By: Dennis Vannatta
Gus Penders had been born and raised and at the age of fifty-nine still lived in the Belle Harbor section of Queens, New York, but he felt set apart from other natives of the area due to the summers he’d spent with his grandparents in Syracuse when he was a boy. Well, not all summer but four weeks, always in August, and in one of those weeks they held the glorious New York State Fair.
When he was little, his grandparents would take him to the fair at least once, and he’d eat corndogs and cotton candy, visit the petting zoo and make faces at the fat rabbits in their cages, and of course go to the carnival and ride the ponies round and round and the Ferris wheel up and down and pick yellow plastic ducks out of the water-run to see what amazing prize he’d win. As he grew older, he graduated to riding the Tilt-a-Whirl, Octopus, and Loop-a-Plane. And then one year in his teens his grandpa, who was somebody in the mayor’s office and “had pull,” asked him if he’d like to earn a little spending money working in the carnival as a ticket taker. The state took a percentage of every ticket sold, his grandpa explained, and “You just can’t go on trust with the carnies.” Well, OK, Gus would give it a try.
He had a lot of stories he’d tell about his two summers working in the carnival, a few of them even true. But what really stuck with him over the years was his forty-five minute lunch breaks when he’d buy a corndog and Coke and eat and drink as he walked through the cattle, sheep, and swine barns. You didn’t see a lot of cattle in Queens, and the closest he came to sheep at home was the leg of lamb his mother served every Easter. Pigs? There was no smell in the five boroughs like that pig pen smell. In a quiet moment even now, four decades later, he could bring that smell back thick in his nostrils, almost taste that smell. He loved it, loved everything about those barns and pens, the farm boys and girls in their blue jeans, cowboy boots, and denim jackets with FFA in yellow on the back, loved walking among the boxes of field corn, tomatoes, and pole beans tilted toward the aisles for easier viewing. A man who planted, who grew, who harvested—that was a man who could rightfully feel himself a man of the earth. Gus could make such a claim for himself only vicariously based on the one week of one month of his summers in Syracuse. But that was enough to set him apart.
“I feel like I’ve got farming in my blood, I really do,” he said to his wife not long ago, and Bernadetta, looking upward as if speaking to someone perched on the chandelier, said, “”Listen to this one. This one says he’s got farming in his blood. What I want to know is what’s he got between his ears,” in that Canarsie accent that seemed only to have gotten stronger over the years.
Thank God Gus had a Queen’s accent. In fact, though, Gus thought that if someone with an ear for accents really listened, they could detect in his speech that one month per summer he’d spent in Syracuse.
“A customer came into the store today and asked where upstate I was from,” he said to Bernadetta one day—a lie but one of those lies that could easily have been the truth, he felt, guiltless.
“Ha! Upstate. Ha! Listen to this one,” Bernadetta said.
They’d met at Brooklyn College. He’d told his friends stories about the beautiful girls in short-shorts and halter tops at the carnival at the fair, but he’d never spoken a word to any of them and had been equally shy with the girls at home. So, when he reached his senior year of college without ever having had so much as a date, he thought, well, that was it, he’d be a bachelor. But he discovered he needed a humanities elective to graduate and in his final semester found himself in a World Lit class sitting next to a dark, petite freshman coed almost as shy as he was. Somehow he summoned the courage to ask her if she would like to get a Coke. She would. They wound up walking hand in hand around campus.
They were married the summer following his graduation, and he brought her back to Belle Harbor, where he worked in his father’s business, Penders Paints. Now, almost forty years later, he loves her as much as ever even though that awful Canarsie accent hasn’t gotten any better, and her hair is thinning and streaked with gray, and instead of pert and petite she’s sallow and tired. It’s been a long time since he felt desire for her, not because of her aging—God knows he’s aged, too—so much as the fact that seven years ago she had a hysterectomy, and he can’t get over the feeling that where her womb should be is a craggy chamber like an abandoned mine shaft. Bernadetta never brings up the issue, so apparently she’s OK with things. Is it any way to live, though, he sometimes asks himself, and always the answer is a shrug and a, Well, what are you going to do? It’s an expression that he got from Bernadetta. “Well, look, what are you going to do?” She says it often.
