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Kind of Blue
Fiction by Dave Griffith

Note: The following is an excerpt from Dave Griffith's forthcoming novel, Del Mar Race Track Five Miles Long. Dave would like to thank the Vira I. Heinz Foundation for helping to fund this project.

Alex was literally the girl-next-door. She was a year younger than me; our mothers were friends. Her mother, Sophie, was an operator at the phone company. She had very pale skin, like skim milk, so that you could see the blue veins running through her legs and arms and the temples. The kids in the neighborhood used to call her “See-Through Woman” or “The Invisible Mom.” That summer, the summer I turned fourteen, Sophie had just divorced her husband because she discovered he was married to another woman in Springfield, the state capital of Illinois, just forty-five miles away. Turns out that for thirteen long years he had been leading a completely parallel life, enough years to have another mortgage, another daughter just a year younger than Alex, another dog, even another name—Tom—which is my name, instead of Earnest.

Two separate lives. It was like a movie. I wanted to ask Ernest how he did it. It was a terrible thing that he did, but I was fascinated, I needed to know.

Alex was what you’d call an early bloomer. Even though she was just a seventh grader she had huge breasts and lore went around school that she had started her period while only in the fifth grade. What a mystery she was to the little boy mind. She had shoulder length honey blonde hair, large pouty lips and a feisty disposition, which was, according to my mother, on account of Sophie and Ernest letting her stay up as late as she wanted watching Hard R movies on Skinemax and Showtime.

I wanted to ask her about her father, but I didn’t know any smooth way to bring it up.

Paul Tasillo, a cruel sneering kid my age who liked to pull out his dick and dare others to compare sizes, lived at the very end of the block. His father ran the lawn and garden statuary business where later that summer I would work my first job custom painting concrete deer. One afternoon walking home from school Paul came right out and said what was naturally on his little monkey boy mind:

“So your dad was fucking both your mom and some other lady? That’s so cool.” Cool wasn’t the word I was thinking of, but I waited eagerly just the same for Alex’s response.

“Fuck you, Paul,” she said without breaking stride. She was wearing a short plaid skirt and a blue oxford, her breasts bounced as she walked. It was hard not to look.

“And fuck you too, Tom,” she said narrowing her pale blue eyes.

“But I didn’t do anything,” I said.

“No, but you’re thinking the same thing.” She walked on down the block and little with her head down and then stopped and turned back to us and pointed. “You’ll both be lucky if you fuck anyone, ever.”

“I’ll fuck you right now,” Paul said, sticking his hand into his pants and sauntering toward her like a saddle sore cowboy. Alex didn’t miss a beat. She was used to boys saying things like this to her. This was the refrain to the sad ballad of the girl with big breasts. Slowly, she walked toward him and said in a put-on sexy voice:

“Oh yeah, baby. Let’s go. Put it in me. Put that big thing in me daddy.” Paul’s eyes flickered with fear. He froze. Gently, Alex put her hand on Paul’s shoulder. Her face was soft yet composed, her eyes beckoned, just like the movies, and then in one fluid motion, she put her knee in Paul’s crotch. Paul’s balls swelled up so big that he had to go the hospital and have them drained. He never pulled out his dick anymore after that.

I never gave Alex grief over her dad because I felt I had some insight into the situation. See, a couple years earlier my grandfather, my dad’s dad, had passed away. He was a great mythic figure in my life. He looked a cross between God and Papa Hemingway: six-foot-three, two hundred pounds, snow white hair and beard, smoked a pipe, fly fished, rode a motorcycle. When he died, my grandmother found a small little book with a calendar and places for making notes. In it, he jotted down what he’d done that day. He was a lawyer and so he was a well-educated, eloquent man, with elegant handwriting and a closet full of suits. But he was an emotionally distant man. You could never tell what he was thinking. It was like trying to know the mind of God. There were so many important ideas orbiting around his vast universe of a brain that it was completely impossible to pin one down and to ask him to do so would be the greatest insult; it was such a complete misunderstanding of who he was.

