Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Selfish G

One of the more promising submissions of the last year or so was a retold fairy tale I'd written for school a couple years before. It's one of the few pieces of mine that I like. If you've never read any of Oscar Wilde's fairy tales, do. This is a modern retelling of his story, The Selfish Giant. Though you don't have to know that story to understand this one, familiarity with the original (especially the original's themes) gives this one a lot more weight. So here goes. I hope you enjoy the piece that got me the second nicest rejection letter I've received to date.


The Selfish G: A Retelling

Old Gray’s yard was infinitely better than all the others.  There were the trees--perfect for climbing or for spying on Candice, and green all year round.  There were pathways too, because rocks shot up out of the ground between most of the tree trunks, so the only space left to walk was where there wasn’t a rock or a tree.  The paths twisted so that if you gave the guy in front of you enough time to get a little ahead, you could think you were all alone.  When our neighborhood got built, all the other yards were cleared for concrete patios or pools.  But not Old Gray’s.

And there was the cave.  Well, we called it a cave.  It was basically just a space between two huge rocks.  The hole only went back far enough to get you out of the light and that’s only if you crawled.  But still, it was cave enough for at least two of us to hide in if Old G came home early.  Or for that one time when I stole two of Dad’s cigarettes.  James puked after one puff.

Those of us who went to G’s were mostly in eighth, except for James’s little brother who was in fifth. The rest of us were me, Shawn, Dan, and Andy. Shawn hardly ever talked, but he was really good at basketball. Dan was the funny one. Andy was the good looking one but could hardly add two and two. And I was just me.

We went over almost every day except for Friday ‘cause Old G stayed home that day. It’s not like he was that scary or anything. He’d just call our parents and get us in trouble if he found out. But I don’t see why anybody who didn’t want kids in his yard would leave the bottom of his chain-linked fence bowed up like an entrance tunnel.

I guess we’d been sneaking in there for a few months before anything bad happened. We were all doing our own thing. Andy had seen something shiny sticking out of the ground and had gotten Dan to help him dig it up. Me and James were trying to get sticks into a big tree to make a kind of floor up where the branches crossed. Shawn had a ballgame, so he wasn’t there. We'd all forgotten about James’s little brother until we heard him crying.

We went running and found him standing by the cave holding his leg. Andy’s the one who saw the snake slide back into the dark hole between the rocks just as the sound of Old G pulling in carried around the house. Normally we’d have gotten under the fence in time, but Dan said something about sucking the venom out, and James’s brother puked. I didn’t know what else to do, so I ran around to where Old G was getting out of his car. I told him real quick what had happened. With the worst face you can imagine, he said, “Get outta my yard,” and walked straight into his house and slammed the door behind him.

That’s how mean he was. James’s little brother could have died. Except for it turns out it was just a garter snake, and it hadn’t even bitten him. It’d just slid past his leg and scared him.

All of our parents had a talk with us that night about private property. We weren’t supposed to go anywhere near Old G’s after that.

We tried anyway, but G had a brand new wooden fence installed that was so high you could just see the tops of his trees. He put a nasty sign on the fence above where we’d worn out the grass that said, “Private Property - Do Not Enter”. We thought about trying to paint it so it said “Private Property - Donut Eater,” but no one had the guts. I heard Dad say a person has a right to his own yard, but Mom said G was just a sad old man.

After that, there was nowhere to go. James’s yard was okay, but it was just grass with a grill on the patio. Shawn was at practice all the time, so we couldn’t use his yard. Dan’s mom was an artist, so their whole yard was full of weird shaped bushes we weren’t allowed to touch.  Andy’s yard had an above ground pool, but his parents hardly cleaned it, so there were leaves from last fall floating on top and croaking sounds coming from it at night. Mine was probably the best because I had the trampoline, but you can only play trampoline-dodge-ball so many times before you get sick of it.

It was so much better in Old G’s yard.

Life was pretty normal till everything turned pretty for fall. We were expecting G’s yard (or what we could see of it) to turn pretty colors like always. But guess what happened? His leaves immediately started going brown. We even saw some branches fall during a really windy day. Me and Dan got up the nerve to search the fence for a hole so we could peek inside. We didn’t end up needing a hole though. A huge branch had fallen on the fence. It looked awful in there, like a tornado had touched down in his backyard and nowhere else. The big tree was still standing, but some small ones were leaning or had dropped branches. We got the other guys to come look, and James is the one who mentioned a curse. He said Old G had cursed himself by being mean to kids. He was betting God had sent a storm to punish him.

