Content Warning: Mentions of shooting living things with BB guns
The neighbors just can’t stand leaves on their lawn.
Even though they’re both advanced in years, if we don’t rake up the leaves and do something with them, fast, Mr. McGregor and his wife will both be outside, picking up the fallen foliage and stuffing it into plastic trash bags. Annoyed as I may be, I don't want to let them do that.
I wish we didn't have to rake. Why can't they just leave the leaves alone? I like shuffling through them, hearing the sounds they make, and seeing them blow along the ground.
Yet here I am with my dad, raking. And thinking. That’s the nice thing about doing a simple task: I can go somewhere else in my head.
Dad grew up almost kiddy-corner to Mr. McGregor. He says my grandpa, his dad, had a very different philosophy concerning leaves: “If ya leave ‘em there long enough, they’ll blow into someone else’s yard.” There were several leafy trees in Grandpa’s yard; there are none in Mr. McGregor’s, and according to my dad’s knowledge, there never have been. Dad chuckles, “I don’t think he could handle that.”
Mr. McGregor has kids. His daughter was best friends with my dad’s little sister. Once, when they were young, my dad was presented with a gift-wrapped parcel by his sister and her friend. Upon opening it, he found a peach pit. The girls guffawed with glee. Their trick had worked splendidly!
Years later, when my aunt was in college, she received a care package from her family. One of the items inside was a small box from her older brother, accompanied by a note: “Who’s laughing now?” He’d sent her a peach pit.
Mr. McGregor also has a son. He played baseball with all the other neighborhood kids in dad’s front yard, but “The relationship with Matt was…complicated.” He was sometimes a bit of a bully to the younger kids.
One day, Mr. McGregor’s son took my auntie’s jump rope. My dad was watching from an upstairs bedroom window. Having his BB gun handy, and being overwhelmed by the injustice of it all, he took careful aim and fired, intending to ping a BB off Matt’s bike and startle him.
His aim was off, and he hit the boy in the leg instead.
“I see you!” Matt shouted, pointing an accusing finger at the unintentional sniper. “I see you! I’m going to tell my dad!” He hopped onto his bike and pedaled furiously down the street. My dad decided to sit tight in his bedroom.
Presently there was a knock on the door, and he heard Mr. McGregor saying, “Matt says Joey shot him.”
His own father’s voice echoed up the stairs. “Joey! Did you shoot Matt?”
He heard his father say, “Okay,” and close the door. It was an accident, but some people say Matt had it coming to him.
It’s funny how everyone still refers to my dad as Joey. Little old men and women, who used to be his teachers in days of yore, come smiling up to this six-foot-four man and say, “Hello, Joey, and how are you?” Even Mr. McGregor often refers to him as Joey.
Mr. McGregor…that’s not really his name. It’s just a nickname we have for him, since he used to get so angry about the wild rabbits eating his garden. Don’t misunderstand me, we love our neighbors, but we love the rabbits, too.
Mom saw him from an upstairs window one morning when it was barely light out, standing between two trucks with a BB gun, shooting at something. She thought he might be dispatching one of our little friends, and went to check on us, thinking we might be traumatized if we heard the gun shots. We were all still asleep, and she resolved not to tell anyone.
Days later, when Mom was hanging up laundry outside, Mr. McGregor came up to her, grinning. “How’re your rabbits?” he inquired.
She tried not to respond about the rabbits, but as he kept inquiring, and talking about how they were such a pain, always eating his garden, she finally put her hands on her hips and said, “We don’t have rabbits anymore, since you killed them!”
His face wrinkled into a mischievous grin. “Ahhh, that old gun doesn’t shoot straight anyways. I was right on top of 'em and couldn’t even hit 'em.”
He calls them ‘our’ rabbits because he knows we put out vegetable scraps for them to eat. They like to hang around our yard.
One morning, I saw a very small rabbit sitting near a larger one, presumably a mother and her baby. A chipmunk ran past, and the baby rabbit’s head turned, ears perked, tracking its path—then he gave chase, bounding after the striped curiosity. After a couple yards of travel, he stopped to look about himself, losing track of the chipmunk. His mother followed him, but he darted away. This game went on for several minutes, until mother rabbit seemed to have had enough chasing. She went off in another direction, leaving the little one to his own devices.
The baby rabbit stood up against a plant in our garden and chewed on a leaf. Then he rolled about on a small pile of loose dirt we’d recently dumped, rubbing his back into it and scooting along, exposing his white undersides and apparently getting as dirty as possible. Then he disappeared into the taller growth of the garden.
The chipmunks are fun to watch, too. They come closer to us than the rabbits. My sister has tamed one to the point that it will sit in our hands and eat sunflower seeds. The chipmunk will even let us stroke her—but only if we use the back of our hand. Our theory is she feels like we’re trying to catch her if we reach out with our palms down and our fingers outstretched. With our palms and fingers up, she can run away faster than we can grab her. And yes, we know it’s a female for sure. We read about how to determine the sex of a chipmunk.
After stuffing their cheeks, the chipmunks often run inside the garage. We found the place on a shelf where they eat at least some of their seeds: a bunch of black hulls are scattered on the floor underneath.
Raking almost finished, we have a huge mound of leaves. Dad rests his rake on the ground and looks hard at what we’ve done.
“What if…we just pile it all up against the side of the garage?”
“Why not?" I reply happily. "Then we don’t have to take them to the brush dump.”
The two of us sweep the leaves across the yard and make an enormous drift against the side of our garage. As Dad goes to put his rake away, I look around, realizing that all of those things I’ve been thinking about happened right here. Right here is where we feed the chipmunks. I can see the place in the garden where the baby rabbit played. Over there is Mr. McGregor’s yard, where we started raking. Beyond it, across the street, is the house where Dad grew up.
I smile. The people, the places, the biota—the seemingly insignificant and mundane, woven together with memory, forms a life.