A late-risen woman comes in from her backyard
for another stoneware cup of cinnamon coffee. She was gazing at
devil-in-a-bush, whatever people wanted to call them, as one
unfisted a five petaled blue bloom above its soft skeletal leaves.
has found fifteen times that there is nothing to do in her garden,
apart from weeding. Still, she equivocates at the steps to her
kitchen before she reaches the landing where she sees her husband
eating from a cookie sheet spread with snack mix. Boxes she did
not buy of cereals and a canister of peanuts are out on the counter.
A handful proves
that her husband is as capable with her Nuts and Bolts recipe as
she is. His having prepared it makes it desirable with another
cup of coffee. While his back is turned, as he is having to rearrange
a cupboard for the cereal cartons, she keeps eating what she has
seldom munched in the early afternoon of a sublime summer Saturday
when there isn’t anything to do.
His words are as muffled as the cereal shaking in the boxes: “I
said we didn’t have any plans.”
“I just made plans for supper. With the old lady next door. I
have to make a marinade.” She is
paving her way through the Nuts and Bolts, collecting peanuts.
eats her heavily peanuted handful as her husband turns to her.
He is wearing an old and relaxed pair of chinos the color of sand
and a shirt patterned with small sailboats that, after many launchings
into the laundry, reminds her of a pajama top. This accentuates
the early silver that gives his hair outlines. “But I said
I would go,” he states. “It’s at White Bear Lake
tonight and there’s going to be a sailboat or two.”
Her hand flaps down for a few more peanuts. “Same old bunch?”
“Not exactly. The newest baby will be there and at least one of the
mothers won’t be sailing.”
“She wouldn’t sail anyway. It’s her third. And that’s
the third baby born into the same old bunch this year. I don’t
think you really meant what we agreed on.” She doesn’t
look up since she is exchanging pretzels for more peanuts on the
“I haven’t changed my mind. They seem to think we’re
happy. Are you going to stop eating that?”
“I’m just eating my portion. Really, they’re getting to
be a fertility cult,” the woman replied and swallowed to
a falsetto. “’You just can’t imagine how it makes
you feel. Papa’s little precious.’ Proof is what they
mean and you going anyway, like a weight watcher going to eat birthday
cake or a person on a budget admiring someone’s new car.”
“But you know who lives out on White Bear Lake. His one kid is long
gone,” the man insisted. “Look, I just said we had
“Then go if you want to. You’d better put this out of sight.
Cheese balls, chips, sea salt, seasoned steak. I’ll bloat
up like a water mattress right now. And then they’d probably
want to push me out on one.”
Nothing to do and it is the wafting weather that follows days of
haranguing thunder and rain, when the humidity mounts like remorse.
The couple has decided to go for a walk. It is their first summer
in their house on the outskirts of St. Paul, near Como Lake and
the Minnesota State Fairgrounds. Only the supper with the sailboat
to be answered somehow.
St. Paul is like a curious acquaintance that they are getting to
know gradually and in glimpses, unlike the bunch from the man’s
job that meets regularly and makes rounds of houses. Today they have
stuffed swimwear into a hamper that the woman carries. During a spell
of heavy heat they heard about an outdoor municipal swimming pool
from a youngster across the street. Lake Como in the l980’s
functions as a mirage or a massive mudhole to swimmers and pollution-conscious
people who feed the wrong-side-of-the-state mallards.
The man and the woman stroll past arches that, like patriarchs,
are dwarfed by roofs. They admire the vines hanging like arras.
are still pleased with their slate-blue, part-stucco house within
which the sunlight transfigures the cat-quiet rooms. With the spare
rooms relegated to their diversions, neither the man nor the woman
has ever had so much space and peace. They have both come from
families where chaos, crises, and grievances became grotesque growths
memory. They postulated that some of these inherent or chance-caused
experiences were best not repeated.
Newfound freedom came from that, an adulthood that had the independence
and happiness of an ideal childhood. They accomplished a genuine
dignity at home. After that, they became carefree, perhaps spoiled.
“That’s the bike that could nab the thief,” the man’s
voice flares in the neighborhood, salient as the silver fluorescent
a boy paints on his bike. He looks up from the initials TLJ on
the diagonal bar.
Approaching the boy, the woman says, “Alma, next door, said
that none of the alley neighbors have been able to keep a bicycle
in their garage.” She smiles at the boy.
