I’m out in the back working the compost again, pulling the sweetest and darkest for the garden that still mostly slumbers. At this particular moment, the sky is a heartbreaking blue with painfully white clouds smirking down through the lie that is April. I uncovered the fig and threaded the grape vines two weeks ago when the forsythia blazed and the first groundhog of the season wandered into my trap to be ferried across the river to the church grounds where he’d cavort with the hundreds of bunnies and hedgehogs that had made the same trip over the years. I’d caught trout on Good Friday and, forgetting sunscreen, burned my nose and cheeks. Now for the past three dawns, I’ve sprayed water on the buds to ward off the frosts that have rolled through and right now, at this particular moment, wearing sunglasses makes as much sense as an aqualung. She’s yelling for me to come in before I catch my death, but snow squall or no, I’m putting lettuce in. Today. Why do I always let April do this to me?
Georgie was sitting behind the station drinking the cheapest quart that thin money could buy. His mask was flapping, hanging from a band over one ear and showed stains of paint overspray, tobacco, blood and probably snot if I got close enough to look. Betting he found it. He was leaning to the left, away from his bottle hand, because the bleached-to-pink red resin chair he was sitting on was dumpster salvage-tossed there with a broken leg. I tried to steer clear because Georgie was always good to bum a buck or two which was okay normally but not so right now. He saw me right enough, but all he wanted was an ear in passing. “They should drop an atom bomb on all of it”, he said, looking at me but not-as his eye tended to float and wander. “Wipe out all this sickness and disease at once.” “Georgie,” I said moving on, “That would take us out too.” “That’s what I mean”, he coughed. “Start again but get it right this time. Have god not make any animal that walks on two legs. Give us enough time, we’ll just fuck everything up!” I slowed, waiting to see if he was done. He didn’t seem sure.
What I wouldn’t give to drink like I was sixteen again. When two six packs, a pint of peach schnapps and two joints in a Sucrets tin could last a weekend at the cabin but would not be enough to even make the drive now. To not have to spend forty dollars on high end IPA’s and brown liquor just to bend the mood enough to make me tolerable at home in the evening. Back then I’d be smiling on a half can of Stroh’s and laughing out loud by the time it was finished. Those. Those were the days.
Ma still had most of her teeth at the end. At least parts of most of them and it was one of the few sources of vanity she had left. There were gaps, of course, mostly along the sides and in the back but they weren’t too obvious unless she wide smiled which she really didn’t.
With the gaps she had to chew her nicotine gum in the front where you’d see it flopping about threatening to drop out at any time which it sometimes would but never threatened a fire or left a burn mark as her Pall Malls did. She’d just pick it up off her lap or the table (if it made the floor it stayed there) and popped it back into her mouth.
Things changed the day she broke off one of her front teeth in a sandwich. “The hell?” she asked angrily looking at the small yellowish nubbin stuck crookedly like an old gravestone in the bun. Her dentist was long dead and she wasn’t interested in finding another. Just smiled less, talked into her chest and concentrated hard on chewing away front the new jagged hole in her mouth.
Eventually, for a short time, she went back to smoking. She was shaky then and needed both hands but knew enough to move the whole operation out onto the sunporch where her plastic chair and concrete floor presented less of a fire hazard.
A poem by Louis Jenkins with an afterword
“The spring wind comes through and knocks over trashcans and trees. It has something to do with warm fronts and cold fronts, I think, or with high and low pressure systems, things that I don’t really understand and that aren’t really an explanation anyway. Ultimately, the spring wind is the result of some relationship between the Earth and the Sun that may not be all that healthy after all. The wind comes in a big huff, slams doors, pushes things around and kicks up the dirt. The big bully spring wind comes through on its way nowhere and, ha ha! We love it.”
