“It’s his birthday,” Del explained with an innocent gaze directed at me and away from Tess.
Tess tweezed Del’s chin between finger and thumb and searched his face for recognition of the wrong he had done and consequent remorse. Finding neither, and finding herself unwilling to make further allowance for Del’s simple wit, she wrung the handle of the landscaping rake, engorging thick arms. “That’s the point, Delmore. His birthday. Ed Loogie? Little Boss Man? Public Enema Number One?” Tessie leaned in on Del, the sharp peak of her short hair thrust forward like the point of a conquistador’s helmet.
Del’s smile confirmed his comprehension that our crew did, in fact, refer to Ed Lugo by various names. Tessie toppled the rake’s handle, which flopped near Del’s feet. “You’re hopeless,” she muttered in a disgusted tone of irrevocable judgment. Del picked up the rake like the sword of a fallen comrade as Tess clomped away to smoke in the privacy of a eucalyptus stand.
“Girlfriend trouble,” Del surmised incorrectly. “We should cut her some slack.” He set the handle of the rake atop his shoulder and marched off to do Tess’s work for her with a stride as purposeful and a countenance as blithe as a small boy marching with a broom-handle rifle.
“Wha’d Wilbur Piglet get Loogie?” drawled Badger Jack, gazing dreamily through frog-slitted eyes at a skinny joint tweezed between long nails. Jack used those nails sometimes to claw into the earth seeking earthworms for fishing trips to Ocean Beach, where he’d set three poles into the sand and pound beer while I bobbed in the water waiting for waves. Like a world leader or maybe a Mafia don–one with long, stringy hair like dirty straw–Jack declined his head to await my answer.
“A rake for his keychain,” I reported.
Some deeply interior prompting twisted a smile on Jack’s florid face. “Cute, cute. bleech!” he said, his chronic cough punctuating his words.
“Cute enough to screw us with his brown-nosing,” sneered Tex, a thirtyish black guy from down in San Bernardino who was rake-thin and reptilian in movement and called himself Tex to mess with folks’ minds. “Tessie’s right: we should nuke him.”
It began the next day, the first day of May. Tanisha, a stout young single mom with painful knees and dreadlocks bedecked in multicolored beads, needed someone to clock her out at quitting time so she could cut out early to avoid a late charge at child care. As Jack, Tess, Tex and I drew cards for the right to risk the offense–a firing one–Del gaped at us with the fish-mouthed dismay of a fourth grader spying a teacher and principal wildly necking.
Tess aimed harsh beams at him. “Well, Delmore? What would Jesus do?”
Del was oblivious to the sarcasm and pleased to be asked. “I’m not sure. But I could call my uncle in Watsonville. He’s a pastor.”
“I thought you were a Buddhist,” Jack chortled.
“My mom’s a Buddhist. I’m a Buddhist atheist, and Lutheran on my father’s side.”
“And Hindu-Muslim too,” chortled Tex, sliding his hand across Jack’s thick paw.
Del perceived the teasing but not its sharp edge, and chuckled as if being gently ribbed. He was Japanese on his mother’s side, but his eyes were as round as chocolate kisses.
“What, no Jewish relatives?” I added. I knew I shouldn’t pile on, but the fellow-feeling I shared with the crew was like that which filled me during post-surfing bonfires at the beach.Del, like a baby, mirrored smiles, but his was a funhouse mirror which distorted wry grins like the one I flashed now into guileless smiles full of trust and hope. “I don’t think I have any Jewish relatives,” he mused.
Resigned to defeat, Tess turned from Del and promised to clock Tanisha out.
The next day, Jack cued the Shakespeare meme. “Hey, Hamlet,” he chuffed, pausing to check for the reflexive merriment of the others, “better tend your unweeded garden gone to pot.”
Explanation: In the Shakespeare Garden a few weeks before, a young blade showing off for his lady-love had declaimed, “`Tis an unweeded garden that grows to seed/Things rank and gross in nature possess it merely.” Del, pruning nearby, had filled with personal and institutional shame and had pocketed his shears, dropped to his knees, and pulled every weed in the garden (there were few).
