On a particularly lovely Sunday afternoon in April, Bodhi stood on the porch of a Craftsman, adjusting the cushions of a porch swing while his father, Peter William Gardener, the Zen poet of the California pastoral, tapped his feet impatiently.
Accompanying Bodhi to the showing had been his father’s idea, a surprising and somewhat awkward step considering Bodhi and his father had spoken only a handful of times over the previous decade. “I want to see this thing you do,” his father had said over the phone, as if Bodhi were the one with the exotic line of work. They had been waiting at the house for fifteen minutes, and the man who could sit in a eucalyptus grove for hours hoping to spot a Great Horned Owl (and then sit for months at his desk writing a haiku about the owl’s subsequent arrival or non-arrival) apparently found a quarter of an hour a near unbearable term to endure.
“Are you sure Christopher’s showing up?” Peter asked.
“You know he’s always late.” Bodhi turned to face his father. “Or did Christopher Standard Time begin after you left?”
“I’m looking forward to seeing him after all these years. Christopher always was my favorite of your friends,” Bodhi’s father answered, his tone blithe. He checked his watch again. “So…how has business been?”
If Bodhi were honest, business was great. Houses were moving fast, and prices were climbing. Sure, it felt strange to be spending his Sundays at open houses while the rest of Berkeley was out protesting the country’s most recent invasion of Iraq, but that was the realtor’s life, right? Besides, hadn’t his parents and their generation showed Bodhi and his the futility of protests? Proud as his father was about their demonstrations against the Vietnam War, it wasn’t as if their actions had stopped that immoral war. And hadn’t the country still arrived at this very broken moment in its history anyway?
“So…how’s the writing?” Bodhi asked quickly to still his whirring mind.
“Good. I’m finishing a poem for The New Yorker. Something that will start the new book.”
“Good.” Bodhi willed himself not to be jealous. His childhood had been mythologized in his father’s early poems, the ones that had made his reputation. Over the last decade Bodhi had been replaced by his half-siblings, Pablo and Yoko.
“You think Christopher and his lady will like the house?”
“I do. It’s got great bones.” Bodhi shaded his eyes and looked up at the peeling paint on the house’s façade. “With a little cosmetic work, it’ll absolutely shine.”
“You can see that?”
“I know houses like you know sonnets, Peter.”
Bodhi had always called his parents by their first names, which was easy enough to do with his father. It had proved more difficult with his mother, whose frequent name changes—from Nina to Ananda to Kamilah—weren’t so easy to keep track of. What she was calling herself now was anyone’s guess. Bodhi hadn’t heard from her in five years.
Bodhi straightened the already straight welcome mat. His father feathered his fingers through the sage (at least Bodhi thought it was sage) that circled the porch. Just when Bodhi was sure he couldn’t endure another moment alone with his father, Christopher and his wife Greta arrived.
“Hey, dude, sorry we’re late.” Christopher gave Bodhi a quick hug. He did a double-take when he recognized Bodhi’s father. “Oh, shit. Hello, Peter.”
Christopher reached out to shake the poet’s hand, but Peter pulled Christopher into a hug instead. “You were eight, and there was a lightning storm we rarely get this far south of Shasta. You came into Nina’s and my room and climbed into bed with us. Nina massaged your temple until you fell asleep, then I carried you back into Bodhi’s room. Bodhi slept through the whole thing and wasn’t any the wiser come the quiet dawn.”
Christopher blushed. Greta laughed. Bodhi, unnerved by the mention of his family as it was once constituted, rushed forward to introduce Greta to his father. “Peter, this is Greta, Christopher’s wife.”
“Of course you are.” Peter gripped both of Greta’s arms and gave her a smile. Bodhi couldn’t help but notice that all the time on the trails of the Sierras had worn sun-creases across his father’s forehead. “So, you’re here to see Bodhi’s house?”
“It’s not my house.” Bodhi felt like he was ten years old. Perhaps it had been a terrible idea to have his father join him.
“Excuse me. You’re here to see the house Bodhi is selling?”
“Yes, we are, and I feel like such a cliché,” Greta said. “Who are we to be playing grownup and buying a house?”
“We’re lucky,” Christopher said.
Peter stared at Greta. “In my day, a house like this would’ve stood only as a symbol of sad and settled bourgeois domesticity.”
