Word Choice features original works of fiction and poetry. Read “Backyard Man” by Sean Madigan Hoen, selected by Rosie Parker and Rachel Mercer.
Gordon zipped closed the pup tent’s interior window and cranked the activator on the bug bomb he’d set atop his sleeping bag. A Total Release Fogger––the thing was good for poisoning an area of four hundred square feet. Covering his mouth, Gordon shimmied backwards through the tent’s oval door, sealing the final zipper around it. God have mercy, if that didn’t do the trick. The insects had come in droves after he’d gotten lazy about recapping the peanut butter and left out a half-eaten tin of potted meat. Earwigs, especially, gave him the sickies. He wasn’t about to scrape every last menace from the tent’s polyester until they were good and dead. There were skeeters and gnats and fruit flies in there, too, but not for long. Friday morning and the sun was rising. He stood shirtless in his backyard, next to the kids’ swing set. He’d been camping here all summer on account of Shannon putting him out and telling him not to set foot inside the house until he was ready to surrender his caffeine pills and make some changes.
Living outdoors wasn’t a bad rub. He had a battery-powered radio and a flashlight. After a long day working at the Faygo Cola warehouse he could cool himself off in the kids’ inflatable pool. Gordon would have holed up in the garage had the roof not collapsed that March. The whole thing needed to be torn down one of these days, but after twelve years of owning the property, what was the rush? There were worse looking spreads on the block, not that a guy should go measuring himself against the riff raff. Despite these lackluster times, Gordon was a proud man. Shannon knew he’d stick it out in the tent until the first frost, which was just the kind of tough love that kept him wild for her all these years.
He stepped into his boots and walked up to rap a knuckle on the kitchen window.
Shannon was inside washing dishes and made a dismal face until Gordon tugged on his ears and stuck out his tongue. Then he mouthed, “I love you.” She smiled–– her crooked dimple–– shaking a dishrag at him. Once the kids were off to school, she’d get started on her medical transcriptions, at which she was a work-from-home expert, out-earning Gordon by a tax bracket. He widened his palm, reaching up to tap the wedding ring against the window, and Shannon extended her sudsy fingertips, smudging them against the plate glass so that their hands nearly touched.
Gordon walked down the driveway to his Bronco, where he stashed most of his clothes and a canister of Adonis Body Spray, as well as the toothbrush he dragged under the spigot each morning. He might have crawled back into bed with his wife any night, but––beyond his caffeine jitters, the grinding of his teeth that kept Shannon awake–– there was an unspoken aspect to this standoff. What Shannon truly wanted was out of the neighborhood, and Gordon didn’t have it in him to put in extra hours at the Faygo warehouse. Even if money wasn’t the case, he saw no reason to scurry from town as so many had. While living in the backyard, he’d resolved to stand ground and see to it that the neighborhood remained an upright place.
Shannon fretted over the Arab families moving into West Dearborn. They didn’t hang Christmas lights or keep gardens. They kept to themselves. The ones who were aloof or outright rude were so in an unfamiliar style. Shannon was no bigot, yet it spooked her that certain Arab homeowners tended to knock down oak trees for a more desert-like landscaping scheme. Not to mention that Jackson, their ten year old son, had incited trouble over at the school by plucking the scarf from a young Arab-girl’s head, dashing off for a game of hide and seek that would later put the girl’s father into kill-mode. Jackson had had good luck drawing attentions from his peers by luring them into a little cat-and-mouse––but how to explain the severe difference when it came to the Iraqis? For Shannon, it was plain and simply too complicated. The Arabs had long run the show in the East End; now they were ranging out. A hookah lounge had opened on Michigan Ave and a Mosque was going up on Ford Road. If you believed the Detroit Free Press, Dearborn had more Arabs-per-mile than anywhere outside the Middle East. Decades ago, they’d come for the auto and steel plants, and were just about the only folks with the wiles to flourish once housing market collapsed and Ford Motor’s stock tanked.
Gordon was sick of organizing pallets of soda, doing inventory––Cream Soda, Moon Mist––slapping invoices onto cases of aluminum cans. He looked forward to making it back to the neighborhood each day, and didn’t mind Arabs or anyone else, so long as they kept out of his yard. Mutual respect was all it took to uphold the decency of a place. Way he saw it, good towns went to hell when people got antsy and fled for some easier way. His kids had a fine life in a neighborhood just like he’d been raised, where there were dogs barking and rascals on BMX bikes chasing banged up ice cream trucks. Dearborn wasn’t the laps of luxury, but Gordon didn’t want to see it go the way of Detroit. Those McMansions out in the real suburbs were half the reason the state was up shit’s creek and Gordon wasn’t the type to get suckered into some nosebleed mortgage.
