Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Asparagus Moonlight

Tuesday, July 20, 1982, the Day of the New Moon.

When poet Robert Sund greeted his visitors at the door of the Boom Shack, he looked over their heads to Swinomish Channel flowing in a falling tide. He saw flotsam drifting and cormorants diving. He looked up higher to the Swinomish shore where the rusting shake mill was closed for the day. Shake packers, splitters and sawyers still worked in 1982 on the last of Skagit Valley’s old growth cedar. On the same shore, loaders parked for the evening in the Dunlap towing yard amid towering piles of logs, sorted and stacked. To their left, from what Robert saw at the front door of the Boom Shack, rose the blue Swinomish totem pole. Bob Joe was chairman of the tribal village, where Landy James lived after coming home from his job as coach of the LaConner Braves, the high school football team. Landy had a famous loud-as-brass voice, and he could yell from the sidelines at a fumble-footed quarterback until even the goal posts were shaking, bringing the boy up short for lack of effort, scolding him in front of the whole town, and yet it was always kind. Landy James lived a stone’s throw from Roger Cayou who was the father-in-law of Earl James, a Canadian-born Indian who married his daughter Rosie. Earl worked at the rusting shake mill and smiled when the day’s work was done.

On the hill in LaConner, pharmacist Fred Martin was consulting the Farmer’s Almanac after a late dinner with his wife, Margaret. “Margaret, it’s the New Moon this evening. We should think about planting some winter vegetables, spinach, cauliflower, Brussel sprouts, that sort of thing. I think we should start them from seed in the egg cartons we’ve saved. It makes sense to plant by the moon, and it’s interesting that so many romantic people declare that the moon rules the emotions. In fact, there is nothing more regular and predictable than the rising and setting of the moon. The almanac says that the New Moon will set at 8:23 this evening, if you make the adjustment for local time. So it is time for planting the fall vegetables.

“Margaret, I don’t mean to say that I prefer lunar regularity to romance. You are the love of my life, it would be a dull existence without you. I am not a poet, these words do not come to me easily, but I feel them in my heart. We have such a good home, and we made it together.”

In another home on the hill, not quite in the shadow of the United Methodist Church, Tom Robbins enjoyed a cup of peppermint tea on the couch with Cindy Sibanda, the African Queen.

“Cindy, if I keep loving you, there will be nothing left of me. And that is what I wish, to love you until I am done with myself.”

Cindy gave her brightest gap-toothed smile. “But I will be leaving you. I am going back to Zimbabwe shortly. My family needs me, there is a great illness going around. I have children to look after.”

“I thought….”

“Tom, what you think is of small importance. My family is large and I have many children. My Aunt Margie is a nyanga, a traditional healer. She is calling me home. This word nyanga also means ‘moon.’ That is the same in three African languages, in Xhosa, in Tswana, and in Ndebele. The nyanga means moon and it also means witch doctor, shaman, ob-gyn, or whatever bothers you. You can see the sun setting and the moon goes down with it, the moon is dying as we say in Africa. If I am your sun, and you are my moon, then you will go down with me and be dying in my flames.”

“Such a sweet loving and dying it would be,” Tom said.

At the door of the Boom Shack, Robert Sund spoke to his visitors. “Come in. Sit where you may. Seats on the floor, seats on the ceiling, be at home. The tide is falling, the heron stalks in the marsh, I have cheese and crackers for unexpected guests. It is time to begin talking as we meet this fine summer evening.”

“Bringing beer for everyone.”

“And I have several bottles of plum wine.”


“No, on the shelf, for one and all”

“Robert, are you a poet?”

“I am indeed. I don’t work, I sing, and who’s asking anyway? Jimmy, you’re a failure in the eyes of many people. You may have redeemed yourself to some degree because you rescued Keith Brown from an act of great violence. You may be celebrating an increased stature in the eyes of the townsfolk, but only by degree. You are still an object of ridicule. You must understand, people like Fred Martin and Roberta Nelson, our town mothers and fathers, have the greatest kindness and patience in dealing with your ilk.”

“Ilk? I’m an ilk?” Jimmy objected.

“A Roosevelt ilk, like they have in the Olympic Peninsula. My Uncle Roger shot one last year. We had ilk meat all winter,” Hitch said.

“Ilk, schmilk. I’m just sayin’ don’t be a fool.”

“Look who’s talking.”

“This calls for a round of drinks. Jimmy, pour the plum wine for me, and I for you. And Jimmy, what people say about you, that you can be somebody, that you can be real -- that is your trial.”