The boy’s eyes headlight her as if the man is a ringleader
of the invisible force that specializes in bike theft. The woman
feels cut by the sheer phosphorescence of the boy’s glare.
He is cleancut in cut-offs, his hair wiped away from his forehead.
Uncomfortable, the woman complains about the risk of leaving bikes
unattended in bike racks. She and her husband both have new bikes
that scale the basement staircase as often as they are ridden. Otherwise,
the frequency of execrable crime is so low in the neighborhood that
only a few years back, in 1979, a woman reported that she offered
a burglar cookies and milk before he hurried away, and people laughed
at the joke in the news.
“Those are my initials, TLI,” the man had jibed. He didn’t
mind the blatancy of the boy staring at him.
She says, “Maybe the punks wear their hair so they can be
identified like that bike. Their parents could say, ‘The
last I saw her, she had a spike ball haircut of clover green and
clover red. There was a crescent moon painted
on her right temple and a tattoo timepiece on her left wrist. She has four
earrings possible on her left ear and three on her right ear. She was wearing
“They are all wearing chains on black this year, Ma’am. Can you tell
us about her fillings?” the man rejoins.
Incredulously, they consider the close-set brick homes, a march tune to St.
Paul natives but lucky for a newcomer to own. They have felt finality about
yards, about the women and the men who show their blue-noded legs, about the
geraniums and the hydrangeas. Since many of the residents are far along in
that finality, they know, even though they might have seen a woman flip the
a man driving out of an alleyway, that most fighting is done secretly. They
felt this in the soundproof stucco and brick often in midwinter and in the
when cars could be heard screeching towards the sunset. But then, seeing the
old bunch, they became confused, dubious about their interpretation, thinking
for a day or two that there might be a better life than they had known, that
they hadn’t believed in something.
Something got her thinking about her grandmother. A basement window, at the height
where a toddler can be a peeping Tom and see the tuba convolutions of a furnace.
She ascertained at once that the waiting room of a local boy doctor, a healer
of anatomical humiliations, could be watched.
Or it was the old oaks, old as the ones prohibited to the children then. The
children who dared the wind, the neighbors, and their bodies when they climbed
to the height of the house shingles. She fell from a low branch and went to a
doctor who examined her sprained ankle without her having to remove any clothing.
Or it was while she was coming in from the yard, the three steps to the kitchen,
the snack mix.
She had come into such a kitchen, anticipating lunch. Her mother, setting
bread, margarine, and sliced Colby cheese on the table, murmured on such
a day as
Grandma comes in, don’t let her have any cheese. It’s loaded
While her mother was cutting carrot spears, her back turned from the kitchen
table, her grandmother slippered in. She was still sturdy looking, her cheeks
puffy rather than cracked, like dumplings, and her hair a silver filigree on
dark gray. She could sit down without scraping her chair. Her smile gleamed like
the marbled formica. Unlike herself, her mother said, sil-lee, she enunciated
On seeing the skulking widow, her mother went to the refrigerator for food that
was shunned in an infirmary-white corner: salt-free bread, chicken boiled without
salt, and salt-free butter, bland as bananas.
“Here are some carrot and celery sticks, Mother,” her mother said
matter-of-factly before she turned back to the counter to grab a bite herself.
she would be on a diet.
She and her grandmother began to play pretend about a doll taking a nap.
The doll, her grandmother’s gift, was constructed from a dustmop.
It had a babydoll dress of dustmop tassels and braids of dustmop strands.
with her grandmother though, the plate of Colby cheese became an object
Eventually, her grandmother was talking to the cheese which was on her
side of the table. Then she reached and lip-said, “Please pass the cheese.” As
she repeated that, her eyes seemed to be saying, “I’m the oldest.”
It was a usual act of mealtime civility, pushing the plate of cheese towards
her grandmother. But this became collusion when her grandmother slipped a piece
of cheese inside the folds of her dress.
She was struggling with her tongue, heavy as a shovel. Finally some words
came out: “I’m going to get Moppa up from her nap.” She
bolted from the room.
Her grandmother was still undetected when she returned with the dustmop
doll, another doll she didn’t want to dandle much. She disliked dolls in the
way she disliked naps. Both of these activities seemed to be a pretense and not
for the reasons of sleep or love for a doll. She never slept during a pre-planned
naptime; she listened to her mother’s clandestinely-watched soap operas
from a stairwell. That day she began lying too, pretending to enjoy playing dolls
because her grandmother wanted to play dolls – until the other children
arrived for lunch.