He yanked open the Bronco’s tailgate to poke through his laundry. He’d been leaving his dirties on the back porch and Shannon had been returning the loads there, washed and folded. As he was yanking a pair of Levis up his legs, Nick, the kid who’d bought the foreclosed Cape Cod across the street, approached the curb.
“Morning,” said Nick.
“Don’t you know it,” said Gordon.
He stuffed an arm into one of his cowboy shirts, the kind with the snaps. His Faygo Inc. Distribution Associate nameplate remained pinned to the breast pocket from the day before. Nick was a good fifteen years younger, in his twenties, and wore a shirt just like Gordon’s. It was a style that went away and came back again.
“Look at that,” Gordon said, pointing from Nick’s shirt to his own.
Dodging the coincidence, Nick took a solemn gander at Gordon’s badge.
“Just warnin’ the neighborhood,” Nick said. “We got a garage party brewing tonight. We’ll try to keep it down, but I lose track.”
“So many beers,” Gordon said.
“That’s right,” said Nick; up close, he looked scrawny and sleepless. “You come on by and have one.”
Gordon didn’t do well with beer. It spaced him right out into the weird zone. The roughnecks at the soda warehouse could keep all those after hours suds for themselves, same with their hangovers. Caffeine was Gordon’s only vice–– that and the Nyquil he chugged every night in order to get a wink. Shannon worried about his ticker and his kidneys, but Gordon was hooked on the speedy mood a strong dose of caffeine put him in after work.
“I used to love garage parties,” Gordon said. “It’s my favorite room in the house. Too bad about ours.”
Nick gazed up Gordon’s driveway, as if he’d never noticed the fallen roof.
“Yeah,” he said. “But first, a bunch of us are going downtown to check out City Hall today.”
“That what kids do now?”
“That freak preacher from Florida is coming back to burn another Koran on the steps. National news, man. He thinks Muslims are the Devil’s people. We’re figuring the Arabs might get him this time.”
“Um-hah,” Gordon said. “Man oh man.”
He’d picked up some late-night talk radio about the controversy on the battery-powered transistor, but he didn’t pay much mind to politics. You start small and make the right choice when it’s asked of you, and where’s the fuss in that? All these oil men and holy bushwhackers––he imagined they’d all get a grip if they just met up for meatball subs or some such unpretentious rendezvous. Gordon had a taste for falafel balls and confided with an amiable coworker named Akmed who, every lunch break, took reprieve in his sedan and prayed. The old Iraqi was unshakably tranquil, and a wizard when it came to organizing the soda warehouse, despite the fact that he himself never touched the sugary libations. Gordon had thought about asking to tag along one of these days, maybe do some mealtime chanting or whatchamacallit.
“Shit,” Gordon said. “A riot, right there on Michigan Ave.”
He raked a hand through his ruffled brown hair. He always told Rex at Rex Cuts to give him a Johnny Cash look, but things never quite shaped up that way.
“Could be one for the books,” Nick said. “Me and my peeps, we gonna check it.”
After work, with the weekend ahead, Gordon cruised by the East End courthouse on Michigan and Shafer. There wasn’t evidence of any riot having happened. He’d asked Akmed about it, who’d claimed certain Muslims believed they were within their god-given rights to seek vengeance upon any man who burned a Koran; but come lunch time the genial fellow went to meditate in the parking lot as usual. On the steps of City Hall, nothing remained but scraps of litter and a line of hazard tape.
Gordon pulled into the nearest gas station for a pick-me-up. There was no denying that Shannon was right about him being in a pickle. Every day, around six p.m., a banging headache came on strong if he didn’t pop a caffeine tablet, and it was tough going, figuring how to put an end to it. Today, all he could think about was Red Alerts––those gave a lasting boost, with a special tingle Hot Rox failed to achieve. Better make it a bottle of syrup, too. Shannon didn’t so much mind that part of his program because it calmed him down and turned him cuddly.
“Couple a them.” Gordon pointed at the red pellets behind the counter. The cashier was a young Arab who always gave Gordon a dubious feeling. He snatched the package and slapped it down.
“And the Nyquil,” Gordon said. “P.M.”
“You come up and go back down,” said the cashier.
“Hey, what you know about this rally that went on today across the street?”
