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Spring's hero

Heart gives hope.

Someone I look up to once told me I should always try to write as if I were writing to someone who had six months to live. Think of your reader, I was told, as a person not unlike yourself who is on her or his deathbed. Don’t imagine a romantic death. Imagine the real thing. Death that devours, eats and chews away at flesh. Death that hurts and smells bad.“Somebody like you, kitten,” he nudged me, “somebody in pain,” he said. “Pain does more than hurt flesh; pain cuts you off.”

Subject — what one wrote about — he went on to say, made little difference. Heart did. “Lead with your heart not with your head.” He laid his hand on my wrist. The light caught on the hairs on the back of his arm. The hairs glittered. Even though we were in a crowded restaurant, a hush seemed to have fallen across the tables. “Facts, how many missiles we have tucked away in Nevada or what makes the combustion engine work, a reference librarian can tell you that.” He took a sip of the dark resinous wine he had ordered. Made a few smacking noises. Took a deep breath. “You should always try to tell something true about yourself.” I know I flinched, that some muscle in my arm, on which his long fingers lay lightly, must have fluttered, and I guess that I frowned, because he went on to pat my arm and say, “Don’t be embarrassed. And,” he added, beginning to laugh so wildly he choked for a moment on the wine, “give hope.”

This “talk” (because it was a “talk,” a speech, not conversation) came back to me because I was trying to write about spring and how happy I’d been out on the patio under bright sunshine, dribbling white pebbles into six big, new red clay pots, filling the pots with gritty sand and soil and sowing three pots with okra seed, two with yellow crookneck squash, and fit into the sixth two cauliflower plants. I also admired buds emerging from the pots in which last fall I’d tucked hyacinth bulbs. Not only that, I’d repotted the bushy Christmas tree, three Christmases old and so badly rootbound that it has been unable to grow. Not only have I never gotten around to buying this tree a star for its tip, but I don’t know whether it’s pine, spruce, balsam, or some other evergreen. I never can keep straight names of trees that have needles rather than leaves. “Christmas tree” will have to do.

Writing about this, I’d wanted to make the point that spring’s return offers hope and that working in a garden, however small, helps that hope along. I was having trouble. One of the best editors I’ve ever had tells writers, “If it’s not going well, look for what you’re leaving out, for what you’re resisting, what you don’t want to say. That omission may be precisely what the piece needs.”

I had left out something. I’d left out the old man who seems to have taken up residence on our block. He’s maybe 60, maybe as old as 65, white-haired, blue-eyed, sturdy, and muscular. He’s always wearing the same navy blue slacks, a tan windbreaker. He carries a plastic garbage bag. Different days the bag’s different sizes, depending, I guess, on what he’s gathered and been given. Unless you’d seen him, as my next-door neighbor and I had, rising up early on several mornings out of the matted vines at the side of my neighbor’s house, leaning against the house’s red bricks and hunching over, drinking water from the hose, you’d not identify him as a person who lives on the street. He doesn’t seem to drink, or, at least we never see him with one of those paper sacks wrapped tight around a bottle. I’m scared of him. He looks angry, like some- one whose mood could change on you any second.

When I’ d gone out to the patio to begin work that morning, the old man had walked out from behind the seven-foot-high board fence that separates my patio from the house next door. His windbreaker and trousers were soaked from drinking from the hose, and a thin veil of pinkish blood, blood oozing out of a cut on his forehead and diluted by the hose water, fell down over his face. I walked quietly. I’m sure he’d not known I was there until he saw me. We stared. We did not speak. His eyes blazed. He rushed past me, down the street. For a moment, I felt sick to my stomach.

I had also left out my father.

I never wear gardening gloves, and out on the patio that morning the soil under my bare hands felt busy. When I was a child my father, turning the plot for his World War II victory gardens, used to tell me that were I to put an ear tight against the ground and were I to listen very hard, I would be able to hear, through static, all the way to China.

What would I hear?

“Chinese music.”

Well, what would Chinese music sound like?

Rolling his eyes, my father would recite on a sing-song atonal spiraling: “Chop Suey. Chiang Kai-Shek. Chow Mein. Shang-hai. Madame Chiang. Foo-yung.” My father would be huffing and puffing from the effort of breaking rough dirt and bursting clods. He’d put his red rubber-booted foot up on the turning fork, grip the fork’s handle and then, throwing back his head the way opera bassos do when they’re ready to belt it out, he’d toss aside the turning fork, throw out his arms, and from deep in his belly sing, “Mary had a little lamb, a little lamb.” Then he’d laugh and laugh.

