by Ed Lynskey
St. Patrick's Day
No McCleod, Daddy claims, ever took charity. I don't know about that. But I do know grubbing in this red dirt is murder on the back. Stretching upright, I grab at my achy spot. My gaze turns to Daddy. He's wrestling the Roto-tiller chugging to plow up new ground. His face hooded under a mesh hat feels my stare. He nods me back to work.
Sighing, I grasp a seed potato. Its eye -- a spindly, three-inch growth -- is a baby vine. A baby, I think. My fingers scratch and trench the seed potato in the row. The dug soil smells clammy, damp -- and fertile. Fertile, I think.
Daddy has been jobless since St. Valentine's Day. We sew a garden to grow our own nourishment. Food stamps are charity. The Roto-tiller conks out. Cursing to make a Teamster blush, he wheels it behind the shed for repairs.
"Hey Lorrie, how many spuds do you have?" Zelda, my younger sister, asks.
"Six," I reply.
"That's six too many." Tucking a sandy blonde strand of hair behind a jade-pierced ear, Zelda arches her willowy back. "Counting yours, how many rows?"
"That's fifteen too many." Zelda screws on a sour expression. "Daddy and his potatoes."
"We can't eat dirt," I say, imitating a gruff bark familiar to us. We laugh.
After turning her bucket upsidedown, Zelda tamps on its bottom to dislodge the wet dirt. Red mud is caked to her old KEDS. Mine, too. "Let's go listen to my MP3 player," she says.
"Go ahead. I'll mosey up in a little," I say.
"You telling Daddy?" asks Zelda.
Irritated, I reply, "I'll be up in a little, okay?"
"Good luck." After a sympathetic squeeze on my elbow, Zelda disappears through the rear door to our beige brick rambler.
Approaching me, Daddy asks, "Where's your sister?"
"Zelda went in to clean up."
"These rows need buttoning."
"Don't you do that part?"
Grunting, Daddy squats down to grasp the rowmaker. "You ain't seeing that boy, are you?"
A dry lump forms in my throat. "The boy's names is Sean. And no Daddy, we're not dating."
"Good," he says. "I laid down the law. You two have been seeing each other too much. Plus, I don't like his looks."
"Our fling is over," I assure him, not eager to touch off World War Three again.
Grunting, Daddy sets the rowmaker's tiller to one side of the row. He pushes the tool forward in spurts. It shoves red dirt over our seed potatoes. Half-moons of sweat leach through his splotchy denim shirt under his armpits. This is dirty work.
A squeaky window lifts in its sash. "Lorrie," Zelda calls down to me, "are you coming?"
Back now to my end of the row, Daddy tips his goatee. "Go be with your sister," he says. "We're finished -- for now at least."
Eyes big as champagne corks, Zelda looks up as I invade her dormer bedroom. "You looked as if you needed rescuing," she says. "Did you break the news to Daddy?"
After a sharp sigh, I say, "Not yet."
"What will you do, Lorrie?"
My reply: "Guess I'll watch these two gardens grow."
We arrive five minutes late to nine o'clock Mass. I sleepwalk through the standing, sitting, and kneeling segments. The long-winded priest we dub Father Filibuster. Sean with his Irish clan occupies three pews. Daddy hasn't acknowledged them. Zelda fidgets between us. After Father Filibuster dismisses the flock, Sean deals me a lewd wink in the vestibule. His family files out the door before we do. Sean's father is burlier than Daddy but is bald as an egg.
Sean is cocky. Ignorance is bliss. Only Zelda knows and she hasn't breathed a word to a soul. We live three blocks from St. Agnes. She prayed, "Christ make my soul beautiful with the jewels of grace and virtue. I belong to Him whom the angels serve." At age 12, St. Agnes had her throat cut rather than surrender her virginity. Swallowing hard, I envy her. We stroll home. A new PT Cruiser, teal green, whisks by us. Daddy ignores it. A dry lump forms in my throat.
"Daddy, how did yesterday's interview go?" asks Zelda.
To my shock (and relief), Daddy doesn't tee off on Zelda renowned for her bluntness. "So-so," he replies. "Boss man said he should have jobs soon."Zelda smiles. "That's great."
Daddy simply nods. "We'd better go hill potatoes."
Scrunching on a wry face, Zelda shrieks a silent "oh no!" at me. "But the vines barely poke out of the ground," she says.
Daddy walking in front of us adopts a coarser tone. "It doesn't hurt to stay on top of them. Have you also got a hot-to-trot date?"
"No," Zelda replies. "I'll stick on my Walkman and work that old hoe."
"Better than working your mouth," Daddy says.
