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Only a few blocks more and he could collapse on his own sofa, ask Martha for an ice pack, tell the boys to play quiet games, if they were home from, what was it now, soccer?
Where Ashland forked off from Essex he leaned against the lamppost, jamming his head against its hard ridges till it hurt more than his headache. No one had ever done that, he was sure. Not in this neighborhood.
The orange lamplight flowed over him, and he began to breathe slowly. Something caught at his nose, a rotting smell. Discabobalation, Mr. Isaacson called it, his high school biology teacher with a glass eye he could pull out and hold between finger and thumb. I-saacson he’d said, get it? Eye-saacson. But this was an odor from way back, long before Mr. Isaacson. Lennie looked down at layers of brown leaves floating in the gutter, there from last fall. Really? In a high-toned hood like this they couldn’t get rid of the leaves? He squatted down and stirred them with his hand, found a stick to do a better job. All winter the hand-like leaves of maples, the tooth-edged spears of elms, and the lobey oak leaves had hibernated under ice, waiting to continue the cycle when it got warm enough, and today was the day.
He trailed his stick to form canals in the floating mat of leaves like he once did for acorn boats and popsicle-stick barges. Then he piled dams of leaves to make the black water flow here and not there. His long body shrunk to the size of a ten-year-old, and he was again in the gutter in front of the stucco house with the screened-in porch in Spring Mills. The lamppost became the elm that arced over the street. A tree whose fanning roots formed valleys and ridges for his matchbox cars to race along till the smell of mac and cheese and his mother’s call brought them to private parking spaces in the soggy brown grass not yet ready to grow.
That fragrant rot made the beast around his skull let go, to ease a pain he’d never imagined back then, in a way he never expected here and now. He remembered how to hunker over his knees and rock on his feet, and his back released in a deep lumbar stretch. The rain returned in a steady mist so light it hung in the air around his crouching body.
When he stood up he took the stick with him. Tomorrow was Saturday. He’d bring Nathan and Josh down to see this. A tune came out of him he hadn’t sung since third grade:
He kept it up as he came through the back door and squished along the kitchen linoleum to hug Martha from behind.
She turned in his arms and pushed him back, a spatula in hand.
“Lennie, what on earth? Your feet are soaking, and your hands...”
He closed his eyes and sniffed his hand. “Rotting leaves, want to smell? Best stuff on earth.”
Martha led him to the sink and turned on the water. She looked like she did the day Josh came in dripping blood from his forehead after a spill from his bike.
At supper he told the boys about the gutter of leaves, and Nathan rolled his eyes, he was at that age, but Josh stared at him over his potatoes as though he was trying to figure out what his Dad’s new power was. Neither would come tomorrow, soccer for Josh, the mall for Nathan.
In bed that night he told Martha about his patient. He let his head settle into the pillow. She folded into him under the covers and said “But you didn't need ice.”