The Luxury of Grass
Dedicated to Roger and the dogs
The dog barks, calling to me. There’s desperation in the sound of it, a yelp that’s needy, that crescendos into a high note like a pleading question. Or maybe not. Maybe that’s just me projecting. I’ve seen the dog here at this park before, a park of just a few acres, named after a local serviceman killed in combat in a war fought long before I was born. I can’t pronounce the name, though, and it seems disrespectful to fuck it up as I do, so I say instead, “I’m going to the little park.”
A brown pond sits as the undulating centerpiece of the park. Cream-colored frothy swirls of pond scum float defiantly along the banks. Kinda like a large mug of coffee. And even though I can walk around it in less than ten minutes, half the time it takes for me to drive here, I make the drive anyway and I walk the loop anyway. I disappear here. It’s the magic of the place. To look at it, you’d laugh. There’s not much beauty to be found, after all. Nothing by the looks of it that connotes magic. It’s more navigating your steps over geese shit than around flowers; it's more the squealing sound of trains brisking past along the tracks so close you could feel their wind than soothing bird chirps. You’d laugh indeed. You’d say “Ha! Magic here? HERE?! Where the pond’s fountain is so broken it spits sporadic like an angry old man, grown vicious and unpredictable with age? Here?! Where the deer carcass is still decomposing alongside the tracks having lost its race with the 7:58 commuter train to the city?” But, yes, I’d say to you. I insist there’s magic here. Humble though it may be, the rest of the world can cease to exist here. And that is, quite simply, fucking miraculous.
Others come here for the magic, too. They, like me, are regulars. Having discovered what this little park offers, they come. We are all escaping here. Or finding something here. Or avoiding something. And so we walk the loop, circling, circling again, in a sober, enchanted parade.
But right now the dog is still trying to get my attention. Small, scruffy, old, it’s on a lead that doesn’t extend far and the dog pulls each inch of it taut, straining to keep me in view as I walk further away. And it barks. Still pleading. Still desperate. Still hopeful. I relent; turn towards it and our eyes meet. He looks hopeful for a moment. His legs lock and his neck lengthens in anticipation of… of something. I lift my hand at my side and wave one of those awkward waves where your hand moves quickly side to side, fingers rigid and stuck together. I wave at the dog like this and then I give it a little shrug. It’s a gesture that tries to convey all at once: that I want to but I can’t; that I just don’t have anything to offer, not even to you, Dog. The dog watches quietly for a moment and barks one more time. I hear futility in it now and I’m pretty sure that’s disappointment in his eyes. Maybe it’s just my eyesight going but probably not.
The other end of the dog’s lead disappears inside a shabby clunker of a car pocked with rust holes and held loosely together with silver Duck tape. But even the Duck tape is giving up hope, slowly jumping ship, curling itself into truthful despair. The car is pulled up close to the edge of the parking lot, against the cement curb that becomes a small field of trimmed, pale green grass. An old man sits in the driver seat, door swung open, the loop of the dog’s lead hooked onto just one of his fingers. His arm is stretched and unbending in a way that gives his dog a few extra inches to roam, a few more steps of grass to take. His arm must hurt, I think, held so straight for so long. With this, my own arm imagines the cramp, taking on his pain sympathetically.
It’s their routine each day. They are regulars that need this park, too. Each day, the old man loads up his shabby dog into his battered car and, a few minutes before the clock hits 9, they putt-putt-clank into the lot of the park with the difficult-to-pronounce war veteran’s name because, though he cannot walk himself, the man treats his dog to the feel of some grass. Even if it is only the few square feet that the length of the lead permits.
The old man’s head lifts -- from a paper in his lap? from dozing in his seat? -- to his barking dog and tells it to hush. But the command is wrapped with love and it lands softly.
And so I go on, away from the dog and towards the pond to walk my loop. My loop. And as I do, I let my thoughts spill from my mind without trying to collect them. They fall amongst the geese shit. Passing the fading sign that announces the park’s name and the list of all those important people -- community leaders and do-gooders and big-pocketed people that dug out this pond and paved the path that winds around it and cut ribbons and planted the circle of trees, barely seedlings still with heavy white plastic tubes wrapped around their young, growing trunks supporting their ascent into the world -- I think of the serviceman. I practice his name, my tongue limbering up to the twists of vowels and consonants. I might even be doing this aloud, puffing out little whispers of sound that the branches of the little growing trees catch and hide amongst their leaves. In doing this, in saying his name again and again, I inadvertently conjure him next to me. (Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary…) Uniformed and medaled, he begins to walk alongside me. But his gait is lumbering, heavy with regret. I tsk inside my head, knowing we’re going to get passed by another walker at a pace like this, but I quickly feel guilty about the thought and brush it away. I called him forward, after all. He’s my responsibility now. So I slow my pace to walk with him and try to think of things to talk about.
I do what I do when I’m nervous, which is to say the first thing that bubbles up into my mouth without vetting it. “It’s really nice that they named this park after you.” He just nods a slow up and down motion that makes it look like his head is too heavy for him. I’m surprised ghosts’ heads have any weight at all. And so I go on, committed to my foolishness as I am now. “It’s a really nice place,” I lie.
