He was no longer alive; and for his oldest child, recollections of the words that had been spoken (and the thoughts that had been thought) at the funeral a few years before were becoming less distinct as they became more distant. As the anniversary of his father’s passing neared, Lee was once again regretting that he had more or less “squandered” the few opportunities for memorable communication that had presented themselves during the last year or so of his father’s life – opportunities to ask him about certain things (politely and respectfully, of course, although there would have likely been awkward moments). Among those “certain things,” for reasons recently renewed, was the topic of what his father’s life after retirement had been like, both before and after the passing of Lee’s mother.
Ask for retirement advice? Too late now, of course, but his insights back then could have been useful if projected toward Lee’s current career situation. Once begun, however, the conversation could have touched on other important topics too, assuming that Lee would have had the courage to . . .
Interrogate him? Lee was proposing to himself that his desire to understand certain conflicted feelings he had once harbored about his father might benefit from a newer and deeper contemplation of – meditation on – his father’s versions of retirement, especially how he related to his wife when previously not so familiar daily routines afforded chances to spend more and more time with her. But if they were to become more than superficial musings, he warned himself, such attempts at retrospective interpretations – father-son analyses – would require Lee to be willing to revisit relevantly recurring patterns of behavior, characteristic long-lasting traits, though eventually not permanent, his father had exhibited. If the use of memory were to be compared to the use of physical muscle, Lee figured he would need to engage in disciplined exercise. (He would not, however, be able to resort to the kind of therapeutic assistance he was getting these days from his rheumatologist, Dr. Rometti. There were no immunity-enhancing pills he knew of to keep “mental muscle” from becoming stiff and sore after hard use.) The primary theme of the intended and extended exercise in tightly focused recollection would be tied to segments of family history Lee had always labeled – without repeating the phrase aloud in front of his father – “Clearing the Land.”
Yes, as he mulled over options regarding if/why and/or when/how to accept Intercontinental Computing Solutions’ “invitation” to retire after nearly forty years of employment, it seemed reasonable to Lee – was neither unnatural nor unexpected –that his thoughts would return to various phases in his father’s adult life, with emphasis on the years following his retirement from the lumber business, but without ignoring some possibly ancillary thoughts about one or two aspects of a metaphorical “heart problem” with respect to Lee’s mother that he and his father might have once shared (for a relatively short time) – a heart problem that did not take his father’s life and Lee did not believe would take his own life, but one that may have intermittently diminished (for a relatively short time) each of their lives.
It had been an adventure of sorts, but Lee’s perceptions of the “Clearing the Land” saga emphasized less its individual dramatic “actions” and more its continual rhythmic movements – in a weirdly “symphonic” sense (though he could not have imagined any hummable melodies) – movements taking place in a definable space and time but for a great long while striking him as having no foreseeable end.
The core of the unfolding mission of the project had something to do with what Lee imagined – at first sympathetically – to be his father’s covert determination to perform his own enactments of the experiences of the early settlers of Oregon: to claim his roots as a pioneer or a frontiersman. In short, he needed “to clear the land.” But Henry Bay believed in the simple and fundamental principle that in order to clear a plot of land, first one should have explored and defined its boundaries and then figured out how to own that plot of land – otherwise, of course, one would violate property rights belonging to another. He didn’t own any land until the summer his oldest child turned eight; but even before that, Lee had been aware of the winding lines of blackberry vines, thistles, nettles, and various unwanted wild weeds or other low-lying lifeforms his father had hacked and tramped and pruned and hooked and otherwise uprooted and subdued (“cleared”) during the years the Bays were renters rather than owners (some of those years in Wakonda, some in Wave, some in other small places along the Oregon coast). There had been more than one rented house, more than one ill-kept dirt road, more than one (if small) version of a back yard, several springs, summers, falls, and winters, and (therefore) plenty of opportunities for his father to wage his caretaking, painstaking, virtually perennial vegetative battles.
As he thought about the broad context of his father’s kinds of “retirement,” Lee tried hard to remember as pertinently and accurately as he could the way that what would lead to years of Henry Bay’s devotion to the project – his obsession with “clearing the land” – had taken root in the summer of 1956 after the purchase of what everyone in the village of Wave called “the Peek Place.”
Except for his awareness that baseball players could stop playing America’s national pastime, when Lee was still a little kid – around the so-called “age of reason” (according to the Catholic church at least) – the concept of “retiring” meant very little to him. Then, because of the Peeks, he learned more about it.
The Peek Place was directly across the gray-gravel and brown-dirt road from the last house Henry and May Bay were ever to rent. The Peeks (first-name neighbors to his parents, but only “Mr. and Mrs.” Peek to Lee and to his younger sister and brother) were hoping to move. Mr. Peek had worked for the Forest Service along the timbered Oregon coast for decades and was eligible for something Lee heard his mother call a “retirement package.” She added that Mr. and Mrs. Peek were going to spend their remaining years – at least most of them, Lee’s father had commented somewhat mysteriously – in a newer, nicer house overlooking a small strand of pristine ocean sand just north of Florence and not very far from the Heceta Head Lighthouse. There had been a large, wooden, red-lettered “For Sale” sign staked near their driveway for most of the previous year, but the sign was not proving effective as bait: their willingness to sell had been met with very few nibbles and not one solid bite.
So it was that on a rain-chilled evening in mid-June (not too many days after Lee’s eighth birthday), Mr. Peek had crossed the road and knocked at the door of the seven-room rental to ask point-blank if Henry Bay would be interested in owning his own home – and if so, what price range it would take to tempt him into an offer. Lee overheard much of this conversation (not yet a negotiation) from a hiding place. When Mr. Peek knocked, Lee happened to be playing on the dark wooden floor in the space between the back of the long green davenport and the white wall of the front room decorated by only a framed paint-by-numbers picture of a horse soon-to-be-second-grader Jill had recently completed. Lee was trying to build a fort out of wooden Lincoln Logs so he could protect his flaking metal cowboy figurines from attack by some just-as-flaking Native-American Indian figurines. Much of what he heard Mr. Peek proposing – and Lee was sharply aware that his father wasn’t doing much talking – scared him; so he was careful to stop his playing and freeze into silence to prevent Mr. Peek from even knowing he was there to be scared. Long after he had left, Lee remained silent, in hiding, his cowboys and Indians motionless, his Lincoln Log fortress incomplete, his heart pounding in confusion. There had been too many bits of unfamiliar “grown-up” information pouring forth in a whiny-pitched voice from the mouth of old Mr. Peek – too much talk of money, of loans, of bank accounts, of credit, of mortgages, of commitments, of contracts, of deeds, of interest rates, and other suchlike things of which Lee assumed only that they were complicated and mysterious and maybe dangerous and involved things that could go wrong for adults and their children. It was the first time in his young life that it occurred to him (with an unambiguous sense of reality) that the Bays – Lee’s father, his mother, his sister, his brother, Lee himself – might be poor.
Lee’s parents, like most parents with young children in and around their village or neighboring small towns, didn’t have any “extra” money. In those days (of the mid-to-late fifties and early sixties), families whose livelihoods depended upon understanding the fluctuating rhythms of the coastal Oregon timber industry were accustomed to moving around the state: if one sawmill or logging company wasn’t hiring, maybe another one was, or soon would be. Lee would understand later that at any given time, relatively few residents of or near Wave had demonstrated enough courage to purchase a house – such courage requiring rock-solid confidence in the security of one’s economic future, a confidence that constituted for some folks an awesome act of faith. Such a depth of economic confidence or faith was something Henry Bay had never before felt fully capable of expressing.
