daniel lalley

Winter Wheat

        The first time I really met Ray, he helped me pick out patio carpeting at Ace Hardware, where he worked part time on the sales floor. Before that, he was just a flashing shadow of my childhood; someone I wouldn’t know if not for my brother, who caught the word one pale July morning about a Playboy Ray found on the floorboard of his father’s cinderblock-stilted Bellaire and was selling first-come, first-serve out of his backyard. Between the two of us, we pooled ten dollars and snuck away from my grandmother’s supervision to purchase the magazine, which turned out to be backlogged by seven years and missing most of the good stuff. It consisted of little more than cigarette ads, anecdotes that eluded us by about three seminal years, and the pulpy strips near the binding which once extended to foldouts we could only imagine. And though it served as little more than a trophy– a hard-won breach we snuck beneath the baseboards of my grandmother’s storage shed— it seemed well worth the hour and a half spent riding the longhorn handlebars of my brother’s Roadmaster.

        I don’t remember much from that first encounter, perhaps because my attention hinged on what was tucked in Ray’s waistband as he walked casual and shirtless to the corner of his chain link fence. I remember exchanging rumors on the trek to his house: that he smoked cigarettes, that he’d been suspended from seventh grade for bringing condoms to school. I remember he had a neat three-inch scar at the point of his sternum, which he supposedly carved himself with a pocketknife out of plain curiosity for what it felt like to come unzipped. Beyond that, he was more of a childhood legend than anyone real; the exchange having been so abrupt and rushed that as we stood, nearly two decades later, discussing weave options and fiber grades, neither of us felt we had the right to rehash that sticky July afternoon.

         “What kind of brick pattern you got out there,” he asked, pulling a small swatch album from behind the paint counter. “The door’s no problem, but you’re gonna want something that compliments the exterior walls.”

         He opened the binder to the weatherproof flooring and Astroturf file—a four-page mosaic of stone-colored samples. “Since it’s going to be semi-exposed,” he explained, “you’re gonna need one of these with the marine backing, for moisture resistance. They’re easy to clean and pretty much fade resistant for about seven to ten years. Feel how thick these fibers are. Almost completely unfazed by UV.”

        I set my thumb against a beige sample called Winter Wheat. The pattern was light and unassuming—a refreshing contrast to the scab-colored stuff that’d been splayed on my grandmother’s back porch for the last fifteen years.

         “That one’s actually our best seller,” he said, admiring the swatch as if he were being sold on it himself. “From a ways off it almost looks like Gravel-Lok or sandstone. Most don’t realize how far they’ve come with this stuff since the seventies and eighties. You really don’t have to live with that one-dimensional green-turf carpet anymore.”

        He stood a bit eager-eyed as I thumbed through the remaining samples in the binder. When I finally decided on Winter Wheat, he continued to pitch it with so much zeal and expertise it made me wonder if he employed the same enthusiasm, years earlier, on the day he sold my brother and I on the Playboy.

        Now this is a nineteen ninety-one edition, as you can tell by the way the tits are inflated to a firm swell and there’s just the shadow of bush over the pubic region. These days Hugh prefers a more natural “girl next door” bust and a clean shave for the bunnies. Most don’t realize how far these magazines have come since the seventies and eighties.

        Before we hit the register, he led me into a white lit employees-only dock that smelled like sawdust and the inside of a new car. Behind a row of wooden pallets rested giant spools of the carpeting featured in the swatch album, and right in the middle of the last reel was the tight-wound roll of Winter Wheat. Ray threw it effortlessly over the slick, urethane-sealed cement.

         “Go ahead, take your shoes off,” he said. “It’s new carpet; it’s like a warm bed.”

        I hesitated for a moment, but I felt obliged to walk out of my shoes and stand tentatively at the end of the carpet roll. The pattern looked a lot simpler in the expanse of its full form and the carpet felt rough and sticky through my socks.

         “It feels pretty good,” I said, tracing a small arch with the toe of my foot.

         “I told you,” he replied, dropping to the ground and wrenching off his tight-laced Carolinas. He stepped onto the rug, hiking up on the balls of his feet, and sort of pulsated for a moment. “For an outdoor set up, I don’t think we have anything more forgiving. If you have your measurements, I can go ahead and cut it for you. Do you have everything to install it with? You’re gonna need some carpet shears, you know. Some seam adhesive, solvent, doubled faced tape, a utility knife, all that stuff, not to mention a fifty pound roller. I can rent that to you if you’d like. You know, if you want to do this the right way. Hell, I could come over and help you lay the stuff, if this is your first time doing this type of thing DIY.” He paused for a moment, rubbing briskly at a small patch of stubble on his neck.

