Ms. Lawson sits in the center of her front lawn sewing a quilt.
Other people in the neighborhood go out on their walks and pass her house, a one-story ranch home. Some wave, some don’t wave and just glance, some don’t do anything at all. To those who wave, Ms. Lawson smiles and waves back. I choose not to wave when I pass her that day. It feels rude to divert her concentration, even for a second. But our eyes meet briefly, and she waves at me anyway. She wears sunglasses, a pink cap, and a shirt that says “IDAHO” across her chest.
My dad says that “A man needs something to believe in if he wants to stay sane.”
I believe in Ms. Lawson’s quilt.
Quilts, as I understand them, are gradual things, requiring great care, skill, and concentration. From my distance, between the yard and the curb, it also looked meditative. By contrast, my discovery of the quilt was abrupt. She had clearly been at work on it behind closed doors for a long time before she decided to show the world. I sometimes think if things would have been different if I’d seen the quilt in its more foundational, rudimentary form long ago. I would have to be a different person; brought into the world with slightly different fortune. I try not to think about it for too long.
“Lawson” is almost certainly not Ms. Lawson’s name. It’s a name I gave her. It’s the first name that came into my had, at least in part. I also believe I heard another neighbor call her something similar. “Hello, Ms. Lawler” or “Lovely weather isn’t it, Ms. Lawley” or “Happy Easter, Ms. Rollins.” Close enough. My name for her gives Ms. Lawson distinction, placing my knowledge and memory of her on a higher stratum than any regular memory. Not because it’s higher or more important, but out of greater need.
The quilt is looking to be very big. I don’t really know dimensions but … maybe, it’s the size of a large table. Or maybe a king-size bed, which makes more sense, I guess. But I feel it may yet be bigger. It could be bigger. There are some big quilts out there. Even if this quilt is not physically the biggest, it seems big in a thematic, conceptual way. It’s bigger than any American flag, and hence more authoritative. It would not be out of place to see soldiers practicing drills as it flies overhead. It would bring a tear to a President’s eyes to see the quilt draped over a parade procession of missiles.
A man lives with Ms. Lawson. Or so I suspect. Like Ms. Lawson I’ve only ever seen him out of doors, doing work in the yard: cutting grass, pulling weeds, trimming hedges, shoveling snow. He is a good deal younger than Ms. Lawson, but probably a little older than I am. I guess he could be her son, but I’ve never seen Ms. Lawson with a man her age. I’m afraid to make hasty assumptions about someone’s lifestyle choices, let alone about this woman’s.
He seems dutiful like a son. He never smiles—we have that in common—and waves limply. I call him “Young Lawson” or “Ms. Lawson, Jr.”
I have never seen the quilt up close. I could see that the pattern of the quilt was of a floral nature. Each square on the quilt, looking about the size of a small plate, the kind used for finger foods, bore the image of a flower. Each flower was unique with its own color and shape. I don’t know flowers. I don’t know if the flowers are from real life or rough approximations from Ms. Lawson’s casual knowledge, or flowers that exist exclusively in Ms. Lawson’s imagination. For various reasons I’m afraid to look at the quilt up close or for too long from afar: (1) I feel unworthy; (2) I’m afraid what I see in reality will pale in comparison to what I see in my imagination; (3) it seems weird and impolite just generally. I think I saw what looked like a rose, though.
There is tension in the neighborhood thanks to Stanley. Stanley is a reliable source of tension. There are probably worse things to plague a neighborhood but even a dweller of any of the most beleaguered blocks in America can agree that Stanley fills our street with unnecessary disquiet.
Stanley’s idea of lawn care consists of strapping on kneepads to inspect every blade of grass with a small pair of clippers and petting them as if the grass was a sick cat. His gut protrudes smoothly from under his tucked t-shirt like an upside down dome.
Stanley likes to stand on his front porch of his newer, larger house with his arms crossed. When someone walks in front of his house with their dog, he moves slowly toward the center of his yard and turns his neck in tandem with the walking neighbors, who can’t walk on quickly enough. He does the same with children.
Stanley likes to put his house on the market for a few months and then take it off. I think he gets a thrill from sizing people up. Of course Stanley will never leave.
Stanley will have an opinion about your own habits and methods of home ownership, and he will tell you them even if you wish him not to. He does this with the politeness of an animal tester.
Stanley is divorced; bitterly, I assume.
My problems with Stanley didn’t extend beyond the usual annoyance until a week or so after seeing the quilt.
I decide to walk over to Ms. Lawson’s house. It’s spur-of-the-moment, poorly reasoned, and at too late an hour; but I grow more committed the closer I get to the house. I pace up and down the length of Ms. Lawson’s front curb to determine the most possible excuse. “Can I borrow a cup of sugar—and maybe eat all of it in front of you?” No. “There have been rumors of break-ins around town, the elderly are especially vulnerable and I’m doing a safety check.” No. “Do you want to watch MacGyver?” What?
