“If you didn’t cut it,” says Mikey, “it would grow and grow until it was as tall as the Empire State Building.” He is sitting on the lawn chair, licking some kind of cartoon-shaped popsicle that is turning his tongue blue, and getting (of course) all over the front of his white shirt. The popsicle, despite being marketed as ice cream at the deli around the corner, does not contain any animal products. “Wouldn’t it, Dad?”
“Obviously,” John tells him, “which is why we have to cut it.” He is in his underwear and a T-shirt, kneeling in a yard that is big for this area of Brooklyn, whatever his ex-wife thinks. His shins are coated with a thick layer of what John calls dirt when talking to his son, but calls repurposed industrial waste to his friends. Two years ago John tried to grow tomatoes in the yard. Tomatoes weren’t his first choice; Mikey loves tomato sauce, but John never has time to make it from scratch, and neither of them like raw tomatoes very much. John loves, more than (almost) anything else in the world, the smell of tomato leaves, but he didn’t think that a smell alone was really worth the trouble of gardening every day. But Mikey convinced him. “We’re gonna have a thousand tomatoes, Dad,” he had said, “we’re going to have so many tomatoes that you’ll have to make tomato sauce or they’ll all go bad, and we can give the extras away to Mamacita,” which is what the basement tenant (who does not have direct access to the yard herself, and who does seem to cook a lot) has told Mikey to call her, even though John knows her name is Diana. Despite his better instincts, John was sure his son was right, because of how sure Mikey had sounded when he said it. And so he bought five packets of tomato seeds and spent an afternoon with Mikey in the yard, with John digging five parallel rows and Mikey coming behind and sprinkling seeds in each row, one packet to a row. “There are going to be so many of them,” Mikey had said, “there’s going to be a forest of tomatoes in our yard,” and he had laughed excitedly, thinking about what it would be like to be the only one at his whole school with a forest of a thousand tomatoes in the backyard. “We could tell people we live in Tomato Forest Hills,” he had said, and dissolved in an uncontrollable fit of laughter. John had had to explain (to Mikey’s dismay) that only some of the seeds would sprout, and of the ones that did sprout some of them would grow bigger and stronger than others, and they would have to weed out the weaker ones and in the end there would only be a dozen or so plants per row. Mikey had cried thinking about all the poor plants they would have to kill; he had asked if we could take them to the park, where maybe they would have some more room, and John had said no, plants don’t like to be moved when they’re that little, and Mikey had said well maybe they don’t like to die either, couldn’t we at least try it, and John had said no we’re not allowed to go plant tomatoes in the park, and Mikey had cried some more and finally John had relented, OK, OK, we can transplant some of them to the park, but we have to do it at night. In the end it had been a moot point. Despite Mikey’s meticulous watering, only nine plants sprouted, and only two survived long enough to produce any tomatoes: one per plant. The one that grew closer to the fence was scraggly, orange instead of red, deeply wrinkled, and delicious; the two of them made a Caprese salad out of it, with mozzarella from D’Agostino’s that John was pretty sure was made upstate. They had eaten the whole thing as a snack. The other, the one that made it in the center of the yard, was big, bright, round, and full from the core to just inside the skin with foul-smelling green mold. The leaves on both plants had no smell at all. Mikey didn’t ask about tomatoes last year, and John has been telling his friends that their yard is built on the ruins of a chemical plant, which he hasn’t confirmed with historical records but which seems to him like the only likely explanation for the tomatoes’ failure. After all, Mikey had been very good about watering.
“I don’t get why we have to cut it,” Mikey says.
“Because,” John says, snipping the grass and remembering his days as a child watching his father cut hair, “the city won’t let us have grass as tall as the Empire State Building.”
“That’s stupid,” Mikey sighs, resignedly. He is used to the city being the reason for so many things they can’t do, like have a car like Mom’s (actually, John can’t afford the insurance, even now that they have a tenant), or have a pig, which the city actually won’t let them do, which is a good thing because John really does not want a pig. John is almost done cutting the grass, tossing the clippings over to the area of the yard where no grass grows, trying to cover it up so it is not so obviously barren. “How tall are we allowed to grow the grass?” Mikey asks curiously. He finishes his popsicle and holds the stick between index and middle finger, like Mamacita’s cigarettes.
“It has to be shorter than Trinity Church,” John says, “they passed a law in 1733.”
