Lawrence, Kansas, 2021
Summer came and went. A long, cool spring kept windows open until the trill of toads heralded the crash of sash against oppressive heat and the robotic stridulation of cicadas. Then the bite of fall came and went. Temperatures fluctuated like never before and there was no escape. The dog had to be walked. The acrid stink of small engine exhaust and the odor of cut grass, wet and dank, whirled and pervaded, odors new to autumn. Lawns no longer go dormant. Birds no longer migrate. But the robins, cardinals, orioles, finches, and swifts weren’t too bothered by the ever-present jangle of pistons, because a new pestilence has kept most humans locked away, sending greenhouse gases plummeting. Birds fly in fresh air, nest unmolested in the nooks of eaves, the crooks of gables; a brazen and muddied nest of blue eggs leans against the bedroom windowsill.
Neither the plague nor the fits and starts of winter can hold the lawn-crew army at bay. Warming climate means these mercenaries are needed for longer stretches, and as the state governor lifts pandemic restrictions, more and more lawn mowers and leaf blowers and hedge clippers and weed whackers throw up their din in a blue monoxide haze. The worst of them, the spinning saw of the edger – an excessive machine, disproportionate in noise to benefit, owned and operated only by landscape professional or man-of-the-house fescue fanatic – clatters and shoots up sparks as it accidentally but inevitably strikes cement. God forbid an errant blade of grass should lean, should take-up airspace above the sidewalk’s edge.
The landscape hullabaloo is becoming perennial, and it makes a stroll in the neighborhood at least unpleasant, and at worst slightly intimidating when an oversized self-driven mower lurches into your pathway, pop, pop, popping an aural cudgel of repetitive thwacks, a ball-capped, sweaty, hirsute pirate of a man standing aloft as if perched in a crow’s nest.
These are supposed to be the noises of summer, not fall, not winter, yet you keep your complaints to yourself. Too many others have suffered genuine misfortune. But your truth is that you miss the quiet solitary walking when the frightened masses, your upper middle-class neighbors, had no choice but to let the grass grow and huddle sensibly in their houses: Arts and Crafts next to Queen Anne next to Prairie School next to Farmhouse Style with the occasional Tudor or Colonial mixed in. Even now, the biggest risk most of your well-to-do neighbors take is to crack open the door to pull an Amazon package off the porch or to leave a check for the landscaper or to let the cat out, the domestic beast who hunches on haunches, a disembodied head through white pickets peering at you, measuring the threat, always careful to keep some object, a fence, a shrubbery, a lamp-post between you, the potential assailant, and its slinky self. More often, the cat takes no chances, moves off quickly, bounding away, tail held high, anus in a twist. Social distancing feline style.
And you walk on, pass a young family weary of quarantine. They gather in their front yard, a big corner lot with Victorian painted lady in three stories, five bedrooms, and seven colors. What could possibly beset them? Dad is bearded, ball-capped, and bespectacled, and he strokes his Tesla with a chamois. Mama squats to attend to the toddler licking his woolen mittens. Little big brother swings at a wiffle ball pitched by his arthritic granddad in the side yard. They’re “podding” or “quaranteaming” with their elderly, or maybe just ignoring the confused and diametric warnings from government authorities. The parents greet you, the mild-mannered gentleman whom they see often walking his pooch in the neighborhood.
In the front yard of an unkempt Cape Cod are bird feeders and whirligigs and new lawn sculptures, art brut, quirky and homemade, like the boxy and droid-like Macintosh Classic computer fixed with doll arms and manikin feet, or the more artful two-story stand of wheat fabricated out of rebar and chiming in the breeze. A rainbow-colored yard sign says, “In this house we believe that Black lives matter, that women’s rights are human rights, that no human is illegal, and that science is real.” Ten paces north, just beyond what must be one damn good fence is a red, white, and blue “Keep America Great” sign.
Riding through South Park on a squeaky mountain bike is a mad, locally eminent, harmless and homeless gent. Erumpent whiskers reach to his shoulders and chest. He’s wearing his usual chain mail tunic, canvas gaiters, and longsword in a tooled leather scabbard. You smile to see him; It’s been months. City gardeners trim trees, deadhead flowers, and renew mulch around a vacant playground where few parents risk a visit with their precious children, but it’s good to see the city investing in the park, to see public funds used for public good. It requires an optimism tough to conjure these days. Better to plan for the worst. Better to hold on to your money in uncertain times.