My father said that the static, through which I had to listen so hard, was the sounds growing made. That, and worms wriggling. So when I’ve got my hands down in the dirt, I hear, as if I were a crazy aural hallucinator, the underground suckling and sobbing of tight corn against grains splitting open their yellow skin, sprouts breaking out of lima beans, wispy new radish roots coaxing up deep waters.

My father, for me, was spring’s hero. Yearly, he planted huge gardens, and after he retired he built a greenhouse in which he started flowers and vegetables for bedding out into his gardens. I think of his body underground — he’d always said he wanted his body to be worm food, and he’d left a letter of instruction, ordering that no autopsy be performed nor any embalming (and in the state where he was buried, to not be embalmed was not illegal). His doctor, a close friend, took him out of the gardening clothes he died in and dressed him for burial. He was buried in a pine box. By now worms and beetles will have eaten his fine features down to bone, will have gnawed his hands and toes, chewed his navy blue suit to rags, chewed his made-for-him- in-England shirt, his socks. The shoes must still be there.

I can’t seem to tell anyone — and tell with ardor to match my feeling — how much I miss my father. How much, even after almost four years have passed since he dropped dead, I still want to show him this or tell him that. Also, the longer he’s been dead the less I remember what I liked, admired, loved about him. He did the best he could.

Nothing that could co me out of my mouth equals what’s in my heart.

Back to that morning. I hustled into the house, two at a time, the half-dozen small pots of hyacinth. Last fall I had lined up the six red clay pots, filled the pots with soil mix, and buried one hyacinth bulb, nose up, halfway into that mix in each pot. Now, ten weeks later, green leaves and pointed buds swelled out of the dirt.

I’m particularly fond of hyacinth for its colors (I prefer Delft Blue, Pink Pearl, and the White L’Innocence) and perfume, which is strong and sweet and also fleshy and musky, even unpleasant. There is something vulgar about the hyacinth. A teenager who’s picked up a few Freudian clichés might observe this vulgarity follows from the phallic shape the flower takes, as hourly in a warm sunny room, the flowered spike rises up and swells between the thick blade-shaped flowers.

Greek mythology has it that Hyacinthus was the youngest son of a Spartan king. His great beauty attracted Apollo, who killed him accidentally when teaching him to throw the discus. An other version has it that Apollo’s rival, the wind god Zephyrus, out of jealousy deflected the course of the discus in such a way as to strike Hyacinthus and kill him. In both versions Apollo, sick with grief, caused a hyacinth to grow out of the pool of Hyacinthus’s blood (similar stories have violets, roses, and anemones growing from the blood of the dead).

I’d had to call over my neighbor to help me transplant the rootbound Christmas tree. I knew better than to ask him if this were pine or spruce because he’s one of those entirely urban types whose areas of expertise have little to do with botany. While he held the tree in a horizontal hip hold, rather like the hold one uses to carry a toddler on one’s hip, and I examined and then pulled apart the tree’s hairy roots, we talked about the old man. He looks healthy, we said. We agreed that somewhere he’s getting meals and haircuts and shaves. We thought he probably was not a mental case.

My neighbor, still balancing the tree across his slim hip while I separated the last of the tightly entwined roots, said he wasn’t s cared of the man. He was, he said, annoyed by the man’s urinating up against his house, because his bed, he snorted, is right above the vines in which the man has been sleeping. So he knows this man’s the one who does this, late at night, maybe 3:00 in the morning. “A cataract of piss, against the wall. Like a stallion pissing. And when it gets hot out there, it’s going to stink, like a pissoir.”

But what can we do about him, I asked, helping my neighbor tip the tree into the hollow I’d made in the soil. We sunk the tree’s roots, then, into the billowy hum us. I got on my knees. I patted down the soft dirt around the tree’s trunk. The bark oozed drops of black pitch. The bark was scratchy and scraped my cheek. I was thinking maybe I should’ve bought a bigger pot, but it was too late.

