On that first day, when the Memphis sun was burning Craig Avenue like toast left too long in the toaster, Eugene caught a glimpse of it. A delicate bubble of spit, pinkened by aching gums or the thin trace of blood inside a slapped cheek. The sun caught the dab’s beveled edge and showed it to be hard. Hard but polished.
Eugene leaned then squatted.
His baggy pants ruffled at his calves.
He plucked the glass from the curb. The droplet was no bigger than the crystals of sugar that coated the rock candy Eugene sucked when he was little, ambling down the sidewalk, happy as a June bug. That was when the neighborhood and Eugene had been young, before he’d grown up and married Lavinia and raised little Rande in the house on Craig. In those days, he and Lavinia stood at the bay window and watched Rande and the other neighborhood children swinging on rope swings, playing race car in cardboard boxes, whatever kids did for fun.
Gradually, the happiness seeped away as first one then another family moved out. When the school where Eugene once taught closed, the neighborhood died a slow, strangled death. Businesses shut their doors, sidewalks developed cracks that went unfixed. The last business holding on—the gas station on the corner with its dinging bell—finally fell silent. What was once loved became ignored, and the tips of Eugene’s black hair turned to white like frost resting on fallen leaves. So long ago.
On his palm, the pink glass twinkled.
Eugene laid the hardness on his tongue.
Back on his palm, wet now. “Glass,” he said but that didn’t seem like enough. “Glassiness,” he added, in honor of his teaching days. Back then, while his wife worked the night shift at the hospital, Eugene would grade his students’ papers under the glow of the standing lamp in the living room until it was time to click off the light and tuck into bed. He and Lavinia cheered when their son turned to the ministry, celebrated when Rande and Judy married, mourned when the new parents announced that family gatherings would take place at their house from now on ‘cause all that plywood on the windows in the old neighborhood, it just wasn’t good for the grandkids.
Eugene held the glass over his bag and released it. As it fell, the glass twisted in the air and caught the light, its color the same as the skin on a baby rabbit. Satisfied, he straightened and saw a second shard glittering amongst the weeds that sprang from the cracked asphalt. As he bent to collect the second slip of pink, he saw a third dot embedded in the gravelly dirt.
That’s when Eugene knew he was on to something.
The glass wasn’t there every day. Oh, yes, Eugene began to search but acting nonchalant, as if it didn’t matter, sneaking up on it, palming and bagging, adding it to his collection.
Because it was becoming a collection.
Every object Eugene found in his wanderings up and down Craig he laid on the counter in the garage. Musing, he would arrange the objects into a puzzle, a shape, maybe, of a dancing man with a broken belly, arms akimbo, too-round head. Then he’d wrap it in tin foil and lay the packet high on the garage shelf. When the packs counted ten, he tied them together with string. He knew that when he passed, his preacher son would finally show up at the house and unwrap every single pack, smudging dirt on his fancy preacher’s suit, convinced that somewhere in one of those darn packets was a thing worth saving.
Eugene did not store the pink glass in the garage. He protected it in a Mason jar on his bedroom dresser. Soon, the bottom of the jar was covered with clinking glass.
“Gene, honey, what are these?”
Lavinia lifted the jar, rattled the glass.
Eugene, getting ready for bed in the bathroom, stopped brushing his teeth, let the toothpaste drip from his mouth into the sink.
“Glass,” he muffed out, his mouth full of foam.
And that was all he offered, for he’d stopped sharing his more delicate thoughts with his wife ever since the afternoon several months ago when he’d discovered her—hand on hips—in the garage. “What’s in those?” she had asked, pointing to the packets of tin foil.
“My findings,” he said, and told her about the hot asphalt, the lonely stretches, the cool shade of the overpass.
Lavinia had stared at him a moment, then fingered open one of the packets. She displayed her palm to him, her hand full of his rusted objects. “Are you turning into an old-man bag lady, Eugene? Collecting worthless junk nobody wants?”
He let her grumble on about shelf space and kept his mouth shut. After all, he’d gone to the streets to keep from being underfoot. Seemed instead of solving the problem of their relationship, he had wedged the two of them further apart.
Tonight, while he spit and rinsed, she humphed. When he crawled in between the cool sheets of their bed, she was still standing, arms crossed, frowning at the glass.