The cashier took a scrutinizing look, as if gathering an idea about the nature of Gordon’s inquiry. “Foolish,” he said. “Someone threw a bullet and just missed.”
“Threw a bullet?” Gordon said. “That’s not gonna do any good.”
The clerk flashed a shrewd eye and Gordon knew he was testing his ground. Once he thought about it, the idea of being struck by a pitched bullet made him wince.
“Someone comes and burns your Bible, right on your own front lawn.” The clerk wagged the waxy pill packet. “Whatever he gets, well––” then he clicked his tongue the way Arabs around there tended to do.
It was a tough point to argue, but this man was pinning Gordon as the wrong type.
“Bible,” Gordon said. “I didn’t say nothing about a Bible, but I hear you about the lawn. I’m livin’ on mine twenty-four-seven.” And this tied the clerk’s tongue and put a furrow in his head, giving Gordon time to collect his change and boogie out the door before another word was spoken.
He gave his daughter Charlotte a push on the swing and tossed a rubber football with Jackson, all in high-speed flurry that had the kids roaring. Gordon did both at once: shoving Charlotte high enough that she shrieked after a single push, then dashing out to receive a pass and chuck it back to Jackson before the swing’s momentum dwindled. He chased Jackson around the tent. He unraveled the garden hose and sprayed the two of them down. Charlotte was nine, a year younger than Jackson, but Gordon had twice their steam; and one sad day it would be when he couldn’t keep pace with the little beauties. By the end they were panting and laughing, hugging his legs in an attempt trying to drag him inside the house.
“No, no,” Gordon said, the way superheroes do after a life-saving mission, when the minions beg them to take a load off. “Daddy’s in the wild.”
The kids lumbered up the back porch, and with her spidery senses Shannon was there to hold open the door just in time. Gordon blew her a kiss and she swirled her index finger around her ear instead of just saying outright, “You’re crazy.” When the door closed, Gordon yanked himself up for sixteen pull-ups on the swing set’s crossbar before walking over to unzip the pup tent.
A gut-fuck odor wafted out––a chemical stench that from where he stood made his face twitch. He pinched his nostrils and stuck his head inside. The Total Fogger bomb had done some damage, all right. Two spiders had curled themselves into brown knots and the gnats had altogether evaporated. A cluster of earwigs lay piled in a corner, where a tiny hole had been ripped in the nylon. The critters must have been crawling for air when they up and died. Gordon tried to manage another lungful of the fumes. The effect was so noxious he stumbled backwards and spent a few seconds spitting at the ground.
“Son of an ass,” he said.
He looked up at the kitchen window to make sure no one had seen. The light was out. Shannon was probably already luring the kids to bed. It was getting to be dusk. Gordon gathered a bundle of socks from the Bronco and stuffed them inside a T-shirt for a pillow. Unsnapping his cowboy shirt, he wriggled from it and tossed it in the trunk. The night was young, but he chugged most of the Nyquil then and there, opening his throat to the green syrup, thinking he’d just take a good sleep–– out in the open like people did in old times. Lying on the grass, beside the tent, he drifted off with the sense of Shannon’s soft arms around him, her belly spooned against his back. While the slightest wind blew, he felt as good as he had in a while, the box fans clattering in the windows above and inside his family was safe, drifting off one at a time.
Something brought Gordon back to the world. A boot knocking against his. A rustling of the nearby blades of his trimmed lawn––and who on earth had the nerve? He looked up into the darkness to see two figures standing above. In their hands were shiny objects, yet his head was so grogged he could barely lift it from the lump on which it lay.
His eyes burned. He closed them and succumbed to the notion of drifting back asleep until he felt the prod again, against the sole of his boot.
“What did I tell you about my lawn?” Gordon tasted syrup as he spoke.
He heard a voice, “Hey, man. Come on and drink a beer.”
With a cracked eye, Gordon saw the figure raising an aluminum can. “Diet Moon Mist,” said Gordon. “Send forty cases of Cream Soda to route ten.”
“Huh?” said the shape. Then Gordon watched Nick’s face blur into focus. He smacked his lips––dry as heck. That Nyquil could put a grown man out of just about any misery for a stretch. He’d been awoken much to soon, was scratching himself where the mosquitoes had feasted upon him.
“Fuck’s sake,” he said. “Fricken’ bug bomb asshole.”
The guy beside Nick busted a nettlesome laugh, very rude.
“Keep it down,” Gordon mumbled. “I’ve got an eye on this place.”
