The "Do You Have Lots of Faults Too?" Issue
Everyday Stupid Magic
by Susan O'Neil
Tres was spading around the tomato plants in his grandmother's garden on the Fenway when the lawn jockey spoke to him for the first time. The black earth was rain-clotted, the sun pried long, steamy fingers through a three-day pile of dingy clouds, and Tres had just removed his jacket and hung it over the statue's out-thrust hand, from which dangled a rusty iron ring. It was not Tres' idea to be here, but his grandmother had very recently declared that she was too old and stiff to weed and pick off tomato worms; so, being a dutiful and agreeable young man, he had taken the task of cultivating this little patch of land upon himself.
The Red Sox had lost three in a row to Kansas City on their recent road trip, and as he dislodged a patch of crabgrass, Tres muttered to himself about how he couldn't believe their entire pitching staff, those pendejos ricos with their astronomical salaries and mansions down in Florida and all the fine food and women they could ever want, could still go and screw up three in a row, the Royals to boot. Whereupon the lawn jockey suggested everything would be better in a week, when Trot Nixon came off the Disabled List.
"I don't know." Tres knocked soil from the roots of the weeds and tossed them on
the damp pile. "He's super out in right field, but offensively, man—" He blinked,
straightened, wiped back a lock of black hair, streaking his forehead with mud, turned and looked around. He was alone in the garden. No one in the adjacent plots — not even Hal and Stephen, with their rose borders and their wrought-iron bench and their natural-wood trellis, tape-measured to conform to the five-foot maximum, and their little yippy dog. No one in the far patches of cultivated greenery; no one passing through the warren of paths that punctuated the communal gardens. Even the sidewalk outside the hurricane fence, twenty feet away, lay cracked and empty.
Tres leaned on his spade, shook his head. "I'm loco for sure."
"Very possibly," sniffed the statue, "if you discount the heartening effects of an earnest team player like Mr. Trot."
Tres dropped the spade.
"I might ask, young Alberto, that you consider draping your garment elsewhere, sparing my poor aged limb," the lawn jockey said. "I am quite as old as your esteemed grandfather would be, were he walking the earth today."
Tres moved his lips; nothing came out. He cleared his throat. "You know my name."
The lawn jockey rolled painted eyes in his bubble-gum-pink face. "I'm quite familiar with your entire family, young Alberto. I was your grandfather's man from the beginning; he and I held many a fascinating confabulation in the olden days. Long before yon effete floriculturists — " the statue pointed its chin, chipped to show a rim of black around a dime-sized clef of white plaster, at the adjacent hedge of drooping pink roses — "minced over the edge of your grandfather's muscular vegetable patch."
Tres' heart thudded in his ears. He felt as if he had gulped a double shot of Abuelita's thick cafe. Nobody called him Alberto; nobody had ever called his father or his grandfather Alberto — they were Dos and Uno, respectively. The name Dos —"two" — had been carved on his father's tombstone beneath his proper name, Alberto Martino Vasquez II.
"You talked to Papi."
"Your esteemed grandfather and I were best of friends."
Tres gaped at the statue. He recalled his Papi, Alberto Uno, only in fleeting details: dark eyes netted by wrinkles, the thick hair he had passed down his line, still more black than silver when he lay in his coffin. Tiny worms of tobacco in a brushy mustache. Big, blunt, calloused fingers turning up an ace with a snap, pulling a coin from his little grandson's ear.
"Ah, Master Alberto." The statue winked a painted eye. "I trust you have heard the saga of our mutual adventure?"
Tres nodded dumbly. It was Uno's skill at cards that had led to this little plot of land, which in turn led to his purchase of the lawn jockey, a black-skinned, pop-eyed plaster caricature in green-striped silks. Tres was six when he first heard his grandmother tell the story. This was at Uno's wake. He had understood little at the time, but as he grew older, he gathered bits and pieces of information and assembled them like those tiny puzzle pieces Abuelita pored over on the card table in their Jamaica Plain flat.