His voice, however, has lightened a degree. In that cogent instant, I recognize Zelda will always star as Daddy's little girl. We sidle upstairs to change out of our Easter frocks. We throw on ragbag jeans and sweatshirts. Before zipping up my jeans, I caress my stomach, still firm and flat. My heart beats fiercer. Sweat appears. The problem doesn't fix itself, no matter how hard I might wish it. Or pray for it.
From the bottom of the stairs, I hear, "Lorrie, coming?"
"Just a second. Is Daddy out in the potatoes?"
"He is." I finish dressing and hurry downstairs. "Did you catch Sean's arrogant wink?" Zelda asks. She sports a dead cell phone on her belt. Keeping up appearances is important to Zelda.
"Sean needs to be brought down a peg or two," I say.
"His daddy, like ours, is old school," says Zelda. We troop through the kitchen and file out the rear door. "Maybe there'll be a shotgun wedding."
I tell her, "Hey, that's not even funny to joke about."
"Sorry, sis. Really, I am. Hey, what are the odds Daddy will land that job?"
"I pray they're good," I reply. "Having to facing a bear every day sucks."
"Amen to that," says Zelda.
Cinco de Mayo
I saw a copper-skinned lady at the bus stop crying.
Public school is almost out for summer hiatus. I hover at the end of the potato rows. A vagrant breeze stirs green leaves and stems. Three hoes lean against the scuppernong arbor. Last evening we ridged all fifteen rows. Daddy is pleased as punch with their progress. Employed again, he's in an exultant mood. Already I begin to show. Zelda, still a virgin, disagrees.
Curious, I stop at the nearest row and crouch down. My hand digs into loose earth. My fingers grope in warm dampness probing for the potato roots. They feel clingy and branchlike. There are no swelling tubers. It's too soon, I reassure myself. Daddy has saved empty wicker baskets trashed by the Korean corner market. Down in the basement he has stacked them into totem columns. They smell musty, oniony, and I feel like a big fool . . .
Sean hasn't an inkling. Like any dutiful Catholic, I suffer and repent in silence. Passing by me at school and church, he just smirks. Tomorrow I go to the free clinic. By law they notify the parents. Daddy will go ballistic. St Agnes never carried a child. She died.
Zelda asks me, "Will plastic roses look okay on Mom's grave?"
I turn. Patriotic red, white, and blue ribbons festoon her hair. "Of course they'll last longer than real roses," I reply. "Are we still on for the clinic tomorrow?"
"I already agreed to it," says Zelda. "What are sisters for?"
I cry. Did St. Agnes cry? Did St. Agnes have a sister?
Bloom's Day (or so says my calendar)
My potted zinnias died.
"Pssst. We'll go enjoy the fireworks," Sean tells me in that seductive satyr's whisper. "Meet me in the usual place."
"Sean, no fireworks for us," I say. "Tonight. Or ever."
"Why are you so bitchy?" he asks. I tell him. "Christ Jesus!" he says. "I didn't know."
"Now you do. Are you happy?"
Thumbnail itching his wispy chin whiskers, Sean nods. "You made the smart move," he says, then: "Thanks, too, for taking care of that . . . situation."
"Thanks? Situation? Is that all you can think to say? Sean, my father pegged you right. You are a real prick."
Later alone in our garden, I study the rows of potato vines. Their blue blossoms denote fertility. In the past week, we've ridged the potatoes twice. Dusted once for "weevils." Daddy is giddy. He expects a bumper crop. He has a passel of bushel baskets ready to fill.
Behind the scuppernong arbor where our hoes are stacked, I've staked out my private crying place. If grief unfolds in five stages, I've risen above the bottommost.
Dog Days of August
School has cranked up again. Zelda skips doing any homework. She's too smart. She lounges on her bed wearing her Walkman. She has a cute boyfriend and a cuter seahorse tattoo. Daddy has been laid off. He's back to friendly as a gut-shot bear. He doesn't acknowledge my hopeful gazes. Does it stem more from shame or guilt? I gave up deciphering the runes written on his face.
I slip into the basement. Stacks of bushel baskets surround me. Only six baskets contain potatoes we extracted from the garden. The heftiest ones are the size of hand grenades. That our bounty was less than expected is an understatement. Love didn't grow and flourish in either of my gardens. So it goes.
Outdoors I hike past the Roto-tiller, rowmaker, and three potato hoes. The scuppernong arbor awaits me. Already my eyes well up in bitter tears. I'm conquering the third stage of grief.
Ides of October
1. Once I've powered by the fifth (and final) stage of grief, I make up my mind about a few items.
2. Next March 17th I'll do no dirty work in any garden.
3. No kid of mine will bear the name Sean.
4. With my back against the wall, I'll accept charity every time.
5. Last yet not least, I'll always hate the taste of potatoes.
About the author:
Ed Lynskey's short fiction has appeared in Mississippi Review Online, Big Tex(t), Dudley Review, 3 A.M. Magazine, and Plots With Guns.