The grownups were all together on the front lawn, sitting in webbed lawn chairs, smoking cigarettes, and laughing too loudly. The grandfather sat in front of them all, conducting the conversation. He wore a tan fedora stained with sweat around the band, and his shirt gapped slightly at the buttons exposing little slivers of pale flesh.
The children played on the prickly lawn, the zoysia grass looking soft but feeling coarse on small bare feet. Their grandfather kept the yard maniacally maintained, trimmed as the carpet of grass covering a golf green. The thick rug was beautiful but not easy to lie on. Devon was five years old, but all of the other kids were older and didn’t include him in their game of freeze tag. He lied down on the grass despite its itchy texture. The lawn was flat, then sloped towards the asphalt road. He looked over the edge of the rise at his cousins chasing each other, tripping and shrieking. His Aunt Lil kept shushing them, and they would remain quiet for a only few minutes before their game got the better of them, starting their screams all over again.
Devon looked over the top of the manicured grass at his mother who was sitting beside his father near the front stoop. She went to the beauty shop yesterday, and her hair was still big as a balloon, frosted with blonde highlights, and stiff as concrete. It didn’t move in the slight breeze that was making the branches of the azalea bushes by the front door sway as if they were alive. A cigarette burned between her fingers, its ash teetering on the edge of disaster. She blew smoke out through her nostrils and brought the cigarette up to her lips again and again despite the long, hot, glowing tip. His father sat next to her, talking to his grandfather, speaking in low grunts and rumbles that Devon couldn’t quite hear because of his cousins’ game.
A car pulled into the driveway of the house across the street, its tires grinding against the loose gravel leading up to the small brick house. When it stopped, a large woman with black hair got out and waved at the people gathered in the yard. Devon rolled over onto his back and waved. “Hey Miz Roberts!” He called to her.
“Hey Devon! How’s your mother?”
“She’s sitting right over there.”
“I’m fine, Robin.” His mother walked across the lawn and stood over Devon who was still prone on the slope. She surprised him by sitting down on the grass next to him. “What are you doing, Buddy?” She called him Buddy instead of Devon most of the time. His grandfather named him, and she said she didn’t like the name but loved the child.
“I’m just sitting here.”
“Looks like you’re lying there, not sitting.” She gave a quick laugh. “Do you want some Kool-aid? It’s lemon-lime.”
“No. Can I have a beer?”
“Lord no. Silly boy.” She got up. “You come and ask me if you want anything, okay?” She lit another cigarette and went back to her seat next to his father.
“Okay Mama.” He said to the air next to him.
The day was getting towards evening but it remained light. His cousins were kept playing tag, still running all over the yard, still ignoring him. He heard his mother talking to his Aunt Lil. She was telling her that Devon preferred to play by himself, that he was okay sitting in the grass at the edge of the yard. “He lives in his own little world.” She said.
His sister ran up to him on the lawn, careful not to go down the slope which was declared out-of-bounds by one of his older cousins. Her face was flushed, and she squealed, her breath coming in hard pants. She looked down at him, rolled her eyes, and stuck out her tongue. “Don’t come up here. You’ll get in the way.”
Devon didn’t even consider getting in the way of the older kids. His cousins were bullies who would push him down and call it part of the game. He rolled back over onto his stomach. “I don’t want to play with y’all anyway.”
“Make sure you don’t.” She ran away across the yard to a thick pine tree declared home base. Devon heard her call out “safe.”
There were some tiny brown ants building a sand castle about three feet from his face. He looked at them wondering where they found the sand in the thick thatch of a lawn. All of the ants were busy, running in circles. Some were holding small bits of sand. He noticed they were coming up from the hole on the top of the mound holding the grains between their front pinchers. They placed the sand on the outer perimeter of the circle and danced around, then went back down the hole. There were so many of them he could barely keep them straight as they ran around, but he found that if he concentrated, he could watch one at a time and follow it from the time it emerged until the time it went back down the hole. A few ants carried yellow crumbs. They approached the hill in a line from a chunk of cake one of his cousins threw down the hill earlier. The cake was only about four feet from his head, and even though the light was fading, he could see the ants in a long sliver of sun that was raining through the pine needles above. The summer night was long in approaching but the sun still stubbornly held onto some of the grass, the ants furiously taking advantage of the light to gather up the food.
Devon wished it was winter. In the winter, it was always too rainy or too cold to sit out in his grandfather’s yard. He could stay home and sit on the floor in the living room listening to records. His mother insisted on operating the stereo, putting on stacks of LPs that he chose from the side of the big wooden cabinet. Around Christmastime he sat in the living room for hours listening to carols. He sang every word of every song while his family stayed in the den watching the big RCA color TV. He liked TV, but he liked the music better. After Christmas his mother didn’t want him to sing any carols, so he listened to other music, mostly the country and gospel tunes that his parents preferred. He rolled over on the grass and put his hands underneath his head.
Above him the sun still weakly reflected off of the pine branches. He saw a squirrel running through the maze of limbs and needles, and a small flutter of cone parts landed on the grass next to him. He blinked hard, then his eyelids grew heavy. He heard his aunt and mother laughing, and then his sister yelling at one of his cousins. He felt an ant crawling on his bare leg, but he shut his eyes and thought hard about the record player, the Christmas music, and being by himself in the living room. He left the ant alone. The more he thought about the music, the more he wanted to sing. With his eyes squeezed shut, he began to hum. It was a song he heard in his head. His parents didn’t have the record, and he had no idea of where he heard it before. The music welled up inside his chest, and he stood up to sing.
“Oh mio babbino caro…” He started. The words were unfamiliar, but he sang them like he knew them well. He started at a low volume, then got louder and louder. “mi piace, è bello bello, vo’andare in Porta Rossa a comperar l’anello!” He held his arms out and turned to the people on the lawn, his eyes shut, his hands upturned to the light from above.
He heard his grandfather. “What’s that kid doing? Is he singing opera? Where did he learn opera?”
“That’s not opera, Papa.” His Aunt Lil whispered, but Devon heard her anyway.
“Si, si, ci voglio andare! E se l’amassi indarno, andrei sul Ponte Vecchio ma per buttarmi in Arno!” He didn’t understand his own words, but he knew what to sing. He started the song over, sang it through, then started it again.
“Can you believe that? Where’d he learn that? It sounds Italian or Spanish.” His mother was speaking to the other adults. The children stopped playing their game, and all Devon heard was the music in his head, and the adults making comments. Then his breath came in spurts. He hyperventilated, spun around, and fell. He felt his mother touching him, and it sounded like a lot of adults were standing over him. “Devon? Devon, come on. Open your eyes, Buddy! What’s wrong? Where did you learn that song.”
Devon kept his eyes shut. The sounds around him grew distant, more quiet. His mother cradled his head, and the sounds became muted as she held him close to her chest. Then he heard his grandfather. “What’s wrong with him?” The voice rumbled as if it were a far away train going to parts unknown, rattling down parallel tracks into a pinpoint.
The last thing that Devon heard was his mother. “He’s not breathing!” He felt a head on his chest and someone grabbing his arm, holding his wrist between two fingers. “He hasn’t got a pulse! He’s dead!” Then there was silence singing all around him. He felt cold.