The Lettuce Grave
They laughed as I earnestly, methodically, plucked lettuce seeds from the Burpee envelope, buried them in the rocky Connecticut soil, watered them and whispered a silent prayer to St. Jude. An hour later, I was finished, exhausted, my entire lettuce plot — eight feet long by four feet wide – planted.
“Good luck, Bronx-a-la,” Ken taunted as he tilted his red plastic cup to his lips and finished off his first refreshing tropical drink of the June morning. It was our first weekend of the summer and, in fact, our first all together, at a rented house in rural Connecticut. “It’s too late to plant lettuce – I don’t care what the magazine said,” he continued. “The strawberries are already up and ready for picking but, good luck…with your lettuce grave.”
Ken’s wife, Jan, burst out laughing. “It does. It looks like a ‘lettuce grave,’” she said.
Roxy, my wife, shook her head. She scrunched up her cute little mouth into that coy, bemused look of hers. Her ability to temper her patronizing tone with an adorable, kewpie-doll facial expression was no doubt gleaned from her mother, the reigning East Coast Champion of passive-aggressive, manipulative behavior, although according to those who should know, every relationship is manipulative; one only recognizes the manipulation when the partner is not particularly good at it.
“Let him try, it’s his first time,” Roxy said, unpacking some of her favorite platitudes.
“He’ll have to learn the hard way – to make things grow, you have to follow instructions. There are certain life-balances in play, when you plant. It’s chemistry. You can’t fight Mother Nature.”
I looked at Roxy blankly, disappointedly, and then down at my feet, and wondered how such an intelligent, successful woman could actually mouth such tripe. It was too early in the day to artfully argue, and I hadn’t had enough caffeine to fuel anything close to a witty riposte. Instead, I simply curled my lip and growled, like a feral dog. I wished at that moment that I was a dog, for then I’d have been able to precisely act as I felt at that moment. I’d have bitten the three of them.
Yes, I growled, and they looked at me as if I was nuts.
I was their target, and an easy one, at that: They grew up together, chums since childhood, as affluent suburbanites, nestled amongst pink-cheeked, cozy little families, in homes with manicured ornamental lawns and the latest major appliances.
Unlike Roxy, Ken and Jan, I grew up in a careworn corner of New York, lined not with solid private homes and cool, leafy oaks but, rather, with decayed, graffiti-marked walk-up flats and tortured trees of indeterminate species, their branches festooned with shopping bags from the Red Apple supermarket that grimy summer gusts would blow upwards, like dirty plastic kites.
Years later, as young adults, Roxy, Jan and Ken would flee their sterile suburbs for exciting media industry careers in New York City. That is, specifically, the island of Manhattan, for in those heady pre-new millennium days that seem oh so long ago, Brooklyn – which today is simply too cool for school – was definitely not an option.
Here, they lived in lily-white condo castles, wrapped in their firm belief that, yes, although they were protected by a platoon of security staffers and hosted dinner parties where the vittles were cooked in granite-countered, Poggen + Pohl kitchens, they were real, true-blue New Yorkers and that, yes, the Dominican derelict on their corner, the guy in cracked, white patent leather shoes who mumbled to himself except for when he burst out laughing, at nothing in particular, and who was a last vestige of their neighborhood’s hardscrabble heroin past, was “darling.”
Roxy joined her suburban friends in ganging up on me. Pushback would put her in a crabby mood and the way her hormones were kicking in, even the simplest argument would derail the whole weekend. And there was a lot of weekend to go.
Regarding the hormones: we were pregnant that summer. Roxy wore a demure, sleeveless cotton top, covering the stomach that held our first-trimester child, our very own imp, loose grey sweatpants and flip-flops. She gingerly touched the right side of her stomach and winced. Of course, at 12 weeks, Roxy was not yet even showing.
“This kid is gonna be a kick boxer,” she said.
At this stage of the pregnancy, the foot of the tyke was smaller than a tadpole’s, but I let it pass and imagined seeing ripples of raucous activity from within her womb.
“Anyone for another?” Ken said, motioning to the billet-strength blender glistening on the deck.
Along with the blender, Dr. Lynch, the owner of the summer home, supplied a grill big enough to compete in a West Texas BBQ contest, a wheezing fridge that – we were reminded in the owner’s three-page, single-spaced, handwritten note of household instructions – had to be defrosted weekly, an assortment of well-seasoned, cast-iron cookware that looked as if it might have been used to cook ‘possum in Daniel Boone’s day, and a 60s-era, avocado-colored electric stove that proved impossible to modulate.
“Pour me one, hon’, would ya?” Jan called, the clear plastic cup tilted up as she drained the last of her drink. She turned to Roxy. “You’ll be drinking again by the Holidays, don’t worry,” she said.
“I’m going to breast feed,” Roxy said. “My drinking days are over. For a long while.”