“Magic beans,” she muttered. “You’re living in a Jack-and-the-Beanstalk world, Eugene.” She cricked her neck in his direction. “You’re thinking you found some kind of answer with this glass business. There’s never been no such thing as magic beans.”
Eugene turned his face to the wall.
He did not need his preoccupied wife pronouncing on his life.
Over the next few weeks, the sprinklings of glass grew. Where once the pink had appeared only around the curb, its sparkle now shone at the four-way stop sign, over by the sewage grate, and finally all the way to the line of scraggly magnolias dying in the sun. Eugene always avoided the spindly trees with their shriveled leaves, but the twinkle called him over.
He’d follow the twinkle anywhere.
As Eugene walked and searched, it seemed to him the glass was sprinkled by the very hand of God. Hesitantly at first, then in wider—and more reckless—arcs.
Gone was the Mason jar on the dresser top. In its place stood a gallon pickle jar, replaced by a two-gallon mayonnaise jar, replaced again by a five-gallon salad dressing jar from the Dollar Store, even though Lavinia made it good and clear she would throw up if she ever again had to take another bite of Thousand Island dressing.
“For the glass,” Eugene said.
Lavinia rolled her eyes.
But, to himself, Eugene worried. What jar—clear glass so that you could see the pale shards piled inside—was larger than a five-gallon dressing jar? Eugene roamed the aisles at the Dollar Store, mingling with the skinny boys who should’ve been in school, their faces sprouting acne, skin pale as a fish’s belly. But it wasn’t until he was standing on Craig Avenue next to the four-way stop that he found a bigger jar.
Sitting straight up.
The jar was waiting for him.
Its bottom was good and fat, its neck stretched thin. The jar must have been three feet high. Put there, Eugene thought, to be picked up by him.
And he did—he picked it up and toted it home.
When he arrived, carrying the wonderful jar, tilting its handsome neck so the jar would fit through the front door, who was there with Lavinia but Rande.
“Dad, we need to talk,” Rande said, and sat his ample behind down on the living room sofa.
The boy sat so earnest, leaning forward in his black suit, his forearms on his thighs. All grown up, hair slicked down, an important preacher at a big ol’ church in the suburbs, leading his sheep in the way of the Lord. His son knew how to approach a troubled soul.
At least that’s what his face was saying to Eugene.
“Talk about what?” Eugene asked. “‘Cause if it has to do with the glass, I’m doing fine on my own.” The tone of his voice reminding his son how seldom he came down to visit and never brought Judy and the young uns. How when he did appear, he was always swiping at his suit, acting like the old neighborhood was soiling his clothes.
“Is that what the jar’s for?” Rande asked, nodding at the perfect jar Eugene had set on the floor. “For the glass?”
“Naw, it’s for you to collect money in next Sunday,” Eugene said.
Things went downhill from there.
“Because you were rude,” Lavinia said that night after Rande had scurried back to his wife and kids.
“Because that boy is too big for his britches.” Eugene rolled over, seeking sleep.
Still, the pink glass kept flipping out of the air like nickels pulled from behind God’s ear. Eugene never asked himself who was smashing a big pink thing into thousands of pieces and dribbling it onto the avenue. He didn’t ask because he thought he knew the answer, and Eugene wasn’t a man comfortable being in cahoots with the Almighty.
So he dribbled his tinkling shards into the wonderful jar, and when it was half-full, he settled it in front of the fireplace.
“That doesn’t look so good there,” Lavinia said, nodding at the jar that dwarfed the small fireplace. “Cain’t hardly see my wreath. Not just big,” she added. “Strange.”
Eugene shook his head. His wife, just now lifting her eyes from her quilting or her wreath-making or whatever it was that day and realizing his collection of pink ever-growing glassiness glass was strange.
The next jar—comical in its size, as if it had once been part of a promotion—was so big it had to go on the front porch. Not many people drove down Craig Avenue anymore, but the folks who chose the old street slowed down to look at the promotion jar on the porch. When the large wine bottle appeared on the lawn, standing almost nine feet tall on the well-mowed grass, they slammed to a full stop.
One of the cars that stopped early on a Monday morning was a reporter from Channel 13 News. She rang the doorbell and waited on Eugene’s porch, pretty the way newswomen were these days, young with shiny red lipstick. When Eugene opened the door, the woman pointed to the wine bottle and asked: could she have the story?
