by Faith Brynie
"The old fart wants something again," Mary Estelle announced, accepting the rumpled, gray envelope from the postman. She let the screen door slam as she turned back into the kitchen.
"Watch your mouth!" Mama wiped her floured hands on her feedsack apron and nodded curtly in my sister's direction. "Bring that here," she said.
Suzanne and I watched, wide-eyed and silent, as Mama ripped open the envelope. Mary Estelle was right. Grizzle-pa never sent one of his notes unless he wanted something. The old man lived alone, in a tumbledown farmhouse out past the quarry. It was a good three miles from our house in town and too far for Grizzle-pa to walk with his arthritic knees, no matter how hard he leaned on his blackened, knobbly cane. As for telephones, he didn't believe in them. If they caught on, he said, their jangling would soon deafen everyone in whole state of Kentucky.
"Whatever it is, I'm not doing it," Suzanne said with a little stamp of her foot. At eleven, she was the youngest and got by with a lot. Mary Estelle, now that she was in high school, flounced and sighed and snipped enough to command center stage most of the time. Stuck in the middle, I went mostly unnoticed. I liked it that way.
Mama dropped the envelope onto her dough board and unfolded the sheet of lined, tablet paper she found inside.
"I've a mind to put in a garden," Mama read aloud. "Send a girl,"
That was it. No "Dear Nellie." No "Yours, George." Not a "please..." or a "thank you..." or even an "I'd be grateful...." Chin lowered, Mama eyed her three daughters, her left eyebrow arched.
"I won't do it. You can't make me. I have cheerleading practice," Mary Estelle let out, all in one breath. School had been out a week. Her "cheerleading practice" was her daily hangout with the other "popular girls" from Randolph High. They rolled their hair and listened to Perry Como records.
"I'm too little. I can't be digging and hoeing and..." Suzanne rolled her eyes toward the ceiling, as if searching there for more excuses.
I kept quiet. I figured that if Mama didn't hear me, she might not see me either, and then one of my sisters would have to go.
"If Grizzle-pa needs help, we send it, and that's that," Mama said, folding her arms across her chest.
"I don't see why we have to go running every time he hollers," Mary Estelle said and pushed out her lower lip. "He's not even real kin."
It was true. Grizzle-pa had been our grandma's second husband after our real grandpa had died. That made him family for a while, but after Grandma died, he wasn't officially kin anymore. Why we kept on treating him like family was a mystery to us girls. Besides, he wasn't even nice. We called him Grizzle-pa because he was as crusty and spiky and irritable as a wounded grizzly bear. Even he knew the name suited him. He never objected to it.
"I'll not say which of you goes, but I'll have no bickering," Mama said, returning to the bread she was kneading. "You decide however you want, but one of you goes out to George's place first thing after lunch."
"My bike has a flat?" Suzanne said in her poor-me voice. Mama cast her a withering look.
Mary Estelle, Suzanne, and I were on our own. We looked at each other. "On the porch!" Mary Estelle commanded. The screen door slapped behind us.
"Same way as usual?" I asked, and my sisters nodded. Whenever we had a tough choice to make, we played the stone-paper-scissors game. Sometimes, one of us was the clear loser the first time around. Sometimes, we narrowed to two losers for a second or third round. But no matter how many rounds it took, we always reached a decision, and there was no complaining after the fact. That was the rule.
We huddled in a circle, each with our right hand inside the ring. Suzanne took a deep breath. "One-two...three!" We raised and lowered our clenched fists as she counted. On the last count, I flattened my hand into a sheet of paper. So did Mary Estelle, but Suzanne's hand extended two fingers. One winner, two losers. Suzanne let out a whoop and stepped from the circle.
"I'll count for you again," she said, her round face beaming with joy and feigned charity.
I knew that look in Mary Estelle's eye. It was a steely determination that unnerved me, but I faced her with a confidence I didn't feel. I squared my shoulders and prepared for the showdown.
"One, two...three!" said Suzanne.
On the last count, Mary Estelle's hand clenched into the shape of a stone. My fingers extended as scissors.
"You lose!" exclaimed Mary Estelle, doing a little dance across the creaking floorboards.
Mary Estelle always was one to gloat.
* * *
On my long bike ride out from town, all I could think about was what I was missing. I was in the middle of a mystery book I had checked out from the library, but there'd be no reading this afternoon. Also abandoned was the game of Monopoly Suzanne and I had started as soon as school had let out and would keep going until it started again. (Mary Estelle no longer played with us. She said it was a kid's game.) I'd had plans to cut out a dress from a new sewing pattern and maybe even skate to the Dairy Queen for a milkshake. All that would have to wait now.