At first it was mostly out of spite—because she’d laughed at him when he said he had farming in his blood—that Gus started working on a garden in his back yard. But he found that he enjoyed it and before long was spending most of his spare time either out back working or in the house reading gardening books, planning.
“Farmer Brown,” Bernadetta called him, and Gus countered with “No, Farmer Penders.”
He broke ground on the first day of spring, digging through the remains of a late snow. That didn’t faze him. Compared to what farmers in the olden days faced—felling trees and pulling stumps, walking behind a plow with a musket in one hand to fend off Indians bent on massacre—what was a half-inch of snow?
The thought of those hardy tillers of the soil was about all that kept him going as days and then weeks passed and he seemed no closer to getting a crop in the ground. Because the back yard was so small, squeezed in between the driveway and garage on one side, the fence on the Kaufman’s side opposite, the house in front, the privacy fence in back, he’d foolishly thought he could disk it all up with a shovel but gave up on that after twenty minutes and a terrific backache. He rented a garden tiller and promptly broke a blade on a rock bigger than his head. It was back to the shovel, a pick, and a San Angelo bar, which technically was for breaking up tiling but was perfect for digging out stones with the spike end, the wedge end good for chopping through roots from the Kaufman’s tree that overhung his yard. Counting the tools, the wheelbarrow, the penalty for breaking the tiller, leather gloves, etc., Home Depot was into him for a small fortune, and he hadn’t even bought a packet of seeds yet.
“We’ll have to invite Queen Elizabeth to dinner,” Bernadetta said. “We can serve her vegetables that cost a hundred dollars a pound.”
Gus rolled his eyes but secretly was pleased to hear her speak of serving vegetables from his garden. He wasn’t so sure it’d happen. The problem was the soil itself. After three weeks of digging out stones, cutting tree roots, pulling weeds, raking and hoeing, the soil was still more rocks than earth. Even a rookie like Gus knew that nothing was going to grow from that except more weeds.
He paid to have a yard of topsoil hauled in but found it wasn’t enough. (He’d thought that a “yard” meant enough to cover your yard.) He had another four yards brought in, rented another tiller, and after working in enough to raise the level of the yard four inches, still had a small mountain of topsoil left on the driveway.
“It looks like you’ve got an elephant buried out there,” Bernadetta said. “I can’t even get my car into the garage.”
“I’m taking care of it.”
“What’s wrong with beans from Walbaums?”
“Wait until you taste mine. Wait until you taste fresh stuff.”
“I’m fifty-six. I don’t have that many years left.”
He was about to call the topsoil guy to haul off the excess when Riccardo Garcia, who owned Riccardo’s Lawn Service, happened to be working at the O’Rourkes next door, saw the mound, and told Gus he’d take it off his hands for him.
It was Riccardo who told him that topsoil itself wouldn’t do the job.
“You got to fertilize. Growing vegetables is all about the fertilize.”
“I bought a bag of fertilizer from Home Depot. I was just getting ready to spread some on.”
“Chemical fertilize? Naw, naw, you want good fertilize, Mr. Penders. You know the best fertilize? Horse shit. Horse shit’s the only thing for growing vegetables.”
“Yeah, I think I read that somewhere.”
“Sure. Horse shit is only way to go.”
Riccardo could hook him up with a guy who’d bring him all the horse shit he wanted. Hook me up, Gus said. Riccardo hooked him up.
A few days later, the horse manure delivered, another tiller rented, the manure worked into the soil, Gus stood on the driveway at the edge of the garden and breathed in the smell, breathed it in, in, in, wanted to drink the smell, grab it by the handful and devour it.