Just beyond the playground marks the southern reach of downtown. A vagrant sleeps on the sidewalk in front of the limestone county courthouse as if he’d dropped there unconscious. Nothing supports his head, and his mouth is open in rigid slumber revealing a riot of disordered teeth, his body spooned against a concrete city planter. He rolls west, following the warming rays of the sun, oblivious to the shrill ring of the circular wet saw run by masked concrete workers yards away.
A young woman awaits the “Walk” sign before the crosswalk. Despite the weather, she wears a flouncy, frilly, floral dress, and you’re reminded of Irwin Shaw’s 80-year-old story. You cast your eyes away, but not because of Shaw’s story. What governs your behavior is the common decency taught by the adults who raised you, along with second and third wave feminism and Me Too, essential movements every one of them. A high-pitched squeal gives you a start before you realize the noise came from the young woman, emitted through a red face mask matching her dress as she turns and bends to greet your gamboling mutt.
Jerking to rest in a parking space is a colossal four-door pick-up truck in a patchwork of gun-metal gray and blue primer. Behind mud-slabbered, oversized tires, a bumper sticker says, “I am the man from Nantucket.” Another says, “Heavily Armed. Easily Pissed.” From the ball-hitch hangs a novelty scrotum. Doors open wide and four bearded corpulent men descend from the truck in billowy cargo pants, black military boots, and pearl-buttoned, western cut shirts. Ball caps on all four. Birds of a feather. Two of the men open-carry long-barreled handguns. They waddle away, a pod of armed and ambulatory manatees.
At the corner stands a makeshift memorial for three young adults murdered by gunfire. Laminated pictures and dried flowers and crucifixes stand for two black men and one black woman. The young woman had been enjoying a night on the town with girlfriends. She’d been caught in the crossfire, had nothing to do with the violence at all, didn’t know the people involved. Her mother had steered her away from Kansas City, told her daughter to go to your Kansas college town instead. Mom thought it’d be safer.
Various businesses are reopening in degrees that can almost be guessed by the owner’s political persuasion or whether their locally or corporately owned. A popular bakery is open for online ordering and curbside pick-up, while the bagelry has thrown open its doors for eat-in or take-out or any which way you’d like, as if hundreds of thousands dead were a bigger hoax than Orson Welles’ “The War of the Worlds.”
Three young women jog by in fluorescent Lycra. A leathery dude, hard living, younger than he appears, strums a guitar for tips, but interrupts his cover of Bowie’s “Space Oddity” to catcall the women joggers. Three junior high school girls in masks peer into their phones and wait for ice cream cones served curbside, along with pods of adults and children doing the same. The local ice cream parlor has done well during the plague. No one knows what else to do, especially with summer and holiday travel canceled and city pools and recreation centers closed.
At the next light, a man with 19th century dundrearies as white as clouds sits atop a Harley Davidson spitting and popping and discharging tinny country-western music that clashes with the resonant French jazz from speakers mounted under the awning of a chic optician peddling eyeglasses at embarrassingly inflated prices “by appointment only.”
In the portico of the closed Thai restaurant on the next block sits two panting Pit Bulls, tongues flanged and lolling, heeled on ropes held by a man with half-dollar-size gauges and a bull’s nose-ring, one of seven dusty Rainbow Family members sitting in a semi-circle, tattooed and pierced and draped in beige, black and brown earth tones, like dystopian movie extras, a road-weary band of ruffians. In front of them, a bucket and “Anything helps” scrawled on cardboard.
“BLM” is written in paint and chalk on street and sidewalk, spray-painted on walls, and taped to windows are signs in support of protesters. Race has been thrust into the public consciousness again. It ebbs and flows for the naïve and the ignorant, for those who once claimed a “post-racial America” after Obama took office, who trust we’ve reached racial equality, and who too often open their mouths. Cold numbers show gun violence and poverty and Covid-19 to be more devastating to the Black community. The reasons should be obvious, but for too many people they are not. Instead we get sound-bite idiocy from an Ohio state senator, “Could it just be,” he asked at a public hearing, “that African Americans or the colored population do not wash their hands as well as other groups?” No, senator. That’s not it.
If you live it, it’s obvious. If you don’t live it, make an effort; even a small effort will reveal the truth. Race is everywhere, in everything, embedded in us and in our institutions, a fiction created not that long ago to justify enslaving human beings. It still grips us, still manages to do its dirty work, still holds a people at arm’s length, drops them in environs where education and healthcare are substandard, where violence and disease and disrepute flourish. That’s it, senator.