When I squeezed my hand brake and slid to a stop by Grizzle-pa's weathered, picket fence, his place looked deserted. Red dust rose around my bike wheels, settling quickly in the still, hot air onto the choke of weeds tangled by his gate. In the distance, jar flies chittered. The air smelled of old hay and dried manure. The farm hadn't been worked since Grandma died.
I called "Grizzle-pa" loud as I could, reluctant to venture too close for fear of snakes, skunks, and who knew what else might be lurking in the pokeweed or under the sagging porch. Getting no response, I called again. Maybe I could pedal back to town and satisfy Mama with some excuse about Grizzle-pa not being home.
No such luck. Mumbling breathy secrets to himself and his dog, a mongrel he called Ralph, Grizzle-pa emerged from behind his springhouse. In its cool, fresh dampness, he kept milk, cheese, and the occasional cut of pork tenderloin some generous neighbor gifted on him.
Grizzle-pa had once been a massive man, but it appeared now that he had lost weight, and his shoulders stooped a little more than I remembered. His cheekbones pushed hard against the leather of his face, and a steely stubble peppered his chin. He wore a straw hat that Ralph had chewed around the rim. Though faded, his overalls were clean and pressed. His boots were old, but polished.
Grizzle-pa lifted his hat and wiped sweat from his brow onto the sleeve. He spat at the wild honeysuckles that twined around his porch rails and looked me over. "I reckon you're the middle girl, Gail," he said. "Nellie says you're the quiet one."
"I haven't seen you since last fall," I answered, searching my mind for a polite reply and coming up with nothing better.
"And I reckon now's the time I'm obliged to say something about how you've grown," he said, his voice all gravel and growl.
"I grew three inches last school year," I said, feeling suddenly gangly. At thirteen, I was taller and leaner than I had been when last I saw Grizzle-pa- at somebody's funeral, I thought, though I could not remember whose. I had worn my best dress then. Grizzle-pa had worn his bib overalls.
"Your ma told you I've a mind to put in a garden," he said. It was not a question.
I nodded without protest. When you lose at stone-paper-scissors, you lose. There's no going back.
"No point in standing around jawing all day. Let's get at it," he said, and Ralph barked in agreement.
Grizzle-pa led me to the side of the house where Grandma's kitchen garden had once grown. Its outlines still shone pale and dry in the bumpy earth. Weathered stakes, strings, and dried corn stalks abandoned in years past dotted the plot. From the shed, Grizzle-pa pulled shovels, picks, two hoes, and twisted rakes of several sizes and shapes. In wooden flats on the ground by the house grew tiny tomato, bean, and pepper plants. I guessed Grizzle-pa must have started them from seed in his kitchen window sometime in April. Beside them, I saw a shoebox spilling over with seed packets- beets, cucumbers, cabbages, acorn and summer squash, and leaf lettuce of several varieties.
We set to work without comment. First, Grizzle-pa loosened the packed earth with his pick. Then he turned it with a shovel. I followed behind on my hands and knees, pulling out woody stems and fibrous taproots until my arms ached. I skinned my knuckles sifting out rocks with my fingers, one by one. After the plot gleamed bare and brown in the dazzling sun of afternoon, we began raking the ground smooth and staking out precise, parallel rows. My back hurt, and the muscles of my legs screamed in protest as I stooped and rose again and again. Sweat ran down my chest in rivulets. Grizzle-pa sweated, too, but Ralph just dozed and watched from the porch.
We worked without stopping, except for occasional dippers full of water pumped into an oaken bucket that stood in the yard. The water tasted cool and earthy and metallic. We worked without conversation, except for Grizzle-pa's barked orders.
"Put the corn on the south end," he said, "where it'll get the most sun."
And later: "Stake out rows for carrots east to west. That's the way the almanac says to plant them."
And later still: "More space between those tomatoes, girl. Too close and they'll not bear."
And after an hour of sweaty silence, "You're planting the spinach too deep. Them seeds need air to sprout."
Outside I worked, but inside I fumed. I hated taking orders, especially from a gruff old bear like Grizzle-pa. If I hadn't lost stone-paper-scissors fair and square, I would have walked away then, but there was no turning back. Trying to remember some of the curse words Mary Estelle knew, I labored in silence.
We worked side-by-side until the sun dipped low over the farmhouse roof. By the time twilight came, I thought we had finished. Neat lines of string marked the rows, and colorful seed packets stapled to popsicle sticks sprouted at their ends. Grizzle-pa's vegetable plants stood in formation like brave, tiny soldiers. They cast long shadows in the failing light. Grizzle-pa's face was lined with sweat and mud, as I realized my own must be. His overalls were rumpled, sweat-streaked, and stained red at the knees. So were my jeans. The crickets had started chirping and the bullfrogs croaking when I said, surprising myself, "It's a good garden."