The affection implied by the conferment of a nickname made Del glow like a little brother hanging with his big brother’s friends. Lanky, lean, and plain in his movements, Del loped stiffly off to cull an overgrowth of spent nasturtiums in a planting bed along Chain Of Lakes Drive. Tess and Jack looked after like hungry coyotes whose prey has run off.
Three days later, Tanisha found a football in the shrubs that fringed the long meadow by 41st and JFK. Jack lofted a long pass towards Tex striding down the meadow, and the misty grin with which he followed the converging vectors of spiraling ball and racing receiver suggested that he apprehended not Tex, but Patrick Callaway of St. Ignatius High streaking under the last minute pass that beat Sacred Heart in the big game fifteen years before. Today’s pass was a tad overthrown, but Tex stretched bony fingers and settled it in, lending credence to his claim that he, too, had been a football star in high school, though like all of his claims, this was offered without details, with a menacing gaze that warded off questions. Tex took off back towards us in a stylized zig-zag, and I raced to intercept him. It wasn’t hard to do, for I was twenty-three and long-legged fast, the erstwhile White Rabbit of intramural football fame at S.F. State before stepping off the college carousel one year earlier. Tex bent over heaving like a man much older than thirty-two, and looked at up me with drug-haunted eyes.
Tanisha’s eyes filled with compassion for a sinking brother. “How `bout some field goal kicking?” she called with a clap.
Tessie called for the ball and set it for a place-kick. “Let’s do it, Charlie,” she told Del with a grin.
Del brightened at the prospect. He backed stiffly from the ball, rubbed his hands eagerly, pressed his arms to his sides and rushed the ball and unleashed his back leg. Tess removed the ball as Del’s leg whipped through, and Del slipped backwards onto the grass.
“Man,” laughed Tanisha in spite of herself, “you are the Charlie Browniest!”
Del reflexively smiled because he loved Peanuts; but emerging comprehension of the nature of our feelings darkened the smile. I lowered my head when Del looked at me, and noticed a divot caused by Del’s boot. I knelt to pat the uprooted patch back in place as Del, lying on the grass, watched me with eyes that widened like a dark flower blooming.
Del began to distance himself during breaks, often gardening while Jack and Tex and sometimes Tess and I toked, or Tess smoked cigarettes, or we all dipped battered fish which Jack had caught into Papa Jack’s Tartar Sauce Supreme, or Tanisha showed off her pixie Chyrelle in rainbow braids smiling out from behind the glossy green leaves of the lemon tree Tanisha had planted to consecrate her purchase of a condo with a fenced-in yard for peaceful play. I raised my face to the sky and breathed in the scent of flowers with eyes closed, testing myself to see whether I could identify the changing blooms of the passing days by smell alone. One late May day I detected rhododendron odour, opened my eyes, and noticed Del pruning. He had lifted his face to a snowy mass of pink-fringed rhododendron blossoms, and his face was illuminated: golden and burnished. A few days later I watched him pat a young fern into place and received emanations of peace like those I’d feel when bobbing in my wetsuit gazing at the sunset.
“Bastard’s working off the clock again,” Tex sniped.
“Trying to get in good with Loogie,” said Tess, scrinching her ball of clay of a nose. Tess had thrown a thick arm around my shoulders on my first day and had been good to me like a big sister since. But her gaze right now was that of an insistent big sister whose side you must take in a personal conflict.
“Actually, T, that’d get him in bad with Lugie–allowing dudes to work off the clock could bring a union grievance.” I’d learned this much, at least, in second sophomore year as I avoided the science prerequisites I would need to major in environmental science. The Gang Of Three grinned through slitted eyes like a lolling mob of cartoon gators as a heedless young antelope approaches the river.
Del was heedless of them, he was heedless of everyone in the park. When pruning he’d stand back to gaze at his subject, visualizing the future configuration of the tree as the network of branches emerged. “What are you doing?” we asked once as he stared at a willow. “Seeing the future,” he murmured without turning. Naturally, “How’s the future look, Del?” caught on as a catch-phrase: first as a gibe, and then as a thorn.