“Not one to tell,” Eugene replied.
Lavinia, standing in the doorway behind him, said, “Good day to you,” reached around Eugene, and tugged the door shut.
But the next day, as Eugene walked the street, he caught sight of the reporter hunched behind the wheel of a Honda, trailing behind him. Rounding the block, idling at the corner, finally getting out of the car to walk Craig Avenue on foot. No one but Eugene walked Craig Avenue on foot, except for the hooligans skipping school. So the reporter had nowhere to hide. Still, he avoided her. He didn’t want to subject the glass to scrutiny, a private thing between him and whoever was laying it down.
He put her off, moseying two or three blocks from the real finds, the reporter stubbing along behind him. Once, he even braved the nighttime to level the beam of a flashlight across the asphalt, watching for the special wink of the glass.
Then one evening, when he and Lavinia were slumped in front of the evening news, a picture of their front yard sprang onto the screen.
The nine-foot container of pink glass popped in the sunlight.
The girl reporter pointed to the bottle while she talked. She used phrases like “clouded in mystery,” “striking as lightning,” “glass raining from heaven,” making Eugene think maybe she was working her way up from weather girl.
Then she was shown walking the fake search path, talking about where Eugene collected his glass. “An old man,” she called him, rude like reporters could be. Lavinia was his “long-time wife.”
“What does she know, ‘long-time?’” Lavinia huffed.
“Guessed,” said Eugene.
After that, the cars coming down Eugene’s stretch of Craig multiplied. Big white Cadillacs, black SUVs, mud-splattered pick-up trucks—every make and manner of car idled down the street. Every make, that is, except for Rande’s silent sedan.
His son did call. Lavinia answered the phone while Eugene sat in his recliner, listening. Naw, he didn’t need to come over, not what with writing his sermon and Judy’s choir rehearsals and taking the kids to music lessons. Yeah, serving the Lord sure did keep one busy, and no, it wasn’t that big of a deal to be on the news.
After Lavinia hung up, she stood beside the receiver, fiddling with the cord.
“You wanna fix me a ham sandwich?” Eugene asked.
She snapped out of it and, in a minute, here was the ham sandwich and a glass of milk. She brought them out to the porch where Eugene had gone to sit. Handing him the snack, Lavinia slipped into the chair next to him and watched as the cars streamed by.
“Haven’t seen this many cars in I don’t know when,” she said.
“Busy night,” he said.
“It’s never a busy night round here.”
“Busy night tonight.”
“Enough mustard for you?” she asked. “Or you want a pickle maybe?”
When he didn’t answer, she rose slowly and then he was alone.
Eugene, munching on his sandwich and eyeing the traffic, figured the flow would taper off soon as the gawkers understood there wasn’t anything left worth gawking at on Craig Avenue.
Not on the street.
Not in his yard.
Not in his life.
They would quit coming when they saw that nothingness.
They always did.
Early the next morning Eugene was standing on his lawn in his bathrobe reading the morning paper. On the front page was a story about the police arresting parents whose kids had missed too much school. Shame. Eugene flipped the paper over. Below the fold was an article on the planned revitalization of Craig Avenue.
“We’ll make it happen,” said the deputy director of the Memphis something-or-another agency. Talked about putting in sidewalks. Over-hauling the utilities. Even mentioned a grocery store. Cited “renewed interest” in the old street as of late.
“I’ll be damned,” said Eugene as the still-wet grass tickled his ankles.
“Don’t think you can stop me.”
Eugene glanced up from his reading.
There on his lawn, not two feet from the big jar of glass, was a skinny little boy in a raggedy t-shirt. The boy’s arm was heaved back. A heavy rock rested in his fist. The boy wasn’t ten years old, big rabbit ears, and still with the buck-teeth of a child, hefting that big old rock, his face contorted with rage.
In another time, the boy would’ve been one of Eugene’s students, seated at his desk, head bent over his math equations. When Eugene asked the class a question, the boy would politely raise his hand. Eugene would smile at his correct answer. Not now.
“You can’t stop me,” the kid repeated, even though Eugene hadn’t made a move.
