Fiction, Vol. 3.2, June 2009
Had anyone ever sung this as a blues? “Nobody likes me, everybody hates me, guess I’ll go eat worms.” He sang the song as a teardrop dirge dripped straight into freshly-dug earth. It was good soil—rich, thick, black as charcoal—and he gathered a handful and gazed at it as if it held the answers.
Perhaps worms did. One, fat with life, grayish-pink and semi-translucent, waved its protruding flesh in the air as if seeking mooring, or saying hello.
“Don’t eat it, Dad!”
To the child he looked like the fly-eating Renfield, but Dad’s mouth was widened only in wonder.
“Earthworms are amazing, Johnny.” He lowered his belly and face to the ground like an abject slave before his master, delivered his words in a trembling hush. “They aerate the soil and–” his voice broke and crumbled into the hole.
“Are you gonna come eat?” The child knew the question was a gamble, and because he resented having to gamble and because he was fearful, his tone cloyed. His dad shuddered, and the gamble was lost. “Are you gonna plant something new tonight, Dad?”
“The worm’s such a beautiful thing, John.” He was gazing with effusive reverence at the worm, which, as if conscious of the reverence and grateful for it, spiraled and tapped a dirt-caked finger. The dad chuckled in the hysterical fashion of an airline passenger once the plane has stabilized after a twenty-foot drop. The boy stood rooted there facing his father and inflated his shoulders with a long inhalation. He longed for his dad’s gaze, had missed it for weeks, but he feared it, too, for its desperation and lack of control. He wanted to climb onto his dad’s back, which was rounded like a turtle’s, to press his face against the black fleece, to hold on tight as his father rose up like a mighty island emerging from the sea; to smell his neck, feel the bristles of his beard carving tracks of manhood in his tender cheek. The boy wanted to kick his dad, too, and this checked the impulse to jump on his back. The kitchen window slid open with an emphatic click. The boy was fully conscious of his mother watching him in silence but did not turn around. Then a psychic force like a hammer-blow crumpled him to his knees right next to his father, who smiled with gratitude but withheld his gaze.
“This worm’s our friend, John, like all living things. We’re all in this together, you know.” The father reached for his son’s hand, but hesitated the way people do when they reach out to pet an unknown dog and then lose confidence that it will not bite; then he remembered himself and cupped his son’s hand, and lowered the worm and the clod that encased it into the boy’s palm. The boy widened his eyes as the worm waved in the air like a snake charmer’s cobra, but he understood the new rules and did not look at his dad. Then he thought of his mother and ran in for dinner.
Dinner was odd; it had been odd for months. They ate in the nook–not they, but the boy, for she didn’t eat, but flitted around the kitchen in a faithful imitation of purposeful action. He called her “hummingbird” although her face looked like sagging dough, she called herself “slug” and avoided his eyes as his father did now.
“You’re always moving around like a hummingbird,” the boy insisted, and she banked with spread wings and swooped in to kiss the top of his head, but still didn’t smile.
“You need to eat,” he told her. “Sit down,” he added with such forcefulness that both were startled.
She checked the pedometer. “What, you kidding?” and busied herself with the coleus and cacti in the window; and when she thought he wasn’t looking, she looked out into the vegetable garden that had been a weed jungle just three months before and narrowed her eyes at her husband kneeling in the dirt, his arms upraised like a praying mantis’s legs.
“You need to eat,” he repeated, sensing that he alone understood the proper order of things.
“What, that?” she exclaimed with a dismissive wave.
He looked at his spaghetti, which looked good enough. “They’re worms,” he said brightly. “They’re good for the soil.” She sagged onto her arms on the counter and he sensed a weakness in her resistance. “Worms are our friends, Mom, Dad’s friends with all things.”
“Oh yeah?” He knew from her tone that she wouldn’t sit down on the bench next to him, wouldn’t snuggle up close. She still did at times but now it was different, her body had changed, she was wasting away: thirty-five pounds of motherly comfort lost since mid-winter, and it was just spring.