A few weeks after that visit, her grandmother died.
"But there's no spot
on the wall to focus on for balance,” the man is saying. He blinks
at children screaming from their loss of equilibrium in the capsules
of the Tilt-a-Whirl
at Como Park.
“You won’t go on the Tilt-a-Whirl? What if people want you to go
to the State Fair now that we live near it?”
“Look at that boy,” the man says. “Look at his loss of control.
I like the rides that are almost an accident but then you’re saved.”
A boy of about seven can’t walk a straight line from his still-swiveling
capsule. His parents, behind the cordage, beckon to his wobbling as if
he is warped from a conflicting magnetic pull.
The woman wonders if she could wheedle her husband onto the Tilt-a-Whirl.
Round and round and round, a little girl shrills and whizzes and makes
the woman smile. As the girl comes out of her Dorothy tornado, her hair
fuzzed in the sun,
she is clutching a raspberry-haired, troll man, grinning like Mad Magazine.
A tiered balcony view of the lake and its walkways can be had
if the two loll near a windbreak of mock orange on an elmed knoll.
Someone had scraped
to the soil and the grass around it is yellow as matchsticks. A dusting
of ashes is left from a defiant campfire. Mornings, Como Park is strewn
with wine bottles
pajamaed in paper bags and sun-catching packages empty of cigarettes.
There was a two-acre wood, she recalls, behind her town’s
last avenue, Gunthar. That was the name on the mailbox of an old
farmhouse. There was an oak grove that was sealed off in lilac
between the farmhouse and the corn horizon. After the neighborhood
kids who could play until dark kicked a can and were supposedly
hidden behind hydrangeas and garages, a secret counsel was held
in the woods. Once during the counsel, her dustmop doll, Moppa,
was charged with witchcraft.
The neighbor girl’s brother, whose name was Ezekiel Smite
when he hooked buckles on his shoes and wore a dad’s hat
punched square and adorned with a buckle, was a witch hunter. He
accosted her with questions.
“So why did you leave the table to get the doll when your grandmother
had a forbidden slice of cheese?”
She said that Moppa had awoken from her nap and was calling. She
thought her mother would catch her grandmother with the cheese.
Ezekiel’s sister, in her eyeleted cloth curler cap, hissed
out, “So how did your grandmother eat the cheese when Moppa
was at the table?”
“Moppa was looking for dust,” she replied. “When
she saw my grandmother slip the cheese into a sandwich, she said, ‘There
it is. Dust.’”
Ezekiel Smite began lashing a chokecherry stick at the ground near
Moppa while another boy tied Moppa’s hands with one of her
“Moppa had been having a dream. In it, she had to find dust
and lots of it. She asked a wizard where to get the dust. The wizard
said, ‘You know that dust comes out of thin air. Dust is
the first magic. And then, things turn back into dust. Cheese is
a food that gets dusty fast.’ But when Moppa wanted to see
if the cheese had dust on it, my grandmother said, ‘Why don’t
you check the vacuum cleaner bag?’ And then she started eating
Ezekiel’s sister, appalled as a mother whose child has mud
around the mouth, demanded, “And wasn’t salt bad for
your grandmother? And isn’t salt in cheese?” Ezekiel
Smite kept slashing at the campfire clearing.
She confessed that cheese had salt in it. Her sister sat on a low
limb of the cottonwood tree, her eye gazing as a corpse’s
while the doctor of deformities, on another branch, munched a Snickers
“She talked to a wizard! And isn’t a mop, what that doll
is made of, something like a broom, the sign of witchcraft?” Ezekiel
Smite finished the inquiry, pointing his stick at the dustmop doll.
She didn’t answer, regretting that she had told anyone about
the cheese and her grandmother. Her sister knew Moppa was innocent,
that she was gathering dust from neglect.
“I wonder if it’s kids or the homeless who had a campfire
here?” the man muses.
“Women have warned me about walking around the lake after
sunset but they didn’t tell me of an incidents,” the
“Is there time to walk to the zoo? Or is there something you’re
going to have to get at the grocery store? I used up the butter
on the Nuts and Bolts.”
