My mother says he’s simple, that boy standing in our yard.
She waves me out the door with her broom. Return this pie dish to Nancy and give her these rolls I made, then come straight home, she says. But I know that Aunt Nancy will have raspberry lemonade. She will want to talk. How can Mom be mad at me for staying? It’s just good manners. I pause on the porch. The simple boy is standing by our elm tree. He’s looking at his feet.
Today, Margaret. You have chores to finish, my mother calls through the screen door.
His name is Darrel, a simple boy’s name. Maybe the name strikes me as simple because he’s the only Darrel I know. Or maybe it’s because the name rhymes with barrel. Grandpa sometimes says, That guy couldn’t shoot fish in a barrel. That means he can’t do something even a stupid person could do. But being simple isn’t the same as being stupid. Stupid people do normal things really badly, like the way my cousin Anne always tries to take her pants off without taking off her shoes. But simple people just do weird things, and you can’t tell if they do them right or not.
Darrel and his mother moved into Mrs. Myers’ attic apartment back in June. Darrel’s mother is a worried-looking lady with thin lips and a tight perm. She wears her bathrobe on the front porch, sometimes even in the yard. She smokes cigarettes and sips drinks like the ones people on The Love Boat drink. Mrs. Myers told Mom that Darrel’s mom was probably a looker in her day. But with a name like Renate she was bound to wear out, Mrs. Myers said. You can’t grow old gracefully with a name like that.
Darrel doesn’t look up as I pass him on the sidewalk. I cough a little, but he doesn’t even flinch. Darrel’s been in our yard before. He’s been in everybody’s yard, just looking at stuff like he’s new in the world. He looks at barbecue grills and riding lawn mowers. He looks at bird houses, horseshoe stakes, tether ball poles. Mostly, he just seems to look at grass. But he’s never hurt anything, so nobody says a thing to Darrel or his mom. Besides, no one really knows them, not even Mrs. Myers.
I think people in the neighborhood feel like they’re celebrities if Darrel’s been in their yard. They certainly always mention it afterwards. He was over here taking a look at my wind chimes the other day, they say. You know that boy was in my yard last night looking at my tomato vines, they say. Mrs. Myers even says her next door neighbor Mrs. Fran is beyond insulted that Darrel never pays a minute’s notice to those ceramic lawn ornaments of hers. Mrs. Fran says that Darrel doesn’t know real art when he sees it. Mom says if that’s the case then neither do the rest of us.
In our yard he usually stands under one of the trees. Sometimes he looks at his feet. Sometimes he looks straight up like he’s trying to see the very top of the tree from the ground. And he always plays with our dog Sandy, which doesn’t bother me. Sandy tore up Mr. Park’s rose bush and dug up the Fosters’ dead cat. Now she has to be penned up when me or mom can’t be in the yard. So I’m glad that Darrel plays with her, because I don’t feel like it sometimes. Some days you can only pet a dog so much.
When I get to Aunt Nancy’s house I tell her Darrel is in our yard. She calls me a little duck. Just like the rest of them, she laughs, you always have to be making a fuss. Quack, quack, quack. She nudges me in the ribs with her elbow and smiles. I’d be hurt, but I know she’s teasing.
I think she means it about the rest of them, though, even Mom. Some people think Aunt Nancy is a bit weird herself. She makes sculptures out of used car tires and pieces of scrap metal. Her whole yard used to be full of them. But people said it was just junk. Then some of the neighbors signed a petition that told Aunt Nancy to keep her sculptures in her garage. They just don’t understand her vision, Mom said at the time.
Aunt Nancy pours me a lemonade. When I tell her what Darrel has been up to lately, she clicks her tongue. What is it about that boy that plays on everyone’s mind so much? Aunt Nancy asks, more like she’s addressing the air than me specifically. She sets the lemonade pitcher on a folded towel on the table. Aunt Nancy’s kitchen is cool and smells like cinnamon. When she sits down beside me, I notice Aunt Nancy smells like cinnamon, too. She bakes something every week, a pie or banana bread or cookies. Mom swears I can smell fresh baked pie all the way from our house, because I always end up at Aunt Nancy’s as soon as she takes one out of the oven.
He’s weird, I say, eyeing the cookies on the counter. Nobody does stuff like that.
They don’t? What about archaeologists? They look at everything, Aunt Nancy replies. She crosses her legs and rests her face in her hands the way she does when she’s talking to Mom. They spend their lives digging up other people’s stuff and looking at it, she says. You can tell a lot about a person by what is in their yard.
What can he tell? I ask, drawing lines in the sweat on the pitcher. He doesn’t really know anybody, just what their yard has got in it.
He can tell that you don’t pet your dog very much, Aunt Nancy says. Then she picks up the pitcher and returns it to the fridge. Your mom called before you got here and told me not to keep you. So hurry home. Here’s a couple sugar cookies. Try saying hello this time, instead of just staring at him.
On my way home, I think about Darrel. Maybe he’s not so simple after all. But then I think he has to be. Why else would he spend so much time looking at the same things people have already seen for years?
