Red Cape

By Erin Lynn Cook

J2ustin bounced the rubber ball for three hours on Saturday morning. His driveway was next to the property line of Mr. Hansen who kept a picture perfect hedge of gardenia bushes as a temporary property line border.  Land-lot margins weren’t clearly delineated like the pink left-hand margins of lined paper, and Mr. Hansen liked a tidy border.

When his parents first moved into the house next door, Mr. Hansen had informed Justin’s dad that his actual property line cut into Justin’s dad’s driveway, but Mr. Hansen wasn’t going to do anything about it until it came time to put up a fence. At that time, he warned, I’ll have the county surveyor out and get back that lost property. The law is on my side.

Justin’s dad had been young and naïve when it came to home ownership and shrugged his shoulders, content to have what he had: Cold beers in a fridge, a new Trimmer lawn mower for the Bermuda grass, and an easy chair in front of the new color Magnavox television. There was also his own garage to put his now long gone 68’ Nova into, along with boxes of accrued books, Christmas decorations, faded Easter baskets, car parts, old glass bottles dug up from some desert trip, comic books from when he was a kid, his wife’s photo albums, and his collection of national park shot glasses.

So when Justin bounced his red rubber ball all morning on Saturday he didn’t know about the property line dispute.  The argument had happened before he was born.

Early September was the blooming time of year for Mr. Hansen’s white gardenias.

And it was early September.

To Justin, a flower was a flower. He was eleven. It was nineteen eighty and not much mattered. Nothing was happening anywhere. Life was stagnant. A blooming bush just blended in with the landscape of the decade.

Occasionally an older teacher would have students still practice duck and cover and this year in sixth grade he was supposed to be shown a film on eggs and sperm. He’d heard about the eggs and sperm film from his best friend across the street, Kevin. Kevin was a year older and starting seventh grade. He said the movie was a dumb cartoon with smiling round eggs and wriggling tadpole-like sperm.

Justin wanted to ask Kevin another question. But what exactly he wanted to ask confused him. All he could think of to say was, “Like Pac-Man?” Kevin had laughed and Justin felt like he’d nailed it.

The school year prior Justin was able to watch a cartoon film of Donald Duck doing math. The film reel broke and the teacher had to splice it back together. While she spliced, Emma Gold, a girl two seats back, put a note on his desk that said she had feelings for him. Justin wadded it up and stuck it in his shoe. No one would ever know what that note said. He didn’t even understand it himself, so why should he share it? Emma didn’t speak to him.

He wondered about Emma Gold as his ball bounced. He wondered if she had eggs and sperm. He wondered if she played Pac-Man.

He’d tied a Superman cape around his neck. His mother made it from an old pillow case. His dad was in the back yard putting oil in the Trimmer mower. He’d tried to get Justin interested in watching but Justin had gone out to the front yard instead. The dog followed him. It lay with its snout on the edge of the cement and its body on the untrimmed Bermuda. It was brown and content.

Justin’s little sister Roberta sat on the front porch with her Barbies. They were all lined up, Skipper, Ken, and two Barbies, one with brown hair and one with blond. She had a doll-sized Winnebago camper parked on a step. Justin warned her of the natural dangers of cliff parking.

“Wheels fall off at unexpected moments, you know. Could find Barbie and her gang all smashed up. I wouldn’t leave them unattended.”

Roberta stuck her tongue out at him. It was pink and looked like a sore thumb. She twisted the rubber girls heads around unnaturally so they were looking over their spineless backs at her. “Don’t listen to him,” she whispered. “He’s a bonehead.”

Then she made Ken kiss Barbie and pranced a spotted acrylic horse over to join in the fun.

Justin was bored. Kevin had to go down to Los Angeles for the weekend. His mom’s sister lived there and supposedly she lived near Disneyland but Kevin confessed that it was just a ruse to make him not complain about going. “In all the times we’ve gone down to visit,” he’d said.  “We’ve only been to Disneyland once, and I had to push a stroller almost the whole time.”

The only thing Kevin could brag about was kissing a girl he didn’t know on the Space Mountain roller coaster.

