Somewhere someone is using a leaf blower. Men like leaf blowers. They wrest a mild order from the world while dinner cooks. And perhaps a bit of decompression is going on, a working out and winding down of the day’s troubles, troubles filtered through the whine.
When the blowing stops, I hear children’s voices and a fatherly voice--by tone, an instruction. Men huddle on the unfinished back room of a recently framed-in house behind me and in murmurs plot the next day. A truck door slams and an engine wakes. Underneath all this the groan of traffic can be heard, the comings and goings, the hum of homecomings, garage doors haled. Twittering and chirping birds are interspersed in the days-end sounds and, beneath that, the swish of branches in the breeze. Rays of sunlight stretch across the lawn as the earth turns.
I turn back to the poem I’m reading by the late James Tate about a raccoon named Elvis, the one he tried to shoot with a shotgun but ended up sleeping with. Reading such verse and pondering their meanings is what I do instead of blowing leaves. It has a calming effect. I didn’t know anything about Tate until now, because I don’t usually read journals like The Paris Review. Until today.
Dinner is on, somewhere. The wind rubs against the magnolia leaves and the over 35-year old volunteer quivers, like the tremor of the aged. The unseasonably humid air cools as it licks my face, a dog just happy to see his master. A plane’s motor bemoans its passing. A black-wash shadow cast by my neighbors’ house creeps up the side of my home.
Tate is odd. In his absurd poem entitled “The Government Lake,” also the title of a recent posthumous collection of his poetry, a man is in his car headed to the toy store. A policeman diverts traffic due to a fallen tree. The man drives for hours in a hypnotic trance. Finally he stops the car and begins walking. He comes to a lake with a dock and walks to the end of the dock where he sees a tire in the water--no, a man; no, a tire. Then this:
A man walked up behind me and said, “This government lake is off-limits to the public. You’ll have to leave.” I said, “I didn’t know it was a government lake. Why should it be off-limits?” He said, “I’m sorry. You’ll have to leave.” “I don’t even know where I am,” I said. “You’ll still have to leave,” he said. “What about that man out there?” I said, pointing to the tire. “He’s dead,” he said. “No, he’s not. I just saw him move his arm,” I said. He removed his pistol from his holster and fired a shot. “Now he’s dead,” he said.
I think Tate’s having a joke on us.
Sleepy dusk twitters from workday birds. Jet flayed over sky. A last construction worker in an orange vest slogs wearily to his truck.
Empty bird feeder. Mottled gray stone. Picnic-less table. Osmantis trees. Shaking blue umbrella. Creaking, aged pines--thin men with green heads in the clouds.
Now I have a small brown paper bag in my hand, a mallet in the other, and I’m walking among the towering pines toward the plot at the back fence which serves as our animal graveyard. The last burial was that of my daughter’s gerbil, and that was many years ago. He didn’t get a memory stone. This time, it’s one of her beloved geckos, and I am her pall bearer. I keep the box she was laid in level out of respect, an honor guard with a carefully folded flag, body. I lay her gently on the pine straw, dig a hole in loamy black earth, place her in it, and cover her.
And then, I pause and pray. Even a soulless gecko, with its small brain and bug eyes, is one of God’s own, and more, was one of my daughter’s beloveds. She was sad this morning when she discovered her lifeless body.
Next month she will marry.
Tate did make me smile with this poem, “The Blue Booby,” which I dedicate to the gecko, may she rest In peace:
The blue booby lives
on the bare rocks
and fears nothing.
It is a simple life:
they live on fish,
and there are few predators.
Also, the males do not
make fools of themselves
chasing after the young
they gather the blue
objects of the world
and construct from them
a nest—an occasional
a string of beads,
a piece of cloth from
a sailor’s suit. This
replaces the need for
in fact, in the past
fifty million years
the male has grown
nor can he sing well.
The female, though,
asks little of him—
the blue satisfies her
a magical effect
on her. When she returns
from her day of
gossip and shopping,
she sees he has found her
a new shred of blue foil:
for this she rewards him
with her dark body,
the stars turn slowly
in the blue foil beside them
like the eyes of a mild savior.
That’s all it takes, apparently, for blue booby marital accord--just a new shred of blue foil. I could feel that way about blue. I look away.
Pete has put away his leaf blower.
Dinner is on.
The children have been summoned.
The rich, black earth has settled over her lizard body to await a new heavens and new earth.
I look up to where stars hide behind the dusky, still sunlit, blue-foil sky, behind the eyes of which lie no mild Savior.