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When I ran into Roosevelt in the housewares aisle of Goodwill, he was grieving over a small box. “Why would someone get rid of this?” he asked, showing me the box, which held a pewter-colored cross with “On Your Graduation” engraved at the top and various other words following, which I was unable to read before he had pulled it back to gaze at it again, sadly. “It’s brand new!” he said, shaking his head. He pointed out that the cross was still fastened to the bottom of the box with its original plastic ties. “Now, you know that someone meant to give that to a graduate and for them to keep it, and here it is in the Goodwill. I imagine there’s a story behind that.”

Roosevelt introduced himself, and within seconds we were fast friends, imagining the stories behind some of the other offerings that cluttered the metal shelves of housewares. He showed me a gadget that puzzled him. It was a red and white plastic thing, with a mechanism that allowed it to be clamped to a table or countertop. While he and I were able to figure that much out, we were not able to understand what the gadget actually did. There was a crank, and when you turned it two spool-like pieces rotated and scratched each other’s backs, as it were. It was similar to an apple peeler, but with no place to put an apple and no blade.

“Could it be to make pasta?” Roosevelt wondered, and it was possible to imagine strips of dough curling gently through the spools. He urged me to buy it—at 99 cents, it was certainly affordable—but at that moment I didn’t have the good sense to snap it up, and when I returned to Goodwill the next week, after failing to get it out of my head, I couldn’t find it. I had tarried too long. Someone who knew what it was or who was quicker to grasp its possibilities had beaten me to it. Just as well—I only wanted it as a curiosity, and as a reminder of Roosevelt.

Not that I’m likely to forget him, because bumping into Roosevelt at the Goodwill was a rich experience. While he bemoaned the pitifulness of a discarded graduation gift, I picked up a set of four dessert plates, each with a different fruit in the center. He admired them, saying, “Wouldn’t those look pretty on a table? I love a nice table setting.” He told me that he does most of his family’s cooking, and that at Thanksgiving one of his sons had begged him to carve the turkey and serve the side dishes early, since he had to move on to a gathering at his in-laws’ house. This, to Roosevelt, was an outrage. “We had 12 more people coming!” he said. “I told him I wasn’t going to take spoonfuls out of the dressing, or the squash casserole, and then put the dishes on the table later with mouseholes in them!”

I interrupted him to dig a pen and pad of paper from the bottom of my purse and write “mouseholes in the dressing and squash casserole” so I wouldn’t forget it.

“Here’s something you won’t forget,” he said, and he pulled out his phone and thumbed through the photos it held. “That’s my granddaughter,” he said, pausing at a shot of a cute 16-year-old in a high school basketball jersey, “and here’s what I want you to see.” He held out the phone, and I saw a close-up of a bee stuck on a barbed-wire fence.

“Can you believe that?” Roosevelt asked. “He flew straight into that fence, head first, and impaled himself with his wings still spread!”

“He bumbled,” I said, mesmerized.

Lately I’ve been running into all sorts of interesting people and stories. I came across a post on Maria Popova’s amazing site, brainpickings.org, that mentioned Luke Howard, an amateur scientist (and Quaker!) who created the names of clouds. The true focus of the piece was Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, poet and lover of clouds who was thrilled almost beyond all reason at the cloud classification system Howard developed. It inspired Goethe to write poems about each type of cloud. My favorite of the poems is “Nimbus.”

Now downwards by the world’s attraction driven,
That tends to earth, which had upris’n to heaven;
Threatening in the mad thunder-cloud, as when
Fierce legions clash, and vanish from the plain;
Sad destiny of the troubled world! but see,
The mist is now dispersing gloriously:
And language fails us in its vain endeavour —
The spirit mounts above, and lives forever.

That would make an interesting hymn.

I had never heard of Luke Howard, so I went looking for more of his story. This led me, in turn, to the Cloudman. The Cloudman is (or was) the late Dr. John A. Day, a professor of meteorology and cloud-lover whose website includes information on Howard, photographs of clouds by classification, and tips on how to photograph the Near Sky. “Look up and see!” the Cloudman urged, and still urges through the power of the Internet, several years after his death at age 95.

While considering clouds, I came across a silly play by Aristophanes called The Clouds. The entire thing is online, but I refuse to link to it because I couldn’t believe what I was reading—surely it was a joke? Socrates is a main character, and he is treated with shabby disrespect. But no, the play is real: I looked it up on Wikipedia, and was glad to learn that it was unpopular when first performed. That was satisfying. I did like Wikipedia’s description of the play’s Chorus: “…a parade of the Clouds, the patron goddesses of thinkers and other layabouts.”

It is pleasant to layabout and look up at the clouds, watching them shift and change before our eyes, whether we’re doing any actual thinking or not. It is equally pleasant to layabout and remember folks like Roosevelt, Luke Howard, and the Cloudman, who drift into view and then drift out again. Sometimes it isn’t even a whole person who floats past; sometimes it’s the merest wisp of a personality. While shopping online recently, I read a review of a cotton matelassé coverlet. The reviewer gave the coverlet four stars, adding: The delivery was on time except for the shams; they came a few days later, due to the tornado.

I imagine there’s a story behind that.

October 2012 022

A rerun, originally posted in June 2011.

We all knew Daddy wanted an ice cream freezer for Father’s Day. He’d been talking about it since Memorial Day. We heard about how nice it would be to make homemade ice cream like he had growing up. How he loved to help pack the churn with ice and salt and would personally sit on top while my granddaddy turned the hand crank. Couldn’t quite say what his favorite flavor was—peach was good if it had been a good season for peaches, and strawberry was a feast for the senses. Then again, there were times when pure vanilla was all that any man could ask for.

So I was hardly astounded when Mama says at supper on the Friday prior to Father’s Day, “Frank, I’ve got your Father’s Day ice cream freezer if you want to try it out tomorrow.”

Daddy stopped chewing ham, says, “Why are you telling me about my Father’s Day present on a Friday night? Don’t you know Father’s Day is Sunday?”