         “Notched adhesive spreader, straight edge, tape measure,” he said, at a near whisper. “I can give you hand with it, if you want. You’re still over there off Warren?”

         “Sure,” I said, conceding the bluff.

        My grandmother’s house was the last one built on a tar-webbed street in a working-class neighborhood. The first four blocks, constructed in the early forties, were now a broken file of gutted ranches, outlining the pigeon-colored network of roads running from Bowie Lane to Bonham Drive. The whole neighborhood was named in this “remember the Alamo” fashion, the last of these streets being Warren Lane, where my grandparents settled down at the tail end of the fifties. Like many of these suburban outfits, the neighborhood played tit-for-tat with the local economy, and when the red bricks and stucco-smothered expanse of chain restaurants and department stores sprung up, the money moved out and the “For Rent” signs appeared. Forget the Alamo.

        It was only the martyr-grade idealistic who stayed behind to watch their property values bottom out along with the neighborhood itself. Among those left in the wake of this new style of suburban compulsion were my grandparents, who still believed in the integrity of solid hardwood structures and anything bought with upfront cash transactions, no mortgage, on a World War II veteran’s incentive. My grandfather took two mortar rounds and a mild case of sandfly fever in North Africa to qualify for this little corner of the world–neighborhood fallout and property values be damned. And when wide-gauged Camels and a diet consisting almost entirely of red meat and Wild Turkey had done what the Axis Powers had failed to, the house and daily battle to keep it from the plight of a declining neighborhood became my grandmother’s.

        Once she’d been laid up in a nursing home, the house stood as precarious as the chip-boarded structures that studded the neighborhood like broken teeth. The St. Augustine lawn, the twin downy birches, it all began to take on the dead, straw-like quality of the surrounding neglect. The tenants of the other residences never got any better, the crime rate never froze, and with the government keeping a keen eye on the property they had once so charitably afforded my grandparents, any sale of the house was on hold. At least, until my grandmother was gone for good.

        I suppose I felt obliged to pick up the battle where she left off two years prior. Having just graduated from college with no job, plans, and an entire summer between myself and the real world, I decided it was a better option to return to the Alamo and fight the good fight, rather than waste to a husk on my parents’ spring-shot La-Z-Boy. I approached the effort with verve. I had no direction and knew nothing in the way of DIY home improvement, but I was teetering on some obscure edge, and it just occurred to me to rescue something.

        My grandmother’s doorbell was one of those tri-toned numbers that seems to jam around the house long after it’s pressed. I remember waking up to the tremor of the last and deepest tone feeling as if I’d heard the whole bar. I’d taken up residence in my mother’s old bedroom, which, after a futile estate sale, was littered with corner-worn banker’s boxes and antique crystal wrapped in old newspaper and strewn around the room. This was my world.

        Outside the dew had burned off and the sun was already taking its cut of the lawn. My head was squeaky from a night of drinking and to glance outside obscured my vision with dancing phosphate ribbons. Ray, standing on the balls of his feet, wanted to know exactly why it had taken four knocks and a bell just to get me between the jamb. He smoked a menthol cigarette, pinching the hot-boxed filter between two knuckles on his right hand and looking for a place to ditch it.

         “If we’re going to do this, we might as well get a decent jump before the sun really hits home,” he said, spitting in his palm and closing a trembling fist over the butt. “I’ll assume by the absence of a receptacle and what appears to be unspoiled, ballet-white top coating behind you that your grandmother isn’t a smoker. I hope this isn’t going to be a problem.”

        After inspecting the butt for traces of ember, he flicked it in a neat arc to the curb where his rust-scattered F150 sat, still idling and burping out thick loafs of exhaust. The long cut of carpet I purchased the day before protruded cannon-like from the bed along with an attaché case and various tools, not all of which I thought we’d need for the job.

         “Why don’t you give me a hand real quick, so we can get this stuff inside before someone makes a yard sale out of it. It’s not that we have a lot to haul, I just don’t feel comfortable leaving all my shit out in the street. You know, at least in this neighborhood.”

        Despite the arsenal of tools and strange sense of permanence involved in laying a new section of carpet, there isn’t much to the actual task itself. Having already removed and relocated my grandmother’s potted bleeding heart perennial collection the day before, we had little more to do than a quick cut and paste before we found ourselves standing sweat-sheathed and akimbo in front of a job impossibly well done. Ray, shirtless and toeing the line between breathing and panting, scanned the porch with an expression of borderline disappointment. His eyes, which sat larvae-like and transparent behind a slanted brow, hovered in a calculated assessment of not only the back porch, but everything extending from it. When I went for the perennials, which I’d arranged around the border of the storage shed, he grabbed me by the shoulder.