“What are you doing?” a voice harshly whispers. Stanley comes at me from the blackness, and stands close enough to me that I can smell the barbecue on his breath and see it between his teeth. “What are you doing?”
“I’m … I’m walking. Nothing.”
“Don’t lie to me.” He puts on hand on his hip and uses the other to point at me and at Ms. Lawson’s house. “You’ve been pacing up along this house for 10 minutes.”
“No I haven’t. Have I?”
“Do you live around here?”
“I live across the street from you.”
“Good, I can keep an eye on you. Consider this a warning,” he says before the blackness subsumes him again. He never takes off his kneepads.
My dad says that “A man needs something to believe in if he wants to stay sane.”
Stanley believes in being a righteous asshole.
I haven’t seen the quilt in several weeks. Nor have I seen Ms. Lawson out working on it. I’m apprehensive about being too far away from the quilt.
I believe the quilt is infused with a moral purpose. I believe it presents a very clear sense of how the moral order should be formed and what does and doesn’t transgress against it. I believe that breaking a promise is a transgression. I would obey its dictates even if it means going far away from the quilt itself.
I made a promise to meet my friend Sonya in the city to look at art. Sonya is what you’d call an “art lover,” who talks mostly about art or finds ways to work art into unrelated conversations. “That seems like something Van Gogh (or Goya or Diane Arbus or whoever) would agree with,” she might interject about a conversation comparing Pringles flavors or the foreign policies of Democratic presidential candidates. In her element, Sonya achieves a tone of manifesto, in long abstract statements that she has very likely been fashioning in her head while on the subway, or at Pret a Manger on her lunch break at work. Last week she was a “managing associate”; this week she is a “director of operations.”
Sonya waits for me in front of the Whitney. She is wearing a red track suit, white Keds, a lipstick shade likely called “cyanosis,” and smoking a vape pen.
All museums must seem like tombs to most people. They are tombs of human greatness or ingenuity or emotional intelligence. The Whitney takes on the form of a tomb of futility. Sonya leads me down the wings from bottom to top, yet each work dissolves into the walls until they are completely blank.
“This one has such resonance,” Sonya says gazing worshipfully at Robert Ryman’s Untitled (1969). “I first saw this in a book. I didn’t think much of it at the time. I thought it was dumb, actually. I thought anyone can do this shit. It wasn’t until I saw this in person that I realized I just wasn’t ready. I don’t think anyone is.”
“I think people are wrong about Dash Snow,” she says as we look out over Manhattan on the roof. “I think in a few decades people are going to come around to his genius. In a few decades art will be alive again. In a few decades there probably won’t be museums anymore because art will belong to the people. And a beautiful artwork will come with every home.”
“Will the homes, be beautiful?” I ask.
“Maybe. I wish I’d go back to school—get a degree in interior design. I’ll probably just be a consultant, I guess.” She blows a thick but low-key plume of vape smoke. “I got some pills. You wanna do some?”
On a bench at the park she takes out a small bag of what look, to the vulgar eye anyway, like SweeTarts. We each take one. The effect of the pill raises my sense of well-being to a height I’m not familiar with, but not so high that it upends my opinions or worldview. Sonya goes into her purse and takes out a set of Tarot cards.
“I got these in Baton Rouge last month,” she says.
“I didn’t know you were into the occult.”
“I’m not, I just like how these look.” She holds them all out in a fan, takes one out and shows it to me. “I really liked this one, it’s the Hanged Man.”
“It’s just really intense.”
On the train ride home I realize that one of the Tarot cards is in my shirt pocket. It’s the Sun. I’m don’t remember if I’d taken it or if she’d given it to me. It features a golden-haired boy in a field of sunflowers, under an anthropomorphized sun, and holding onto a red flag.
I wonder when the quilt will be finished. Then I wonder if it’s better if the quilt is never finished. Not incomplete, but continuous. Spanning without clear, containable dimensions. A quilt that is almost fluid. A sea unto itself. In defiance of everything.
I knock on Ms. Lawson’s door. The door is heavy and my knuckles hit it in a low thud. With each thud my senses become sharper, it’s like I’m coming out of a fugue state or a black out. I feel like a murderer getting my defense ready beforehand. I had a breakdown—lost control of my faculties—felt like someone else was driving me from the inside, a small, angry puppeteer—forgive me.
I knock four times. No answer. I turn and look out into the neighborhood. It’s afternoon, a little after lunch, and pleasant in its near-emptiness. I walk over to the spot where I think she places her lawn chair to display her craft. I don’t know what I want to feel. A sense of power? Empathy of someone in power?
The lawn chair is folded up next to the garage. It is the kind that makes the peeling sound against bare skin.
“Can I help you,” calls a voice from behind me. Ms. Lawson, Jr. is pushing a wheelbarrow. “I’m not interested in what you’re selling. Sorry.”
