Memoir piece recalling an incident that taught all those involved a lesson on humanity.
Under the Magnolia's Gaze
A noble magnolia tree filled the backyard of the house I rented with five of my twenty-something friends in Washington D.C. A remnant of nature, I often mused that it boldly persisted in the urban jungle to inspire grace in others trying to do the same. At least in me, it evoked a sense of peace and happiness. In my second story painting studio, a small, glassed-in porch leading off the bedroom, I was funnelling that inspiration. Before a canvas, I was enjoying the escape from my gray, oppidan reality by accessing the vivid world of creative passion. The windows were open in a vain effort to circulate the humid July air. They provided an exclusive view of the massive tree's central branches, whose waxy, dark green leaves ignored the seasonal cycle and remained the one constant during those crazy years of my life.
The hollow crack of the fence gate snapping shut brought me back to the present moment. City life begets vigilance even in a country girl at heart, so I peered down into the backyard to reassure myself that the intruder was friend and not foe. Rob, my on-again-off-again boyfriend was under the magnolia, propping a beat up, tireless bicycle frame against the tree’s trunk.
“Hey,” I called down, “whatcha doin’?”
He looked up startled, then smiled. “Look what I found,” he called up enthusiastically.
When I nodded with raised eyebrows he explained, “Next week is D.J.’s birthday. He wants a bike so bad, you know? And Charles told me he’d love to get him one, but shit, he can’t afford it.” Rob looked up into the tree branches, then down to the bike skeleton at his feet. Laying a hand on the frame, he said, “I’m gonna fix this up and give it to D.J.”
D.J. was turning eleven. He and his father, Charles, lived alone next door. Most evenings found Rob and Charles sitting on their adjacent stoops, conversing on subjects ranging from politics to motion pictures. They came from different worlds: Rob was a middle-class white guy from Seattle; Charles was an African-American labourer who lived on social security and welfare after sustaining a back injury that prevented him from working. Despite their obvious differences, they formed a comaraderie which deepened as time went on.
Our houses were located on a street tightly lined with Craftsman-style houses in varying states of disrepair, and black iron bars adorned every ground floor window and door. When I first moved to D.C., a girlfriend warned me that 17th Street was the absolute farthest east one should ever go if they valued their life. I repressed the memory of her words the day I moved into this house, exactly two blocks beyond 17th. Mine was a neighborhood I would not walk alone in after dusk. Gunshot pops echoed across many a night.
Given the environment we lived in, it overwhelmed me to think about the neighbor’s predicament. I found Charles’s task daunting, raising his adolescent son alone, abandoned by the boy’s mother who chose drugs over parenthood, in a dangerous climate and poverty-stricken circumstances. I admired Rob, who selflessly adopted Charles and D.J. as surrogate family members. He took D.J. under his wing and mentored him under the guise of tag football. He helped Charles whenever he could, by making a repair on the house that Charles’s lame back prevented him from doing, or loaning him money when the SSI check hadn't arrived before rent came due. When Rob was inspired to give D.J. a bike for his birthday, I was impressed but not surprised.
Over the course of the next few days, I witnessed a transformation occurring in the shade of the magnolia. I watched Rob dismantle the bike frame into its minuscule components, then meticulously sand away rust and age. He bought metallic blue spray paint for the body, and chrome-finish paint for all the hardware. He reassembled the parts with care, adding hand-painted details here and there. The most expensive purchases he made were for new tires and a black leather seat. I was awestruck by the end result, I wouldn't have believed such a sleek bike could evolve from the piece of junk Rob had rescued. The bike was complete the evening before D.J.’s birthday, and too excited to wait, Rob invited D.J. and Charles into our lamp-lit backyard for the presentation.
I didn't know whose face to watch; I was just as excited to see Rob’s reaction as I was D.J.’s. Both turned out priceless. D.J. touched the bicycle reverently, then shouted with joy as he raced it around the yard. I had tears in my eyes as I watched them; especially Charles, who leaned on his cane and regarded his boy with pride. When he shook Rob’s hand, no words were necessary. The first breeze in weeks gently moved through the branches of the magnolia tree, as if nature, too, was pleased.
The next afternoon, I noticed something was wrong as soon as Rob walked in the door. He was smiling but the skin on his face seemed to be resisting it. At first, he said everything was fine, but I was worried so he finally explained.
“D.J. traded his bike with some kid in the neighborhood.” He tried to maintain a casual tone.
“What?” I asked incredulously. “What are you talking about?”
“It’s no big deal. He has a better bike now, a new one. I just want him to be happy,” he added, unconvincingly.
When Charles realized what D.J. had done, he was livid. He sent him to get it back, regardless of D.J.’s fears that the bigger kid would beat him up over it. Charles wouldn't defer to his son’s pleas, insisting that D.J. would have to deal with any fallout resulting from his insensitive actions. I tried to console Rob, but I was feeling so many things myself that I wasn't much help.
That night my heart was heavy as I sat in the studio and contemplated the week’s events. I placed a blank canvas on the easel and squeezed dollops of random paint colors onto a palette. I tuned out my thoughts of Rob rebuilding that bicycle with such enthusiasm, or of D.J. trading it away. (Was he so selfish that having a new bike was more important than Rob’s feelings? Or had he been coerced by one of the future gang-bangers in this volatile neighborhood?) I forced my attention away from Charles and the disappointment he felt in his child, shutting out the obstacles both of them faced in this lifetime. Their reality overwhelmed me, all of it, and so I just painted. Swirls of color, rings intersecting each other, circles overlapping other circles. I painted long into the night, finally falling asleep on the settee in the corner.
I awoke to bright sunshine and the voices of laughter. From the window, I could just see Rob and D.J. together in the next yard, busy constructing a small ramp out of wood scraps. The bike Rob built was supported by its kickstand, sunlight reflecting off the shiny handlebars. He got it back, I smiled at the magnolia tree.
I turned my attention to the painting from last night. As I stared into the interlocking circular forms, the image struck me as an accurate metaphor for life. Each of us can be represented as a ring, colored by the amalgamation of experiences we are confronted with in life. We live in endless cycles of change, spinning us wildly at times, and sometimes causing us to overshadow one another. But like the magnolia tree that appears unchanged throughout the year, there is one constant in our lives. We are all connected to one another; through our actions and reactions, we are emotionally conjoined. The responsibility we assume to heed one another’s sensibilities is the foundation of humanity; and a lesson we all, at some point, must learn.