Fall 2006, Volume 23.1
Bonnie Hale, a native of California, is a painter and writer who currently lives in the Midwest. Her writing has appeared in The Sun, Mars Hill Review, and American Literary Review. Bonnie is working on a collection of nonfiction stories called Dishtowel Diaries. You can read an excerpt from the collection and see some of her artwork at https://bonniehale.com/writing.
Chet does his own laundry in the coin wash at the apartments. He vacuums once a week with an ancient green Hoover and runs a dust rag over the bookcases. He buys himself a couple of carnations each time he goes to the grocery store because a) they aren’t too expensive and b) they last a pretty long time without getting droopy and c) he likes the idea that a woman will see them someday and think better of him for their presence. His hair is thin on top but if he wears his baseball cap, which he almost always does, you can hardly tell. Besides, who wants a woman who will choose you or not choose you based on the relative number of hairs on your head? Maybe he should shave his hair very short like Garth Brooks.
Sex? Rarely. Not often enough to warrant keeping condoms in his nightstand, but often enough to occasionally wish he had one in his wallet. He loves women. He really does. And more—he likes them. Likes the way they sometimes tie their shirttails over their navels, even if they are not young or thin. Likes the way they tap their fingernails on the keyboard of a computer. He likes them to wear lipstick—pink is his favorite no matter what color their hair is. He also likes them with no lipstick at all, especially if they are naked.
He works hard at his job and likes the idea that he is respected there. He knows that if there is a need for a crane operator, especially where safety is an issue, his name will come up. If they need a crane operator who will stay awake, pay attention, and not have a flask of Wild Turkey in his coat pocket, they will say, Hey, has anybody seen Chet Larson lately?
But lonely, man, is he lonely! Work takes up the only days, leaving endless nights and weekends that stretch out before him like the long, hot summers when he was a kid. There is the TV, which annoys him most of the time, and the library, of course, where he can at least count on the librarians to whisper, How are you today? But he thinks he might be starting to look a little pathetic with all the time he spends in there, hunkered down in a sprung sofa reading this month’s Field and Stream. Back when he had his garden—that was better. Something productive. Something to take care of. Roses to prune. But then he threw his back out lugging railroad ties around the side yard for a retaining wall. He missed so much work that he’d had to sell his house before the bank took it back. He’d rented the apartment then: small, manageable with just-painted white walls. His back had mended eventually, but he just couldn’t see digging into a big house again all by himself. Even a little house seemed like more than he wanted to take on.
Women. There they were again, floating around in his head like rented canoes—some new, some old, some damaged, some damn close to sinking. There was no shortage of women really—just a shortage of ones that would float, float for more than a weekend. He wants one that won’t sink at the sight of bacon or a slightly bald head. Or one that isn’t already overloaded with four or five kids and a psychotic ex-husband and a car that doesn’t run. Whose parents don’t live with her. Who doesn’t have 18 cats. Hell, he isn’t picky for God’s sake; he isn’t looking for Julia Roberts. He just wants somebody normal. Somebody with a job she can stand. Or a halfway decent sense of humor. Or a dog—even a dog would be a step in the right direction. But it would have to be a big dog—not a little yippy-skippy frou-frou dog. Okay, maybe he is a tiny bit picky.
Carla believes in God but only because she has sat through hundreds of sunsets and has a dog that is better than any person. Simon, a dignified Collie, has taught her more about forgiveness than any Sunday school teacher ever could. Between the dog (who teaches by example) and her ex-husband (who gives her plenty of opportunities) she is pretty much an expert in forgiveness. Five years since her divorce, and she gets better at it every day. Her mantra: Forgive, Carla, Forgive.
Sex? Five years is a long time in that department. But where does a forty-eight year old woman look for sex when men her own age are flitting around with twenty-five years olds? Older men? Well… yuck! She can remember when older men were suave dogs of forty who drove foreign cars. Now an older man has a social security check and prostate problems. And of course there is the issue of her own body, the thought of someone seeing her naked. Would candlelight still hide enough sins? Is there a candle that small in the world? Just suck in your stomach and be glad you have long legs.