He slapped his cheek as earnestly as he could.
“I mean,” he said. “My family’s asleep in there.”
“We’re just seeing if you want a beer.”
Nick extended a hand. Gordon took it, the world swirling into view as he was pulled to his feet. His tent hovered just yards away, a fuzzy temptation he should not oblige. Though perhaps the fumes had dissipated, or might lull him into an even deeper rest. First thing’s first––he had to get these blockheads off his lawn.
“Come on, neighbor. Live a little,” said Nick.
“Son,” Gordon said, “time to get a move on,” stumbling barefoot behind the young men, herding them back to where they belonged.
The splendor of Nick’s garage revived a few of Gordon’s senses. The kid had done a great thing with the joint, put up a bunch of rock n’ roll posters and Christmas lights. Orange construction drums were arranged as tables, with checkered tablecloths and everything. There was marijuana smoke hazing the scene and some nasty music on the stereo, so loud it forced Gordon to cinch an eye. That’s when he noticed the girls: dressed in hip-hugging jeans and tight shirts, even the big ones. One brunette wore nothing but daisy dukes and a bra; she gazed at him with a simper, as almost everyone there seemed to be doing.
In back of the garage stood one of those speed counter contraptions the cops set up in construction zones so motorists could clock their miles-per-hour.
“Jesus H.,” said Gordon. “You in with local government?”
“Yeah,” Nick said. “But don’t go telling anyone about that.”
Fifteen or so folks crowded the single car garage, while more than Gordon could count mulled about Nick’s backyard. If it weren’t for the music, Gordon would have said they had a fine party going, just the type of sociable fun that wasn’t harm to anyone.
“Champagne,” Nick said, handing Gordon a Miller High Life.
Gordon ambled to the driveway, fussing with the bottle cap, until a girl walked over to him and cranked it off with her teeth.
“Bejeezus,” he said, and a whole bunch of people laughed.
“So,” she said. “Is it true you live in a tent?”
Gordon felt his earlobes begin to sear. He was pickled from the heavy dose of syrup and knew his mind was working half-speed.
“Who said that? About my tent?”
“No, no,” said the girl. “I mean, it’s awesome. Like, why go camping in the woods when you can do it at home?”
She giggled. She wore a black halter that practically refused to contain what skin it did conceal. Her belly glinted where a piercing was affixed to her navel. Gordon felt his eyes magnetizing to the tiny silver nub, until the girl said, “Go on, get it over with and poke it.”
He shook his head as diligently as he could, back and forth, as if to reclaim his decency, but she pulled on his left hand and brought his ring finger to touch the glimmering speck. She did the Pillsbury chuckle and Gordon took back his hand, rubbing the silver wedding band to make sure she hadn’t plucked it from him in an act of gypsy magic.
“What’s your wife think about you living in a tent?” she said.
“Good terms, me and her,” Gordon said. “It’s just this thing with the––Christ, you know how it is?”
“We went to see a weirdo burn a Koran today,” said the girl. “And then we went to Bamboozle’s bar, and then we came here.”
“Burned it right up,” Gordon said. “Weirdo schmeardo.”
“He lit it on fire,” she said.
“The camel jockeys threw a lug nut,” a kid hollered, right into Gordon’s ear.
“Scud missiles,” reported a nearby voice.
Gordon felt a number of people ogling him.
“Freedom of speech,” yelled another boy. “You can burn any book you want in this country.”
Gordon was busy trying to think up a comeback about sleeping in his backyard, a smooth line about why the hell he was living that way. He’d have given her an earful about what it meant to mind your own plot of land, but the girl twirled away. Before he could take a sip, another stood before him––just about the same size and shape, yet with an entirely different face and a golden barbell stuck through her septum.
“So, backyard man,” said the new girl. “You hunting big game back there?”
“I’m a backyard man,” crooned a boy, in the style of the ‘67 Doors classic “Backdoor Man,” confusing Gordon, because with the racket on Nick’s stereo and all these questions and polyrhythms his thought process was shit out of luck.
“I’m a backyard man.” The crowd sloppily joined together in a raucous, baritone choir. “The men don’t know/but the little girl understands.”
“I know that one,” Gordon said. “Morrison.”
And they all cracked up, throwing high fives and clanking beers.