Bodhi cleared his throat. “You remember who used to live down the street?”
Christopher smiled. “Just driving down the block made my Quarters’ fingers itch.”
“I hate to think how many dents we made in Alyssa’s dining room table.”
“Oh god.” Greta groaned. “Here we go—another ‘Berkeley was such a cool place to grow up’ reverie.”
Peter laughed, then winked at Greta. Bodhi had almost forgotten how much he hated watching his father around younger women. Bodhi held up his hands in surrender. “Alright, we get it, we get it.”
“Man, I still feel bad,” Christopher said, and a suddenly sobered Bodhi nodded.
One night in senior year, Bodhi and Christopher had egged Alyssa’s house, not realizing just how damaging egg was to paint. The entire house had needed repainting. Bodhi couldn’t remember why they’d done it. It was probably nothing more than they were teenage boys, and teenage boys did thoughtless things without any, well, thought.
“Living on this side of things, I realize what assholes we were,” Christopher said.
This was not the direction Bodhi wanted things to go. “Why don’t you guys look around? This is a great block, and, more importantly, an incredible house.” Bodhi walked the four of them inside.
After showing Christopher and Greta the living and dining rooms, Bodhi directed them to explore the kitchen on their own. In his experience, couples were more comfortable without a realtor hovering behind them.
Peter, who had stayed with his son, ran his hand along the impressive wood inlay on one of the built-in bookcases. “When we were your age, none of us could’ve afforded anything like this. But then we were more concerned with ending a criminal war than paying criminal prices to own a house.”
And there it was. “I forgot how all your stories comes back to the glorious years of Johnson and Nixon.”
“I would hardly call them glorious.”
“Yet you can’t stop talking about them.”
“Lest I remind you, that’s when you came into the story.”
Bodhi was very familiar with his father’s narrative and his place in it. There had been his messy birth on a farm somewhere in the wilds of Humboldt Country described in the poem “Barn Burning.” In subsequent poems, the boy Bodhi represented the embodiment of innocence in a world where the bombings in Southeast Asia looked as if they would never cease. Tide pools and snails and California poppies sprouting from cracks in the sidewalk, the boy Bodhi expressed wonder at it all in his father’s first book The High Country. His father’s follow-up, Vernal Sun, chronicled Bodhi’s early adolescence. His awkward transition from boy to teen was the doorway through which his father stepped to consider larger notions of a human being’s place in nature and, then increasingly, the Zen path (or non-path, as it were). All of which made for an exposed and embarrassing childhood, the story of him wetting himself on a hike in “The View from Indian Rock”—arguably his father’s most famous poem—being the most humiliating.
Christopher and Greta reappeared from the kitchen. “Is it okay if we look upstairs?” Christopher asked.
Bodhi could tell from the careful way Christopher and Greta climbed the stairs that they liked the house. Based on Greta’s earlier comment about being a cliché, Bodhi decided not to follow them—better that she not have Peter present to make her self-conscious about her interest.
“So, this is what you do,” his father said.
“This is what I do.”
His father nodded, then added as if it weren’t a non sequitur, “Jessie thinks it’s a shame you’re not closer with Pablo and Yoko.”
Jessie was the grad student Peter left Nina for when Bodhi was sixteen. She was also now Bodhi’s stepmother, never mind the fact that she was closer in age to Bodhi than to his father.
“I do too. They’re your siblings after all.” Peter leaned against the staircase newel post. “Why not come for dinner next week?”
Why not indeed? Bodhi thought. How about the fact that Peter hadn’t invited him over since Yoko, the younger of his two half-siblings, was born? “It’s hectic having two children,” Peter had told him over the phone, ignoring the fact that he actually had three offspring, the oldest of whom he was addressing. “We might not see you for a while.”
Turned out “a while” meant almost a decade. Not that Peter had been much of a father even before then. Between his father’s outsized ambition and his mother’s solipsistic search for Meaning, Bodhi spent a great deal of his childhood alone. When Bodhi was sixteen, his father embarked on a poetry tour while his mother departed for an ashram. They left Bodhi with a stack of cash, a roll of stamps, a checkbook and a calculator. The first few weeks on his own, Bodhi filled the cupboards and freezer with all the foods he’d never been allowed: sugar cereals, frozen pizzas, and Coke. But he soon got bored with the junk food, and Christopher’s mother stepped in and taught him to cook a few simple dishes, then a few more. Bodhi discovered he loved the quiet domesticity.
