Yard Work

I

I grapple with scotch thistle, its velvety green stem whiskered with miniature thorns that guard against irregular pruning.

Across the wind-swept forest, 30, 40 acres away, a bomb fire burns—oak, pine, a hint of cottonwood and dead leaves fill my good nostril, the one that still regulates air despite errant hockey sticks, baseballs, elbows from pick-up basketball and fights in west Detroit, arthritic reminders of a rudderless youth.

You prune branches with the battery-operated trimmer near the road. Tan skin hints of Algonquin in your bloodline, of distant ancestors who lived in northern Michigan, or piloted the St. Lawrence Seaway to the Detroit River, drifting solemnly in canoes carved from maples, past trading posts that dotted forested shores, tending trap lines, surveying the movement of deer.

The chain kinks. Shit puckers on your pouty lips, above which a thread of sweat glints in afternoon sun. From my crouch between bushes, I see dimples at the corners of your mouth appear for a second. You shake the device, hands stretched in front of your body as if performing an awkward dance move, thwack it once, then twice on the gravel road, squeeze the trigger, continue cutting.

I stare out at our yard. Green grass beneath fingers of cherry blossoms, short wall of lavender trees that border a dense pine forest from where deer emerge in the evening to chew fragrant leaves and immature blossoms to stubs after we’ve lumbered to bed, thighs and glutes sore, skin blistered from rakes.

In the morning, fog drifts from the wet yard, threads into branches and dissolves by noon. Shadows inch away from where I stand in boxers and a torn Grateful Dead t-shirt, coffee mug in hand, chuckling before our stubs, wondering when, if ever, I might learn.

Patience, you remind me from the open window.

I turn around. Behind the screen of the staircase window, I see your sleep-scrunched nest of dark brown hair framed by gray, red terrycloth robe with frayed elbows, a white flash of fur from the country puff at your feet, his small canine eyes peering at me curiously, tail swaying back and forth in a slow, hypnotic rhythm.

It takes time for me to learn certain things. Even the country puff understands.

This yard doesn’t suffer the inscrutability of sunlight. Doesn’t mind the schizophrenic shift of seasons. Deer hoofs that divot the yard and grow back. Turkeys that fill our space in the morning, scuff three-toed paths and peck incessantly at one another. Sometimes they flood the tree line in waves when we release the country puff, who tears after them, unaware that each bird outweighs him by at least 15 pounds.

Coyotes keep their distance, glower beneath low hanging branches as we recline by the fire pit at night, drinking bottles of Sam Adams, speaking in hushed tones about this boy and that girl, about parents who’ve decided to split.

Sometimes our oldest and his friends break the quiet with raucous shouts during beer-soaked parties, keep the alpha from entering our yard. The squeals and husky grunts of our daughter and her teammates’ volleyball games out front forces the pack to retreat deeper into the forest. Even the beefiness of our youngest causes them to pause, observe that the smaller human is built like a brick house as he vaults on the trampoline in the evening dark, springs moaning in protest, begging for release.

II

Rarely does our yard need water. Michigan does its best to manage seasonal moodiness as we tend to perennials beneath canopies of leaves, hopeful they’ll blossom again, surprised when they do.

Years ago, when Bum Bum was one, we scratched together enough savings, settled in the backwoods of the county, down dirt roads that cleaved hayfields, rocky creek beds, swamps and chunks of pine forests that sunlight can’t penetrate, past signs honoring an earlier century—Silver Bell, Mill Race, Bald Mountain, Valley View and Indianwood.

Miles from the nearest Middle Eastern or Italian restaurant. Far from the faded yellow glow of Detroit’s city lights in overcast skies. We’ve grown accustomed to the hush of our back-road-town, one textured by the mechanical whir of neighbors’ chain saws cutting timber on distant ridges, the aroma of smoked venison rising from soot-stained stacks of backyard sheds, a place hewed by the movement of animals, one immune to ritual.

We stitched three acres beneath white pines, gnarled oaks, cottonwoods the size of five-story buildings that spit clouds of seeds from the highest limbs, coat screens of houses two miles away. In the winter, they shrug dead branches as thick as bats when the wind roars. We revere the convenience of kindling and firewood. Gaze wide-eyed with our children at thick layers of snow that build on pine boughs. Watch bucks peering cautiously from the tree line next to purple knots of raspberry bushes, perhaps wondering when I might emerge once again to carve what we affectionately label the country puff poop path in the deep winter snow.

III

Before them, we shuffled forward, heads hunkered into overcoats against Detroit River wind that hissed by the fractured windows of abandoned storefronts and rusty office buildings, heaved snowflakes against our pale skin and pricked like needles, huffed past vagrants on Griswold who raised leathery hands for a quarter, resigned to a life flooded by cement, a life swollen with the dislocated.

