Tony the neighbor used to mow our lawn with a mower that moved along on its own. He just walked behind it and steered. When he mowed, Tony did not wear a shirt. He was absolutely principled about his shirtlessness. I knew even then—I was only nine or ten—that Tony was good-looking. And I knew that he knew this, and that this self-confidence heightened his appeal. When he came in to get the lemonade from my Mom—clichéd, sure, but it was always a cold glass of that pink, gritty, I-believe-in-me! Crystal Light that she served visitors—Tony’s sexiness dominated the kitchen.
—Sure is hot, he wiped his brow.
—Have another glass, said my mother.
She stood at the counter, eating celery in her constant effort to “watch her weight,” her calico apron cradling her stomach. I never considered my mother overweight. Rather, she was Rubenesque, with a lonely sweet tooth and a clean-plate ethos. But the way she talked endlessly of Weight Watchers and calorie counting and clothing sizes revealed that her figure was her Achilles heel.
—Your flowers sure look nice, Helen, said Tony.
—Thank you, my mother blushed.
I was right there, pretending to do my homework, listening.
Tony was Italian, upfront. He lived on the dead-end with his parents and a whole swarm of interchangeable brothers—I never did get the count. They all worked together in the family landscaping company, the Giovano Brothers. Whenever I saw the brothers at work, I’d think about how much money they were saving the company by going without shirts. Everybody in the neighborhood hired them to mow their lawns, except where dads did the mowing themselves. My buddy Randall’s father took pride in lawn care. I remember how excited he was when he got his first leaf-blower.
—Get a load of this lift, he cried, revving the two-cycle engine, blowing dirt in my eyes.
Tony played the hardworking and charismatic bachelor. He had a motorcycle, seemed to have everything together. But he was a loner. I’d see ladies on the back of his bike, always a different girl, cruising out on a Saturday night. He’d take his dates to the pizza place where my friends and I hung out, then ride around town with them, forcing them to cling to his abs as he careened around the bends. It made sense to me that he’d conduct his dates on the bike, in all that noisy wind—I couldn’t for the life of me imagine what they’d talk about over their pizza dinners.
Around the neighborhood, Tony would joke with me, punch me on the shoulder and whatnot, but I didn’t care for his banter. I just wanted to be old enough to walk behind a mower myself.
Sometimes you have a beat on certain people, meaning, you know when they’re around and what they’re up to, and I had this beat on Tony. What I mean is I was always running into him one way or another, and half the time I felt like I’d caught him in the middle of something. Like when I came out of the bush once—I’d been fetching a basketball (the Giovanas let us use their basketball hoop)—and caught Tony smoking a joint on his back porch.
—It gets you high, son, he exhaled with effortless cool. Makes the world seem softer.
I too wanted to feel that languid and free. There was something in Tony’s way, his detachment, or rather his ability to remain unattached, that I found myself observing closely, taking notes for the future. As much as he could rub me the wrong way, Tony had figured something out—about being cool, or about being a man, I wasn’t sure—and if I didn’t exactly admire him, I did look to him for clues to an as yet unnamed mystery.
Once I turned the corner of our living room and I saw him leaning up against the wall in the hallway that led to the bedrooms of our rancher. My Mom was on the far side of him. He was drinking his lemonade, shamelessly hitting on my her.
—Must get lonely, he said, living here all alone.
—I’ve got four kids, Tony, Mom said.
—You know what I mean, Tony said.
My Mom couldn’t see me there, on account of Tony standing between us. Grass clippings clung to his slick back under the pale hallway light.
—I’m not sure I do, Mom said.
To this day, I can’t remember if she said it coyly or flatly. On the surface, my Mom was a good, reliable, Christian woman. So I tend to remember a flat tone. But when I try to re-imagine the scene, when I try to get the story straight in my own mind, I tell myself, Well, depending on her mood, I suppose she could have said it either way: coyly or flatly. Because that’s the way people really are: unpredictable, creative, capable of anything in the moment.
His back glistening, Tony took a step toward my mother. She was in her white robe. Her arms, which she had held crossed beneath her chest, fell to her sides. Tony stopped and emptied his glass of lemonade: the right elbow of his drinking arm raised higher than the glass, which was pitched nearly perpendicular to the floor above his mouth; the ice jingling down upon his upper lip and then back down to the bottom of the glass after he had finished. The extended, pleasure-filled Ahh. As Tony bent low to place his glass on the carpet, my mother said,
—Don’t put that there.
She said that curtly, raising her right eyebrow.