If a sawmill worker or logger got laid off, he could no longer meet mortgage obligations; and in a time of layoffs, to whom could he expect to sell his threatened house? (Unless he were willing to part with it at a price so low as to be the mathematical equivalent of bankruptcy, saving him from that particular social disease in name only – a saving, nonetheless, of significant value to many reputable, respectable descendants of honest Oregonian pioneers.)
No, the likelihood of house ownership was not taken for granted, was not a practical aspiration for many of the neighboring sawmill laborers, timber-fellers, or log-truck drivers: sweat-collar workers who – especially when laid off but sometimes for other reasons as well – needed to exercise the flexible option of the open road, of emptying their rented houses of personal possessions and carting them off to another place for rent, where the monthly dues were cheaper or the employment prospects brighter, or the debt collectors farther away.
Most of the nearby house-owners were farmers or ranchers who owned and worked their own fields, fields and pastures purchased by forebears of earlier generations and then deeded to offspring down through the years. Usually considered land-rich if sometimes actually cash poor, the farmers and ranchers near Wakonda or Florence were envied for their traditional forms of survival security. As long as the egg, cheese, and milk markets stayed stable and the beef remained reasonably marbled, these families, while never growing wealthy, would at least never have to “lay themselves off” – could live off the cholesterol of the land, so to speak – would probably not be forced to move for economic reasons traceable directly to ripples in the surrounding lumber economy.
On the surface, then (Lee postulated later), it must not have made much sense to Henry Bay for Mr. Peek to be standing there, thin rhetorical hat in wrinkled and bony hand, suggesting that the two of them engage in a few rounds of “Let’s Make A Deal.”
Everyone around the area knew Henry Bay was a well-regarded bookkeeper for the local sawmill. Lee had no idea at the time how much take-home pay that represented, but he had an intuitive sense that it corresponded reasonably well to the unfortunate fact that the family car was several years beyond being considered “late model.” Mr. Peek must have suspected – rightly, as it turned out – that Henry Bay had a bright future with the Babken sawmill and that the sawmill itself had a bright future. Otherwise, why would he have believed that his across-the-road neighbor was a satisfactory candidate to relieve him of his home and bid him a restful retirement?
Over the course of several hot summer days, it required a hard-fought series of back and forth – sometimes insulting – offers, counteroffers, and counter-counteroffers (whose tone would eventually strain the modest bonds of the two neighbors’ previous friendship) before the land changed hands and eventually prompted Lee to begin wondering (among other things) what it meant for a “regular” person like Mr. Peek (not a professional athlete) to retire . . .
Despite his fear (regarding the financial burdens his parents would have to shoulder to make this dream come true), Lee’s own desire to move into that house across the road (once the possibility had been planted in his mind) was so strong that he had near-migraine headaches from imagining how great it could be.
The dirt-and-rock road separating the Bay family’s rental from the Peek Place was much wider than the number of yards or feet or inches Lee’s feet covered when venturing from one side to the other. He had crossed that rutted road with his mother to enter the Peek Place house many times. His mother and Mrs. Peek had always been more noticeably sociable with one another than had been his father and Mr. Peek. Aside from the opportunities provided by Tupperware parties (Mrs. Peek was “in the business”), the two women invoked no unique excuses to get together once in a while over a second cup of winter coffee or an icy tumbler of summer lemonade. Rather than leave Lee home alone to get into trouble – occasional paranoia on May Bay’s part that for some vague reason there was more risk of that with Lee than with his younger siblings – it was not unusual for her to bring him along. Mrs. Peek did not mind. She knew Lee was the best-behaved child in the village. And that thought was not just a variation on the theme of “damning with faint praise.” Lee knew she considered him the best-behaved child she had ever seen. As a visitor to her house, no child behaved better. (He overheard her tell his mother this more than once.)
Each experience of the Peek house left him more tantalized (and sometimes more bewildered) than the one before, providing new detours of consciousness into what it might be like to live in such a place. The first attraction was the lawns – the grass. Lee had never seen the grounds behind that house, but he had certainly spent a lot of time staring with envy at the two separate yards in the front. They reminded him of color pictures of golf course putting greens he had seen in his father’s copies of Sports Illustrated. From Lee’s perspective, sitting across the road from the Peek Place on the bottom step of what passed for a “porch,” the yard to the right was easier to see – and appealed to him more – than the yard to the left. The yard to his right he secretly referred to as “the football field” because it was a meticulous rectangle, way longer than wide, with four precise corners kept sharp and clean by Mr. Peek’s diligent weekend work with his edging tools. The yard to his left he secretly referred to as “the swimming pool” because it was kidney-shaped and partially hidden behind hedges (as though for bathing privacy). He associated it with a lifestyle photo-essay article he had seen in Life magazine about swimming pool trends in southern California and fantasized to himself that if he owned the Peek Place, he would build a Bay family swimming pool right there in that yard.
But pool or no pool, it was the immaculate football field that really seduced Lee. He imagined scenes of his father playing football or baseball with him on that lawn. He played and replayed numerous mental film loops of the two of them tossing the pigskin or the horsehide back and forth within the long margins of that great green space.
Their little rental, of course, didn’t have a front yard (to say nothing of a beautifully manicured lawn). Their “front yard” was just this ugly, lumpy, dry-moat of a dividing-line road too close to Lee’s gaze, ripped and rutted from the logging trucks and gravel trucks that pounded it during the week.
Their “back yard” was no lawn either. It was, rather, a small weedy hill that sloped down some forty yards at a twenty-degree angle to a neighbor’s now abandoned clutch of rabbit hutches. There was nothing level about that “playing field.”
To play baseball together, Henry Bay and his oldest child would have to stand out front in the center of the road itself – something Lee’s father did not like to do. He claimed he didn’t like to be “on display” to the neighbors. (God forbid, commented May to Lee’s sister much later, that Mrs. Peek might glance out her kitchen window while washing the dinner dishes and actually spy a grown man playing ball with his son!) He frequently pled safety considerations, citing the rough texture of the road and the likelihood of twisted ankles.
The selling point for Lee of the Peek’s football field certainly included, then, the fact that the ground was level. But he did not grant less importance to the fact that it was covered with grass: smooth, soft grass; green, vital grass; almost glossy grass upon which he would gladly fall, white ball snug in brown glove, after snagging a tricky fly from an imagined opponent’s bat. (Watch me leap and tumble in a somersault-circus catch worthy of World Series Sporting News headlines.) On this lush surface, longer than that of the swimming pool, he could accomplish graceful athletic feats one could never accomplish on rough rutted roads or sharp slanting hills. Lee could rehearse heroism . . .
There was something else a child could do on a lawn like that, although for this (unlike the Peek grandchildren on whom he spied green-eyed from behind rented front-room window blinds), Lee would have used the swimming-pool lawn instead of the football-field lawn: a boy could run around a whirling sprinkler on a hot sweaty day, barefoot, bare-chested, in nothing at all but a little-kid bathing suit. Having no real lawn, the Bays had no real sprinkler – just a couple of watering cans used for May’s flowerpots and an old rubber hose for washing the car. Lee’s warm-weather water sports were confined to shooting himself and his little brother with a black plastic water gun marked Dragnet Badge 714 or splashing at the bottom of the back-yard hill in an inflatable, yellow-plastic “wading pool” already too small for his body on the birthday morning he received it. Yes, the Siuslaw River, despite its Native-American name meaning “Far-Away River,” was but a very short walk away, but his mother refused Lee permission to go there alone since he didn’t know how to swim. Henry Bay, a champion swimmer in the Navy, was always too tired or too busy to take his children to the river for lessons.
