I didn’t consider it vandalism. Neither had my Dad, I’m sure. It wouldn’t have taken long to recognize his work, but I had more important things to take care of on the morning the first mural appeared. Susan had to rush off to work early, which left me to wrangle my son and daughter through their routines to get them to school on time.
I had just doused my shredded wheat cereal with skim milk when my phone started to ring.
“Separation anxiety already kicking in? Jesus, did you even make it out of the driveway?” I asked. Sam was drinking his orange juice with both hands while his little sister ignored the television and watched him gulp his way through it.
“Good one. Listen, you might want to get the kids outside a couple minutes early today,” said Susan. “There’s something they might like across the street.”
“Across the street? At Verne’s?”
“Believe it or not. Alright, I gotta go.”
I walked to the table and grabbed my bowl of cereal. The shredded wheat had turned soggy.
“Okay, guys, let’s get dressed. Brush those teeth and meet me back here in five minutes.”
“But Dad,” protested Sam. He held out the vowel sound and rode it through a swooping cadence like an ambulance siren.
“Come on. There’s a surprise if you’re ready in time.”
Their eyes lit up and I soon found myself emptying three bowls into the sink. I went through the daily ritual of tightening my tie, combing my hair, and whatever else that would help me look less like a father-of-two and more like an accountant. Pushing numbers around Excel documents, calculating interest, and rolling forward the pre-paid expense sub ledger, all of it was nothing more than tasks on the way to a paycheck. I used to internalize my boredom to the point where it became animosity. But I grew to realize that it wasn’t only the job that was making me feel empty; it was also my marriage. I was starting to feel the way I had right before my first marriage fell apart. What came to mind were some choice words from my father.
The kids came running downstairs, but Becky’s shirt was on backwards and Sam’s hair still had the look of a wet dog. I had her pull her arms in like a turtle before I spun her shirt around and matted Sam’s head.
“Alright. You guys ready?” I asked after they had put their shoes on. It occurred to me that I hadn’t taken the time to look outside, but I didn’t expect to be all that thrilled. We stepped out the side door by the garage and walked onto the driveway where we could see Verne’s perfectly manicured lawn. His house had become an embodiment of childhood innocence-crushing pessimism, which could take the form of a vocal complaint about the kids laughing too loudly, playing too close to his property, or any general sign of enjoying life, which apparently had fallen from his withered grasp decades before Susan and I had bought our house.
But not that day.
Becky mimicked Sam’s elongated, “Wow.” Verne’s lawn had been transformed into a colorful mural that stretched from his driveway to the fence bordering the property line on the opposite side of his house. A bright blue sky was spray painted just below the bushes. Below that was a rolling field, lime green painted on top of the natural green of his grass. Hills outlined in black and dotted with wispy trees, fluffy white clouds above, all of it was painted with an impressionistic disregard to clarity, but when taken in from a distance, the pixel-like quality of the images coalesced into a beautiful balance of color and light. The children were silent. I was amazed that something so beautiful could be accomplished on an imperfect backdrop. Even the angle and perspective had been taken into account, which made less sense as you approached the mural. From our vantage point, however, it was perfect. Conversely, when viewed from Verne’s house, it probably looked like a complete mess. I saw him step outside, glance at the lawn, and walk down his driveway.
“It looks great,” I shouted to him.
“You’re joking, right? Is this a joke?” he replied. “You think you can just vandalize somebody’s property and make jokes?”
“Hey, listen, Verne, this is the first time we’re seeing this.”
He walked into the road. With his hands on his hips, he looked back and forth between us and his lawn. The morning sun had started to peek above his house and lent the scene a soft, yellow glow.
“The cops are coming, you bastard,” he said. His face had turned a bright red and he was trying not to yell, but failing. It didn’t take much to aggravate him, but I had never seen him this affected. His hands rhythmically clenched into and out of fists.
“Hey, I told you, we had nothing to do with this.”
I ushered Sam and Becky into the car. Verne looked between us and the picture that had magically appeared in his front lawn and shook his head.
I failed to consider the fact that my father had been an art teacher for 42 years.
I pushed the mural out of my mind until I was able to loosen my tie around four o’clock that evening. When I finally got home, I saw Becky and Sam sitting in our front lawn with their grandfather, who had gotten into the habit of picking them up from school.
“Quite a thing, eh?” I said, climbing out of my car. I folded my suit coat over my arm. There was a light breeze, but the autumn air had yet to turn the wind crisp.
Gary, my dad, looked over at me and smiled. Becky and Sam waved, but they didn’t walk over.
“Will the grass grow like that now? Is that grass blue, and that grass white, forever and ever now?” asked Becky.
Gary shook his head. “Nope, just the tips. It’ll grow, but the grass below will be green just like it was before.”
I walked over to them and nobody seemed to notice.
“So what happens when he does his chores?” asked Sam.
Gary leaned back on his elbows and looked up at the kids.
“When he mows the lawn, you mean? Well, I guess it’ll be all gone.”
“But I don’t want it to be gone,” said Becky.