Tony noticed my presence behind him—he kind of had a beat on me, too—and he turned and made a comment about the day that I’d become the Household Lawnmower. As he passed me, he gave me a lighthearted knuckle jab in the kidney, and I hit him back hard in the thigh. He laughed and said,
—Got a little Rocky Marciano on our hands, don’t we?
He wrestled me to the ground, his sweat all over me. I yelled at him to get off, flailed a swing at him, missed.
—I best get back to that yard, he said, crawling off me. Call me sometime, Helen, after all, I live right across the street.
My Mom pursed her lips and shook her head, found the line crude, that Tony would say such a thing in front of me. My mother considered herself quite sophisticated. At bedtime, she used to read to me from Blake’s Songs of Innocence. I’d seen her turn back a glass of wine she found unpalatable. And she was perpetually correcting my speech. Since my father had left five years prior, she was also lonely, prone to depression, and it was obvious how much she enjoyed Tony’s devil-may-care flirtations. She’d linger with him, throw a wink. When Tony paid attention to her, she was into it. Maybe she just wanted to connect. Everyone does. So when Tony showed his crudeness, his ungrammatical shirtlessness, it must’ve irked her that much more. As Tony let himself out, my frazzled Mom hustled into the bathroom.
I watched Tony mow the back yard, looking out the kitchen window, my teeth bared back to the molars.
My friend Randall could be awful selfish. He had a habit of injecting his self into the situation. Like once when we were playing Flip Card. The idea is you flip your baseball card in its plastic casing, then I flip mine: if I match your flip—say, heads-up on heads-up—then I win your card; if I don’t match your flip—tails-up on heads-up—then you win my card. Randall and I loved this game. There was something precise, almost mystical, in trying to perfect one’s wrist flip. Mystical is a fancy word, but trying to predict and then bring about your own triumphant future made the game quite a thrill. When I won, my arms and limbs tingled. Randall and I could play for hours on end.
The problem was I always beat him. Frankly, he was terrible at the game, and I was pretty damned good. I wasn’t the best. My brother was the best, but I was pretty damned good. One day I took seventeen of Randall’s cards in a row. Do the math and you find there are fantastic odds against such an outcome in a relatively random game such as Flip Card. But with Randall as my witness, I’m telling you I out-flipped him seventeen times straight and took seventeen of his cards in a stinking row. That kind of stuff blows my mind.
So what does Randall do? He complains, he blames me, as if I invented gravity.
—You’re such a fucking jerk! he yelled.
Randall talked like that, like his dad, with the foul language.
—What? I pleaded.
—Why do you have to go and win like that? he argued.
—Isn’t that the point? I said.
—I thought the fucking point was to have fun!
—I am having fun, I said.
—Well, I’m not!, he cried in a terrific pout.
—I’m sorry, I said.
—It’s like you never even think about me. You come over to my house, eat my Pop-Tarts, drink my iced-tea, play in my room, and then you think it’s okay to just go ahead and win all of my cards. You’re mean, Denis! That’s all there is to it! You never think about anybody but yourself. I don’t like you! In fact, I hate you! You are so mean, and you don’t even know it. Get out of here! Get out of here, and never come back!
He picked up his cards—including the seventeen cards I had just won, in other words, my seventeen cards—and slammed himself shut in the adjacent bathroom. He called out again,
—Leave! I don’t want you here when I get out!
So I gathered my things and let myself out. The last time Randall had kicked me out, four days prior to this incident, I had gone to the park to wander a while, to collect myself and watch myself think. But I didn’t feel like doing that this time. Sometimes watching one’s own thoughts can be harrowing, generally when the observed thoughts are what I call negative thoughts. And what with all the things Randall had just said to me, what with all that on my mind, I figured I’d just head home and watch TV. I checked my watch—if I hustled, I could catch the dénouement of Inspector Gadget.
You ever remember the very first time you thought about something? Like the first time you thought about the Electoral College? Or the first time you thought about global warming? Or the first time you thought about why birds fly in patterns? Well, walking home, I thought, for the first time, about what makes people happy. Bummed out by Randall’s crap, I tried to figure out how, when one is bummed, one gets happy. I didn’t figure it out.
Above me, birds flew in oblong ovals against a transparent grey sky. For a moment, I connected to that image, to the birds flying in the sky—I stood still, my neck bent backwards, and I was fully absorbed by the scene, do you know what I mean?—and that, not the image but the absorption, that made me happy.
At home, I heard noises coming from the hallway. The onerous grunts I’d heard once when I walked in on my older brother in the den straining to decipher some station for which we didn’t even get reception.