         “Not yet,” he said, spinning me to face the porch. “We’re gonna need to wait at least a couple hours for the adhesive to set before we start kicking around on that stuff.” He walked slowly to the awning and stretched an arm high into the wrought iron framework. “You know, you could just as easily hang those planters onto the lattice work right here and save yourself some deck space. I mean, you’re not married to the idea of this porch garden I hope, because I could see this becoming a decent entertaining area.

         “Here’s what I’m thinking,” he mused, spinning around the framework in a languid vaudevillian swoop. As he stretched further into his pose, his wingspan thinned to a stringy limit that made his biceps look more like plaque on bone than muscle. “The bricking around this porch could stand a color wash. With this new rug I could see crimson or robin’s egg blue being viable options, depending on what kind of mood you’re trying to set. We could throw up a wicker patio set, get some tiki torches, one of those mosquito-repelling candles, a deck of cards, beer cooler. You have an imagination, right?” He paused, and swung again to face the patio. If this were a musical, the percussion would’ve kicked in. “Maybe an outdoor sectional, too. I think we have the room here.”

        He slid over to me and put a filmy red arm around my shoulder. He pulled a cigarette from behind his ear, lit it, and drew a deep, satiated breath, drinking in ten square feet of possibilities. His paunchy stomach ran away from his rib cage. The scar on his chest was the size of a forefinger.

        I was the guy he’d been telling her about. The girl extended a rigid, all-business hand to me and said only, “pleasure.” She was as tight-skinned as a storefront mannequin and about a deviation smaller, wearing a baggy white t-shirt that read “CAPE COD USA” across the chest and a pair of light-washed daisy dukes. Her hair was the color of a coffee ring, billowing out of a backwards denim ball cap and framing her thin, unmade face like a baroque mirror. Milling around beside her was a skunk-colored border collie who seemed to be searching for something in the grass. Neither Ray nor the girl, whose name was Dee Dee, acknowledged its presence.

        I found the both of them attempting to guide Ray’s truck into the backyard just a few days after we installed the carpet. I watched from the stair of the newly carpeted porch as they communicated silently in the small display of Ray’s left rearview mirror. She seemed to be taking the job a bit more seriously than he was.

        In the bed of the truck were cardboard boxes packed from the cab to the tailgate, and stacked so expertly that not one bit of the rust-caked lining was visible. There were no pictures on the boxes, but they all indicated which end was up, and only about half of them were in compliance. Ray popped out of the cab, clutching a blue plastic cooler in his right hand, and extended to me a cold bottle of Budweiser. The girl only spoke when spoken to, but had no qualms about taking Ray aside for a quiet huddle out of earshot. She looked at both the dog and me before whispering into Ray’s ear and lurching forward to shake my hand.

         “So get this,” Ray said, swinging the cooler onto the pile of boxes. “The god damn warehouse log, you know the inventory ledger? Well, these guys have a right hand and a left, and they may as well be on two different bodies.” He winked at the girl, prompting her to coil slightly with an affected smirk. “Anyway, we’re gonna realize this patio project today. And don’t you give it a second thought, because this,” he said, slapping thunder into the ledge of the truck bed, “is gratis.”

        In all, the boxes were probably worth a felony case of merchandise larceny. An entire patio set complete with a four-piece Caribbean lounge collection, glass-top wicker coffee table, Bahama Breeze bamboo ceiling fan, even a hemp twine hammock, were unpacked, assembled, and arranged under the meticulous feng shui counsel Dee Dee whispered into Ray’s eager ear. When completed, the setup dwarfed and outshot the modest and function-oriented design of the patio in a way that was both arrogant and borderline comical. Even the hanging bleeding hearts, which I fought a silent and unwavering Dee Dee tooth and nail to keep, seemed out of place against the waxy, low-gloss luster of the new furniture.

         “And I will sell you on the pièce de résistance,” Ray exclaimed, reaching into the cab of his pickup and removing a small box. “A little house-warming gift from the both of us,” he said, sliding away the birch lid to reveal a shiny ceramic ashtray with bold Helvetica script: SEE YOU IN HELL. He placed the piece gently in the center of the coffee table and took several steps back to admire his vision incarnate.

        That night we stayed out on the patio enjoying one Budweiser after the other and dreaming up the next phase of the project that was quickly becoming more Ray’s than mine. Even Dee Dee, who sat curled like a housecat on the short end of the sectional, put a few cents in here and there as it might pertain to the polarity and gravitational chi of the design in question.

