01
Dec
08

Surface Area

1.

She presses down with her foot and the shovel sinks into the ground. It’s soft like a pie under its dry, crusty surface, and she turns the shovel over to reveal a mass of earth that is her favorite color of black. Far from the black of funeral attire; this black represents infinite possibilities, a new year and a fresh start, maybe summer squash this time. This is her fourth spring tending to this little four-by-six plot behind the carport, and the hard work she’s put in is beginning to pay off as the years go on. The soil gets more malleable, more manageable, every year under her hands as they gain experience. Ah, experience: the culmination of hundreds of tiny lessons learned with every blister, each callus a diploma.

She doesn’t have enough daylight to finish it all today, so she takes her time, savoring the task, enjoying the journey. An early-season college baseball game is being played in the distance and its faint sounds are carried on the wind over a couple of miles of rooftops to her garden. Dire Straits’ “Walk of Life” comes over the public address as a player comes to bat. Amy sits in a lawn chair with a pair of sunglasses on, sipping the lemonade Julie made to entice her into the yard. Julie usually enjoys the time alone with her thoughts as she works, but since she’s taking it easy today, she likes having Amy as company. They both needed to get out of the house now that it’s nice out.   

“When are we eating, Julie?” Amy asks, almost in a child’s voice.

“After it gets dark out. Be thinking about what you want to eat. It’s your turn to choose.”     

“I already know. Tacos.”

“Oh, are you sure, Amy? Seems like we just had tacos.” Instantly, Julie wants to issue a retraction. Amy’s mental disability prevents her from making so many choices for herself, and Julie tries to respect the ones her older sister is capable of.

“Yes, I’m sure.” Julie breathes a sigh of relief that she hasn’t shaken Amy’s confidence in herself. She walks over to the lawn chair and pulls out her cell phone, kneeling.

“Tell you what. I’ll set my phone’s alarm clock for 5:30, which is a half-hour from now. Then I’ll finish up, and we’ll go. Would you mind helping me put the tools away when I’m done? It’d help us get ready faster.”

“Okay.”

“Hey, where’s Tig?”

Amy pigeons her toes, parting her sneakers like curtains to reveal the brown dog napping in the shade under the chair. Little checks of sunlight shine through the mesh of the chair to dot wiry hairs on his tail and nose, bisected by Amy’s shadow across his middle. 

Julie gets back to digging, then stops and looks both ways, and briefly turns away from Amy to clear her throat and spit on the grass beyond the garden. When she turns back around, she’s oblivious to a little barbell of spit that clings to her bottom lip. With spring comes cedar and allergies and all this time outdoors kicking up dirt isn’t helping. She’d better order extra hot sauce tonight to clear out her sinuses.

The taco stand was a Dairy Queen when they were growing up. They walked there with their parents as kids, with Amy reaching down to hold Julie’s hand and stopping at every intersection to watch for cars coming, then in gratitude Julie would warn Amy when the older girl’s ice cream began to drip. Julie orders their tacos and a couple of Mexican Cokes from a young woman in the window, then puts a few bills in the girl’s hand, the termination point of a sinewy tattooed arm.

They walk back home together, with Amy handing Julie Tig’s leash so she can hold the warm paper bag with their food. A little grease stain grows glacially on the bottom of the bag as they approach the white wood-sided house in the twilight.      

 

Julie drops Amy off at the cafeteria for work Monday morning on her way to the library. The library opens at ten, and in addition to her other duties, she has to make selections to read in the children’s corner before school lets out at three. Caring for Amy has uniquely prepared Julie for her job as a children’s librarian. The balancing act of ceding an inevitable measure of control while maintaining overall discipline of a room full of kids, her patience with short attention spans, even the cleaning up of messes, are all talents she hadn’t known she had until three years ago. She had become a librarian, finally taking a job in her major field of study, after she moved back home and realized her responsibilities with Amy wouldn’t have meshed well with the uneven hours she had kept as a newspaper writer in San Angelo. She was surprised at how little time for pleasure reading there was at work. Keeping up with all the new children’s and teens’ books coming out every year has proven a Sisyphian task, but she reads a lot of reviews and tries to stay abreast of as many new developments as possible, a hallmark of a good children’s librarian.       