“Yes, Frank, I know that, but I thought you’d like to try the ice cream freezer before Sunday afternoon.” Mama’s voice rose in pitch until the “noon” in “afternoon” sounded like angels blowing the trumpets for Armageddon. Time for Daddy to retreat, but he couldn’t do it.

“Just one of these Father’s Days I’d like to get a damn surprise,” he grumbled low.

Mama heard him perfectly well. She said, “One of these Father’s Days you’re gonna get a damn surprise,” and they finished supper in cold politeness, with exaggerated good manners and a silent passing of the ham, potato salad, and sliced cantaloupe. They only pretend to get mad, though, and they were chatting in a friendly way as Mama cleared the table and Daddy collected ham scraps for our dog, Sarge.  

On Father’s Day I gave Daddy a card from me and baby Bethany, then Mama gave him his ice cream freezer—a slick electric model she had picked out from Consumer Reports.

You don’t have to make a mess with ice and salt,” she explained. “You freeze the tub for 24 hours, add your ingredients, and let ‘er rip.”

“Well,” Daddy said, and I noticed his upper lip curled as he said it, “then I guess in 24 hours maybe we can enjoy a bowl of ice cream.”

“Suit yourself,” Mama said. “I’m going to enjoy mine in 20 minutes. I’ve had the tub in the freezer since Thursday.”

Daddy explained that he had wanted a White Mountain hand-cranked ice cream freezer like the one from his childhood. “This requires electricity from start to finish,” he said. “And Dixie won’t get to sit on it while I crank.”

“This is the 21st century, Frank. Anyway, this marvel of efficiency was one-third the cost of the four-quart White Mountain hand-cranked freezer with the triple gear action.” She said that so Daddy would know she’d done her research. Mama is a great one for research. She added, “And who was it once said, ‘He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has’?”

“I don’t know, but I expect whoever said it is dead,” Daddy replied.

We made a batch of strawberry ice cream and ate it on the back patio with Sarge watching every bite. Daddy says it would be folly to speculate on Sarge’s parentage, but if he had to guess he would say Sarge is either a teacup Doberman or a new strain of pocket beagle.

Mama went inside to get more napkins. “You like this, don’t you, girls?” Daddy said, savoring his ice cream. “So do I. Now, Dixie, don’t tell Mama, but I believe ice cream tastes better when you don’t have to turn a crank forever to get it.”

“You’re welcome,” Mama said through the kitchen window.

Sarge edged closer to Bethany. He knew she was the family member most likely to lose a grip on her food. Sure enough, before long Bethany sent nearly a full scoop tumbling onto the grass. Sarge lapped up that ice cream as quick as he could lick. Then he stopped, went stiff, staggered a few steps sideways, shook his head, and stretched out.

“Brain freeze!” Daddy said. “He’ll be all right, Dixie. Mama, look at your dog.”

Mama approached Sarge to rub his head, but he rolled his eyes and showed her his teeth. “Well, he’s not yet over it,” she said. “Leave him alone.” She and Daddy thought it was funny, and Daddy did an imitation of Sarge getting brain freeze until I thought they’d both pass out from laughing.

We stayed outside until the lightning bugs came out. When Sarge recovered from his brain freeze, I threw a ball for him to chase until both of us were panting. I flopped onto the grass at the far end of the yard, and Sarge climbed in my lap to chew on his ball. In the dim light I could see Mama holding Bethany; she and Daddy talked and laughed softly. They looked like people in a dream.

Daddy called out, “Dixie, what are y’all doing out there in the gloaming?”

I wasn’t sure what gloaming was, but I knew what I was doing so I called back, “I’m rejoicing for the things I have!”

END

Writing is not just jotting down ideas. Often we say:  “I don’t know what to write.  I have no thoughts worth writing down.”  But much good writing emerges from the process of writing itself.  As we simply sit down in front of a sheet of paper and start to express in words what is on our minds or in our hearts, new ideas emerge, ideas that can surprise us and lead us to inner places we hardly knew were there.

One of the most satisfying aspects of writing is that it can open in us deep wells of hidden treasures that are beautiful for us as well as for others to see. – Henri Nouwen, Bread for the Journey

Henri takes a rather optimistic view of things, in my opinion. Writing often fails to open in me a deep well of hidden treasures, but instead taps into a vast, dismal swamp of stagnant water.

Ann Patchett, in an excerpt from This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, comes much closer to the truth:

For me it’s like this: I make up a novel in my head…. This is the happiest time in the arc of my writing process. The book is my invisible friend, omnipresent, evolving, thrilling… This book I have not yet written one word of is a thing of indescribable beauty, unpredictable in its patterns, piercing in its color, so wild and loyal in its nature that my love for this book, and my faith in it as I track its lazy flight, is the single perfect joy in my life. It is the greatest novel in the history of literature, and I have thought it up, and all I have to do is put it down on paper and then everyone can see this beauty that I see.

And so I do. When I can’t think of another stall, when putting it off has actually become more painful than doing it, I reach up and pluck the butterfly from the air. I take it from the region of my head and I press it down against my desk, and there, with my own hand, I kill it. It’s not that I want to kill it, but it’s the only way I can get something that is so three-dimensional onto the flat page. Just to make sure the job is done I stick it into place with a pin. Imagine running over a butterfly with an SUV. Everything that was beautiful about this living thing — all the color, the light and movement — is gone. What I’m left with is the dry husk of my friend, the broken body chipped, dismantled, and poorly reassembled. Dead. That’s my book.

For me it’s like that, too.