His father had been just a bit paunchy and had lost weight too for he would not
eat, unlike his wife, who could not. The dad had grown hard when the garden project sheared fat from his frame like wet clay from a sculpture, revealing a lank, long-limbed figure unlike that which had reposed with his wife through long TV evenings of shared buttered popcorn and soft neutral words. Then The Thing had come, and then his confession, the sides of her fists pounding his chest as if to crack ribs, the impulse sizzling through her mind that a shard might break off and impale his heart. He had stood shame-faced until she was spent, then remained motionless as she sucked their marriage deep within herself.
No praying man he, but he made every promise that he could imagine–to his wife, to himself, to the gods that he didn’t believe in, to the weeds. The first promise was to establish the garden. It was not a promise he expressed verbally to her, for he could not speak and she could not listen, but a vow to the essence of goodness in the aether, a vow to provide for his family such glorious life-giving gifts as these: tomatoes rich, red, and shining with life, deep green kale with rubbery ribs for massaging intestinal walls, broccoli that would turn cheerfully green with steaming, carrots so sweet Johnny’s school lunches would be the coolest in class, and radish bunches for Johnny to twine in soil-encrusted fingers–all to be harvested day after day in a huge woven basket. She loved woven baskets; she had a picture book of Pomo Indian baskets, and he had driven two hours in the rain to buy this basket for her right after The Thing. She’d shoved it beneath the kitchen table with her foot and it rested there still, for he’d sanctified it by letting it be. The hardscape had taken a full nine weeks; he knew this because he had logged his work in a journal in which he accounted for every cent spent on the project and drew and redrew his planting plan for the garden’s first season. The hardscape was a triumph for one who had rarely worked with his hands: a five foot wide roughhewn brick path leading from the kitchen to a ten foot wide brick deck at whose margins were three terraced levels of spaced brick planters. Working with brick meant constantly bloodying the earth with his knuckles in nervous satisfaction. When the last brick was laid he did not savor the triumph, but stood back like an artist and asked aloud, as if seeking guidance: “What now?”
The answer came: more work. Every spare minute before school, after work, all day Saturday and Sunday he hoisted hernia bags of organic planting mix, tweezed debris from the soil with long fingers like a jeweler’s, dug planting holes three feet deep although two was enough, and enriched the soil with kitchen-scrap compost, a crumbly black miracle, denying himself pride but allowing himself the comfort of inhaling the heady aroma of rich earth packed underneath his nails.
Now it was planting time and he lifted the herb seedlings from their little cell packs with the nervous wonder of a father holding his babe in the delivery room, patting them into place in the moist fertile pouches with the care of a father strapping his baby into a car-seat. A sifting of fairy dust at the crown of the root balls, then he pressed the backfill into place as tenderly as he tucked in his son’s blanket after Mom had vacated the room.
It had grown dark, and he worked by lantern light in pious observance of the nightly ritual. The kitchen window clicked shut; he turned and saw the light go off and knew that it was safe to go in, for she scrupulously honored their unspoken bargain. This night he had a surprise for her, a spry basil seedling of Peter Pan green which he patted into place in a small terra cotta pot for her garden array on the kitchen window sill. Perhaps this would nudge her to cook as she should for the sake of their health, her weight, their long happy life–fresh herbs and olive oil, not butter and salt. In the dim downlight of the window sill the plant looked like a nightclub star lingering onstage after the crowd has gone.
Another click: this time of the phone as he trudged up the stairs. The click was a kiss that partook of the softness he had always considered her essence: soft gaze, soft voice, soft womanly curves awaiting his touch in their four-poster bed with the white canopy and the fluffy white comforter, the bedroom her shrine to their conjugal bliss. But he’d slept on the floor the first night of The Thing, `til she jabbed him awake with a toe to the ribs and a guttural, choking, seething, “Get up.” They slept now with their backs to each other.
“How’s Corey,” he said, faking nonchalance as he chose his pajamas.