Justin stuck his finger in his mouth.  “Barf.”  Kevin said he thought the same thing. It was gross. That night Kevin and Justin had snuck into old Mr. Hansen’s garage. Kevin found a steel rod and dared Justin to break Mr. Hansen’s windshield with it. Justin was young enough to know better, and Kevin gave up the fight.

The red ball bounced up and down.

The metal garage door was closed and he began to bounce it against the garage door. The noise instantly became louder and more aggressive. It matched his feelings of frustration and boredom. His cape swung behind him. He had to flick it off his shoulder every few bounces to keep it from getting tangled up under his arms.

He heard his father’s Trimmer lawn mower fire up in the back yard. The dog lifted its head and barked. Then it settled back down to a content state of being.

Roberta abandoned her dolls, the Winnebago still treacherously parked on the edge of the step. Justin didn’t feel like kicking it off yet. The bang bang bang of the ball soothed his own edginess. He felt the need to throw the ball harder and harder. A sense of urgency grew. The ball’s movement carried great importance. A significance that was beyond Justin’s control. It was a necessary element in his universe. One that if broken could send him into a thousand pieces and scattering him into millions of ghost-like creatures. Or particles that fly from one orb to another.

All his dimensions were filled with the onslaught of the red ball against the metal door.

When Mr. Hansen yelled at him repeatedly to stop, his inflamed words bounced off Justin’s taught ear drums like pebbles on a window pane.

The rubber ball was warm. His palms were turning red. Slam slam slam. The screen door closed and he didn’t hear. The mail truck drove up to the curb and he didn’t see.

He’d folded Emma’s note so tight that it felt like a stone in his shoe. By the time he’d gotten home and taken his shoes off the sweat from his foot had turned it to pulp. No one could have read her scrawl of emotion even if he’d ever have a chance to share it. It would be his story alone. His words. Emma’s words would probably have been flat denial. I’d never say anything like that to him, she’d insist. Her heart broken into a million shards of pride.

Mr. Hansen had a gardener. A Mexican man who drove up in a small Toyota pickup truck every Friday afternoon with his lawn mower in the back. He was a short man named Miguel. When Justin got home from school on Friday afternoons he’d wave to Miguel and say, Hello Mr. Miguel. He never knew his last name. No one ever introduced him. His mother just said, it’s Miguel, whenever he showed up. His father’s retort about Mr. Hansen was that if he was rich enough to have Miguel he was rich enough to move.

It seemed like everyone in the neighborhood wanted Mr. Hansen gone.

So when Mr. Hansen’s face grew redder and redder the more he tried to get Justin’s attention that Saturday afternoon, Justin may have heard, but chosen not to, because Mr. Hansen was Mr. Hansen. Always yelling about something.

One year he complained that Justin’s dad didn’t clip his lawn close enough. The weeds are spreading all over my yard, he said. Justin had watched his father’s shoulders round and turn away from Mr. Hansen’s scowl. Mr. Hansen held up fists filled with rye grass as proof.

Another year Mr. Hansen didn’t like the way Kevin’s father was painting his trim. What kind of color is that? It will ruin the look of the street. My property value is already down because of those white rocks you’ve got in your front yard! He scolded. Then he continued raking his leafless yard.

Then there was the year Mr. Hansen walked from house to house with a petition to get rid of the trees that lined the street because of the prickly balls that fell onto the sidewalk every spring. The trees were tall and provided a deep dark shade for hiding from the brutal summer sun. In the tree in front of Justin’s house a family of doves came back year after year to roost. Everyone suspected Mr. Hansen of forging signatures.

Only the tree in front of his house was removed. He replaced it with a snubbed white flowered crepe myrtle. He kept it pruned to a tiny ball, tight like a fist. The street looked lopsided without his tree. A line of tall green in the spring and summer, of crimson and orange and yellow in the fall, and stark majestic branches in the winter. In the middle of the line a break, like a snatch of static in an electrical current, and the majestic height was cut down with the precision of an electric trimmer.

The ball bounced. Justin’s hand grew warmer. Mr. Hansen gave up and went back into the borrowed cool shade from neighboring trees to brood.

The rhythmic noise continued. A timelessness that even Justin couldn’t decipher.

