The Word: ROW

Grace hoed away at the tiniest new weeds growing up between the rows of rainbow chard, luminous with the afternoon sun shining though the bright stems, red, orange, yellow. It was her fifth day on her Summerdeep work-study grant, and she had never been a gardener. At home, whenever she’d tried to plant a garden, it had inevitably succumbed to fast growing weeds, indistinguishable from the seedlings of the desired vegetables until too large to easily eliminate.

At Summerdeep, the plants were radiant perfection, grown in the rich compost tenderly ministered by generations of work-study fellows. Weeds had no chance against the chi of such uber-vegetables. They just depressed her–so much healthier and vibrant than she was. Only at Summerdeep, this perfect spot, this anointed parcel of ocean kissed headland, could she participate in even a smidgen of this Edenic life. She should be in such balance with her surroundings. And yet as she hacked at the weeds between the rows, she wept and swore under her breath.

Even these fucking chard plants were beautiful. Everything was so fucking beautiful at Summerdeep except her. She hacked. Fifty years old. She just couldn’t face turning fifty back in LA. She signed up for a month at Summerdeep, which provided a generous word-study program for people like herself, who didn’t have much money, but a desperate need to get in touch with something, she didn’t even know what that was. Mostly, she wanted to get away from everyone and maybe feel a little more at one with the universe–or at least hide out until fifty felt familiar enough that she could bear going home.

Instead of feeling at one with the universe, however, she was doing backbreaking work hoeing in the kitchen garden and turning compost, and spending every evening in a Gestalt group, eating organic vegetarian fare and sleeping in a lower bunk in a four person bunkroom where her dormmates, two other women and a man, talked for hours like it was camp instead of shutting the fuck up.

She had forgotten why she came here. Tears mingled with sweat and stung her eyes as she chopped and uprooted weeds. Why she thought Summerdeep would just be a getaway. Getaway–to hard labor and Gestalt? And 23 days to go.

The young man called Raven wheeled a load of compost to the end of the row and began shoveling it out. “Hey, dump this on top, Gracie Allen. It’ll heat up the row and cook those punks.”

She sighed and shouldered her hoe, and approached the barrow. No one seemed to care she was practically a senior citizen, or stop to wonder if she could do any of this physical work. At home, boys at the market already asked if she needed help out with her bags. But here, it was as if there was a silent pact not to acknowledge her age, when Raven could be her son. His teeth were very white, and his beard seemed ridiculous on his youthful face, as if he was seeing just how big a beard he could grow, impressed with his ability to grow one at all. He was sleeping with a girl at the other end of the bunkhouse, Hills, who wore Indian pajamas and taught community yoga in the mornings.

“Can I use the shovel?” she asked.

“I don’t know, can you?” he asked.

Funny. A funny kid. He’d been three semesters at Reed College and had dropped out to work in a bike shop in Portland before drifting down here. A real Zen clown. She reached for the shovel, and he reached for it too. She was tired and in no mood. She stared at him. He stared at her, imitating her seriousness. She put her hand above his, in the old child’s game. He grinned and slapped his above hers, and they raced them to the top.

She still had to shovel hot compost out onto the rows of bright chard, but she found herself smiling, as the light filtered through the plants like stained glass, and she sniffed the ocean wind and thought how sweet a soak in the hot springs would be that night, leaning back against the chiseled rock, listening to the waves and watching summer stars wheel overhead.

Part of a weekly series of short short stories based on a writing exercise, The Word. “Inspired by a simple word, chosen at random, write a two-page double-spaced story, using the Word at least once.”

Next week’s word is: GUARD

8 Responses to “Summerdeep”

  1. Love this. Such a gentle but clear shift in her perspective, rich as always, with sensory detail. Since we met, I’m more aware of using the landscape in my own writing. Thanks.

  2. stephen Says:

    My dad turned fifty last year. His way of coping was…well not really coping with it at all. Sad. Good story though, you ended it with a hopeful atmosphere.

  3. Priscilla Morais Says:

    I decided to take a stab at this week’s exercise, and it was mortifying, but I’ll share:

    “The Prenup”

    Shards of late afternoon March sunlight stabbed the parquet floor from the partner’s outer office into the inner conference room and pierced the dusty shadows cast by the towering oak bookcases of leather bound and gilt-edged Martindale & Hubbell reference books.

    Lowering herself into the unyielding lacquered wooden chair, she exhaled to calm her nerves. The drive from Somerville to Framingham had been tense. Her mother’s rusty ‘87 Honda with its threadbare tires, though reliable, proved a poor match for stretches of road glazed with black ice so slick as to be invisible to the driver.