He took a seat on a folding chair and sucked down his Miller. It tasted like soda, his mouth was so numbed and dry. With twenty pounds on most of these buggers, Gordon was cursing himself for the terrible fear having its way with him. Beneath his naked feet, the cement felt uncertain and he sensed eeriness out there in the darkness. If Shannon caught him like this, it might reduce the more valiant aspects of his exile to the pose of a slacker. His heart was thumping slow and hard, letting him know his body was in coma-mode. A good long rest was what he needed, before he’d be able to straighten his thoughts.
A guy dragged over a folding chair, taking his seat beside Gordon. He was pretty sure it was the kid who’d intruded upon his backyard with Nick, but didn’t want to go about hemming and hawing to figure it out.
“I tell you, man,” said the kid. “Fuckin’ A.” Like Nick, this husky young man wore a cowboy shirt just like Gordon’s, which caused Gordon to realize he himself was shirtless. He scratched at his chest, a few skeeter bites beneath the hair on his pectorals.
The kid leaned in. “It’s like, I’m cool with the Arabs trying to run this town and I ain’t saying that Jesus freaks burning stuff is cool, but if you live in this country why don’t you try and assimilate instead of perpetrating all that old world shit, you know?”
Gordon took a swig. He peered gut-ward and tightened his abdominals.
“Yeah,” chimed a girl. “And why have your women all dressed up like witches? It’s spooky––those black cloaks they wear all the summer and you can’t see nothing but their eyes.”
“Nothing but their eyes.” Gordon nodded––he’d never really thought about it.
“Right,” said the guy. “And those Arab dudes date white girls but don’t let their women outta sight. I gotta buddy whose sister has two kids with a married Iraqi and he don’t pay her shit because he’s got all his gas station money in his parents’ name, so legally he don’t have to shell out nothing.”
The kid’s feistiness was of a mindless sort Gordon had never appreciated. He knew the type. If it weren’t the Arabs, this snazzy punk would be griping about who knows what. Cops. The Blacks. Gordon flexed his arms, gazing bicep to bicep. He was in fair shape. All that caffeine had slimmed him down to fighting size, yet his bones felt as though they’d been aerated, gored through and drained of the good, hardy gunk.
“I work with a real nice Arab man,” he said, trying to give teeth to the words.
“Okay, now,” the kid said. “I’m not saying there ain’t good ones. I’m just saying in general––”
“Osama Bin Laden,” someone yelled.
“Kissemeck,” said another.
“Zubra.” “Sharmuta.” “Wulla, wulla, wulla, bro.”
Gordon knew some Arabic cuss-n’-slang, the throaty consonants that caused Akmed to shake his head. He thought to join in but couldn’t bring anything to mind.
“They busted all kinds of Hezbollah supporters in this town. Found terrorist materials in basements two miles from here,” said the kid.
“I grew up in these parts,” Gordon said.
“Right. And this used to be a nice neighborhood, where you’d walk down the street without seeing some woman dressed like a druid or some guy with a gold chain waxing his Mustang and listening to Arabian disco.”
Nick piped up to say, “Let’s cool it with the Arab this and Arab that.”
“Backyard man,” someone yelled, and the chant resumed, someone in the garage’s recesses snorkeling out a falsetto that damn near brought the hair to stand on Gordon’s chest.
Gordon had to make it over to his backyard before he passed out, but the rubbery straps of the lawn chair gave his backside the softest massage and each beer Nick fed him went down colder than the last. He thought of the Red Alert tablets stashed in the Bronco, and of the tent, in which he often imagined he was alone, deep in the forest, as he lay zipped inside.
Along the driveway, girls danced with sparklers, clasping them between their thighs while simulating roughhouse intercourse with the air. Weaving between them were a couple boys playing a drunken game of half court, both of them slam dunking on Nick’s dwarfed, eight-foot hoop and hanging from the rim.
“Woah,” said Gordon, thinking he’d like to give it a go some speedy afternoon.
Nick cued up a track on the stereo and let it rip. Cantankerous heavy metal Gordon hadn’t known existed–– not a second to breathe, just a furious mallet of guitars pounding again and again.
“You kids are nuts,” he said, but no one was listening.
Before the guitar solo a neighbor cried out in tongues from the yard behind Nick’s garage. A shrill echoing through the nearby yards that only Gordon seemed to hear. “Ay,” he said. “The neighbors.” A drinking game was underway inside the garage, the crowd cheering as two boys spilled booze down their throats, attempting to prove its flammability by belching toward lit matches.
When, minutes later, an Arab man came hurtling up the driveway, Gordon tried standing to greet the guy before things turned hectic, but he didn’t have it in him. He dripped back into the chair and sat watching the party slowly make sense of the trespasser: a middle-aged Middle Eastern fellow wearing sweatpants and an undershirt.
