I can’t even stand anymore. My knees, my legs have been hobbled. Who did that, I ask? Was it the limb from the oak that fell in my sleep last night? Was it the fence that caught the thistle growing up through its wire mesh? Was it the truck’s plow waiting to push away the blowing winter, soon to come? The coffee beans I had ground and ground by hand are all wasted, too. Used, but now wasted. That is how things go, I suppose. The sodden discard seems to outweigh the use. The driftwood in the lake so much heavier than the forest from which it all came. When my own breath became short, I had to also look around. There was no lack of air, nor occlusion of space, no crushing infinity closing in on me. What was it, I had asked myself once. What is it, I must ask myself again. The well I had depended on to bring me water still worked. The roof I had counted on still kept me free from rain. The garden I trusted would bear me food, still did. I had only to swallow, once or twice, and accept that a kiss upon a man far greater than I had been, had betrayed me, exposed me as being rather soft, and rather gentle. It was especially hard because this had occurred just as my good arm had been reaching out again, and the blow came from a fallen angel, and she struck without grace and without mercy.
Had I had an eye on my nostalgic marble, I would have parlayed my objections to the other fellow. But I forgot the shimmering tiger’s eye tucked safely in my left, front pocket. Oh, it had been there a year, eight, decades before. It had watched Juan go tumbling off over the bump on my second-hand bicycle flying with his hands spread out about to crash over the low wall into the garden below. It had cooked his hot spicy, Harlem beans for years without him, it appears. And where had the north star of Tunisia gotten us? The lost Arab Spring. The army of tanks stopped by a single man in Beijing. The stem of a white daisy stuck in the long thin barrel of a gun by a peaceful young woman. The glass marbles of the past, these have all rolled away, been swept away by a blind, invisible hand. The coarse, spent, gritty thing called democracy in America was rooted out of the world the way pigs’ snouts dig through the easy dirt looking for a dead man’s finger, a dead man’s hand, and the lost golden ring upon it ingested, too, anything at all there to mounch and mounch and mounch, to eat, to consume, to use up as though the good earth were only their own. Since Bobby died in ’68 it had been gone.
All he did one day is putter around the place. He cleaned out the stovepipe by unscrewing its pieces and shoving down a stiff wire brush. He tied up the tomatoes against the wooden stakes with torn up bedsheets. He swept the kitchen floor, and was surprised at how much dirt and hair there were. He folded the music on the piano. He thumbed the wet bristles of his toothbrush. He sat on the back step and heard the crickets and katydids. He sat on the front slab of stone and cursed the cars speeding by in his heart. He thought of rust. And he thought of the density of hematite, how heavy it was in the palm of his hand. And the smell of the cow’s wet hay at the end of road where he ran just after dawn when it was first light enough to see everywhere.
My old friend had driven up on his motorcycle and I really wanted to apologize to him. For almost four years I had barely seen him, besides trading emails about which set of snow tires to buy, and some political impertinences. And, just as he had called me about a week before pretty late at night to thank me for a talk that he and I had had while boiling down around a hundred thirty gallons of sap to make maple syrup when the thaw came this past winter about six months ago, I had in return wanted to say I had been sorry not to have been around much as good friend ought to be. There had been such trauma and turmoil in my life, I just didn’t want him to know, I told him. And, I said, really it must have meant not that I was afraid he would have whispered to himself about me, but what I instead might have been whispering about myself. I gave him lunch, some leftover pasta with pesto made from the basil and garlic grown in my garden, and he looked at my gas grill which I had cobbled together from an old rusted one I’d had that for years I was expecting to blow up in my face, and a nice Weber I’d found discarded along the roadside that some people who were not handy at all had ditched, or were too well off to be bothered with. He remarked that he had been impressed, actually, when at a local diner right across from the tall pine trees close by where we both live, I had declined his wish about four years back to sit down in the booth with me and my breakfast companion. There was, he felt, a sort of integrity in my establishing boundaries of privacy like that. But really, if it had been that, it was also that he would have been about to become privy to the world of danger, peril, and deep personal suffering I was just stepping into, despite the gorgeous vistas of the endless Atlantic ocean, the wild spray flung white up on the jagged rocks, and some ordinary summer vacation snapshots of steady Maine lobster boats motoring into the cove at dawn being flipped through at our table before the eggs and toast came. No, I told him, had it really been good, I would have wanted to share everything not hide it all from him. Come over to the pool anytime, he said, before he rode off, no need to call, an invitation he and his wife had been giving me for many years.