         “All I can say for damn sure,” Ray drawled, stubbing out his cigarette and removing another from the pack, “is that we oughta do something about this lawn. I can have some fertilizer out here in the next couple of days; hell, I can probably get a hold of sod too.” With his silver Zippo, he cracked a glossy flame over the cigarette, casting an orange glow on his face, which was the color of cheap cold cuts. I asked him if he didn’t feel like he should lay low for a while, having already pilfered enough merchandise to draw suspicious eyes.

         “If we’re gonna make a go of this,” he said, winking casually in Dee Dee’s direction. “I’d sure as hell like to do it the right way, and I sure as hell wish you’d have a little faith.”

        If there was a part of me that wanted to believe in him, it never counted on making the type of “go” at it that Ray had envisioned since that first morning. Within a matter of weeks the house was beset with more fixtures than I cared to accept - some of them being friends or “colleagues”, as Ray liked to call them, who each seemed to have an immediate stake in the project upon their introductions. Once the patio was complete, Ray got the ball rolling on an eight-foot spruce-paneled privacy fence; a must, he explained, if we were planning on doing any decent entertaining in this neighborhood. The sod came in the next day, and was laid with the help of a dead-eyed and hook-shaped guy who introduced himself as Danny the Roach and took up near-permanent residence in the hammock once the job was finished. More and more boxes came and went, most of which were stored in the living room and never even considered for our particular project. Calls were put in to have a small slab of cement poured where Ray planned to install a miniature tiki bar with a palm thatch umbrella. A kidney-shaped in-ground pool was discussed at length on more than one occasion.

        One day I came outside to discover a thirty-two inch plasma television mounted to the wall under the patio. It was rigged for cable just in time for Shark Week, and when I heard the shrieks of a waylaid surfer, I dashed out to see if that dog hadn’t finally found what it was looking for. I threw open the screen door and found Dee Dee with a meaty, sweat-broken stranger sitting together on the sectional as stiff and rigid as sphinx statues. The air was still buzzing with panic and accelerated breathing.

         “This is Junior,” Dee Dee coughed, grabbing for the remote. “He was able to get us hooked up to cable.” The guy smiled, raising a pudgy mitt and told me not to worry; there’d be no bills for this service.

        Eventually, encounters like these became more common. The characters came and went. Some of them stuck around longer than others, but each contribution was explicitly free of charge. As long as I didn’t ask any questions or lock the gate on anyone, I had no bills coming.

        As the summer wore on, progress on the house slowed considerably, though the steady flow of strangers hadn’t stopped. My grandmother’s backyard had turned into a refuge for every rogue fuckoff in Ray’s address book, and my attempts to talk to him about calling the whole thing off were met with his own passive-aggressive brand of hostility.

         “I’m not sure what your concern is,” he moaned one night, lying in the hammock half drunk and staring at a star-lepered sky. “Haven’t I come through with this shit? I mean, look around.”

        The next day I found him and a handful of his colleagues knee-deep into the fresh sod. They wielded round-point torque shovels, tossing top soil in loose mounds along the storage shed. Dee Dee stood hip-shot over the crater, clutching a large schematic and directing their blows against the iron-logged earth. All at once, the crew spotted me standing there in the patio and paused.

         “What do you think,” Dee Dee asked, lowering the chart. “We’re going to finish it just like we planned all along. We know enough people who know what they’re doing.”

        The crew nodded silently before heaving their spades into the dirt, and Ray, tracking the back of his hand across his brow, just stood there staring at me with a face both confident and disappointed. He only stood there for a second though, before he stabbed back into the hole.

        The last night I saw Ray, the air was heavy. A summer squall was blowing in from the coast, and the wind was coming fast and hard, legato sheets shrieking through trembling branches. The hole in my grandmother’s backyard sat gaping like an open sore, and when the rain fell the gouged dirt turned the air so tinny and mineral-charged I could taste it.

        I’d heard from Ray only sporadically since the digging stopped. His calls became more infrequent as the weeks passed, and soon the only communication I had with him was through Dee Dee and a handful of lackeys who assured me he would be back to finish the pool as soon as he had a moment.

         “It’s been tougher than we thought to get our hands on some of the gear,” said Danny the Roach, who was, by that time, turning yolky-eyed and swollen from a steady diet of UV and alcohol. “We’re gonna be delayed a bit longer than we planned, but we haven’t lost sight.”