Henry Williamson has not yet achieved the healthy level of self-awareness that Patchett and I have. In A Clear Water Stream, a wonderful book about his love of waterways and fishing, Henry waxes incoherent about the process of beginning a new writing project:

I sat in my writing room, pen in hand, white paper before me. A book has a beginning, a middle and an end. It must have a curve like the Sun in space, as seen from the earth. First the Sun mounts upon its orbit, brings wider illumination to all life. Then as the Sun reaches to the heights, it stays a while in glory, before descending to the west, where, among clouds hanging upon the earth it has enlivened, it reveals its colours through the vapours of the upper airs; and one more day is ended when it sets below the rim of ocean. Then darkness is to the earth; and the nightingale, which has migrated by the pattern of stars, sings to the night; while the river glows with fluorescent hues as seen by the eyes of fish, the rocks may be dark red, a white flower of crow’s-foot shines blue. Constellations underwater glitter with colours; every thing has its spirit; all things have life, even the dead. I could feel these presences, of the elements that composed me; but they would not take form.

Note to Henry: The butterfly is dead. Stand up, and walk away from the empty husk. Actually, by the end of that passage even Henry is aware that he has run out of juice–though you have to admire a man who can write a line like, “Then as the Sun reaches to the heights, it stays a while in glory.” Now that is excellent material for a hymn.

Even a fragment of a butterfly’s wing is a lovely thing, and worth preserving. Who knows what secrets may be revealed in the patterns of the wing? Last weekend we visited the North Carolina Zoological Park, where literary quotes about nature are sprinkled around on signs. One included a snippet of Pablo Neruda, who wrote in The Book of Questions:

When does the butterfly read
what flies written on its wings?

There is actually a butterfly in England called the white-letter hairstreak. The name is fantastic, and I wondered if there were secret messages written on them, only discernible to someone clever and patient enough to catch one. When I tried to find a picture of this butterfly, I saw that it is nearly always referred to as “the elusive white-letter hairstreak.” The photo featured above was taken on July 15, 2013 by a member of a party of folks on a Wildlife Field Visit with the Bradford City YMCA. A write-up of the excursion states:

[L]ate in the day a three-man search party set out to track down the elusive white letter hairstreak butterfly, which was found by Martin almost as it was time to leave the site.

Well done, Martin! Well done, indeed.

Now excuse me while I back my SUV over the elusive little creature.

Book Lover's Cookbook

Such a sweet gift—a piece of handmade writing, in an envelope that is not a bill…. – Garrison Keillor, “How to Write a Letter” from We Are Still Married, a passage included in The Book Lover’s Cookbook, by Shauna Kennedy Wenger and Janet Kay Jensen.

Two of my favorite things on earth are handmade writing and homemade cake, and the two collide in The Book Lover’s Cookbook. In the book, a passage from a piece of literature that describes a meal or a particular food is followed by a recipe for the featured dish. Sadly, the authors were unable to include some of my favorite literary foods, such as Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and her homemade mango ice cream, or Gene Stratton Porter’s description of how Eudora’s mother fills her new lunchbox in A Girl of the Limberlost.

I’ve always enjoyed reading about food, and writing about food comes pretty naturally, too. Because I write a lot of letters and bake a lot of things, handmade writing and homemade baked goods often collide in my own life. They did so in October 2014 when I wrote a letter to my friend, Ruby, about the cake I made the preceding Saturday night, in a rush, for homecoming at my parents’ church:

I called my mom at 8:00 last night, and she reminded me that their church’s homecoming was today and asked didn’t we want to come. Ernesto said sure, so I decided I better go ahead and make the cake I had planned to make on Sunday afternoon.

I already had the butter out to soften, so that was good. But I wanted to make a recipe that I had found in my grandmother’s old cookbook—one that she had written in by hand on a blank page of the Lizzie Sills Friends Cookbook. It was called Orange Slice Cake, and it included chopped dates and two cups of nuts. I had everything I needed, and thank goodness I bought the dates that were already chopped. But I had to chop the walnuts and the one pound of orange slice candy. That took forever. I also hit a snag with my hand mixer. I always keep the beaters for it in one particular kitchen drawer, and I could only find one last night. So I creamed the butter and sugar with one beater, and beat in the four eggs. It took longer to get full coverage of the bowl, plus, it looked ridiculous. That was actually nice, because while I was striving mightily to get everything beaten properly, I kept laughing at how silly my unbalanced, one-beater mixer looked.

My grandmother had written “Bake at 325 for 3 hours.” Three hours!! I preheated the oven to 350, and then turned it down to 335 hoping that would help. It was 9:00 before the cake went into the oven, and I finally took it out at 10:45, well after Ernesto gave up on the project and went to bed. I let it rest for 10 minutes, then had a devil of a time getting it out of the Bundt pan. I was in despair, when I finally gave it one last, violent shake and yes! it popped out. I made a glaze of powdered sugar and orange juice and doused the hot cake, cleaned up the worst of the mess, and went to bed.

The cake turned out okay, I think. I like it. It’s sort of like fruit cake but it wasn’t a true replica of Grandma’s cake, because I had used half the amount of dates that the recipe called for and didn’t have a full pound of orange slices because I had eaten about a quarter of them, and I left out the coconut because it didn’t seem necessary.

Maybe I’ll begin a project to compile vintage recipes into a volume, with annotations. When I was thumbing through the Lizzie Sills cookbook this week, a page torn from the December 1992 North Carolina Farm Bureau News fell out. The headline reads “Try These Favorite Holiday Recipes.” There was a recipe for Honey Bun Cake that sounded easy and fabulous, but the information, as is so often the case with these passed-along recipes, is lacking. “Pour one half batter in greased long pan.” What exactly does “long pan” mean? I guess I could find out, assuming the woman who submitted the recipe is still among the living. The Farm Bureau included the full name and mailing address of each submitter, so I know that Honey Bun Cake came from a Mrs. Dupree in Willow Spring, NC. I bet she would be surprised to get a letter from me with a question about her cake recipe.

