Tabula Rasa

Richard Lynch Award for Creative Writing
Tuesday, April 30th, 2013

People like to talk about their happiest moments. “Those were the happiest days of my life,” they say. “I was never happier.” How utterly human. How fucking desperate. You’d never see a pig reminiscing from his puddle of shit about the best bucket of slop he ever had. That might have been some pretty swell slop, but I guarantee it doesn’t do anything to wash the taste of shit out of your mouth. People who recall their golden days are deluded into thinking they’re part of some storybook fantasy. That they actually matter. The truth is too harsh for them. We’re just buzzing around like mosquitoes until we die. The only thing about us that really matters, the only thing that gives us any significance at all in the grand scheme of things, is the primal urge get drunk, get naked, and pop out two and a half young ones before we dust out for good.

While I never bought into any of this “happiest moments” hogwash, I could probably pinpoint my golden days. I lived the happiest days of my life in the week between the death of the Widow Nelson and the arrival of the Widow Bloom. I had my slop that week. I had it every morning. Burnt, black, and served in a mug. The thing is, I hate the taste of coffee. But that’s what a man begins to drink at a certain age. “You can’t drink soda for the rest of your life,” my father probably would have said, had I ever met him. After the coroner came and took the Widow Nelson away, I drank my cup of coffee while inspecting her house from my kitchen window. I had a problem with her house. It rubbed me wrong the way. Though the spirit of 157 Doyle Street had been freshly snuffed, the lingering ardor of her house and lawn still managed to affirm my inadequacies. Its garishness, even separated from my own lawn by thirty-four feet of suburban street, made my house look empty, my lawn a blank slate. Any potential homebuyers who cruised their way though Malta Estates would probably think my house was uninhabited. Not that we had many of those these days. Homebuyers, that is.

Some starry-eyed developer thought it a grand idea to build a suburb in the eternally irrelevant town of Glenburg. A bedroom community he had called it. People would wake up, commute across the Glenburg Bridge to San Francisco for work, then return to the neighborhood at night to sleep. A place where families, young and rich, would settle down. A grand idea indeed. Only, halfway through construction, Mother Earth felt the need to remind us that we shouldn’t get too attached to our plans. Thirty-five brand new houses. One earthquake. No more bridge. That developer is probably walking the railroads as a bindle stiff now. Instead of agreeable families bringing their sanguine hopes in by the truckload, Malta Park was the home to a widow, a loner, and a local couple. I was the loner.

Anyway, back to me staring out my kitchen window, blowing on a hot cup of coffee. As the coroner disappeared down Doyle Street, I decided to take action. A victimless crime, I thought at the time. I set my cup down on the kitchen counter and walked out of my house. I crossed Doyle Street, ignoring the possibility that my neighbor, Judy Hostetler, might be watching me from her house. I stood in the Widow Nelson’s lawn and turned to eye my own house. It looked like an insipid version of the widow’s, a somehow more insipid version of the thirty-two empty houses in Malta Estates. The lawn was empty of anything that might suggest a human lived there. There were no flowerbeds offering vicarious life to the inhabitant of the house. No birdbath that filled with ethereal raindrops to offer the mosquitoes a place to breed. I needed to make a change. The day they came and took the body of the Widow Nelson away, I stole her garden gnomes.

The Widow Nelson’s yard was a menagerie of objects that would appeal only to an old broad with a loosening grasp of reality. There were various crosses and depictions of Jesus and Mary, wooden statuettes of birds and squirrels, some fake chickens, and finally, four garden gnomes. The gnomes were about a foot and a half tall, with terracotta beards, grins, and red pointed hats that made them look like the bastard children of St. Nick. One was laying on its back, eyes closed and hands folded across its chest, apparently taking a nap. There was also a gnome couple, holding hands and displaying wide grins, the epitome of a happy pairing. An accurate portrayal of marriage, I thought. Desperately clasped hands. Frightened smiles. Unchanging faces, begging to perceived as happy. The last gnome was positioned in a crude imitation of August Rodin’s “The Thinker.” It sat on a red and white toadstool, resting its chin on its knee in sober meditation. The little bastards were heavier than I expected. I carried them one by one across Doyle Street and positioned them in my front lawn near the door of my house. I went to bed that night, aided by a gin nightcap, feeling less melancholy than usual, thinking about my congregation of eternal cheer that would greet the paperboy tomorrow morning. I doubt the kid would notice, though. He seemed a bit dull.

Some sort of cleaning service was at the Widow Nelson’s house the next morning, but that did nothing to muck up my high spirits. The widow herself was gone. I had always found it a bit strange that with all the empty houses in the neighborhood, the Widow Nelson had to move in right across the street from mine. I hated that our houses faced each other. It was too intimate for me. Why don’t we just put a community toilet in the street so we can watch each other while we shit? The Hostetlers had followed her a month later and moved in right next door to me. What is it with people? They see a man sitting on a rock in the middle of a field, probably wondering how he got to this point in his life, and set up camp right next to him. Are humans really afraid to be alone? They need someone to hold their hand before the lights go out for good. God forbid a man actually experiences solitude for once and is forced to get used to the sound of his own breathing.