“So ‘Captain Trips’ is turning over a new leaf, huh?” Jan said, as she pulled a joint from a Marlboro soft pack tucked into the waistband of her cut-offs. She waved the plume of smoke away from Roxy. “Sorry,” she said. As Jan walked to the deck for her second drink, I looked up at her fit body, accentuated nicely by her shorty cut-off jeans and gauzy see-through blouse, shirt tails tied in the front to reveal the soft curve of her stomach and her pierced belly-button. I turned to Roxy, who was watching me, watching Jan, as the little flirt sashayed provocatively to the blender and took another hit on the joint. Holding her own belly in both of her hands, Roxy mouthed one word to me: “busted.”
I pretended not to understand, as Roxy walked over to the tool shed on the far side of the back lawn and undid the heavy latch, swinging the big old wooden door open wide. “Hey, look out for wasps and critters, babe,” Ken called out to her, oblivious, as usual, to the little pas de deux between me and his wife, as he obsessed with the blender and the second round of liquid refreshment.
Over the whine of the Waring, we heard clanging, metallic sounds from inside the storage shed, as Roxy rummaged through piles of rusted, spider web-encrusted garden implements sloppily hung from nails and dilapidated shelves.
I put down my Burpee lettuce seeds and walked over to the shed to help, when from within, we heard a BANG! followed by Roxy’s shriek.
Me, Ken and Jan ran. There, on the greasy planked floor of the shed, was Roxy, crying.
“A snake,” she screamed. “I saw a snake. Look!”
In the corner, behind a stack of shovels, rakes and hoes, was the skin of a garden snake. I ran to Roxy, as Ken pulled a pruning shears from underneath a rusted Flexible Flyer sled, using it to carefully lift the snake skin. Helping her to her feet, Roxy sputtered, hormones raging.
“I saw a snake, and I turned to run, and I tripped over his fucking. Leaking. Lawnmower. Dr. Lynch, that fucking slob; look at this place.”
She had torn her grey sweatpants, now thoroughly grease stained, and she had skinned her knees from her fall on the splintered wood floor of the shed. I looked for blood, blood seeping into the crotch of her sweats; there was none, thank God.
“I wanted to get you that watering can, to help with your lettuce,” she said, now crying, as I carried her out to the deck. I looked over my shoulder for the can; there was nothing there.
“I’m sorry I teased you about the lettuce. I really am. Forgive me?”
She tilted her face, still wet with tears and now smeared with garage grease. She puckered her lips and brought her hands together, as if in prayer, and I knew she was hurt, and also that she was trying to “cute” her way out of the earlier teasing. It worked; it always worked.
The whole planting idea came about earlier that morning, as I read an article I found while riffling through a Redbook Garden Guide on the checkout line at the IGA supermarket in Collinsville. The wide aisles of the supermarket here in northwestern Connecticut sent chills of excitement throughout my city slicker bones. Compared to the rancid meats, wilted produce and shuddering shopping carts found in our dirty little Manhattan markets, the IGA was mecca.
“Look, Hood Dutch Chocolate Chunk Ice Cream!” Jan said. Roxy’s jaw dropped and eyes widened. They remembered the brand from their New England college days, and they opened the store’s cold chest to pick out two half-gallons. “Hood ice cream is soooooo creamy,” Jan said.
“I call dibs on one of those half-gallons of ice cream – and the half-sour pickles too,” Roxy said.
The article, I said, as we loaded the car with groceries, explained that it was possible to plant various vegetables, fruits and herbs even at this point in the season.
“I had no idea,” said Ken.
“My little farm boy,” Roxy said, poking Jan in the ribs.
“What the hey,” said Jan. “Let’s go for it.”
On the way back to the house from IGA, we stopped at a garden center on Route 179, a place that catered more to rural types and the tradesmen hired by the weekend folk, judging by the row of worn Ford F-150s and Silverado’s in the gravel lot.
We bought brand-new, green-painted gardening implements, a battery of little tools that would be the envy of any home and garden cable show host worth his salt. We bought seeds. We bought potting soil. And we bought mulch.
“What exactly is mulch?” I asked, out of earshot of the sales clerk, as we loaded a 75 pound bag of the stuff into the way-back of the car. “Wasn’t there an Abbott and Costello bit about mulch?”
“No,” said Ken. “That was ‘peat moss.’”
“I think you need it,” Jan said, smiling dreamily at our young clerk in a Daisy Mae kind of way. “I think you really need a lot of it.”
I kept trying to catch his eye, to see if he was laughing at us as we walked out. Based on what we spent, each individual flower, vegetable or herb that bloomed would cost $6.35.
“Seems like an awful lot of mulch,” I said, closing the hatch. It felt different, kind of cool, actually, to have all this homeowner-oriented matèriel in the car. It felt…like an American thing to do. “Yeah,” I thought. “I’m loading a 75-pound bag of mulch into my station wagon. We’re going to grow produce.”