Once he had finished imagining all the wonderful activities a boy could experience on the grounds surrounding the Peek Place, Lee would imagine some fairly fantastic things going on inside the Peek Place house. The most intriguing aspect of the house’s interior was not the fine furniture to be discovered there (such as the dark-wood-framed, pastel-upholstered, plump-stuffed sofa with matching wing chairs, resting majestically on a large classical rug from India or Pakistan or Turkey or somewhere just as wonderful).
Nor was it the floor-to-ceiling bookcase, wrought from the clearest grade of pine by a custom-contracted cabinetmaker, the wood beautifully stained in dark gold then waxed and polished and polished and waxed and eventually burnished to a shaded metal sheen that seemed capable of gleaming in the dark late at night as the Peeks slept, their house silent except for the clock – the Big Ben replica, crafted possibly by the same cabinetmaker, facing the bookcase on the opposite wall – the clock that marked the mortality of Oregon time with continuous ticks and answering tocks and periodic thungs. Yes, it would be quiet at night but for the clock; and it would be quite dark but for the shelves. The wood might be glowing – under Riders of the Purple Sage and Mr. Peek’s other western novels – like purely petrified, forest-primeval, aged-or-ageless, transcendent Oregon old-growth, the tissues of wood minutely pulsing beneath the epidermal oils, perhaps breathing, resuscitated in the night, an eternal substance upon which dustjackets gratefully rested – oh bookshelves like no other bookshelves Lee had ever seen.
Nor was it the existence of a separate dining room (as contrasted with the Formica-tabled setup in the linoleum-floored little kitchen across the road), allowing a family the luxury of tasting, chewing, and swallowing its food on non-mismatched chairs from which no one need continually view the close-by stove on which those meals had been cooked (or the sink in which attendant plates and pots and pans were probably piled or already soaking in a greasy stew of soapsuds and remaindered marinara, awaiting an unenthusiastic washing).
Nor, in naked honesty, was it the television set, looming large in its blatant oak cabinet, the kind of object that the Bays did not own and that seemed as meaningful to Lee even when turned off and its oval images null as some mystic Celtic dolmen or an Easter Island profile. When visiting Mrs. Peek with his mother, he found himself staring at it with much the same fascination – and sometimes fear – as he felt when leafing through his favorite school library copy of Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and Several Others Just As Wonderful.
But, alas, unlike the unusual pictures in the wonderful library book, the Peek television promise was compromised whenever the monumental set was actually switched on. The pictures Lee would later recall from its snow-fuzzy tube were mostly commercials for cleansers and aspirins and mouthwashes. More memorable was a nearly invisible in-studio show about hunting and fishing, with live ads for bait and hooks and foul-weather gear. Mrs. Peek turned off the set whenever May and Lee journeyed across the road to visit, reserving her attention for the two of them (well, Lee knew, not so much for him, but enough to demonstrate her intent to let him know he was not going to become as invisible as – and was even more welcome than – the black-and-white-and-gray characters she had just “disinvited” from her living room).
With the TV off, Lee would stare at its face, light-greenish-gray and blank (except for reflections, sometimes his shadow’s own face), and imagine it turning into a modern kind of ancient crystal ball containing bright answers from beyond the boundaries of Oregon to dark questions lingering in the minds of residents of his little village.
While staring at the set, Lee sat on – and this, not the furniture, the bookcase, the Big Ben, the detached dining room, or the TV, was the most intriguing aspect of the house’s interior – a rubber-treaded staircase that led to who knew where?
It was not distinctly clear when and how it was decided that (instead of sitting in a chair near his mother and Mrs. Peek) Lee would sit on the bottom step of the stairway; but he was glad things had turned out that way. Lee had a vague sense that Mrs. Peek had said something along the lines of “Oh, your little boy won’t be interested in all this girl talk, May. Let’s sit him down over here where he’ll feel more relaxed and comfortable.” And when Mrs. Peek handed him a Coke bottle, it triggered a thrill since his mother (a) didn’t permit him to drink demon cola at home, and (b) normally required that he pour his permissible ginger ale into a glass rather than swig it straight from the germ-swarming lip of a pop bottle. Mrs. Peek also provided him a toy or two left behind by a visiting Peek grandchild – including an Etch-A-Sketch and one of those Uncle Baldy gadgets where Lee dragged iron filings with a magnet over the forehead or face of an otherwise hairless man to see how many different disguises he could create.
In any event, his mother and Mrs. Peek would be murmuring at one another from opposite ends of the soft, long sofa, their words indistinct to Lee (just background sounds, as would be the irregular clinks of teacups on clean white saucers, the regular ticks and tocks of Big Ben, or the occasional roar or cough of a logging truck gearing down outside for a rumble over the railroad tracks at the end of their road.) Lee would be seated about thirty feet away on the bottom step of the mysterious staircase, sucking corn syrup and caffeine from an unsanitary bottle, his head all abuzz with excited curiosity as to where these stairsteps could take him if he had the requisite guts to ascend them. His eyes were attracted off and on by the empty television tube; he was almost ready to believe it could show him remote pictures from the second story of the Peek Place, pictures that might answer some questions.
The first time he sat on those stairs, Lee rose no higher than the lowest step. He assumed that it might be a sin to aspire any higher: at minimum, a sin of disobedience, a sin against his mother – a mother who had told him to go ahead and sit on this step “but don’t climb up the stairs.” Well, of course, certainly . . . why, what very well-behaved little Christian boy . . . what good little citizen of his good little community . . . would ever consider such blatantly vulgar behavior? – to actually climb these stairs (ten steps straight up to that first wide landing with the built-in linen cabinets above the bright-white railing), and keep on going (another six steps, spiraling this time, leading on up to the second landing, smaller, no cabinets, but displaying a tall spotted plant in a small painted pot), and then proceed up one last slope (six final strides to the upstairs bedrooms and upstairs closets: entirely new dimensions of the Peek Place house and lives). It would be an invasion of privacy. At least that if nothing worse. A form of burglary. A theft of someone’s secrets. How many beds were up there? Were there single beds like his or double beds like his parents’? Were they neatly made (like the football field) or raggedly unmade (like the hill across the road out back)? What kinds of blankets and bedspreads graced these beds? (Handloomed in Morocco as he had seen in National Geographic?) Lee longed for glimpses into other people’s lives. Lives that appeared (at least by the unwavering measures of Wave or Wakonda or Florene) to have achieved a degree of material comfort and success. Perhaps lives like those of Mr. and Mrs. Peek.
Despite all the cat-killing curiosity bottled up inside him on that first piquing visit, Lee’s skinny little hips remained firmly anchored (in contrast to his rotating neck and straining eyes) on that black bottom step. He assembled clues that day from just that one (limited) perspective. But on subsequent days (of which there weren’t that many, enough to keep him fascinated but too few to allow familiarity to breed what familiarity can breed), he became more daring – began to measure his adventurousness in careful stairstep increments. After sitting like a saint on the lowest step for maybe six or seven minutes, he would hoist his tiny hindquarters with the smallest of motions to surreptitiously slip them up and over the edge of the second-lowest step. All the while he would keep his gaze on the profiles of his mother and Mrs. Peek, whose heads he could see clearly through the spaces between the white vertical rods – quite slender rods he imagined as harp strings on a harp stair – rods which united each step with the inclined-plane banister above. (When feeling especially confident – downright brazen – he actually reached up his grubby grade-school hands and “strummed” them).
Lee knew it would never work out properly if he were to attempt to ascend all the way to the landing in one smooth motion – that would be too jarring to his mother’s and Mrs. Peek’s eyes (creating a giant rift in the fabric of their expectations). But Mithridates, he died old: a little poison, taken gradually, over time, accustoms itself to the system. It becomes a benign ripple instead of a damaging shock wave. Yes, every so often the ladies would glance his way; but never did their faces betray concern. Looking back on it later, Lee doubted that they noticed a thing – and what, after all, was there to notice? It probably didn’t even register – the fact that he was perched on the fourth step not the first, neck craned up like a corkscrew towards the bedrooms and treasure vaults above.