My neighbor brushed the dirt from the tree off his hands, into the air. The dirt flew off in the breeze, the vermiculite chips sparkling as if someone had tossed out a confetti of minuscule diamonds. He looked up at the sky across which wind was blowing puffy white clouds that broke up the sun. He eyed a sooty-headed Stellar’s jay who screamed down at us from the rooftop. “Hush,” he shouted at the jay, and then lowering his voice, he said maybe there was some- thing — but what? — that we could learn about this guy.

The Christmas tree looked awkward in its new soil. My neighbor tweaked the tree’s topmost branch, pulled off a tinsel strand, worried the silver between his fingers. “Something other,” he said, “than call 911. Because the police wouldn’t, couldn’t, anyway do anything.” We tried out various scenarios. None were practical. What solutions we came up with were more about us than about him. Were more about what would make us, for at least a few hours, feel less selfish. “Maybe,” my neighbor concluded, “we have to accept that there’s nothing we can do.”

When writing’s not going well, I think it’s true that you do well to look for what you’re leaving out. There is also the opposite, more obvious tack: you may need to cut part of what you’ve written. Trying to write about how happy I’d been out on the patio, I hadn’t wanted to write about my father, because I don’t enjoy feeling how much I miss him. But at least my father fit into the scheme of the piece I was trying to write. I didn’t want to write about this old man because I didn’t want to face how much his presence clouds the pleasure of my garden. I didn’t want to read and reread in my own words my lack of generosity, my increasing hardness of heart toward people who have no home. The old man didn’t fit in the story I was telling; the scaffolding of text my story produced was not strong enough to make myself do what’s right. I know what’s right. I do not do it.

So I took out the old man. The piece was tidier.

Writing about spring, I’d also wanted to bring in some allusion to the cycle of dying and rebirth. Reference to that cycle shows up so regularly in greeting cards and Protestant hymns that when it appears, those of us who are cynics smell a rat.

Then I put the old man back in. He has made himself part of my garden. I want to leave him out. I need to leave him out. I know I shouldn’t. Nothing that comes out of my month equals what’s in my heart. The crookneck squash seed I planted by July will be droopy with yellow fruit. The okra stems will be fat with pods. Next Christmas the Christmas tree will have grow n a foot. I will learn its name. I will buy a star for it. My father, beetles perhaps even now are chewing your shoes. I am remembering you, planting and hoping.

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Targets: The Bogdanovich-Corman connection

It’s impossible to ignore the amount of thought and resourcefulness enmeshed in every frame

Someone I look up to once told me I should always try to write as if I were writing to someone who had six months to live. Think of your reader, I was told, as a person not unlike yourself who is on her or his deathbed. Don’t imagine a romantic death. Imagine the real thing. Death that devours, eats and chews away at flesh. Death that hurts and smells bad.“Somebody like you, kitten,” he nudged me, “somebody in pain,” he said. “Pain does more than hurt flesh; pain cuts you off.”

Subject — what one wrote about — he went on to say, made little difference. Heart did. “Lead with your heart not with your head.” He laid his hand on my wrist. The light caught on the hairs on the back of his arm. The hairs glittered. Even though we were in a crowded restaurant, a hush seemed to have fallen across the tables. “Facts, how many missiles we have tucked away in Nevada or what makes the combustion engine work, a reference librarian can tell you that.” He took a sip of the dark resinous wine he had ordered. Made a few smacking noises. Took a deep breath. “You should always try to tell something true about yourself.” I know I flinched, that some muscle in my arm, on which his long fingers lay lightly, must have fluttered, and I guess that I frowned, because he went on to pat my arm and say, “Don’t be embarrassed. And,” he added, beginning to laugh so wildly he choked for a moment on the wine, “give hope.”

This “talk” (because it was a “talk,” a speech, not conversation) came back to me because I was trying to write about spring and how happy I’d been out on the patio under bright sunshine, dribbling white pebbles into six big, new red clay pots, filling the pots with gritty sand and soil and sowing three pots with okra seed, two with yellow crookneck squash, and fit into the sixth two cauliflower plants. I also admired buds emerging from the pots in which last fall I’d tucked hyacinth bulbs. Not only that, I’d repotted the bushy Christmas tree, three Christmases old and so badly rootbound that it has been unable to grow. Not only have I never gotten around to buying this tree a star for its tip, but I don’t know whether it’s pine, spruce, balsam, or some other evergreen. I never can keep straight names of trees that have needles rather than leaves. “Christmas tree” will have to do.