He gives a half-smile at this and, without words, points to a sign that’s been bolted to a wooden post standing tall amongst the reeds along the pond. “WARNING. DANGEROUS ALGAE BLOOM.” In smaller print, the sign warns of eating fish from the pond or permitting a pet to drink from it, and a list of possible unpleasantries should any of the water touch any part of your body. (Rash. Fever. Poisoning. Death.)
“Yeah,” I say. “That sucks.”
Just a few lumbering steps further and he is pointing again. This time, his finger is directed downward to the cement path in front of us where someone has spray painted in white a penis and a pair of testicles. It’s cartoonishly disproportionate. From my experiences, anyway. I’d be terrified if that dick came at me. From the tip of the painted penis spurts little white lines arcing up and to the right, in the direction of the train tracks. I wonder for a moment if this was intentional; if there’s any message behind it. Or just artistic whim.
“Oh, man,” I say to the ghost vet. “Why? Why do kids love to draw penises everywhere?” And there is real disapproval and genuine apology in my voice. But he surprises me by laughing a bit and talking. He says, “Soldiers, too.” His voice is deep and gravelled. It’s really nice and I immediately want to hear it more. It’s the voice of a man I’d want protecting me. It’s not the voice of a man that says things like “Hooray!” or “Yipee!”
“Really?” I ask him. “Soldiers drew penises?”
“Oh, yes. All the time,” he says. “There’s artwork from my battalion alone all across Vietnam.”
“Hmm,” I offer, intrigued by this. “You too?”
He doesn’t answer. He just smiles sheepishly. And we walk on.
A spindly tree branch has blown onto the path and he instinctively reaches out to help me around it but his hand just passes through me. He shrugs an apology that I’m familiar with and I can feel him growing forlorn. I’d try to cheer him, to offer him the reminder that he left a mark, he lives on -- he has legacy! -- but he’d no doubt feel the insincerity of my words. He’d know I wouldn’t want it this way, either.
Instead I point to the purple heart pinned to his uniform. “What happened?” I ask him.
He closes his eyes for a minute and takes a deep inhale. I suspect this is just out of habit, not out of necessity for air anymore. He readies himself to tell me his story and I feel myself instinctively bracing for it, too. But when his words begin to spill out, a train comes roaring past. And it’s one of the long ones with extended cars because it’s rush hour and everyone’s trying to get to their jobs in the city. I can’t hear what he is saying but I can see tears fill his eyes and there is a stream of blood leaking from his hairline by his temple now. He’s finished before the train fades away.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t catch any of that,” I say, gesturing towards the tracks, now empty.
He shrugs. “It’s not important anyway.” And we walk.
I want to shake him. He’s becoming a cumbersome weight on me. But before I can think of words that would send him away, we have finished the loop and the rusted car in the parking lot and the old man and his dog come back into view. This time the dog doesn’t see me, lost in the smells and the feel of the grass under each slow step of its paws. The vet ghost and I stand quietly at a distance and watch for a while. And I wonder what he’s thinking as we do. Did he have a dog once that he’s remembering? One that yipped and yelped at his feet as he left for war? One that whimpered for a while - just for a while - when he didn’t come home? Or is he focused on the man, instead, resentful that he didn’t get to be that old, himself, a struggle though it is?
Together we see the old man gently coax the dog with sweet promising words and soft tugs at the lead back into the car where it clambers up on his lap and remains before they clank-putt-putt back out of the lot.
And when the car is out of sight, the vet ghost talks. HIs voice is even deeper now. “They come back again at 2.”
“Really?” I say. “Again? For the grass?” This is news to me.
“Every day,” the ghost vet tells me.
“That’s kind of beautiful,” I say. “It’s such a gift.” But I feel more than this and so I add, “But kind of sad, too.”
He just nods solemnly and then fades away. Not so much as a goodbye.
Alone now, I walk over to the dog’s spot of grass. I notice it has begun to wear. Patches of brown earth peek through in a half-circle shape the length of the dog’s lead, staining a shape in the ground where old paws dig to return, letting the ghosts out as they do.
As I drive home, guilt sits with me. There’s an ache in my chest, my heart slowly pumping ‘could haves’, ‘should haves’. Tomorrow, I’ll go, I emphatically decide. I’ll return to the park and offer the old man to take the dog myself for a longer walk -- around the loop perhaps -- where the grass is still green. Even if we have to walk slowly. Even if we walk with ghosts. Even if I should really butt out. Even if this is not what I go there to find. I feel soothed by this decision, the ache receding some. But that evening, it begins to rain; a red scroll across the bottom of the TV warns of snow, too. And I know I won’t be at the park tomorrow and, even so, the grass would be buried anyway.
Nikki Gonzalez is the editor / publisher / creator of The Parliament Literary Journal. She really shouldn't put herself in these pages, but this was a rule-breaking issue and she has a little subversive streak to her. She teaches Psychology at a college in New Jersey and she recently beat out the other 14,000 people in her town to be crowned the gazpacho-cooking champion. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org and she'll be happy to share the recipe.