by Ken Roy
Maddie eyed the plants in clay pots she had arranged like sentries on the counter that faced the living room where Clyde slouched in the recliner. She knew by the empty beer cans on the coffee table, Clyde lounging in his t-shirt and underwear, and the cigarette butts piled in the ashtray like tiny, felled tree stumps that he had not gone to work that day. Again. No work meant no money. No money meant no repairing the house that was decomposing around them. She slid to the left a large, leafy plant to interrupt the line of sight between her eyes and Clyde’s face.
Clyde reached over to the coffee table to get the can opener he called the John Wayne. He worked the John Wayne around an empty beer can to cut it in half, and he spat a gob of chew in it. He leaned back in a slightly different position, and he was again squarely in her view.
Clyde’s head moved around the room like the barrel of a gun on a turret, his eyes taking inventory of all the plants.
“It’s like a damn jungle in here.”
There it was, the first grenade toss. Clyde didn’t like the plants that forested the house. Said they reminded him of Vietnam. Maddie always wondered about that because the times she had asked about Vietnam he said there was not much to talk about. He spent his tour on a large base where he drove a truck delivering supplies. In the “rear with the beer” he liked to say.
“No work today?”
“No. I called my boss and told him I wanted to file a workers’ comp claim. That tire iron really did a number on my knee when I was repairing that tire. It’s the same knee I hurt in Nam when those artillery guns went off.”
Yes, the knee he hurt in Vietnam, noted Maddie. One of the few times he ventured off the base was to drive in a convoy to deliver supplies to an artillery outpost. While waiting to return to the base he climbed a wall of sandbags to sit and smoke a cigarette. The artillery guns began to shoot, and Clyde, never having heard artillery guns shoot before, thought the explosions were incoming enemy fire. He leaped from his wall perch for cover and twisted his knee when he landed.
“My boss told me to go see a doctor, but he wants me to see a doctor the company uses. That’s bullshit. I want to pick my own doctor, not some company doctor. You need to take a day off from work and drive me to a doctor over in Bay City.”
“I can’t miss a day from work.”
“We need the money, Clyde…with you already missing so many days from work this year.”
Clyde drew his head back, raised his eyebrows, and sucked on his teeth.
“Maybe if you didn’t spend so much on pots, fertilizer, and potting soil for all the damn plants in the house, money wouldn’t be so tight around here.”
There it was, grenade number two, a dud. Maddie looked away and busied herself with the plants precious to her like the nettle bush, Queen Anne’s Lace, poppy, foxglove, and many others whose names she didn’t know. She harvested them in the woods, her own wild garden, that lay beyond the border of their backyard. On most Saturdays when the weather was sunny and pleasant she walked through the woods with pruning shears and a straw basket selecting, cutting, and gathering. She brought the cuttings into the house to replant and nurture. Not all flourished, but those that did grew in clay pots that adorned the kitchen and bathroom counters, window sills, dresser, and kitchen table while others were stationed in the back yard. Some days though she just roamed the footpaths that braided the woods. She loved to plant her feet into the pad of leaves, pine needles, and powdered earth while the leaves in the trees, vibrating in the breeze, fanned her. She would stoop to read with her finger tips the braille-like textures of the plants while inhaling those wondrous, mystical and mysterious scents that mapped in her brain a topography she wandered in her dreams.
Clyde was silent, glaring. He spat out the chew. Took a sip of beer. Lit a cigarette.
“Is it the money, or is it you can’t miss a day seeing Billy Tobin?”
This one, a smoke grenade. The three of them graduated from high school the same year, but Billy Tobin traveled with a different crowd than theirs. During lunch hour their crowd gathered in the empty lot behind the high school to sit in old, beat up coupes and sedans, smoke cigarettes, and blast rock and roll from the radio. Billy Tobin’s crowd gathered in the school parking lot. They wore letter sweaters, penny loafers, and drove nice convertibles.
