A fruitless exercise

peaches

Volleyball Grandpa let the screen door slam behind him as he left the house and headed across his lawn towards the court, giving me a one hand wave along the way.  He wears flip flips and jean cut-off shorts; his skin is brown to the point of being crispy from spending so much time tending and playing his beloved game.  It is unclear what came first, Volleyball Grandpa or the volleyball court.  The only certain thing is that he is the unofficially official ruler and overseer of the park and the volleyball court contained within it.

After four years of living in rather close proximity, I think he is starting to recognize me.  The pregnant waddle and belly certainly helps his ability to pick me out of a line-up.  When he waved, I felt like I was being recognized by royalty.  I have yet to be invited to a volleyball game, but there is still time for that particular honor.

From my observations, VG spends most of his time playing volleyball, prepping the court or chasing off prospective court infiltrators. He lovingly rakes the sand in the court and edges the grass around the perimeter, he picks up sticks and drags heavy fallen tree limbs towards the road for the street crew to pick up at the end of each week.  He goes so far as to put out bright, yellow cones between the stop sign and park entrance stating, “Slow Down.  Kids play here.”

What the sign might say to convey his personal message more clearly is, “Keep driving if you are looking for a volleyball court because this one is taken but do it slowly.”  VG is not above calling the police on vehicles that fail to heed his warning which occasionally prompts the presence of a cop car and a stake out of the area for rolling stops and speeders.  Absolute criminals, in VG’s mind.

Earlier this summer, a day came when maintenance and policing of the park was no longer enough to keep VG satisfied in his civic duty.  And perhaps out of an overgrown sense of ownership, VG decided to try his hand at horticulture.  (Why not? He had the undisputed space of the entire city park.)  It was then that a pathetic fruit tree appeared with a black, protective plastic around its base and a few branches barely strong enough to support the flock of three sparrows that took up immediate residency at the top.

Every day, VG watered the little tree and then put on his magnifier glasses to inspect the branches for pests which he pinched off with two fingers and shooed the birds off with his skinny arms.  People walked by the little tree in wonder of its sudden appearance and later with an even greater amazement when the little tree began to flower and produce peaches.  The little tree was a literal head turner. 

“After just a few months of being planted, how it that possible?” I asked my husband, somehow expecting an answer to the unknown. 

I suspect that Miracle Grow may have played a hand in the incredibly early and health growth but will give most of the credit where its due.  Mother Nature was at her finest, combining the elements to create little peaches that given time would have become juicy and delicious fruit.  Unfortunately, it is an opportunity that will have to wait until next Summer.  Between the birds and the people of the trail, it wasn’t long before the tree was stripped bare.

So VG is back to tending the volleyball court and I am back to watching him.  Not even with VG’s best efforts could he protect his tree from the forces of the world, a risk he knowingly took.  Yet, he still gained pleasure in caring for the tree, watching it grow and bear fruit.  He didn’t need to eat the fruit to know that it would have been good and he doesn’t need to get permission from the park to know that he will definitely try again next year.  

Maybe next year, he will add a cherry tree.

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Serve the People

shot glass

Ray worked every night at a grungy dive bar that clung desperately to its place at the edge of town.  The bar straddled the past and the present, unable to fully commit to one or the other.  It was a depressingly dark establishment with an ancient cigarette machine outside of the single bathroom, brown water stains on the ceiling tiles and a glowing touch screen juke box was mounted on the wall.  A flat screen tv played a college basketball game over shelves of dusty liquor bottles and entertained the few customers seated around the bar. 

Ray inspected a glass for lipstick and nicks around the edges before wiping it down and stacking it on shelf under the counter.  A man with an American flag bandana wrapped around his grey hair sat at the far end and stared into a glass that he considered very much half empty.  Next to him, a skinny man with large, dark square glasses watched the basketball game and made comments between plays and during commercial breaks.  He sucked down the rest of a bottle of Bud Light; he rattled it on the counter and cleared his throat to get Ray’s attention.