“Can’t you see I’m thinking?” This was his favorite expression. I like to think he invented it. And so even his notes concerning the day’s activities were cold and objective. “Ate lunch Erie. Steak sand. cole slaw $2.25” “Dinner in Erie cod, baked potato, cherry pie $4.50” “Stayed Presque Isle Motel $10.00 Sex with Linda - Good.” There were countless entries such as these spanning years. Linda was his secretary, a family friend, a person who I considered an aunt since she never failed to send birthday cards with money and once, when it was finally, grudgingly accepted that I was to be a jazz musician, she sent an old Duke Ellington album with a note of encouragement. That was the last gift I ever received from her. She killed herself with a bottle of sleeping pills. So I knew about duplicity without ever knowing what it was called or how one argued for its necessity.

But then what did I know? I was the lawn boy for the entire neighborhood. My mother was always volunteering me for these kinds of odd jobs because she wanted me to grow to be a passionate man like my father who, in a neighborhood of divorcees and widowers, became the man the around the subdivision. But why had my father been faithful all those years while so many other men are not? Did he so value the sacrament of marriage, the idea that God had brought him and my mother together across oceans of time to be together? This was far too magical for my father. Priests are good magicians, my father said once after a mass where Father Gary had laid his hands on our necks to protect us from throat ailments. Ironically enough, it was Father Gary who would later be removed from our parish for having an affair and impregnating a lonely old maid, who when she found out she was pregnant fainted, fell backwards on her kitchen floor with her legs pinned beneath her. She stayed that way for several hours, so long that she lost circulation to her legs and would later have to have both amputated. My father seemed to be able to smell a rat a mile away.

I decided there were worse things than being like my father.

One afternoon, I was mowing Sophie and Alex’s lawn. School had ended. The weather was hot and tropical. Every afternoon a thunderstorm rambled through and then the sun would come out again. Our neighborhood became a greenhouse. All the lawns in the neighborhood were overgrown. Freakishly large weeds appeared in the drainage ditch toward which all the neighborhood lawns sloped. My father bought me a Walkman and showed me how to record LPs onto cassette tapes. My favorite mowing music was Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. I copied the album onto side A and B so that it played on one continuous loop all day. This was my summer jazz training; I wanted to know these songs down to the last microphone hiss, but it was difficult against the roar of the mower to hear Bill Evan’s delicate chord extensions and Miles’ ghosted notes. I could feel them, sense that there was something I was missing. Whenever I stopped the mower and took off the headphones, the sounds of the world around me were keener: the willow tree at the far end of the street sighed with sleeping birds, the overgrown hedges ticked with insects. As I watched the elderly widowers of the neighborhood mince around in their flowerbeds, I felt that I could hear the lonely music of their hearts.

But when I pushed play, started up the mower, and began pushing it up and down the steep backyards, my thoughts returned to Alex’s dad. Why did he do it? Was he so sad? Was his life with Alex and her pale mother not what he had imagined as a younger man? I pushed the mower up and down the sloping lawns, trying to understand why he wanted another family. Did he feel he could improve upon his earlier attempts? Perhaps he had the mind of a polygamist, that his seed was God’s gift to the world? But he was no cult figure, no father of a hundred babies. He was more modest than that. He was discreet. The only untoward thing about him was that his teeth were butter yellow from smoke. He would sit on the back patio looking up into the trees, sometimes very late at night, smoking and humming to himself. But this wasn’t evidence of anything. Many people have insomnia. So he was a night owl. But what was the moment of reckoning? At what moment did he know that he could pull this off? Perhaps there was never such a neat decision. Perhaps for the last thirteen years of his life he had felt like a fugitive. Perhaps each moment he spent in that house he felt frayed at the edges, like one misstep, one small lie exposed and his whole world would unravel in a heap.

This was it.