That’s right, station wagon. In preparation for The Tyke, I traded our BMW for a Subaru Outback and its four-doors, all-wheel-drive and down-home practicality. That was me, a model of down-home practicality. Clean living.
Ken and Jan planted basil, thyme and oregano, in a small plot of dirt just in front of the basement window.
“This window would be the perfect entry point for a psychopathic killer late some rainy night,” I said – ignored – as we worked.
“Herbs – that’s about as tough as planting weeds,” Roxy said, fumbling with the sticks needed for her project, the Jersey beefsteak tomatoes. “Now, tomatoes! That’s a manly assignment.”
“I’m going to plant lettuce,” I said, with conviction. “To go with Roxy’s tomatoes. To put on our burgers.”
Roxy came over and gave me a hug. “That,” she said, “is so darling.”
Jan turned to Ken. “You don’t do anything sweet like that,” she said.
Ken pulled a plastic bag of small dark seeds from the front pocket of his jeans. “No, but I do know the value of a cash crop,” he said, smiling broadly as he dangled the packet in front of Jan. “This ought to grow like a weed, dollface.”
Jan grabbed his butt and kissed him deeply, before turning to me and Roxy. “Oooh, what a man!,” she said, turning to me and winking.
That night, after the season’s first dinner on the deck, we flipped a coin to see which couple got the primo bedroom, the one with the canopied bed and little terrace, the one which included the only upstairs bathroom, the one with the old lithograph of a castle in Scotland, on the banks of Loch Ness – Boleskine, the caption read. The other bathroom was downstairs, just past the kitchen.
After a quick huddle, we called heads. We lost. We got the bedroom that belonged to the owner’s young daughter. The high-riser bed wasn’t too bad, as the mattresses were actually newer and firmer than the lumpy old bedding that graced Ken and Jan’s canopied canoodling center.
Our room was cozy, but lined with flouncy, bouncy, girly things. A plastic tea set. A little vanity table with combs, brushes and a big mirror. And, worst of all, dolls, rows and rows of horridly painted, wicked little dolls tossed haphazardly on knotty pine shelving, their faces angled so as to leer at me from every angle.
“Don’t these dolls bother you?” I whispered to Roxy, putting my Redbook Garden Guide down on the white wicker night stand. It was late, but I was unable to sleep. It was taking time for me to acclimate to nighttime in the countryside. The front door had only an easily defeated snap lock, and the windows had no locks at all. And I was a city boy, used to multiple Segal locks with laser cut Medeco cylinders, backed up by a Fox Police Lock, with its imposing steel bar placed in the foyer floor plate.
It all conspired to unnerve me: the moonlight bathing the treetops and fields, no police or fire truck sirens piercing the night, no peels of drunken laughter from throngs outside the bars in the streets below, no breaking glass, no car alarms. We were all alone, and this might as well have been the Overlook Hotel: lurking somewhere out there, was Jack Torrance and his bloody axe.
I motioned for Roxy, nearly asleep, to come over the bed-divide to my half of the high-riser, as I shut the tiny table lamp. “Honey, I don’t really feel like it tonight – are you mad?” she asked sleepily, her hair tousled upon her pillow. She apparently was too tired to hear the Jan show, with the incessant, rhythmic boom-boom-boom-boom from next door, interspersed with the oh-oh-oh-oh-OOOH Ken, oh Ken, oh Ken.
I put my head under the pink flannel blanket and prayed for sleep to deliver me from the live sexcapades, but after what seemed like an hour under there, it became too hot, so I sprouted my head back up.
Plus, I had to pee. And that meant walking through dollyland barefoot, in pitch darkness, going downstairs to the bathroom and coming back up again. I tried to postpone the inevitable. The noises from next door had subsided, replaced by Roxy’s light snoring. The poor kid was exhausted, I thought. So much fresh air.
My eyes swept the moonlit room, methodically examining every nuance of every artifact, hoping not to see one of the dolls move. Left to right, and right to left, I scanned rows and rows of painted faces, little booties, tiny curled fingers, curiously canted bonnets.
Worst of all were the ghastly faces of the clown dolls.
They were wedged between the more innocuous baby dolls; sick, twisted sentries surely purchased to haunt my night, their faces frozen in manic glee. Their seemingly random placement insured that in order to monitor the clowns correctly, completely, I had to examine every row of dolls throughout the room. Four walls, five shelves on each wall, probably twenty of the little bastards – maybe more – planted around the room. Each one capable of moving an arm, or winking an eye, or getting up, bowing dramatically and tipping its cap, as I lie there, loveless in Connecticut, having to pee, while listening to bugs and bullfrogs — and Ken and Jan – mate.
I glanced at the Timex Little Bo Peep alarm clock. It was 2:45 a.m. I had to find release and, with no coffee can or suitable vessel in sight, I carefully peeled back the covers so as not to wake Roxy.
