoted them five cents per delivery and the spokesman for the duo, who stepped on his buddy’s toes to keep him silent, looked up at Grover and said, “a dime a flyer and you got yourself a deal, Mister.” Grover liked their spirit and agreed; he handed them the two stacks of announcements and twenty-five dollars each. Three weeks later a Sanitation worker dropped off a soggy plastic bag. “These must be yours,” he said. “Found ’em in the sewer.” Grover howled in laughter at the time, to think he’d been had by a couple of twelve-year-old kids.
Several of the area businesses had recently been broken into and burglarized, and the police suggested a security system. Grover couldn’t imagine what any thief would want from his Grill; if they were hungry, he would feed them. Each afternoon he took the day’s receipts to the bank, and left only enough cash to start the new day. Security, he reasoned, was a luxury, and in the inevitable upturn in his business, when money coursed again like the current, he would reconsider.
Each day around 2 PM Grover reversed the open/closed sign that hung in the front door; Marianne was allowed to go home and Grover stashed any residual tips for her in a shoebox he kept on the shelf beneath the register. He would sit at the end of the counter and tally the day’s receipts while Herbert cleaned. On this day, near 3 PM, two young men barged in and slammed the door shut behind them. Herbert was mopping the floor near the door and he looked up to see the men cover their faces in ski masks; the one who brandished the pistol took a step toward him and cracked him on the side of the face with his gun. Herbert collapsed in a heap on the floor.
Grover charged toward them from his perch at the end of the counter. “What the fuck you punks doin’?” he screamed. “There’s no reason to hurt the kid.”
It was reported in the paper the following day as a hold-up ($157, the day’s receipts, was the total take) and a murder in cold blood. Herbert was hospitalized, but released in time for his father’s funeral. Stella mourned her loss, though more for Herbert’s sake than hers. She had never bought into the whole “Saint Grover” fable; his optimism got him into a lot of trouble. Why would he think she didn’t know he was poking that pudgy Marianne—as if he didn’t reek of her? She imagined him trying to talk the thieves out of their robbery and was certain he’d tried their patience, wore them out with his crap; it’s no good trying to reason with a couple of hopped-up druggies, just give ’em the goddam money for crissake and cut the bs. She would only miss his hope, an antidote to her brooding melancholia.
She sold the house and the Grill and moved down the coast to Oceanside, near her sister. She enrolled in the two-year nursing program at Palomar College—she knew she wouldn’t be able to save herself or Herbert, maybe it was time to try to help others. When she saw the notice in the local paper for the Rehabilitation Restaurant, she felt a faint stirring of hopefulness for her son.
Cid had shown Herbert how to fashion a pineapple into a boat for the Hawaiian Chicken Plate, and it was only several ruined pineapple hulls before he got the knack. He surprised Cid with his deft use of knives: whether slicing an onion, mincing garlic or peeling an avocado, Herbert used a close pinch, worked quickly and produced little waste.
Cid had edged over to the set-up station at the end of their first week together and watched Herbert dice tomatoes for the lunch salads. “You’re goddam good with the knives,” he said. “Where the hell’d you learn that?”
“Dad taught me, Did—he had a gwill up in Dacwamento.”
“Well, good for the old man,” Cid said. “It’s become a bit of a lost art these days, y’know.”
Herbert wanted to tell Cid all about the Grill and how on that last day he had been knocked unconscious and was unable to protect his dad, but that would come in time; his friendship with Cid, he knew, would only grow. They didn’t talk much at work, but neither had he and his father.
By the end of its first month together, the lunch crew had found its groove. Herbert was the first to arrive and he policed the kitchen, eager to make certain all was in order for the new day; he scrubbed the employee’s two-top and cleared the ashtray of last night’s butts, and he made the morning coffee. He fired up the oven and the grill for Cid and took inventory in the walk-in refrigerator, where he pulled the ingredients for the corn fritter and biscuit batter that he prepared at his station.
Guillermo, the dishwasher, followed. He greeted Herbert with a wave and a smile, and he’d set to work peeling potatoes for the day’s hash browns. Cid entered and marched straight for the Bunn-O-Matic, where he’d fill a large styrofoam cup. After a greedy first gulp he’d salute his lieutenants and, on the good days, shout across to Herbert, “Best cup of coffee of the day!” (Never mind it was his first cup of the day). Or, cup raised, “Here’s to the finest Brewmaster west of the Mississippi!”