The customer was foiled in his attempt when another man with a wrinkled t-shirt, messy hair and bleary eyes walked in a side door and swaggered towards the bar.  

“Hey pal, you need another fire ball?” Ray chose his words carefully and reached for another glass to wipe down.  There was a definite difference between want and need in his business. 

The man gave Ray a sloppy smile, “You are good, man.  How do you remember every time what I want?” He swayed to the left and then slowly to the right like a tree in the wind, somehow, his trunk stayed planted.  

There was no rush to take the man’s money or to refill his glass with the liquid that would continue to destabilize him.  Ray could take his time with this man, he had him right where he wanted him without concern that he would quickly leave or cause trouble with the other patrons.  He had a sense about his customers, like who would leave a tip and who would tip over.  He prided himself on his professionalism, his ability to be present without prying, to engage without judgement. 

He was there to serve the people and he had no qualms about over-serving those who asked for it.  

Biological Warfare

germs

Signs were posted everywhere with big red, bold letters.  It was flu season and germs were not welcome.  The usually bustling office restricted visitors and required anyone with the chills or body aches to wear a disposable mask and latex gloves, yet the flu was still spreading.  

More handwashing stations went up, while the news streamed stories about the rising death toll of flu related deaths.  Strangers and friends alike started to eye one another as potential disease vectors and withdrew from conversations at the slightest hint of a sneeze or a sniffle, slowly backing up so as not to startle the germs into action. 

Things were breaking down quickly and not much work was getting done until the genius management put their oversized egg heads together and came up with a three-part solution to the problem.

More signs, they decided, because the first batch was so effective.  Then, they gave the front desk staff unlimited authority to stop and interrogate all visitors and employees.  Lastly, they tightened up on attendance policy so that employees were afraid to use their time off and instead reported for duty, bleary eyed and feverishly punctual.  

It was a perfect plan, seemingly infallible, and still the flu raged on.

Unaware of this change in the flu fighting approach, I walked in from the bitter cold and practically collapsed at the front desk, unable to proceed toward my office.  A red, velvet rope partitioned off the hallways and forced all entrants to pass through a narrow channel monitored by a large woman with heavy braids and long, colorful nails depicting ten tropical island scenes.  She pointed to a sign on the counter with a chubby finger and looked expectantly at me.

My glasses had developed a fog from the sudden change in temperature and my hands shook as they started the painful process of de-thawing after the long walk from the public parking lot.  

I took my glasses off and squinted at the woman, “Good morning. What’s going on?”

Irritated she sighed, “Need to see your id badge, we’re only letting employees in today.”

“Would I be here if I didn’t have to be?” I joked, seeking common ground.

“Don’t know and don’t care, I have to see your id if you’re going in.  Visitors have been impersonating employees to get into the office.”

My hands stopped shaking by this time and I put my glasses back on, catching her bad attitude faster than the rampant virus that was shutting down the city.  I tried all of the positive affirmations I knew to reset my frame of mind, but it was too late.  

“And what does that have to do with the flu?” I asked flatly.

“Visitors are bringing it in,” she said as a matter-of-fact. 

Shaking my head, I dug through my purse, pushing aside my wallet, a pack of gum and a ring of keys; delving deeper into the bottomless pit, I found a hot pink pen with origins unknown, a folded cardboard book mark and a sticky, partially unwrapped cough-drop before latching onto my id badge.

“Aha!” I declared in victory and considered the course of the day that was already off to such a great start.  Was it too late to go home, I wondered for a second before remembering the attendance policy. 

I pulled the id badge out and flashed it at the woman with a frown that I tried to turn upside down, resulting in a weird smirk that was as close to a smile as I could muster.  Meanwhile, another employee had come in behind me, hacking a dry cough with red rimmed eyes and overheard our conversation.  

“I would complain about the cold, but I’ve been feeling so hot this morning,” she explained as she extracted her id badge from her coat pocket with a still-gloved hand.