And then he remembered: young Gus Penders, that feckless teenager at the fairgrounds on the west side of Syracuse with his whole life ahead of him, his whole life, ambling through the horse barns on his lunch break. He’d forgotten the horse barns entirely! The cattle, sheep, and swine barns were closer to the carnival, and, with so little time on his breaks, that’s generally where he wound up. He’d probably gone to the horse barns no more than once or twice. There was an arena, too, where they had horse shows. No show was going on the one time he went inside, just a single horse and rider, a girl younger than he was. She appeared to be trying to make the horse dance to music playing on a boom box. He told himself the tune was “The Tennessee Waltz” although why that and not another he couldn’t have said because he didn’t know “The Tennessee Waltz,” wasn’t at all sure he knew it today.
Yes, yes, it came back to him. He’d been young, his whole life ahead of him, walking among horses and horsemen and horsewomen in cowboy boots and jeans held up by broad belts with big buckles.
He stood at the edge of his garden breathing in the rich odor of horse shit, his eyes brimming with tears.
Their bedroom was on the second floor at the rear of the house, overlooking the garden. Bernadetta always left the window cracked even in winter, some crazy idea she’d gotten from her mother about the danger of sleeping in a room with no fresh air, and that night he raised the sash even higher. When she came into the bedroom after scrubbing her face and brushing her teeth, she came to a halt like someone stomping on the brakes.
“What on earth is that smell?”
“It’s fertilizer. If you want to grow anything, you have to fertilize.”
“Well, it smells like shit, Gus.”
“Actually, it is. It’s horse manure. Horse manure is the very best fertilizer.”
“Good God, you expect me to sleep in this room with it smelling like horse shit?”
“Look, I’d shut the window but you’re the one who always says you’ll suffocate if you don’t have fresh air.”
“Suffocate me. Go on. I’ll die happy. Just close that damn window.”
He closed that damn window.
They got in bed. Gus turned his back to her. He’d wanted the window open so he could breathe that rich air and imagine he was lying on hay in a barn, resting up for another big day on the farm.
He discovered, though, that the odor of horse manure still hung in the air, and all those associations from earlier—Syracuse, the state fair, horses and cows and pigs, corndogs, the carnival, girls with long legs in short-shorts—came back to him, and he felt good, almost young again, felt, in fact, something that he hadn’t felt for a long time, something that a young man should feel for a girl with long legs. He turned to Bernadetta. She was lying on her back with her head pushed up by her pillow, a word-search puzzle book propped on her chest, reading glasses perched on the end of her nose, a mechanical pencil in her hand. The tip of her tongue protruded slightly from between her lips, and she squinted at the book, frowning as if she were engaged in serious business.
Gus rolled back away from her.
Riccardo told him that it was too late for lettuce, but Gus planted lettuce seed anyway, and radish and carrot seeds. As a gift, Riccardo gave him two jalapeno pepper plants, saying that anyone could grow jalapeno peppers, and Gus planted them even though neither he nor Bernadetta had the stomach for spicy food. He planted bell pepper plants, too, and cucumber plants. He planted one row of corn although Riccardo told him not to get his hopes up on that one. He planted three Early Girl and three Beefsteak tomato plants. When Riccardo saw them, he shook his head. “Not enough sun.” Gus read up on tomatoes and concluded that Riccardo was probably right. So he tore out the plants and hid them in the bottom of the trash can so Bernadetta wouldn’t see them (her estimate on how much a pound of his vegetables would cost now standing at $500). He did, though, buy three cherry tomato plants and set them in gallon pots on the edge of the drive, where they’d get the most sun.
Gus was having the time of his life, Riccardo’s frequent warnings and Bernadetta’s even more frequent wisecracks notwithstanding.
The jalapeno plants looked hardy. The cherry tomato plants looked promising. Then one day it happened: Gus detected a line of tiny green leaves breaking through the soil where he’d planted the lettuce seeds. And there were even tinier green shoots where he’d planted carrots and radishes, too!
He ran in to tell Bernadetta. She was on the phone talking to their daughter, Dana, he could tell by Bernadetta’s half of the conversation. Gus grabbed the phone.