        We were sitting on the patio as rain chewed on the dirt mounds and melted them into the fresh sod when I got the call from Ray. He sounded out of breath and wanted to know if I wouldn’t mind throwing open the goddamn gate for him, quick.

         “I’m in my truck right outside the fence,” he said, breathing pins and needles into the receiver. “I’ve got my lights off, so stand clear when you get it open. I need in fast.”

        When I threw the latch, his truck barreled in, spinning out in the viscid puddles that had shot up almost instantly once the storm broke. The entire backyard was taking on water at a dangerous rate. By the time we found the patio our ankles were covered and sinking fast.

         “God damn,” Ray said, pointing to Danny with a small red box he gripped under white knuckles. “You did remember to perforate this shit?”

         “I lit it up,” he replied, looking out in disbelief. “We’re having drainage problems somewhere or else the stuff just isn’t breakin’ in right.”

        Thunder cracked overhead. We all stood there for a moment watching the yard swell as jagged torrents broke off and slammed against the fence and white-chipped siding of the house.

         “I need to show you something,” Ray said, clutching the red rectangular box and trying to power the patio TV. Blue static raged against the screen and washed out the porch in a pale, frenzied hue. When the sky opened up and threw lightning across the street, everything went black and we stood silent against an indigo skyline. The thunder continued in a deep even rhythm, shaking the walls of the house and seeming to rise up from the ground. I only realized it wasn’t coming from the storm when it didn’t stop.

         “Just hang on a second,” I whispered, opening the backdoor and listening into the rung darkness. “Just stay where you are.”

        I closed the door and felt my way through the kitchen and into the living room. The house had become unfamiliar with towers of stacked boxes, and besides the glints of sheet lightning coming in through the windows, I couldn’t see anything. The pounding was the only thing guiding me, and as I crept closer I heard the faint ebbs and swells of a hushed argument in the emptiness between knocks.

         “You can’t put your hands on anyone,” I heard a man say in low, composed voice. By the time I reached the door it seemed as if there were two hands knocking at once, belonging to two people with vast differences in their ideas of assertiveness.

        When I opened the door the rain blew in with a hard wind. In the jamb, a curt, pock-marked woman stood with one hand against the frame and another on her hip beside her service revolver. To her right, an officer in a blue nylon rain jacket fought against a beet-faced man whose veins hung around his neck like a wound noose. While he shouted something about getting his hands on a certain inbred motherfucker, his chin dug into the officer’s left shoulder.

         “I’ll go ahead and assume this is your place,” the woman said, producing a creased letter wrought with boilerplate and blue ink. The two men continued to struggle as a small car careened to a stop against the curb. The officer explained she had a search warrant issued on the grounds of grand larceny, construction without a building permit, and unlawful conduct toward a child.

         “How old did you think she was,” the man hissed, wedging an arm between his face and the officer’s slick neck.

         “And we have surveillance accounts for everything you took,” wheezed the struggling officer. “We’re reviewing for more as we speak.”

        A knock-kneed woman emerged from the car and came running to the door, coat draped over her head. Her rouge-caked face was running down to her shirt collar, and her lips revealed a few broken teeth when she spoke.

         “Where is he?” she asked.

        She seemed to recognize the man ensnared with the officer and began beating open fists on both of them, screaming something about her son and his misunderstood intentions. Something about a heart condition. She said she was sorry and wrapped herself around the men. When the female officer put a sleeper hold around her throat, she fell to her knees and began pleading again.

         “He’s sick,” she said, falling under the officer’s weight. “You’ll kill him!”

        Something snapped on the other side of the house and the power came back with a hum. The male officer choked into his chest radio, requesting backup. When I caught the filmy eyes of the subdued woman, I felt sick and turned away. I backed into the house, bolted the door, and ran.

        In the backyard they stood before a blank, blue-lit screen. Ray opened the red box and pulled out a VHS tape. He looked at Dee Dee, then back to me.

         “I’m in a video,” he said, kneeling into the entertainment system. He pushed the tape in and stood back, taking Dee Dee’s hand. He said something else but it was lost in a clap of thunder.

         “What,” I asked, as bright, halogen light began to flood through the cracks between the fence posts.

         “I think it’s this one.”

As of 2015: Daniel Lalley is from Hewitt, TX and currently lives in San Francisco, CA, where he is completing his master’s in writing at the University of San Francisco. His stories have been published in The North Texas Review, The Pacific Review, The Emerald Coast Review, Printer’s Devil Review, Blotter Magazine, The Ottawa Object, Puff Puff Prose, Poetry and a Play Vol III, and Miami University’s Literature for a Cause anthology.

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