“Anyways, you know, if anyone is bringing in the flu, its going to be an employee,” she coughed again and shuffled off towards the heart of the building.  She said over her shoulder, “Just trying to be helpful.”     

And still the flu raged on, baffling the eggheads.

Leaf Peepers

leaves

A sea of yellow and orange leaves covers the yard, rippling ever so gently with the wind.  The mailman trudges through the colorful debris wielding a handful of letters in front of his body and an official USPS bag slung over his shoulder.

“Lazy people,” he curses under his breath as wades to the mailbox on the outside of the small and otherwise tidy house.

He knows so much about the people on his route and so little at the same time.  He knows their names and titles, their subscriptions and bills.  He knows when they get home from work and the cars they drive.  He knows where ferocious dogs are apt to be chained up and where an evil-eyed cat waits all day in the window, glaring out at the world with disdain.  

He knows that it’s time for raking; actually, its past the time for raking, and still the leaves on the corner lot cover the ground, turning from gold to brown and killing the grass underneath.

“Don’t worry about the grass, if it dies, we won’t have to mow next Summer,” I reassure my worried husband about his silly lawn related concerns.

He does not respond with the expected appreciation at my problem solving.  Instead, he arrives home with a box of leaf and refuse bags, two scooper claws, a new gimmick for picking up leaves, and drags out the rakes from the back of the garage.  Navigating the garage without tripping over a level or having a ladder crash onto his head is quite the feat, so I know he means business when he shows up with his gear.

He gives a rallying cry for his leaf army to assemble and begin the long awaited, annual battle against the leaves before the city ends the leaf-bag-pick-up period.  Of note, I am unwillingly drafted, but still fulfill my duty to restore order to the yard.  Soon, the leaves are gathered into huge piles, with one sweep from my husband to every three of mine. 

Thanks to Daylight Savings, it is too dark to continue until the next day.

By the end of the weekend, blisters on our hands and a garage sized pile of plastic bags filled with leaves are all we have to show for our time, but we are nonetheless proud of our work.  We stand back and admire the newly created Mt. Leafmore and the mostly leaf free, partially dead yard, when neighbors from down the street stroll by wearing matching black track suits and wave.

“Looks good, guys.”

“Thanks, we waited until the last minute, but we got it done.”

“Too bad the last day for leaf pick up was on Friday,” they snicker to themselves and walk on towards their perfectly manicured lawn.  

And so it goes, it was too little, too late.  Why did we wait?  Why didn’t we double down and get it done a week earlier?

There is a simple answer, we are leaf peepers.  People who would rather admire the leaves as they change colors and marvel as they drop from the trees and fall to Earth than to try and clean up after Mother Nature.  Blessed are the Leaf Peepers, for they shall inherit the leaves.

Bags and bags of leaves.

Traffic Trolling

time

Cruising home as the last light leaves the sky, I fiddle with the radio punching through the five preset stations.  The number on each button is starting to fade from frequent use.  I am searching for a song with feeling and words that I know in hopes of singing along.  As a musical simpleton, new songs are a little frightening unless sandwiched between tried and true billboard hits, lending credibility to a newcomer’s radio worthiness.  Nothing catches my attention and I continue in my possibly fruitless search for a suitable jam.  I roll to a stop at a traffic light and take my turn waiting for green.

It is completely dark now.  The street in front of me is illuminated by the headlights from my car and a dim light inside of a covered bus station.  I am alone with my thoughts and a whining voice coming through the radio.  Next.  I hit another preset button not tried in the last thirty seconds.  A commercial comes on with two sisters trying to sell used cars for “just pennies down.”  Next.  A radio dj reads the news, it’s all bad.  Next.  

I used to be so good at waiting, I waited for letters to come in the mail, I waited for the internet to dial up, I waited for my turn in our single bathroom, I waited to get older.  Now, I can’t even wait the minute at a traffic light without feeling impatient or the ability to remain present. 