The Fenway gardens were prized turf from the start, in 1944, when the downtown land was set aside as a "Victory Garden" to fight the Great War at home. The 15-by-25-foot lots were public, and the bulk of them, including the garden where Tres now stood, were at first leased by Smiths and Pynes and Ballards. Soon, MacAlisters, O'Malleys, Papadopolouses and Riccis signed the list and waited, sometimes for years, to replace those early farmers who moved away or died. So lowly janitor Uno Vasquez, with his Mexican accent and nut-brown skin, was something of a novelty when he won the right to till this little verdant square in a poker game with the head of the Garden Committee.
Uno's nearest neighbors in the garden received him with frosty silence and showed him the backs of their sunburned shoulders. But Uno had a wry sense of humor; when his round little wife found an old statue of a black jockey in a New Hampshire antique shop, he seized upon it with roguish delight and set it at the center of his newly-gained plot. The neighbors were appalled, and marched their complaint to the committee. This was 1969, thirteen years before Tres was born. Serious times; sensitive times. Times when, even for a Mexican, it was deemed immoral to plant a shoulder-high statue of a grinning black slave on one's property.
So after a visit from his former poker partner, who told him, "For God's sake and mine, please, can't you at least try to be accommodating," Uno painted the little manikin's face and hands their current cheerful pink.
"Your garment?" the lawn-jockey said to Tres, his voice deep with wounded patience.
Tres grabbed his jacket and pressed it against his sweating chest.
"You might consider resting it on that curlicued repository next door," the jockey suggested. "Unless you fear its contamination by life forms peculiar to — how might I say this — " the statue pursed thick pink lips — "the sodomite element."
Repository. . . Tres followed the statue's gaze to his neighbors' wrought-iron bench. He had never violated the border between his plot and Stephen and Hal's, never even stepped on the narrow white-stone path. Stephen was chatty, while Hal, who was younger, was reserved but amiable; he doubted they would care. Still. . . Abuelita always counseled him to keep himself to himself and respect the property of others. He looked at the jacket, looked at the bench.
The lawn jockey sighed. "Go ahead. A full six inches of that rose hedge is by rights yours." Tres gave him a blank look. "Yes. Their blooms are, to put it bluntly, over the line. That infringement alone should deed you the right to rest your garment on a fey twist of iron that, could it tell tales, would no doubt prefer to warble Puccini."
Tres glanced around. He stepped out onto the wood-chip common walkway and set his foot on his neighbor's path. He felt a thrill of guilt as he leaned over the black-eyed Susans and laid the jacket on the seat of the bench, careful not to disturb the trellis of Morning Glories behind it.
"One small step for manhood," the lawn jockey said.
Tres returned home to find his grandmother fast asleep in her Barcalounger in front of a soap opera. His head buzzed with the lawn jockey's tales of his grandfather who, the statue said, had often come to the plot at night with a bottle of rum and a blanket to use as a seat. Rich, marvelous tales. Some Tres had heard before, if less eloquently, from Abuelita: how Uno had been brought into the country to pick apples when he was 14 and stayed; how he joined the Army with false papers and carried a wounded buddy up Omaha Beach. Others were new: how Uno won two thousand dollars in 1970 at Suffolk Downs on a record-setting run by a horse named Crimson Streak. How profoundly and irrevocably Papi's heart had broken when his only son and daughter-in-law were killed in a car accident shortly after their son Tres was born.
Tres was enchanted; it had been as if his Papi himself was with him in the garden, baring heart and soul. He gazed at Abuelita, her mouth ajar, dentures rattling with each soft snore; he wanted to shake her awake and pump her for details, pick the stories apart, examine each nuance. But the lawn jockey had cautioned him, as he gingerly collected his jacket from the neighboring plot, not to tell his grandmother about their conversation. "It would cause her great pain," the statue declared. "The woman suffers an element of 'the green-eyed monster'; she could not abide another, albeit it this humble plaster effigy, sharing her beloved's confidences." The lawn jockey sighed. "It is ever thus with womankind."