On one occasion (the only such one), he migrated to the step that was but one step below the first landing. It was an almost throne-like position Lee knew would be difficult to maintain: Mrs. Peek might suspect he was ready to haul all the way to the attics; his mother would think – well, did he really know what his mother would think? (Certainly something related to the severest breaches of etiquette). For all of five seconds he stole a great glimpse, rising through his eyes alone – almost approaching the experience of what he would later hear about as “remote viewing” – to spy a piece of sculpture: creamy, cool, curved, the folds of a mantle, an angel, Madonna, or perhaps something Greek; the face wasn’t clear, but it struck him with unexplainable fear (seemed to send down an odor, medicinal, alarming, austere). Then he shot himself down to the bottom-most rung, buttocks a-bumpin’, a-landin’, a-bruised, a-thump!
They looked at him sweetly, each and each, smiling with grace and pleasantry, then turned back unto themselves, on the overstuffed sofa, to resume the recital of neighborhood news.
Moving day dawned shiny blue-white brilliant. The very air seemed coated with a celebratory icing – a glaze of sweet light. Having hardly slept but nonetheless feeling strong with the elixir of anticipation, Lee was the first one up, was dressed and fed and standing before the open front door filling young lungs with fresh oxygen while the rest of the Bays still slumbered beneath white sheets and brown blankets.
Whoopee tie-yi-yo . . .
He was more than a little ready to get a move on.
After several bracing breaths, he hunted up an old ballpoint pen (with “Seaver Service Station” stamped on its cracked plastic barrel) and printed a note on a scrap of white butcher paper he found on the floor behind the kitchen garbage pail:
Dear Mom and Dad, I am across the street exploring the outside
of our new house. Don’t worry, I already had cereal and milk
and will be back soon.
After clipping the note between the refrigerator door’s gray rubber lips, he quietly eased his slim body through the squeaky screen door.
The orange monster of a moving van that had been parked in front of the house when he had gone to bed the night before was gone – along with all the Peek delicacies the coveralled moving men had been feeding into its cavernous belly (like zookeepers would) for most of the previous afternoon.
He crept across the rutted road to see what he could see.
The door of the garage was closed but unlocked; Lee lifted it about a quarter of the way up and stooped to peek. A chill skated through him, an almost terrifying sensation of anticipatory anxiety. All he could see in that first possessive moment were grape-juice-colored oil stains in the center of the concrete floor and a stack of old Sunday newspaper funnies towering halfway up the wall in the far left-hand corner. He successfully fought the urge to park himself against the far wall and read comic strips until his nerves settled.
To the immediate right of the garage door (as he backed away after closing it), Lee saw a whitewashed wooden door (locked) with a small window near its top. Peering through it, he discovered a small storage room (empty) with two additional doors (both closed), one apparently leading into the house itself, one apparently leading into the garage. Circling a few more steps to the right and away from the garage, he passed the corner of the house and crossed the soft green grass of the swimming pool. (It felt luxurious beneath his sneaky PF-Flyered feet.) Continuing past the front door, he turned down the narrow wooden sidewalk that separated the side of the house from the football field, then stepped delicately into the light-brown-flower-bed soil under the big square window, careful to avoid crushing the orange nasturtiums and purple gladioli blooming beneath him. This big window no longer had drapes, those long white drapes with gold-beaded patterns he had seen at this window every time he had been inside the house. Lifting his heels off the ground, Lee pressed down with his toes and – cupping both hands at the sides of his eyes to block out the distorting shadows and reflections of slant-rayed morning light – stretched up his neck and head to spy directly into the living room.
Big Ben, of course, was gone. But so was also (somewhat to his naive surprise) the beautiful bookcase. Somehow, he admitted, he must have maintained the delusional thought that some of the furnishings had been “hardwired”: built permanently into the immutable structure of the house’s skeleton. Everything else was gone too. There was no furniture. There were no rugs on the floor. There were no pictures on the walls. “Well,” he muttered, “makes sense, I guess.” Who would move without taking most of their portable furnishings?
But he acknowledged also that he hadn’t expected a certain type of . . . alteration . . . in the . . . atmosphere? Lee wondered if he were hallucinating. He had heard stories in school about a teacher having to send for a doctor because a student was hallucinating . . . He felt as though he could “see” the air inside the house, imagined that it now held molecules visibly darker than those that had been there previously, molecules transformed as a result of the Peeks’ having removed not merely their minds and bodies but what he would describe many years later to his wife as their animate possessions as well, taking some form of “soul” or “spirit” out of the house, leaving behind a barren shell that might be much too large for the possessions of the Bay family to possibly fill.
Or, as he commented to Liv later, to “fulfill.”
It would become difficult for Lee to dissect and describe for his wife the long-ago feelings the eight-year-old version of himself had been having in those moments, difficult to distinguish them from the “grown-up” feelings he would have later as he traced these emotional roots – these potential clues to something or other. He did not admit to Liv that he had begun crying right then, right there in front of that big window having nothing to display on the other side, thinking of the paucity of personal possessions his family would soon be moving in (moving in vain, without need for a van) to take the place of those glorious treasures that had been spirited away the night before. But he wouldn’t cry for long, stopping in shock at what he would see after easing back down onto his sneakered heels, pivoting back to the sidewalk, and proceeding toward a piece of Peek geography he had previously been given neither opportunity nor permission to perceive: past the sidewalk end; between the far corner of the house and an overhanging bough of untrimmed boxwood; shoulder-scraping through a narrow passageway in an unkempt dark-green hedge; the back yard – a wilderness, a forest, a natural chaos faced never by Adam and neither by Eve.
Lee retreated in a bit of fright, feeling like a trespasser, then turned and headed back across the orderly football field toward the separating road and his slumbering parents. The sight and sound and smell of those trees and bushes and grasses and vines had been too much for his unexpectant senses: brown birdwings flapping around in yellowish tree-leaves, invisible little beasts rooting for food and grunting softly in the underbrush, tipped-over logs protruding from uncut thorn-stickered blackberry stalks, creepers as thin as threads and as thick as snakes surrounded by nettles and Venus Flytraps, everything seeming to be sucking up soak from puddles of mud – roots reaching horizontally shallow or vertically deep, slaking summer thirst with sulfured rust-water gathered in pools by broad holes behind raw and ripe skunk cabbage heads. (By the smell of them, these mushy holes might have been consciously dug to serve as open garbage pits.) Something was rotting back there beyond that flattened-down opening in the thigh-high weeds. It was a land untended – unintended? If intended to be anything, perhaps it was intended to be a back-yard barrier between the Peeks and their unseen neighbors beyond – invisible neighbors but not inaudible: Lee could hear clearly the rasp of a man, Old Man Volk he assumed. Was the grizzled neighbor drunk so early? Violently clearing his throat, repetitively hawking and spitting, he was sounding a minor roar in the woods like a dysfunctional McCulloch chain saw biting with futility at a hardened old-growth stump.
The faucet was gurgling in the bathroom as Lee sneaked back through the front door and into the kitchen. Either his mother or his father was now up. He tiptoed to the refrigerator and plucked the unread note from its door. Crumpling the paper into a tiny ball inside his small brown fist, he walked silently into the little front room and sat down on the cold vinyl covering of the long green davenport, heart thumping wildly in his narrow chest. Forget their upstairs bedrooms – what he had just seen “without permission” suggested more about the Peeks than Lee was ready to digest.