Writing about this, I’d wanted to make the point that spring’s return offers hope and that working in a garden, however small, helps that hope along. I was having trouble. One of the best editors I’ve ever had tells writers, “If it’s not going well, look for what you’re leaving out, for what you’re resisting, what you don’t want to say. That omission may be precisely what the piece needs.”

I had left out something. I’d left out the old man who seems to have taken up residence on our block. He’s maybe 60, maybe as old as 65, white-haired, blue-eyed, sturdy, and muscular. He’s always wearing the same navy blue slacks, a tan windbreaker. He carries a plastic garbage bag. Different days the bag’s different sizes, depending, I guess, on what he’s gathered and been given. Unless you’d seen him, as my next-door neighbor and I had, rising up early on several mornings out of the matted vines at the side of my neighbor’s house, leaning against the house’s red bricks and hunching over, drinking water from the hose, you’d not identify him as a person who lives on the street. He doesn’t seem to drink, or, at least we never see him with one of those paper sacks wrapped tight around a bottle. I’m scared of him. He looks angry, like some- one whose mood could change on you any second.

When I’ d gone out to the patio to begin work that morning, the old man had walked out from behind the seven-foot-high board fence that separates my patio from the house next door. His windbreaker and trousers were soaked from drinking from the hose, and a thin veil of pinkish blood, blood oozing out of a cut on his forehead and diluted by the hose water, fell down over his face. I walked quietly. I’m sure he’d not known I was there until he saw me. We stared. We did not speak. His eyes blazed. He rushed past me, down the street. For a moment, I felt sick to my stomach.

I had also left out my father.

I never wear gardening gloves, and out on the patio that morning the soil under my bare hands felt busy. When I was a child my father, turning the plot for his World War II victory gardens, used to tell me that were I to put an ear tight against the ground and were I to listen very hard, I would be able to hear, through static, all the way to China.

What would I hear?

“Chinese music.”

Well, what would Chinese music sound like?

Rolling his eyes, my father would recite on a sing-song atonal spiraling: “Chop Suey. Chiang Kai-Shek. Chow Mein. Shang-hai. Madame Chiang. Foo-yung.” My father would be huffing and puffing from the effort of breaking rough dirt and bursting clods. He’d put his red rubber-booted foot up on the turning fork, grip the fork’s handle and then, throwing back his head the way opera bassos do when they’re ready to belt it out, he’d toss aside the turning fork, throw out his arms, and from deep in his belly sing, “Mary had a little lamb, a little lamb.” Then he’d laugh and laugh.

My father said that the static, through which I had to listen so hard, was the sounds growing made. That, and worms wriggling. So when I’ve got my hands down in the dirt, I hear, as if I were a crazy aural hallucinator, the underground suckling and sobbing of tight corn against grains splitting open their yellow skin, sprouts breaking out of lima beans, wispy new radish roots coaxing up deep waters.

My father, for me, was spring’s hero. Yearly, he planted huge gardens, and after he retired he built a greenhouse in which he started flowers and vegetables for bedding out into his gardens. I think of his body underground — he’d always said he wanted his body to be worm food, and he’d left a letter of instruction, ordering that no autopsy be performed nor any embalming (and in the state where he was buried, to not be embalmed was not illegal). His doctor, a close friend, took him out of the gardening clothes he died in and dressed him for burial. He was buried in a pine box. By now worms and beetles will have eaten his fine features down to bone, will have gnawed his hands and toes, chewed his navy blue suit to rags, chewed his made-for-him- in-England shirt, his socks. The shoes must still be there.

I can’t seem to tell anyone — and tell with ardor to match my feeling — how much I miss my father. How much, even after almost four years have passed since he dropped dead, I still want to show him this or tell him that. Also, the longer he’s been dead the less I remember what I liked, admired, loved about him. He did the best he could.

Nothing that could co me out of my mouth equals what’s in my heart.

Back to that morning. I hustled into the house, two at a time, the half-dozen small pots of hyacinth. Last fall I had lined up the six red clay pots, filled the pots with soil mix, and buried one hyacinth bulb, nose up, halfway into that mix in each pot. Now, ten weeks later, green leaves and pointed buds swelled out of the dirt.

I’m particularly fond of hyacinth for its colors (I prefer Delft Blue, Pink Pearl, and the White L’Innocence) and perfume, which is strong and sweet and also fleshy and musky, even unpleasant. There is something vulgar about the hyacinth. A teenager who’s picked up a few Freudian clichés might observe this vulgarity follows from the phallic shape the flower takes, as hourly in a warm sunny room, the flowered spike rises up and swells between the thick blade-shaped flowers.