After six weeks on his own, Bodhi received a call from his father who informed the sixteen-year-old that he had an offer to spend a semester on the east coast.
“I can’t pass this up, pal,” his father had said. “Plus, your mother will be back soon. Until then you can have your girlfriend stay over.”
Bodhi didn’t have a girlfriend. He’d never had a girlfriend.
Nina finally returned from the ashram two weeks later—as Ananda—but she was gone again after a few months, this time to Israel where she was certain her future lay, working for the goal of an independent Palestine—as Kamilah. Bodhi suspected her sudden interest in Palestine had as much to do with his father’s shacking up with Jessie, one of his graduate students, as some noble notion of equality. Nina/Ananda/Kamilah told Bodhi he could join her in the Promised Land, but by then, he quite liked living on his own. So he negotiated an agreement between his parents, which allowed him the continued run of the house.
A house was many things. It was walls and a roof and plumbing, of course. It was also easily quantifiable numbers: mortgage, interest rates and term. Mostly though, a house was security. This notion was what led Bodhi to become a realtor. It was also his ability to communicate this that made him so successful at such a young age. By the time he was twenty-eight, he had the highest sales in his office.
Yet it bothered Bodhi that his profession was more traditional than his father’s. Wasn’t one supposed to live more radically than one’s parents? He hated that his timidity might be a reaction to his unconventional upbringing. While he once harbored fantasies of pursuing an MFA in painting, Bodhi knew he was too practical to pursue an enterprise so inherently risky, which always brought a certain sense of shame, a shame that Peter’s presence inflamed. But maybe it was time to finally put aside the disappointment and comparisons—comps being a hazard of his job—and take what his father could offer.
“Dinner it is,” Bodhi said.
Bodhi pulled up to his father’s house four days later and took in the grand Victorian. In the years since he’d last been to the house, his father and Jessie had paid for a meticulous paint job and attended to all the details that had gone neglected when they first moved in. Bodhi decided he could safely put the house on the market for $1.4 million. He could see where on the right weekend, bidding could take it above $1.5.
The front door opened, and there was Jessie. Bodhi had last seen her almost a decade earlier. Back then she’d been a thirty-year old PhD candidate with hair that hung loose and long, tight-fitting clothes, a small claim to youth. Now it was her clothes that hung loose and her hair that was cropped tight, firmly rooting Jessie in middle age. Bodhi felt an unexpected jolt of sadness when he realized Jessie was now the same age his mother had been when Peter left her.
Jessie reached out to Bodhi and pulled him into an awkward hug. “I’m glad you could make it.”
“Me too.” Bodhi stepped out of their tangle to hand her the bouquet of ranunculus he’d brought.
“Thank you. They’re my favorite.”
“I remembered.” At a quizzical look from Jessie, Bodhi shrugged shyly. “Sort of a trick of the trade.”
“What does that mean?” came a boy’s voice from just inside the door.
Bodhi stepped into the house and waiting there were his half-siblings, Pablo and Yoko.
“Oh, hello,” Bodhi said, squatting down to their level. “In my line of work, it helps to remember everything you can about absolutely everybody.”
“What do you remember about me?” Pablo asked. At eleven, the boy had already developed a more athletic frame than Bodhi ever had.
“I remember that you used to like dressing up like a train conductor. But I don’t imagine you still do.”
Pablo shook his head and smiled shyly.
“What about me?” Yoko asked.
“You, I’ve never met before,” Bodhi said. “But if I had to guess, I’d say you love chocolate.”
“How did you know?” the nine-year old asked, delighted.
“Because you have some smeared around your mouth, silly.”
Try as he might, Bodhi couldn’t find any trace of his own face in either Pablo’s or Yoko’s. They had their mother’s wide mouth and her dark round eyes as well.
“Hey, is our dad your dad?” Pablo asked.
“And is our mom your mom too?” Yoko asked.
“Where’s your mom then?” the girl asked.
“I don’t know.”
“What do you mean you don’t know?” Pablo followed.
“What he means is that his mother is a free spirit,” Peter said, entering the room. “She’s like a butterfly who floated away.”