The day truly dawned when the women arrived; their voices filled the kitchen with song. They mounted the back staircase together, dressed fashionably out of time in their black pin cord skirts and lace stockings and white, high-collared blouses, an ivory brooch pinned at the neck. Their hair glistened in the morning sun and shifted in color from fair Frannie’s strawberry blond to Grace’s ink black; their hair jittered on their shoulders as they bounced up the stairs.
It was mid-July and the Del Mar Fairgrounds had welcomed back its thoroughbreds, handicappers and bettors. Long-time track patrons upheld the tradition of returning to the Restaurant for its golden pan-fried chicken before a day at the races, and despite the growing slack in the economy, the Restaurant’s business remained robust. Herbert’s prep work was a constant rush of detail that begged his total focus. He tried to anticipate Cid’s needs, like he had done for Marianne and his father, and he worked hard to be a good set-up man.
He liked all the girls. He made a special salad each day for Cheryl, behind the bar, and because he noticed the slight swelling of Lillian’s stomach he offered her a cold glass of milk or a plate of fruit and vegetables whenever he saw her. His favorite, however, would always be Frannie: he never imagined a girl could look so pretty in overalls and a T-shirt, and when she dressed for work he knew in his heart there was no one more beautiful. He loved it when she dashed into the kitchen with a baby bottle and asked him to warm it up, all the while chattering about the baby’s curls and her pretty mouth: “this baby is so a-dore-able, you gotta come out and see her, Herbert!” And she made him laugh—there was the day she moped into the kitchen, her cheeks all puffed out, and said, “Little Tubby out at table two thinks he needs seconds on dessert.” Or when she had an order for the rainbow sherbet she’d approach his counter, a smile stealing across her face, and she’d blurt out, “Sherbet, Herbert!” It cracked her up every time; she always laughed hardest at her own jokes.
Frannie’s nature shone constant as the sun, but Cid’s moods appeared murkier, and mutable as the color of the sea. Herbert was familiar with moods, as his father had occasionally warned against his mother’s moods. After the hold-up he was unable to sleep, and he felt an unrelenting banging in his head. His doctor prescribed several medications that eased his agitation. He wondered if Cid took any medicine for his moods.
There were days when Cid was sullen and withdrawn, and he moved sluggishly, like he was wambling underwater. These days he was silent, uncommunicative, and Herbert worried it was something he had done, or worse, something he had forgotten to do. Then things would return to normal, the kitchen would hum again and Herbert would smile at being called the West’s finest Brewmaster—until the next time.
On this day there was no coffee salutation, no greeting at all. Cid appeared flustered and perturbed, almost angry, and his eyes red-rimmed and swollen. Perspiration dripped from his face to his shirt. He saw that Herbert was looking at him: “too fuckin’ hot in here,” he snapped. “That’s all.”
Herbert kneaded the biscuit dough, and cut and topped his biscuits with an egg wash. He placed the sheet of biscuits just where Cid liked it, at the edge of the counter across from the oven. Cid yawned several times as Herbert moved back to his station. “Dill, dleepy, Did?” he asked.
“Dill? Are you fuckin kiddin’ me, dill? We don’t use dill in this kitchen—alright?” Cid pointed an incriminating finger toward Herbert, a cold no shit from you today finger, and turned back to the heat of the oven. Frannie awaited a salad pick-up at Herbert’s counter and Cid pivoted toward both of them, his finger still jabbing the air. “Dill is for the Polacks and their fuckin’ zupa. No. Dill is for fuckin’ pickles—have you ever seen a fuckin’ pickle in this kitchen?”
The words were not all clear but Cid’s tone was very clear. Rough lumps formed in Herbert’s throat and tears steamed in his eyes. Frannie leaned over Herbert’s counter and silently mouthed her words: “Would be fun to see pickles fucking in the kitchen, wouldn’t it?”
He knew she was trying to help, to make him laugh, and this only further tangled his emotions. He wanted to laugh but knew he had to cry and he wasn’t sure what would come out if he opened his mouth. He kept his mouth shut tight and closed his eyes. Frannie had leaned back into his counter. “Don’t worry about it, buddy,” her mouth was saying, “he’s just having a bad day. I like the other Cid better myself.”
Herbert nodded and loaded Frannie’s salads on her tray. She skipped out of the kitchen and Herbert wiped his eyes with the back of a hand. Without any defenses he soaked up Cid’s unkind words and took them into himself.
Michael J. Martin is a Chicago-area writer, stitching together his first novel word by word.