The water stopped running. Pipes clanked. Lee heard the quick firm chonk of the closing medicine cabinet. The bathroom door’s knob rattled. There was his father. Even though it was a Saturday, Henry Bay was dressed as if for office work: in the same white shirt and forest-green trousers he usually wore Monday to Friday. He gave Lee a partial smile and said quietly, “It’s moving day. And it’s a-gonna be a busy one . . .” He rolled his sleeves neatly all the way up to his biceps.
“I had my breakfast,” Lee said. “I’m ready to help.”
His father strode into the kitchen, black-booted feet loud on the brown linoleum, voice not as loud: “Your mother’s still in bed. I’ll get some coffee started. While it’s perking away and we’re waiting for her, what-ya-say you and me take a hike across the road and do a quick survey of our new property?”
“Yes, sir!” Lee answered, leaping to his feet, jamming a hand deep into the front pocket of his jeans and releasing the wadded note.
Henry Bay was jingling the keys like a newly promoted jailer in front of a brand-new cell; but instead of unlocking the front door like Lee had suspected he would, he just kept on walking: strolling across the swimming pool, on past the garage, on toward a long open drainage ditch about which he mumbled a few comments to the effect that it was a basic boundary of the property line. Lee followed his back as he led down a worn dirt path between the ditch and the side of the garage: to the end of the garage and the bend of its corner; through two large shrubs, unpruned, huge-leaved, bower-like, a half-opened door of interleaved vegetation; then ducking and leaning forward and straightening to emerge into the back yard Lee had seen a few minutes earlier, but from a different angle of perspective – just as wild, just as messy, not quite as dark, the slant of the sun having changed just enough to make it seem a little bit cleaner.
His father stood there, silent, rubbing his unshaven jaw with unsmooth fingertips, gazing at the forest which confronted the two of them. “You never see this before, Son?”
“Never had any call to play back here,” Lee said. “Never had permission.”
Nodding his head up and down, still rubbing his burred chin (as though sanding the calluses on his finger pads, as though attempting to polish the skin like a woodcarver would polish a piece of oak), his father continued staring with a long hard look that seemed capable of penetrating the dense tangle of trees and vines and flowers and weeds. “Our property goes way the heck back there, back far enough you can’t even see it. Right up to Old Man Volk’s back wall. You got no idea . . . I’ll tell you, the Peeks had no idea . . .”
“No, sir,” Lee said.
Coughing softly, lightly clearing his throat, no longer scratching at his jaw, Henry Bay glanced down at his first child, glanced down at the ground, stubbed his leathered toe around deliberately in a patch of loose soil at his feet. “Well,” he said, to no one in particular, maybe to the very dirt itself.
Several seconds passed in silence.
He raised that gaze again, moved it back up toward the mountains to their left, way across the drainage ditch and the railroad tracks. “Well, well,” he said, squinting against the sun before shifting his sights back to the wilderness the Bays now owned.
He lifted his hand in a sort of a salute, left it horizontal across his wrinkled forehead to shade his crow-footed eyes. “Well,” he said again, his voice strong and clear and as close to “happy” as Lee had ever heard it: “I reckon you and me’s just a-gonna-hafta clear this land.”
Years later May Bay would laugh and play-act that she hadn’t been severely annoyed, but Lee’s testimony – based upon close observation – would be that for much of that long, hot moving day she was shaking her head and all but scowling and intermittently mumbling things like “sometimes your father acts . . . like a . . . could pass for a . . . loner,” or “so once again he forgets about us and sails off by himself to his own little world.”
But it must be unambiguously understood, Lee would often remind himself later – and would tell Liv more than once – that Henry and May Bay never argued. It . . . just . . . was . . . not . . . done . . . Occasionally, however, when the pressure was building a mite too much, Lee’s mother would offload a jet of steam in her oldest child’s direction. And so Lee would remind himself also, in his later “historical present,” with his more “mature” perspective of how the future’s purpose is to open the doors of the past and shine a beam of retroactive light (a searchlight that allows for insight once one is outside the blinders of immediate experience) – yes, now, he would say to Liv, “Now, I can look back and say I believe it was good of me to be of service as a son – to provide a sort of admittedly mute empathy.” But mute or not, perhaps he had communicated some type of vibration, some kind of emotional face or body language that might have helped temporarily retard the development of the ulcer-like problems that eventually caused her pain and (many years later) may have made her quite uncomfortable toward the end of her post-Wave life in Florence. “Would that I could have played such a role in those later years, those end-of-life years when it would have truly mattered more . . .” But then, back then, at that early time of childhood, Lee was not conscious of being a complaisant receptacle for the overflow of his mother’s irritations: he was focused too often and too intensely on his sense that the smiles he gave her in return for her complaints were smiles of fear and primal confusion (though language like that did not enter his head). They were smiles he wore like glue to hold his heart together – maybe to hold the two of them together, the hearts of his mother and his father – in spite of all she might imply (fairly or not, and fairly rarely) to the deaf air and to the deaf ears of the angels listening in, that she just might have, maybe, in her spot of eternity, oh, maybe just possibly have picked the wrong guy, perhaps have hitched the beautiful bridle of her girlhood hopes to a less hopeful man . . .
Such a thought – the notion that that might be it! . . . was simply too overwhelming for Lee’s primary-grade mental health. If she could be somewhat unhappy with his father, then she could be somewhat unhappy with Lee as well. Was he really anything better than just a smaller model of Henry Bay? (Even at eight, he comprehended the connection: the sometimes intolerantly balanced triangular connection of husband and wife and their otherwise orphans. Lee’s face was a teacup of delicate china, requiring but seconds to crack into pieces, but needing mere grins to mend itself again.)
Of course, he knew next to nothing – had virtually no knowledge back then that the unbreaking bonds between a man and a woman have room in their configurations for atoms of fear and uncertainty, of “craziness” and annoyance, can make space for acceptable (non-fatal) days of confusion and miscommunication.
“You see,” as Lee told Liv, “when Dad wanted to do something – when he felt that vibration in his bones that told him it is time – he just up-and-walkin’-done-it! He wouldn’t enunciate some rationale that might sound like he was asking permission. Nor would he later deign to ask forgiveness. He just moved out on ahead, trailing clouds of impulse and whim, a-rubbin’ his jaw for his own damn good luck.”
So it was that they found themselves standing – father and son, no one else – in front of an image on a wall (the wall of their “new” garage, the “old” garage of Mr. Peek): a quasi-mystical image Lee described to Liv as appearing once in a dream as maybe associated with the Shroud of Turin; but it would require no carbon dating to declare the reality of what was crucified on that time-weathered wood, that long bamboo lawn rake employed so long and skillfully by Mr. Peek’s brittle joints on his manicured front lawns. (Lee wasn’t thinking “crucifixion” back then, just “skeleton.”)
Over the many Peek Place years, the now departed rake had rested just inside the garage, less than a foot into its depth, right there on that wall, exactly there on that ancient spot, the tine-fanned head wedged for so long between the same two spikes (heads thick with rust) Lee was staring at. With the garage door up during spring and summer, the darkening elements of sun-tanning light and wind-borne dust had burned the wood browner (in an ashen sort of way) than its original planed flesh of yellowish white – except for the outlines eclipsed by the rake. Lee could easily detect distinct pale evidence of the rake’s past life, its unique shapes. The long slender handle and the wide haloed head to which it aspired were clearly represented (including the slivers of space between each of the tines, so silvery compared to the wood that surrounded). Lee thought to himself right away that if he could get the right saw, one of those electrical marvels with the thin coping blade, he could cut out this rake, just slice around these lines, and carve a wooden reproduction that might even function. But he realized (also right away) that unlike his father, he was definitely not much of a carpenter.
