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Fiction #71
(published Early, 2002)
The Surprise Witness
by J. Daniel Janzen

He always had the worst lawn on the block. To either side and across the street from his plot, thick green lawns marched down the street, their strident leaves stretching proudly toward the sun. Then, almost precisely defining the property line, the dense carpet gave way to gray-brown earth scattered with bloomless dandelions, viny weeds, and clumps of shaggy yellow grass perched absurdly on patches of soil like divots from a municipal golf course. He averted his eyes whenever he pulled in or out of the driveway, but he knew his neighbors just stared and stared at the bleak testament of man's impotence before nature. His invitation to the annual block party never arrived earlier than two weeks late.

He tried everything. One spring he seeded the yard, to the delight of the hundreds of sparrows who came, dined, and left foul-smelling white and purple gratuities. Another time he used lawn spikes, which remained embedded in the hard, flaky ground like warts on a planter's foot for several years, never visibly deteriorating, nor affecting the health of the lawn as a whole. He applied for a credit card and arranged for the lawn to be dug up, covered with a soft blanket of damp, earthy topsoil, and laid with rolls of fine, hardy sod. He installed sprinklers to drench the yard in 84 mist every ten hours. But the transplant didn't take, and the rejected graft shriveled and died as the sprinkler water ran in rivulets to the storm sewer at the driveway's edge.

After a conversation with a professor of anthropology at the university, one night found him outside in slippers and robe under a moonless sky, face painted in bright colors, a bird's nest on his head and a bicycle tire around his neck, holding a dead mouse in one hand and shaking a baby's rattle in the other, chanting self-consciously from a leather-bound book illuminated on the hood of the car by a flashlight gripped in his armpit.

He chased away the neighborhood dogs when they came to frolic, until any dog on the block whined and ran at the sight of him. The neighborhood children propagated rumors about rows of bodies stacked like cordwood behind his tool shed. He came to avoid standing in front of his windows at night. He drove his car even the shortest of distances, and parked it behind the house.

Then one day, as he peered between the shutters at the wasteland in front of his house, littered with tree branches and furtive protests from the dogs, he felt a rage building within him. His anger mounted to a physical intensity such that his arms shook and his nose furrowed and his teeth clenched with a blood-curdling grinding sound. He went to the sideboard and took out a pen and paper, then threw both against the wall, spun around, and flung the door open. He stomped into the yard so hard that his shoelaces burst. Oblivious, he fell to his knees and began pulling up the tufts of dead grass. He flung the clods onto the driveway and into the street. He threw two or three onto the adjacent yard, only to retrieve them a moment later and pitch them into the gutter.

The day faded as he worked. The sky at the end of the block faded, then pinkened, then bled up from the horizon a brilliant red-orange, which in turn blended to a purple, blue, gray, and white, all then fading downward to yellow, gray, and finally to deep blue. In the final moments before dark, he rose to his feet and uttered his first words of the day. "I'll give them something to look at," he said.

He was back outside before dawn the next morning, clothes unchanged, filthy and torn, wielding a a garden rake in one hand and a hoe in the other, his breathing labored. He tore into the crumbly soil striking sparks off the plentiful stones. A small cloud billowed around his swollen ankles. All day he worked, and not once all the day long did a neighbor come or go up or down the block, on foot or by car.

In the late afternoon he jumped into his car, soiling the floor mats, and sped off, fishtailing back up the gravel driveway almost before he left. He pulled a lever in the foot well and the trunk eased open behind him. Leaving the car running, he pulled forth a large metal tank connected to a fabric-wrapped hose with a brass nozzle, turned a knob on the tank and struck a match on the side. The sudden roar of flame knocked him on his back. He lay there a moment in the driveway laughing, sending a pillar of flame into the branches of the overhanging tree. He struggled to his feet and applied the blaze to the lawn's scarred surface. The earth blackened beneath the flames.