“Geez, Robert, why are you getting all bossy? You’re worse than Barbara Cram. That’s how she talks.”

“Did you ever wonder if Barbara Cram is related to Sam Cram?” Jellybean asked.

“No,” Robert explained. “She is a Cram of entirely different provenance. Her family comes from Forks where it rains loggers. Let me explain the LaConner begats, at least a portion of it. Pat O’Leary came here from Oak Harbor as a young man. He bought the Puget Sound Mail and published it every week for many years. He married a woman from Texas – I’m not sure how that happened – but they wed and soon had two daughters, the lovely O’Leary girls, Mary and Sally. Now Mary wedded Jim Lam and Sally married Herb Cram, who is the son of Sam Cram. You see? It rhymes. Mary Lam and Sally Cram. Now Mary Lam is the mayor of LaConner and Herb and Sally Cram live over on Whatcom Street, and Sam Cram rides his bicycle into town most mornings to talk farming at the Round Table . And none of these people are related to Barbara Cram.”

“Because she’s from Forks,” Jellybean said.

“But, getting back to things here about Jimmy. It’s a matter of expectations. No, that’s the wrong word. Let me stumble around a bit to see if I can get it right. Jimmy, you hope and you fail. You try and you give up. Everybody likes you and nobody cares.”


“Jimmy, you’re too sad. Stopping looking at your shoes like a bashful Swedish farmer.”

“I ain’t Swedish, I’m Dutch.”

“And you are stubborn enough to build dikes and hold back the Skagit River, but sooner or later the river will rise and the flood will come. Can you swim, or are you just stubborn on the ground?”

“Barbara Cram told you to say all this, didn’t she?”

“That doesn’t matter – maybe it comes from some faraway northern galaxy.”

“I don’t like all this attention.”

“I’m done. More wine?” Robert poured and looked at Aurora Jellybean. “Princess, the moon is down. There is a different light in the sky this special night, the night of Asparagus Moonlight, and we shall go a-walking in the fields after midnight, striding across corn rows until dawn, then resting our heads on soft pillows of summer grass. Asparagus Moonlight is the sweetest night of the year. Will you come with us?”

“Yes, very much,” Jellybean. “Is Charlie Krafft coming out tonight? He is such a good boy. I wish to love him.”

“Oh Charlie, Oh Charlie,” Robert cried in dismay. “Many a maid has held his hand, but he is a strange one.”

“Well, he sniffs glue,” Hitch said. “I never tried that.”

“Never mind, Hitch, and as I said earlier, you are an indigenous sham.”

“Like Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs. My Uncle Roger used to sing that song.”

“But you pretend when you could be real.”

“Real is your problem, white man.

“But I know your life. I know your secret.”

“For a long time I was a mouse. Living on the Res – people were killing me. They have spirit death over there and I was getting scared. They laughed at me – mouse, mouse, mouse! So I went over to the Sand Spit where people don’t know me.”

“We know you.”

“I ain’t a mouse now. I’m something else. We’re going tonight for Asparagus Moonlight, so maybe I’m a hawk.”

“The hawk ate the mouse.”


Jimmy looked up now, not at his shoes. “Robert, if you’re a Buddhist, that’s a joke. You start feuds with people. You make enemies. You don’t talk to people. You turn your kindness on and then turn it off. You are a goat. Fighting with people like Paul Hansen. He used to be your friend, now you get all huffy if someone even mentions his name. Fighting over nothing. It’s like if I have been hanging out with Paul Hansen, then you don’t want to hear about it. Then he says shit like you’re an egotistical drunkard and a burden on society, so I try to change the subject. Now you want to get on my case about my wasted life.

“Only because of this night, which is special, Asparagus Moonlight is a night of trial and error. Now as we drink the plum wine and the beer, we face our accusers. That is our trial. After the trial comes the error – that is, round about midnight, we go a-wandering and make as many mistakes as possible.”

“And Charlie is coming?”

“Aurora, darling, many people are coming…..More wine?”

The evening passed, a late summer night descended and the stars came out to play.

Down the street, down two short blocks to Morris Street, and turning right, Morris Street went away from Swinomish Channel, and going east toward the farmland, and toward Mount Vernon, the county seat, ten miles in the distance against the foothills of the Cascades, where Interstate 5 coursed from San Diego to Canada, slashing south to north across the Skagit Valley, linking Mount Vernon to the world. Mount Vernon was where you went to go to the dentist, or to pay your auto insurance, or pay your property tax, or go to court, or go to Sears and JC Penny’s.