A life of pennies. Nickels. Dimes. Lost jobs. Failed career moves. Dumbass decisions, broken bones and bounced checks. Nighttime laments beneath sheets, breath warm on our skin. Whispers of canceled canoe trips on the Ausable, rained-out afternoons at Hubbard Lake, sunlight glinting on its surface, campfire smoke rising from a thick pine forest on the western shore. Long hours of dreaming hemmed by weeks of bone-tired work. We took our reward from each other. From each other, them.

We don’t admit that we are close to making it. Worry lurks in the dust-covered corners of our minds, lives beneath tall oaks that fall in our woods during the night, uprooted by wind storms we don’t hear. We watch green grass grow. Build bomb fires. Witness first steps of fawns born in the woods behind our house, confident that our cacophony might deter predators, appreciative of salt licks in the winter, confused by an act of human kindness they’ll never trust.

I give reprieves to red and blue wild flowers that erupt between cracks on the patio each spring from seeds conveyed in the squabbling beaks of robins, blue jays and cardinals, the ones that land and pick at each other over grains of bird seed we happily scatter out back.

Now Bum Bum is 20. Plays baseball for his college on the west side of the state. Texts us each night that he loves and misses us. Asks for videos of the country puff in action—dashing after a wild turkey, cornering a doe at the edge of our yard, barking his protests to the UPS driver who appears on the front porch, disheveled, confused, forehead dimpled with sweat, sputtering between breaths, this place is tough to find.

And Noodles. National Honor Society. Varsity volleyball. Willowy arms and legs. Green eyes and blond. An old soul who assigns you blame, even when you’re not around. Dispenses relationship advice free of charge, reminds us of the investment we’ve made, even when we can’t bear to look at one another.

Then Stinkbombmalicious. Swears he’ll never leave home. Plans to construct a small house in our backyard. Displays designs on Minecraft to prove it: elaborate maze of rooms, squared green parcels of trees and cornfields, stalls divided equally for sheep and deer in the space beside the kitchen, forest that stretches for miles in Minecraft, miles beyond his animated lawn and brown wheat fields embroidered on mountain sides that touch the sky.

IV

At times the freight is heavy.

Dunes of soiled laundry heaped on the laundry room floor that reek of sweat, flatulence, hamburger grease from the grill, stained with dirt, grass and blood. Shuttles to and from schools, practices, doctor and dental visits. Hint of cinnamon coffee in your Equinox splattered in dried mud from county roads rutted and pocked, wisecracks from kids scrawled on the back tailgate proclaiming I AM clean BEYITCH!

Once in a while I grab your hand during the commotion. Give it a quick squeeze. Solicit a confused look in your light brown eyes as you pull away, moving to the next assignment. Scribble thanks on a note card tucked inside your wallet beside faded receipts, crumpled bills, a package of Heinz ketchup. Something to discover months, maybe years later when you finally clean things out, reorganize between work shifts, maybe after I’m gone. A box of Milk Duds on the steering column before driving off on another pickup or delivery run, your Tigers baseball hat tipped askew, an endlessly accumulated day of driving. A sink empty of dirty dishes.

I stay out of the way. Understand what my footprint is and where it should land, thankful for being saved.

Sometimes a glance is fine. A new lavender tree for the backyard. A perennial exploding with yellow and red pedals. Cold six-pack of Fat Tire on the front porch before sundown once yard work is complete, when coyotes begin their yowling, after kids arrive home, moaning their daily refrain, why isn’t there any food in our house ever?!

We might slug the last of our beer. Rise slowly from wicker rocking chairs. Shake our heads as fireflies drift between our bodies, moving to the door in the dark, trying not to smile at the chore before us, at the work that’s still left to do, hopeful it may never end, aware that one day it will. Words aren’t needed. A sigh is more than enough.

Gary James Erwin’s work has appeared in a number of journals and publications, including The Sun, Santa Fe Literary Review, Red Cedar Review, The 3288 Review, Adelaide Literary Magazine, and Third Wednesday. His fiction has received two Pushcart Prize nominations and has been anthologized in The PrePress Awards Volume II: Michigan Voices. His collection of short stories, Trail Crossing Sixteen Counties, was published in September 2019 by Adelaide Books and is available at Amazon. Trail Crossing Sixteen Counties was also nominated for the Library of Michigan’s 2020 Michigan Notable Books recognition. An excerpt from a novel in progress, Grindstone Creek, recently appeared in Adelaide Literary Magazine. He lives with his family and critters in Clarkston, Michigan, and serves as vice president of Marketing & Communications at University of Detroit Mercy.

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