The unfortunate effect of having a job dealing with children, however, has been her own hyper-awareness of her public appearance. Parents can be a highly protective, highly paranoid lot when it comes to who watches their children, and their intrusiveness has pushed Julie to further compartmentalize a personal life that already had plenty locked away. Having grown up in a religious household had led Julie to conceal her homosexuality growing up, but now that she is an adult, fear of parents’ reactions has led her to attempt to slowly smother it completely. After all, though Austin may be a relatively progressive enclave, it’s still Texas. She shudders to think what Amy would think if she found out, fearing that her older sister’s often binary grasp of morality has been exacerbated by what Julie imagines Amy’s hearing in church.

As a result, Julie maintains a polished, scrubbed exterior that is at risk of replacing her true self altogether. Even when she’s sure there’s no one around, she whispers “excuse me” anytime she burps or farts. Gardening is where she is finally at one with herself, behind the carport in that sacred little twenty-four square-foot place of freedom marked off by railroad ties. She feels envious of the things that flourish once buried, knowing as she does that not everything is that way.   

 

2.

Julie stands above a trash can, one of those Oscar the Grouch-type models, in the corner of the yard by the fence, as far from the house as she can get it, to keep the flies away from the house. She’s ripping up today’s New York Times, a surplus copy culled from the library, and putting the tiny pieces in with the compost. The op/ed page, SportsMonday, the crossword (she can finish it Mondays, Tuesdays, and most Wednesdays; Thursdays she usually has to look a few answers up; Fridays are seldom completed). The paper of record. Bushes and Clintons, torn to pieces and reunited in the barrel, soon to be indistinguishable from each other in this warm-not-hot crucible. Cherry tomatoes split at the seams like something a doctor lanced, carrot peelings, and chunks of broccoli stalk. Cutting the broccoli stalk into small pieces adds to the broccoli’s surface area so it breaks down quicker. The whole stalk would take forever to decompose in there, with the core being the last part to succumb, insulated on all sides until the decay finally closes in like zombies’ arms crashing through the windows for the last survivors before the credits roll.

She turns over the heap in the barrel to ensure a homogenous mix of the dry newspaper and the wet decomposing vegetable matter, the carbon with the nitrogen. If it gets too wet it runs the risk of mold or mildew growing in there and ruining it. It’s a task she performs every other Monday, then places a check mark in the corner of a little calendar. As Julie looks at the calendar she thinks about it being St. Patrick’s Day, then scans the calendar dates of the preceding days, noting the unusual significance of each: Pi on Friday, followed by the Ides of March, then Sunday’s date carrying the Gospel According to John’s meaningful 3/16.   

 

That night, the presence of a silent silhouetted figure awakens Julie with a start. Panic seizes her heart for a split-second, until she realizes that it’s Amy.

“I had a bad dream. I know I shouldn’t bother you, but I’m not ready to go back to sleep.” The sheets rustle in a somehow reassuring way, like a mother gently sighing, as Julie turns to lean on her elbow.

“Let’s talk about it. What happened in the dream?”

“I had Tig with me near a pool. He wanted to go swimming, but I saw an alligator in the water, so I told him no, but he jumped out of my arms and into the water. And the alligator was getting closer and closer to him, and just when he was about to eat Tig, I woke up.”

“It might have been scary, but it was just a dream. Tig’s okay. See? He’s sleeping right here at the foot of my bed.”

“I know, but now I’ll never know how the dream ends.”

“That’s what you’re worried about? Try going back to sleep; maybe you’ll finish the dream and Tig will escape just in time.”

“I hope so. I’m worried about him.”

“The dream version of him?”

“Right.”

“Good night, Amy.”
 
 
 

 

In the cool of the late afternoon the next day Julie is outside with a shovel, completing Sunday’s unfinished task of turning over the garden’s dirt.

