Now in the suburbs and the falling light
I followed him and now down sandy road
Whiter than bone dust, through the sweet
Curdle of fields, where the plums
Dropped with their load of ripeness one by one.
Froggie Went a’Courtin
The local legend was that Woody Guthrie hitched across the Alleghenies and hiked to George’s heal, just to learn his songs—long before he moved into the house across the street from us. His wife was young, a single braid brushed her denimed ass, as she chased her kids running naked on the lawn. So many pilgrims came with their dark cases (incendiary, the neighbors thought) and thumb and finger picks. The flailing of five-strings, the strumming of gut, almost banned the balm from summer nights in the neighborhood. What did our mothers make of him, George, singing on the deck of the anesthesiologist’s sunken pool? His blaring voice, his trunks a mere jockstrap, his goat-beard, and his hairless body jumping-jack taut: Froggie went a’courtin and he did ride / Sword and pistol at his side?
There was Frank the father, Frankie the son, and Dee the daughter. His wife remained nameless to us—sequestered in the kitchen. Frank had a business dyeing and resoling shoes in the city. A cobbler like his old man back in Calabria. Frankie cut school and whenever he could, swiped our Schwinns for parts. Dee, she teased her jet hair so high she couldn’t sit up in boyfriends’ souped-up coupes.
Frank really knew how to throw a party. All up and down the block relatives’ hardtops jockeyed for spots, jitterbugging a racket, huge numbers of them. When some of them parked on his lawn, it was okay that they shaved the points from pussy willow buds, so eager they were for steaks.
The Robinsons next door had seven kids, all the girls named something and Marie. The boys hogged all the paper routes. Bud, the father, while his sister-nuns visited, mowed and edged his lawn, raking his brow distractedly. He’d just been convicted of embezzling fifty-thou from the church account of the bank he managed. Now he was awaiting sentencing. I did it for the kids, he pleaded in the press, tuitions, uniforms, second and third collections at mass, a suit for ushering. Jesus, we eat like everybody else—somehow it slipped away.
Oh, what he wouldn’t give being down the shore, back in Wildwood under the boardwalk with his wife Rose, unpregnant, about to be. The subdivision they’d move into still the fetid kelp of a notion entangling the mind of some sunning developer. The future bobbing up and down on on the whitecaps.
Fred and wife (their last name unpronounceable) made sure to secure his home years before the word crime entered our neighborhood. He installed unstormable storm doors and windows, attic locks and chain. He rigged bells and buzzers. Fred was bone-thin in tennis whites, rushing off to the courts in his Saab. He must have been important before the War, over there, Hungry or Romania, somewhere, unstudied in history class, the latest atrocity never making it into the curriculum. It seemed as though he’d been displaced with dream ease: death camp to tennis camp for them and their sons. Never more than a private word. Who had time anyway? What with all those shelters to be built: tax and bomb.
Tommy did the hair of all the wives except his own, who was the frumpiest on the block. He specialized in bouffants and streaks, henna hints and highlights, and he had them coming back each week. For some it was the way he’d agitate their nape and pinch the downy fluff before his blade would graze the neck, the way it poised tickling a vein—as Tommy blew some bit of gossip in one ear, hooking hair around the other. For others it was the way he understood the quasi-spiritual qualities of color—as though he’d tape a curt manifesto atop Only Your Hairdresser Knows For Sure posters, turning his shop into a nineteenth century Salon De Refusee—how the play of light and shadow meant everything. When do you want to look your best? He’d wink. In bed, I’d bet. He had to know before his powder and emulsions discharged the palette.
The General, U.S.M.C., Retired. He never had children and lived with his wife and invalid sister in the only rancher on a block of split-levels. We cut his lawn until sixty-eight, when word mobilized that some of us canvassed for the presidential bid of Eugene McCarthy, and had been detained by the local police. That’s when he let us go. And took to wearing fatigues, still fitting, to mow his lawn. It was an easy one, his lawn, hard for us to give up for any cause, flat except by the property line, where it peaked like a green beret. How unlike his other boundaries, trampled to dust from years of our cutting through. Efficacious as any Dow defoliant.
Everyone knew that Joe still peddled clothing door to door in his old neighborhood. He was a little guy, a street fighter, most likely, before he started to paint and draw and lie to everyone about it. As a kid he’d stuff brushes, turps, newsprint into a gym bad, pretend to board a trolley then sneak to art class. Even now, there was nothing to hint that he earned a living by strong-arming weekly payments for layaway baby togs, never-to-be-worn gowns in less than mint condition. His car was new, each May his backyard bloomed. And no one knew that his garage studioed stretched canvas. Just as no one knew that his post-war-bride, Mimi, was underage when she offered to model in his G.I. Bill financed Paris room, no larger than a cage, pregnant. He brought her over here, having had his fill Of La Vie de Boheme. So much subterfuge to keep it all under wraps—until the cancer struck and his tumored eye was removed; he hired me to maneuver his huge Bonneville through row house streets. That’s when he confessed it all, then raised my pay making me his stooge. My driving was so poor it caused his eye to pop out each time my toes depressed the power brakes, avoiding stickball hit and marauding kids. Then it would roll beneath the seat and he’d curse the dusty globule, before wiping it with chintz.
Irv was an anesthesiologist, though he claimed all he did was put people to sleep. It paid for his pool, his acre-lot, the TR3 whose gears he ground, over-revved, curving up our sloping block each day at dawn. So many clutches—husbands along the way shook their heads, fingering for keys over Frosted Flakes, to Buick, Rambler, Olds. Envious, they heard them strip and angered; but no, he only shredded one.
A colleague’s casual diagnosis threw Irv’s world into overdrive: his wife rushed through law school at night, his daughters given ponies, stabled at the polo club. Irv, he was the first to leave the sub-division for any reason, including transfer, divorce, and abandonment. First to escape these grazed fields and blazing woods, this pastureland, where bull-dozers and graders dumped topsoil and clean fill. Where cheap mortgages, weary farmers, jobs and builders, made otherwise righteous and hardworking people disbelieve that words, the glistering protective skin of final vocabularies, were just as edible as backyard plums.
Leonard Kress' most recent poetry collections are Thirteens, The Orpheus Complex, and Living in the Candy Store, and forthcoming, Surplus. He currently teaches philosophy, religion, and creative writing at Owens College in Ohio.