Gary sat up and I walked around to help him stand. “Don’t worry,” he said, running his hands over their heads. But he didn’t offer any consolation beyond that. “Come on, let’s go get some juice.” He looked over at me and winked. “Hey Chuck.”
Susan pulled up as the three of them walked inside. I rushed over and opened the door for her.
“Ooh, how cordial,” she said. I bowed as she stepped from the car. She glanced at the closing door to the house and then turned around to the mural. “Did you ever think Verne would decorate?”
“Oh, trust me, he had nothing to do with it,” I said.
She turned her head over her shoulder for a moment before facing the mural again. “Have you given any more thought to what we talked about?”
I sighed. “Listen, he doesn’t want to move in with us.”
“Are you sure? Are you telling me this isn’t his favorite part of the day?”
“He’s not going to impose. He already did that once and has barely given me a word of advice ever since.”
“Oh geez, with Amanda?”
My ex-wife. Kids were out of the question at that time. We had talked ourselves into a conscious selfishness and were committed to living our lives without the hindrance of having to put somebody else’s interests first. The only problem was that my selfish pursuit of freedom and pleasure became hollow and repetitive. I hated my job, but, more than that, I lacked fulfillment in my non-working hours. I had resigned myself to this monotony until Gary had told me about his job, which he loved. “All of the years of teaching, all of the gallery installments and praise, none of it has been as gratifying as watching you grow from a wordless baby to a working, successful adult. And I’m worried that choosing a childless life means you’ll be missing out on the greatest possible source of happiness.” This sentiment had lingered in the back of my mind and, slowly, over the course of the next year, my marriage fell apart. Gary stayed silent throughout the divorce, but through my Mom, I learned about his guilt. He continued sending Amanda Christmas cards, I guess as a means of contrition. I stopped speaking to her once I met Susan a year after all the papers were signed. I’d be willing to bet Amanda had remarried.
“Plus,” I said on our driveway while looking at the mural, “he’s been in that house for almost fifty years. He’s not going to leave.”
“It’s just, ever since your Mom died…”
“I know. But he’s not going to change his mind. Trust me. He’s wired to only make one decision on a certain thing. He chose to live in that house, and that’s it. No going back.”
“That doesn’t make sense.”
I nodded toward the mural. “Does everything have to make sense?”
We saw Verne’s door open and immediately turned around. We could hear him yelling at us over the mural as we closed the side door to our house behind us.
Gary and the two kids were sitting at the kitchen table, each with a pencil and a piece of paper. Becky swung her head toward us. “We’re learning to draw a bear!”
Susan went to change her clothes and I walked up to the table, still holding my coat. Each piece of paper had a large circle in the middle, with a smaller circle on top of it.
“Okay, so the bear needs to hear, right? We gotta put a couple of half-circles on top of that head of his,” said Gary. I watched as he put the pencil on the paper and started to drag out the circles. A steady hand is crucial to a clear drawing, and I noticed that his lines weren’t quite as defined as usual. I didn’t have time to ponder this; a quick knock came from the front door.
Two very tired, very bored-looking policemen stood on my small front porch. One in front of the other, the second officer had his back turned to me, staring at the painting across the street. The one in front spoke.
“Good evening. Sorry to bother you, but we received a complaint.”
“Regarding?” I stood with my arms crossed.
He jutted a thumb over his shoulder. “Did you do this?”
I laughed. “Sure, after putting my five-year-old and seven-year-old to bed, I came out here and spent a couple hours spray painting before getting breakfast ready this morning.”
“Listen, I don’t really think you did it, okay? I have to stop over because a complaint was made, and, honestly, he would keep calling until we did.”
“He’s a real prize, over there,” I said, nodding across the street.
“Yeah, I can tell.” He turned around and slapped his partner on the shoulder. He turned back to me. “Have a good night.”
“Who was that?” Susan asked, walking into the living room after I had closed the front door.
“That was Verne’s paranoia.”
A month later, I woke up to Susan shaking me at around two in the morning.
“Do you hear that?” she asked. A strange light came through the blinds, tiny electric strips between the plastic. Our normally quiet neighborhood, rarely a siren or passing car in the night, was punctured by muffled yelling.
“Stay here. I’ll check it out,” I said. I swung my legs over the side of the bed and walked barefoot down the hall, through the kitchen, into the living room, and then peeled back the curtains on the front window. Verne’s house was lit up like an airport. New bulbs, three in each of the four mounts, blasted harsh white light across his yard. There were no shadows until after the curb. In the middle of the lawn, like two wrestlers under spotlights, was the source of the noise. Verne was on top of somebody and I couldn’t see who was underneath, but I had a strong suspicion. I burst through the front door and ran barefoot across the street.
“I knew it was you, you piece of shit; and now you’re going to jail,” screamed Verne. His legs were spread and he held the other man by the waist. The man was on his stomach and Verne was pushing his forehead into the man’s back to keep him from moving. There was a slight tremble of resistance, but the vandal didn’t seem willing or able to put up much of a fight. “They’re coming! They’re coming for you!”