“You crazy?” said the man, to no one in particular. “I have family sleeping back there and this is what you’re doing?”
Gordon could understand certain folks not being jazzed about the Arabs moving into the neighborhood. He had warm feelings about the days when there’d been American flags on the porches, when people tended to shoot the breeze about the Tigers or the Pistons, the travails of lawn care. But no matter who his neighbors were, he damn sure believed they deserved a good night sleep. Especially after a hard week’s work.
Nick eased down the stereo. “All right,” he said. “We’re losing track here.”
This pacified the man not one bit. He raised an opened hand, chopping at the air.
“Two o’ clock in the morning and this is what you do?”
A pair of girls coquettishly waved their sparklers. “Sorry,” they cooed, making sexy eyes, and Gordon figured that might do it, but the Arab stood trembling as though he were about to burst aflame.
Gordon slumped in a way so that he wouldn’t appear to carry any weight in the situation.
Nick said, “We’ll keep it down. Don’t worry about it.”
“Hold on now,” said Nick’s friend. He held a bottle of Goldschlager in a fist, had been doling shots a moment before. “You don’t come walking up on someone’s business talking this kind of trash.”
“He’s got a family,” a girl said.
“I don’t give a rat’s ass.” The kid stepped forth, eyeing the man. “You pedal yourself back down the driveway and we’ll turn our music down if we feel like it.”
A boy dribbling the basketball mumbled, “Suck my zubra.”
The Arab was sturdy, poised with a dignity Gordon hadn’t seen since his father’s time, back when a guy might really pull out the punches to honor his family. The man went still, looking at no one so much as the garage itself. Gordon worried the guy might stroke out right there on the driveway if someone didn’t mellow the mood.
“They’re just kids, man,” was all Gordon could manage.
“Shut up, green mouth,” said Nick’s friend, which brought a round of laughter from the garage. Gordon wiped at his lips, but the Arab clearly thought the jibe had been at his expense.
“You wanna fuck with me?” the Arab said. “You wanna fuck?”
The kid flicked his wrist. “I don’t wanna fuck you. Go fuck your raghead wife.”
At that there came a solemn gasp from the garage. Gordon sighed a meek, shameful tone and with it escaped a scrap of pride he felt to have been hording as an emergency reserve. Nick got an arm around his friend and dragged him, whispering toward his ear while waving an apologetic hand to the visitor. The man retreated down the driveway, muttering incomprehensible curses and slapping a hand against his thigh. With a few dribbles and barely a running start, the kid with the basketball leapt for the rim, howling as he stuffed the ball through the net.
There was a tiff about the stereo, Nick wanting to call it a night but a number of objectors saying to keep it on low and not kill the party on account of one small bummer.
“It’s only two A.M.,” said one of halter girls.
“I’m too plowed to drive,” said another. “And I ain’t going to sleep.”
The music resumed with a dismal effect, a general malaise everyone compensated for by laughing loud and drinking harder. They’d all but forgotten Gordon, who’d finally pulled himself from the chair when a Mustang pealed to a stop mid-street and four guys lunged from the vehicle. They rushed hard up the driveway, stomping past Gordon as if he weren’t there. Limber, muscular Arabs who’d clearly been out and about, reeking of cologne that smelled much like Adonis Body Spray. Approaching the garage, the burliest of them stripped off his shirt and left the expensive looking garment where it lay on the cement.
The party barely had time to acknowledge this, was lurching in unison as the guy shouted, “You fuck with my uncle. You wanna see what happens?”
A girl shrieked.
“Private property,” yelled another. “We’ll call the cops.”
Gordon was an obsolete presence; not a soul there had him in mind. He saw his chance to make for his backyard, but here was an awful scene. He had a responsibility to the neighborhood as much as anyone. A bungle like this could put a real hex on the block. Shannon might call the handyman hotline, sic some young hunk on the garage and put the house on the market herself.
“Whose place is this?” said the shirtless Arab. His friends crowded him, each of them gym-fit and capable of true damage. Gordon had shooed all types of loiterers from his property, but nothing like this. The next person to pipe up was going to take the brunt of something wicked, and Gordon stood crunching heroic thoughts, watching them glide past his mind’s eye like cellophane-wrapped pallets of Faygo Soda’s many varieties.
Nick hesitated before walking from his garage. The music was going strong.