“I want to be a free spirit,” Pablo said.
“You already are,” Peter said, mussing the boy’s hair.
Bodhi didn’t know which made him more uncomfortable, hearing his father’s justifications for his mother’s actions or the pride in his voice over Pablo.
“Hi, Peter,” he mumbled.
“Welcome to our home,” his father said, sweeping an arm to present the spacious living room.
There were framed poems on the wall, many of which Bodhi remembered from growing up. Those achingly familiar poems evoked nights spent in their wood-paneled dining room where he would listen to the circle of poets and book editors gathered. Luminaries like Harry Sanchez and Clem Piper had sat around the heavy oak table drinking, arguing and laughing late into so many nights.
“This place is terrific,” Bodhi remembered to say finally.
And it was. The house had none of the darkness and stiff formality Bodhi associated with Victorians. Peter and Jessie had painted the usually dark trim a glossy white, which only seemed to heighten the already high ceilings, and their choice of comfortable furniture felt warm and inviting. The house would certainly show well. Maybe it could nab $1.6, Bodhi automatically recalculated.
“So, how has everyone’s last few years been?” he asked.
Peter and Jessie laughed at that.
“What’s so funny?” Yoko asked.
“Your brother’s dry sense of humor remains in tact. As does his hairline, clearly inherited from his mother,” Peter said, running his hands over his own half-bald head. Bodhi wasn’t used to Peter making jokes at his own expense.
“Hey, my dad says you’re a good drawer,” Pablo said.
“He did, huh?” Bodhi glanced his father’s way.
Peter shrugged shyly back.
“Can you draw me riding a dragon?” Pablo was already holding out a pad of paper and markers to Bodhi.
“Then how about me in a rocket ship?” Yoko asked.
“Bodhi always had a great hand. For a while, we were sure he’d be the next Pollock,” Peter said, as if he were talking about someone who wasn’t there, someone who’d died young perhaps, before he could come into his own.
“I’m always surprised Pollock still holds so much primacy for men of your generation.” Bodhi shrugged. “I guess it’s all that testosterone. All that splattering of, well, you know.”
“You know what?” Pablo asked.
“You know what,” Jessie jumped in. “Maybe Bodhi could come into the kitchen and keep me company while I finish dinner.”
As Jessie put the finishing touches on a lamb tagine, Bodhi expertly diced a cucumber, then slid the pieces into a yogurt sauce he’d whipped up.
“You certainly know your way around a kitchen,” Jessie said, watching him work. “Peter wouldn’t know cumin from cucumber.”
“You could say he’s the reason I’m such a good cook.” Bodhi paused. “Is that weird to hear?”
“No, I’m sorry. I’m sorry neither Nina nor Peter were better parents to you. Does it help to know how dedicated your father is to Pablo and Yoko?”
“I’m glad for them.”
Jessie closed her eyes, then opened them slowly. “You know, my father died recently, and it got me thinking about the importance of family. I’m happy you’re here.”
An ancient grandfather clock that had once belonged to Bodhi’s, yes, grandfather ticked in the corner of the kitchen. Early Dylan, the soundtrack of Bodhi’s childhood, leaked out of the iPod near the stove. Bodhi nodded at Jessie. “I’m happy too.”
Pablo and Yoko flanked Bodhi at the dinner table, staring at him like he was an exotic creature.
“When you were my age, did you like baseball?” Pablo asked.
“Much to Peter’s and my mother’s chagrin, I did not. I wouldn’t play no matter how much they begged me to.”
Peter turned to his elder son. “You were such a little headstrong runt.” He leaned forward to make sure everyone was listening. “I remember one time we were having a picnic, and I did something to make your mother mad—big surprise—and she took my sunglasses and threw them into the bushes where there was a lot of poison oak. We didn’t have much money, and the shades were not cheap, so I’m looking but don’t want to wade too far in. I’m screaming at Nina, and she’s screaming at me, and we didn’t even notice you until you emerged out of a huge patch of poison oak with the glasses. I mean, kid, you were tough. And with all that came later, you certainly needed to be.”
It was the closest Bodhi had ever heard his father come to making an apology.
“Why did she throw your glasses in the bushes?” Yoko asked.