“Dana, I’ve got plants coming up in the garden! Lettuce and carrots and radishes!”
“Garden? Since when have you had a garden, Pop?”
Gus turned to Bernadetta. “You mean you never told her about my garden?”
“I was afraid she’d want to put you in a home.”
“You’ve got to come see it, Sweetheart,” he said to Dana. He could just see Abby, his granddaughter, running, laughing, up and down the rows of vegetables. It’d be a memory she’d cherish the rest of her life.
He pranced around like a little boy who needed to pee until Bernadetta got off the phone, and then he pulled her outside to the garden. She bent down, squinting, with the same expression she used when doing one of her word-search puzzles.
She stood up. “Excuse me while I go back in and get the magnifying glass.”
“Now now, you can see it just fine. O ye of little faith,” he said.
Bernadetta shrugged like only an Italian can shrug. “OK, you got something growing,” she said. “Another month and you should have enough for a chef’s salad for the bugs.”
Bugs! Gus hadn’t thought of bugs. He rushed back into the house to read up on insecticides.
“Marigolds,” Riccardo told him before he had a chance to buy out the entire insecticide section at Home Depot. “Bugs hate marigolds. Better than chemicals for gardens.”
Gus bought nine marigold plants with bright yellow blooms and set them out in strategic locations around the garden—but also bought a sprayer and a bottle of liquid Sevin, just in case.
He watered, he hoed. He annihilated anything that even thought about being a weed.
The problem was, nothing grew. Oh, the pepper plants did get taller but were spindly—leggy, Riccardo called them. Same for the cucumber plants. Neither showed any signs of producing fruit. Where were the carrots and radishes? What little lettuce emerged from the soil looked sickly. Even the bugs didn’t want it.
His daughter did come up from Jersey with Abby, who stood at the edge of the garden like a child afraid of the water would stand at the edge of a swimming pool. “Can I go inside and watch toons, Mom?” she asked, and Dana said to Gus, “She’s a little young to appreciate gardens, Pop. But it looks good, really good!” Bernadetta didn’t even bother to wisecrack but looked away, embarrassed for him. That hurt the worst of all.
Riccardo, the next time he came by, pawed at the ground with the toe of his sneaker. “I didn’t think you do any good here. A little sun. A lotta shade.”
Of course he was right. Any idiot could see that. The garage blocked the sun for much of the garden on the north, the house on the west, the Kaufman’s big pear tree that never bore fruit but hung over the fence on the south. The garden received direct sunlight only for a short time in the middle of the day when the sun was directly overhead and in the morning because there was no tree on the east, but even there the garden was partially shaded by the six-foot privacy fence.
The only thing that seemed to have a chance of prospering were the three cherry tomato plants at the edge of the driveway. Tiny tomatoes appeared, a couple growing to marble size, one even turning pink. Gus kept a hopeful eye on it until one day he looked out the office window, on the first floor below their bedroom, and saw a black bird perched sideways on the vine like a gymnast and pecking at the almost-ripe fruit.
Gus nearly wept when he told Riccardo about it.
Well, Gus could tie a tin plate to each plant, Riccardo told him. Birds were frightened of their own reflections. Would it work, Gus asked. Probably not. But, if Gus wanted to stop the birds for sure, he could buy a roll of chicken wire and drape it over the plants. A lot of trouble and expense for a few leetle tomatoes, though.
“Screw it,” Gus said.
In the daytime he avoided the garden like a general would avoid a battlefield where he’d fought not well but ignominiously, fought and lost.
Often at night, though, he’d go outside and stand there among the furrows, which were steadily wearing away now that they were no longer tended, and breathe, breathe in, straining to reclaim that odor of manure, at least that much. In fact, by kicking his heel at the soil, scuffing it up, he did think he could smell it. It brought him no magical remembrance, though. It did not cast him back. It was horse shit, only that.
Still, if the manure along with everything else failed him, he continued to go out at night and stand in the garden if only to get away from Bernadetta and her maddening concern, her unvoiced pity. He’d rather she’d wisecrack, laugh at him.