"We're not done," he replied and plodded off toward the shed, returning with a packet of snapdragon seeds clenched between gnarled fingers.
"Come August, we'll need a little color," he said and turned toward the house. Along the south side, close to the foundation, we dug shallow holes and inserted the tiny, black seeds. We watered them with buckets of water carried from the pump.
Appearing satisfied at last, Grizzle-pa nodded vaguely in my direction, crossed the yard, and entered his house, shutting the door behind him. He left me standing with a hoe in my hand. I picked up the tools we had strewn on the ground and put them back in the shed before settling onto my bike seat and pedaling back to town.
Without so much as a good-bye from Grizzle-pa, I had only the thin shaft of my bike light to warm me as evening's chill descended.
* * *
As the summer budded in warmth, then blossomed into its full heat, Grizzle-pa's notes arrived predictably every Friday morning, sometimes more often. Week after week, the sheets of lined tablet paper stuffed inside rumpled gray envelopes bore the same command: "Garden needs tending. Send Gail." Since Grizzle-pa was now asking for me instead of just "a girl," any hope that the stone-paper-scissors game would get me off the hook was lost.
"If Grizzle-pa wants Gail, then Gail goes," Mama said, and there was no arguing with Mama.
My plans for hot dogs at the Kresge's lunch counter, matinees at the Spangler, and lazy afternoons at the town pool evaporated. In losing one game of stone-paper-scissors, I had lost a summer's worth. What I gained was sympathy from my sisters. "How do you stand it?" Suzanne wondered.
"I keep my mouth shut," I answered.
I didn't want to, but I went, week after week, pedaling three miles out and three miles back, working without stopping through afternoons hot enough to bubble rubber. My legs grew taut as ropes and tan as apple butter. The sun streaked my hair with red, and my knees were callused as thick and rough as bark.
"Doesn't he just creep you out?" Mary Estelle whispered, as we shared a Nehi in the porch shade one evening. "He never talks."
"He talks," I said, surprising myself in defending him. Truth was, he didn't talk much, just that the corn needed hoeing and the pole beans staked. "He says what needs to be said," I added.
In early June, some things needed saying. When the seeds germinated, they required constant watering, for the tiny seedlings could wilt and die within hours in the hot, Kentucky sun. We watered not with a hose (Grizzle-pa had no running water), but with buckets filled from the pump, lugged to the garden, and water sprinkled from cupped palms around the fragile plants.
The seedlings needed thinning, too, which had to be done with equal care, using manicure scissors to cut the stems of the smallest and leaving the largest to flourish. "Don't pull the runts out of the ground," Grizzle-pa warned. "You'll damage the roots of the ones you leave." I pulled a few out just for spite when he wasn't looking.
In late June, the squash bugs hit Grizzle-pa's cucumbers with a vengeance. They were as long and fat as the tip of my little finger, dark brown and hard shelled. Step on one and the foul scent would hang in your nostrils for days. Grizzle-pa said we could control them by picking them from the plants and dropping them into coffee cans that contained water and a little cooking oil. The rest we would trap by placing wooden boards down the row. Overnight, the bugs would congregate on the boards, and we could gather and destroy them the next morning.
The sight of the disgusting creatures turned my stomach, and handling them was unthinkable. But Grizzle-pa wouldn't take "no" for an answer. At his side, I worked my way down the rows, plucking the gruesome bugs and drowning them one by one. Soon, the wilting cucumber plants revived, and small thumbs of green began to form on the vines.
By late July, the corn was taller than I was, and the ears were setting hard and green all down the row. The tomatoes grew heavy with fruit, and the summer squash began to form at the flower bases, lengthening and thickening like sausages. Bunches of snap beans elongated on the stems of both the bush and pole varieties, and the lettuce and spinach has already yielded first one crop, then a second- some of which I had taken home to Mama. Best of all were the snapdragons. They grew stout and proud along the foundation of the house and soon bloomed a blood red that blazed in the sunlight.
Grizzle-pa smiled when he looked at them, and I realized I had never seen him smile before. "Buttermilk?" he asked, and without waiting for an answer, he walked to the springhouse and returned with the cold, creamy drink in two, tin cups. We sat on the porch to drink it.
Then, with Ralph curled and napping at his feet, Grizzle-pa started talking, spilling out what was, for him, a deluge of words. He told me about coming to Macomb County as a young boy, about square dances and ice cream socials and softball games that started before noon and lasted until after dark. He told about working the wires and the rails, driving coal truck and hauling freight- whatever it took to make it through the hard times of the thirties. He told me about his ma and pa, long dead, and three brothers all gone before him. "To their reward," he said. He told me about meeting and marrying his first wife and their sorrow in having no children. Haltingly, he described the even deeper sorrow of losing her. He talked about meeting and marrying a second time- my grandma this time- and about the good times they had together before she, too, was lost to him.