Greek mythology has it that Hyacinthus was the youngest son of a Spartan king. His great beauty attracted Apollo, who killed him accidentally when teaching him to throw the discus. An other version has it that Apollo’s rival, the wind god Zephyrus, out of jealousy deflected the course of the discus in such a way as to strike Hyacinthus and kill him. In both versions Apollo, sick with grief, caused a hyacinth to grow out of the pool of Hyacinthus’s blood (similar stories have violets, roses, and anemones growing from the blood of the dead).

I’d had to call over my neighbor to help me transplant the rootbound Christmas tree. I knew better than to ask him if this were pine or spruce because he’s one of those entirely urban types whose areas of expertise have little to do with botany. While he held the tree in a horizontal hip hold, rather like the hold one uses to carry a toddler on one’s hip, and I examined and then pulled apart the tree’s hairy roots, we talked about the old man. He looks healthy, we said. We agreed that somewhere he’s getting meals and haircuts and shaves. We thought he probably was not a mental case.

My neighbor, still balancing the tree across his slim hip while I separated the last of the tightly entwined roots, said he wasn’t s cared of the man. He was, he said, annoyed by the man’s urinating up against his house, because his bed, he snorted, is right above the vines in which the man has been sleeping. So he knows this man’s the one who does this, late at night, maybe 3:00 in the morning. “A cataract of piss, against the wall. Like a stallion pissing. And when it gets hot out there, it’s going to stink, like a pissoir.”

But what can we do about him, I asked, helping my neighbor tip the tree into the hollow I’d made in the soil. We sunk the tree’s roots, then, into the billowy hum us. I got on my knees. I patted down the soft dirt around the tree’s trunk. The bark oozed drops of black pitch. The bark was scratchy and scraped my cheek. I was thinking maybe I should’ve bought a bigger pot, but it was too late.

My neighbor brushed the dirt from the tree off his hands, into the air. The dirt flew off in the breeze, the vermiculite chips sparkling as if someone had tossed out a confetti of minuscule diamonds. He looked up at the sky across which wind was blowing puffy white clouds that broke up the sun. He eyed a sooty-headed Stellar’s jay who screamed down at us from the rooftop. “Hush,” he shouted at the jay, and then lowering his voice, he said maybe there was some- thing — but what? — that we could learn about this guy.

The Christmas tree looked awkward in its new soil. My neighbor tweaked the tree’s topmost branch, pulled off a tinsel strand, worried the silver between his fingers. “Something other,” he said, “than call 911. Because the police wouldn’t, couldn’t, anyway do anything.” We tried out various scenarios. None were practical. What solutions we came up with were more about us than about him. Were more about what would make us, for at least a few hours, feel less selfish. “Maybe,” my neighbor concluded, “we have to accept that there’s nothing we can do.”

When writing’s not going well, I think it’s true that you do well to look for what you’re leaving out. There is also the opposite, more obvious tack: you may need to cut part of what you’ve written. Trying to write about how happy I’d been out on the patio, I hadn’t wanted to write about my father, because I don’t enjoy feeling how much I miss him. But at least my father fit into the scheme of the piece I was trying to write. I didn’t want to write about this old man because I didn’t want to face how much his presence clouds the pleasure of my garden. I didn’t want to read and reread in my own words my lack of generosity, my increasing hardness of heart toward people who have no home. The old man didn’t fit in the story I was telling; the scaffolding of text my story produced was not strong enough to make myself do what’s right. I know what’s right. I do not do it.

So I took out the old man. The piece was tidier.

Writing about spring, I’d also wanted to bring in some allusion to the cycle of dying and rebirth. Reference to that cycle shows up so regularly in greeting cards and Protestant hymns that when it appears, those of us who are cynics smell a rat.

Then I put the old man back in. He has made himself part of my garden. I want to leave him out. I need to leave him out. I know I shouldn’t. Nothing that comes out of my month equals what’s in my heart. The crookneck squash seed I planted by July will be droopy with yellow fruit. The okra stems will be fat with pods. Next Christmas the Christmas tree will have grow n a foot. I will learn its name. I will buy a star for it. My father, beetles perhaps even now are chewing your shoes. I am remembering you, planting and hoping.

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