One night out in the garden he did hear laughter, and just for a second he thought that it was Bernadetta looking out the bedroom window and finally seeing him for what he was, not an object of pity but ridicule. But then he realized the laughter—giggling, really—was coming not from his house but the opposite direction, beyond the privacy fence to the east. He rarely saw the family who lived over there, couldn’t remember their names. The Whozits, he called them on the rare occasions when he wanted to refer to them.
Not out of curiosity so much as just for something to do, he stepped between two earless corn stalks to a section of the fence where one of the planks was broken off just above the top stud it was nailed to. He looked through the gap.
A set of steps descended from the back door of the Whozits’ house, and right next to it up against the rear wall of the house was a backless bench. Two people were sitting there.
There was enough moonlight that he could see that they were young, teenagers, probably. He’d seen the girl before. She lived at the house. She was short and had long straight black hair. He couldn’t remember whether he’d thought she was pretty or not and couldn’t see clearly enough now to tell, but the boy was certainly attracted to her. He was kissing her neck and had his hand up under her halter top—oh, oh, and now he was rolling her top up and her breasts fell into his hands like ripe apples. He leaned down and put his mouth to first one breast and then the other. He began fumbling at her shorts. She pushed his hand away, pushed him back against the wall of the house, and then reached down and undid the buckle on his belt.
Gus felt himself stiffening. He pushed his hand down into his trousers. He was growing, growing.
“You lousy bastard!”
Gus jerked his hand out of his pants, turned, and pressed his back against the fence.
Bernadetta was standing in the garden, right about where he’d planted the radish seeds.
“The fence is broken,” he said, gesturing vaguely at the gap in the plank. I was just . . .”
“You lousy bastard, you never touch me anymore and yet you’re out here doing this.”
Bernadetta began to cry, her voice rising like a little girl’s. “I’m going back to Canarsie! I’m going back to my mama!”
“But Bernadetta, your mother’s dead,” Gus said. But she’d already turned away from him.
He stood in the garden. There was laughter coming from beyond the fence. He supposed the young couple had heard them and were having a good laugh at their expense. Then the laughter stopped, he heard a door open and close, and then he heard nothing. He stood awhile longer and then went back inside.
He thought Bernadetta would be in bed, but she wasn’t, nor in the bathroom getting ready for bed. He went back downstairs and walked through the house calling her name. But she was gone.
She hadn’t taken the car. She would have had to come to the garage to do that. A taxi? He hadn’t heard a taxi come to the house. She had many women friends in the parish. Probably she had walked to a friend’s house.
She’d probably stay at the friend’s house an hour or two being comforted, being reassured. Women were good at that. She might even spend the night. That was possible. But at some point she’d come back to him.
She’d come back to him because they’d been shy together at Brooklyn College, been shy and then been in love. They’d never fallen out of love , but it’d changed and become a sterile sort of love—his fault, all his fault. When she came back, though, they’d love each other again with that Brooklyn College kind of love, he loving even her gutted womb and she loving even his foolishness.
He had a sudden thought. He rummaged through the junk drawer in the kitchen and found the scissors. The one tool he’d neglected to buy at Home Depot was something to harvest with, but the scissors should do.
That’s how he thought of it: he was “harvesting,” walking here and there about the garden and—going mostly by feel because he couldn’t see much—clipping only the best blossoms. He came back in and arranged them in a vase Bernadetta had saved from the days when he’d buy her flowers for her birthday. He put the vase on that little table in the entryway, the one he always complained about because it didn’t seem to have any function. But now it was perfect. The vase would be the first thing Bernadetta would see when she came through the front door. He stood back and admired the effect.
Yes, despite the lack of sun, the marigolds had done surprisingly well in his garden.
Dennis Vannatta is a Pushcart and Porter Prize winner, with essays and stories published in many magazines and anthologies, including River Styx, Chariton Review, Boulevard, and Antioch Review. His sixth collection of stories, The Only World You Get¸ was published by Et Alia Press.