I didn’t believe about the storm, but I did kinda believe about a curse maybe. It was just too weird to be normal. Everybody else’s yard was fine. But you know how it is, we had pizza for Andy’s birthday that night and pretty much forgot about it all.

It got cold soon. Christmas came and went. It snowed a few times. Then all the sudden it was spring, and it started getting warm again. We all kinda thought Old G’s yard would pick back up in the spring, but I swear if it didn’t look worse than winter. Dad said he probably had some kind of bug infestation killing his trees, but we all knew the real reason.

With nothing to do but wait for it to get warm, we started going over to Dan’s (Dan lived right across from G) and spying to see if G showed signs of the curse. I didn’t really expect to see anything strange, but I did. The first day, everything seemed normal. The next day, we saw G carrying a bunch of boxes in. Two days later, James’s little brother called us to the window (it was his shift--the rest of us were playing video games) saying someone was going in with G. No one ever went in with G. We all went running to the window, and sure enough, G had some other old guy with him who was even more crouched and had a bunch of tubes and stuff attached to him. I swear if it wasn’t an exact copy of G, but older looking.

I asked Mom that night, and she said, “If you must know, Mr. Gray has a brother. He’s been living in a home, but Mr. Gray is going to take care of him now, like a home hospice situation.”  

“What’s a hospice?” I asked.

Mom got all weird like she does and bit her lip and started folding a towel she’d already folded.

“A hospice is a place where people go to die peacefully,” she said, handing me a huge stack of towels to put away.

A dying brother? G? I went straight to Dan’s. We all gathered the next day and tried to decide what to do. We kept watching in shifts, but he almost never came out, at least not after school. It wasn’t until late spring when something finally happened. It was one Saturday morning after a huge thunderstorm. Everyone’s power had been knocked out, but none of us knew till the next morning when our clocks were blinking. I was kind of excited to go out and talk to the guys about the storm, but Mom and Dad were whispering and acting weird. Mom had just called me over to say something when the phone rang. It was for me.

“Hey.” It was Dan. “You’re never gonna believe it.”

“What?” I asked.

“Old G. There was an ambulance at his house this morning. They rolled the guy out with a sheet over his face.”

“G?” I asked too loudly.

Mom turned her head toward me, so I walked into the other room.

“No, doofus, his brother. G was standing at the door watching.”

It bothered me that Dan sounded excited.

“Oh, man,” I said.

“Wanna come over? I can swipe Dad’s binoculars.”

“Nah, Mom and Dad are being weird,” I said, glad to have an excuse.

“Alright, man. Well, bye,” Dan said.

I clicked the phone off. Mom came and put her arm around me.

“I’m sorry if this is upsetting,” she said. “He’s in a better--.”

“I’m fine,” I said, and I was.

I was just irritated at Dan. I didn’t really care about G and his brother and stuff. I mean it was sad, but I didn’t know the guy.

For a long time after that, everything was normal. It got hot like always. We started using James’s backyard for baseball after school. School was gonna be out in no time, which meant freshman year was starting for all of us except James’s brother who’d be starting middle school, which was bad enough I guess. Then one day, all of a sudden, there was a sign in Old G’s yard that said, “For Sale.”

We’d all just gotten off the bus in front of Dan’s and were staring at the sign. Shawn and Andy both said, “Huh?” at the same time, but Dan had more to say.

“Who’s gonna buy that dump?” he asked, sneering. “I’m glad though, maybe they’ll clean it up. It makes our house look awful.”

I’d heard his dad say that before. He sounded kinda like his dad, when his voice didn’t crack.

“It just needs tending to,” I said, sounding like my dad.

“Maybe we should help him,” someone said, sounding like no one in particular.

We all turned around to see James’s little brother with his hands on his hips staring at Old G’s place. Dan huffed and snorted. Shawn and Andy said, “Huh?” again. James shook his head and groaned in embarrassment.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Well, we could pick up sticks in the backyard. We could paint the fence. Maybe get somebody’s dad to bring a chainsaw.”