Making a mental note to purchase a flashlight at the IGA next time, and vowing to eat more carrots in the weeks ahead, I summoned whatever night vision I possessed and, naked, slid my feet on the shag carpeting towards the bedroom door and the staircase beyond, which led downstairs to the one and only bathroom. I’d forgotten about Dr. Lynch’s fetish for flea market home decorations and impaled the arch of my right foot on the pointed ear of a wrought-iron Peter Rabbit door-stop, squelching a scream that would have awakened Bambi, Thumper and the rest of my new summertime neighbors. In keeping with the bunny theme of this late-night escapade, I hop-hop-hopped on my one good foot through the hallway and towards the promise of release in the bathroom, just beyond the kitchen.
I froze in mid-hop, holding my injured foot in my left hand: there was a light, a very low-wattage light, but a light nonetheless, on. In the kitchen.
I looked around for a weapon and, finding none, determined that my need to pee at this point far outweighed my fear of death from an intruder. I limped forward and down the stairs, ready to fight, as well as to void my bladder.
“Hi, want some?” It was Jan, wearing only white bikini briefs, eating her beloved Hood ice cream from the carton. She proffered the spoon, loaded with Dutch Chocolate. “MMMM, c’mon, it’s so creamy. Taste.”
“Hold that thought, I’ll be right back,” I said, limping to the task at hand, as she inquired after me, with a mouth full of Hood.
“Hey, why are you hopping? That looks pretty funny. All that…jiggling.”
Next summer, I thought moments later, as I peed a Niagara-like torrent, I will be a young father, and I will not share a weekend house with another couple, ever again.
Jan smiled, and continued to eat ice cream, as I passed her on the way back upstairs. Since I had made a mental note of Peter Rabbit’s location, I avoided the obstacle on my ascent to the second floor. Before entering the bedroom, I paused and listened as Ken, in his bedroom, and Roxy, in mine, both snored contentedly, although for very different reasons.
Thinking about it now, I guess I must have been half-asleep and dreaming because, as I entered my bedroom, I faced a full row of clown dolls on a single shelf. They were, in fact, lined up, smiling, and centered upon the wall directly over my half of the high-riser.
“Well, good morning, big guy,” Jan said as I walked down to the kitchen with Roxy the next morning. Jan elbowed Ken. “Sleep well?”
“I think my first act of redecoration this summer will be to put an empty coffee can in our bedroom,” I said.
“Doesn’t help me much,” Roxy said, yawning. “I’m starving, baby, make me some eggs. And try not to burn them on that funky stove of his.”
Ken and Jan were in cut-offs and tee-shirts, nuzzling. Ken reached over and turned on the cold water. The flow started with a cough and a sputter, before a steady stream of hard Connecticut water began. His tongue down Jan’s throat, he reached for the battered silver percolator and filled it with water, measured ten levels of coffee from the ceramic jar on the counter, put the basket and stem into the percolator, turned the front burner on high and set the coffee maker down.
“You are a master of multi-tasking, Ken, a marvel,” Roxy said, plopping down on a luncheonette styled kitchen chair.
“He is, he is,” Jan mumbled, her mouth still full of tongue.
“Good Christ,” I muttered, plopping a generous pat of butter into the worn Teflon frying pan. I looked over at Roxy. She gave me the “will-you-behave?” look.
“So, did you guys sleep well?” Roxy asked Ken and Jan.
p((.“Like a rock,” Jan said, and giggled.
“Me too,” said Ken. “How about you guys?” He scratched his stomach.
“I was soooo tired,” Roxy said. “Between the fresh air up here, and the imp, I could barely stay up once I got to bed.”
Jan turned to me. “And you? Could you stay up?”
I swirled the foaming butter around the peeling Teflon pan and wondered what DuPont’s miracles of modern chemistry would be released into our unborn child’s tiny bloodstream. I cracked three eggs into the hot skillet and gently shook the frying eggs as they set.
“No, I fell asleep right away,” I lied, side-stepping Jan’s tacky double-entendre. “Where does he keep the spices? Anyone know?”
Ken motioned to a wooden pantry door across the kitchen. I opened it to find shelves packed with dried spices, as well as old baby food jars filled with strange-smelling powders and herbs. On the inside of the pantry door was another lithograph of the Scottish castle, Boleskine. Next to it was a photo of Dr. Lynch and his wife, in front of the castle.
“Look,” I said, “this guy Dr. Lynch must be in love with Scotland.”
“Babe, the eggs are burning.” A curl of brown smoke spiraled up from the supposedly non-stick frying pan. I grabbed a spatula, freed the eggs, flipped them and shook the pan back and forth to keep them from sticking again.
“Nice wrist action there,” Jan said. “Well done.”
I plated Roxy’s breakfast and read the inscription on the bottom of the lithograph as I made my way over to the table.
“Get this,” I said. “It says: ‘Do What Thou Wilt Shall Be the Whole of the Law.’”
“Methinks Dr. Lynch is into some heavy Scottish, er, ‘magic’” Ken said. “That’s from Aleister Crowley’s writings.”