I own a 1997-vintage church cookbook from a Baptist congregation in Louisville, Kentucky. Even though it is slightly more modern than Lizzie Sills  and the Farm Bureau article, there are some mysteries in it, too. On page 45 is a recipe for Gorilla Crush, which involves milk, orange sherbet, orange juice, and a banana. There is a wonderful sandwich filling called Fake Shrimp Salad. The ingredients are one can of ground Spam, one grated onion, one grated carrot, and enough mayo to make the stuff spreadable. The instructions are simple: “Mix all together in mixer – delicious!” I am most interested, though, in the Upside Down Pecan Apple Pie. It sounds fabulous—you make a sort of streusel mix and put it in the bottom of a pie pan, then place the bottom crust on top of it. Next, add the apples, sugar, and spices, and crown it with a top crust. Then it gets tricky. The instructions read: “Fold edge of top crust under bottom crust.” The next step is: “Fold edge of top crust under bottom crust.” No matter how many times it is repeated, I don’t get it. Maybe if I had the multiple crusts in front of me I would understand how that works. After baking, you must keep the pie upright for 5 minutes, and then invert it onto a plate. I am going to try this pie, even if (as I suspect) I will end up with third-degree burns from hot syrup scalding my arms during the inversion process.

For now, until we have Honey Bun Cake and Upside Down Pie to enjoy, here are some more tasty morsels pulled from The Book Lover’s Cookbook:

Alice Hammond’s Laws of the Kitchen

  1. Soufflés rise and cream whips only for the family and for guests you didn’t really want to invite anyway.
  2. The rotten egg will be the one you break into the cake batter.
  3. Any cooking utensil placed in the dishwasher will be needed immediately thereafter for something else; any measuring utensil used for liquid ingredients will be needed immediately thereafter for dry ingredients.
  4. Time spent consuming a meal is in inverse proportion to time spent preparing it.
  5. Whatever it is, someone will have had it for lunch.

From The Complete Murphy’s Law: A Definitive Collection by Arthur Bloch


E. B. White, speaking of the classic Charlotte’s Web:  “I haven’t told why I wrote the book, but I haven’t told why I sneeze either. A book is a sneeze.”


Finally, here is one of my favorite quotes, found tucked between recipes in the book. It is from If You’re Afraid of the Dark, Remember the Night Rainbow by Cooper Edens:

If there is no happy ending … make one out of cookie dough.

Pluto, from nasa.gov

nasa.gov

I sat in the Seahorse Bakery Café on Ocean Street, like always on a Thursday afternoon after teaching English Literature (Chaucer to Pope). I generally celebrate the weekend by having a late lunch at the Seahorse followed by one of their exquisite tiny cupcakes, each one a masterpiece of Swiss buttercream, chocolate curls, mango curd filling, or perhaps golden raspberries dusted with confectioner’s sugar—but not all at the same time, of course.

On this final day of classes for the year, I had claimed my usual table at a window overlooking the boardwalk, as far away as possible from the wedding-cake display. My table has a water view. Not of the sea, but of one of the public showers at the top of the dunes. The shower is situated conveniently near the top of the stairs that come off the beach, and when in use there is a nice spray of sparkling water that lifts my spirits.

The fly in my waterview soup is this homeless guy. His Thursday schedule is nearly identical to mine; he often begins his shower at 2:30 or so, about the time I’m finishing my delicious cupcake. I believe he is homeless because he is always dirty and mostly unshaven and his clothes are a mess and most significantly he’s taking a shower at a public beach facility in the middle of a weekday afternoon. Like me, he has a routine. He arrives at the shower, removes his shirt and terrible boots, digs around the roots of the sea oats that crowd the stairway to the beach, pulls up a buried Publix bag, removes a bar of dark soap, and proceeds to wash himself with it. He begins by removing his shirt and rinsing it in the flow, then he carefully hangs the shirt on the banister to the stairs. He soaps his head and face and neck and arms and torso and even his pants and finally his feet and toes. He always gives his toes a little extra attention, which used to give me serious creeps before I got used to it. Then he puts the soap back in the Publix bag, buries it in the sand beside the stairway, rinses the sand off his hands, picks up his wet shirt, slings it over his shoulder, and swaggers off like a new man. He actually holds his head up higher and looks around with more confidence. The first time or two that I saw him I was appalled, but by this time I had come to admire his attitude.

I’ve been spending a lot of time at the Seahorse Bakery Café. I love their tiny cupcakes, of course, but the main reason for my devoted patronage is that I am eating off a $150 wedding cake deposit. My fiancé, Charles, changed his mind a month before our wedding and then took our honeymoon to Jamaica by himself. The Seahorse doesn’t do refunds, but they are allowing me to eat the balance.

I didn’t want a credit at the Seahorse. I want to be clear about that. I wanted my damn money back. I really felt after the Charles blow-up that the only thing that could possibly make me feel better would be a whole lot of money flowing back into my bank account. I was fortunately able to get back my entire catering deposit, and I sold my wedding dress on Craig’s List for a profit, if you can believe that. But the Seahorse remained adamant that “no refunds,” which was printed clearly on every flat surface in the place, meant no refunds. As it happens, “no refunds” did not necessarily mean no in-store credit, but I did have to threaten to bring my attorney sister in to negotiate before I got it. They made me sign a one-page contract stating the deal was null and void if I told anyone about the credit; it also stressed the fact that a 20% gratuity would be added to each meal. Fine. I signed it. Did it make me popular at the Seahorse? It did not. But at this point popularity wasn’t a thing I cared very much about. I was more intent on winning battles.

As I finished my curry chicken salad and my ginger-almond cupcake with apricot cream, two ladies scraped back the chairs directly behind mine. I heard Christine, the owner of the Seahorse, say, “I’ll get the tasting samples. In the meantime, you can look at some of our designs.” Her heavy binder of cake photographs hit the table top, and soon the special language of Wedding Cake filled the air with a sticky fog, turning the sweet apricot cream to dust in my mouth.

I despise wedding cake. I know what you’re thinking, but there is a very big difference between a tiny two-bite cupcake and a wedding cake—which is nothing more nor less than a fraudulent tower of spun-sugar that implies a fairy-tale fantasy is about to unfold. Don’t get me started. It was all enough to make me consider forfeiting my remaining $72.62 in credit and never coming near the Seahorse again.