“Fine,” she said, unwilling to dissemble.
“How’s his friend,” he said with a wry inflection, alluding to the rumor that Corey was gay.
“He’s fine too.” Her eyes glittered with guilty satisfaction, for Corey wasn’t gay, and cared for her deeply.
He tromped into the bathroom, returned to darkness.
Johnny stuck his tongue out as he drew with a black crayon clutched in his hand like a dagger.
“What’s that,” his mom asked, mildly disturbed by the serpentine figure spanning the entire sheet of paper.
“It’s a worm eating glass. Worms eat glass Dad says.”
She raised her eyebrows, poured fresh-squeezed orange juice–Dad insisted that fresh be served–and detested herself when a thought like a stowaway in her cranium noted he’d be pleased if he passed through the kitchen. “What’s that?” she said, pointing at the baseball cap atop the worm’s head and the long black curls cascading from beneath the cap.
It was Dad’s cap and newly-long hair; she knew that, and he knew that she knew, and so he ignored her. Then he made the red crayon pour blood from Dad’s mouth because of the glass in his gullet. The air left her head, and she rolled her eyes up like a murder victim, then rolled them over to the new plant on the window sill as tender as her son and as needful of care, perceived it as an overture from her husband and snapped her chin up in prideful reflection.
He was out there in the morning chill on the damp ground on his knees like a child at play, placing plastic sheeting over the strawberry seedlings. She imagined the succulence of sun-warmed strawberries sliced over pound cake and drenched in fresh cream, then blanched at the thought of the cake and the cream. What was she like, the woman he’d seen? Thin, no doubt. Worse yet–maybe not. Her hand shot upward; an act of will stayed it from strangling the basil seedling which reproached her and her Midwestern dowry of savory casseroles as creamy and comforting as her mother’s warm kitchen.
Who was he, this man, to deny her her self with his sanctimonious zeal for the power of fresh food: its healthfulness, color, its ineffable virtues expressed with messianic eyes as if the right foods could save the damned world–that’s what he’d always wanted, to save the damned world, the damned, sweet, loving world, including herself, and she’d loved him for that. But this wasn’t that, it was just a cheap ruse to make her lose weight. Or it wasn’t. Doubt hammered her head and she reached for the pills. Then she gathered herself back into herself and filled the little brass watering can and sprinkled her coleus and the geranium plant and the row of succulents from their trip to Death Valley; but she bypassed the basil and twisted a tepidly malicious grin.
Come Sunday, he purposefully set about planting tomato starts in the terraced brick planters. He encased each seedling in an inverted conical wire frame, and there was a pleasing regularity in the spacing of the structures like that of the columns of huge steel wind turbines atop the hills the family would pass on their way to Yosemite. “These are bringing us power,” he’d tell his son with a visionary gleam, then Johnny would raise his flexed arms and grimace mightily. Johnny now, in a black eye-patch, clambered up onto the third and highest planter four feet above ground, spread his legs like a pirate captain and looked imperiously down at his dad kneeling like a serf in the fields. Unlike other neighborhood gardeners who had just emerged from hibernation with their radios tuned to baseball or NPR, this man worked in silence and never looked up, though he derived comfort from the nearness of his son in the way that a child absorbed in rug-play basks in the aura of parental love.
“We’ll be eating pretty in three months, Johnny boy,” the father said.
“I dub you Sir Sneak-A-Lot,” the boy snarled, pointing his sword at his father’s neck and awaiting eye contact that never came, just a falling of the head as if an invisible cable had been severed.
The mother from the kitchen saw the droop of the head and her husband’s prostration, detected a vacuum into which she might speak, and wafted the sparrow-quivering words: “Lemonade, Johnny,” her famous fresh-squeezed with a mint-sprig in the pitcher. Johnny lifted his head and waved his sword across his domain, aglow with his power. “Lemonade,” she repeated, her voice breaking like glass at the negative implication that Dad was invited too. Dad’s back was to the kitchen and his face to the soil, but he nodded gravely at the row of infant plants glistening elfin green in the sunlight and standing tall and proud as small children dressed up for a formal occasion. The drumbeat of a hammer in a nearby yard snapped him back to work.