Suddenly the dog tugs hard, yanking you onto one foot, imbalanced, dangerously close to causing rotator cuff damage. Two gray squirrels chase each other around the base of a pin oak before scritching round and round up the tree trunk. The wiry postman asks if you’re okay, if the dog didn’t hurt you, and you nod an affirmative, relieved not to have to navigate and pay for a trip to the hospital.
“Say His Name,” and “I Can’t Breathe,” and the more grave “ACAB,” acronym for “All Cops Are Bastards,” are spray-painted on white-washed bricks. Directly below sits a Dickensian couple making discordant music. The sullied woman looks like a Dustbowl Okie, gaunt and sallow, her eyes cast down as she rattles maracas out of time to the whiskered man’s haphazard harmonica for loose change tossed into a hat. On the pavement stacked next to them are baked goods in clear plastic containers, garishly iced cupcakes, mini-muffins, and coffeecakes scavenged from a supermarket dumpster.
Too many vacant paned-glass storefronts offer realtor signs announcing availability. Coronavirus is the final nail in the coffin. For too long, the downtown has battled online retail and corporate, deep-pocket greed, all symptoms of a different pandemic. But the market will sort it all out, right? Competition causes the cream to rise, right? Yet, you miss browsing local bookshops, or wandering the stacks in the public and university libraries. It was fun to luck upon an unknown, to discover a gem.
Careful now, don’t be a nostalgic fool. The browsing is over. Libraries are closed. Bookstores are gone. A historic building once occupied by a corporate bookstore is mostly vacant, except for a seasonal pop-up, here-today-gone-tomorrow Halloween store. Border’s spread their plague, killed locally owned bookshops then fled. They got what they gave. Amazon.com was their Typhoid Mary.
In the shade of an awning, a young father sits on a bench with a baby strapped to his chest. The man cradles a cell phone, holds it out in front of him. His thumbs bounce to the rhythm of a text or the snatching-up of a bargain. He jerks the phone away from the persistent reach of the baby whose eyes are locked-in, wide, entranced, mesmerized, her red cheeks lit by the digital glow, chubby hands grasping at the cell.
A petroleum pong wafts out of the four-story parkade across the street from the Salvation Army. A backpack-wearing, ragtag brace of outcasts stand in a cue awaiting the lunch service. Cool casual college students, wearing flip-flops unseasonably, exit a vintage clothing store and walk past a vacant office where the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee once headquartered. Two well-known townies saunter down opposite sides of the street, one with his usual ten-gallon hat and pants tucked-in to bejeweled cowboy boots. The other is a bearded gentle giant in worn Key bib-overalls, on his head a fraying, big-brimmed straw hat. Their presence is familiar, reassuring, comforting somehow. But the warm feeling is fleeting.
You head for home, your haven, where you hold all that is bad at bay, where you keep yourself safe. But something’s coming. You know it; you can feel it. Something you won’t be able to ignore. Have you stockpiled food and water? Hand-sanitizer and toilet paper? Bought a gun? A burglar alarm? You’re inclined to see this behavior as unnecessary. After all, what’s coming need not be Armageddon, right? Only a reckoning . . . for our sins, the sins of our ancestors, and for the many ways we have benefitted from those sins. Across the nation one town follows the next, microcosms of inequities exacerbated by disease, violence, and climate change. Most of us will be here to negotiate it. We’ll have to be. We have no choice. There’s no exit. True, some with money will carve out a little more time, sequester in futile attempt to sustain old modes of thought, to avoid moving forward and hang-on to a past, but sooner or later it’ll come for them too. So, go ahead, bunker-up. Stock-up at your warehouse superstore. Eat, drink, and be merry. Delude yourself into thinking that the playing field is level, that face mask mandates violate freedom, and that we’re not interconnected, that we’re all pioneers on the frontier, rifle and powder horn in hand, making our way in the world with the help of no one.
Primo Ventello lost his job as an auditor when the firm he worked for became the largest partnership failure in American history. He teaches at a community college in Kansas. He received a Fulbright Grant to the University of the Ryukyus in Okinawa, Japan for the 2014-2015 academic year. His essays have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and selected as “Notable” in the Best American Essays 2013. His most recent work is in Chicago Quarterly Review and Hotel Amerika.