In early August, the plentiful harvest from Grizzle-pa's garden began. Unexpectedly, the postman delivered no notes from Grizzle-pa, but instead grocery bags heavy with fat, round squash and plump, green beans. I continued to pedal out to Grizzle-pa's place every Friday, helping him keep up with the weeding and hoeing and returning home with the first of the yellow tomatoes, as big across as dinner plates and tart as apples.
In mid-August, the heat that had gripped us all summer broke, and a storm blew down from the Smokies with a fury. Winds whipped limbs from the hackberry trees and downed power lines. Rain lashed roads and houses with a black, frigid torrent that flooded streets and sidewalks and choked the creeks with silt.
For three days, the storm raged. Trapped indoors, Mary Estelle, Suzanne, and I filled the hours with tales and half-truths about loves lost, slights perceived, seventh grade injustices, and what was playing at the Midway Drive-In. Mary Estelle hinted at the delights to be experienced in getting a boy to take you there, especially for a Judy Holliday movie, but hers was a world apart now, it seemed, out of sight and out of reach for Suzanne and me. We played Monopoly for hours on end, and even Mary Estelle joined the game, making us promise we wouldn't tell the other cheerleaders. As I built hotels on Broadway and Park Place, I wondered about Grizzle-pa's garden.
The next morning, the storm blew itself out, and the sun rose harsher and hotter than ever. The humidity hung like a weight on the backs of the men who cleared basswood branches from the streets and shored up the east-end bridge that lurched precariously, threatening collapse into the raging creek.
No note came from Grizzle-pa, but Mama knew what needed doing. She called us to the kitchen. "Grizzle-pa's garden has likely seen a lot of damage," she said, "and one of you needs to go help him."
"Not me," protested Suzanne. "I twisted my ankle playing stick ball and my head hurts from all this rain and...."
She was just warming up when Mary Estelle interrupted, "Gail can go. She's been going all summer. She's the one Grizzle-pa asks for."
"Maybe all the more reason why it might be somebody else's turn," Mama said, "but I won't say who goes. You decide however you want, but one of you goes out to Grizzle-pa's place first thing after lunch."
We had heard those words before, and we took the same action as before. Mary Estelle and I followed Suzanne onto the porch and circled into a huddle. We put our right hands into the center and bent over them. "One, two...three!" Suzanne counted.
Lagging behind by half a beat, I watched my sisters' hands assume a familiar form. As both extended their fingers flat into rigid sheets of paper, I quickly retracted my scissors fingers, forming the hard, round fist of a stone.
* * *
Grizzle-pa died that winter--of a cancer that he'd known about for over a year, they said - and I thought he looked stronger and sleeker in his coffin than he had in the last summer of his life. Because we were the only family Grizzle-pa had, his dog Ralph came to live with us. Mama said it was just as well that she didn't inherit the worthless, old farmhouse, which, it turned out, Grizzle-pa didn't even own. The place was a long-forgotten sharecropper's allotment, abandoned during the Depression by its true owner who had settled, some said, in Detroit. Before the house and land could be auctioned for back taxes, the task of sorting through Grizzle-pa's possessions fell to us, his only kin. Mama said we would keep anything worth keeping and send the rest to the Salvation Army. It was too big a job for Mama to handle alone. She'd need help from all three of us girls.
No stone-paper-scissors this time.
Standing in Grizzle-pa's yard in the gray light of February, we viewed the remnants of last summer's garden. The storm damage had been less than expected, and I had needed to work only a single afternoon to help him restake his tomatoes, pull out the worst of the battered corn stalks, and clear the plot of debris. His yield had continued through September, feeding us and half our neighbors. It had been more than enough for him, too, it seemed, for we found his kitchen shelves laden with jar after jar of canned beans, homemade pickles, and beets as red and sparkling as jewels. Each jar was neatly dated and labeled: "Gail's Garden, 1955."
On his kitchen table stood a vase stuffed with flowers. They had faded and dried months before, but they were still recognizable as the blood red snapdragons Grizzle-pa and I had grown from seed.
Suzanne and Mary Estelle and I stopped playing stone-paper-scissors after that. It wasn't that there were no longer chores to divide up, but rather that each of us seemed to know what our kinship required of us. Now, years later, Suzanne keeps the family scrapbook, and Mary Estelle hosts our family reunions. Me, I keep Grizzle-pa's grave neat and well-tended, planting there each spring the seeds that will grow into stout, proud snapdragons. They bloom every August, the blazing red of blood.