The first spring since moving back she had made it a mission to make things grow here. From his bed in the nursing home, her father had told her it would be nearly impossible, and she prides herself on the work it took to disprove his pessimism. He was so pleased to see her do what he could not. The garden had been there since she was a little girl, half-buried cinder blocks marking off four little beds of earth inside the railroad-tie frame, but she had never seen her mother or father try to grow anything there. Her father told her they had tried to grow strawberries the year before she was born, with no success.

When she broke the ground her first year, she had felt a little trepidation about breaking up the tiny networks of roots that had been in place longer than she had been alive. She was respectful of what she was interrupting as she sank the shovel down until reaching rock, then sifted the roots out of the crumbling dirt and put them into a pile. The strongest of these was a tree root a quarter-inch in diameter whose origin was in question to Julie. The nearest tree was nearly twenty feet away, and didn’t seem big enough to have roots extending all the way over. She cleared out the loose dirt from around it, then reached for the hoe to chop the tree root out. As she raised the hoe, however, a sudden clatter came from the carport, and Tig, who had been napping by her side, ran off in fright.

Startled, Julie checked behind the carport’s wall, expecting to see a mess; a coffee can full of nails fallen off the shelf, the rake she had propped in the corner lying on the concrete slab, but she found nothing out of place. She began to feel a chill go up the back of her neck, so she was eager to get back in the warm sun and complete the task.

Once more she raised the hoe, but she couldn’t shake the feeling she wasn’t alone. She looked around to make sure no one was around, then announced to any ghosts in an uncharacteristically authoritative voice, “I’m alive and you’re dead. This is my garden now, and you’ll just have to live with what I do with it.”  Then she brought down the hoe and cut the root out. Only after she was finished did Tig return.

 

She pulls a red-faced grubworm out of the ground and sets in on the garden’s cinder block border to take inside when she finishes. In the living room is a small fish tank with a single black fish inside that she’ll feed the grub to. When she bought the fish for Amy, the man at the pet store called it an oscar.  

She finishes and stomps the caked dirt off her boots before removing them to go inside. She notices a cut on her finger and goes to the bathroom to wash the dirt out of it. A few stubborn grains of dirt are too deep to wash out, though, so she pulls her tweezers out of the medicine cabinet and goes to work on them. It’s a strange feeling, having something foreign penetrate your outermost layer, one that gives her an uneasy feeling. She wonders what mental barriers women must have to overcome before their first sexual encounters. It’s something she doesn’t know about firsthand. 

Amy calls to her from the other side of the bathroom door. “Your turn to pick where we’re eating, Julie. Remember?” Julie opens the door to see Amy standing there, impatiently rolling her left foot to the outside.

Julie made a childhood hobby of observing Amy’s feet, and the pastime resurfaces periodically in their adulthood. As a youth, Amy always wore big, bulky shoes, and when she walked, Julie took notice of the way her feet, with every step, seemed to waver a little bit in the air before they gracelessly reached the ground in front of her. Julie ascribed it to Amy’s general lack of coordination until she watched other people and saw that almost everyone’s feet do that when they walk. There’s something about covering our feet up with shoes that blinds them, she reasoned as a girl. That’s why ballet dancers wear such small shoes, so their feet can see where they’re going.

“Tonight I want to take you someplace you haven’t been,” she tells Amy, and at this a familiar expression of skepticism emerges on her face, they way it always does when she tries something new. Her eyes meander from side to side as if looking for an escape route.

“Are you sure?”

“It’s Chinese. Vegetarian. If you don’t find anything you like on the menu, you can get spring rolls. They’re really good.”

 

Later that night, while Amy sleeps, Julie will bathe in the dim light of the television watching a nature program. The subject will be human reproduction, the passing on of genes from parent to child that continues the species. On the couch Julie will contemplate her own parenthood of Amy, an exercise in futility when viewed only in the light of the human species’ survival. Julie and Amy’s parents’ genes will not go on beyond their own children. Brilliant but cancelled, she’ll joke to herself, trying in vain to prevent the accompanying chuckle from dissolving into bitter tears, not knowing why she’s crying. With Amy it’s all the work of parenthood, but no legacy carried on at the end. Who will visit Julie in the nursing home the way she checks on her parents while Amy is safely at Wednesday night church? 

