Fiction by Michael Diehl Pezley
I used to think I’d grow to be eight feet tall. That’s how big our backyard was. It was over a decade later that I learned people, unlike goldfish, grow inwardly and that the perimeters of that space are nonexistent. Still, it was a big yard, bigger than any other I knew of then.
It was real big and it was real quiet. It was so quiet I felt like Danno’s voice could have carried on forever, and even further when beans were planted and the wind was strong. Sometimes I would think of other kids playing in their backyards, whole states away, catching Danno’s laughs when they finally fell from the wind.
Danno and I had a trampoline with rusty springs that squeaked when we bounced. The squeaks didn’t carry like Danno’s voice but died the moment they were born. The trampoline was under a great big oak tree that sits just before the first row of crops and marked our property line and Zeke’s boundary for me and Danno. Our mother is buried beneath that tree. Danno and I spent the better part of every possible evening under the leaves of that oak. We hid treasures and trinkets in the hole we dug under one of its huge roots that reminded me of the tentacles of a giant squid I’d seen in a magazine. I still see tentacles in roots and still look for grave markers beneath old lonely oaks and am often sad when I don’t find them. Danno and I hid our worst and angriest thoughts in that hole under the roots. Zeke told me my emotions showed on my face so Danno and I would scrub our foreheads with paper and tie up the greasy scraps with long grass or oak leaf stems. Secrets were better kept that way. Danno didn’t know what we were doing but just loved to play along. Sometimes what we buried was for ourselves or for each other, sometimes for Zeke, and sometimes for people we just made up. We played Long John Silver, although Danno didn’t know who that was. Or maybe he did and just couldn’t say. I used to think he didn’t know his own name because Zeke made me call him Danno too, because, he said, calling him that is easier than correcting his pronunciation all the time. Danno had his new name before I was born.
If we were left alone, evenings in our backyard were beautiful. Unless Danno was frustrated. He could pitch a real fit over what I thought was nothing. We would be playing Power Rangers or acting like Hulk Hogan and Stone Cold Steve Austin, and he would break down in what Zeke called a blown gasket tantrum and start pulling his hair out and screaming like the tornado sirens. Zeke taught me to be patient with Danno, and I’d learned to be for the most part. There were nights I wished it were Danno dead and buried under the tree instead of our mother. Zeke said, “It’s hard for a kid who’s lost his mom.” I remember snapping back, “I don’t have a mom either!” As if just like that, I understood him.
Zeke used to say I look too much like my father for him to separate his feelings for us, and so I often had to bear the burden of my father’s decisions, even though Zeke assured me my father’s leaving was no fault of mine. I know now how hard Zeke worked to be fair to me but it never felt fair back then. Zeke used to say I am the lucky one of the three of us and only now can I see it. Like the worn and frayed floral print apron Zeke used to wear when cooking, some things only make sense after time.
When Zeke got home we’d come in from the backyard and he’d ask me about our day at school while at the kitchen sink he washed the engine gunk from under his fingernails and Danno cheered and clapped for him being home again. Zeke would show me how to clean my cuts and how to dodge a punch and land one at the same time but neither ever came without a good tongue lashing for being pugnacious and reckless.
I used to blame Danno for my trouble making friends. Boys didn’t come home from school with us much and when they did they’d make sure I knew it was only because their folks were picking up their cars from Zeke’s garage and that they planned to high-tail it home as soon as they could, a promise their parents always conspired to make good on. A few times kids followed us home in disbelief that our mother was buried in our backyard and not in the cemetery where the normal families buried their relatives. Danno would get excited at having other kids in our yard and was typically too rough with them. I’d tell them he’s not mean, that he was just playing Planet of the Apes or something. One kid, Travis Darcette, called us both dirty retard bastards while he was pedaling home holding his cheek Danno had accidentally bruised. I ran after him for a stretch to purposefully bruise the other one, but I couldn’t catch him. Not many kids came home with us twice.
That night, Zeke told me my father hadn’t liked Danno either, but if we go around punching every person who makes fun of him we’ll be fighting the whole world the rest of our lives. Most likely, Zeke was hiding swollen knuckles behind our mother’s floral print apron.
In the summers I could forget about the kids at school and just play in the backyard and climb the tree. In July and most of August the sun went down into the earth right behind that oak tree and Zeke and I could witness its majesty without hurting our eyes. It was like the ancient surveyors of Giza came next to Prospect Township and situated our home to be in harmony with the heavens too. At dusk the tree turned black and the sky behind it gold, then orange, then a red like frozen blood. Then it turned the most magnificent blue before going black. Once, I saw it turn green and I ran to tell Zeke. He told me our mother’s eyes were green and maybe what I saw was their reflection as the sun dipped into the earth where she rests. I tried to never miss a sunset after that night. Danno often cried when the sun went down so I’d watch it by myself while Zeke gave Danno his bath. Danno was worried the sun wouldn’t come back up over the backyard. I may have had doubts then, but now I’m certain it will rise again. And when it does, it will bring with it much more than just warmth and light.
Originally from Ohio, Michael Diehl Pezley is a graduate of Columbia University and an MFA candidate at The New School in New York City. He lives in Manhattan with his wife and two young daughters.