At the center is the lie. One lie is all it took. I imagined: He met the woman at a bar. She was alone, newly-divorced, she had taken off her wedding ring. He was away just for the night. He wanted to feel in control, like he could be social, talk with others like human beings, listen to them sensitively, allay their fears; he wanted to feel human again, part of the race; this didn’t mean he didn’t love his wife – God no! This is about basic human companionship. The dance of life; life’s rich pageant, eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we die. Perhaps there was a song on the jukebox that encouraged him as he sat there looking into the mirror behind the bar, which made the room seem bigger than it really was. But no amount of mirrors could help him feel human. The senses are misguided. They do not help us understand Beingness. The senses are impoverished. But the mind, the sensual disembodied hand of the mind--the intellect—thinking… thought… here is how we know we exist. That is not me in the mirror there. That is merely an expression of me. It is one that I have selected from many others.

Maybe next time he goes to the bar he shaves his mustache and puts in his contacts. He wears a bright polo shirt and jeans. Buys a pair of Bass loafers at the mall. Little decisions that make him feel alive. There’s no harm here. This is who I truly am. He is noticed more. He feeds five-dollar bills to the jukebox. He feels that he is more authentically alive. He shimmers with life. His mind opens to new possibilities. I can be whatever I like. Talk with whomever I like. Drink a new brand of beer, or not at all; have a gimlet instead. You never drank gimlets before. Oh, it’s my summer drink. Change brands of cigarettes.

On a whim you pull into a tobacco shop and purchase a box of Galaoises. You browse the walk-in humidor. You tell the owner that you live here in town even though you don’t. Why? Why not? He asks about your family. They are fabulous and interesting creatures. Your wife no longer works at the phone company, she owns a flower shop; your daughter is not a chubby brat, but a slender swan of a dancer. You are from Chicago not Rockford, you went to University of Illinois not Richland Community, you auction sports memorabilia, your are not a traveling salesman. It feels good to lie. People respond to you. They want to be around you. You sell autographed baseballs for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Men relive their childhoods, women find the boyishness charming.

Now, I didn’t have these thoughts all at once as I mowed that summer day; no, this is several years’ transcript of trials and errors, like navigating a maze with no bread crumbs always doubling back, realizing you’ve walked in a circle, but more like being alone in an run down house trying to find the circuit breaker that corresponds to the attic light.

When I finally arrived at Alex’s backyard I was light-headed from the heat. Alex’s mother had left their old green garden hose stretched across the lawn so I stopped the mower and began coiling it foot by foot around my arm. The spigot attached at the house just below the laundry room window, right next to the dryer vent. When I knelt down next to the house to hang the hose on its bracket I could hear the chugging of the washing machine. As I did this I glanced up into the window; I thought I might get a look at one of Alex’s bras hanging from line like I’d seen in the movies where it’s just a house full of women living together. There was no such contraption, just Alex sitting on top of the washing machine. Her eyes were closed tight and her right hand was stuck into the waistband of her shorts. I panicked and ducked down below the window. I considered crawling away on my belly back to the lawnmower, but then I heard Alex’s voice. I put my ear to the side of the house and listened to her mutter to herself. I could make “God” and “Yeah” and “Oh;” she went through them several times--”God... Yeah.... Oh” to the beat of the washing machine. I looked around to make sure no one could see me crouched there like a perv. I sat there for a long time, waiting for the cycle to finish, but it just kept going. And then I heard what I thought was a name: “Tom”? I swore that she said Tom. I listened closer, pressing my ear to the masonite siding; it was hard to hear over the washer, but she said it again, this time clearer: “Tom, Oh, Tom.” I couldn’t stop listening.

“Tom!” my mother’s voice called over the back fence. “What’re you doing?”

I jolted upright very fast, hitting my head on the window ledge. Out of the corner of my I saw Alex, our eyes met, she screamed and jumped down off the washing machine. I could hear her pounding through the house to her room.

“What on earth is going on?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I was just rolling up the hose…” I realized I still held in my hand and quickly dropped it like it was a snake. I kicked the coil against the house with my foot. “Was that screaming?” my mother asked. “I think Alex is just being stupid,” I said.

“You stay away from her,” she said, wagging her finger.

Still dazed by the bump to my head, I walked to the mower and started it again. I looked up at Alex’s house and pushed stop on my Walkman. I finished the yard listening to the raw sound of the mower’s engine and beneath it, ghosted, the sound of my name.

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