The three of us responded as one: “Who?”
“You know, Crowley – “The Wickedest Man In the World? Crowley…as in Ozzy Osbourne’s “Mr. Crowley? Helloo-oo? Black Sabbath? Jimmy Page? Huxley? Aleister Crowley? Jeeesh,” Ken said, “his picture is right next to Mae West’s on the Sergeant Pepper album cover; you people don’t know shit.”
Jan turned to Ken and launched into her not-too-shabby Ozzy impersonation. “Shar-on,” she screamed. “Shar-on…”
“Yeah, actually, Jimmy Page did own a castle on Loch Ness,” Roxy said. “I read that.”
“Boleskine,” Ken said. “That’s the one. That’s the castle.”
After breakfast, I motioned to Roxy. “C’mere, did you see this?” I said, motioning for her to follow me upstairs. Ken and Jan were in the backyard, entwined on a hammock slung between two pine trees.
“See what?” Roxy said, following me upstairs.
I opened the door to our room and nodded towards the clown dolls, still all in a row.
“What?” Roxy asked.
“Them,” I said. “Them.”
“Right, the clown dolls. Yeah, you’re right. They’re really cheesy.”
I shook my head. She didn’t get it. “No, they’re all in a row. They’re all together like that.”
Roxy shrugged, so what? “I used to arrange all my dollies in different ways too,” she said. “That’s what some little girls do.”
I debated whether to belabor this. Maybe I was dreaming. Maybe I didn’t remember how the dolls were originally arranged, or maybe I forgot something.
Roxy walked over to the row of clowns, which were bunched together neatly, a mass of garish paint, faded little costumes and dusty wool hair. She reached up and touched one. They were like limp noodles. She’d touch one, and the adjacent one would flop over. She’d fix that one, and the next one would lean yet another way.
Finally, Roxy stood on tiptoe and reached up with both hands, to straighten the row, but recoiled sharply and screamed, knocking two of the clown dolls off the shelf and onto the floor below.
Simultaneously, from outside, a loud “thump” – something hit the ground, something heavy – followed by a scream of surprise, then laughter.
“Blood, blood,” Roxy sputtered, looking at her hands. I came to her and held her gently. There was nothing, no blood at all.
“I felt it. I felt blood. It was horrible, it felt wet and oozy. It was blood. On the shelf. I swear.”
I turned to the window and looked back at Roxy. “Did you hear that, from outside?”
We peered out the window, to the backyard. There, on the grassy lawn, lay Ken and Jan, startled but unhurt. The ropes holding the hammock to the trees had apparently just snapped, sending them to the ground, where they laughed, and continued to lay there under the canopy of conifers.
Weekend summer rentals are such a tease. You look forward to the weekend Monday through Thursday. Every moment is spent in great anticipation of all the great things you’ll do. Finally, FINALLY, it’s Friday – getaway day – and you wrap up at the office, pack up and hit the road, hacking through weekend, New York traffic like a machete-wielding maniac chopping through the Amazon rainforest.
But, once you burst free of the five boroughs or, in our case, once you drive North of the Bronx’s yawning Co-Op City apartment complex, the road opens up. It was a 125-mile drive to our Connecticut summer place. The Hutch, to 684, to 84 East, to 8 North, to exit 42, then a quick series of two-lane roads to the gravel trail that ran up the fall line of the hill that led to our rented summer retreat.
Each leg of the journey had its own peculiarities, its own cicadian rhythms – the side to side lane changes on the leafy curves of the Hutch, the synchronized slowdowns just before the 684 speed trap near Purdys, the sudden blinking of right turn signals on the rising hills heading East on 84, as all the semi’s downshift and slog to the right like a rumbling school of 18-wheeled whales, and the gracefully curved left-hand exit to Route 8 North, at which point motorists would, as one, shut the air-conditioning and lower the windows as the air turned summer sweet, and 10-degrees cooler, than it was in New York City.
To most Americans, 125 miles is a short jaunt on the Interstate. To a New Yorker, however, it is a distance that evokes Magellan, Marco Polo or Christopher Columbus himself. To the New Yorker, 125 miles is an adventure of biblical proportions, two and a half hours that liberates one from the wage slavery of the greatest international metropolis to the freedom and majesty of a heavenly idyll. Consider: it can take 60 minutes to traverse 23rd Street, Manhattan at its widest point, a distance best measured in meters. So, to tell a New Yorker he is traveling 125 miles is to tell him, in essence, you might as well be headed to the end of the world, uncharted territory, where you just might fall off.
The realtor who showed us Dr. Lynch’s tiny Cape back in March showed us the area’s antique stores, quaint picture book homes dating from the 1700s and, surprisingly, fields of tobacco just minutes from our property. Here, we learned, the wrappers for hand-made cigars are grown and cured, in huge old wooden barns, just south of Bradley International Airport.