And it was on that spot that Henry Bay established the first of the family possessions to be officially moved – to be transported across the dirty road separating the old dwelling from the new – with the ceremony occurring as his wife was pouring coffee and scrambling eggs. The possession in question turned out to be not the nice front-door welcome mat nor an article of clean clothing nor a fresh towel nor some soap nor a white roll of bathroom tissue nor a stick of sit-down furniture nor a bed nor a kettle nor the prized shortwave radio nor a carton of milk nor one of the children’s toys nor Henry’s bug-eyed bowling ball nor May’s padded sewing box nor any of one hundred other possibilities; no, it was, quite nakedly, quite tellingly, a tool that Lee’s father would soon put to use: it was no more and no less than his always sharp and well-maintained double-bitted, silver-bladed, oaken-handled chopping axe.
Mute and awed, with no trace of impatience, Lee witnessed the hanging of the axe – black in the helve’s thick middle, fading from gray to silver as it sloped to the razored edges, symmetrical in both color and shape – beheld the careful positioning of it between those old rusty nails that once held a rake. This treasured tool, an implement the likes of which Lee had never seen in Mr. Peek’s hands, now took the place of the one he had often seen in those bony hands; but it did not obliterate the un-shadowed wood beneath. Since the rake handle had been a couple of feet longer than the axe handle, a slim streak of paler wood yet remained as history – history that would endure until the day that the land was cleared and enclosed and Lee’s father would be freed to turn his attentions to interior matters, a day when such garage-wall ghosts could be liquored over by the sweet-smelling spirits of cheap redwood stain.
The axe rested there initially but a short simple moment before Henry grabbed its head and lifted it down again, to heft in his hand with sensuous pleasure, like a batter in the on-deck circle awaiting his swings. “We’ll do a little bit just right now,” he said to Lee, looking younger by the second. With utmost safety he placed the butt of the handle against his right shoulder and cradled the crown of the axe head in his leather-gloved palm. He reminded Lee at that moment of some schoolbook illustration of a mythical New England farmer off to do something about King George, some musket-bearing soldier with no semblance of protocol but a revolutionary resolve you’d call second to none.
They walked back around the corner of the garage and Lee watched him split a thick bulging root of some kind of wood or other into several chunks, lean down toward the little earthen trench his chopping had created, pick up those reddish-brown chunks, and heave them into the drainage ditch several feet away.
So that’s how it began. That day was the first of hundreds to come, Henry Bay’s introductory encounter with his personal frontier, a ripened lot of real estate he needed to subdue but maybe never did.
The coffee and eggs were as cold as the field mouse Lee found right behind the second of the trees his father felled that morning. The temper of Lee’s mother was as hot as Henry Bay’s blade when he and his son re-crossed the road for lunch.
When they moved across the road into the old Peek Place, Lee soon confirmed his suspicion that the volume of their personal possessions was inadequate to dispel the sense that his family would be rattling around in an embarrassingly uncluttered dwelling. It would be over a year before his father would succumb to the temptation of further financial extravagance and purchase for his wife a set of matching front-room furniture pieces. But for Henry Bay and his oldest child this would not be a noticeably pressing issue during that first summer and fall because it seemed as though they spent far more time outside, in the back yard, “clearing the land,” than they did inside, in their new house, doing anything else . . .
And the time spent inside was not devoted to bemoaning (or even noticing) the lack of respectable household furnishings. On the weekends, the two oldest Bay males (and once in a while Lee’s little brother) were far too fatigued from their pioneer labors out back to do much more than shower, eat supper, read the sports or comics, doze in a chair to the country-western drone of radio station KUGN (Eugene), and then rouse at May Bay’s bidding to “Go to bed for real, for goodness’ sake!” Even during the work week if the weather was fine – and it wasn’t Henry’s bowling night (his other obsession in those years) – the pioneering pair would head out right after dinner to return to the work on the land.
As a bookkeeper, Henry Bay considered himself to be a “sedentary worker” – “chained to a desk.” Later, Lee would not be certain his father really had been a sedentary worker. He availed himself of many opportunities to get out from behind that bookkeeper’s desk and chat (briefly) with the log-truck jockeys, or sawyers, or straddle-bug lumber drivers, or freight-car conductors, or car-loaders, or Forest Service representatives, any of whom on a given day at a given hour might be sharing boundaries with the little square of Babken office building that housed Henry’s desk. But proclaiming himself a sedentary worker “chained to a desk” brought him rhetorical advantages (if not always emotional support) when it came time to rationalize to his wife why sometimes he’d barely been home from work and inside the house long enough to eat some of her homemade tamale pies (chicken, olives, green peppers) and drain the glass of Alka-Seltzer he always drank as beverage with his evening meal before he was either getting ready to go bowling or changing into dirty old work clothes so he could re-attack the jungle out back and make it safe for western civilization (and, as he always reminded Lee, “You can’t get much more western than the uncivilized coast of Oregon!”). If he couldn’t make it safe for western civilization, why he’d at least try to convert it back to some sort of personal Eden before he gave up on it . . .
“May,” he would say, especially on (a non-bowling day) Sunday – on “The Lord’s Day,” which their crimp-faced Catholic parish priest would suggest should not include working – “to a sedentary worker, a guy who sits behind a desk all day during the regular work week, a spell of yardwork is not physical labor, is not working – it’s healthful exercise.” And sometimes he would amend this contention further, adding a psychological twist Lee found especially unnerving: “A man who sits behind a desk all day needs an outlet for his stress. It’s not healthy to let all that pressure build up without some safety valve to release it. Helping account for our company’s timber purchases and sales and employee payrolls while always being audit-ready is emotionally and mentally tough! I work with my mind all day. Before that, including my World War II service, I was conditioned to work mostly with my body. If I don’t have a way to use up most of this physical energy that Mr. Darwin swears up and down all healthy males have inherited from their ancestors – at least from the ones who survived long enough to pass along their genes – well . . . that energy might just turn itself around, you know, and might turn itself loose on my insides somewheres. It could even give me a heart attack or something. Or, then again, my muscles might begin to atrophy. In any case, despite some of Father Otto’s comments, what I do on a Sunday out back after we get home from church is my way of keeping the Lord’s Day Holy.”
She wondered or knew.
And Lee suspected later, although not at the time.
That he would often rather spend his free time with it – that jungle, that wilderness, that land he now owned – than spend all that much of it with her.
That he would rather use up all his male energy conquering Mother Nature than have a lot left over to devote to Lee’s mother’s nature. (Than risk passing along more sets of genes than he’d already donated? Among the things his obsession embodied, perhaps it embodied as well a form of natural birth control?)
As the years unwound and Lee approached puberty with the project still not completed, with more stumps to root and burn, moles and snakes to subdue, enclosing fence-post rails to plot and nail, he supposed later that he should acknowledge that, idle hands being the Devil’s playthings, his father’s requirement that his oldest son join him in his jungle battles was a sublime form of sublimation, a singular aid to solitary mastery of chastity.
He didn’t always understand what the master plan was – or even if there was one. Oh, occasionally his father would treat Lee to a shifting series of visions, things they might do unto the land once they had cleared and enclosed it. But Lee soon figured out his father didn’t have all that much emotion invested in those projects. What he really wanted to accomplish was to turn that hodgepodge of forest and garden into the earthly equivalent of a blank slate, a terra firma tabula rasa of flat, brown, Oregon dirt on which he could later impose his will, his identity, whenever he finally discovered his will, his identity . . .
As far as Lee could tell during that first sweaty summer, the plan was simply to eradicate all vestiges of Peek from the property. He had not one clue, at first, as to how deeply his father’s resentment of Mr. Peek really ran. By the end of autumn, he would begin to have a clue.
