REVIEW AMERICANA

 

Spring 2007

Volume 2, Issue 1

http://www.americanpopularculture.com/review_americana/spring_2007/holmes.htm




KATHERINE L. HOLMES

 

Nuts and Bolts

 

A late-risen woman comes in from her backyard for another stoneware cup of cinnamon coffee. She was gazing at her love-in-a-mist or devil-in-a-bush, whatever people wanted to call them, as one unfisted a five petaled blue bloom above its soft skeletal leaves. She 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. Then she 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 dollars 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 tray.

“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 no plans.”

“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 has 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. They 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 in the 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 chains on black.'”

“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 the linen-like 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 bird at 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 summer 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 this, “If Grandma comes in, don’t let her have any cheese. It’s loaded with salt.”

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 to thyme.

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. At mealtime, 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. As she talked with her grandmother though, the plate of Colby cheese became an object to ponder.

Eventually, her grandmother was talking to the cheese which was on her granddaughter’s 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 a circle 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 mop-strands.

“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 the cheese.”

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 bar.

“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 woman replies.

“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 supper.”

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 his sack.

“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 he’s 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 down 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 of its babydoll dress.

“The doll didn’t do it,” she said.

“The doll said the cheese was dust when it was poison for that grandmother,” Ezekiel’s 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 one, she 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 whistle.

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 mind them.

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 on them.

“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 too fast.

 


Order Curiosity Killed the Sphinx and Other Stories by Katherine L. Holmes here.

 


 

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