Thus inspired, and in keeping with the great American agrarian tradition, I fixated all week on my lettuce plantation – lettuce grave, indeed! – and hoped and prayed that muskrats would leave my seedlings alone and that Mother Nature would watch over my crop of Burpee’s best.
Finally, Friday arrived – the start of our second summer weekend. First, there was an unexpected call from Jan who, I reasoned, was just killing time until her boss left for his house out on Shelter Island. Then, at lunch, I had a burger at the Shake Shack, watched the dogs play in the Madison Park run and generally procrastinated. I did not want to go back to work and, in fact, considered the possibility of bellowing a raucous Fred Flintstone “Yabba Dabba Doo” at 5 p.m. Instead, I quietly returned to my desk and, under the guise of doing client work, did an online search for dear Dr. Lynch’s obsession: Boleskine Castle.
In the most repressed time of the repressed history of a most repressed nation, Aleister Crowley and his mates raised some serious hell. Shielded by their rationalization that what they did enhanced personal freedom and accelerated their human potential, a group of Brits – professing a love of the outdoors and all that is “natural” – did very nasty things.
Basically, the deal was: multi-faceted personalities are to be cultivated AND the more sides a person had to his nature, the more partners he – or she – needed to remain satisfied.
“True magic is in the unconscious mind,” I parroted to Roxy as we sped North on Route 8 that night.
“Delve deep, and you find out who you really are, and are freed from shame and guilt,” I said, reporting my findings dutifully.
“And what do you make of it, oh wise one?” Roxy asked, finishing the last of an entire container of dried Turkish apricots.
“A bunch of spoiled brats, rebelling against Mommy and Daddy?”
“A horny bunch of spoiled, rich brats…,” she corrected.
“It’s not sinful,” I teased. “It’s personal growth. It’s beautiful. In fact, it’s magic.”
“God, country and the relentless pursuit of poontang.” She pointed to the road sign. “Exit 42, big guy. We’re almost home.”
Why did Jan call? I wondered, as we decelerated off Route 8 to make the right turn onto 118. Jan was excited about the weekend, she had said, and wanted to know if we’d be joining her and Ken at the swimming pond just down the road.
“Do you think Roxy is up to swimming?” she asked during our call. “Is she allowed?”
“Sure, she’s only 13 weeks pregnant,” I said. “You know Rox – she’ll probably be doing her Pilates and taking the subway until the moment her water breaks.”
“Well, if she’s not up to it, you know, and she wants her rest, you have me. I mean, us.”
“Thanks Jan,” I said. “What time do you think you guys will be up the house tonight?”
“We’re already here, babe.”
Indeed, Ken’s Caddy was in front of the house when we pulled up. We had stopped at Burlington Pizza and got a couple of pies and a 12-pack of Beck’s for our Friday night decompression. It was nearly nine, and still the sun was out. In minutes, the fireflies would start their light show.
“Look at that thing,” Roxy said, nodding towards their blood red car, holding her stomach before getting out of our Subaru. “It’s probably the only Cadillac within 20 miles of this place.”
“You’re probably right, Jan.”
Roxy caught my slip and narrowed her eyes, almost imperceptively.
She let it go. “Why would anyone…?”
“Has to be the Northstar system,” I said, helping Roxy out of the car, before grabbing the pizzas and beer from the way-back of the wagon.
The stereo was left on, inside the house, and the front door open. Only the screened door was in place. They’re like kids, I thought. Two spoiled little kids.
On the kitchen table was a note: “We’re at the pond. Xxxooo J&K.”
Roxy looked at me. She was tired.
The screen door opened, and snapped shut, and we wheeled around, as one.
“Hey, you finally made it!” It was Ken, alone, in only wet surfer shorts. He was drunk. And dripping.
“Awesome, you brought brew. And ‘Zuh!”
“Where’s Jan?” Roxy asked.
He grabbed a green bottle of beer, snapped the bottle cap off on the aluminum-ridge of the formica table, and took a flopping slice of sausage pizza from the box.
“She’s practicing her diving. I’ll be round back,” Ken said.
Roxy and I looked at each other, confused. “Diving?” we asked.
“After you unpack, come take a look at your lettuce grave,” Ken said, ignoring our query. “Fucking amazing, man.”
“We’ve got green thumbs,” Roxy said, as we snuggled together that night. “In just one week…everything grew so fast. And I’m so proud of you, and your lettuce.”
I scanned the walls of the room; all the dolls seemed to be in place, resting without malice. I must have dreamed the entire thing, I thought.
I had placed a new Eveready flashlight on the tiny end-table, and an empty can of Folger’s next to the window overlooking the front porch, before jumping into bed with Roxy.
“How are you feeling, baby?” I asked, touching her sweet face. Pregnancy seemed to soften the planes of her profile. Her skin seemed smoother, softer, pinker than ever. She even started to smell like a baby, somehow pure and sweet like a brand-new being.