    They had disagreed over who was to drive to Attorney Lufkin’s Office. Neither of them had known precisely how to get there. Admittedly Manuel was better at reading maps, but since her mother’s death nine months prior, this battered vehicle with its missing front bumper and 267,000 miles was her Honda now, and if anyone was going to crash it, Patty would prefer to be the one.

    Patty had questioned whether, being from Brazil, Manuel would have the requisite winter driving experience. Would he recognize the tug of black ice under the wheels and the sensation of losing control? Would he have the courage to let go and counter-intuitively steer headlong into a skid instead of fighting the ice’s deadly pull?

    Manuel had countered with a campaign in favor of the merits of buying a new, winterized four-wheel drive car. The Capricorn in Patty was far too practical to capitulate; however there was no winning, she thought, smiling to herself. Wasn’t there something loveable about his stubborn insistence upon their safety, her hand absentmindedly caressing her belly? Never mind the senseless arguing, Manuel would make an excellent husband and father. Time would bring their new priorities to light, she reasoned silently. In the meantime, Patty was taking the necessary steps to protect her modest assets and inheritance. Manuel, for his part, was working intently on securing his fiance visa to immigrate to Massachusetts, settling all his Brazilian legal obligations, and selling all his valuables back in Brazil.

    Against her better judgment, she had acquiesced; he drove, braking erratically as he punctuated the finer points in his continued argument for a new car. Nevertheless they had arrived at the law offices slightly ahead of schedule and were escorted to a cherry conference table by a pale paralegal. The paralegal slid an overstuffed manila folder to the opposite end of the table and sprinkled half a dozen black pens before them. “Attorney Lufkin will be with you momentarily.”

    Manuel fidgeted, twirling several pens as he began to align them in a neat row on the polished surface, spacing them precisely half an inch apart. One. Two. The third pen rolled beyond Manuel’s reach. Patty rolled it back toward him. As Manuel painstakingly aligned the pens, Attorney Lufkin burst into the room. Planting himself at the far end of the table, Attorney Lufkin reached across the table to greet them, congratulating them on their impending marriage. Three. Four. “You both have opted for a standard, what’s-mine-is-mine, what’s-ours-is-ours type of prenup.” Five. Six. Six being slightly askew, Manuel stretched his arm across the slick surface to tweak it a hair to the left, his sleeve riding up, exposing a snakelike white ridge of skin pulled taut across his forearm from his Sao Paulo motorcycle accident underneath which, Patty knew, rod was pinned to bone.

    Erupting out of his chair, Attorney Lufkin swatted the pens impatiently as at an errant swarm of flies as Patty watched, horrified. She felt for Manuel, his meticulous row of pens scattering across the shiny tabletop as if across black ice, spinning and careening, unaware that the lawyer’s rebuff was intended as cautionary. Without hesitation Patty grabbed the nearest pen and signed.

  4. Carol DeBoer-L. Says:

    Then what happens? Priscilla’s writing is terrific! I am hooked.

  5. Alisa Wood Says:

    I loved you story Janet! Can so relate to it’s protagonist! I threw this one together this morning, slightly a mess but I really wanted to participate in this exercise; I am so thankful for you.

    Module 6B
    Karen restlessly flipped through the pages of a magazine, which served merely as a prop, while she cautiously sized up the other patients in waiting room 6 B, for there was far too much noise and activity going on in this waiting room for anyone to concentrate.
    Across the room a large, somewhat clumsy looking teenaged boy stood and franticly flapped his hand in front of his face; his mother tried to coax him to contain his erratic movements and take a seat in a row of perfectly ordered chairs that were quite a contrast to her son’s unpredictable spasms.
    This sight was all too familiar for Karen whose own son had autism and she attempted to give the boy’s mother a gentle, yet compassionate smile without seeming condescending. There was nothing more frustrating then the self righteous stares of mothers with typically developing children judging her every move. These women knew nothing about the world in which parents of special needs children lived and she certainly did not want their pity. While other families were preparing to send their kindergarteners off for the first time, Karen wondered if her son would ever have the ability to speak a distinguishable word.
    Karen watched with intrigue as the boy’s mother placed some head phones over his ears. “Hurry let me put these on” Almost instantly the boy was sedate and took a seat in a chair as his mother had been trying to get him to do for what seemed like an eternity.
    “He’s beautiful,” an uncontrollable urge grabbed Karen by the throat and she heard herself speaking out load,” is he listening to something special?” “The Beatles “said the boy’s mother. “At least he’s happy, he doesn’t know about BP or Dick Cheney.”

  6. Great stories! I enjoy reading these so much. Here’s mine. Happy writing.

    The Couple

    It was them.