Del frequently sought solace at North Lake, whose shallows were thick with reeds, whose meandering margins were fringed by leafy trees and gray-green shrubs, whose waters were frequented by seabirds and waterfowl. Del loved the lake so well that he’d do our muckiest jobs in exchange for extra turns working the lake. And Del flowed when he worked–unlike, say, Tex, whose torpor suggested that he considered labor degrading, and who scowled at the plants as if they were to blame; or Jack, who uprooted plants with a badger-like fury, and chucked beer cans into hollows with the same look of impish contempt he had worn one night near the beach when spraying a building with a bladder’s worth of beer (he looked askance at me when I chose to use a dark stand of trees). Del presented quite a contrast. When pulling up weeds he knelt carefully so as not to damage the undergrowth, grasped the clump at ground level, and pulled gently yet firmly in order to leave no roots in the ground, his face as intent and patient as the time he’d tweezed a splinter from my palm (I never wore work gloves, preferring to feel nature on my hands). He had cultivated intricate trails of branches for the squirrels over the course of his five years with the gardening crew, trails that twisted, turned, and dove from the upper reaches to the lower limbs where squirrels zoomed down to claim nuts and bread crumbs. And Del had groomed the branches that spanned the path into leafy arches, channeling them higher than the heads of the tallest walkers. His artistry enhanced the allure of the lake, which drew in all kinds: middle-aged Russian couples who bickered comfortably as they strolled the lake; trios of middle-aged Chinese women in baseball caps and sweat pants who overtook the gabbling Russians; young white parents who lifted their babes to leaves bright with sunlight; poets inhaling sweet inspiration; vagabonds with the sense to tarry in a beautiful setting; whispering lovers; tittering tweens;–all of whom passed Del without his notice as he weeded, planted, pruned.
On a May afternoon as the sky grayed with dusk, as Del pruned a tree near a terraced bank that stepped down to an earthen landing, a spry little redhead of twenty-five or so, with whom I was smitten and had spoken once, continued to paint a view to the west. In changing patterns of shadow and light she saw reeds and trees and herons and gulls and the green-blue heads of mallards in the glossy green water. She moved her lips as if silently responding to the continuous subtle changes in the light, the way lily pads respond to the lake’s undulations. With a sigh she lamented the passing of the light, and turned with a smile that offered commiseration. Del’s mirroring smile altered hers into something obscure yet lovely and fair, like an elf’s reflection in murky water.
At that moment Ed Lugo chunked sideways down the embankment on the far side of the path. Tess and Jack stood within a stand of trees at the top of the hill and watched sideways, pretending not to watch.
A glimmer in Ed’s serious eyes confirmed his affection for Del: Ed often held up Del as a model worker, and this was one of the reasons the crew disliked both. The crew disliked Ed also for his impeccably trimmed beard like that of a Spanish aristocrat from centuries past, his punctiliousness of manner, his absolute intolerance for any deviation from prescribed gardening procedures or departmental rules, and his habit of spying on us through the trees, which each of us but Delmore took as an insult. There was also the theory, floated by Tess in a flurry of soap bubbles, that Ed had received his position due to affirmative action, a theory flawed for numerous reasons we chose to ignore in deference to Tessie.
Jack’s detestation of Loogie contained a large dose of career envy. Jack’s first job with Rec And Parks had been the product of the long-dimmed lustre of his football rep, and Jack had moved only laterally since, bitterly watching a succession of newer hires take promotions which Jack considered his birthright as a San Francisco-born Irish Son of the Sunset and football hero. Not that Jack merited promotions: as Tess pointed out, it was only management’s fear of our union that had kept Jack and Tex in place for so long. Jack’s distaste for Loogie partook of the primal as well, for Jack aggressively disliked men like Loogie and Del who lacked athletic talent, strength, and swagger, and wouldn’t share in the beer or weed procured by our Par-tayer In Chief. Once Jack mentioned Loogie’s small hands with a comic creeped-out shudder, and Tanisha added that no speck of dirt had ever lodged beneath Ed’s manicured nails, a profoundly personal condemnation since Tanisha had sacrificed her long nails, expertly decorated with crimson roses on long green stems, upon joining the crew about two years before.