I stepped out of my house and walked to the street to pick up the morning paper from my driveway. I looked to my right, relieved that neither Ed nor Judy were outside. The Hostetlers and I spent the majority of the time living next to each other pretending we didn’t notice one another. If Judy, stepping out to get the morning newspaper, noticed that I was out doing the same, she would stand on her porch, face wrinkled in dim speculation, until I returned to the confines of my house. She was nowhere to be seen, however. I picked up the paper and turned to face my house. The gnomes looked out of place, but that was to be expected. It took a while to get used to a fresh haircut. I decided I didn’t much care for the napper. He looked too complacent, like he relied on the assistance of the other gnomes to maintain his lethargic existence. I picked him up and carried him inside my house. Don’t want people thinking I’m a lazy son of a bitch.

I carried him right through my house and into my backyard. I set him in the grass and went to the house for a shovel. When I returned, he was in the same position, undaunted by the blunt object in my hand. “Any last words?” I asked him. He gave none. Stoic in the face of death, he made a satisfying crunch as I smashed his face in. I stood in my backyard, breathing heavily with the shovel in my hand as terracotta body parts littered the grass. I looked up and noticed Judy, frozen with a look of repugnance as she watched me from her bedroom window. I realized that it’s probably not commonplace for a thirty year-old man to be assassinating lawn ornaments in the middle of the day. I dropped the shovel and walked calmly into my house. Don’t want to appear panicky.

The next few days were blissful. Since the Widow Nelson had sucked in her last breath, I had the freedom to stand in my kitchen window all day, free from judgment. I watched the paperboy come by in the morning. He probably thought it was a waste of time, biking all the way to this neighborhood just to deliver three damn papers. It was good for him, though. Years from now he’d probably regale his son with the tales of his morning paper route. It built character, damn it. That’s what you kids are missing these days. I lamented at not ever having a job. Growing up with my grandmother there was never any need for money. We had lived on the money that my grandfather had left her, and I still lived off of that money on Doyle Street. I still felt that I was missing some crucial part of growing up, though. I would never have the opportunity to get nostalgic about the time I delivered newspapers to a dead woman for an entire week. I never experienced misery for the sake of money. I briefly considered taking the ferry to San Francisco to try my hand at shining shoes down in Union Square. But that would be misery for the sake of misery. Still a start, I supposed, but I was content to sit and enjoy the mostly empty neighborhood. I lounged on the luxurious grass of my front yard in patio furniture that I had stolen from the Widow Nelson’s back porch before the mover’s came. Don’t want people thinking that I don’t know how to relax.

I sipped lemonade and noticed the glass appeared to be fogged. Growing up, I noticed that all of my grandmother’s glassware had this permanent frosty appearance to it. I had always assumed it came from years of use. From those nights when Uncle Steve gripped the glass too tightly as he laughed the night away, always having a little too much to drink. From hundreds of nights of hundreds of squeezes, letting the humor and warm affability soak into the glass. But my house had never been host to family dinners so rife with nostalgia that it filled the good china and stained the glassware. The only time the glasses were gripped too tightly was when I would watch Ed, bridling with masculinity, mowing his lawn as Judy swooned from the porch. My grip would tighten with each dragging minute as Ed pranced about in the yard, while I, intimidated by Ed and my own grass, would wait for empty streets. Anyway, back to my glass. It turns out it was just soap scum all along.

Later that day, I sat on the floor of my kitchen listening to Judy talk to a high school friend on the telephone. Our phone lines had crossed for some reason, and I could pick up the receiver and eavesdrop on her conversations at my leisure. She spent the majority of the day gossiping to various friends while Ed was at work. I sat with my back to the refrigerator, sipping coffee as she ran her mouth. “-and I swear, Blanche, he just smashed our neighbor’s lawn gnome with a shovel in his backyard. He’s just the strangest man.” So the Hostetlers knew I had taken the Widow Nelson’s gnomes. I guess it didn’t particularly matter. She’s dead, after all. “I catch him sometimes watching me through the windows while Ed is away.” It’s not like someone would call the coppers on me for stealing a few gnomes. It wouldn’t hurt anyone. “That’s right, her name is Elmira Bloom. She’s moving into the Widow Nelson’s house tomorrow. I know her from bingo. Yeah, they cleaned the place up awfully fast. They gave her one hell of a deal. Funny thing, she’s a widow too. Husband died in the war.”

I dropped the receiver and went to the kitchen window. Another widow. Was this existence I was doomed to? Was I always going to be exposed daily to the lonely old women of the world who, resigned to mortality’s jurisdiction, chose to waste away their final few days in Malta Estates? That’s all I need. Another crone with investigative eyes, spending the totality of her day watching my house from her Maloof style rocker. I dreamt that night of being penned in a zoo, stuffed into a blank cage for the viewing pleasure of families with ice cream stained children. They watched as I ate and slept, but eventually moved on, visibly bored.