No Louis, not all of us do. For me, the winds carry at least a discomfort, sometimes-depending on the spirits- a full blown dread. Whether in the woods, where the trees groan and grind together, the leaves sweep up and fly fearfully backward torn away from the soft place where they rested, peacefully composting. Or in the yard wondering which garbage can would go rolling (not so much fun when you got to chase it), which shingles would go or is this the blow that’ll finally bring the limb from the old hickory down on the shed. Ma told a story about the spring winds, how they picked up her little cousin Jeffrey and tossed him off the escarpment where her auntie lived and into the river below, to drown in full view of the Easter revelers who couldn’t get down the hill in time to save him. It was a story that never seemed quite right to me. Ma was little herself then, hadn’t seen Jeffrey blow into the river, just heard about it. Then of course, saw him in his casket looking like a little angel in his white suit and blonde hair-his sky blue eyes closed forever. You ask me, something else happened to that boy. I’ve seen the pictures of all those people; the flinty gray eyes (of course they were black and white pictures so it would figure) but still. There was something unsettling about the way they stared unsmiling into the camera. And there were other stories Ma almost told afore biting her lip. At any rate, they’re all dead now and I’m the onliest one who even remembers that story. The shit we carry through life can be burdensome.
The refrigerator crapped out at an opportune time. Not the dead of winter when everything would have frozen solid and not proper spring when everything would have spoiled but right in the middle when the outside temperature was just about refrigerator cold. While the repairmen spent days futzing about with blown motherboards and compressors that were apparently too small and ran too hot (whatever), I got used to going out onto the predawn porch in my robe for the milk and eggs. The cold slab on my bare feet was bracing and took me back to the time when we would actually have eggs and milk on the porch and to old Missis Timko across the alley stepping out in the snow in her bare purple Carpathian feet to snatch her cream.
And it’s true, I thought. Everything in the house-every convenience, every necessary imposition, is lying in wait. Waiting for just the right time to go bad and upend everything you had planned for the day or week. (Even if it’s nothing-because plans don’t have to entail the actual doing of things. They just have to be plans, ideally complete with lists and bullet points.) And the cost! What can go wrong with a root cellar, a cooking pit, a grill on the porch, an ice chest-provided there was a source of ice in the summer months?
She wasn’t happy when I continued leaving my dairy and eggs on the porch after the refrigerator was returned to it’s humming best. The neighbors were complaining, she said which I doubted but there were times when I’d step out sans robe enjoying the stunning chill first thing. They could just look away-nothing to see here. What are they doing up so early anyway? True, raccoons did abscond with my cheddar one night, but it’s a small price to pay.
Frustrated one night, she told me that I’d be happy living in a shack. The next trip out back, I measured the shack and thought I might get a couple of pallets in there next to the mower and be just fine. Then I could dig out by the compost. Always thought shitting in the house was barbaric and the plumbing, the piping and the water and the loud “whoosh” at night a complete pain in the ass. An outhouse would serve just as well.
The mulberries stained hard-deep purple bruises across the back of my shirts. Ma never minded though. They were her Dad’s trees and we only saw them when we visited the old place. She kept a few of the stained shirts, clean otherwise, in a drawer and would have me wear them around the apartment where we lived in town. She’d hug me and run her hands over the splotches which I couldn’t feel but she could. She’d whisper “Daddy” and sometimes cry.
I climbed one of those trees once. Not too high-I was a little kid-but high enough that the inevitable fall left me splatted and dazed, flat on my back. Lying there, the sun leaking through the purple flecked leaves, a man took shape. A man I wouldn’t meet for years.
He was big and dark, up from the Islands to live with his daughter next door for the summer. He was wearing a clean white T-shirt that stretched sorely across his bulk. The sun glistened off his head as he picked mulberries into a dented pot from a tree in the park across the street.
“Daddy!”, his daughter cried her accent only revealed when she was agitated. “Don’ pick the berries! People up here will tink you too country!” She said this running in her bare feet. His smiling eyes caught mine.
“She say dat til she taste da pie…” he said. Then he laughed a rolling rumble that I couldn’t help but join.