I walked towards the noises. Framed school pictures hanging on the walls stared me down the hallway. A mirror at the end of the hall reflected my quiet tiptoe. I heard the creak of my Mom’s bed. The grunts of a man crescendoing against my mother taking the Lord’s name in vain! Something she never did!
As I stood before the door, my conscience—that bugaboo!—told me not to open it. Do not open this door, Denis. My mind told me of the necessity of privacy. Everybody needs time alone, especially adults. I shut my eyes, trying in vain to quiet the voice. Denis, you have nothing to do with this! I took hold of the doorknob. Do not open this door!!!
I opened the door to a rank sweatiness, a glistening back, a half glass of lemonade on the bedside table.
Tony turned, held a smile over his shoulder before barking,
—Get out of here, Denis! Get!
I saw my mother’s legs up in the air, her hair splayed out against the pillow. Tony turned back towards my mother, and I charged towards his back, my fists swinging viciously, my nails digging into his skin. He defended himself, chuckling,
—Whoa, little man! Easy!
My mother yelled,
—Denis, go to the kitchen! Now!
Tony brushed me off. I was crying. My mother, covering herself in sheets, yelled at me again, and in an angry huff, I stormed back down the hallway and slunk into a kitchen chair. I heard my mother stomping down the hall after me.
—You’re never to open your mother’s door when she has company, she scolded me, Do you understand, Denis?
I dropped my head, nothing to say. Under the table, my fists were still clenched, my knuckles red.
Tony had gone outside to finish the mowing, and when my mother heard the sound of the mower’s engine catch to start up, she stormed out, screaming at him. Standing on the porch, I could hear the peaks of their terrible battle even over the deafening roar of the mower. The meanest stuff is always the loudest.
—Pig!, my mother yelled. You couldn’t even get off me when he came in!
Tony smirked devilishly, took his time with his delivery, for he knew how to ruin her:
—You. Fat. Fucking. Slut.
Fists clenched, I charged headlong. But there were no landed punches this time. Tony held me at bay by sticking his palm on my forehead and straightening his arm. My mother told me to go back inside, immediately.
—Just you and your little welterweight, Tony joked, quickly flipping to his other hand to hold me back.
He shoved me off and swaggered down the driveway, turning to give my mother that Italian fuck you, his fingers flicking forward from beneath his chin. My mother sighed, her shoulders dropping low. Perhaps she’d won the fight, but she’d lost much in the victory.
Father Giovano sent over brother Gerry to finish the mowing. Shirtless and bony, he moved back and forth across the lawn in straight, tidy lines. He was more careful than Tony had ever been maneuvering around my mother’s flower beds. As my anger ebbed, I realized I felt more awful than triumphant. I watched my mother smoke her cigarette and look out the window at lanky, awkward Gerry struggling to control that big, self-propelled mower. The roar of the engine carried through the windows. The windowscreens caught the clippings that kicked up, as the house filled with the smell of freshly cut grass. I felt the loneliness of mother and son afloat in a linoleum kitchen on a nameless Tuesday afternoon. I felt that my mother was angry with me, but at the same time that she wasn’t. Mostly, I felt confused, and that there would be more confusion to come. Yet there was nothing more to say.
I was duly punished: no TV for a week. I needed that week off from TV, not to so-called think about what I’d done, but because I had quite a bit of information to process. What goes in never comes out. I didn’t sleep well for weeks. I’d turn on my bedside radio and listen to Harry Callas call the Phillies game, but I kept imagining Tony playing second base instead of Juan Samuel. Or Tony catching a flyball in center field. Or Tony pitching, my mother at bat. But whenever I tried to actually think about what I’d seen, or what it meant, there was a gap in my mind. I could only make out the images: the tangled sheets, the grass on Tony’s back, my mother’s legs in the air.
Years later, I realized my mother was a woman first, then a mother. But delving deeper I see now how epiphanies can be misleading. How they come endlessly folded into and pitted against one another. Because when I think of the experience now, it’s not so much about my mother, or even about me and my mother, about my visceral defending of her—it’s about me and Tony. Coming to terms with how Tony could seduce and then walk away, with how he could flirt with and then cruelly denigrate my mother, meant coming to terms with how men behave, and with how sex is like tossing a pair of human animals into a boxing ring. Moreover, for me, the story is about how men have passed through my life and how I have looked to them in vain for guidance, for models. It’s about my fatherlessness, and about how I have never been able to fill that gap. And how it took me years and years to just stop trying.