Though America—especially middle-class white America—is so often a culture of backyard living. I find myself lately spending a lot of time staring at front yards and thinking about the stories they hold and how they are tended or neglected. Hours of every week, miles of city streets. In this Age of Pandemic, the Stir-Crazy days of Spring 2020, I do a lot of walking and riding my old yellow Schwinn bicycle. Most of what I do is a kind of aimless wandering or exploration. I’ll pick a cardinal direction and just head off with no destination in mind. This aimless ramble is, I’ve realized, often how I approach writing an essay. I’m never quite sure where I’ll end up.
We live in an area of Fresno, California that used to be covered with fig, olive, and stone-fruit orchards and in some yards, you can still find pockets of trees, ghost lanes of abandoned orchards, and whole buffets for urban foraging. In this part of the city, grid-planned neighborhoods are mixed with more suburban-style cul-de-sacs and maze-like streets that “hop” over blocks of houses and then pick up again in ways that seem to make little sense; so when I ride my bike, I’m often on the verge of being lost and regularly feel as if I’m rolling past an epic collaborative memoir told in a collage of front yards, a never-ending parade of faces—the faces of American families—that I’m trying to speed-read. Sometimes this is the only reading I can do—a kind of surface level skimming of reality.
Words of flowers, those explosive rhymes of orange poppies, the lines of landscaping and whole sentences of shade beneath redwoods and oaks. Paragraphs of grass, set off by shrubs with names I don’t know. The punctuation of palms, as unnecessary as exclamation points. And the occasional invitation—an archway, a bench, a dappled spot in a corner of the front yard, abandoned like an em dash. An invitation to remember—to extend the essay inexorably like an ellipsis of paving stones.
When I was a boy, the pear tree in the front, on the East side of our house, dropped so much fruit we couldn’t keep up with it. I’d sit in my bedroom and listen to the bodies thump in the wet leaves and grass and know then what trouble my brother, Matt and I could find. I knew we’d eventually find our way to that sour patch of dirt and leaves, wet and stinking with the rotten fruit. I knew we’d wave the sweat bees away, searching for the perfect pear—ripe but not too ripe. And I knew we’d take a Phillips-head screwdriver and punch a hole in the pear. Then we’d slide a Black Cat firecracker into the hole so that just the wick was protruding. We kept a coffee can of firecrackers in the garage for much of the year because, after the divorce, that was the kind of house Dad’s house became. All you had to do then was light the wick, time it just right, and hurl the pear into the air; and if the fruit was soft enough, it would explode all over the street, raining flesh and skin down on the asphalt. Sure, it was messy and loud and dumb. But it was also fun and exhilarating in its innocent magic.
It is, perhaps, this same accidental alchemy of childhood that inspired me one day to paint the bees. I don’t know why or how such decisions are made by children—like cutting your own hair or writing on the walls with crayons. But it was fairly easy as the sweat bees lazed around, getting their fill of the rotting pears. I just walked up to them, rattling a can of silver spray-paint I’d found in the garage, and covered them in a cloud. Then I did it again.
I was a stupid boy doing stupid, mildly destructive things in our front yard, as was so often the story. But it is the freedom to make such low-risk mistakes that I often miss more than anything about childhood. We spent a lot of time in our front yard, where we’d worn an oval-shaped dirt track in the grass with our motorcycles, where I used to shoot hoops for hours on the cracked driveway, and where Brad Hoobler dislocated his shoulder when he wrecked his dirt bike on a jump. I often wondered what neighbors or passersby thought of our front yard hooliganism, what stories we broadcast to the occasional reader. I wondered if they saw what I saw that day in the front yard on Stratford Road in Lawrence, Kansas.
It must have been summer, when the heat and humidity made everything heavy and the air shimmered as if was greasy. And I don’t know what I expected to happen that day. Probably I thought the bees would just die there on the fruit, beneath the pear tree. Probably I didn’t think much about the consequences. And I’m sure eventually the bees did die. But for a few seconds, they became something else entirely, something from the future, something bigger than the moment and bigger than I deserved. I sprayed my silver paint and stepped back to watch the show. And this is the memory I hold on to and cultivate: they struggled at first to shed the paint from their wings, but then, in a moment of unexpected metamorphosis, the bees shuddered and seized in spasms of energy, rising slowly from the fruit like tiny robots, their silver, mechanical splendor buzzing loops around my head before they disappeared into the unknowable backyard, beyond the fences, fading to memory as their luminous bodies melted into the sunlight . . .