With remarkable strength of character, I sat silently through the royal icing, the rolled fondant, and even the bittersweet chocolate faux bois. But when the discussion turned to hand-tinted gum-paste flowers (orchids, roses, lilies—in any delicate hue the bride desired), I could stand it no more. I tipped my chair back on two legs and intruded my head into the personal space between the bride and her mother. “Gum-paste flowers are foul luck,” I said. “Don’t even think about ordering gum-paste flowers.”

I couldn’t see Christine’s reaction to this comment, but a long, cold silence raised the hair on my arms. “Gotta go,” I said, striving for a cheery tone. My chair legs hit the floor, hard.

As I hurried out the door, I saw that the homeless shower guy was heading down the sidewalk, too, in his jaunty, post-shower attitude. Albert, who runs the Italian water ice stand on the boardwalk, yelled as he walked by, “Dave! What’s up, man?”

“Hey,” the shower guy said. “Not too much. Just takin’ it easy.”

Odd that a homeless guy should have a name and acquaintances. As Dave continued up the sidewalk, I lingered at Albert’s stand. “You know him?” I asked casually, tilting my head toward Dave’s retreating and scrupulously clean figure.

“Sure,” Albert said. “It’s Dave.”

I waited, but further information would have to be requested. “Is he okay?” I asked carefully.

“I guess,” Albert shrugged. “Looked okay to me. What did you hear? Did he fall out of a palm tree and damage his skull?”

“Not that I’m aware of. Does he climb palm trees?”

“What are we talking about here?” Albert was certainly touchy. “Dave trims palm trees; it’s possible he could fall out of a palm tree. And by the way, are you going to order anything?”

“I wasn’t planning to,” I said. “I’m not hungry—I just had lunch with a cupcake for dessert.”

“Then move along, girlie,” Albert said. “You’re blocking my sign and costing me business.”

“Can I ask one more question?”

“Only if you’re walking away while you’re askin’.”

I began to back away from the stand. “How do I get in touch with Dave to trim my palm trees?”

Albert shook his head in disgust. “How do you ever find a guy to trim your palm trees? You look in the classifieds of the Beaches Leader.”

I picked up a copy of the Leader and drove home, where I spread the paper out on my tiny kitchen table and turned straight to the classifieds. And there he was! “Palm trees trimmed, brush cleared. Call Dave.”

I can’t explain why I called him. But I had a couple of months free before classes began again, and there was a sort of tangled mini-jungle at the side of my house that did need to be cleared out. I couldn’t do it, because it looked spidery and scary. Charles had promised that he would take care of it for me, but Charles obviously found the solitary true jungles of Jamaica more alluring.

Dave showed up pretty close to the time he’d said he would, and in half a day my little jungle was gone and I had a strip of cleared land between my house and the neighbor’s fence for the first time ever. As Dave drove off in his tiny gray pick-up truck with my jungle debris packed into the bed, I contemplated the amazing ease of hiring a man to do hard work.

“I’m better off than I was,” I mused. “I have found a guy to do the yard stuff when I need it done, without any contractual commitment. That’s all I need a guy for! Plus, I have weekly lunches lined up for the entire summer, at least, at no charge. This is going to be perfect. I’m really happy about the way things turned out. I’m very, very happy.”

I was so happy that I spent the rest of my afternoon lying on the couch, pointing the remote at the TV and sightlessly channeling around. PBS had a beautiful gardening show on, and I supposed I should try to figure out something to do with my new side yard, but that seemed like an impossible task. Instead I hit Mute and fell asleep.

When I woke, the room was dark and PBS was receiving photos from a satellite that was hurtling into outer space. Space is so beautiful. I turned up the volume. The narrator was talking about Pluto. The photos of space were replaced by a graphic that showed chunks of space rock being pulled together to form the tiny planet (or whatever it is considered now). Poor Pluto. Stripped of planet status. I thought I could understand how Pluto must feel—desolate, barren, unwanted. It was especially touching because for a period of time it had been a part of something grand and beautiful, only to be cast off and left spinning in terrible, limitless darkness.

I tried to pick up the narrative of the program: Where did that debris come from? Was that what had happened after the Big Bang—chunks of stuff began whirling around, and some of it started attracting smaller chunks and they began to stick together? I liked this idea, and in my personal world it made sense. Something blows apart into a million pieces, and some of the bits find others and make connections.

Then it hit me: This is what happens when your heart is hit by the Big Bang of a failed relationship. At first it breaks apart and seems as if it will never be fixed, but then it begins to clump back together like those chunks of gray space rock that were still on the screen, turning into Pluto. All I had to do was wait until the chunks began to orbit back around and started clumping together again. Once it was back in one piece, it would be harder, and stronger, and cold.

* * *

I hired Dave to help me plant the side yard. Over the course of several weeks, we planted three climbing roses and a variety of annuals. Dave devised a trellis, then cleaned the gutters. When all that was done, he insisted that it was long past time for my two palm trees to be trimmed. “Fine,” I said.

I can’t say that all this togetherness furthered my knowledge of Dave much. I still had no idea why he showered at the beach and where (if anywhere) he went afterward. But that was what I wanted—a cold, businesslike contractual relationship where we both knew exactly where we stood. It seemed to me the perfect—perhaps the only possible—male/female relationship.

On the other hand, I sometimes felt that it was not too smart to get tangled up in Dave’s world. What if, once the weather turned cooler, he started turning up on my back porch to sleep? It could happen. I was probably his most consistent employer, and I was pretty sure that he knew I kept a spare key in the mailbox. Maybe it wouldn’t have to be winter, either—the rainy season was upon us, and during a bad storm he could easily show up seeking shelter. I looked at him now. He was tightening the laces of his hideous boots in preparation for going into my front-yard palm tree.