I remember a pack of gum in the center console, unwrap a piece of hard Juicy Fruit and peek at the light.  Its still red.  Red as Dorothy’s slippers and I am uncomfortably bored, alone and back to changing the radio station.  Boredom is a killer.  It drives a need for distraction from reality and in between that wasted space, the minutes turn into days into months and years and suddenly there is a lifetime of waste and perhaps an awareness of how life could have been different. 

Then I am not alone or bored. Someone is tapping at my window and I shriek. 

A short, squat woman is tapping at my window.  The dim light from the bus stop is enough to outline her face, covered in sweat, with a broad nose and wideset eyes that are so dark they look black.  She is intensely focused inside of the vehicle which was previously no more exciting than an empty cardboard box.    

“Roll down the window,” she yells and makes a rolling motion with her arm.  

I shake my head.

“What do you want?”

She points at her wrist, “Time.”

“Me too,” I smile and give her a thumbs-up. 

Or maybe not, I sure have wasted enough of it to make a person wonder. 

She throws her hands up and yells something encouraging as I drive off.  I don’t look back, green means gun it and go.  There’s no time to waste.

Disobey

Mr. Big

Two grey trash cans lay uselessly on their sides, like a pair of beached whales. Their contents were strewn across the grass and the broken pavement of the parking lot.  Mr. Big and his crew had struck, again.

Mr. Big was a clever bandit with a luxurious coat that was thick and shiny from his rich cuisine of leftovers, stale cereal, cold French fries, wilted salad, moldy bread, and whatever else he could procure from his nightly raid of the local trash cans.

He lived at the top of a dilapidated brick building. The maintenence man was so busy trying to keep the walls together that he didn’t bother about the extra resident in the attic.

There was an unspoken agreement between man and beast that if given words would have been something like, don’t bite me and I won’t bite you. It was an understanding that lasted long enough for Mr. Big to grow from a ball of fluff into a healthy dog sized creature of 25 pounds or more.

On most nights, Mr. Big organized a gathering party with neighboring bandits to go out foraging, targeting different trash cans on the same city block. He found the greatest success on Sunday when the cans were at max capacity with plastic and paper bags, vegetable peelings, plastic cups and to-go boxes.  When the cans were filled to the brim they took more pushing to knock over, but the effort was rewarded without fail.  Mr. Big usually took Monday off to digest the massive amount of trash-can-food eaten during the previous night.

For years, Mr. Big was the perfect criminal, growing in confidence and size until one day, two Thursdays again, he made a serious error. Mr. Big lunged out after a snot-nosed kid who had the nerve to throw away a pop can into the very trash receptacle where he was rummaging through a discarded bag of half eaten Rally’s burgers.

I cringed when I heard the story from the kid’s parents without a hint of surprise.

You see, the maintenance man wasn’t the only one aware of the Mr. Big and his movements. I knew. I laughed off the stories about his escapades around the apartments. I listened to the ever exaggerated description of his size and strength.  I righted the trash cans and gathered up the trash or asked a loitering resident to do so.  Mr. Big was just another familiar face in the area trying to get a decent meal.

But when he messed with the kid, I drew the line and began to gear up for battle.

By Monday, a wire cage was dropped off and baited with an ear of corn to lure the greedy Mr. Big inside and then off to the great raccoon farm in the sky or at least the nearest state park.

Tune in over the next few days to find out what happened.

big

What Spring Brings

Pleased

There are no leaves on the trees, but the grass already needs to be cut. Daffodils that survived a surprise freeze of early Spring are popping up and joined by red and pink tulips and green hostas.

A barefoot woman stands on the front porch shaking a plastic bag of trail mix. She takes a few steps forward and begins to yell towards a tree in a high pitched voice, usually reserved for things that are small and furry.

“Sneaky, come down here, Sneaky.”

On the street, a man slowly rides by on a bike with a wicker basket. He cranes his neck but only sees tiny green buds beginning to develop on the branches.  There is nothing to match the description of what he imagines to be a Sneaky.