Tres examined his grandmother's sleeping, lined face. He had never thought of her as jealous, but he supposed it could be true. He was no expert on how it was with womankind. In his 24 years on this planet, he had dated little and never well. He bought the sex he needed, now and then, from a large and very clean woman named Mercedes, who was nearly twice his age and worked out of a row house in Dorchester. He had never lived anywhere but here, with Abuelita in this modest home. The old woman cooked his meals, washed his clothes, soothed his sinus attacks with herbal potions. Back when he skipped school, she boxed his ears and hauled him off to the principal; now, she dismissed his complaints about his job at the gas station with a wave of her hand: "Honest work is good work. You can never complain if you can pay your bills." She was, Mercedes aside, the woman in his life. How strange, he now thought, that her emotions—other than those connected with him — were a mystery.
He tiptoed upstairs and changed into his uniform. Tiptoed back down, to the refrigerator, where he found the lunch she had made for him. Inside the paper bag, she had packed a roast-beef sandwich, home-made oatmeal cookies, a thermos of milk and an orange. He carried it into the tiny living room and kissed her goodbye, a peck on the forehead.
Abuelita opened her eyes. "Huh." She resettled her dentures with a thumb and scowled at the TV, where Judge Judy berated a tattooed young man. "I have to wait until tomorrow to know if what's-her-name was abdicted by the aliens."
Tres smiled. "I think the word is 'abducted,' Abuelita."
"At my age, the word is whatever I say it is, boy." She grabbed her cane. "You are off to that honest job of yours?"
"Take your jacket, boy. The weatherman says it will be cold tonight." She levered herself up from the recliner. "Our tomatoes are ready for chili?"
"Two weeks, Abuelita." He hesitated; questions lurked at the back of his tongue: How had she weathered his grandfather's absences, his nights at the track, his marathon poker games?
She shuffled past him to the card table beneath the window, to her congealing jigsaw puzzle. He ached to know more, more, more — but he could not cause her pain.
Stephen squinted up from his hedge; the noonday sun glimmered off his waxed silver moustache. "The bloom is gone, alas." He waved a wilted rose. "But more remain. Lovely, aren't they? My Fairies." At his feet, an arthritic little white dog growled. "Hush now, Charlie," Stephen patted the creature's shaggy head. "I swear, the poor old dear is going blind. It's Mr. Vasquez, Charlie. We know Mr. Vasquez, don't we? Yes we do."
The lawn jockey was silent, but as Tres loosened the dry earth around the jalapeños, he could feel the chill of its disapproval every time the dog yipped. And the old Yorkie yipped constantly: at planes plowing through the clouds, at an old lady on the sidewalk, at the flutter of a butterfly's wing. Tres did not hate dogs; he actually liked Mercedes' golden retriever, although he didn't appreciate it in the bedroom when they were transacting business. But this particular dog seemed useless. Too noisy for a watchdog, too cranky to play, too nervous to cuddle. He watched it out of the corner of his eye as he worked. Yip, yip, yip.
Stephen hummed as he dead-headed roses. Tres had never been curious about Stephen and Hal's relationship; as Abuelita said, what they did in private was nobody else's business. But now he noted the soft mouth beneath the complicated moustache. The loose wrist, the womanly grip on the clippers. He saw those long fingers touching his arm, his chest. He flinched, then blushed. Dios — could Stephen read his face?
Apparently not. Stephen chatted about the drought as the flowers fell — two of them, into Tres' garden: ". . .I should run a hose from the pipe, but it tends to get tangled in the Archers' azaleas."
The dog yipped, yipped, yipped, and Stephen turned. "Now, you behave, Charlie." The waxed moustache canted apologetically. "I hate to curb his exuberance, but sometimes. . ."
At the lisped ess, Tres flicked a glance at the lawn jockey. He could swear it rolled its eyes.
Stephen wandered off down the main path to, he announced, "give Charlie a potty break," and the lawn jockey hrumphed. "Your esteemed grandfather tended his radishes right there." He pointed his chipped chin at the rose hedge. "Before the 'Fairies'." He gave the word a meaningful curl. "Ah, those scarlet orbs, Alberto's famous radishes."
Tres saw in his mind a bowl of round, sharp radishes. His mouth watered; he had loved them as a child. Loved them. "When did Papi stop growing them?"
Behind them, Stephen's voice crooned, "Mission accomplished." The statue's pink face went stone-still. The dog yipped. The useless dog. Tres was astonished at the depth of his annoyance.