Finally the red ball made a decisive action. It twisted in Justin’s hands. Justin grabbed it in aggravation and threw it hard. It spun and struck the stucco side of the house instead of the metal garage door, the sound was different. Dulled and natural. Like a hand hitting stone. The ball spun and flew back. It looked like it was going to come toward Justin again but it twisted with a life and mind of its own. I’ve my own set of molecules, it said, my own atoms to play with. I will connect where I want to connect. I will reconvene with nature. The red ball flew, wings sprouting where small nubs of rubber had been, and landed graceful albeit hard on Mr. Hansen’s gardenias. It seemed to glide, or slide, or scoot across, like a dog rubbing its ass on the grass. It knocked off white head after white head. And when the bird ball landed it settled with a hiss, the air also reconvening with nature. Back to the atmosphere called home. To mix and be breathed in by the dog still lying with its muzzle on the cement. Content and brown.

The screen door slammed again and Roberta came back out. Her Winnebago was still perched on the step. She sat down and manipulated the pile of dolls, kissing Ken and Barbies together. Each head of hair got a turn. While Skipper watched with her bent knees and elbows. All knees and elbows, Barbie said to her younger sister. You’ll never get a guy like that. You’ve got to walk with grace like me. And Barbie showed Skipper how to tighten her legs and arms, stick out her chest, and wriggle her hips to make her legs move.

“There,” said Roberta. She watched too much Three’s Company when their parents left them with the babysitter. Chrissy was her favorite.

Justin had watched his ball fly. He was amazed at the wing span. The grace and destruction combined. Like an F14.

It was election year, and his parents had a Ronald Reagan sign in their front yard. Mr. Hansen had Jimmy Carter. Each man looked old to Justin. Mr. Miguel had to use the weed eater around Jimmy Carter, the nylon string getting tangled in the heavy gauge wire stuck into the lawn. One Friday Justin watched Mr. Miguel pick the sign out of the lawn before he mowed. He looked around to see if anyone noticed. When he saw Justin, he smiled and nodded. Their little secret his nod seemed to say.

Justin walked out to where the Ronald Reagan sign was planted. The ball’s flight had given him an idea.

He knew Mr. Hansen was not going to be happy about what his ball had done. He knew that as soon as Mr. Hansen looked out his window and saw something not right in his yard he would be out front yelling at Justin. Blaming Justin for something that was not his fault. But no one would believe him. Kevin was gone. Even if his sister had seen, her imagination was clouded with thoughts of love.

He could hear the tinkling of piano keys. One of Mr. Hansen’s hobbies. His wife was failing, Justin had heard his mother say. We must be kind to Mr. Hansen. She always came to his defense at dinner discussions. A meager roast with potatoes and carrots on the table. The promise of the sign out front. Mr. Hansen’s sign signifying the life of gas lines and rations. What will this nation come to? Doesn’t he understand? Justin’s dad would say. We need change.

He’s a good man, she would respond. He is suffering.

He was the good suffering piano player. His gardenia’s and property lines were more precious than good relationships.

Justin knew where his ball had been headed. He knew what it had in mind that day.

He swung his cape back over his shoulder. The red material flopped like a broken wing.

Roberta talked to her dolls. She didn’t seem to notice a brother on the prowl. If she had looked up at the right moment, Justin might have looked like a man. A tall man intent with a purpose. A change must take place. A change in the eighties, in a time when life was dull and lifeless. When the only things that mattered were new movies released or video arcades. Or when teachers made students duck under desks and watch millions of happy sperms race toward sparse eggs. The sperms swam up streams of milky white. Glowing white orbs pulsing with anticipation.

The sign was heavier and stuck deeper than he expected. The presidential picture nestled under his arm as he walked. Like a momma bird with her chick, Justin carried the load. Like the note in his shoe, shredded to nothing when he reached his destination. The words so wrought with emotion turned to mush. Like a boy who was eleven in a time when nothing seemed to happen. Nothing was promising.

 

Aimless searches for inhabitable galaxies.

 

His cape clung to his sweaty neck. A warning if he’d been a girl. A feeling of not-rightness, a gain giving, a warning in the pit of the gut. If there’s anything you don’t like, Horatio had said to his best friend. But Kevin wasn’t there to help Justin. It was up to Justin to figure it out.