“Del,” Ed sighed, placing an unsoiled hand on Del’s shoulder and provoking a snort from Jack in the woods, “it is now seven-thirty.”
Del smiled at the fatherly implication that he ought to get home in time for supper.
“Ah, Del. It pains me to say this, but you have broken the rules, my friend, by working unauthorized overtime.”
“It’s not overtime–I clocked out.” Del mistook the anguish expressed by Ed’s arched brow for confusion. “I guess you could say I’m working off the clock,” he added helpfully.
“Yes,” Ed sighed, “and for that I must issue a reprimand.” He glanced around furtively. “If I didn’t, they all would say I play favorites.”
“Sure,” Del nodded. “Should I go now?”
The next morning Tess asked, “How’d it go with Loogie, Boy Scout?” Jack barely suppressed a snigger, and Tex smiled broadly, for “Boy Scout” to them was a damning evocation of an America from which they were estranged. It had been damning in my eyes, too, if I had been the type to damn things at all.
Del considered making Eagle Scout the greatest of his youthful achievements–his knot-tying skills had bailed us out once or twice–so the assignation “Boy Scout” had always made him smile like a little brother cuffed on the neck. This time, though, the smile was weighted with acute consciousness of the crew’s contempt. “It went alright,” Del said, and this was true, for he and Ed had dealt honestly with each other, and in accordance with the rules. Del gazed at a semicircle of grins linked in one giant grin of derision, and blinked as if a grain of sand had worked its way into his eye from inside. “What do you have against scouting?” he asked in a voice that barely wanted to know. Tess indulged in a fruity, “Are you kidding?!” and jerked her gaze at Jack, who snickered at Tex, who threw his broad grin up at the sky.
But they didn’t answer, but melted away. “Scouting’s cool,” I told Del half sincerely. I reached for his shoulder but hesitated for fear he might snap like a wounded animal. The sunlight made my hand a white dove which I allowed to take wing and to light on Del’s shoulder, which was round as a stone polished by the river. He did not shrug, and we stood together and gazed at the water.
By the summer solstice Del was spending every break at a distance. Honor-bound not to work off the clock, fundamentally unwilling to complain to the union, he spent his time like many another habitue of the park, strolling the trails, feeding the squirrels, gazing at the water of the lakes and inhaling the spicy aroma of the plants fringing the lakes. He usually chose North Lake with its squirrel branch-trails that he had crafted, and its wild beauty like that of a marshland lake. The spry little redhaired girl was there too–Laurel R. Gleason was her name, I’d learned when I’d chatted with her after Del’s reprimand. She had granted me a glittering smile that enticed precisely because it was not overtly encouraging, and I had received the additional gift of a dip into clear blue eyes like a shallow mountain pool, as wide and unblinking as a camera’s lens. Laurel had set up her easel by North Lake every late afternoon in May and thus far in June, and had produced three oil paintings with a westerly view of the lake. The paintings varied in tone, light, and mood, like Monet’s six paintings of the church in Vernon. Del and Laurel exchanged no words, but communed silently like the herons and cranes.
Del often gathered fallen leaves and blossoms for compost for the vegetable planters he had built in the back of his shared rental house. I had been drawn to gardening less for the love of plants than for reasons of ecology–Dad and Stepchick had volunteered with me in a community garden when I was in high school and I loved composting, loved the magic process that turned kitchen scraps and moldering leaves into a rich, crumbly black mass with an odour of clean earth that scrubbed my brain clean. After Del distanced himself from us, I had become the go-between for job-related messages between him and the crew, and often chatted with him about the art and science of composting. In mid-summer he wanted to start a new hot pile for an August planting of fava beans and spinach. He knew that I surfed every day–I’d met a cute surfer girl–and he asked with the tentative air of a prisoner seeking help from a guard if I’d bring him a bag of kelp for his pile. I met him outside the park the next day and hoisted a bag full of kelp into the trunk of his Civic, which was pockmarked with rust from years in the fog. “My good deed for the day,” I observed with a smiling nod at the Boy Scout credo. My voice contained no sarcasm, but Del misread me, and his smile drained–though it refilled quickly when he detected something amiss in my face, as if cheerfulness were a duty he owed me.