“Turn that shit off,” said the Arab, and Nick retreated, muting the heavy metal. “Wulla. I’m a fuck all you up if the pussey talkin’ shit doesn’t step.”
“You ain’t hitting me,” a girl said.
“Wanna bet? You wanna watch me?”
The guy’s friend clenched his shoulder. “He wants the one disrespecting,” he said.
Sulking inside the garage, Nick’s friend looked to be just about wetting himself. Gordon managed to take hold of a wish that someone might call the fuzz or march forward with their hunting rifle, but––fat chance. Summer garage parties were par for this street; he and Shannon had cranked up the clattery old box fan in order to sleep through many. Back before the kids, when they’d had a useable garage, they liked to blast “Train Kept a’ Rollin” again and again until the sun rose. A good thing: that Shannon wasn’t here now. A peace offering would have been her first thought, a plate of smiley-faced sugar cookies––an icing dimple drawn on doughy cheeks––to solve everything. Just thinking of her, asleep across the street, let Gordon know he’d best put this nonsense in its proper place.
“Alright bitches,” said the Arab, snatching the nearest white boy by the collar and tossing him to the fence. The kid put some thespian action into it, wilting against the chain link. The basketball rolled from his hands as he splayed on the cement, playing possum.
“I‘m sorry about this,” Nick said, stepping back toward the Arabs.
The angry one fisted the collar of Nick’s cowboy shirt. He went limp, awaiting the first blow. Everyone could tell it was damn near going to knock his head off.
“You the one? Talkin’ shit?”
The Arab cocked his fist.
Seeing that, Gordon felt a jolt of red caffeine sizzle through him––it happened like that, now and again, a residual stimulant reviving his nerves. If his kids caught him amidst a comedown, their smiles could ignite some dormant particle in his bloodstream, another ten minutes worth of full-blown supercharge. Gordon sensed the twitch in his calves as he made to snatch the basketball; then he dribbled it along the driveway. At first, it was pathetic. He had to use both hands to keep the volley going. To maintain rhythm, he sang with every reflex, “Backyard man. I’m a backyard man,” over and over, because it was the only line he knew.
“What’s this guy?” the Arab said. “Somebody shut this motherfucker up.”
But his friends were laughing, which gave everyone the right to join in.
Gordon didn’t care if the punches landed on his ears. His only thought was of the next slap of the ball, reaching for it as it panged off the cement. He teetered, knocking over the chair he’d sat on. A few more chuckles came from the garage––you could feel the atmosphere lightening with his every clomp. A good thirty-seconds passed before Gordon felt he was losing the crowd. Sensing the peril in that, he made for the hoop, Harlem Globetrotting it around a girl before leaping, really going for it, slamming the ball home and hanging from the rim.
“I’m a backyard man,” he howled, gripping the metal hoop, pulling his chin above the rim to take a long look toward the sky blurring above him.
“Jesus,” someone said.
Gordon dangled there, knees raised.
Someone, an Arab he was sure, clapped his hands, and Gordon curled his fingers around the metal, watching the backboard shudder as he bucked his legs.
When he let go, he fell heavily, his left hand tangling in the net, which yanked his arm skyward as he dropped to the earth. A violent jerk. He’d already landed, perfectly on his toes, when he heard something tink the concrete.
Following that, if only for a breath, the night was a thing of perfect silence. If the world could be changed by one small dose, he believed he’d done it.
“The fuck?” someone yelled.
“Oh my god,” said a girl. “It’s a finger.”
The blood rush brought heat to Gordon’s skull. He felt nothing so much as his bare feet, planted expertly on the driveway.
“Gonna be sick, gonna be sick, gonna be sick,” moaned a girl.
Gordon heard her scrabble to the bushes, dry heaving with a gory force. When his sight returned, he saw every face turned toward him. The Arabs as aghast as anyone. Nick with a stare that seemed God-gazing, the big Arab’s fist still balled beneath his chin.
“This some messed-up shit,” the Arab said.
Gordon raised his left hand to the shine of the garage. Blood trickled his palm, drizzling where his ring finger had been torn clean off at the knuckle. He stared for what seemed a long while, so much that his vision went red as he felt the earth spin. He nearly had time to call out for another beer before he hit the ground.
Inches away, on a tray beside his gurney, sat a foam cup––Gordon reached for it with his face, smacking his gums. His cheeks felt like mashed tinfoil. Once he got the straw between his lips, he inhaled the water until the dry suction of the cup’s bottom made a grinding sound. Still dark outside the windows, but he could see the blue flames of the Ford plants in the distance and knew he was at Oakwood, the very hospital his kids had been born in. He had the room to himself––a dank, lonesome space.