“Hey, hey, hey.” I tried to get Verne’s attention by matching his volume, but he was focused on the man beneath him. I heard a sudden bloop from a siren at the end of the street and saw the first swinging red and blue lights. “Come on. Hey!” I grabbed Verne by the back of the shirt and pulled him off the other man, who slowly rolled over and took a deep breath. “Dad?”
“I knew it was you the whole time.” Verne was now looking at me, his finger pointing again.
The lights were all around us now, reflecting off the houses. One car, two officers: they stepped out and walked up to us.
“Okay, what’s going on here?” she said. Her partner, a stocky man who seemed to be more concerned with what was happening around us, stood five feet behind her.
“I want this man arrested,” said Verne. He pointed behind him where Gary had stood up and was now grabbing his green army bag which clanked as it shifted. “He’s been vandalizing my property for months now. You can check your records.”
“Why don’t you step over here, sir,” she said and led him toward her car. The other officer walked up to my father and me.
“Is this true?” he asked us.
“Listen, I live right over there.” I pointed across the street where I saw my wife and two children standing on the front porch. I waved at them, trying to signal Susan to take them inside. They had noticed Gary, though, and wouldn’t move.
“Is it true?” he repeated.
“Yeah. Yeah, but I was only trying to show my grandkids something—”
The officer held up his hand and glanced over his shoulder at his partner. She continued speaking with Verne for another moment before she turned to the other officer and nodded.
“I’m sorry, sir, but I’m gonna have to take you in,” he said.
“Come on,” I said. “For just a line? Look.” I pointed at the grass, where Gary hadn’t made it more than one orange line in the middle of the yard. Verne must have been watching out the front window every night until Gary had finally returned.
Gary shook his head, but didn’t say anything.
“Turn around, please,” said the officer as he grabbed the cuffs off his belt.
“No, listen, my kids are watching. Please. Come on, man. Do you really need the cuffs? Does he look like a danger to you?”
“Sir, turn around,” he repeated.
Gary was still shaking his head no, his eyes shut tight.
“Please, sir. Please.” I had tears rolling down my cheeks and as I turned to look at my father, I noticed that he did, too. The officer stepped behind him and grabbed his wrist. I stood on the opposite side, the lights from Verne’s house shining onto my face. I almost didn’t hear Gary, and maybe I wasn’t supposed to hear. Verne was still raging behind me.
“Please, I can’t have their last memory of me as getting arrested,” my father told the man about to cuff him.
The officer stopped moving.
I took a step forward. “Their what?” I asked.
His face was shadowed with the bright lights behind him, but the red and blue lights from the police car swung across his face, illuminating it every so often.
“Charles,” he said. “I don’t have much time.”
“What? You look fine.”
“Not on the inside. I wanted to show the kids that beautiful things are fleeting, and that’s okay. I really only wanted to do one more of these. I don’t think I can do more than that, anyway.” I thought of his shaking hand as he taught the kids to draw a bear. “Listen,” he said over his shoulder. “I don’t mind if you arrest me, but could we not do it in front of the kids like this. Look.” He turned his head toward our house. “They’re standing right there.”
“What are you waiting for?” yelled Verne.
The lights continued to circle the neighborhood, but nothing else happened for a minute.
Then, the officer stepped back and walked to his partner.
“Are you kidding me?” yelled Verne.
The first officer stepped up to us. “Let me see your hand,” she said to Gary. He held it out and she grabbed it. Despite the uneven light, I could see the shaking. “Never again,” she said to him. Gary nodded.
“I’ve been paying taxes for fifty years!” Verne yelled as the officers climbed back into their car and turned off the flashing lights. They didn’t drive away. Verne marched over to us. “You think you’re going to get away with this?”
We walked across the street, away from the lights, as Verne continued to threaten us. The police drove away once we stepped inside.
“What happened?” asked Susan.
Gary sat at the kitchen table we and asked the rest of them to join us.
“We have something to tell you.”
I stood in the kitchen while the four of them looked like they were sitting down to dinner. Instead of a nice home-cooked meal, however, my father told us he was sick. Really sick. The second picture was to be his last, since he knew he didn’t have much time left. Of course, the exact amount was anybody’s guess, but the doctors seemed to think it wouldn’t be more than a few weeks. The shock of hearing this from my own father was eclipsed by my fear of how it would affect my children. My mother had died while Susan was pregnant with Becky, and Sam hadn’t even been two years old. This would be their first experience with death and I had no idea how to explain it. Luckily, Gary had taken it upon himself to soften the blow. They cried, sitting at the kitchen table in their pajamas, but that was okay. That’s what’s supposed to happen. The open discussion, now that the spy capers had concluded, was healthy. I don’t know if Gary’s ideation of having his art represent the temporariness of everything actually sank in with the kids, but perhaps it would one day.
Susan glanced over at me while my father consoled his grandkids. I think that she was trying to assess my state of mind, so I nodded and briefly closed my eyes. I’m not sure what I was trying to get across.
Josh Rank graduated from the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee and has since had stories published in The Missing Slate, The Feathertale Review, Hypertext Magazine, The Oddville Press, The Satirist, Corvus Review, Inwood Indiana, and elsewhere. He currently eats sandwiches in Nashville, TN. More ramblings can be found at joshrank.com.