In the beginning, Lee was assigned the garden. Early in the morning on the day after they had begun the move across the road, he groggily half-awakened to the shrill sound of chattering swallows and the insistent pressure of someone’s thumb jabbing up-and-down on his shoulder. Through sleep-foggy eyes, he discovered his hunching father, lips moving, mouth shaping words Lee failed to comprehend. Squinting hard a couple of times, having slept badly the first night in the new and strange upstairs bedroom (awful dreams, thick-clotted with images of wind-buffeted storm clouds, wadded and gray and thick and dirty), Lee turned his face away from his father and drove his nose hard into the pancake-thin pillow.
Footsteps clomped toward the door.
He was about three-quarters of the way back to sweet, blessed sleep before hearing “Son!”
As though spring-loaded, his body recoiled and uncoiled and he found his feet banging down on the unfamiliar floor of the new room, bedclothes tumbling around. “Yeah, Dad,” his cotton mouth mumbled.
He wasn’t hunching over Lee anymore. He was standing as straight as his axe-handle, his head nearly touching the top of the doorframe. “Go to the bathroom. Get some old clothes on. Eat a piece of toast or have a quick bowl of cereal. Meet me out back.” He rubbed his jaw with that habitual gesture of ideological preoccupation. He smiled. “You got yourself a summer project.”
Steel-toed boots headed heavily downstairs, struck the landing, their wearer paused. “I’ll even pay you!”
He must have turned his head to yell up at his son, must have momentarily lost sight of his footing, because as Lee started to pad downstairs to the bathroom he heard the hard thud of a boot banging into a banister strut. Lee noticed the gouge in the wood of one of the harp strings, its missing white paint, and a scarred splinter sticking up.
They walked in the garden, in the humid light of early sunshine. It was more than merely “wild” back there. Mrs. Peek had, over many years, allowed a crazy quilt of vegetative ground cover to evolve. Clumps of dark red strawberries peeked out next to dusty-green mazes of vines and stems and bug-bit leaves; black-and-purple cascades, bursting with pustules of sugar and juice, mounted up high through the rust-crusted wires of a five-foot trellis, berries plump for the plucking, targets for the blackbirds, even though partially protected by long, sharp thorns; green or orange tomatoes, not yet red and ripe but already getting fat, lazed on pale green creepers. Straight ahead were bunches of apples flourishing on an old tree, a tree in-between two younger Peek-planted trees: a pendulous pear tree hung heavy with about-to-drop fruit, and a peach tree in sickness, half-blossomed, near barren, runty-branched. And this was to note nothing of the carrots: scattered with no pattern from the back porch steps to behind the fruit trees and then to the edge of the first grouping of non-fruit alder trees that began their stand just behind the ragged line of wandering shrubs and blackberry bushes that demarcated “the garden” from “the forest.”
How much farther one would have had to push to find the next natural boundary was impossible to assess from where they stood on that morning. One would have had to plunge right in and try one’s wits and hope to make it home by dark. And one would have. Easily. But Lee didn’t know that at the time – how close it all was to Old Man Volk’s tin-sided house.
The carrots reminded him of tent spikes – that is, if tent spikes were orange and had little green tassels on their flat-nubbed heads – tent spikes that some crazy would-be camper had driven into the earth at random with no sense of purpose, here, there, and everywhere, hop-scotching in Lee’s imagination from one chunk of dirt to the next, buzzing to himself or herself (and to the mini-swarm of bees trailing around out of sheer curiosity): “I’ll put one here . . . and put one there . . . and attach a bit of mosquito netting here . . . and a hammock there . . . .” But if there were tents, they needed no spikes and they had come not from some phantom camper, nor from the Western Auto store in Florence, nor from pages of the thick and slick-covered Montgomery Ward’s catalog; no, any “tents” had come from Mother Earth herself. Thick, long stalks of overarching chest-high grass, the kind that made Lee think of natural jungle roofs in Tarzan movies, had turned a shaggy section of Mrs. Peek’s garden into a world-class venue for playing championship games of hide-’n’-go-seek. At least for that first seasonal cycle, during which these stalks were spared the wrath of Henry Bay’s psyche and scythe, it was great fun for Lee and his little brother, Davy, to carry on hilarious games, stalking one another on hands and knees like lions and tigers in an African jungle. (A jungle more benign than the “real” jungle in Southeast Asia within which Davy later played no games, was unable to hide, and from which he did not return alive – a jungle in which houses were destroyed in order to save them.)
Mrs. Peek had also distributed flower seeds. Perhaps her method had been to throw handfuls straight up into the air, inviting the wind to send them where it would. Perhaps she had dumped sixteen different varieties into an empty coffee can, punched constellations of holes into it, and swung it around her head on a long length of clothesline like a possessed priest blessing the ground with a homegrown censer. However she did it, the results could not have been more variegated: with thin slices of yellow petals on one side and purple wedges on the other, with diagonals of cherry-pink connecting them, but interrupted every so often with flashes of color from a dozen species of unrelated flowers. It was Jackson Pollock in bloom. Wildflowers shared soil with carrots, with berries, with weeds, with animal dung. There had been no apparent design, no consultant, no blueprints. There had been but a pair of Peeks, the wind, the soil, an ocean of Oregon rain, and new calendars replacing old ones.
Now there was Henry Bay.
“All this has got to go,” he said quietly. He swung his arms like a falconer releasing a bird of prey. “All of it.”
“What about all of the wonderful berries?” asked Lee’s mother, coming down the back-door steps and walking toward them. Her brownish skin was its normal color, but Lee could detect a “flush” in her voice, a tonal coloration of excitement and near delight as her eyes swept the garden in wonder and tried to take in all its life. She smiled at her husband and raised her eyebrows with a charming display of inquiry tempered (maybe) by a hint of some type of challenge.
“What about ‘em?” The point of his chin extended itself toward her.
“I think it would be lovely to always be able to pick our own berries. In season, of course.” Her hands were still wet from washing his breakfast dishes. She wiped them on her thin gingham apron. “Especially strawberries.” With a kind of genuflecting movement, she lowered herself close to the garden’s brown, water-stained earth and picked three bulging strawberries. Not really looking at it much, Lee grabbed the one she offered him and popped it straight away into his mouth, leaf and all. He chopped off the little leaf with a front incisor, rabbit-like, and spat it out. The seed-studded meat of the berry was delicious: cool and fleshy and sweet.
She rose to her feet, the other two fruity red jewels still in hand, and presented one to her husband. He wrinkled his brow. Shook his head with short, precise twitches. “It might be nice to pick our own berries,” he said. “But I don’t know what the Peeks may have sprayed these berries with. And you don’t know what – ”
“They ate these berries all their – ”
“Hey, Dad,” his son interrupted, smacking his lips rudely, “don’cha like berries?”
For a moment Lee thought he had set him off. He could see his father’s nostrils flaring and his pupils contracting. Blood was draining from tightly compressed lips.
“Your father likes – ”
“I like good berries as well as the next guy, Son.” He was actually calm, and Lee was relieved to see it. “I’m just not sure I like these berries.” Using the tip of his steel-toed boot as though it were a gardener’s trowel, he scudded it under the plant from which his wife had picked her treasures. “These right here might be tainted . . .” With a fast flex of his ankle and instep he sent roots and dirt-clods flying. “. . . for all we know . . .”
What was left of the strawberry plant landed upside down in a nearby mud puddle. There was a brief plash, and a few dots of dirty water discolored the hem of his mother’s apron and the edge of Lee’s sneakers.
“Sorry,” muttered Henry Bay.
