I don’t suppose I should have been surprised that the old wood chips in the garden had disappeared. It’s the way of the world. Spread a few cubic acres of chips and chopped-up bark, and the sun and the rain and the denizens of bugdom get right to work. They eat it all, they break it down, they carry it off and leave your world naked. Then the weeds come. Then the spurge takes hold. Then the thousands of eager seedlings have nothing between them and the sky, and up they go. One day your garden is yours. The next day you’re outnumbered. And you think: well, why bother? Why dig up all these baby trees? Why not have a forest in the backyard? I mean, a backyard with 50 trees - how cool would that be?

Yes dear, I’ll get more woodchips.

It took 12 bags to finish smothering the back garden with fresh, fragrant cedar chips.

Too bad I ordered 50. I’d placed the order before the merry events of the last few weeks, so I was a bit surprised to come home one day and find 50 bags piled in the backyard. Totally forgot about them, and it seemed an extravagance; my wife’s not working, and I’m throwing away money on fancy-wood and delivery charges? Well, they’re cheap - two hundred bucks for the lot, and it would be good exercise. I’ve lost a few pounds this summer, mostly because I cut out beer, and a few hours of grunting and strewing couldn’t hurt.

I set to work the afternoon of the Fourth. My wife was planting flowers; Gnat was running around without any clothes on, jumping in her pool, playing in her house. I was out front dumping one bag after the other in the trees, in the bushes, alongside the house, in the terraced gardens. Bag after bag after bag. The smell! The lovely smell, the forbidden smell of cedar. We had a cedar closet at home when I was growing up, a staple of postwar ramblers, I think. You put your sweaters in the cedar closet so moths didn’t get them. They worried a great deal about moths back then. Get out the mothballs! The radio said there’s a cloud of moths a mile high and three miles wide, and they’re headin’ this way! Everyone into the cedar closet! Then the Moth Peril ended; no one puts their sweaters away with mothballs as far as I know -

“Is Natalie out here?”

Back to reality. My wife was standing in the front gate. “What?” I said.

“She’s not in the back yard. Is she out here with you?”

I ran around to the side gate.


Just when you need your legs the most they turn to water. I called out her name, scanned the street; my eyes didn’t seem to be working, though, because I couldn’t see her, and surely she was standing right here somewhere, why can’t I see her?

Where did she go?

The street was dead quiet. The street was empty. It looked like some odd stage set - you could wander behind that bush or that tree and find yourself backstage, someplace vast and dark and full of ropes and cast-off props, and when you looked towards the world from which you’d come you saw only the back of canvas backdrops.

She’d gone backstage.

How long? Fifteen seconds, four minutes? Which direction? Ours is not a linear street; we live in the middle of a maze. There are dozens of routes out. Where? Where? Where?

I heard my wife calling me. She’s here. Gnat had gone inside the house for a drink of water. I went back to the house with my heart slamming into my sternum like Jake LaMotta working a wall with his head. Legs still liquid. And of course you have the parental need to turn your terror into a lesson: young lady, don’t you ever go in the house like that again!

But that’s not quite right. So you hug them and when they ask for juice you say yes, and you’ve never been so happy to hand them a simple glass of juice in your life.

The Fourth was fine. Now the pressure’s off for the summer; it will be whatever it turns out to be. The summer-themed material is already half-off at Target. Politics settles down to a dull throb for the rest of the summer, and most sensible people ignore it. I remember this season in DC - withdrawal. Nothing going on; it hurt. Oh, the local dealers have some news, but it’s low-quality, and they’re still stepping on it like Rockettes at an ant-squashing contest, and hence everyone’s walking around nervous and not quite satisfied but not quite in trouble, yet.

In a good year we got news in August, real news. Remember the Cooplawters? They put a spring in our step one August, they did. They took control of the government while Gorbachev was out of town - a bunch of goitered-up nobodies who decided to bring the Soviet Union back to its former glory. They were known collectively as the Coup Plotters, since no one could remember their names individually, and we had the suspicion that they weren’t long for the front pages anyway. The Cooplawters gave us an interesting August, complete with Diane Sawyer leaning over Yeltsin’s desk and asking him questions about his attempt to gain control. I always wondered if Boris remembered that moment. Or that month. I had the strangest dream - I was sitting at my desk, and there was this tall American blonde talking to me, and I was about to take over the country.

(Wakes, rubs eyes, sees double-eagle seal on wall, thinks: oh crap.)

The Iraq invasion of Kuwait was in August, too. But July? Shark attacks, big movie openings, and magazine covers that say “How to Get the Best Butt on the Beach!” I think they are referring to the one you have previously installed, as opposed to a butt in the possession of others, but in either case you know you’re in the silly season, the time when Western Civilization stops paying attention and has a tall cold one.

Actually, that “Best Butt on the Beach!” headline ran a few months ago, during the preseason YOU ARE A FAT PIG OOZING WITH PIG FAT, YOU FAT PIG series of magazines aimed at that tender demographic desperately concerned with winning the best-beach-butt award. My favorite cover story from this spring: How Lucy Liu Gets Her Bikini Bod! I’d guess it has something to do with being under 35, with training six hours a day, avoiding everything except dehydrated watercress, and knowing that a thousand women skinnier than her get off the bus in LA every day. Not lessons the rest of us can learn, I fear. The BestBeachButt story just fascinated me, though - it cuts to the heart of the Great Dilemma that grips its possessor: people will be looking at your three-bee. That is, after all, the point. But there are three such groups who will be observing:

1. Other women (die in envy, cows!)

2. Cute guys (who will not be allowed to assume anything from the fact that the 3B is covered by a strip of fabric so small it makes a blade of grass look like a circus tent)

3. Dorks. Geeks. Pervy old guys who wear long pants to the beach. Those weird guys who show up on motorcycles, and they have like suntanned arms and these huge white guts and floppy white man-boobs and sunglasses and big Santa beards and they sit there with ZZ Pop or whatever on the radio acting like they’re so cool, and I’m like Hello, where do I start to tell you how gross you are, maybe with your head? because I really don’t want to THINK about your toes? which have these yellow nails made out of like credit card plastic? Group three cannot look at my butt for more than 2 seconds and only if I am walking past. They cannot turn their heads. I forbid it! By decree of Queen Butt!

Maybe the Council of Witheringly Honest Young Women should just tag everyone at the beach; if you were classified as a Level Three Dork you must avert your eyes when the 3B saunters past.

Anyone whose wallet is attached to his belt by a chain is required to put a bag over his head when Ms. 3B arrives.

Ah, memories. I used to go to the beach every day in the summer, in my single years. The beach was three blocks from my apartment. In Minneapolis, you say? Inconceivable! True. I lived between two large lakes. One-bedroom apartment next to a big green lawn that ran from the boulevard to the canal that tied the lakes together. Four hundred a month. The beach in the day, writing at night. That was as good as it gets, really, and it spoiled me for adulthood. All the time I spent in DC sweltering on my deck, I thought: I could be back home on the beach. There weren’t any helicopters at night back then, shining their beams into our bedroom. The helicopters weren’t an improvement.

Now I’m back, and I don’t make it to the beach much anymore. Once or twice a year with Gnat. We’re closer to the creek, and in my forties I’m more of a creek guy, I think. Creeks have a contemplative aspect; creeks are personal. Lakes are communual.

Oceans don’t give a rat’s best butt.

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