After high school their lives continued on different tracks. Clyde was drafted into the Army. They married. Clyde went to Vietnam. He returned home and was given a general discharge. He liked to joke that he went in the Army as a private and came out a general. He spent his first weeks home commandeering a barstool at the tavern on the corner. Called it his “R and R.” He got a job. Finally. Quit. Got another job. Got fired. Bounced a couple of checks and now they had to pay in cash when they shopped at the neighborhood grocery store. Then there was the DUI. It cost them a lot of money for Clyde to get out of it. Clyde’s current job was in the service department of a local car dealership, and he was looking for something else because his boss was an asshole. Maybe you could drive a truck like you did in the Army, Maddie once suggested. Hell, no, he said. He didn’t know what he wanted to do, but he damn sure was not going to be a truck jockey all his life.
Maddie worked various jobs, sometimes two—whatever it took to make ends meet and maybe put a little away. Billy Tobin was now Bill Tobin, her boss at the insurance agency his father owned. She liked her job and made decent money, but sometimes things looked too familiar to Maddie when, at lunch, Bill and his managers dined in the board room fenced in by pie charts and bar graphs while Maddie and the other women crammed around the table in the breakroom eating leftovers from Tupperware containers.
“Goddamn it, Clyde, don’t start that crap again. You know damn good and well, there is nothing –”
The phone rang, and Clyde answered it.
“Hey, J T,” said Clyde. JT was Clyde’s buddy from work, and Maddie heard only Clyde’s side of the conversation.
“Yeah, I had to miss work because of that knee I busted with the tire iron. Yeah, the one I hurt in Nam. Hell, I don’t know when I’ll be back to work. Could be a week or two, who knows? Yeah, talk to you later.”
“No work for maybe a couple of weeks, Clyde? We can’t afford to go two weeks without your pay.”
“Listening to my phone conversation? We need to get a bigger house so I can have some privacy around here.”
Maddie pulled the pin and threw her own grenade.
“Then get off of your lazy ass, Clyde. Go to work, make some money, and we can have a bigger house.”
Clyde shot out of the recliner like a mortar round from a hot tube. Maddie screamed and swept her arm across the kitchen counter sending the clay pots shattering onto the floor, the shards like punji stakes for Clyde’s bare feet. She pivoted, rushed out the back door, and raced across the backyard. Looking over her shoulder she saw Clyde at the back door pulling flip flops onto his feet. He bounded from the back steps, and even with a bum knee and flip flops, he gained on her as he sprinted across the yard. She ran toward the only place she knew to run, the woods. She stumbled in the night made black by the clouds hanging like shrouds over the tree tops and the stingy light of the waning, toothpick thin moon.
She swallowed a sour taste in her throat and worried how far she could make it in the dark. She was breathing hard, and sucking in the night air when she recognized the strong scent of the honeysuckle bushes at the edge of the yard and the woods. She knew from her many walks in the woods that if she went to the left of the honeysuckle bushes and turned right she would be on a footpath that ran through the woods. All she had to do, she hoped, was to follow the scents of the plants and trees along the footpath that were imprinted in her memory, and she could maneuver the path that would lead her back to the house. Then what, she asked herself, what would she do once she was back at the house?
She ran past the honeysuckle bushes then followed the sweet smell of the linden tree drifting toward her. She heard Clyde crashing in the bushes as he blindly tried to follow her, and with each step she ran the noise behind her diminished.
Past the linden tree, the scent of the wild onions led her to the bank of the stream that crept through the woods. She leaped over it. When she smelled the muddy hole where stagnant water pooled she knew to leap back across the stream. One scent after another. One step after the other. Quickly now through the stand of cedar trees. She heard Clyde twice shout out, and the second time the shouting was faint. Then she heard nothing more but her own panting and the slapping of her shoes on the earth.
She came to the dead oak tree. Its silhouette against the dim sky looked like the skeletal framework of a mansion that forest gnomes had begun to build then deserted. Beyond the dead oak tree was the magnolia tree, and at the magnolia tree she knew she would be near the perimeter of the yard. From there, the walk to the house was a short, straight one.