As evening approached he arose to go in, but lingered to gaze at the garden saturated in golden, glowing fairy-tale light. He turned to the kitchen and saw the light on, and thus removed his sneakers, banging them together as if to dislodge mud, but more so to cue his wife of his approach. But the light stayed on.
He entered the house. His wife and son sat in the nook before their plates–for the first time in months, they’d not eaten before him. His wife sat with her head bowed to the plate talking in a hush to her son, her round frame of hair glowing honeyed brown beneath a lone amber bulb. He longed to disappear in her hair but something was wrong, her face was too gaunt, it had lost the roundness that fit her mane. Her image conflated in his imagination into a wigged skull in a Day of the Dead tableau and emotion overwhelmed him. He wanted to leap the table, press his lips to her mouth to inflate her limbs and organs and restore her to vigor, to health, to himself.
“Nice dinner,” he stated weakly.
She nodded as if this was not at all likely. He slid in beside her, she recoiled on reflex, collected herself and sat up at her plate. Their son across the table stared up at his gods with intense curiosity and suspicion. Dad looked down into dark little eyes rimmed in blackness and blinked mirthlessly, which at least raised a smile.
“Let’s eat,” the dad said, and the boy grabbed a soft roll with both hands and tore in. Linguini in olive oil with olives and capers; father and son appeased angry stomachs.
“This’ll go great with our homegrown toms and basil,” he told his wife while looking at his son, then glanced at the window sill and saw that the basil seedling had withered. With an inward effort he held back from complaining, but was vexed by her silence. She had not eaten a bite, and this vexed him too.
“You need to eat,” he told her in a tone that had sprung from concern but been polluted by pique on its way out of his mouth. She recoiled at that, grabbed her son’s little hand and locked her jaw shut.
His presence had altered the nighttime routine. Now it was dish time and he was there with a towel in his hand and his son squinting up at a giant redwood and the halogen sun overhead. He looked down benevolently at his son, comprehended the wonder and awe in his face, and patted his head with a healing touch. The phone rang, right on schedule. His wife turned to him with fear and vindictiveness frozen in her features, and he gazed back with the radiant warmth he had shone on his son.
Fire and ice contended, the couple was joined, they had not been conjoined since the night of The Thing, and now that they were joined they could not be decoupled. Deep within her gaze a spark was ignited of malice and vengeance, bloodletting and guilt. His smile slackened to wistful melancholy. The phone pulsed on, each insistent beat a spike aimed at their bond; he quivered, he hardened. At last it relented, and they breathed again–they’d forgotten to breathe–and wore the flushed air of a newly-met couple that’s gone too far, too fast, wondering, as they smooth rumpled clothes and toss off awkward jokes while averting their eyes, what their coupling will mean. Since they didn’t know, neither spoke of it.
She took her son upstairs for story time, leaving him alone in the kitchen to commune with the garden beneath the lone light over the kitchen window sill. He touched the dirt in the basil pot. It was crusty and dry.
He stroked the dirt with his bony finger, then drew paired fingers up the stalk of the plant to support the withering lower shoots.
This was his wife’s doing; the plant was near death, and he apprehended his wife in the plant. Beneath artificial moonlight, he tweezed the caked dirt in long bony fingers and rubbed the fingers together to turn the dirt into powder. He filled the brass watering can with tepid water and a few drops of an iron-zinc solution and sprinkled it in, then massaged it into the soil with his fingers. He caressed a downcast leaf, his wife’s cheek. He jammed a kitchen skewer into the pot and tethered the plant to it with care, then set about polishing the little brass watering can while gazing at the pot. The phone renewed its assault with hammering rings. He froze and counted; at five he stopped counting, marched into the night to pluck snails from plants.