That damn frown is my daughter’s favorite expression. She wears it all the time in preparation for her starring role in a community theater production. Perhaps Wanda is not exactly the star, more like floral backdrop. Tonight I’m supposed to get her to the venue at least an hour before the show starts. I don’t have anything else to do on Monday nights.
I open the front door while Wanda adjusts her costume, smoothing stretched-out green tights. “You’re going to be late,” I tell her. I head out to the car while she watches the back of my shoes, counting the number of times the heels light up as they meet the pavement. When she reaches thirteen, my shoes and I disappear into the car.
We drive under thin cloud cover. I stare into the distance, thinking of myself as a tree and my daughter as a mushroom smothering my roots. On the other hand, my daughter believes herself to be the plot of wild grass separating the groves. In other words, we’re both looking forward to her being able to drive.
Approaching the theater, we pass a stranger working out in the park. His strangeness isn’t related to his body, it’s the way he puts that body to use. He moves his butt to one side, butt to the other side, then a barely detectable knee bend, followed by arm stretches.
On stage a dandelion cowers under a bush. That’s Wanda up there, with a yellow crêpe-paper moon engulfing her face. She bends her knees and leans forward like a constipated gardener. Now she is crouching beside an erratically stuffed black plastic garbage bag. I don’t remember this scene from the film version starring Margaret Hamilton. I do forget a lot, but never something like that.
On Tuesday, while Wanda is in school, I craft walnut cutting boards in the basement. Through a small window at ground level, I can see the foundation plantings. Most have gone dormant for the season.
Our neighborhood attaches to the main road like the letter C. The house Wanda and I live in is in the middle of the curve. It’s possible to come in the neighborhood one way and go out the other. If I drive north away from my house, I usually drive north toward my house on the way home. If I start out going south, I come home going south. In a typical day I don’t exit and enter at the same junction, but I do change directions. In this way I can keep an eye on what’s shifting around.
The people next door [stage left] invite us over for dinner from time to time. According to the man, their son is Hell on Wheels. They spend the entire meal talking about him. They say Hell on Wheels is an acceleration of evil: an evil traveling downhill, propelled by gravity. Hell operates on its own power, never bothering with a car. Hell used to ride a bike, but now he prefers those tennis shoes with embedded wheels. In any case, Hell chases you down instead of waiting for you to come to it. Hell currently lives in Omaha.
John Buckle also lives next door to us [stage right]. John doesn’t live alone, he has Carl. I didn’t meet Carl for the first time until about a month after Wanda and I moved in. I was watering the foliage near the back patio when I first saw him. I had set the hose aside and was bending down to tear away brown leaves at the base of the plant. I should have done that before I watered, because my hands got muddy. It was then, as I was staring at my hands, that I heard a little hoot coming from beyond the fence. I peered through a gap in the cedar planks; there sat Carl, a sizable chimpanzee, on a small chair next to a wrought-iron table. He was drinking from a plastic cup.
Carl used to be famous. Now he’s officially retired because these days he’s too big to stand on top of lions. I work sporadically. So sometimes when Wanda’s not home I take Carl shopping. He walks through the mall on all fours but nobody around here makes a big deal about it.
Carl likes fast food, so on Friday we get in my car and go to the drive-thru. I order several different things for Carl to choose from. I assume Carl will pick a burger, but he has the chicken sandwich instead. And a little of the paper wrapper.
Instead of going directly back to my house, I drive through the neighborhood from south to north, around the C. Then I drive south on the main road. In this way, I form a reverse D. Carl taps his fist on the dashboard to Lite FM.
My phone rings and I answer. A voice informs me that an underage drinking party has been detected. It has always been my job to release the machines when this happens. I immediately make a U-turn and drive back to my house. After walking Carl home, I open the garage and get into the agency vehicle.
An hour later, I park in a campground lot. Without slamming any doors, I gather my poles and stirrups and hide behind the rock that hosts belly-flop competitions on the weekends. My thumbs work the controls as stones scrape one another under my feet. No matter the noise I make, teen laughter hinders their ability to heed warnings.
The last time I was called out on a job there was a family camped near the group of kids I was directed to expunge. Not wishing to involve bystanders, I waited until I could no longer tolerate the shrieks and assorted smoke. Unfortunately, the family disturbed the gravel mounds as they peeled out of the lot in their station wagon. I guess that couldn’t be avoided. I recorded their license plate so the agency could send them a voucher.
At the end of my missions — that’s what Wanda calls them — a crew arrives to clean up the mess. I tend to think their part in all of this is less satisfying than mine because collecting stray bits is tedious.
I finish my work and drive home. It’s snowing for the first time of the season. I relax in the bathtub while Wanda watches TV. I look at the ceramic tiles on the bathroom wall. The patterns in the blotches reveal wolves, volcanoes, and stationary bikes. While I’m sitting on the toilet the power goes out.
It’s still snowing when I go to bed. I’m under the down comforter, listening. When I hear heavy footsteps on the deck outside my bedroom I stop breathing. Chunks drop from the trees with a thud, and then slide down the metal roof with a groan. The sound and feel is unfamiliar, but I can still identify it: many gorillas jump on the roof and sigh.