“There’s another pound in the back of the frig.”
The man stretches his foot under the woman’s ankle, digging
his heel into the circle of dirt. “You’ve been forgetting
things lately and then someone has to make a grocery run before
The man’s head juts towards the walkways at the bottom of
the slope where a mother strolls with her two toddlers on two leashes.
Jaunting along on the lane behind her are two women with their
urban dogs, a cockapoo and a terrier. Eventually the barks of the
dogs attract the toddlers and the leashes become entangled.
“The boy bagging at the grocery forgot my green pepper that
day because it rolled away from here. I couldn’t make pepper
steak with it. Alma said that a beer marinade would be fine on
her food. She makes jewelry and got involved with a pterosaur dig
while she was out West. And then she said that there is more of
a demand for kittens around than there is supply.”
“Shish-ka-bob in beer marinade. That’s pretty low of
you when it’s just you and her,” the man grumbles.
On the knoll, a bunch of boys have joined them who are at the anti-heroic
age when girls are often taller. They have been playing with branches,
aiming them, flourishing them, daring people to ask them if they
were on the ground or if they broke them from a tree. Now they
seem to be stabbing at litter. The woman sees one of the boys pulling
a baggie from his pocket and then blowing it up. Still reclining,
the man resumes watching the trickle of people on the lake lanes.
Then he notices the attention of a few passersby after the baggie
is imploded behind him. He takes a desultory scan around at the
boys. The one who was pretending to collect litter is dangling
a condom in the air behind the couple.
“You little bastard!” the man reacts. He bounds up while
the boy with the branch drops it and runs into a ring of laughter.
Inhibiting the urge to discipline these boys, the man hesitates.
He does not know these boys and is drawing attention to their ribaldry.
He steps back to his wife.
“They’ll get it for something,” he mutters as they
walk away to the pathways. The day seems destroyed, the man clenching
his fury as if he is holding an overheated car key.
The polar bear exhibit is in a concrete chasm with blocks that
have the dimensions of icebergs. The man first stood above the
gorge and looked down at the berg-like bank on a May afternoon
that had gone wet and whip-winded. Seeing another man throw something
over the railing of the simulated glacier, he was diverted from
making his departure. Nets of rain billowed down upon the zoo.
The man about a decade older than him seemed to be tossing a stick-like
object in fun. But when the younger man reached the railing, he
saw a bear galumphing after a screwdriver rolling on the concrete
as a shower of metal nuts and bolts fell on him. The bear’s
taunter, snarling something, was grasping a caved-in paper sack.
He wore jeans that were matted manure-brown in places and a sweat-yellow
T-shirt that went askew above his slopping stomach. His shoes seemed
to have been polished with car oil.
“Hey, cut that out!” the man yelled. “That bear’s
done nothing to you.”
The other man’s inset eyes were unreadable while rain drizzled
his face. He still held a monkey wrench in the soggy remains of
“Yeah, you gotta protect these bears. Gotta pamper them. Fun
to look at, like a woman. I’m just a shift of work. Guys like
you throw things at me all day and I’m supposed to protect
everything except my sanity.”
Shambling on down the viewing deck like a gladiator with an advantage,
he raised the monkey wrench then he flung it onto the grass. The
man lost sight of him while he went looking for a zoo guard.
On the sultry July asphalt, a bear that the man calls Junior is
so languid on the concrete berg that it seems to be in summer hibernation,
playing dead, or dying.
“It makes a person want to toss something at him to see if
alright,” the man says softly, like a hypnotist.
“Did you ask if they let the bears out on the snow?” his
wife wonders. She reads the sign that forbids people to throw food
at the bears.
“This exhibit reminds me of unused stairways in office buildings,” the
man says. “I told the guard it was a barracks.”
“Ashes or dust? Ashes or dust?” Ezekiel Smite asked
the witch hunters.
“Dust. Let her dust.”
Though she knew there was another old woman who could make another
dustmop doll, she was regretting that she turned in Moppa.
“Dust to ashes, dust to ashes,” Ezekiel Smite chanted
while he tied the doll to the chokecherry branch with the tassels
its babydoll dress.
“The doll didn’t do it,” she said.
“The doll said the cheese was dust when it was poison for that
sister said unctuously.
“We could kick her around in a can,” said a boy at the cottonwood.