“And we still have to obey it?” Mikey is shocked. “That’s like three hundred years ago.”
“Laws don’t go away,” John asserts.
“There are so many taller buildings now,” Mikey muses. “They should change it. How tall is Trinity Church?”
“A hundred feet.”
“Well, the grass isn’t a hundred feet tall yet.”
“The taller you let it get,” John says, standing up, “the faster it grows.” He surveys the yard. He has done a good job. He walks over to the lawn chair and sets the scissors down on the armrest. “Take these inside. And throw out your popsicle stick.”
“Couldn’t we let it get a little taller next time?”
“We can talk about it. You might have to write a letter to the city.”
“I’ll write it right now,” Mikey exclaims. He grabs the scissors and runs inside. John sits down in the unoccupied lawn chair and looks at his work some more. He sure has done a good job. The clippings are covering the bare dirt like a turf mat. A few more days of this heat and it will all be dry and brown, but for now, he can imagine the yard verdant, sprouting, full of life. While he’s at it, he imagines the grass growing tomatoes, a ball-pit’s worth. Seems like anything is possible here.
It is today: the day that Eagle County elementary students get off from school for their free lesson, provided courtesy of— whom exactly? “I’m not sure how it works,” the instructor, one of my regulars, tells me. “Maybe the district pays Vail, maybe Vail counts it as charity for the tax deduction, I don’t know. All I know is that when it’s not a paying student I don’t get comped for lunch.” Since he is paying for it I make his sandwich extra big.
A child comes up to the counter, standing on his tiptoes so I can see him. He is probably twelve. He says something loud and incoherent. At first I think he is speaking Spanish, but that seems incongruous. “What’s that?” I ask him. He repeats himself and it is equally incoherent. “Sorry,” I say, leaning forward. He says something else now:
“Sometimes I just say random things.”
I remember when that was a thing: do you? At Levy, in middle school, maybe even earlier, what was our sense of humor? Pencil. That would have been funny then, because of its very incongruity, because it made no sense, we were just trying to make sense of our lives for maybe the first time and because nothing made sense it could only help to be random, to mix it up more, or at least that is what I am saying now. What makes sense now is certainly not the things I was hoping to figure out then,
so I smile and tell him,
He grins and runs away. I turn to Lucas and laugh for a moment, then go on, because there are people in line, and they are waiting to be served.
We are having something of a warm snap in January here. It has gotten above freezing every day for the last few days; the sun melts the snow, leaving puddles on the ground, which overnight freeze into smooth, treacherous rinks. In the middle of the sidewalk in Lionshead I almost walk over a child of three or four. He is enthralled, excitedly staring and pointing at the ground, his joy so nearly frantic that he is literally bouncing up and down. “Look,” he calls to his mother, ten feet or so ahead. “Mom, look!” His tone is urgent, it says look now, not later and not soon but now because what if this never happens ever again in all of time? “LOOK, Mommy, look! It’s ice!” Mom does not appear to hear him. He tries again. “Ice!!!!” But no luck, and the time is past: he runs to catch up. I continue down my back path where the robins sing. The snow is melting in the four o’ clock rays made sharper by the lack of an extra mile and a half of air. There is a little grass visible at the edge of the walk, and realizing that the boundary can only recede until it snows again, I note its exact shape and take some joy in its changes. Look, I think to myself: something that we walk on, something that is everywhere, something that is commonplace, something that is beautiful.
The new year dawns on me in a state in between wakefulness and sleep, unable (due to a combination of urge to pee, hangover, and the fact that at 6:50 a.m. I have slept past my workday alarm by over an hour already) to return to the dream I cannot quite remember, and stubbornly unwilling to get out of bed before eight on a day I don’t have to. I toss and turn and lie on my arm in uncomfortable yet somehow relaxed positions, for probably an hour, until I cannot take it anymore and go to fry bacon. The smoke alarm, as usual, goes crazy, despite my having opened the balcony door prior to turning on the stove. With the blinds and door open, I can see several fresh inches of snow on the cars outside, and it is still coming down. I am glad I have good tires for the drive to Breck.