You just never know, he thinks, and holds down the contents of the basket on the front of his bike. It is overflowing with a shrubbery that he acquired from the yard of his out of town neighbors.

“Sneaky, its snack time.”

The woman shakes the bag again and this time a man watches from inside of the house. With one finger, he lifts the blind up a little higher and peers out with a pair of blue eyes.   As much as he wants to look away, he cannot bring himself to do it.  He is running through his options on which family member would sign the involuntary commitment paperwork.

“Trust us, it’s for your own good.”

He envisions the woman being lifted up and carried out by men in matching white scrubs.  He sees her little legs kicking as she squirms to escape and feels a sense of guilt in the pit of his stomach for letting his imagination take his wife away in a straight jacket.

Laughter from the sidewalk brings the man’s focus back.

The woman’s hand is extended with a pile of almonds on her palm from which a little brown squirrel is selecting the best nut.

“Only the best for you, Sneaky.”

She looks back, intuiting that she had an audience of one, and raises one eyebrow.

“Told you so,” she says with a shrug and a smile.

She is most pleased; Sneaky returned as did her creditability, all in few, short minutes.

sg

There he goes again.

spring-bird

There he goes again.

I watch from my office window as a man in faded blue jeans limps across the street using a crooked stick for a cane. He wears a straw hat over a mess of grey hair.  From this distance, it is hard to tell if he is wearing his teeth, but it seems unlikely.  In his free hand, he carries a plastic bag from the gas station.  The bag contains his sickness and the cure.

I am surprised to see the man return so soon after the bitter cold of winter, certain that he resettled in the south, retired and resigned from a life of struggle on the street. Then like a bird of spring, he suddenly returned and resumed his daily activities as though there was never any interruption.

Most mornings, the man leaves his nest of dirty blankets and plastic bags and travels across the street to fuel up on cigarettes, cheap booze, and a pack of peanuts or crackers.   He returns to doze in the comfort of his makeshift home until he runs out of supplies and is forced to make the trek once again.  Sometimes he is gone for long stretches of time.  I like to think he made it to the mission for a hot meal and a few days off the street or is visiting with an old friend rather than the more likely truth that he was arrested for public intoxication or hospitalized for seizures.

Time and time again, he returns. Unchanged and uncompromised.  Always limping and always with the hat.

He is surviving off of the elements, earth, wind, air and fire, and asks for nothing more. Yet, the people around him refuse to accept his decision to live and die in the alley behind an abandoned building. He remains at odds with these concerned neighbors.  They want him housed and sober, in treatment, at the least.  They want him to sleep in a bed and eat nutritious meals, to be warm and safe.

Meanwhile, he is determined to drink himself to death, programmed to self-destruct by a wicked and powerful hand. He is centered and focused on a course that is difficult to change; it is one that he is not interested in diverting from and next to impossible for his concerned neighbors to understand.   While they scheme to bring him in, coordinating agencies and professionals in the effort, they forget to look up at my spring bird.

He needs freedom, dignity and is one of the rare few who has not forgotten how to fly.

There he goes again.

 
Center

Twoferone

Original

pic

“Are you sure you want just one?”

The kindly old woman wore a traditional frontier woman’s garb: bonnet, wire-rimmed glasses, a home-made dress of rough material, ankle boots and all. She stood on her tiptoes to reach the top of a clear glass jar filled with purple liquid.  As she plunged a wooden ladle down into its depths, displaced purple pickling juice rose in the jar.  Liquid threatened to spill over the sides just before the woman withdrew the ladle and produced a perfect purple-tinged pickled egg.

“One is hardly enough.”

On bringing the dripping orb into the light of day, the old woman grinned with more pride than that of the egg’s original hen-mother.

“All I have is this much,” the dirty-faced girl said as she laid down a wrinkled $1 bill on the counter. She wore faded jeans and scuffed tennis shoes with loosely tied laces that were unraveled at the ends.  Her thin hair was pulled back into a greasy pony tail.  After relinquishing the money, the girl stuffed her hands into her pockets and looked longingly at the jar.