Never in great composure, I’m even more off-guard than ever. “No … I’m sorry … I didn’t mean to bother. I live down the street, and I was wondering if … if … she was home?”
We stand stiffly before one another and say nothing. Ms. Lawson, Jr.’s expression is puzzling. I can’t tell if it’s meant to elicit confusion or scan for danger.
“She’s not available at the moment,” he says methodically.
“Thank you. I won’t bother you.”
“It’s okay.” He resumes pushing his wheelbarrow.
“Mulching?” I ask as if that will cut the obvious tension. He stops again.
“Yeah,” he says more keenly. “You got a mulch guy? Mine’s pretty good. I can give you his number.”
“I just like the smell.”
“So do I.” He resumes pushing and goes around the other side of the house.
I lie in bed hoping that I will dream about the quilt. I want to dream that my skin is a plush fabric with floral patterns. l lie in bed hoping that this is the last thing I’m thinking about before I finally sleep.
My dreams are usually turgid. They depict days at an office where I don’t work; nights with a loving family that I don’t have; commutes between them with a plum purple 1980s Oldsmobile that I don’t drive, and whose wheels detach at random every few feet.
I fail to dream what I want to dream. I also fail to sleep. My bedding disappoints me. I sit on the floor, facing my window, hoping. I repeat and I repeat and I repeat.
My dad says “A man needs something to believe in if he wants to stay sane.”
I believe that enchantment is possible, and very close.
A surveillance state. A panopticon. Eyeballs on the porch—in the windows—through the fences. It has come to this. Maybe it always was this but it has since been subject to maximizing institutional reforms.
Many seasons have changed since that time I saw the quilt. It’s under heavy guard. And so, it seems, am I. Like lovers kept apart by warring houses. Have others discovered what I discovered? Are they suppressing it for their own purposes? Are they coveting it for themselves or are they shielding it for what they tell themselves is the greater good?
I stare up at my shaded window and indulge myself in revisionism. It was I who had the pure intentions. It was I who had the quilt’s best interest at heart. It was I who saw into Ms. Lawson’s vision and saw that it be respected in posterity. No one plans on finding the most beautiful thing in Christendom. There are protocols for when you do. Like escaping a burning building. It was I who followed them to the letter.
I try to render the quilt on paper. It’s square, I know that. Within it are smaller squares. How small? How many? There was a visual concept, too. A pattern. What? Floral, I think. Or hands? Or types of fruit? Geometric shapes?
I tell myself “I need to inquire. I need closure. I’m entitled to it” as I walk out the door.
It’s cold now. There is frost on the grass and fog hanging in the barren trees. I’m wrapped in a thermal blanket. I walk down the middle of the empty street. A family of deer—a buck, a doe, and two fawns—issues from between two houses just up ahead of me and, taking no notice of my approach, continue on unperturbed in between the opposite facing houses and the woods beyond.
Ms. Lawson isn’t home. Neither, for that matter, is her house. Where her one-story ranch home used to be now sits the plywood framework of a much larger structure, a beast in incubation. The grass once tended well enough by Ms. Lawson, Jr. has been upended—or suppressed—by mud, gravel, and the tracks of heavy machinery.
I walk into the unfinished house. My feet thud on the floor as I walk through walls trying to get a sense of what used to be. There is a strong smell of sawdust, hay, and chemicals. Out the back entrance I see a pile of surplus wood and an uninstalled septic tank. I fumble over two trash bags sitting in a corner as if that would tell me anything.
“Can I help you?” A voice calls from behind me. The man is in work boots, ragged jeans, and a Jets sweatshirt. His construction hat is wrapped around his arm, the hand of which is holding a Dunkin Donuts cup. “This is private property.”
“Sorry. I was looking for something that I thought I left behind.”
“Does this look like a Goodwill?” he shoots back.
“No, it doesn’t.”
I shuffle in place, readjusting my blanket. He looks at his boots.
“Look, you want some coffee?”
He takes out his phone. “Can I call the local parish? Maybe they can get you to a shelter.”
“I live around here,” I say as I make my way out.
I see the realtor sign at the edge of the lawn and the lawn chair folded up against it. The builder sees me taking it and does nothing.
I spend the day watching the frost thaw.
The light in the topmost window of Stanley’s house, just above his garage, burns ceaselessly. It’s troublingly alone, not just in relation to the lower parts of his house, all light-starved after sunset, but amid all the houses on the block as their occupants lull them into darkness as muscles relax and as breathing rhythms slow down.
I never did look into what the meaning is behind my Tarot card. I still don’t know the meaning when I walk across the street to Stanley’s mailbox at 1:14 AM and place it inside. Maybe he will interpret it poorly. Maybe he will interpret it kindly.
My dad says that “A man needs something to believe in if he wants to stay sane.”
I shower regularly. I catch up on sleep.