“You’re serious?” Dan asked.

“Leave him alone, Dan,” I said.

“Have you all gone crazy? This is Old G we’re talking about.”

He had a right to be weird I guess, but he didn’t have to be such a butthole. None of us said anything. We’d been wanting an excuse to get back in. Dan stomped to his house and slammed the door behind him. G’s car wasn’t in his driveway, so the rest of us walked straight over and around to the backyard. The tree limb was still laying on the fence, so it was really easy to get in. Me and Andy opened the shed and found a couple of rakes. James and his brother started making a pile of sticks.

We must have worked for hours because we had that place looking good. There were even some flowers growing near the path since we hadn’t been there to stomp on them. Besides a couple big limbs, most of the mess had only been twigs and leaves, and some light green leaves were growing here and there.

We’d worked so hard we decided to take turns jumping into our huge leaf pile and said we’d clean it up when we were done. When it came James’s brother’s turn, he jumped just short of the pile and rolled into a sharp rock. He started crying, and James ran over to help. Right then, someone stepped out of the shadows at the side of the house.

It was Old G.

I’m ashamed to say it, but me and Andy took off. We hid beside the house and watched. I couldn’t believe what happened next. Old G walked right up to James’s brother and held his hand out. The kid grabbed it, and Old G helped him up. G turned and saw us hiding and motioned for us.

“I’m sorry about before,” he said when we were all gathered.

We just stood there.

“It’s been a hard year. But I’m feeling better now, and I appreciate you cleaning my yard. You’re welcome back any time.”

I was too stunned to talk, but leave it to the little guy to speak up.

“Don’t sell your house,” James’s brother said. “You’ve got the best yard in the whole neighborhood.”

Old G smiled and his wrinkles moved around till he was almost squinting. He never said anything, but the sign in the front yard was gone the next day.

Normal changed after that. We spent our whole summer in Old Gray’s yard. He didn’t care at all. He’d bring us sandwiches at lunch (I even started liking bologna) and lemonade and barbecue chips. We finally got around to making a sturdy spot in the big tree so we could spy on Candice. The only bad thing was that James and his brother ended up moving away right at the beginning of summer break, which was a total surprise. Their parents hadn’t told them so they’d have a good school year. They were moving to town to be in a different school district. I don’t know how many times Old Gray said he wished he could see them. He only said “them” to be nice, though. We all knew he mostly meant James’s brother.

Right before school started back, James and his brother came for a visit. We all went over to Old Gray’s to show them the big tree was finished, but old Old Gray wasn’t home. When we heard him pull up, we couldn’t wait for him to see who was there. James’s brother decided he’d surprise Gray even more by climbing up the cave rocks. He’d gotten so tall, and this would make him seem even taller. You would have thought it was Christmas by the look on Old Gray’s face. But then the kid’s foot slipped. He lost his balance. My stomach still flips over when I think of the thud it made when he hit the ground.

Old Gray moved faster than he ever had. He dropped down on his knees beside James’s brother and cried like a baby. He had his head in his hands and was bawling so loud I almost started crying, too. I was the first one to come to my senses and started to run in to call for help. That’s about the time James’s brother started to stir and slowly sat up. His hands and legs were all bloodied, but he seemed okay. He touched Old Gray’s shoulder. That startled him so bad he let out a laugh and grabbed the kid up in his arms like they were best friends.

“I thought you were dead,” Gray said.

I’d thought so too.

Old Gray and my dad drove a stake into the top of cave rock that night. They attached a rope to it and tied knots all the way down so we could climb without getting hurt. We wore out that rope till school started back.

Freshman year was a lot different than eighth. I hardly even noticed when the leaves started to change.

When summer left, Old Gray left with it--died suddenly of a heart attack. We saw the ambulance while we were waiting for the bus one morning. I kept thinking about Gray being rolled out with his face covered by a sheet, but I guess that happened after we left. Dan made a smart-ass comment about it on the bus. It felt good to make his nose bleed.

I acted fine in front of Mom. “He’s in a better place,” she said. But I cried in my room.

After the funeral, we never really saw James and his brother. Shawn was the only freshman to make the varsity basketball team. Dan started wrestling and won some awards. Andy started going out with Candice.

And I was just me.