I shower, throw everything in the car and get going. The Kelly clan is not arriving from Denver until two at the earliest, but there is no point sticking around the apartment. What will I do there? Browse the internet? It’s a powder day, and New Year’s Day, and I have no excuse for being home after 9:30. By the time I get out of the parking lot the snow has stopped, though, and I can see a few cracks of blue sky peeking through. I am not disheartened: weather changes from minute to minute and mile to mile in the mountains; it may start up again when I round the Junction. And sure enough, it does. There is hard pack on the highway in West Vail and my studs are presented with their first test. They perform beautifully. I feel glued to the road. I do not make any moves that might disillusion me. I can feel the little metal nails piercing the ice like crampons. I am able to go fifty miles an hour on the straightaway with complete control, passing the cautious tourists, still, of course, being passed by the natives.
After Vail I begin to climb the pass. I am going slower now, in the middle of a long single-file line of cars in the better-worn left lane. Occasionally someone passes me on the right, but they cannot get far. We are behind a snowplow and no one in their right mind, not even the hardened Red Cliff backcountry drivers, will pass a plow on a hill in a storm, for at least two reasons. One: the plow is twice as wide as a normal vehicle. Two: being behind the plow is the only thing making it possible for you to drive.
So I turn up the music and patiently maintain my place in line. I am glad I left early. I am only at exit 190 and it has been almost an hour. Finally we round the top of the hill and begin to descend. Just after the summit traffic is shifting to the left. I see a car on the right side, in the drift off the shoulder, level– not in a ditch, not necessarily needing a tow– but clearly stuck. A woman is squatting in front, frantically attempting to dig out the front wheels with a snowbrush, which is obviously an impossible task; and a young man is standing a little too far to the left of the car, a little bit in what might or might not be the right lane (who knows with this coverage), just as frantically waving his arms, I assume to call for help. Without thinking, I pull over about fifty feet in front of them and begin walking back up the hill in what might or might not be the shoulder.
“Stuck?” I ask the woman. From closer, the young man is only about 15 or 16, clearly her son.
“Yes,” she says, “we just” (she is still frantically brushing making her a little short of breath) “went off the road… this snowplow came up behind us and we had to go… we had to go somewhere!” She does not look me in the eye.
“Need some help?” I ask.
“I don’t know,” she says, “I just don’t know.” She is almost hyperventilating and seems on the verge of tears. I decide to take executive action. I tell her I am going to return to my car and get my gloves so I can help dig out the wheels. “You don’t need to do that,” she says. “I hope someone else’d do the same for me,” I tell her, and this is true.
After all, it’s New Year’s Day.
While digging, I ask, just making small talk, I guess, “So where you guys from?” “We live in Denver,” she says, “but we just moved there this fall.” “Where from?” “Atlanta,” she sighs, knowing exactly what I will take this to mean and knowing, also, that I will be right, God damn it. “This your first time driving in a snowstorm?” We are at about 10,000 feet, after all, and a snowstorm here is not quite the same as a snowstorm in Denver, which at 5,280 feet is the bottom of the Colorado ski land. She admits that it is.
“So you were trying to get out from in front of the snowplow and just skidded?” She starts to answer but the son pipes in. “It wouldn’t have happened,” he says directly to me, direct eye contact, “if she knew how to drive in the snow better.” His tone is clearly intended to convey a masculine camaraderie with me. These women drivers, this boy says to me, they’re so stupid. She shushes him but he continues, “I’ve seen a lot of videos of driving in the snow. You just have to–” let me pause the tape right here to remind you that this really happened “–drive like a rally car.” He seems, I swear, completely serious. It’s scary, either because he can say it with a straight face, or because he believes it.
She shushes him again. I keep digging, determined to mind my own business, but then I decide, fuck it. “Not really,” I tell him. “You drive slow. Otherwise you slide.” “It was because she was going slower than the plow that we got stuck in the first place,” he retorts. I don’t push it. Not my problem.
We get the car dug out and they get back in. I get behind to push. She turns the wheel and starts to drive, to try to, anyway, because the tires just spin. “Wait,” I say, “wait! there’s people coming. Just wait and I’ll push.” I am a little surprised and suddenly nervous. If she had been able to get traction, she would surely have been rear-ended by the car coming up on our left, possibly causing a multi-car accident, possibly including my car parked fifty feet ahead of us, which I can see a lot more vividly than I’d like. We wait, a minute, maybe two, until the line behind the snowplow has passed. It is maybe three miles long. Now I push, and the car starts to move, and then it sinks back and stops moving again. The tires squeal.
Mother and son get out and start digging again, as do I, but this time I inspect the tires more closely and make a realization. “Do you know what kind of tires these are?” I ask, cautiously.
