Archaeology

 

Mary Tartir

Archaeology


My mother says he's simple, that boy standing in our yard.

She waves me out the door with her broom. Return this pie dish to Nancy and give her these rolls I made, then come straight home, she says. But I know that Aunt Nancy will have raspberry lemonade. She will want to talk. How can Mom be mad at me for staying? It's just good manners. I pause on the porch. The simple boy is standing by our elm tree. He's looking at his feet.

Today, Margaret. You have chores to finish, my mother calls through the screen door.

His name is Darrel, a simple boy's name. Maybe the name strikes me as simple because he's the only Darrel I know. Or maybe it's because the name rhymes with barrel. Grandpa sometimes says, That guy couldn't shoot fish in a barrel. That means he can't do something even a stupid person could do. But being simple isn't the same as being stupid. Stupid people do normal things really badly, like the way my cousin Anne always tries to take her pants off without taking off her shoes. But simple people just do weird things, and you can't tell if they do them right or not.

Darrel and his mother moved into Mrs. Myers' attic apartment back in June. Darrel's mother is a worried-looking lady with thin lips and a tight perm. She wears her bathrobe on the front porch, sometimes even in the yard. She smokes cigarettes and sips drinks like the ones people on The Love Boat drink. Mrs. Myers told Mom that Darrel's mom was probably a looker in her day. But with a name like Renate she was bound to wear out, Mrs. Myers said. You can't grow old gracefully with a name like that.

Darrel doesn't look up as I pass him on the sidewalk. I cough a little, but he doesn't even flinch. Darrel's been in our yard before. He's been in everybody's yard, just looking at stuff like he's new in the world. He looks at barbecue grills and riding lawn mowers. He looks at bird houses, horseshoe stakes, tether ball poles. Mostly, he just seems to look at grass. But he's never hurt anything, so nobody says a thing to Darrel or his mom. Besides, no one really knows them, not even Mrs. Myers.

I think people in the neighborhood feel like they're celebrities if Darrel's been in their yard. They certainly always mention it afterwards. He was over here taking a look at my wind chimes the other day, they say. You know that boy was in my yard last night looking at my tomato vines, they say. Mrs. Myers even says her next door neighbor Mrs. Fran is beyond insulted that Darrel never pays a minute's notice to those ceramic lawn ornaments of hers. Mrs. Fran says that Darrel doesn't know real art when he sees it. Mom says if that's the case then neither do the rest of us.

In our yard he usually stands under one of the trees. Sometimes he looks at his feet. Sometimes he looks straight up like he's trying to see the very top of the tree from the ground. And he always plays with our dog Sandy, which doesn't bother me. Sandy tore up Mr. Park's rose bush and dug up the Fosters' dead cat. Now she has to be penned up when me or mom can't be in the yard. So I'm glad that Darrel plays with her, because I don't feel like it sometimes. Some days you can only pet a dog so much.

When I get to Aunt Nancy's house I tell her Darrel is in our yard. She calls me a little duck. Just like the rest of them, she laughs, you always have to be making a fuss. Quack, quack, quack. She nudges me in the ribs with her elbow and smiles. I'd be hurt, but I know she's teasing.

I think she means it about the rest of them, though, even Mom. Some people think Aunt Nancy is a bit weird herself. She makes sculptures out of used car tires and pieces of scrap metal. Her whole yard used to be full of them. But people said it was just junk. Then some of the neighbors signed a petition that told Aunt Nancy to keep her sculptures in her garage. They just don't understand her vision, Mom said at the time.

Aunt Nancy pours me a lemonade. When I tell her what Darrel has been up to lately, she clicks her tongue. What is it about that boy that plays on everyone's mind so much? Aunt Nancy asks, more like she's addressing the air than me specifically. She sets the lemonade pitcher on a folded towel on the table. Aunt Nancy's kitchen is cool and smells like cinnamon. When she sits down beside me, I notice Aunt Nancy smells like cinnamon, too. She bakes something every week, a pie or banana bread or cookies. Mom swears I can smell fresh baked pie all the way from our house, because I always end up at Aunt Nancy's as soon as she takes one out of the oven.

He's weird, I say, eyeing the cookies on the counter. Nobody does stuff like that.

They don't? What about archaeologists? They look at everything, Aunt Nancy replies. She crosses her legs and rests her face in her hands the way she does when she's talking to Mom. They spend their lives digging up other people's stuff and looking at it, she says. You can tell a lot about a person by what is in their yard.

What can he tell? I ask, drawing lines in the sweat on the pitcher. He doesn't really know anybody, just what their yard has got in it.

He can tell that you don't pet your dog very much, Aunt Nancy says. Then she picks up the pitcher and returns it to the fridge. Your mom called before you got here and told me not to keep you. So hurry home. Here's a couple sugar cookies. Try saying hello this time, instead of just staring at him.

On my way home, I think about Darrel. Maybe he's not so simple after all. But then I think he has to be. Why else would he spend so much time looking at the same things people have already seen for years?

He's still standing in our yard looking at the ground when I get back. But as I walk towards him, he turns and looks at his own yard. Then his whole body turns in that direction and he crosses the street. He looks over his shoulder once. Maybe he's afraid I'm following him. I stand under the elm where he was standing and watch him till he disappears.

I look down at my feet, and realize I'm standing in a mass of ants.

 

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