    As always, Gloria smiled and told them good morning while walking to her car, the hand-me-down parked next to their luxury SUV. The guy in his suit, head to toe sparkle and poise. He was ready to go but the girl wanted to gab, her pleasant face made prettier with makeup. Confrontation, even the thought of it, made Gloria’s insides a mess. But something had to be said. Last night was the fourth in a row. Yes, something had to be said soon if she was to mope in peace. How could she properly mourn a relationship (in bed with a beer and a bucket of chicken, the way her mother taught her) with all that sex going on next door? But morning wasn’t the right time to say anything. Especially not that particular morning because she wasn’t ready. Didn’t have her words yet. There was a good chance of her turning whiny and unintelligible. Later would be best. She started the ignition and backed out of her space.

    Another late night. The overtime was hard to resist. Add that to her new single status and the extra work was the most rational decision she’d made these last few days. The steamed broccoli in the takeout box she’d brought home dominated her bedroom, overpowering the stench of her gym clothes tossed about and the bits of orange peel on her nightstand. A mess. This break-up had been the roughest so far, had hit her from behind while her mind had been on other things like how cute their kid would be if it had her startling green eyes and his pulpy lips, and whether her bridesmaids should wear short or long dresses – it depended on if they did an early summer wedding or mid-fall.

    That’s what killed it – her thinking, is what she couldn’t help thinking. She’d never let herself go there before and then, when she finally did, he’d come with the “I don’t think this is working” call.

    “But you just told me you loved me. Like, three hours ago.”

    “I do. But not the right kind of love.”

    Not the right kind of love. She’d only known one, wrapped around a dial that she couldn’t control. For him, it had been turned up pretty high. Higher than it’d been for others. A lot more than for Terry or John. Much higher than her dad. Still, her denial was thick, keeping the break-up from her closest friends, her nail lady, and her regular Starbucks barista. She couldn’t wait for nine weeks from then, or four years or seven months. That point in the future when she wouldn’t think about him every damn second. It certainly didn’t help things when those sex-mad people next door decided to shout their climaxes to the world.

    Had she done that? She must have. So rapt and content with it all that she could care less about her neighbors’ peaceful sleep. Or her best friend’s surgery or the cat’s flea medicine. She’d gotten lost.

    The moaning woke her up that night at about one. A long hollow note at first, then growls turning up at the ends. Heavy wood against the wall, banging like a train.

    Yes, morning definitely wasn’t the right time. Frenzy overwhelmed her as she got out of bed in search of her heaviest ceramic vase. She finds it easily, in the kitchen still holding the moldy flowers he’d brought over last week. They’re dumped in the sink on the way back to the bedroom, the howls and grunts growing stronger. At a pause, three hard taps against the wall with the vase. Then three more, a little louder. And one last just to make it clear the thumps were no accident.

    Her skin flashed hot with embarrassment after only a moment. They’d know, the couple. They’d know it was her and they’d know she’d done it because she was alone.

    She dropped the vase on the floor next to her bed and settled herself back under the covers, sure to stay sleepless for hours. And in the morning, she’d leave 20 minutes earlier than usual so that she wouldn’t have to run into the couple again.

  7. I row. With sculling oars ordered to my specifications. They are fat blades, low inertia, that cut the water like a giant knife, to push water away from my long single seat boat. I row backwards really. My face pointed to the direction I have been. I must trust my oars, my instincts, and the seat I sit upon. My buttocks on a sliding seat which is moved by my legs as I shove away with each stroke of the oars. In my middle ages I discovered this sport which my large Swedish female frame was made for. In college I studied interpretive dance. What a waste of length and strength when what I could have sat upon is the water, gliding to victories never won. So to anyone thinking there must be something more, some sort of experience yet tasted that could satisfy the human condition to long for that which it was created to do…. go, seek, and ye shall find it. Time never gives back what we have wasted and even in the not knowing we are the fools. When frustration leads us to a wall, the only friendship worthy to care for our dismal days is me alone. Do not quietly row into those dark waters without the cleanest cutting oar blades to move past the murky depths that reach out to pull us in. Row on past the waves and the wind. Row fearlessly toward a quiet still blue. Row ’til your last breath is spent. Row until your guts heave upward and the foul taste of bile comes rushing into the water that swirls it downward to an abyss. I row to race to a finish that I cannot yet see but know and fear that it is hovering and awaiting my last and final sweep of a giant oar like an eagle’s wing that reaches farther than the last mighty lift of it’s final reach of weightless elegance.

  8. Loraine Shields Says:

    Summerdeep – again, as with all your writing, strikes me to the quick.
    Elegant, intimate, brilliant. True to the human heart. Perfectly written.

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