The next day, I awoke with dread and headed to the kitchen to make some coffee. I was standing dumbly in front of the kitchen window, acrid taste stinging my mouth, when a car, followed by a moving truck, pulled up to the Widow Nelson’s house. Out of the car stepped life, red heels meeting the ghost street of Malta. The white dress she wore seemed oppositional to the provocative red of her lips, which wrapped around a cigarette and exhaled rapturous plumes of smoke. Her hair, far from the inert white that you would expect of a widow, was as black as wet soil. If this was the Widow Bloom, I was Johnny fucking Appleseed.

I spent the entirety of my day standing at my kitchen window watching the young Widow Bloom aid the movers as they carried in kidney-shaped coffee tables and deep sofas. Ed and Judy made their way across the street, Malta Estates’ very own welcoming committee, and carried on with the Widow Bloom for quite a while. It was then that I noticed the unwitting victim of my crime. Right in the middle of the new widow’s lawn were circles of dead grass, about a foot each in diameter. I had no idea how I had failed to notice the stark evidence of my filched gnomes. Surely she would notice these odious spots of brown, conspicuous among a sea of green. The front lawns of every house in Malta Estate all had the same luxurious grass. Seed number 112, “Barbecue Paradise,” special ordered from the catalog in Hartnagel’s Hardware Store. It was expensive, but the developer of Malta Estates wanted to make damn sure that people knew that this new suburban lifestyle would be a swanky way to approach your middle years. True, the backyards were all seeded with plain Bermuda grass, but it’s what you can see from the street that really matters. Spend your money on the suit, Johnny boy, not on the underwear.

I lived the next two days in utter derangement, prisoner to the paranoia that the Widow Bloom would notice the four dead spots in the grass. Maybe the fact that there were now only three garden gnomes would throw her off my scent. The dame seemed sharp from her phone conversations with Judy, but maybe my decision to off the napper had bought me some time. But it was possible that the Hostetlers had already ratted me out. Judy saw me take the spade right to the napper’s button. Those four dead circles of grass stood out like guilty eyes. I would have to come clean. Don’t want people thinking I’m shady.

The next morning I showered and put on my suit. I took a comb to the head to look sharp and a slug of bourbon to the head for courage. I walked across Doyle Street, mentally preparing myself for judgment. The Widow Bloom was on her knees in a flower bed, wiping the sweat from her forehead with dirty gloves. She turned to me as I approached and smiled. Was this smile genuine or knowing? I had no time to decide. She was opening her mouth. “Hi, you must be Dan-“

“I stole your gnomes.”

“You- you what?” she asked. It sounded like she had misheard me.

“Well, not your gnomes, I suppose,” I said. “Though they could be if you wanted them. They were the widow’s gnomes. Not you, though, the widow before you. I took the Widow Nelson’s gnomes after she died and now your grass is dead. Well I suppose technically the grass was dead before I stole your gnomes, but now it’s exposed.”

She seemed offended, or possibly in disbelief. She had likely not expected to be exposed to such debauchery in this haven of suburbia. Perhaps she was not expecting to find a community of ghosts and swindlers. I have to give her credit, though. She recovered quickly. The Widow Bloom was sharp.

“Oh those old things?” she said laughing. “You can’t be serious. Who would want those? I don’t want people thinking I’m some kooky old lady.” The Widow Bloom was sharp indeed. “If you try to handle a keen knife, you’ll get stabbed,” my father might have told me. The Widow Bloom laughed, even as I turned and briskly crossed Doyle Street, disappearing into my walls.

I spent the next week hiding in my house, lying in retreat behind my audience of grotesque figures, my trophies of perversion that stood in the front lawn. There were once again three people I had to avoid when getting the newspaper and mowing my lot of “Barbecue Paradise,” seed number 112. There was once again a reason I couldn’t stand in the kitchen window all day, watching Doyle Street. I listened one day as the Widow Bloom told Judy over the telephone about our confrontation. “He was dressed in a suit and reeked of alcohol. It’s a bit worrisome, to say the least.” I watched on Saturdays, when Judy was away at her book club, as Ed crossed the street to the Widow Bloom’s house with a bottle of wine. I drank more coffee than ever, and I buried the terracotta shards of the napper in my backyard.

The days were getting longer, as the Widow Bloom’s house studied mine. The paperboy broke one of my gnomes, “The Thinker,” with an errant throw. A bad omen. I opened the paper behind my kitchen window and read that the construction of the new Glennburg Bridge was underway. I looked at the forlorn houses that lined the street and imagined the looming convoy of moving trucks and the endless items they would spit out. Oak tables, soft beds, laughing children, and scum-stained glasses.

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