Mr. Howard’s Frisbee

Karen Tian_Mr. Howard's Frisbee 1
Photo by Karen Tian.

Karen Tian
We’re in the backyard when Mr. Howard pulls into the driveway. It is 5:15 in the evening; it is Memorial Day; we are nineteen years old, and we have not quite come down from two tabs of acid apiece, ingested around four hours ago. Mark and Daniel are taking turns boosting each other up to grab the lowest branch of the birch tree in the corner of the yard. Mark keeps saying that the bark on the upper branches has a different pattern from the bark on the trunk, and he wants to climb up for a closer look.  I lie on the grass, watching them while waving two fingers in front of my face, fascinated by the spectral trail they leave as they wag back and forth.

I can hear the rumble of the Porsche as it idles in the driveway. After a few moments, the engine cuts out. I hear a car door open, and shut.

“I think your dad’s home,” I call out. Mark has pulled himself up onto the branch and balances as it oscillates, hugging the trunk with one arm as he feels for good handholds. I can hear a tiny crack-crack, but the branch holds. I am sure I imagined it.

“That’s fine,” Mark calls back. He finds a protruding knot in the wood and grips it, forearms taut, hoisting himself up to the next branch. In the meantime, Daniel has kicked off his shoes and removed his shirt. He’s rolling around on the grass — actually log-rolling up and down the lawn, giggling to himself.

I sit up. “Jesus, Dan, put your shirt on. Mr. Howard’s home.”

“I can’t stop, man, this grass feels so good. Shit, man, you’ve gotta try this, it feels so fucking good against my back.”

The grass is rippling in the warm breeze and Daniel looks like he’s floating, buoyed by the undulating ground beneath him. I look at Mark suspended up in the tree and I see gorgeous green leaves rippling all around him, and it’s all I can do not to lay back down and stare at rippling things. Instead, I stand up and walk over to Daniel, who takes a look at me and starts rolling in the opposite direction.

“Seriously, man, cut that shit out. Mark’s dad is right over there and you’re going nuts.”

“Tim, really, it’s fine,” Mark says. He is staring down at us, settled on a limb that juts freely into space, some twenty feet up. His legs swing up and down. “My dad doesn’t usually come into the backyard.”

I can hear footsteps crunching on gravel. I visualize Mr. Howard treading the gravel path which I know winds its way from driveway to backyard gate, clutching a maroon briefcase in his left hand and closely examining the day’s mail cradled in his other hand.

The sound of a latch, click, disengaging. I turn to face the gate as Mr. Howard steps into the backyard.

Mr. Howard is not carrying a briefcase. He has no stack of mail in his right hand. It’s Memorial Day — there is no work and no mail. He wears a white polo and maroon shorts. I have never seen Mr. Howard wearing anything except a crisp navy suit, carrying a briefcase in his left hand and holding documents in his right hand.

He holds an orange Frisbee with both hands.

I stare at Mr. Howard but he is staring at Daniel, who has stopped rolling in favor of lying facedown on the lawn, uprooting bunches of grass and sprinkling them over his naked back.

“Hey, Mr. Howard,” I say. I am standing about ten feet away from him, slouching in what I believe to be a nonchalant pose.

“Hey, Dad,” calls Mark calmly, from his perch in the birch tree. He does not look down at his father. His face is tilted up, towards the highest branches. Presumably, he’s examining the patterns in the bark.

Mr. Howard sees his son in the tree, and fixes his gaze on me. “Hello, boys,” he says finally, still looking at me. He twists the Frisbee in his hands. It’s a heavy disc with precise curves, not one of the flimsy ones they hand out at promotional events.

I try to smile politely at him, and then I notice the maroon shorts again, which are slightly too short and which reveal a pair of absurdly skinny legs. Once I notice how thin his legs are in comparison to his torso, I start thinking about proportions and distortions and businessmen holding a meeting in a boardroom lined with funhouse mirrors, and then I turn away and take several casual steps towards Daniel, trying hard not to crack up in the man’s face.

When I turn back, tentatively, to Mr. Howard, he is still standing in the same spot, holding the Frisbee. I am counting doubles in my head to take my mind off his skinny legs, Mark has resumed climbing the tree, and Daniel has settled into a quiet stupor, prone on the lawn, his long limbs positioned neatly in line with his body. The breeze has stopped. We’ve reached a temporary equilibrium, the four of us, but I can feel Mr. Howard’s discomfort radiating outward in purple-tinged waves. Only Mr. Howard and I share this feeling. Daniel is catatonic. Mark seems unconcerned.

“How’s your Memorial Day going, Mr. Howard?”

Mr. Howard stares at me for several seconds. He has a round face, but his features are small — a small nose, small eyes, a small mouth. Right now those features are slightly contorted, and so they are compressed, even less prominent than usual. His brow is furrowed, marring the uniform smoothness of bald men with round faces. I keep my gaze fixed on his watery eyes and away from his legs.

“It was fine,” he says. “I won this Frisbee at the company picnic.”

Mr. Howard owns his own company. It is called AutoStat, and it collects proprietary, industry-standard data about the axles of cars, trucks, and motorcycles, releasing a glossy semiannual report filled with charts and graphs. He works with fifteen other people, so Mark tells me, in an office ten minutes away from the house. In addition to the Porsche, he owns two BMWs — a black sedan, and a blue convertible that used to belong to Mark’s mother — a Mercedes SUV, and a Ducati sportbike. I have never seen him ride the motorcycle.

“What was the game?” I ask.