Her house is the color of butter, painted room by room last winter. In this thin February light, she is thankful for that color, for the weight it adds to this skinny, skim-milk season. Outside are rosebushes, dozens of them. When they bloom in a month or so, they will ring her house like a cheerful barbed wire fence. She knows she needs to prune them, but she can’t remember the particulars of the procedure; it’s complicated: prune above (or below?) a leaf node, make a perfect 45 degree cut (or is it 30 degrees?), remove one-half (or one-third?) of last year’s growth, remove all (none?) of the remaining leaves. She’ll have to check the Western Garden Book.
The Garden Club holds its annual rose pruning workshop at the Bank of America’s rose garden. An instructor goes over the basics and then turns everyone loose to practice on the Bank’s roses. Carla attacks a huge hybrid tea, a Mr. Lincoln, as lanky as its namesake, whacking away at its six-foot canes with her small pruning shears. Chet is on his hands and knees with a delicate floribunda.
"Want to borrow these loppers?" he asks. "You’ll get more leverage with the long handles."
"That’s okay," she says without looking over. "I’m fine with these." She makes another cut, and the result is ragged and torn.
"At least let me sharpen them for you."
This she cannot resist and hands him the tool.
He takes off his gloves and pulls a whetstone out of his back pocket. The blade makes a soothing sound as he pulls it across the stone: shet, shet, shet. She watches him while he works—surprised that he is handsome—or was—his skin now a little slack under the jaw, fairly tall, a little thick around the middle—but not too bad.
"I’ve never been able to do that," she says.
"No?" he says, not looking up, smiling the tiniest smile. "Why not?"
"I don’t know why, but I’ve ruined far more blades than I’ve sharpened."
"Ah," he says. "You’re probably changing the angle between strokes. You just need to pick an angle and stick with it. See?" He slows the process for the last few strokes and holds it where she can see what he’s doing. Carla gets a whiff of damp garden soil and aftershave. When he is finished, he demonstrates its sharpness by scraping his thumb lightly across the blade—a little half moon of skin cells has gathered on the shining steel edge.
"Pretty sharp," he says, returning the shears. "Be careful."
Instead of returning to the towering Mr. Lincoln, she stands, one gloved hand on her hip, while Chet gets back to work on the floribunda. Moving around the little bush in a half crouch, he removes the deadwood and unhealthy canes—more sculpting than pruning, Carla thinks.
"Hey," she says, taking a step closer. "You obviously know how to prune roses. Why did you come to the workshop?"
He raises himself slowly, one hand (out of habit) supporting the small of his back. He smiles at the ground, then at the sky, and finally at Carla. He takes off his ball cap.
"It’s a great place to meet chicks."
In one flash-second she will decide her response: appalled or flattered? Behind her, she hears the instructor telling another student: That’s right, clear out the center, give it some air. Don’t worry—if you make a mistake—it’ll grow back.
Carla smiles, pulls off one glove with her teeth. Eyebrows raised, she lifts her shoulders and asks, "Well, you’ve met one. Now what?"
"That depends," Chet says, looking past Carla towards the red truck where Simon sits, in the driver’s seat, waiting. "Is that your dog?"
Carla nods, an amused smile playing around her lips.
"Well that’s good," says Chet. "I was hoping it was."
"Have you ever been married?" Carla asks, keeping her eyes on the stove where she is sautéing onions for spaghetti sauce.
"Long story," Chet says, and then looking around, "I like what you’ve done with the place."
"Oh, thanks—I did most of the work myself—the cosmetic stuff anyway. I had to bring in some guys for the electrical and plumbing."
Chet runs his fingers over the smooth, sanded wood of the doorjamb where he has been leaning and says, "Good job."
"Is there a short version?"
"A short version—you know—is there a short version of the long story of your marriage?"
Chet hooks his boot heel over the rung of a bright red barstool and perches on the edge of the seat, laughs.
"Yeah, I guess there’s a short version," he says, "but I’m warning you: it makes me look kind of stupid."
"Marriage has a way of doing that sometimes," Carla says, chopping green peppers. "Hardly anyone comes out looking real smart."