"Down, Virgin." Mercedes pronounced the word as Abuelita might, veer-heen. The golden retriever backed from the bed, its pink tongue lolling. Mercedes cupped Tres' chin in her big, soft palm. "It's not the end of the world, angel-buns. These things happen."
Tres closed his eyes. They didn't happen to him.
"You're just distracted. I understand. It's a distracting world these days, what with that pretty Damon gone and Francona such a wiffle-waffle."
Tres felt her sit up. She was right, but it wasn't the Red Sox distracting him.
"Still, you gotta like Crisp. He's got potential. Have you thought about meditating? I got a book on it, if you want."
He opened his eyes. Should he ask her?
"What?" She pursed her lips — thick, like the lawn jockey's — and examined his face. "You got the sweetest little-boy look on you, you know? Like when you wanted to know why we don't make babies. You remember that?"
He blushed. That was long ago. The guys at school joked about how they had to wear condoms, but Mercedes had said he didn't need to. So of course he asked; he never had a daddy to tell him about these things, and Abuelita wouldn't sign the permission for him to take the high school's Sex Ed class ("You find a nice girl, get married, you learn," she said).
"Ah, angel-buns — don't get all pouty on me. I thought it was sweet." She patted his naked chest. "Seriously, you got a question, you ask me." She pushed the dog's damp snout from the bed and propped herself against the headboard.
Tres took a deep breath. "I was wondering. . ."
She smiled at him. "Yes?"
"It's about men."
"I know a lot about that." She laughed, musical thunder.
Tres struggled up against the headboard so they were eye-to-eye. So he wouldn't feel so young. He pulled the sheet up to his waist. "It's about two men. Together. I know these guys. . ." He caught her amused look. "Not me. I don't like men. I mean, I like men okay, to work with and that, but not that way—"
Mercedes' face sobered. "You want to know how they do it? Two men?"
"This is your distraction? This is why little Manny won't play ball?"
He nodded. Then he shook his head. "Not like — I mean, it's not. . ." Her sweet thunderous laughter shook the bed. He opened his mouth to explain about Stephen and Hal. Closed it, afraid of where that might lead. Who would believe a talking lawn jockey?
The dog boosted silky paws onto the bed and gave him a smile. He set his hand on its head, and the warmth calmed him.
Quietly, matter-of-factly, Mercedes told him what he wanted to know — which he didn't really want to know, because thinking about it made his nether regions pucker.
How disturbing; how could anybody do such things?
He found the whole idea disgusting. And something in him was relieved that he did, and allowed him to relax.
She gave his swiftly-tenting bed sheet an amused look. "Little Manny got a latent thing going?"
Tres wasn't positive what a "latent thing" was, but he had his suspicions. Luckily, as he watched her slide her big, lovely, round body down in the bed, he became too distracted to care.
"Get down, Virgin," she commanded as she lifted the sheet. "Now."
"Tell me about my father." Tres faced the lawn jockey over a half-filled basket of ripe tomatoes.
"A charming child; the resemblance between him and yourself is quite remarkable, speaking physically."
Tres' heart pummeled his ribcage. "And as a man?"
"He seldom exercised his agricultural talents as an adult." The statue shrugged its eyebrows. "It was, after all, your grandfather's Juan Hancock that embellished the lease." The pink lips curved almost imperceptibly. "Ah, but once — you will relish this account, young Alberto — "
A yip, and the statue's face went blank. "No — no!" Tres wailed. "Don't stop!" He turned and glared across the Fairy rose hedge.
Hal's soft, dark eyes met his from above a garbage bag full of compost. He nodded a greeting and set the bag on the wrought iron bench. The dog rooted itself in the Pachysandra and yipped, yipped, yipped at Tres. "Knock it off," Hal said quietly. The dog lowered its shaggy muzzle and growled.
Tres bent down and grabbed a small red tomato, yanked it off and dropped it atop the others in his basket. He closed his ears to Hal's soft whistle, as the man spread compost around the roots of his damnable Fairies. Closed his ears to the horrible little dog — What had he ever done to the stupid beast? Why didn't its throat give out? The malice in its growl grated his spine; he almost preferred the yipping. At last Hal said, "Come on, Charlie," and dog and man — the gay man — sauntered off down the path.