He stepped between two bushes the ball had not flown into. He swung hard with the sign, sweeping it like a broom with both hands. The delicate white blossoms flew off like torpedoes. They scattered on the driveway, on Mr. Hansen’s lawn, some even landed near where the dog lay. The brown content dog got up and wandered over to Justin. Roberta had two Barbies in each fist and ran over. Her mouth was wide open. “I’m telling,” she said. Justin swung back hard and knocked the dog in the jaw. It yelped and ran to the back yard. The lawn mower had stopped. Justin swung again, Roberta screamed Stop! and held both dolls out for emphasis or protection.

The cardboard sign began to rip to shreds. The presidential face smeared in green. Strips of paper blowing about a metal frame.

More flowers flopped about. Now they spread about him like dead fish. He stepped forward and began another sweep of the next bush. He didn’t pay attention to his sister or the dog or his father’s yells.

Or Mr. Hansen walking up with a steel rod tight in his clenched fists. Both hands swinging, like Justin, both elbows bending, two sets of clenched teeth, tight against each other, white showing between tight lips. Mr. Hansen swung high, the air at Justin’s ear sped fast, mixed with the air that had escaped the red ball that lay flattened from its flight atop a once perfect gardenia bush. The sound was like a jet. An F14 breaking the sound barrier and making the front windows shake and rattle, the brown content dog leaping up startled.

Justin swung again. There was so much noise about him. It wasn’t the soothing slam of his ball against the metal garage door, it was chaotic and made his ears hurt from all the pitches. Too many voices, too many sounds, and it felt good. Finally a disruption in the matterless land of nineteen eighty. An eleventh year that held promise of new growth. Promise of electing someone to provide meat on the table, not meager roast with carrots and potatoes, gas lines, fear of the world, of losing the earth, the orbs disintegrating or human destruction. Of nuclear clouds of mushrooms growing larger and larger on film.

Justin saw something new. A growing eleven year old needs bloody steak with buttered rolls, so much butter that it runs down his kid sister’s chin at the dinner table. There needs to be music playing, not the news. Good music, jazz, and red wine for his folks. There needs to be new shows to watch, not the throw backs to the 70s when life was miserable. It was a new decade. A new generation.

 

Justin yelled an obscenity to mix his own noise with the good-feeling chaos.

“Fuck it!”

His father’s hand landed on the side of his cheek at the same moment as Mr. Hansen’s metal rod made contact with the other side of his head. His ear, his temple, the tender scalp still forming to solidity. Not yet hard on a boy. Along with the swing and the spurting blood and the barrage of sounds from within and without of Justin’s now defected orb were the words of Mr. Hansen, “My damn property!”

Sleep. Justin went to sleep amidst the noise. On a bed of white gardenias he laid down, his father’s blood-pooling arms a pillow. Red grew from his head.

The red rubber ball came to life again. It filled with air and flew backwards out of the flowers, taking off in flight, the flowers it had rampaged kicked up their heels and landed face first back on the bush. Mr. Hansen fell and worms ate him raw, down to the white tight bones of his skull.

Roberta danced her colored Barbies on his rib cage and Skipper bent her elbows and knees and crawled inside. Then Justin’s sister began picking at her hair. Clumps of soft fur falling over the bones. Her legs bent at the knees and her arms at the elbows. All elbows and knees, she scolded, no boy will want you like that.

Justin’s dad picked up the newly inflated ball and began bouncing it against the metal garage door. Bounce bounce bounce, splotches of red wherever it hit. Red dots marking a path to a new land, a map of treasures beyond imagination.

And he was transported to his youth. Of days when the game of bounce was played for hours and the sound of the ball hitting the wall was like a lullaby.

And Justin slept in the wake of it all. His red cape caught the windy current high over his shoulders, carrying him away. A note of love clutched in his hand, a milky way of sperms and eggs. Nurturing the next generation.

___

Erin Lynn Cook‘s stories have been published in numerous literary journals across the United States.  Her work has been nominated for national awards and taught at universities for her use of metaphor.  Erin teaches English composition, but spends most of her time with her two awesome sons. 


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