by Mike Nagel
Mike Nagel's essays have appeared in apt, Hobart, DIAGRAM, and The Paris Review Daily. His first book, DUPLEX, is available now from Autofocus Books.
"I don't design clothes. I design dreams." — Ralph Lauren
So here I am, 34 years old, married and childless, gainfully and painfully employed, a walking, talking advertisement for the nutritional value of Hot Pockets and Flintstones Vitamins. Recently I started wearing a neon yellow belt. I'd bought the belt for ten cents during the American Apparel going-out-of-business sale. This was back when I lived next to an American Apparel that was going out of business. 2016 or so. The belt hung in my closet for five years, unworn. I didn't intend to wear it. It was a weird belt. Then one day, just a few weeks ago, I put it on. I looked at myself in the mirror.
"Rock and roll," I said.
* * *
This summer, J and I moved to East Plano, into a quiet neighborhood with a fantasy theme. One street is called Princess. One is called Camelot. We rented an old house with three bedrooms, a breakfast nook, scratched-up hardwood floors, an overgrown backyard that gets like zero sunlight whatsoever and is like 90% mud. The backyard, we decided, is a project. One of many. When you're 34 and you don't have kids the thing you do have is projects.
"I'm working on my projects," you think. "My projects require my attention."
One of the projects that requires my attention is this whole backyard situation. The other one is my life. It seems to me that both are just kind of happening willy nilly.
"Willy nilly?" my counselor says.
"Willy nilly," I say.
* * *
I don't really have a counselor. I have a guy I bring my laptop to when it's acting funny. Warren in IT. Sometimes I think Warren is my counselor. Sometimes I think other people are my counselor, too. I don't know how you're supposed to know who your counselor is.
"You need to stop eating so many crackers over your keyboard," my counselor tells me.
"You need to cut down on simple carbs and sugars," my counselor tells me.
"You need to try our Jalapeño Popper MEATeor Bites," my counselor tells me. "With our signature chipotle ranch dipping sauce."
"K," I always say. "Why not."
And I mean it. Why not. It is one of my deepest philosophical convictions that everything is kind of just whatever.
* * *
A few weeks after we moved into this house, J tried planting grass in the backyard. The seeds were blue. She held some in her hand.
"These," she explained, "are pre-fertilized seeds."
"And these," I explained to her about what I was holding, "are 3D Crunch Chili Cheese Nacho Doritos."
When the seeds didn't work I tried to act surprised.
"Maybe the PH balance was off," I offered.
"Yeah," J said. "The PH balance."
The truth is that I have my doubts about some of the basic functionality of our natural world. Photosynthesis. Cellular Mitosis. The RGB color wheel. It all strikes me as just a little bit convenient. I don’t think it’s fake or anything. I just don't think we're getting the whole story. I've heard if you slice open a cocoon, all you'll find inside is a bunch of Elmer's glue.
"You weren't supposed to see that," God said when Moses caught a glimpse of him walking behind a boulder that one time.
* * *
"Do you want to go on being fooled every damn minute of your life?” Japhy asks Ray in Dharma Bums.
“Yes," Ray says. "That’s all I want."
* * *
These are my rock and roll days. My yellow belt days. A small wardrobe adjustment can change your life. I really believe that. I believe all kinds of stupid things. At night I watch The Twilight Zone on Netflix. It's hosted by TV's own Rod Sterling. Five seasons. 156 episodes. A land of shadow and substance, things and ideas. In the morning I strut around the neighborhood waving at everybody like I'm some sort of celebrity. I am, I tell myself, doing public relations.
"Hi!" I say.
"Hii!" I say.
I wave with one hand. Then I wave with the other hand. I alternate hands.
"Hiiii!!!!" I say.
Most of our neighbors are in their 60s. They water their lawns with a hose. They use some sort of attachment. I don't know where you get attachments. Home Depot, maybe.
"What is that?" I yell at Burt. "Some sort of attachment?"
"It's called," he says, looking around, "The Gilmour."
* * *
I strut down Majestic. I strut down Lancelot. I strut down Princess, toward Bob Woodruff Park. I'm getting my struts in. 10,000 struts a day. Doctor recommended.
Yesterday when I was strutting through the park I came across a cracked-open tree and when I looked inside all I saw were a bunch of gears and pullies and whirligigs spinning around.
“You weren’t supposed to see that,” my counselor said, some old man in a city-worker jumpsuit.
* * *
Annie Dillard says that we wake, if we ever wake at all, to mystery. In the morning there's cat shit in the planters. Paw prints in the dirt. A cat across the street licking its own face. We think the neighborhood cats might be shitting in our planters. We have our suspicions. There's cat shit in the planters. That's the suspicious part.
"Hmmm," we say. "Suspicious."
When I asked the atheist why he thought there was no god, he just shrugged and frowned and gestured around in the general direction of everything.
"Oh," I said. "Right."
* * *
In October things cool off. The sky turns greyish. Then it turns grey. Then it turns neon yellow for like ten seconds. Then it turns grey again. J waits a few days. Then she says: "It's time." She puts pre-fertilized grass seeds into a Scotts Turf Builder® seed spreader and makes laps around the backyard. The blue seeds go flying everywhere, all willy nilly. No strategy. No rules. No intention. Just kind of whatever. I watch from the patio with my hands on my hips. "The goal," J explains as she passes back and forth, "is coverage." It's a scientific fact that given an excess of chances and opportunities, combined with a lack of planning and know-how, something will happen. Lord knows what.
* * *
“The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground," the Bible tells us. "The seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how."
"You unlock this door with the key of imagination," my counselor tells me. "Beyond it is another dimension."
"For best results," the Scott's Turf Builder® packaging tells us, "water twice daily."
* * *
In the evenings, I stand in the backyard watering the blue seeds with a garden hose. I use an attachment I bought off Amazon for $12. Free shipping. Next-day delivery. I make small movements back and forth to simulate wind and rain. I pretend I'm a rain machine. I guess I mean a cloud. The water goes everywhere.
The goal, I remind myself, is coverage.
After a week the grass starts growing, none of it where it's supposed to, most of it in the planters. We should have seen that one coming.
"Well," J says. "It's not nothing."
"No," I say. "Not nothing."
"It's also not really something, either," she says.
"No," I say. "Definitely not something."
"It's kind of in between, I guess," she says.
"Betweensies," I say.
* * *
At 34 there's a certain take-what-I-can-get quality to things. Not a lowering of standards, exactly. A broadening of acceptable outcomes. I just put my belt on and walk around in circles like everybody else. There's an old saying. Whatever happens happens. It's not that profound. But I've found that most true things in life are self-explanatory. When I asked the Christian why he thought there was a god, he just shrugged and smiled and gestured around in the general direction of everything.
"Oh," I said. "Right."
* * *
On Thursday the guys come to trim the trees in the backyard. Cut some holes for sunlight to get through. Encourage a little goddamn PHOTOSYNTHESIS around here, if you believe in that kind of thing. They bring a flatbed truck and a Bobcat bulldozer.
"Anything worth doing is worth overdoing," my counselor once told me, a very rock and roll way of a thinking, I thought, especially for a 70-year-old lady with severe plaque psoriasis.
"Feel free to get carried away with it, boys!" I yell as they pull the ripcords of their chainsaws. "Trees are stupid!"
"What?!" they yell.
When they're done a few hours later, I can see the sky through the window in the kitchen, its fake blue color between the sawed-off branches, just some funny business in atmosphere I've heard. Refraction or reflection. Something about prisms. I can't remember exactly. A pretty cool trick, though, I think, whatever it is.