The tank depleted, he threw it aside and went again to the car's trunk, this time retrieving a sledgehammer. With this he methodically pounded the lawn flat and hard. He brought a large sack of salt out of the house and sprinkled its contents over every inch of the beleaguered earth.

He stood on the front step and admired the fruits of his labors. With a sigh, he locked up the house and retired upstairs. He fell asleep to the sickly sweet smell of fumes from the still-smoldering property.

He dreamed of many things, carnivals and parades, sea-going voyages, heartbreak and famine. Finally he found himself in a broad plain stretching as far as the eye could see. He walked and he walked until he came to a high, round hill, its top shrouded in mist. At the foot of the hill was the mouth of a small path. At the side of the path was a mailbox, and on the mailbox was painted his name. Slowly, dreamily, he opened the mailbox and pulled out a magazine. Tucking this under his arm, he turned uphill and began to ascend the gently turning path. The hillside was lush and green, the grass blowing gently in the breeze with a scent of clover and pollen. Mist swirled around his feet as he climbed higher and higher. Nearer the top he emerged from the level of the mist, and all around him lay the greenest grass yet. At the summit, two maple trees swayed seductively, between them a sisal hammock rocked with an almost-inaudible creaking. He swung himself into the hammock and lay his head on the canvas pillow at its head. He opened the magazine, laid it over his eyes and dozed at peace.


The neighbors watched in small pajama-clothed groups on the sidewalk and in the street as the firemen consulted, shaking their heads. Water from their hoses coursed futilely through the still-blazing shell of the house, carrying ash and ruin across the blackened yard to the sewer. By dawn's light, the fire trucks were gone, and all that remained on the lot was the foundation and half-basement, full of smoldering coal and fused roofing tar. Had human remains been sought, none would likely have been found.

The block committee held a meeting, better attended than even the block party with the band had been. It was decided that the lot would never be marketable, all things considered, and that a better use could be made of it. As the man had died intestate, it was a simple matter for the committee to acquire a zoning variance. Bake sales and yard sales attracted good business that fall, and by the time the ground thawed in the spring a contractor had been hired to clear the lot for a concrete tennis court. Through the winter they shattered lamps practicing their ground strokes in their living rooms. They subscribed to tennis magazines and bought cases of balls at the outlet. On Easter Monday, the contractor brought in a backhoe and a steamroller to level the area, and put in the smoothest, most even tennis court within five miles. The committee scheduled a barbecue to inaugurate the court on Memorial Day; in the meantime, it lay coyly in wait behind a chain-link fence, its surface painted in crisp white lines on rich green and terra cotta.

The big day came, and as foot-longs, barbecued drumsticks and fat, juicy burgers sizzled on the grill, the chairman of the block committee cut the red ribbon and opened the courts for the ceremonial first game. He bounded to one baseline and his opponent to the other. He faced the committee treasurer, a mother of two in a short white skirt and a sleeveless polo shirt, tennis bracelet and Stan Smiths. Fierce concentration on his face, he lofted the fresh chartreuse ball skyward, pivoted, and split the seam of the service line with his serve. Literally. The treasurer, already coming forward to return serve, stumbled, her racket swinging in empty air; the ball remained embedded in the court. A rhubarb began in the crowd. The chairman came running to investigate and leapt nimbly across the net, his foot sinking through crumbling concrete as he landed.

Confusion, outrage, and astonishment reigned amid the neighbors. Almost unnoticed among the ensuing melee, tiny green buds appeared in the cracks now spreading across the court. One of the neighborhood kids grabbed the ball from its crater and dashed away down the block as his peers followed close behind; none noticed the clump of lush green grass that straightened slowly out of the hole. Long-held grudges erupted on the sidelines, and stalks of tall grass erupted in the alleys. Someone overturned the Smokey Joe, and the afternoon deteriorated into accusations, acrimony, and general bad feelings on all sides. By evening, the court sat empty, its surface crumbled into small patches of concrete among tall stands of healthy green grass. The red ribbon's two halves fluttered from the fence in the cool night breeze.

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