Tres stood, wiping his hands on his jeans. "All right," he told the statue, "tell me."
The statue said nothing.
Tres advanced on the statue. "The story — tell me!"
The statue sighed. "They've only gone back to the compost heap, you know. We should wait for a more appropriate time."
"It's not fair. My Abuelita never tells me about my father. Just how he left home young and broke her heart. I want. . ." Tres swallowed. "Like you tell me that stuff about Papi, and it's like I can feel him? Tell me now."
Sigh. "'How poor are they that ha' not patience.'" The jockey sniffed. "Oh, very well. Once upon a time — 1978, I believe — your grandmother was tending this little parcel while your esteemed grandfather was otherwise engaged, and your father paid a visit.
There arose a heated discussion. The subject, I have quite forgotten; my advanced age, you understand. At any rate, in the course of this verbal altercation, exhausted by the sheer frustration of engaging your grandmother — your grandmother, young Alberto, would try the angels — your father nuzzled his boot at a rose bush planted by your then-new neighbor, the very miscreant whose wanton roses now invade your territory."
"You mean, Stephen and Hal? They were here back then?"
"Stephen was, in that era, dancing solo. That little pas de deux a la Greque did not commence until years later. Stephen took up his leasehold here after the formidable Widow Mitchell passed on to that great briar patch in the sky. Berries were her specialty, great tangled brambles of blackberry, climbing strawberry vines. . . I recall — "
Tres planted his fists on his hips and glared at the statue. "You were saying, my father kicked the rose bush."
"Forgive me, Young Master." The dip of the statue's eyes suggested a bow. "It seems the roses planted at that juncture by our mustachioed prima dona were more delicate in constitution than these Fairies." He lisped the word.
"What does that have to do with — "
"Much." Tsk, tsk. "If you will but permit me to proceed, impetuous young Alberto."
"You are forgiven. Where was I? Ah. Your grandmother, ever the critic, reprimanded your father for his footwork. She declared that one must keep oneself to oneself."
"Whereupon, your father — a man's man, though slight in stature, much as yourself — reminded her that the placement of these precursor plantings endangered her beloved husband's famous radishes. For you see, even then, in the beginning, your neighbor — let us say — poked his posies where they didn't belong." The statue's voice spoke of more than flowers.
A sour revulsion rose in Tres' throat.
"And then, your father went away."
Tres' face fell. "That's it?"
"Insofar as your grandmother is concerned, it was. But," The lawn jockey lowered his voice, "late that very night, your father made a clandestine visit to these environs. The moon was but a sliver; I alone bore proud witness to his heroic vengeance."
Tres whispered, "What did he do?"
"Before your father arrived, five impudent rose bushes gripped the edge of yon patch. When he departed, not one remained. It was an act of retribution worthy of a real man's heart. What your o'erweening grandmother would not permit the husband to do, the son accomplished. And for this, I might add, I salute him."
Tres' heart pounded in his ears. "My father pulled up Stephen's roses? But — that's not. . .right."
"The rules of this garden clearly state that no one's plantings shall overshadow another's. You tell me who is right."
"That's a rule? The shadow, even?"
"Then — " The familiar yipping, and the lawn jockey spoke no more. Hal and the dog stepped into their garden plot. The dog halted and bared yellowed teeth.
It was the growling that did it, that overbalanced the pile: the heaped years of arrogance, encroachment, cavalier insult, blanketed by his grandfather's genial weakness and the grievous tang of lost radishes, smothered by his grandmother's pacifism, surmounted by his father's proud, bold vengeance and topped, like statues on the cake, by two men entwined in unspeakable acts revealed with clinical detachment by a busty, lusty woman (whose dog never growled, never yipped); and now, yes, at last, overtopped by the growling injustice of it all because what had he, Tres, ever done? That insidious, hideous, unfair, perverted growling sparked his hand to move, to dip down into the basket, dip, scoop and fling with mindless, fluid speed and astonishing accuracy.
And then the hand froze aloft. As Tres froze; as Hal froze, both as breathless as statues.
The dog yipped, then shrieked. Tres had never heard such a sound: accusatory, unearthly,
Yip; shriek. The ancient Yorkie crumpled beneath the splatter of the fat tomato. Its filmy eyes bulged at him.