He’s still standing in our yard looking at the ground when I get back. But as I walk towards him, he turns and looks at his own yard. Then his whole body turns in that direction and he crosses the street. He looks over his shoulder once. Maybe he’s afraid I’m following him. I stand under the elm where he was standing and watch him till he disappears.
I look down at my feet, and realize I’m standing in a mass of ants.
Poised as a cruise ship, Maxine Kumin
passes through the crowd, willowy and gray,
someone’s grandma by now but still lovely,
and my mind goes straight to Anne Sexton—
a sex pot in a coffin. Kumin says
they shared one reading outfit
down to the shoes. I see pointed pumps,
smokey hose, and a sleeveless cocktail sheath
shuttling between them, long phone calls
between suburban kitchens
to arrange who’d pick it up
at the cleaners, who needed it next
or who needed it most, as if success
could be shared that simply,
both of them knockouts at the podium
and so often mixed up, Sexton joked
“They can’t tell the kook from the Jew!”
I need to believe they shared
the readers’ desire as easily
as they shared their ambitions—
how they read each new line
to the other’s breath on a Princess phone.
Or their despair — how they shared babies
and breakdowns as all our slim mothers
did, stiff smiles and shifts captured
in photographs, their bare arms like fish
tangled across a dress’s dark platter.
I need to know how Kumin finally survived
her own beauty, and how she keeps writing alone—
how she finally stands here in defiance
of anyone who’d concoct a cautionary tale
of her life.
Letter From New York
I’m glad I was able to see you, however briefly, on my barnstorming tour through Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Virginia. I enjoyed seeing your new poems, and a few lines stayed with me over the miles. At a remote rest area off I-77 in southern Ohio, I found myself looking on the valley’s surrounding farms and chuckling, thinking “When a sheep bleats what human can resist?”
This was the Wooster-to-Charlottesville leg of my trip, in which I crossed West Virginia on the Blue Highways. I reached the Blue Ridge at dusk, crossing the mountains on the squiggly roads, negotiating hairpin turns in utter darkness. I rarely saw anyone else, though once I caught sight of a group of deer, ghostlike in the penumbra of my headlights, slipping away into the woods.
The next morning the friend I was visiting showed me about the Virginia campus. It was stately and calm, though the orderly brick colonial architecture made me sleepy after a while. We walked across the Lawn, a long courtyard where the choicest housing is reserved for the elite among the undergraduate students, either side lined by arcades that guarded the doors to the student rooms. Outside each room was a stack of firewood, and the New York Times or Washington Post waited on many of the doorsteps. Through a window, I saw a student curled up in an overstuffed chair with a heavy book and a mug of something that steamed. I have to admit, the routine here seemed delicious compared to my daily regimen of overcrowded subways and staring all day at a computer under fluorescent lights.
Yet, I found myself thinking of Robert Hass’s poem, “Old Dominion,” and the line, “Everything is easy but wrong.” How unhappy and lost Hass (a former leader of the graduate chapter of the Berkeley SDS who marched on the Pentagon) must have been in his short stint teaching here in the mid-70s, caught in the squared-off order of Thomas Jefferson’s model military academy. He may even have been wrestling with that same comment of Frost’s you once reminded me of, the one about writing in free verse being like playing tennis with the net down (and to which I’d replied that the net was still there, but was constantly moving). I’m even fairly certain he’d done the fellowship at the Frost Place just before coming to Virginia. In any case, in the poem, he’s perplexed by the “the courts, / the nets, the painted boundaries,” and by the tennis players and their perceived grace.
Hass seems to have been perplexed (and not just in this poem) by all the ease and pleasure at his and others’ disposal, either despite or because of all the inequality and suffering that exists elsewhere in the world. Here in New York, I meet plenty of aspiring writers who aren’t writing, but who feel that it’s important to be decked out in the latest rebellious “garb of the month,” selling for outrageous prices, even though the people who make these clothes are living in squalor either half-way round the world or right here under our noses. As a matter of fact, every morning when I go to work, the train as it leaves the Manhattan Bridge — and right before it lowers down into the tunnel for the subway — passes a sweat shop building, and I can see at eye-level, right out the window, these Chinese women on the sixth floor, bent over ancient sewing machines, surrounded by piles and piles of exquisitely flammable fabric.
Of course, this rage gets me nowhere; after all, I’m as guilty a participant as Donald Trump or the terminally ironic Andrei Codrescu. But when any of us raises a clamor over some injustice, why is it that we all seem to be mostly obsessed with the quality of the clamor —the garb?
Derek Walcott wrote somewhere, “the poet doesn’t complain only on the level of sociology. The poet points out the discontent that lies at the heart of man — and how can that be redeemed? It’s not redeemed by better medicine, better roads, and better housing.”
This is no Golden Age, whatever the advances we’ve made. Nor is it a fall from grace —ending slavery, for example, is surely an improvement. But the question nags me: how do we deal with this discontent, besides ignoring it or using it to entertain each other? What response are we to make, not just to the bleating of sheep, but to ourselves?
—July 26, 1996
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