“I feel wonderful,” she said. “A little bloated. Tired all the time. And very hungry. But wonderful, in a ‘serene’ kind of way.”
Hungry indeed. She had eaten five slices of sausage pizza, outdoing me, Ken and Jan, who had come traipsing home, guided only by moonlight, about an hour after we arrived. Jan was in a wet two-piece and flip-flops, a Wonder Woman towel wrapped around her hips, her long brown hair combed straight back.
“Hi guys,” she said, joining us on the citronella-shielded deck. Ken and I had gone through most of the beer, and he snored softly on a chaise lounge, waking periodically to chuckle at some unspoken bon mot.
Jan looked at him, rolled her eyes, and continued. “It was beautiful at the pond – you’ve got to come out with us tomorrow, for sure.”
“Yeah, I’ll see how I feel,” Roxy said.
Jan looked at me. “Well, then, you’ve got to come! It’s going to be sunny and warm, a perfect day for a little water play.”
Roxy looked at me, her eyes heavy with sleep. “Going swimming with your friend Jan tomorrow? Buddy system at summer camp, huh?”
Parry and thrust. “I thought the four of us are going, after we tend the garden.”
“I’ll see how I feel. Shut the light?”
“Sure. ‘Night, sweetie.”
The plants had grown quickly, alright. The herbs and tomato seedlings had already broken through the loamy store-bought soil. Ken’s marijuana seeds sprouted and were two inches tall.
And my so-called lettuce grave was dotted with healthy green shoots. Dressed only in cut-offs and sneakers, I tended to the lettuce or, more precisely, played with dirt, like a four-year old, since I hadn’t a real clue as to how to truly “tend” a garden. I felt the rising sun gently warm my bare back and I looked up at a Colorado-blue sky.
“Hey guys,” I called to the others, “are we going to swim today, or what? It looks like a perfect day for it.”
“I’m there,” said Ken, sipping a breakfast beer, a lit joint between his fingers. “And let’s do a barbeque tonight – ribs, chicken, burgers, the whole deal.”
“Mmmmm, ribs,” Roxy said, practically drooling out the words. “I’ll make some potato salad too.”
“Yeah, that’ll be perfect after a day at the pond,” said Jan. “We’ll work up a real good appetite by the time we’re done.” As she crouched down to clean her herb garden, her back facing towards me at the lettuce grave, I could see that Jan wore her bikini bottoms under her cut-offs.
The pond was small, but pristine, encircled by whispering pines, a precious crystal set in Mother Nature’s jewel box. We reached the water via a small footpath covered with pine needles and cones. A small beach greeted us at the clearing and we placed our towels in a semi-circle, with our feet close to the water. Immediately, Jan unbuttoned and kicked off her cut-offs, and dove deep under the dark brown-green water to the bank on the far side of the pond. In seconds, she reached the other shore. She snapped her long hair, spraying water in a 10 foot radius and clambered up the bluff, which perfectly camouflaged the concrete anchoring for the diving board.
With all of us watching, Jan leapt onto the board, her tan, toned body sleek as an otter. She smiled at us and we dutifully applauded as higher and higher she bounced, moving forward on the board until she perilously bounced on the tip, once, twice, three times, using power and momentum to bolt skyward, and forward, in a perfect, clean jackknife dive and entry. After being under water for what seemed like minutes, she finally reemerged, again smiling and spreading her arms wide as she tread water, for her “ta-daa” moment, and we cheered in earnest.
“She’s going to keep that shit up all morning,” Ken said, taking a hit of the joint Jan had in her cigarette pack. “So don’t wear yourselves out clapping.”
And, he was right. Jan had a repertoire of dives and she nailed every one. But, after 10 minutes, the three of us, in turn, reclined on our towels, face up, delighted to be soaking up the warm sun after another long northeastern winter and dreary, rainy spring. From the splashing noises at the far end of the pond, however, Jan was still performing.
Eyes closed, I tuned into the sounds of summer here in northeastern Connecticut. A fly would buzz nearby, hover over my head, zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz-it!, and suddenly zip away. Like a schooner’s sails, the trees rustled gently as they caught each honey-scented breeze and swayed, sexily, side to side. While other birds twittered, in a bluesy call-and-response rag, the woodpeckers would blast into nearby birch with a comical rat-a-tat-tat staccato.
The sounds lulled me, soothed me, into a no-man’s land of consciousness. Not quite asleep, yet not quite awake, I imagined the thrill of fatherhood, of holding my own precious baby and tossing him – for in my dreams it was always a “him” – carefully in the air. Then, I thought of him, older now, holding my hand as we walked down the street, neighbors smiling, basking in the warm glow of our precious father-son bond. We’d buy ball and bat, and I’d warm him up for his Little League debut, teach him to knot his tie before his first formal date and, together, visit stately colleges.
p((. “Honey? Honey, are you listening?” Roxy gently shook my shoulder, rousing me from my “sunrise-sunset” reverie. “Honey, I’m going back to the house. The sun’s too strong. And I’m hungry for lunch.”