Then: yip, yip, yip, yip, yip, yip.
And Tres breathed — a doglike ran-a-mile panting. He turned his eyes up to the offending hand, because he could not look at the splattered red mess on the white dog. He could not look Hal in the face.
And then the dog stopped yipping.
Hal said, "My God."
Tres stole a glance across the rose hedge. The dog lay inert and splattered.
Hal's quiet voice was tinged with wonder: "Charlie's dead."
Tres could not move. He could not speak.
He could not watch Hal walk down the path, the dog's small body in his arms.
Tres sank down next to his basket and buried his head in his hands.
The lawn jockey's voice jarred him." Young Alberto. I do admire your aim. And what satisfying resonance. So very Schilling. No. . .more Zen. More. . .vintage Martinez. Yes — our long-lost 'Petey', in his glory days."
Tres rose slowly. The air had become too heavy. He reached for the basket, dropped his hand at the sight of tomatoes.
"Oh, come, young Alberto," said the statue. " You have put the irascible beast out of its misery. The reprehensible creature is in a better place — and the world is a better place for it."
Tres backed away from the lawn jockey, his stomach roiling. He turned and ran, and didn't look back.
Abuelita looked up from the letter in her hand. "And this is why you have been skunking about these last two days?"
Tres almost told her the word was "skulking," but he realized that her term was more appropriate. He clicked the remote, not looking at the TV, not looking at her.
"Maybe my English is no good," she said. She re-read the letter, looked up. "Maybe this does not say you violented the rules of the garden?"
Again, he thought, she had it right.
"Maybe it does not say," she snapped her finger against the paper, "that this was a very bad thing, what you did, so they will bring it up to the garden board?" She snapped it again, and Tres flinched. "Maybe they will not take back the garden your grandfather and I worked so many years?" Snap.
He fought the urge to cry.
He cleared his throat; it was like swallowing nails. "The statue made me do it."
"What statue? Made you do what? You tell me, boy."
Hesitantly, Tres told her. As the words plodded out of his mouth, he heard how crazy they sounded. He half-expected Abuelita to laugh at him. But she watched him intently, grimly.
At last, she leaned back in her Barcalounger. "The statue tells you stories."
"You believe me?"
"Your papi, he told me once it said he must bet on some stupid horse, so he made a lot of money — " She waved the letter.
"Yes. Yes — it was Crimson Streak! The statue told me about it."
"Big deal. Gone the next day, every dime." She frowned. "Me, I figured, talking statue, hah, Uno's just drunk again. That statue never talked to me."
"He doesn't like you." His voice was small.
" No. Of course." She snorted. "So. Why do you listen?"
"It's magic." He spread his arms. "A magic statue tells you wonderful things, you listen, right?"
"Hah. That statue over there talks — " she pointed the letter at a plastic figure of the Holy Virgin that sat atop the TV—" that magic, I listen to. Uno's statue? That is stupid everyday magic. Lies. That, you don't listen to."
"He told me about my father."
"It don't know about your father. Your father never came to the garden. Not one time. He did not like to work." Abuelita levered herself up with her cane. "He liked to drive fast. It killed them both." She stumped to his chair and dropped the letter in his lap. "You talk to these board people. You are the man here. You talk to the neighbors, you hear me?"
He picked up the letter and grimaced. "I don't think I can make this all right."
She waved her hand. "You sin, you do penance. You talk to them. Talk to those poor men about the poor dog." She caned her way past him.
"I'll get rid of the statue," he said. "I'll take it down, break it up into little pieces and bury it."
She halted and turned. "Hah. You think that will make things different? Today, a magic statue — tomorrow, maybe a magic chicken. Everybody tells you things. Magic? Hah. The real magic, it is here." She pointed to her head. "You put those magic words in here, you turn them around and around. You think. If something, it comes up stupid, you say, 'Hah — that's stupid.' And you don't do it."
"But. . .What about Papi's radishes?" Tres eyes filled with tears. "Abuelita, they killed Papi's radishes with their roses."
"Them roses don't empoach on nothing." She waved her hand at him and stumped into the kitchen. "I don't like radishes," her voice declared. "Uno died, I pulled them stupid radishes out."