The vegetarian Chinese place didn’t go as planned. It’s a dining room with a dozen small tables, each most often populated by lone diners, looking for the same thing Julie usually looks for there: quiet. Time to hear oneself think. Once when eating there, the speaker in the ceiling briefly crackled with music, the last gasp of a long-forgotten broken radio. The customers in unison looked up as if briefly disturbed from a trancelike state, then returned to their meals once the music died again with a cough of static. Julie hadn’t thought about when taking Amy. It hadn’t been a good fit for anyone. 

Julie felt a hot rush of shame for being embarrassed by Amy’s loud talking and childlike questions. If being gay has taught her one thing, it’s tolerance. Being embarrassed by Amy feels like double the betrayal: of her sister and herself.

 

3.

 

Daylight savings time began a week early this year, allowing Julie to leave her sunglasses on when dropping off Amy at church since the sun’s still out at 7:30. Amy’s long given up on trying to get Julie in the door, but an invitation from one of her parents’ old friends would feel rude to resist, so she studiously avoids eye contact.

On the way to Shady Acres to see her parents, Julie rolls down the window to feel the air on her face. At a stoplight she sees a black bird sitting on the grass in the median, its feathers showing up iridescent purple and green in the fading sunlight, the way Elvis’ hair was highlighted in the velvet paintings she would sometimes see at the indoor flea market as a teenager.

The bird’s blunt weapon of a beak parts in the middle and Julie anticipates the bird’s song, but it pauses and instead emits a series of mechanical-sounding clicks and whirrs. Klatch!

They live among us, but not all birds are songbirds. Like the dinosaurs they are descended from, they come in all types. People can recognize, even appreciate, the characteristic of diversity in birds, she laments, but their fellow people have a tougher road.

 

To matriculate, she had followed several of her peers from youth group in a church-sponsored university, and felt too guilty about wasting her parents’ money to leave once she realized she wasn’t going to fit in there. She returned for Christmas her freshman year having let her hair grow out, and her first time back at the church she was showered with well-meaning comments on her newfound “maturity” and “femininity”.

She knew then that coming out would make her an object of love-the-sinner, hate-the-sin pity among the community that raised her, and felt trapped for the first of many times.

It so enraged her that she returned to the dorm a week before classes reconvened. In the solitude of the empty communal restroom (the only other resident in the building was an international student who didn’t have the finances to return to Ghana), Julie sat underneath the mocking sound of the fluorescent halo above, with the steady drip of a leaking shower behind her, tied her hair up in a rubber band and took scissors to the ponytail. It took four or five hard squeezes to cut all the way through, but the scissors finally closed with a satisfying grinding sound, and her hair fell like feathers to the tile floor.

She then removed the rubber band holding her hair up and gasped in horror to find it in a thousand different conflicting lengths, none flattering.

For the next three days alone, Julie refused to allow herself to cry in frustration when she saw herself in the mirror. She found a strange comfort in the internal silent recitation of word series memorized from lower academia. Any time she felt that acid creep that tensed the muscles in her throat, she paused to stabilize herself: “Is, are, am, was, were, be, being, been.” “Kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species.”

 

She could have avoided coming back, lived her own life somewhere else, if those she loved hadn’t needed constant care. Her father moved into the nursing home to be close to her mother. Her encroaching dementia separates them further every day, and she’s beginning to resemble a baby, down to the crib-like raised sides of her hospital bed.

As a kid Julie wondered why they had waited so long for a second child, not suspecting that she may have been unplanned. Her dad was too old to play with her, and her mom’s patience had all been spent on Amy.

She enters and nods to the desk attendant, then counts to ten as she walks down the hall to her dad’s room. Tonight he’s talking a lot about his army days, perhaps in preparation for a future where more and more of his choices are made for him.

 

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