Jun 18, 2005

The lot of dandelions

Dandelion, n., a Eurasian plant of the composite Sunflower family, having many-rayed yellow flower heads and deeply notched basal leaves, grown in most of the world. The seeds do not need cross fertilization and are easily distributed by the wind, which catches the elaborate crown of plumose hairs, carrying each seed-bearing achene into the air like a parachute. Used in medicines as early as the 10th century, usable in salads and wines, and introduced into North America to provide nectar for honey bees, the dandelion is generally considered a tenacious weed with a deep and twisted tap root.
          The word dandelion comes from the French dentdelion, meaning literally "tooth of the lion." The weed has a history of fanciful names, including "priest's crown," "piss-a-bed," "clock flower," "puffball," "fortune teller," and "dumbledore."
          It is said that a message can be sent to a loved one by blowing on the dry puff of a dandelion's seed head, and again that a wish will be granted if all the seeds are blown into the air at once, and again that burning dandelions in the northwest corner of the house brings favorable winds.

The say he lived in Jersey, by the shore in the suburbs where all the streets were blacktopped cul-de-sacs named for trees, with a newspaper laying every morning on every driveway, and where every lawn was mown by the Mexicans imported illegally to spend the summer in trailers riding from green watered lawn to green watered lawn sitting on overturned buckets. Maybe he lived somewhere else though. Suburbs are all the same, and so it could have been in the prairie outside of Kansas City between the flat earth and the flat sky, or in the hills above the sailboats’ bare forest of masts on the North side of Seattle.

They say he went crazy. It’s not like a doctor told them he went crazy. It’s not like he was hearing voices or ranting to his black cat late at night. He didn’t even have a cat. His wife took the cat when she took the kids and the car and he just had the Golden Retriever with the lamp shade still on his head to keep him from gnawing at the now healed neutering stitches. They say he went crazy because, one day, he started tearing down his house.

On the fifth of July the neighbors heard banging. It was after he stopped going to work in the morning and after his wife left to take that new job down in D.C. His newspapers started piling in neat cordwood rows and rotting where the sprinkler soaked them through. The neighbors hear him banging, heard him one morning making crashing noises in the house in the middle of the street and the business suited spouses said to each other, Do you think he’s gone crazy?

No one walked into the street to look and no one called their neighbor or a minister or the police. It wasn’t that kind of neighborhood. There was, like the yellow sign said, NO THRU TRAFFIC, and the cul-de-sac was as silent as a ghost town with automatic sprinklers, a mailman, newspaper delivery and the occasional protestations of a dog.

And one crazy crashing neighbor.

The crashing noises began in the morning when the first neighbor went outside into the watered morning wearing a bathrobe and cradling coffee. He crashed as the neighbors each raised their automatic garage doors and drove away for the day. He was crashing when they came home at night and the kids tumbled out of the cars shouting and cheering and quarreling and ran into the houses. Sometime in the night, after midnight, he stopped. Around two, they say.

On the third day he raised a ladder to the rain gutter and climbed up on to his roof. He tore off the gutter and left it lying on the lawn. He took the backside of a hammer to the shingles and tore them off, one by one. He peeled off the synthetic siding that never needs to be painted. He smashed out the plywood with a sledge hammer, and with his bare hands he ripped out the insulation and the electrical wiring, the phone wires, the cable wires and the plumbing. He piled all the rubble on the lawn. When the neighbor snuck looks through the windows at night they say they saw him curled up in the middle of the skeleton of the house, the two-by-fours lit by the street light.

On garbage day, when everyone was gone to work, he took a wheelbarrow of smashed up and flattened to paten-thin pieces of former house, and he passed them out among the green cans on the curb.

He tore up the white carpets. He threw rocks and baseballs at his windows until every piece of glass was shattered. He split the cabinets into kindling, kicked the plastic bathtub to the sidewalk, and ran his chainsaw through the framing. When the holiday season came, the whole cul-de-sac put happy holiday cards in the mailboxes and put out little white Christmas lights, but didn’t think it’d be good idea to invite the family over here this year.

When nothing was left but the foundation, standing in an empty outline of a house, the man who might have lived in Jersey went down to the Ace hardware store and special ordered a 16-pound maul. The concrete cracked out in pieces shaped like the rubble of the Berlin wall and when he’d smashed it all he cracked up the driveway and the sidewalk. He dug up the juniper bushes and the rose bush and the sod and when he was done, after nine months of noise, there was just a square dirt lot and a little maple tree.

After nine months of piece by piece tearing down his house, crashing and banging his suburban lot bare, he was done. He sat down and looked at the little tree. For forty days, they say, nothing happened and the neighbors became more nervous.

The dog, the Golden Retriever who must have been hiding through all the racket, with the vet-ordered lampshade still stuck on his head, came back. He sat down next to the man who must have been crazy to tear down his house like that, and looked at the tree.

While they sat there, silent, a great host of dandelion puffs in a white cloud of parachuting seeds came drifting in over the tops of the houses. The wind seemed to stop, and the seed puffs settled in drifts down over the crazy man and ridiculous dog like the softest and gentlest of snows. On that day the UPS man drove up and dropped seven big boxes on the curb.

The man stood up, unpacked the boxes, and assembled a carousel. He put it together, and started it. No one ever heard of him, or from him, again.

The carousel had three horses - one lame, one blind, and one demon possessed. The three horses, painted over-gaudy and crazy-eyed, circled slowly. The carousel stood in the middle of the lot of dandelions, a little speaker played out the carousel music of wheezy carnival organs, and all the kids came to watch.