“What are your plans for this weekend?” I asked. “I think they’re calling for rain.”

Dave looked up at me. “I’m going fishing with my buddy,” he said. “If you ever want fresh snapper or whiting, I can set you up.”

“Thank you.” To be set up with snapper or whiting—this was what my life had come to.

Dave summoned up the rags and tags of some nearly forgotten social graces and said, “You?”

I waved a hand. “Oh, nothing planned. My life is in a holding pattern. My wedding had to be canceled, and now I’m taking time to re-evaluate and see what new connections develop.” It was the most I had shared with him to date.

“I’m sorry to hear that. Must have been tough.”

“Actually, I got most of the money back.”

He said, “I meant it must have been tough on your heart.”

“I’m recovering,” I said brightly. “I have a heart like Pluto.” I explained about how tiny, icy Pluto had been a wreck before it formed into an almost-planet. It just took time and solar magic. “Anyway,” I finished, proud of my powers of Pluto-like recovery, “I sold the dress, and got my deposits back for the catering and flowers and photographer. The only thing left to recoup is my wedding-cake deposit, and the bakery is letting me eat on credit until it’s used up.”

Dave gazed at me as I talked. He said, “For God’s sake, let it go. You’re staying stuck by going back there every week. Walk away.” He was silent for a beat, then added, “Who wants a heart like Pluto? An icy slab of rock? Give me a heart like the sun.”

“Why?” I asked. “I mean here we are, unloved and unwanted. Much better to have a heart like Pluto, right?”

“Speak for yourself,” Dave said curtly. “I have a mother, a brother, a girlfriend, and a six-year-old son. I’m not unloved, or unwanted.”

He seemed to emphasize the “I’m,” and that annoyed me. “Oh, I see. Well, lucky you. My mistake. I’ve noticed you taking showers down at the beach, and you know, it made it look as if you might not have a place to go. I thought you were homeless, frankly.”

“You thought wrong. I’m not homeless, and I’m certainly not heartless.”

“I’m not heartless, either!” I said. “I’m like Pluto. And PBS says that Pluto is not just a lump of ice and rock—it’s a dynamic world that undergoes dramatic atmospheric changes. I’m having a dramatic atmospheric change, too, but once it passes, I’ll be warm-hearted again. I know I will.” I stopped, then I added, more calmly, “I haven’t always been like Pluto.”

He wouldn’t look at me. He shimmied up the palm tree. Two minutes later, a browning palm frond slapped the ground near my feet. I went inside so I wouldn’t get hurt. Spiders are fond of palm fronds.

I wondered how in the world it had happened that a guy I had seen bathing at the public beach shower was in my yard, trimming my palm trees, taking my money, and criticizing my heart. There was something very wrong with this picture.

That reminded me of a jigsaw puzzle I had gotten for my 13th birthday. Unlike normal jigsaw puzzles, the box didn’t have a picture on the front that showed what the completed puzzle would look like. It had a vague, surreal outline of a landscape and a large black question mark in the middle. At the top right corner was this message: “Can you complete this 750-piece Mystery Puzzle? Unveil a beautiful garden with a mystical fountain at its heart.” I had worked really hard on that puzzle, but in the end I had to refer to the color photo that was tucked inside the box for emergencies.

Life was like that now. I had imagined a picture on my personal Life Puzzle Box that was simple and distinct—a wedding, a marriage, a life with Charles. A dog. Now that Charles was out of the picture, so to speak, the entire puzzle was a mystery. I didn’t have a husband at all; I had a yard man who wanted a heart like the sun.

I took a bottle of water out to Dave, but he was still up the tree and now there was a pile of brown fronds beneath it. I waited, and soon he scuttled down the tree backward. He used the cold water bottle to wipe his forehead, then uncapped it and drank the entire thing. “Nice job,” I said.

“Don’t worry, I’m going to pick ’em up and haul ’em away,” he said.

“I wasn’t being sarcastic. I think the tree looks great.”

Actually, the tree looked weird. It only had three green fronds sticking out of the top now. I thought perhaps he had overdone the trimming by quite a lot, but just then one of the neighbors passed by on his bike and said, “Wow, great tree, dude. Can you do mine?” He and Dave made arrangements for a future trimming, then Dave turned back to me.

“I’ll come back tomorrow afternoon to do your other tree,” he said. It was only 2:00, but I remembered that he had a strict shower schedule.

“All right,” I said, and he left. The palm fronds remained behind. I wondered if he would come back and get them, or if once again I had been jilted and left to pick up the pieces. That idea caused another dramatic atmospheric change. I started crying and couldn’t seem to stop. Pluto was in for a bout of heavy weather.

On Monday, I went to the Seahorse Bakery. When I walked in, Christine came over and opened her mouth, probably to yell at me.

“Wait!” I pre-empted her hissy fit by holding up my contract for the wedding-cake credit. Then I tore it into six pieces, and handed them to her. “I’m done,” I said. “Thank you for your patience, if not exactly your kindness, during what has been a difficult period in my life.”

I could tell Christine was moved. “Listen,” she said, “I promise I’ll create a magnificent wedding cake for you when you do get married. The next guy will be the right one, I’m sure of it. You know what I think you should do? I think you should have a cake made up of our mini cupcakes.”

I stared at her. “That’s brilliant!” I said. “I adore your mini cupcakes, and I could have every flavor!” I pictured my future cake coming together like Pluto, with mini cupcakes spinning through space and glomming together.

“I’ve got a birthday in October,” I said. “Maybe I’ll order a cupcake cake for that.” Christine beamed at me in a really nice way, and I think a chunk of my messed-up heart fell back into its proper place.

I walked out of the bakery feeling freer and anticipatory. I stopped at the water ice stand and bought a mango ice from grumpy old Albert. I ate it right there on the boardwalk, looking out over the beach and the tourists and the skateboarders and all the terrible color and confusion of a typical beach community. It’s a fragile world, as easily broken as a coral reef and constantly under threat of hurricane, nor’easter, simple erosion, and a steady onslaught of fat tourists and their trash. Frightening things are hurtling toward this world, with no warning of sudden atmospheric changes.