There’s a mouse in the wall and it’s chewing at the wood. The mouse doesn’t mind if I bang there, get up out of bed, and pound around its whereabouts. It pauses between my banging sometimes then starts again, chewing. Other times, throughout my own noises, it keeps chewing on the wood. I’m not even sure if it’s joists or rafters it’s after, but after all, to a mouse I suppose it’s all the same. I want to kill this mouse and can’t so I get up; it’s long before five in the morning, long before even my dreams having finished dreaming for the night. They must have been somewhere between fretful and fitful to have been awakened so easily. I can’t even imagine why the mouse is chewing there. It’s only wood. And what good is that, even to a mouse? There are no seeds, no food, anywhere. I buried the sack of sunflower far away from even my house where neither bluebirds singing nor black bears sifting through the brown forest leaves will ever find them. I put them there despite my fondness for both. I had thought: maybe this once, maybe this one time out of an entire sack of seed a single stalk with a giant yellow bloom in summertime will grow, before the cut-worm gnaws the seedlings down in the dirt. I’d like to think it possible but rather doubt it. Still, this little creature working its little mind away for no apparent and no particular purpose, it would seem, has stirred a little poetic vice in me that I have known. And I’d prefer, though I am sleepy yet, to be knocked away by some interrupting stranger, a little beast of any kind will do, or a sheriff’s hand at worst, to be alone before all this gleaming blackness, than slipping off one day into the night.
Even the blackened green leaves were picked. I had left them crumpled on their stalks last week, dismayed. Again, half the basil I had left to wither. That was years since I’d made such a lapse. But many plants in a brighter, sunnier patch were fine and rich and quickly plucked. These leaves filled my large yellow glass bowls, and I tipped them into my kitchen sink. Last evening I had returned since I heard the night would be even colder. A small stack of some wood I had left unchopped for a friend to practice on I’d promised to save it for to split last year still stands a year later. And soon I’ll be splitting another cord myself. In pesto, there really is no great difference between the batches I’ve found in taste, unless the one that’s made from autumn’s leaves is a bit more grassy and slightly bitter. Aside from cobwebs growing on the plants, it really would be rather wasteful not to use them all. And, besides, I am the only one looking on the basil growing now. With olive oil and garlic and sea salt and finely chopped hot cayenne peppers grown from my garden, too, plus pine nuts and a touch of parsley, it’s very, very tasty. And how sweet the smell when all the garden plucking is on my fingertips. Still, when I make it all, I’ll separate the neglected leaves from the fresher ones, and be myself comparing the two, eating from carefully enough labeled containers marked with scribbled-upon masking tape taped to the lids, when I thaw the many portions I will have again from the freezer for meals and company when I have some all winter long until next summer comes.
Time ago it was he had said to his father, “You fail me yet again.” And the father looked around at all the leaves of all the basil plants, all of them a foot taller than his son was then, all having blackened overnight. He had meant to let them grow. He had meant to let them reach their fullest height. He had meant to harvest the leaves when they were at their plentiest. He had done this before. He had done this before that. The point was in planting the basil, and so much of it, to make homemade pesto. But the putting off of collecting the leaves until October allowed the chill of one night alone to ruin the crop, and the boy just pointed out as a boy will do his dashed hopes in his father, a man he so deeply believed in. Since then, the father never failed once to harvest the basil when the leaves were ripe. The yearly stores of pesto, which the two ate fresh, and which in small plastic containers the father froze, they enjoyed over the years, summer after summer. These yearly gardening successes continued. Many other things were allowed to wither. Many other things blackened, some of them overnight, some of them over an entire season, some of them took years of time. When the father himself had been very young he traveled the world and took with him a handful of paperback books, one of them belonging to his own father. He kept close to himself this line inscribed upon his heart from one—“More mischief comes into the world through misunderstanding and neglect, rather than malice or wickedness; the latter two, at any rate, are rarer.” I can’t today say a thing about the ashes of the living, but I know a thing or two about blackened leaves of the dead. And if there is a remaining sorrow in my bones, that grief must be for a little bit of green innocence my wishes for the future had left behind there.
She came by to see the bear in the tree. She lived across the street. It was gone when she did. “It was up there,” he said pointing to a crook in the tree, “trying to get to the bird feeder.” He had strung the feeder almost thirty feet high, far out on a limb. It was engineered with pulleys, and rope, and with a boat cleat at the bottom of the trunk to tie it off, to keep it hoisted out of bears’ reach. “Wow!” she said, when she saw the video clip of the black bear pulling the rope that raised the feeder. “Wow! That’s incredible!” she said when she saw the bear raising and lowering the bird feeder attached to the rope-and-pulley system as the bear tried to solve the bird feeder and rope dilemma, able to realize, eventually, that it couldn’t—which was the solution. “I had never imagined a bear would be able to do this,” the man, her neighbor, had said. He took her to his garden and cut her chard. He cut her kale. He cut her collards. She declined tomatoes as she had plenty of small red tomatoes herself.
The gnats had been flying about, and the woman kept trying to whisk them away from her eyes. The man came back from inside his house and handed her a straw hat. “A wide-brimmed straw hat, I’ve discovered, keeps the bugs away,” he said. “Is it the straw?” she asked. He didn’t know. “I don’t know, but if it works, you can borrow it for as long as you like until you get your own.” It had been friendly of the man to send his neighbor, who was a gentle and kind woman, a text message about the sunflower seed-sniffing black bear up in the tree. And it was kind of him himself to give her those vegetables from his garden. He had several straw hats in a stack from a big party. Long ago. Another time. Once he had said it, the man knew how strange it was, and how odd it sounded to himself to have told his neighbor that he was only lending her the hat, not giving it to her. He had two or three more. That would have been perfect.