Saliva filled the urchin’s mouth as the old woman patted the excess liquid from the egg.  After a second of hesitation, the woman scooped out another dripping purple-tinged egg and dropped it next to the first egg.

With a wink, she whispered, “It looks like you could use it.”

“Thank you,” the girl whispered back to the woman, taken back by her generosity.

Finished with the business of egg-buying, the girl carefully took the eggs in both hands and stepped out of the line. She looked back half-expecting the woman to demand the second egg be returned, but no such thing happened.  Instead, a man took her place and ordered lemonade and a pickle on a stick.

“No, make that an iced tea. Is it already sweetened?”

The man badgered the kindly old woman with questions about the sweetener and if he could have a drink of half lemonade and half tea. Patiently, ever so patiently, the woman listened and answered his questions, while trying to keep an eye on her last customer whom she had aptly named, the hungry urchin.

As the girl stepped out of line, it became clear that she was not alone. A little boy stepped out with her, following in her shadow.  The boy wore a grungy grey sweatshirt with his thumbs sticking through the holes at the wrist of the sleeve.  He was a head shorter than the girl but had an equally grimy face and messy hair.  The girl handed him the second egg.

“Here,” she said. “It’s just like Granny used to make.”

The pair walked off, down the dirt path, past the other booths and vendors. Each slowly ate their delicacy, one nibble at a time, savoring the acquired taste of pickled egg and wondering what they would eat next.

The Cucumbers are Multiplying

cucs

The air has a chill to it this morning and the sun has yet to break through the darkness of night.  Fall is coming, slow and gentle, like it does every year to ease us into the misery of winter.  Soon it will be time to put away tank tops and shorts, swimsuits and flip flops in exchange for corduroys, sweaters and waterproof boots.

It is a problem that Midwesterners understand all too well, how to maintain two totally different wardrobes with only undergarments being seasonally interchangeable.  Residents of Hawaii, California and Florida, you have no idea what you are missing out on.  Unless of course, you escaped the weather of your home state after declaring to anyone who will listen, “This life of grey skies, chapped hands, and constant scarf wearing is no longer tolerable.”

I am nearing that state as my tolerance diminishes with each year.

Yet, I stay and dream of escape and an ocean breeze to cool my sun-kissed face, not ready for the change that a move would require.  And I work, like the rest of the sheeple that I know.  I work to pay utility bills and a mortgage, to buy food for my cats, husband, and self, and sometimes, I work just to get through to another season with the promise of better days.

As an offshoot of this working, I recently found myself as a defacto dog-sitter.

It started out as a one-time only situation, out of sheer necessity, and has since turned into a routine as natural as picking up the mail from the mailbox after work or taking out the trash on a Thursday night.  Whenever the owner of the hound leaves, he stops by the office with a leash and a bag of snacks.

“These are just in case she gets hungry.”

Gee, I thought they were a present for me.  I nod and wave the man off, I know the deal.  Take her out for a walk when she whines at the door, give her treat whenever she asks for one.  Easy.

The dog entrusted to my care is a mixture between Rottweiler and German shepherd and woe to the fool who messes with her.  Actually, she can’t be left alone without howling and trying to escape by hurling all seventy pounds or so repeatedly against the door which is how I ended up as her temporary custodian.  In summary, she is an emotionally dependent, fatty girl with missing teeth and bad breath, loyal to bacon strips and strangers who might be carriers of her beloved bacon strips.

Not that I mind her company.  After she gets dropped off, she flops herself down at my feet and patiently waits for a treat or for her owner to return.   The former always occurs before the latter.  When her owner does finally return for the beast, it is always with a generous payment in hand and gratitude.

Lately, I have been paid in cucumbers. Extraordinarily large, garden fresh cucumbers.

A worthy payment for services rendered and in the customary Hoosier spirit, he has given me more than I could ever eat.

Generosity: it’s one of the good problems that Midwesterners are all too familiar with, right after mastering the fine art of small talk about the weather.
Learning

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