For now, though, the sun shone upon us all. I squinted up at it, and tried to imagine my heart as a bright, burning sun instead of a cold and lonely planet. It felt pretty good. Maybe there was some life left in it yet.

I stopped at Big Lots on my way home and bought a pair of spider-proof gloves. I had palm fronds to pick up, and there was no earthly reason why I couldn’t take care of them myself.

END

Note: An earlier version of this story appeared in Mused – the BellaOnline Literary Review in Spring 2011.

Sunday Goat Post

Rose's closeup

Rose is ready for her close-up.

 

I believe that it’s nearly spring, because the goats have been behaving as if it is. On a warm afternoon last week we strolled out for a long visit; they love the attention. As soon as we walked into the pasture Rose and Iris began running in circles at top speed. In my family we call this ripping. Usually it pertains to dogs, but evidently goats can rip, too.

Rose is built like a deer, very graceful and spry. While ripping, she leaps into the air like a dancer, giving her entire body a joyful little twist. Iris, being fatter and having shorter legs, is unable to twist and leap like Rose does, but she rips as best she can, and occasionally all four feet leave the ground. I can tell by her expression that, at least in her mind, she is leaping as high as the clouds.

Goat Parade 035

Iris, in a noble and very earth-bound pose.

 

 

Lumina

Lumina/No Diving

I

My pleasure still is to follow the stream, to walk along its banks in the right direction, in the direction of the flowing water…. I can’t sit beside a brook without falling into a deep reverie, without seeing once again my happiness…. The stream doesn’t have to be ours; the water doesn’t have to be ours. The anonymous water knows all my secrets. And the same memory issues from every spring. – Gaston Bachelard, Water and Dreams, as quoted in Landscape and Memory by Simon Schama

II

When I was eight years old, I used to spend a lot of time in the woods behind our house, especially after a snow. The snow never lasted long, and as it melted it flowed down to where the landscape leveled off to its lowest point. There the snowmelt gathered and began to forge a path, as best it could, toward the proper creek on the far border of our property. There were many impediments to its flow. The path it took was littered with leaves, fallen branches, tree roots, rocks. So I would act as an engineer, following the flow until it reached a block and pooled. I moved branches, dug out leaves that clogged the passage, whatever it took to relieve the pressure and send the water forward. It was mesmerizing to watch as a small gout of cold, pearly water was freed from some hindrance and rushed forward, with more speed, until it was thwarted again and needed my assistance.

Like Gaston Bachelard, I am happy whenever I see water moving forward.

III

In February 2008, we got 6″ of snow overnight in St. Louis. After a day spent inside, we decided to go to Forest Park on Saturday afternoon and watch the sledding down the big hill in front of the art museum. We had heard that this was a popular place to go when it snowed, as there was a wide, sweeping hill descending in front of the statue of King Louis IX on horseback, who gave silent encouragement to those taking the plunge. People slid downhill using every sort of conveyance—plastic trays, curved-front toboggans, slices of cardboard, Flexible Flyers, and snowboards. One group had replaced the wheels on a bicycle with skis; this contraption flew downhill smoothly and with great speed. Three girls stacked themselves on one toboggan like a sandwich and rode down. On another, the dad was stretched out on his belly and a little boy sat upright on his back. Several small boys built up humps of snow that sent them airborne when hit at precisely the right angle. There was an area filled with abandoned sledding vehicles, including a pretty good-sized kid’s swimming pool and an ironing board with no legs. A lost and found area had been created, where bright hats, scarves, and mittens hung on the branches of trees and shrubs, dripping and adding to a cobweb of rivulets that flowed downward toward the foot of the hill, where they were absorbed by a row of hay bales meant to prevent the sledders from sailing into the road.

IV

Sir Walter Raleigh did not believe in following the natural flow of water. Simon Schama describes Raleigh’s ill-fated voyages up the Orinoco in search of El Dorado, during which Raleigh concluded that to follow the flow of a river was to head toward civilization, while the attempt to navigate upstream was an attempt to return to Eden. He must have believed that if he could have mastered the Orinoco, if he’d been able to proceed past the cascade that thundered over steep, black rock, he would have reached the throne of God. Schama concludes: “To fight a way upstream, [Raleigh] now realized, was to pursue a sacred mystery.”

Anymore all of life seems to be a fight upstream, through various hazards and perils. Yet I seldom get the sense that I’m approaching closer to a sacred mystery.

V

My friend Ruby’s daughter was baptized at the age of 7 in the Christian Church, Disciples of Christ—a full-immersion denomination. This was probably in the 1970s. “She said she wanted to be the first person baptized that day,” Ruby told me, “and I thought how nice it was that at least one of my children was so devout. Then she told me why—said she didn’t want those other people’s sins washing off on her.”

VI

Ernesto told me that scientists have confirmed that there was once water on the moon. “Do you know what would be good made with water from the moon?” he asked.

“Moonshine!” I said, quite pleased with myself.

“No. Moon water would be good for washing down moon pies.”

VII

On Mother’s Day Sunday we carried a table down by the pond and spent the afternoon there, fishing and eating dessert and sailing my dad’s remote-control sailboat. (The Christmas that my dad got the sailboat, he tried it out while maintaining security in the event of a malfunction: He tied a fishing line to the boat and had one of the grandchildren work the fishing pole, feeding out line and then reeling it back as needed while the sailboat circumnavigated the pond.) That Mother’s Day I caught two fish and got a tick, so I won the impromptu fishing tournament. My nephew Clark was the runner-up. He caught two fish but didn’t have a tick. It was the tick that put me over the top.