“Or the stocks,” said the doctor of deformities, jumping
from the tree’s branch. “I don’t have any matches.”
“Burn the dustmop, for that is all thou art, as a witch, at
the stake. Mop to ashes, mop to ashes,” said Ezekiel Smite,
a known pyromaniac. There wasn’t much time, because after
Ezekiel pulled a box of campfire matches from his pocket and lit
saw his determination.
The man and the woman meet at the rim of marine-like water after
being separated at the turnstiles of a municipal swimming pool.
They had already exchanged their clothing for a basket key to be
worn like a diaper pin when the woman realized that, its being
Minnesota where lakes are within driving distance, the municipal
pool is the domain of children. They have to hide in the stalls
that smell like wet cardboard, and where they can hear the graffiti
whispers of the children, things worse than “Aunt Wiggly
loves Uncle Ugly.”
Draped in their towels and their modesty, the man and the woman
decide to sit at the pool’s perimeter first and consider
the screams that burst sporadically like balloons.
“Did they burn the doll then?” the man asks, watching
the children make flames of the water.
“They shortened her dress. I ran off. They all knew I wanted
a cat, not a doll. The boys came back shouting ‘All-ee all-ee
in come free’ as if they were playing Kick the Can.” The
woman looks almost chic in her dahlia-pointed swimming cap and
her slightly streaked make-up.
The sun is intense. They can’t resist dunking to their shoulders
and bobbing past the birdbreasted girls and the boys skinny as
salamanders. After the man periscopes the pool’s surface
for other adults, curiosities here, he falls into a drifting float
towards the deep end of the pool. His wife bumps along in frog
fashion and eventually, she dives under where the sounds are stifled
and the light diffused like streetlamps.
They can’t do any real swimming. Two lanes are roped off
but what they watch is go-cart uneven: one freestyle is so groping
that the youngster might be reaching for candy while a hot rodder
passes him to be greeted at the lane’s end with a traffic
Eventually kickboards catch up with the couple and begin colliding
around them. Making for their towels, the two confess that they
never minded children so much because they didn’t have to
Drying in the sun, the woman muses, “My grandmother used
to sit as my mother braided my hair and she would tell her not
to yank so much.”
The man’s eyes have dropped to the ties of her swimsuit.
“And you also have been good to me, of course,” she adds
in the rhetoric of a joke. She is gazing in the direction of a boy
whose eyebrows are shaped like crochet hooks, similar to her husband’s.
She hasn’t seen many boyhood photographs of her husband.
Somewhere, another child screams and then whistles answer in constabulary
code. The metal ball in the whistle is spinning and shooting and
then it tapers with the lifeguard’s breath.
Strolling home, the two talk about eventually starting vines that
will scale their stucco. Morning glories, the woman suggests. The
man thinks purple clematis would contrast nicely. As they pass
a neighbor with whom the man has discussed snow zones, bad backs,
wives, and the man’s boy who keeps him jigging at basketball,
the old woman next door appears on her doorstoop. She looks frosty
and geological. “An hour?” she calls.
The younger woman pats her hair, not dry yet. “That’s
right, an hour.” But her voice sounds strapped. The man has
noticed too that the old woman’s pumps have square buckles
“So are you going to White Bear Lake tonight?” the woman
asks her husband.
“Our breeze isn’t,” he replies. “I’d
start wanting a sailboat and then a lake. I’ll keep her busy
with the snack mix.”
“I forgot. Alma says she goes to bed at exactly sundown in
the summer. She might bring some bones from the West with her.”
Neither of them want to pout the complaint of well-fed children:
that they’re bored and there’s nothing to do. An affection-stricken
cat exclaims at the door. And an old woman who turns up at times
must be de-strangered, satisfied with shish-ka-bob, and entertained
with discussion about the bones of flying lizards, treasure hunts
for moss agates, and the proper habitat for polar bears. Because
she will have too-definite feelings about climbing vines, they
will find out how definite she feels about other things her neighbors
do like keeping baby-weight cats that might disturb her between
dusk and midnight.
They already know how the evening will end, that they will tell
her they might catch a bicycle thief, which is why they watch their
garden grow past sunset. But they will have forgotten what phase
the moon is in. The bright, barren, good-for-nothing moon. Out
of propriety, the lawns being more visible from a darkened window,
they’ll wade in through the dewfall on the grass that grows
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