“Because I was probably being a real asshole.” Peter paused for effect. “Oops.”
Bodhi noted Jessie’s patient smile. Clearly she’d seen this kind of “slip” from Peter before. Then it was Bodhi’s turn to smile. It had been a long time since he’d felt a part of these kind of little family moments.
“So did Christopher and his lady end up bidding on that house?” Peter asked, plucking an apple from the fruit bowl that served as the table’s centerpiece. “Greta didn’t seem too keen to settle into domesticity.”
“Actually they put an offer in, and I think they’ll get it,” Bodhi said.
“Guess that explains why I’m the poet in the family.” Peter picked up a paring knife, then asked almost as an afterthought, “How much will you net from the sale?”
“The usual 2.5%.”
“I’m not a numbers guy. Help me do the math.” Peter spun the knife around the apple, separating the peel from the meat in a continuous loop.
“Damn.” Peter tossed the peel onto the table where it lay like an abandoned snakeskin. “That’s good coin for a few hours’ work. Shit, if poetry paid that hourly rate, I’d be a billionaire.”
“Who wants ice cream?” Jessie was already up from the table.
“None for me thanks,” Bodhi said.
“You don’t want ice cream?” Pablo asked. “You’re crazy, brother-man.”
Peter chortled in delight.
“Not crazy, brother-man, just lactose-intolerant,” Bodhi said.
“I’m sorry. I had no idea.” Jessie shot a glance at Peter, who ate a slice of apple straight from the knife’s edge.
“It’s fine,” Bodhi said.
Once Jessie left the room, Peter turned back to Bodhi. “You must be doing well, son.”
“I guess.” Bodhi looked around the dining room with its built-in cabinets and its Eames table. He sat up straighter. “Looks like you’re doing fine too.”
“It just took a hell of a lot more time and toil.”
“Yet here you are.”
Peter was about to bite into another apple wedge when he stopped to consider Bodhi’s remarks. “Yeah, you’re right. I have nothing to complain about.”
As if to prove the point, Jessie re-entered the room and laid a bowl of ice cream in front of him.
“Are you being an ass?” Jessie asked Peter.
“Yes,” both Bodhi and his father answered at the same time.
Two Saturdays later Bodhi was at the office, puzzling out a route for new clients through the maze of Sunday’s open houses. This was one of the details of the job at which he excelled. Bodhi planned his routes as if he were making a mix-tape—order was essential —and spent hours doing it. Despite the long day, Bodhi was still buzzing with energy. He was due at his father’s in an hour for another dinner. When Jessie had invited him back at the end of the last meal, Pablo and Yoko had cheered.
As he was printing up the next day’s itinerary, his phone rang with an unfamiliar number.
“Hello,” he said, dropping his voice half an octave in case it was a prospective client.
“Hi Bodhi. It’s Jessie.”
“Hey. I’m finishing at the office but am heading to the wine store soon. I was thinking red.”
“That sounds wonderful, but I’m afraid we have to postpone.”
“Oh, okay.” Bodhi tried to sound casual to conceal his disappointment.
“Peter’s on deadline with a poem, and he wants to push through,” Jessie said. “You know how irritable he gets when he’s close.”
“I do.” Bodhi’s arm still bore the scar from the mugful of tea Peter had knocked over after discovering the eight-year old Bodhi coloring over a reworked ode.
“We’re away at Stinson Beach next weekend, but how about you bring that red in two weeks?”
“The kids will be very disappointed. Yoko had already planned on asking you to draw a Martian unicorn for her.”
When Christopher and Greta’s deal closed ten days later, Bodhi took them out for celebratory drinks at Cesar. He was still bleary-eyed the next afternoon when the mail arrived. Underneath the stack of bills and unwanted catalogues was The New Yorker. Bodhi dropped the rest of the mail and flipped open the magazine. There at the bottom of the table of contents was his father’s name. The new poem. “The Return of the Vernal Sun.”
Using all the restraint he had, Bodhi put down the magazine. Only after making himself a cup of coffee and settling into his favorite armchair did he allow himself to turn to the poem.
He knew before he finished the first line. No, that wasn’t true: he knew as soon as he curled the magazine back on itself and saw the sparse pattern of black ink printed there. His eyes flicked fast down the path of letters that made up the poem’s short series of haikus (Basho inspired, no doubt––how many other eight-year-olds had to memorize the Japanese poet in order to earn their allowance?), his heart beating faster than his mind could form meaning. But he knew.