Daniel’s father works for a company that makes gourmet potato chips. Daniel’s mother lectures in English at the high school and teaches Thursday night classes in theater and drama at the town library. Daniel’s father doesn’t mind if we sample his good beer on Saturday nights, and his mother brings us lox and bagels on Sunday mornings. Daniel takes after his parents. I take after my father. He is a software architect; in his mind, lines of code have the soaring lines and sleek beauty of a church spire punching through the clouds.

“What?”

“What game did you win to get the Frisbee?”

Mr. Howard is still looking at me, but his eyes have unfocused. He is far away, and I am right here in front of him. “It was a pie-eating contest.”

Try as I might, I cannot picture Mr. Howard in a pie-eating contest.

“That sounds cool,” I say, eventually.

Mr. Howard gives a slight nod. He seems dazed. I might logically assume that he is confused by us — by Daniel lying shirtless on his manicured lawn, by Mark climbing to the highest branches of the tree, by my stilted conversation — but I’m not entirely sure about this, though I can’t explain why. I feel the urge to talk but I can’t think of a single thing to say.

Then Mr. Howard speaks again. “I heard you boys in the yard when I got out of the car, and I thought I’d come and see what was up.” He pauses for a moment, and continues. “I thought maybe you boys might want to throw around the Frisbee for a while. It’s a nice afternoon to play Frisbee.”

And so it is. After he says this, the angle of the sunlight appears to shift slightly, bathing the backyard in a warmified, margarine-hued glow. I am disconcerted. Mr. Howard has never shown the slightest interest in playing a sport with us before. Mr. Howard has never shown the slightest interest in interacting with us. I have known Mark since the sixth grade, and the only two conversations I’ve had with Mr. Howard were about cars and The Last Samurai. We talked about how often he serviced his cars (oil change every three thousand miles, tires rotated every six months minimum), and he explained to me, briefly, how machine guns made the samurai obsolete.

“Cool,” says Mark from up in the tree. I am nodding to myself; I stop.

I used to have nice conversations with Mark’s mother, Ms. Matte, a thoughtful, quiet woman who bred Portuguese Water Dogs for a living. The house used to be full of those enormous black curly-furred dogs, romping around and barking wildly. Ms. Matte moved out to Virginia last September, two weeks after Mark left for school. She has a bigger kennel out there. Her favorite dog’s name is Karma.

“What’s cool?” asks Mr. Howard.

Mark doesn’t know what college his father attended. Mark knows that his father owns a semiautomatic handgun, swathed perpetually in a floral-patterned pillowcase, and tucked carefully into the topmost drawer of his bureau.

“You won a pie-eating contest. That’s cool, Dad.”

It was Mark’s idea to take the tabs at his house. He championed its wide grassy backyard and its abundance of good climbing trees and the empty high school soccer field only a few blocks away, in case we wanted space, a massive buffer of air and time separating us from everything and everyone else. So we can breathe properly, he said. I’ve done this before, he said, and it’s important to breathe.

“Thanks, Mark,” says Mr. Howard.

Mark is climbing down. Perhaps he finally has an answer regarding the pattern of the bark on the upper branches, perhaps he just feels a little too tall up there; in any case, he is descending, and is only ten feet above us. The tree itself is around twenty feet distant from Mr. Howard and his maroon shorts and the orange Frisbee he still cradles in his hands.

Then Mark stops. He seats himself on the lowest branch before the ground. It sags slightly under his weight.

“Throw the Frisbee up here, Dad,” says Mark. He is smiling; his voice rings into the void, and suddenly I am unmoored, I sit down on the grass and strain my senses to track the sound waves as they radiate out from the tree, enveloping the backyard. Mark is smiling and he sounds like someone who has been waiting all day to have a Frisbee thrown to him while he sits in a tree.

Something has changed in Mr. Howard’s face. His lips are pressed together; they are turning pale, blending into his skin, leaving the rest of his face grotesquely disproportioned as his lips disappear from the world. I can see us from his perspective and the scene is imploding, collapsing to a point of sudden lucidity, an understanding of who we are and how far we are from him, we three people in his backyard. I am surprised that it has taken him so long; my own father would have known right away. My father and I toss around a Frisbee sometimes, in the spring.

“It’s getting late. I’ll just go inside,” says Mr. Howard.

“Dad, just throw me the Frisbee. Come on, throw it over,” says Mark.

“What are you doing up in that tree, anyway?”

“I’m just hanging out. Toss it over.”

Mr. Howard shrugs. He looks up at Mark, and for the first time that day, Mark meets his gaze. “All right, then,” he says. He grips the Frisbee and flicks it toward Mark.

It flies straight at first. I watch the Frisbee move in time-lapsed slices; I record the disc like a camera running at three-quarters speed. It begins to veer to the left. Mark reaches out, grabbing the branch with his left hand as he stretches into space, groping for the Frisbee.

There is a sharp crack as Mark’s branch splinters, abruptly dipping two feet. It does not break. The Frisbee glides past Mark’s outstretched hand and lands near Daniel, who sits up, mystified by the orange disc that has intruded into his reflections.

“Oops,” says Mark.

“Well, that was a botch,” says Mr. Howard. He nods in our direction, and begins to walk away, briskly, impelled by the muscles of those impossibly thin legs. I can see Mark following his father with his eyes, until he passes through the backyard gate and pushes it shut, penning in the dimming sunlight and the golden waves of Mark’s still-ringing voice, which, with nowhere else to go, meld together and fade quietly into the grass.

“Shit, that’s a nice Frisbee,” says Daniel. Mark has not come down.

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