The next day was ripe for a favor in return. Dawn, my surfer girl, was out of school early, and the waves were delicious. “Clock me out, Del, just a bit early?” Disappointment etched lines in Del’s face that stung me like the whippy young branches I fought on the job. “F- you,” I said. His mouth puffed out and his eyes pooled with hurt, and he looked like a seven year-old on the verge of crying–which I imagined he had been, for I recognized the expression as that of my own little brother, mama’s little darling, a high school honor student whose face filled with dismay every time I insisted that I was stopping out of college. Del didn’t speak, but lacked the decency to stop broadcasting hurt and judgment with his stare. So I went back to Jack, and he clocked me out.
I resigned as go-between, and Tanisha took over. Not that she approved of Del, but there was something of the social worker in her, or the nurse, or the nun, some sense of higher duty that extended to lepers and management stooges. Kewl, kewl, Del was out of my mind, and Jack, Tess, Tex, and I toked clouds of togetherness which could not be pierced by the awareness of Del, who gathered the fallen leaves of late summer in solitary preparation for a fall squash planting.
“He reminds me of those Chinese coolie-majiggies,” said Tess with a twinkle, “kneeling on the ground in rice paddies like.” Sensing disapproval in Tanisha’s wide eyes, she added, “Hey, I love the Chinese.”
“Sure you do,” said Tex, “they’re not taking your job or house, or all the good schools.”
“The only reason they’re in good schools,” said Tanisha, shaking Cleopatra dreads at Tex, “is they’re in the schools.” Tex turned his face from the dart and noticed Del bagging leaves for compost. “That boy got the right to take that stuff away?”
Jack’s eyes gleamed as he drew on a joint. “That’s city property, ain’t it?”
Tess pinned me to the tree with her eyes. “What do you think, Professor?”
“I think so,” I said. “I mean, rules are rules, even Del would agree.” That raised three gator grins, but I added an ecology rationale for my own sake. “I mean, those leaves are mulch, they decompose and nourish the soil. It’s important to leave them in place.”
Indian Summer, the best time of the year, when the tourists are gone and the days are warm, and a bright white light washes over the city. Del would never protest a Lugie decision, so he was gone, too. Within days it seemed like he’d never been there, as if he’d been a Sim from earlier game play. Dawn was gone, too, back to Santa Cruz to continue her studies and take up again with her real boyfriend, an ecology major at UC who restored hiking trails and saved sea lions and surely would save the world one day. Laurel had not gone for how could she, when intense white light glittered on brown and scarlet leaves and left golden streaks undulating on the surface of the lake? She was nearly done with a canvas she’d been working on for two weeks when I screwed up my courage and approached from behind.
She had captured the light show perfectly. The clarity of the landscape was beyond photographic, the sharpness of contour and brightness of color richer than life, even better than life. “Do you like it?” she said, for her keen elfin ears had heard me approaching;–or, maybe, she’d sensed my approach, for she seemed possessed of supernal perception. She studied me closely as I studied the painting, and the intensity of her gaze burned me. “It’s fantastic,” I said. “It’s–” I sought the right words to express the awe I felt when I gazed at the painting, the desire I had to place it on my bedroom wall where it would catch the light from the airshaft, my affection for the painter herself. But my thoughts were arrested by the sight of a painting leaning against her easel.
It was a portrait of Del. He stood near the artist in gardening clothes, and had lowered the hand in which he held pruning shears as he faced the lake on a late afternoon, as if the beauty of the moment had overwhelmed him and compelled him to stop working. Del stared at the lake through serene eyes nearly closed, and his unlined face, as smooth as gold leaf, radiated a golden hue which softened the air.
“Do you like that one?” asked Laurel. Through water-blue eyes unblinking as a camera’s aperture she observed my same, old, stupid, crooked grin. With a smile turned up at her mouth’s sharp edges, she watched me drift off like dandelion fuzz.