“I have no freakin’ idea,” she says, sounding like a Southern belle stood up on prom night.
“I think these are summer tires,” I say, and my brain starts working. I don’t feel confident enough to make any sort of solemn pronouncement, but the evidence is clearly stacked. This car has summer tires. This woman has never driven before in the snow. She is also harried by her completely unhelpful son whom I have already decided I dislike. She has gone off the road once and the snow is continuing to come down. “Ma’am,” I say, “I’m not an expert on this kind of thing. I’d sure hate to tell you you’re stuck and need a tow if you really could get back to Denver fine, and I don’t want to take the responsibility of making you sit in the car for however long. But I gotta be honest with you: if it were me: if I were driving this car, right here, right now, I’d call myself a tow truck.”
“We’re stuck,” she says quietly, looking at the ground, shaking her head.
“Might be stuck,” I sadly agree.
“Well,” she says, “thank you.”
“If you want,” I tell her, “I could give you a ride as far as Frisco.” I am not really thinking, I mean, it’s crazy to invite strangers into my car, especially a brat like that kid, but I am thinking about the time we broke down on the Thruway when I was I have literally no idea how old except it was before cell phones, because Dad had to walk to the gas station to call a tow truck and it kept snowing and he didn’t come back for what felt like a really long time and we thought he might have died, and I also had to pee and I wasn’t supposed to pee on the side of the Thruway for reasons that were then and continue to be unclear to me, and then eventually the truck came and towed us to a restaurant, where we waited for another tow truck for reasons that were also unclear to me but had something to do with state and local jurisdiction, and finally we got back home to Syracuse something like an hour after we were expected in Long Island, and so I tell her that I am not going all the way to Denver, but I could drop them at a café in Frisco. She graciously declines, saying her friend will pick them up.
She gets back in the car and gets on the phone. The son sidles up to me. “Yeah,” he says confidently, “if she’da just listened to my advice, you know, we wouldn’t be in this mess. She’s just gotta learn to drive in the snow.”
And suddenly I can’t mind my own business anymore. I look the kid in the eye as piercingly as I can muster. I have to be stern, I think, this kid needs to know that he and I do not share any kind of masculine camaraderie against his mom, that he is not my equal, and I am most definitely not on his side. I have to say something, just like I had to stop and help: for a moment, it’s not the right thing, it’s the only thing.
“You’re from Atlanta,” I say, just disparagingly enough that I can be sure he will notice it, “is that right?”
“Yeah,” he says.
“Have you ever driven in the snow?”
“No,” he says dismissively, “but I’ve seen vid–”
“It is not as easy as you think,” I tell him, trying to sound like the Colorado native that I most definitely am not. “You don’t drive like a rally car. You drive slow, and you drive careful, and even then you still sometimes slip, especially with tires like you’ve got. It happened to me the other day. So,” I say, “give your mom a break.” Give your mom a goddamn break, I instantly wish I’d said, but I am nonetheless pleased with my tone. I turn away from him and go back to the driver window, where the mother is now sitting, staring vacantly, not on the phone. I tap on the glass.
“I’m gonna go,” I inform her. “You guys gonna be all right? Sure you don’t need a ride to Frisco?”
“We’ll be OK, thanks,” she says, “my friend is coming.”
Suddenly it occurs to me. “You guys have some water? You can get really dehydrated in the mountains,” I say, and you might be here a while, I don’t add.
“No,” she says, suddenly worried.
“Let me give you a bottle.” I go back to the car and fetch my pink Vail nalgene that I got for correctly answering some question or other at orientation, just like everyone else, and bring it back. I offer it to her.
“Oh,” she says, “I can’t take your only water bottle!”
“I have three more in the car.” I am lying to a stranger, I think, and I’m not a hundred percent sure why. “You’ll need it, trust me.” She takes it, thanking me profusely, and I take my leave.
As I descend the pass into Frisco, the snow becomes lighter and lighter. At no point does it stop, and at no point is the roadway clear, but the alpine storm above us has certainly found its gentle side down below. I wonder if the Georgians might have been able to make it down after all, but I honestly don’t think so, and I don’t want to second-guess myself. I did what I needed to do. I replay the situation in my mind all the way to Breck, maybe a little self-indulgently, but whatever. I hope they make it home. It is New Year’s Day, I think, and this fact has immense significance for me at this moment. I feel like I am starting the year off right.