"Good point," Chet says, "I hadn’t thought of it that way."
He twists his bottle of Coors Light in a few nervous circles on the counter and waits until Carla turns around to get something out of the fridge.
"Yeah, I was married for a while," Chet says. "Four years—I thought everything was going along fine. This gal and I got married—I even took out a big second mortgage on my house to build a couple more rooms for her kids—Angie had a boy and a girl from a previous marriage. Four years later… Boom!"
Chet twists his beer bottle so the label faces him, appears to be reading it very carefully.
"Boom?" Carla says.
"Oh yeah, right," Chet continues, "this is supposed to be the short version. One day—I remember it was a Thursday—I came downstairs real early, before work, and saw this notice on the kitchen counter by the phone. It said something like, ‘Your parent conference with Jenny’s teacher, Mrs. Whatsername, is set for three o’clock on Thursday. It is important that both parents attend if at all possible.’ Well, I just naturally assumed I should be there." Chet stops, rubs the corner of his mouth with his thumb.
Carla takes a sip of wine and tilts her head to one side.
"Sounds logical to me."
"Well, it turns out it was kind of a dumb assumption on my part," Chet says. "I show up at the classroom; the door is propped open so I peek my head in—there’s Mrs. Whatsername, facing me, and on the other side of the desk: Angie and her ex-husband, Jenny’s dad, holding hands and leaning into the desk like they are the ultimate blue-ribbon, eager-beaver parents of the whole entire universe. Holding hands."
Carla puts a handful of spaghetti into a boiling pot and asks through the steam, "They were getting back together?"
Maybe it’s just the wine, but Carla finds herself feeling grateful—grateful for the moon (large and gibbous, shining in her window, making everyone look ten years younger), for the old cotton sheets against her skin (washed a thousand times to the smoothness of a bird’s wing), for Simon (curled nose to tail by the door, making himself as small as possible), for this man sleeping next to her (who seems to be a decent person and has almost no hair on his back). She is grateful that people bounce back from disasters (like parent/teacher conferences from hell), that they allow themselves to be swept away by this life-giving act, and that, at the wise old age of forty-eight, she can do it on the first date if she wants to.
Carla opens her eyes briefly and closes them again. Holy shit—what was I thinking? She lifts her head and waits for the wave of regret that will surely wash over her. One hand goes to her forehead while the other shoots out to check the bed next to her. Cold. Empty. Gone. Of course—what did you really expect? Breakfast in bed? Someone who’d mate for life like a swan? Carla, you are so pathetic. Forgive, Carla, forgive.
She hears, outside, a quiet clicking; it stops, clicks again. Oh God, the poor guy’s trying to escape and he has a dead battery. Will he come in and ask for a jump or just abandon his Jeep in her driveway? Figure it’s a small price to pay for his freedom?
Carla lifts the edge of a muslin curtain a half-inch and peeks out. She can see his Jeep parked behind her truck. Even through the February fog she can see that it’s empty. Carla realizes she’s been holding her breath. She throws on jeans and a sweatshirt, tiptoes to the front porch. Click, click. Click. She follows the sound around the side of her house, damp grass cuttings clinging to her bare feet. She sees them there, in the side yard: Chet and Simon. Chet, kneeling on one knee and using Simon’s broad back for balance, carefully prunes away the center growth of the last rosebush on that side of the house. Carla looks behind her and sees that all the bushes she has just passed, wild and gangly yesterday, are now neatly pruned to within a foot of the ground. Chet has stacked the thorn-covered cuttings in a tidy pile next to the fence.
"Hey you two," Carla says, coming towards them. "What’s going on out here?"
Chet straightens up to face her, the mist on his hair like a halo, a hopeful smile crossing his face. He hooks a thumb toward Simon.
"Your buddy here said you’d be impressed if I pruned your roses." Chet rubs the dog’s head with his gloved hand. Simon leans hard against Chet’s leg.
Carla, hands on hips, looks back over the dozen or so perfectly groomed bushes. She imagines them blooming over the next few months into a hectic palette of color.
She pulls her hair up into a loose bun, holds it there with both hands, says, "Well, I’m impressed. Now what?"