Except for the shopping, you never went to Mount Vernon but for doing something tedious, ugly and necessary, and all this was subtly embodied in the reality of Morris Street, which pointed westward to Swinomish channel, to the Reservation and beyond to Snee Oosh Beach and Skagit Bay, and outward past Deception Pass, the San Juan Islands, the strait of Juan de Fuca, and the Pacific Ocean – to freedom and the wildest beauty -- going westward, which was the deepest yearning of all LaConner’s European descendants, in pursuit of that rainbow of happiness.

But Morris Street mainly took you the other way, eastward to drudgery, to Skagit Valley Hospital, home of death and disease, to the Skagit County jail, food stamps, and the welfare office. Well, you had to take care of business somewhere and the people who lived in Mount Vernon were common folk and friendly enough.

That was Morris Street, the main automobile entrance to town, tainted with reality, and who was Morris anyway, and why did they name a street after him? But nobody cared, because nobody cared about Morris Street, it just got you where you were going, turning right from North First Street and the Boom Shack, past Nasty Jacks Antiques, past the Alligator Palace and At’s-APizza, to Blade’s Chevron gas station, and across the street to the home and business of Alan Pentz, editor and publish of the Channeltown Press, LaConner’s sole surviving weekly newspaper now that the Puget Sound Mail, founded in 1873, and published every week from that date until some dismal day in 1981 when it went out of business after 108 years and 5,616 weekly issues.

Alan Pentz’s Soliloquy

“Goddam it,” Pentz said, coming out of the dark room in the back of his print shop late that evening, almost midnight, “these photos are fuzzy.” He had front-page snap shots of the Keith Brown roof-top standoff. A breaking news story was so rare in a small town like LaConner.

These are crummy photos, but it’s still my newspaper, he thought. You die a slow death at a weekly newspaper. Deadlines every Tuesday night, pecking you to death. Bad things happen. I put them in the paper and people get mad at me. I write sweet stories about pretty children with balloons and they still get mad at me. I can’t win. They hate me, but I keep putting out this newspaper and they’re hooked on it. My only pleasure is smoking Marlboros and playing cribbage with my mother upstairs.

I’m not a booster like Fred Martin. He goes rah-rah and let’s build a better LaConner. God, that makes me sick. You couldn’t pay me to join those phonies at the Rotary Club.

I’m not a corporate insider like my cousin Lloyd Tafton. Lloyd works for IBM, makes a ton of money and all he has to do is show up- every day and make nice with some other useless corporate know-nothings in a tall building in downtown Seattle. He’s my cousin – but he’s still an over-paid fake.

I don’t write poetry. I’m not some mooch on society like Robert Sund. He comes in here with a handful of stupid words and he argues with me on supporting the “arts.” Take your precious twaddle down the road, buddy. Hey, the arts don’t support me, so why should I support the arts? Your poems don’t even rhyme. Get out of my office – go to Mount Vernon and trade your poems in for some food stamps.

I never get a break. I could starve to death on what I make with these $3 classified ads selling used bicycles. The tourist people think I should hire a graphic designer and make my paper prettier -- with whose money?

The only people that are any good in this town are the volunteer firemen.

But not those pretty people selling trinkets to tourists. They act so precious but I keep my mouth shut. That’s why I smoke Marlboros -- to keep them away from me. I could not face their hypocritical phony lives. Smooth talkers, cheese eaters -- worse than hippies.

There’s only one artist around here that I have any respect for and that’s Charlie Krafft. He understands the reality of it – that nothing makes any sense at all. It’s a big joke and we all die in the end.

The phone rang. It was Brian Healey. “No……. Brian, do not involve me in this. I am no party to this. Stay away from Fishtown. Go to bed. It’s late. Keith Brown is in jail.”

The hours passed nicely at the Boom Shack. Robert played on his autoharp, with Aurora Jellybean on her jingle bells singing the old-time religion and folk songs from the ancient lands. The wine flowed. Jimmy and Hitch became very happy.

At midnight, they left the Boom Shack and began their wandering in the cool and quiet of a late summer evening, past Nasty Jack’s and around the corner, down Morris Street, past the Channeltown Press officer where Alan Pentz worked late putting his paper to bed in a cloud of cigarette smoke.

Fred Owens
cell: 360-739-0214

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Fred Owens
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Ventura CA 93001

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