VIII

May 2013 was a drizmal month. The early weeks were gray, cloudy, spitting rain, and no more than 57 degrees. One week we had a particularly violent rainstorm, during which our friend Wanda left her umbrella on the front porch, and it blew away. Wanda fretted about her umbrella, and even ventured outside to look for it as soon as the rain eased off. She didn’t find it in the front yard, or the back or side yards, so she gave it up as lost. It was probably wedged half-open in the ditch, which roared with rainwater. Having given up on the umbrella, she fretted about their American flag, which she feared would be torn to shreds as it popped in the wind and driving rain. She sent her husband, Marvin, out to get the flag and bring it inside. To Wanda’s surprise and delight, Marvin returned with both the flag and her umbrella. “I don’t know why in the hell you didn’t see that umbrella,” Marvin said. Usually he’s mild-mannered and polite, but he was feeling stressed that day. “Maybe because I didn’t go to hell to look for it,” Wanda replied.

IX

One night at 7:30 there was a tapping at the back door. Kent and Brenda were there, and they invited us to go fishing. So we put on our shoes and mosquito repellant and went. Kent and Ernesto sat on the tailgate of Brenda’s truck, and we bumped our way around the corner to the pond. The three white geese thought that we were there for their benefit, and they paraded in front of us as we fished, using night crawlers from WalMart. As soon as we threw a line in the water, a fish bit. We filled a bucket with small bream that Kent wanted to clear out of the pond, but none of us ever caught one of the big ones. Kent did pull in a good-sized bass, and Brenda did, too. I hooked a large fish that ultimately broke my line, and Kent had to tie a new hook on for me. As he did so, he said, “A year ago I couldn’t have seen well enough to tie this hook. That cataract surgery is a great thing. Wish they had something like it for ears.” When the bucket was so full that fish were able to leave it at will, we put the rods away.

X

…[A] giant with a hairy torso and a shaved head, with a copper ring in his nose and a heavy iron chain on his ankle, [watched] over a pirate chest. When it was opened by the giant, the chest gave off a glacial exhalation. Inside, there was only an enormous, transparent block with infinite internal needles in which the light of the sunset was broken up into colored stars.

…knowing that the children were waiting for an immediate explanation, José Arcadio Buendia ventured a murmur:

“It’s the largest diamond in the world.”

“No,” the gypsy countered. “It’s ice.”

– Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

XI

A bulletin board near the door of the Wolf River Outdoor Center held layers of announcements about whitewater rafting trips on rivers all over the country. One big blue flyer described a run down a river in West Virginia that was recommended for advanced kayakers because of all the holes, and standing waves, and whirlpools and other things that I’d never heard of. The last line of the flyer read: “Plug up your orifices and join us!”

It was about a twenty-minute ride by van from the Outdoor Center to the drop-off point. When we got there, we strapped on lifejackets and helmets, and listened to Eddie’s safety speech.

“This is not virtual reality, guys,” he said. “This is real reality, and the river can be dangerous. Of course, that’s what makes it so much fun, right? But bad things can happen, so listen up.

“First of all, in the event of an out-of-boat experience—also known as swimming—pick your feet up and float on your back until you get to a place where you can safely reach the bank. Keeping your feet up makes it harder for one of them to get wedged in the rocks, and your helmet will protect your fragile noggin.”

He gave us pointers on how to sit in the raft, and paddling, then he made us all sign a paper that I think promised we wouldn’t sue the Wolf River Outdoor Center if we died in the river. Then he described the course of the river, letting everyone know what to expect. “There’s a Class III rapid at the end of our run, just below the Center, called Washing Machine Falls. It’s called that because if you get trapped in the hole you’ll go through three cycles: agitate, rinse, and spin—not necessarily in that order. But never fear—before we get there, we’ll hit the bank and reconnoiter. There’s a good space, river right, to pull up the rafts, and we’ll all walk up the trail to get a look at the Falls so you’ll know what to expect before you go through them. At that point, if anybody doesn’t feel comfortable about proceeding, you can call it a day and walk down river to the final take-out point. That’s where we’ll meet the vans that will bring us back up here to the Center. If you elect to risk it, your picture will be taken by a trained professional with a clear view of the Falls, and you’ll have an oppor­tunity to purchase your photo when we return to the Center. So be sure and smile pretty.”

The ride started off tamely enough. We pushed off from shore, what Eddie called a “put-in.” Mine was the fourth raft to go in a group of six. Our goal was to keep the raft positioned in the smoothest part of the river at all times, so we had to stay alert and watch for rough spots, rocks, and debris. But there were stretches where the water was fairly uniform, and there weren’t many rocks. As we floated through those places, we could lift up our paddles and look around at the scenery, and I had time to be amazed at where I was, and what I was doing.

There was never much time to relax, though. And the rough sections were a lot of fun, with everybody in our raft yelling at everybody else to watch out and row left or right to avoid something scary. Eddie could be heard even above the noise of the river, shouting, “Flow with the river, children! Flow with the river!”

In spite of this excellent advice, our raft came to rest on top of a large pointy rock. The rock ended up smack in the middle of the underside of the raft, which formed four pockets hanging down around the rock. The girl in the outside rear corner floated almost nonchalantly out of her pocket. The rest of us watched, laughing like crazy, as she assumed a perfect man overboard position, with her feet sticking up. The expression on her face as she floated past was one of complete and utter disgust.

Eddie came up behind us in his raft, and talked us off the rock. Then we paddled downstream as fast as we could to where our castaway waited for us. She was standing in knee-deep water with her hands on her hips. When she climbed back in the raft, she splattered as much cold water on us as possible.

Later, we walked up the hill to the Outdoor Center, where I bought the photo of my group’s final descent through Washing Machine Falls. There we were, our raft bouncing up over the cascades of churning, vicious water. Four of our six paddles were in the air, everybody poised to row like crazy as soon as we hit water again. The camera caught me in my position at the front of the raft, looking straight downriver, with my mouth open and white sparks of water flying all around.

– Me, excerpt from a manuscript that lives in a drawer

XII

When you do things from your soul, you feel a river moving in you, a joy. – Rumi

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