When the nurse came in, he waved his bandaged hand and said, “What’s under there?”
“Your finger, if I’m not mistaken.”
“I had the sense I lost it,” he said.
“You did,” she said. “But we sewed it back on.”
He brought the gauze to his face, visualizing what was beneath.
“Your wedding ring is right there,” said the nurse, nodding toward a plastic baggie on the tray beside him. Gordon hadn’t noticed. He snatched it with his good hand, meaning to let her know the silver band was as a dear as any finger.
“Man,” he said. “That was one close one.”
A paper smock was draped over his bare chest.
“Where’s your wife at this hour?” the nurse said.
“She’s in the house, with the kids.”
“As anyone would prefer to be, I suppose.”
“She ain’t the kind of person who should see me like this,” Gordon said.
It wasn’t seconds later that a doctor entered, annoyed with a million things. Fast as he could, he explained that the finger may or may not take. That Gordon’s buddies had arrived with the severed appendage chilling in a cup of ice, but that they’d had some trouble handling the digit and dropped it once or twice.
“It was filthy,” the doctor said. “We sterilized it as best we could.”
“What buddies?” Gordon said.
“Couple of Arab boys. They weren’t too happy with you.”
“I was slam dunking,” Gordon said. “Some folks were in a real tight spot.”
“Your heat rate was up near the red zone,” the doctor said. “Just so you know. We didn’t run your blood for toxicity, and I’m not sure we’d want to. Care to talk about what you’ve been ingesting?”
“Total Release Fogger fumes,” Gordon said. “Out there in the tent.”
“And Nyquil,” Gordon said. “The P.M.kind.”
The doctor selected a nearby surgical mirror and held it to Gordon’s face. A faded green ring encircled his mouth. He tried to work a smile from it, staring back at himself to flash his syrup-stained teeth.
When no one was looking, Gordon eased himself down the stairwell and out the revolving doors. What were they going to say to a grown man, anyway? Faygo Cola’s benefits package was nothing to scoff at, and Gordon would be damned if those doctors planned on racking up the bill. A long trek home, three miles beneath the faintest sunrise. Saturday morning in Dearborn. Ford Motor smokestacks puffed soot. The donut shops were frying lard and the traffic on Oakwood Boulevard, then Outer Drive, was lazy with a weekend manner that recalled a thousand good days. Gordon’s back was exposed, the hospital smock flaring out with the breeze of passing cars. He guessed what people were seeing: another shitheel coming home after a rough ride, but he knew what was what.
He clapped the back pocket of his jeans to assure himself about the ring. His finger ached not a bit; he could hardly tell it was there. His head was the problem, pounding like never before.
Turning up his block, several cars remained parked outside of Nick’s house. A row in the driveway and the rest jammed up the street. The garage door was closed, not a beer can in sight. The basketball hoop was as it had been, yet so much shorter than he’d remembered, the rim practically eye-level. One thing was certain: Gordon planned to walk a dignified walk the next time Nick caught a glimpse of him. The kid would hardly recognize who he’d been. His teeth would be scrubbed clean. He’d wear a fresh shirt to the warehouse, take extra hours and put the cash toward rebuilding his garage. He’d ask Akmed if he knew any boys who could swing a hammer. As for those fellows with the Mustang, he knew what house he’d have to visit: behind Nick’s garage, and just out of sight.
The smock rustled––not a drop of blood on it.
Pulling open the Bronco’s tailgate, he saw his cowboy shirt, the socks Shannon had folded and the dirty ones strewn about. It crossed his mind give himself a spray of Adonis, pop a Red Alert so that he might speed through the morning. Or, he’d just lie down in the yard until the kids charged out––like they did every Saturday–– to wake him with hugs. He’d unleash the garden hose to spray them as they hollered for more, until Shannon appeared holding towels, just in time for breakfast. She’d see that they didn’t need to move anywhere until they were good and ready; for now, this was home, and what better place? Today was going to be one for the books. Gordon could hardly wait as he closed the tailgate and mounted the porch steps, tucking his bandaged hand beneath the smock, putting the good one to use as he knocked on his front door.
Sean Madigan Hoen was the winner of BOMB’s 2011 fiction contest and is at work on a collection of short stories. His first book, Songs Only You Know (A Memoir), is forthcoming from SoHo Press. He grew up in Dearborn, Michigan and currently lives in Brooklyn.