Illustration by Mitch Handsone
Whoever made up the calendar was wrongIt’s New Year’s all year longEach year is a minuteOnly full of the leaves in it.
Your team has enough supplies for five days.It’s day 12.Think you’re up to it?
—U.S. Army recruitment ad
IT’S ELECTION DAY as I write this. I’m over at Tom and Cathy’s, watching some kind of Blues versus Reds sporting event on CNN. Tom and Cathy recently returned from China, where they adopted a baby girl, Milan, who’s now 14 months old and paying little attention to Blues versus Reds. Jim’s here, too — Tom’s college-age son from Minnesota playing Grand Theft Auto and watching three different screens at the same time. So it’s just like I have a real, live American family watching a real, live American election. Tasty snacks, too.
On the screen, there are lots of people and there is lots of noise: exit polls, Bush rules the world, woman takes hostages at Caterpillar plant, woman releases hostages at Caterpillar plant, filmmaker Theo van Gogh shot dead in Amsterdam, oil drops below $50 as U.S. votes, red red red, blue blue blue and white white white white white, with moral values and terrorism for all, amen.
So I thought I’d tell you about some leaves.
IT WAS AUTUMN, about like it is now, only in a place where seasons aren’t so shy. In the Midwest, autumn brings about the bounteous majesty of dead leaves. Everywhere you look, green dies to red, yellow and gold. But since green’s death is not permanent — back next year with even more leaves — there’s really nothing to cry about. So admire the pretty goners. Flatten them between the pages of heavy books to reminisce about in the future.
To young Dave, the scent of recently deceased foliage was invigorating, like sniffing freshly ground coffee in the middle of the night feels now. It was the kind of smell that energizes you, gives you hope that the planet knows what it’s doing. Dead leaves give so very much and asked so very little: pile ’em up and jump in ’em; when you’re done, make two bucks stuffing ’em in bags. When you jumped into a good tall pile of leaves — a proper jump into a proper pile — some of the leaves caved in after you, leaving you buried alive, more alive than before the jump, and crackling and giggling in that sweet fresh crunchy dead smell. A good place to get some thinking done.
South Side School was hundreds of trees away. White and green ash, cottonwood, sugar and red maple, oak, magnolia, linden, dogwood, pear and ironwood, black tupelo, poplar, plum, chestnut, some white willow here and there. A million beautiful dead leaves fell slowly from the sky for weeks, twirling and spilling, skipping across driveways, mixing on the sidewalks and in the gutters.
THEN ANNIE HENDRIX’S big brother died in Vietnam. The principal, Mrs. Rhodes, came in and whispered something to the teacher, Mrs. Burns, and it looked pretty serious. Mrs. Rhodes went back out into the hallway, where Mrs. Hendrix, Annie’s mom, stood facing us with these big hollow eyes, unfocused, miles away. And Mrs. Burns — Grace Burns — put an arm around Annie and guided her out into the hall, and the door closed behind them and that was that. No one made a sound, not even me.
Until that towheaded young cracker Larry Baker said, “McGuh’s a muh(rfgr).”
It was 1972, you see, one week before the presidential election. Richard Nixon, the Republican incumbent, versus George McGovern, the Democratic senator from South Dakota. In the Larry Baker lexicon, “McGuh’s a muh(rfgr)” meant “McGovern is a motherfucker.”
I imagined that Larry Baker’s comment was directed toward me, because I’d worn a McGovern button on my chest recently, and upon discovering it Larry had punched it and said, “McGuh’s a muh(rfgr).” Since then, whenever I was within earshot, Larry had nothing else to say, constantly.
“Shut up, Larry,” said Kevin Wenzel, Bill Taylor and Karen Peterson, in unison.
“Well he is,” said Larry.
The following Tuesday, Nixon won in a landslide. By 1972 standards, Nixon was considered right-wing, even though he raised taxes, expanded welfare and affirmative action, imposed wage and price controls, and established more federal regulatory agencies (including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Office of Economic Opportunity and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration) than any other president since Roosevelt.
Annie returned to school the following morning, Wednesday, the day after the landslide. I can’t remember how we’d found out, but everyone at school already knew that Annie’s brother had been killed in combat. So between opening and closing our desks, we whispered, “Sorry about your brother,” and Annie whispered, “Thanks.”
She looked okay. None of us knew Annie’s brother, or even knew his name; he was nine years older.
Somebody’s big brother.
Mrs. Burns told us to stop whispering.
On the way home, I saw Annie walking alone through the golden dead leaves, half a block ahead of me, but I didn’t try to catch up, because I didn’t know what I’d say when I got there.
ON THE STREET WHERE I live now, there’s one solitary maple tree — a red maple, Acer rubrum — that appears to have struggled through 10 or 12 blistering South California summers. Right now, the lone maple’s leaves have turned but are still attached; dead and red and reddish orange and reddish gold. By the time you read this, I imagine they will have fallen, so you’ll have to trust me: worth looking at.
Which is what I was doing. I was standing there, on the sidewalk, looking at this tree for maybe a minute. The red maple is a very creative tree. Late each spring, as its flowers die, it sends out seeds to the wind in “maple keys” — little winged pods that flutter and descend in spirals to the ground. They look just like little helicopters.
Some elderly neighbors approached on foot from the south. I stepped off the sidewalk so they could pass, and went back to looking at the red maple. What the hell is a red maple doing in South California?
But instead of passing, they stopped to join me in looking at whatever it was I was looking at. So I stepped back onto the sidewalk, and we nodded in silent greeting, and then watched, standing together, the leaves.