He heard the gunshot, a sudden popping that echoed through the neighborhood’s narrow yards, but he didn’t register it. As Fred sat in his backyard in the growing dusk of a late summer evening, he was looking at the moving blades of grass, the maniacal dance of the leaves of the single elm in the small yard, and he was wishing he could pave it all over with concrete. The movement of these living things, the intangibility of these natural mechanisms, distressed him.
For over twenty-five years Fred had worked in maintenance in one of St. Louis’s largest skyscrapers. His days were spent in the chasms under the building, walking the catwalks among the hulking tanks, the gasping pipes and machines that ran the heating and cooling for the building’s fifty floors. In this sub-basement with its sparse light, with his coffee in his metal thermos and his calendar of topless women in tool belts from a parts supplier hanging above his workbench, Fred was at home. These machines were things that he could comprehend, machines that could be fixed with a wrench, with getting your hands dirty, understood by reading a gauge. The steel and grease, the dials and gauges, were things that he could put his large hands on. The grass and the tree were living things he could not bear to touch. He could not understand their living, their growing.
If the yard were concrete he would mind less these evenings spent sitting in a lawn chair with a six-pack of Schlitz. Nonetheless, it was more peaceful for him outside than inside with his wife and the endless chatter from the television as she watched Hollywood Squares and Wheel of Fortune. Together, he and Sarah had three boys, each of which proved a disappointment in one way or another.
Their youngest, Billy, who was born William, but at twelve had not yet grown out of the youthful nickname, was out this night using up his last free minutes before the regime of the school year returned. School had proven difficult for Billy on two fronts. The schoolwork seemed to challenge him in unexpected ways, but school was a bigger problem for Billy socially. Fred was frustrated by the frequency with which Billy received black eyes and fat lips, of how often a new bike, wrist watch, or school book was stolen. Billy would often dismiss the loss of some treasured object as his own mistake, he’d misplaced the watch, forgotten to lock up the bike, but Fred knew better. His thickness as a youth had put him often on the other side of such things. With his height and broad shoulders, Fred had used his size to intimidate others, and now he found himself with nothing to say to his youngest son, avoiding him.