The boy let loose with the rock, shattering the jar into a thousand pieces and tumbling the glass onto the lawn with a whoosh! The soft pink mound glittered on Eugene’s front yard.
A beautiful pot of light.
With an angry kid hovering above.
The boy’s mouth stretched thin, his fingers twitched like the destruction wasn’t good enough.
He wanted another rock.
Eugene studied the boy’s clutching fingers, his peeved face. Mad at a world that had lost sight of him, that wasn’t tracking his wants and desires, a world that had done nothing but ignore him. In the boy’s contorted face, Eugene saw his own anger. But the boy, at least, had tried to do something about it. He’d tried to make someone notice.
Eugene glanced up and down the street.
“How you feel about rust?” Eugene asked. He hooked a thumb toward the garage. “I got packets and packets into the garage. You wanna take a look?”
The boy squinted.
“For free,” Eugene added.
And since most everyone in this world will take whatever you’re offering for free even if it’s pure junk, the boy looked left, right, then trotted along after Eugene.
Inside the garage, Eugene peeled back the edges of the tin foil packet. The boy laid his finger on the rusted washer.
“My dad was a mechanic,” he said. “‘Fore the gas station closed.”
“Your daddy doesn’t want you tearing up other people’s property.”
The boy slid his little finger into the washer’s hole. He raised his hand, admiring the rusted ring. “I hate pink.”
“That’s no cause.”
The boy slid off the washer. He palmed a heavy bolt, and squeezed. When he opened his fist, ridges rose from his skin. “Blood was on my daddy’s gums. It ran down his teeth. They turned pink.”
Eugene studied the hair needing a cut. Something a daddy was supposed to do for a child. “Is your daddy dead?”
When the boy nodded, a tear pinged onto the tin foil and collected in the crinkles. He laid the bolt in the packet and folded the package into an awkward triangle.
Eugene’s palm hovered over the boy’s head. Slowly, he rested his touch on the child’s shoulder. “Here. Let’s you and me go inside and get some milk and a sandwich. You like a ham sandwich? I got a wife makes a good ham sandwich.”
The boy shot Eugene a look. “Nobody eats ham sandwich for breakfast.”
“Sometimes you gotta do something doesn’t make a lot of sense if you want it to work out right.”
“Stupid sandwich ain’t gonna make it work out right.” The boy’s cheeks scrunched against the coming tears.
“I’m not saying it is. All I’m asking is, do you want a ham sandwich?”
The boy’s blue eyes shut once, twice. He nodded.
Which was how Eugene came to unload his packets of rust, how his wife came to get a clean garage, how his son was saved the humiliation of opening packet after packet of worthless junk. And how everyone was relieved of jarfuls of pink glass.
For, after that, the pink glass stopped falling.
Or maybe Eugene simply quit hunting it. He was far too busy. He and the boy—Andrew was his name—were mortaring a wishing well in Eugene’s front yard. A wishing well molded in place and decorated with sparkling pink glass and lovely rusted treasures.
“Trowel,” he would say, naming the tool.
“Trowel,” the boy repeated.
Then Eugene made sure Andrew cleaned the tools so they wouldn’t rust. Anything to make the boy feel useful before he went home to whatever awaited him.
Then Eugene would go inside. There, he and his wife of thirty-seven years—“not long-time”—would call their own son. The father no longer waiting for the son to call. He and Lavinia talked into the phone at the same time, saying hi to Judy and the little ones, catching up on what the family had done that day.
Afterwards they drug their folding chairs into the yard, arranging them beside the pink wishing well. As the sun set and the moon rose in the sky, they’d sit, and sometimes even hold hands.
“Nice about the grocery store,” Lavinia said.
“Gas station’ll be next,” nodded Eugene.
“You’d think so, with all these cars.”
“All these cars.”
“A gas station with a repair shop.”
“Gotta have a repair shop.”
A car creeped by. Lavinia rose her hand, encouraging the traveling strangers to toss pennies into the beckoning well. Most folks slowed and tossed, because everyone knew that whatever was collected in the well went to a fund for the children of the neighborhood. Which was a good start. Only Eugene knew that the inexplicable pink-and-rust wishing well could solve problems money couldn’t touch.
“Go on, toss it in.” Eugene flipped his fingers to show how it was done.
“If you know what’s good for you,” Lavinia added.