After he finished the first time through, he told himself that he might have missed something; perhaps there was a more charitable interpretation (though he knew, of course, there wasn’t). He began again, his eyes ricocheting from phrase to phrase: “wilted yarrow,” “faded ceanothus,” “hummingbird sage sans hummingbird” (so it was indeed sage surrounding Christopher and Greta’s new home) and, most pointedly, “Bodhi slumbers still,” a damning play on the translation of his name.
“Fuck,” Bodhi said aloud.
He picked up the phone to call his father. He put the phone back down, certain that if he did confront his father, Peter would be implacable, undoubtedly offering a line about how it was the poet’s job to expose the Truth.
From his armchair, Bodhi could see his realtor signs with the photo of his smiling, ingratiating face staring back at him. The poem’s final lines––“Oh, my son, how treacherous / greed in nature is”––hummed in his head as he hurried to his desk, grabbed a thick Sharpie, and then rushed over to the stack of signs. On the first one, Bodhi blacked out one of his teeth, then another, then another, before finally adding a Hitler mustache. He gave another version of himself an earring and a wart on his nose. He gave another a goatee, a beret and an eye-patch. Such artistry. The next Pollock indeed.
The phone rang. Bodhi drew sunglasses over the eyes on another photo. The phone continued ringing. Bodhi continued drawing. Finally his answering machine picked up.
“Shit, Bodhi, please call us.” It was Christopher. “The neighbor’s sprinkler is running, and they’re not home, and water is starting to flood towards our house. And I smell a skunk and I’m worried it may be nesting in our basement.” Christopher paused, and Bodhi could hear him saying something to Greta in the background. “As you can probably tell, we’re freaking out over here. We haven’t made a terrible mistake, have we?”
Christopher was waiting on the front porch when Bodhi pulled up to the house. “Thanks for coming over.”
“Here, take this.” Bodhi pulled two shovels out of his trunk and threw one to Christopher. “If you’re going to have a castle, you might as well build yourself a moat.”
In the dying light of day, the two friends dug a trench that diverted the water from the errant sprinkler away from the house. Once Christopher’s home was no longer in danger of being flooded, Bodhi hopped the fence into the neighbor’s yard with a practiced grace. From there it was only a few yards to the tangle of wires and taps that controlled the sprinkler system. Two turns of a faucet later, the system groaned into silence. Bodhi was back by Christopher’s side in less than a minute.
Bodhi did an exaggerated flex of his muscles. “Now where’s this formidable family of skunks?”
“I’m telling you, we smelled something coming from under the house.”
Bodhi hustled back to his car and returned with a bag of flour. “An old realtor’s secret,” he explained to the furrow-browed Christopher. He walked past his oldest friend to the basement door, knelt down and sprinkled a welcome mat of flour in front of it.
Christopher stood over him peering down. “What exactly is that supposed to do?”
“Keep the door open tonight; if you see paw prints in the flour in the morning, then you know you have house guests. Otherwise, I think we can chalk this up to first week jitters.”
Christopher exhaled. “I can’t thank you enough.”
“It’s all part of the job.” Bodhi was already heading towards his car.
“Hey,” Christopher called after him. Bodhi stopped and turned around. “Greta showed me Peter’s new poem. That’s some fucked up shit. I’m sorry.”
Bodhi, his cheeks flaming red, nodded his thanks.
It was near eleven when Bodhi pulled up to his father’s house. All the lights were out, just as they were along the entire block.
When Bodhi bought the flour for his homemade skunk detector, he had also had the foresight to pick up a dozen eggs. He slid out of his car, checked the street once more, then opened the carton and lifted out the first egg. It had a nice weight in his hand.
Bodhi may not have been much of a baseball player growing up, but he was happy with his first toss—a direct hit under the master bedroom window. The spray of egg from his second throw managed to splatter both the ornate front door and the stained glass window above it. The third egg exploded against the pointed peak above the second floor. By carton’s end, Bodhi couldn’t have been more pleased. Even in the dim light from the street lamps, he understood that the entire façade would need to be repainted.
If his father asked him, Bodhi knew just the guy for the job.