I sat upright, and opened my eyes. Everything was a blur. I blinked until Roxy snapped into focus. “I’ll come with you,” I said, meaning it, but still half asleep.
Roxy smiled. “No, you stay here. Ken already left. He probably went to town to get some barbeque fixings or more beer.”
We laughed. “He go with Jan?” I asked.
“I don’t know where she went,” Roxy said. “I kind of drifted off during her little Jan Olympics. She’s probably back at the house. You stay here. Take a swim. Cool off. And I’ll see you later.”
She kissed the top of my head and tousled my hair as she gathered her stuff, picked up her towel and headed back down the path. I lay back down and drifted back into a deep sleep.
I awoke with a start. Judging from the sun’s position, it couldn’t have been more than an hour later. I thought I heard a noise, the snap of a twig from just beyond the tree line. It was warmer now. No, actually it was hot, the first time I’d felt really “hot” since the previous summer. I’d forgotten to bring sun block and my forehead, nose and chest felt a little crispy.
I got to my feet and figured I’d follow the perimeter of the pond, beyond the beach to the shady side. I traveled along a little foot path to the mound above the diving board. The path continued back into the woods. A small stream burbled and, ahead, there was a small shack.
It was a one-room hunter’s cabin, the logs painted a sickly green. Over the latched door was a carved sign: “The Mint Chip.” I peered through the glass window and saw the usual paraphernalia: bed, table, chair, lanterns, shelves with canned goods and a small cast iron wood stove.
I opened the latch to the front door and carefully pushed it forward. Surprisingly, there were no field mice, snakes, bats, bugs or spider webs. It was a tidy, weather-tight little shelter and it looked like it had been used fairly recently; judging from the silver Coors tall-boy on the table and the Marlboro butts in a gold-tone ash tray.
I closed the door behind me and looked around the room. Cans of Heinz beans, Bumble Bee tuna, some Sterno, several boxes of Diamond kitchen matches, Maxwell House coffee. A percolator and cast-iron frying pan atop the stove. And over the mantle, another lithograph of Boleskine Castle.
The door opened and I jumped. It was Jan.
“I knew you’d come,” she said, with a grin. “Welcome to my humble home.”
The winds had shifted and the sun had dipped by the time I woke up. “We’ve got to get back,” I said. “Roxy…”
“Roxy? Roxy’s still asleep,” Jan said. “And Ken is probably out cold – he’s been drinking and doing doobies since 8 a.m. So we’re fine and dandy.”
I leaned over the side of the bed to find my shorts, slipped them on, and stood up. My shoulders, face and chest were burning, as if scalded.
“It’s not wrong,” Jan said. “What we did.”
I stood up quickly. The blood rushed from my head. I reached for the door, woozy.
“It’s beautiful,” she said.
I opened the latch. I thought I heard a scream, a far-off, blood-curdling, American International, B-movie, scream.
“Don’t be so provincial,” she said. “Judgmental. Don’t you want to grow? I mean, as an adult human being?” She put her hands on my shoulders and looked into my eyes. “There is no shame. There is no guilt.”
“Let’s go, Jan, now!” I said. “NOW!”
The screams continued, far off, incongruous with the beauty of this early summer day. I ran back down the path, to the pond, through the woods and back to the gravel road, to the house. Dr. Lynch’s Cape.
I ran up the stairs, Jan behind me. The screams grew faint. I was winded; Jan barely out of breath. “You’re making wayyyy too big a deal out of this,” she said, although I hadn’t really said anything.
There, sprawled across his canopied bed, was Ken. His throat was slashed open, his eyes open, fixed. A bloody pruning shears lie by his hand.
I screamed: “Roxy!”
I ran to the little bedroom, to find my Roxy.
She sat upright in the bed, under the pink flannel blanket, bolt upright, hyperventilating, barely able to issue another sound. “I’m wet. I’m wet,” she said, in a little child’s voice, again. Again. Again.
She looked fine. “Where? Where are you wet?” I screamed, in panic.
“There!” she pointed, to between her legs, and I saw a faint stain. I pulled back the covers. The bedsheets were soaked in blood.
“My baby,” she murmured, her lips pursed, her hands together, as if in prayer. “My baby! Oh my god oh my god oh my god. My baby!”
“Stay calm,” I said, “stay calm, I’ll call the doctor. Jan, where’s your cell?”
Behind me, Jan started to laugh, a mocking, infuriating laugh that shook the walls of the cottage.
It was a laugh that echoed through the gleeful smiles on the faces of row upon row of clown dolls, which now lined every shelf, on every wall of the room. It was a laugh that rang in my ears as Roxy bled, as I whispered a fervent, silent prayer to St. Jude, and as a fat muskrat waddled from behind the Mint Chip, down the path to the house and methodically ate every bit, of every seedling, that had grown in my lettuce grave.