May Bay silently allowed two strawberries to fall from her fingers into the pocket of her apron. Her oldest child watched a clean pink earthworm wriggle up out of the dark-dirt divot at his father’s feet.
There would be fires, many fires, before the land was finally considered cleared. At an early age he became conversant with Smoky the Bear’s principles of human responsibility. (Only Lee can prevent . . .) This was not merely theoretical: there were many times when he had to hurry the hose to a spot where one of their high-piled bonfires was surprising them with sudden shootings of tall and wide fountains of flame. Sometimes, although certainly not always, these eruptions were related to the presence of a newly discovered Peek car tire – there would be several littered around the jungle – hurled onto a bonfire by Lee’s father as fresh and potent rubbery fuel that quickly generated thick plumes of smelly smoke. On such occasions of potential alarm, especially when they were burning in the otherwise dark night and would soon be heading into the house, it would be his job to use a shovel and rake to create a dirt “moat” around the circumference of the bonfire while Henry was hosing it down to little more than red-orange eyes of glowing embers that Lee imagined were winking at him with mysterious motive.
But one milestone day – a signal Sunday in late autumn of the third year of labor – the land was “cleared.” From the front edge of the back porch steps to the wide un-porched and un-doored (but tiny-windowed) rear side of Old Man Volk’s tin house, and from the side margins on the left near the boundary-line drainage ditch to the side margins on the right near the gravel road that led down the alley to where Old Man Volk parked a Ford pick-up (with an empty rifle rack on the back window), there was nothing but dirt – native Oregon dirt leveled flat with a wooden device Lee’s father had constructed and dragged up and down and across and around until its fan-shaped head – wide and weighted with an assortment of rocks, its lower edge sharp with re-enforced strips of stiff metal – smoothed the remaining bumps of earth, scraped away the last protruding evidences of roots or vegetation, and blended the final gray and black ashes of bonfire residue into the brown ground now surrounding what had once been the Peek version of a back yard.
“We’re done!” Lee had yelled at some point on that Sunday, watching his father stride around the yard’s perimeter, casting a last critical eye on the (non-) fruits of his labors.
“Almost,” Henry Bay yelled back. He walked diagonally toward where his oldest child was standing in the center of the cleared land. “We have a few things to plan before we can honorably retire. Let’s have your mother pick out the place where she probably wants to plant her berries and flowers and stuff. After we know that, we will know what is left over to scatter grass seed on for a great big lawn even better than the two out front.” He gestured with his hands in a three-hundred-sixty-degree clockwise sweep of the yard. Lee was thinking that this arc really included credit as well for the fact that his father had not ignored either the football field or the swimming pool out front during all the time he had devoted to the back, having kept them watered, mowed, and edged – and he had also planted a fresh length of boxwood hedge that grew rapidly and effectively hid those two front lawns from the eyes of any pedestrian or motorist.
“And then,” Henry Bay had added, “we will decide on the best design of fence to make for enclosing all of this – our property – from corner to corner and side to side.” He repeated his three-hundred-sixty-degree gesture, but this time moving his hands in a counter-clockwise direction.
Over the years (and after the fires) there would be several wooden fences, each designed and constructed and installed in the ground by Lee’s father (often with Lee’s skill-evolving help). Whenever he would start to tear one down and his wife would ask why, he would always have an explanation of how some new design was better than the previous. The only way the newer one seemed “better” to him than the older one (May confided to her children more than once) was that a newer one always seemed to allow less visibility from the outside: the spaces between the rails were more narrow, the top rails were taller, some sections had no “rails” at all but were composed of boards thin enough to be flexed and woven horizontally into wide panels (that he claimed reduced noise and dust from the road that led to Old Man Volk’s place).
“They may have been better in some ways,” Lee’s mother commented to Lee and Jill years later, “but each time he tore one down and started another it meant he was un-retiring from what he had said was a completed project and I would have to re-do my flower beds and berry patches – and not necessarily because I had thought up a ‘better’ way of doing them.”
No More Movement
Many years later, after he had retired from bookkeeping at the sawmill and – in an ironically intentional or merely coincidental parallel with what Mr. and Mrs. Peek had done – moved with May to Florence, Henry Bay’s life routines quickly changed. Yes, his commitment to league bowling remained for quite a long time (until physical infirmities became prohibitive). But an undeniable change in his interests and priorities was signaled by the complete indifference he displayed toward the little back yard of their new residence. When they sold the house in Wave (to a high school “boys’ shop” teacher whose wife was a “girls’ home economics” teacher) and moved to a “downsizing” 1950s-vintage house in a modest Florence neighborhood (with no view of ocean or sand), Lee’s father left all decisions regarding the vegetative life of the back yard entirely up to his wife. Aside from helping her tend her berry patch and her flower beds by wielding a watering can or turning on the little lawn sprinkler, his involvement with – his influence on – what went on in the “new” back yard was minimal. Lee concluded that at the time they moved in his father must not have seen anything on that little piece of “land” he would need to “clear.”
Right up until May Bay died from complications associated with (among other health factors) diabetes, which was about a year after her husband had given up competitive bowling, they had been paying neighborhood high school students to mow the lawn out back – there was no grass out front, only cement sidewalk – and to trim the wandering branches of the increasing number of bushes and shrubs May had gradually planted along the sides of the short wooden fence the former owners had installed for enclosing the back yard. (At the time of her passing, she had been wondering about the practicality of planting a tree. On Lee’s sister’s last visit, her mother had told her “I always thought a back yard was incomplete without at least one tree.”)
Soon after his wife was gone, Henry stopped paying the young men for their gardening services. And that was when he also gave up performing the purely administrative duties he had retained as the secretary of his last bowling league and entered what Lee and his sister called his “second retirement.” Not only would there be no more bowling records to maintain, neither would there be watering cans carried in his hands, nor garden hoses slipping through his fingers, nor even regular visits to the back yard just to check on things. While he spent most of his time indoors watching sporting events on television (often with the sound on “mute”), a fresh “forest” began growing out back – not a “jungle” as dramatic in size or complexity as what he had combatted in Wave so many years earlier, but something just sizable enough to represent a micro/macro wilderness-reminiscent relationship to the eyes of Jill and Lee when they returned to Florence (from Seattle and Boston respectively) for the first time for either of them in over a year. Brother and sister would stay there for many days to take care of all the things needing attention when a family’s sole surviving parent has no longer survived.
They had each received telephone calls within twenty-four hours of his immediate neighbor’s having discovered their father’s body after a massive thunder and lightning storm with high winds had sent a large limb from the adjoining property over a back corner of the house – to dangle there for a few minutes, seemingly waiting for Henry Bay to walk out back for the first time in a long time and check to see what kind of damage might have resulted from the loud banging noise he had heard on his roof. From what Mr. Cepeda told Lee and Jill, it must have been raining heavily when their father crept out – still in his bedroom slippers but wearing a tan overcoat over blue pajamas – and apparently reached up to shove at the lower part of the breaking and twisted limb in hopes of moving it off the corner of the roof and farther away from the fence. Mr. Cepeda theorized that he had somehow increased the critical pressure at the point where the big branch had first fractured, causing it to fall farther – with horrible noise and destructive force. When Mr. Cepeda first looked over the short fence that now held the very end of the severed branch, he could see blood on the visible side of his neighbor’s face; the other side was mashed down into a twilit tangle of blackberry vines, rotting strawberries, overgrown stalks of hay-like grass, and yard-and-a-half-high weeds. Mrs. Cepeda’s eyes were filled with tears and Mr. Cepeda’s voice broke and choked huskily as he began to tell the surviving children that their father’s outstretched left hand seemed to be reaching for a small green garden glove missing its mate.