Maddie walked past the oak and continued to the magnolia tree. When she reached it, she stood in its perfume and looked toward the house. She saw the light in the kitchen. The other rooms in the house were dark. From the woods behind her there was no sound of Clyde. No twigs snapping. No cursing or shouting. No pounding foots steps in the dry leaves. He would not be lost, she knew, but he had to be disoriented and flailing about in the dark woods that he was a stranger to. She determined what she was to do after she returned to the house.
She made her way across the yard to the back door. She entered and strode to the bedroom. Pulling a suitcase from the closet shelf, she quickly packed it with just enough of what she would need for a few days—panties, bras, a couple of skirts, blouses, pajamas, makeup—until she could sneak back to get more. Much of her possessions—all her beautiful plants—she resigned would be left behind, abandoned. She sobbed once then caught herself. She had to finish packing and get out.
She shut the suitcase, grabbed a coat, and marched through the house toward the front door. At the kitchen, she stopped to assess the aftermath of fallen plants, smashed pots, and dirt strewn across the floor. Each plant, she promised herself, would forever have a place, if not in the house, then in her heart.
Maddie started again for the front door but stopped when she heard the back door open, and before she saw Clyde, she smelled him. He smelled sickly sweet like overly ripe fruit in a soupy mix of sweat and damp night air. The door slammed shut, and she turned to confront him, asking herself if she were strong enough to swing the suitcase at him if he came toward her. He slinked across the kitchen floor, limping as he did. He was winded from running and muddy from slipping in the stream. The flip flop for his right foot was missing, and the naked foot tattooed a muddy footprint on the linoleum floor. Scarlet ribbons decorated his arms where bayonets of branches and thorny bushes had slashed him.
He looked at her then down at the suitcase and began tossing grenades like baseballs aimed at the strike zone.
“You going AWOL again or deserting this time? AWOL, I hope. Deserters sometimes get shot.”
She returned his look, steadily, directly.
“Hell, get your fat ass outta here. You’ll be back soon enough like always, and when you do things are going to be different. I’m tired of your bullshit.”
Maddie, standing at attention, eyes forward, said nothing still. Clyde sneered, shook his head, and blew air through his nose. He looked her up and down and focused on the suitcase, considering it again. “You’re traveling pretty light, I see. Maybe you got room to take some of those damn plants with you.”
Except for the TV announcing the evening news there was silence. Clyde turned away and retreated to the sink. Turning on the water, he began splashing his face and washing off the mud, blood, and confetti of leaves plastered to his arms. Maddie searched as he stood there to recognize the teenage boy who, on Saturday afternoons, waxed his car in the blue shade of the tree in his front yard while the radio played, first smearing on the wax then rubbing it off until the polished, glossy finish reflected their dreams. She could no longer recognize that boy, but neither could she, when painting her face in the morning, recognize the young girl who once smiled back at her in the mirror.
Maddie set the suitcase down. She stooped and touched with her finger tips the plants lying nearest her feet— the nettle bush, Queen Anne’s Lace, a fern, then back to the nettle bush. Reaching to the coffee table, she picked up one of Clyde’s empty beer cans and the John Wayne. She rocked the John Wayne around the top of the beer can but left enough attached so that the top was made into a lid that would open and shut. Kneeling on the floor she hand swept dirt into the can. She poked a hole in the dirt with her index finger and gently, gingerly, picked up the stem of the nettle bush. Placing the stem in the dirt, she tamped it down and closed the lid. She stood with the suitcase in her right hand and the beer can with the transplanted nettle bush cradled in the nook of her left elbow and walked out the front door.
She descended the wobbly front steps, and continued into the light of the street lamp at the end of the block, a cloud of moths circling and bouncing off the globe. A ballad blossomed in the air from the radio of a passing car. Reflected in the headlights was the thin film of beginning fog, and the faint, cool moisture tingled her skin. The taillights served as beacons beckoning her on, and the suitcase, now seemingly weightless, swung like a pendulum at her side steadying her pace. Inhaling deeply to quiet her breathing, she still smelled the honeysuckle.