Wednesday, August 29, 2012
Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty in the moonlight overthrew you
“In Gandalfian posture Robert Sund led the wandering troop down the midnight course of Morris Street, with Frodo-ish Jimmy and Hitch playing the part of all seven dwarves.”
At least that was Aurora Jellybean’s scenario, and she of course was Galadriel Queen of the Elves.
Hitch halted abruptly. “Jellybean, cut the Middle Earth crap.”
They walked slowly mid-street past Alan Pentz’s midnight newspaper office.
“My dreams are much better than Alan Pentz’s nightmares,” Jellybean said.
Going several blocks more, they came to the edge of town, to the yellow beacon landmark – Boyd Zimmerman’s Shell station.
“It’s such a beautiful sign,” Robert said. “A seashell the color of daffodils and blood-red carnations.”
Boyd himself was home in his bed. But Bud Thein, his chief mechanic, may have fallen asleep on the couch inside the garage. Bud was always there, working for Boyd, pumping gas, moving slowly, the least ambitious man in all LaConner, not quite happy, and a bit weary.
The calm yellow Shell sign marked the boundary of town and not twenty feet passed it the cabbage seed crop lay in brown, crispy-dry furrows on Hedlin’s farm, and Hedlin himself, young Hedlin as he was known, slept very deeply with his beautiful wife Ilona in a white-framed house where had lived since birth. “I’ve never had a job,” he said. “I’m a farmer.”
Young Hedlin maintained the dike that his grandfather had built against the tidal surges of Sullivan Slough, keeping the salt- and fresh-water out of his fields, and, not in a small way, protecting the whole town of LaConner from floods, and at his own expense.
People treated young Hedlin kindly for keeping the floodwater out of town -- but he was raised to be modest about such things, as his widowed mother told him on the day of his marriage to Ilona, after she moved out of the big house and turned the whole farm operation over to him. “Don’t put on airs. Your father was a down-to-earth man who gave anybody a helping hand. This land is a gift and I expect you to keep it well.”
The troop walked by Hedlin’s field.
“I can see the zinnias and dahlias,” Jellybean cried out. Ilona kept a half-acre of flowers to sell by the roadside, by a rusting old tractor, half-buried under blackberry vines.
“It’s an old Ford, 1950s model, I guess,” Robert said, remembering his own farm days down by Chehalis. “That’s the great thing about having a farm, you never have to throw anything out, just park it in the field and let it rust. Funny how old farm equipment looks good that way. Old boats too. Everything decays and goes back to ground.”
“Yeah, Robert, real cosmic.”
“Why are we going this way?
“We’re going out to Fishtown.”
“But it’s past midnight. Do we sleep?”
“We sleep when we’re dead.”
They walked on to the low bridge over Sullivan Slough. The slough was all jammed up with old flood-borne logs and masses of cat-tails. You couldn’t even see the water, but this ancient arm of the Skagit River still flowed with the tide, now diked off to make fertile farm land.
Across the slough in the past-midnight hour, usually quiet and still, but not this night -- they saw a dozen headlights in Hulbert’s field. Pea viners never sleep, not in July, not when the pea harvest is on. They worked all day and the night shift worked all night, riding the harvesters, picking peas on a vast industrial scale, making a river of green as local boosters called it, harvested and trucked to the cannery – to be canned by Del Monte and the Jolly Green Giant, or frozen in huge cardboard lugs, and stacked by fork lifts in warehouses bigger than football fields by the railroad tracks – many thousands of acres of pea fields making many thousand tons of frozen peas, and the harvesters rode their giant rumbling machines all night long, going down rows slower than a walk, like friendly creatures from outer space come to land.
Past Hulbert’s fields, the troop, now led by Robert, drifted silently, almost bare-footed, almost invisible, ghosting like a faint breath, a half a mile on Chilberg Road, to the corner of Dodge Valley Road, by the farm and home of Bathsheba Everdene and Tom Blethen, a vast three-storied farmhouse built in the early 1900s when farm prices were high and the money was good for years at a time and the smart farmers sunk their money into grand houses with shining woodwork and Chickering upright pianos.
Bathsheba and Tom were laying a-bed that night. “Those pea viners are keeping me awake,” Tom said. “Let’s talk.”
Bathsheba, stretching, propping herself up on two pillows, looking over Tom’s shoulders, looking out the window to Hulbert’s field across the road, she said, “Who are those people walking down the middle of Chilberg Road? There’s four of them.”
“It’s the Asparagus Moonlight Brigade. They come every year at this time. They’re going to the Butterfly Ball,” Tom said.
“Tell me a story.”
“I was thinking about Charlie Swanson, where I grew up in St. Louis. It was in the seventh grade. We used to play basketball in the gym at recess and he was always better than me – could shoot from the side and swish it every time. Or he would get the ball and come at me dribbling and then do an eye fake -- shift his eyes over to the right and then dash to the left, and I would be standing there like a dumb ox. I never could figure out that head fake. Charlie would just do it again the next day and go right past me, and I kept thinking it wasn’t fair, you know, to act like you’re going one way and then go the other way, you know – fake.”
“But Tom, faking is part of the game.”
“I know. I never was any good at basketball. I don’t like faking.”
“On the other hand -- oh, now I remember why I was so mad at Charlie Swanson. It wasn’t the basketball game it was the candy bars. I used to steal Milky Ways from the supermarket. I did it all the time, and I always stole Milky Ways – three nickel bars. It was like free candy. So one time I stole the candy bars, had ‘em stuffed in my pocket and Charlie was out on the sidewalk because he lived near the store. So I showed him the candy bars and told him I stole them. He got mad and said he was going to tell the store manager and he said it would serve me right for stealing. Charlie was a rat! So then I really didn’t like him. And that was that, except a couple of months later his mother died. Mrs. Swanson slipped in the bath tub – a middle-aged woman in perfect health -- she slipped on the bathroom floor, banged her head against the bathtub and died just like that. We went to the funeral and I felt really sorry for Charlie that his Mom died and I wasn’t mad at him anymore.”
“It was rich. I mean I was in seventh grade and Mrs. Swanson died for no reason. You could die anytime.“
“So that scared you?”
“The opposite. When Mrs. Swanson died it put me on the road to freedom. Why stay home? You could die in your own bathroom if you just stayed home, so you may as well go out in the wide world and take your chances. That’s how I got to your farm.”
“That’s how you got into my bed.”
“You tried the old head fake on me, being your capricious female self, but I just held my ground.”
“You have good ground now.”
“I used to hang out in the bowling alley, it was near school. It was someplace to go when I was 12, me and Billy Anderson and Al Versino. Billy was a nerd – he started building shortwave radios in the basement and he just kept going --- became an electrical engineer, made a ton of money, but he never learned how to be nice to people. He only lived a block away. I would go down the alley and then cut through Martinek’s yard and cross Walnut Street and go to the back door of Billy’s house. He lived with his aunt and uncle, Mr. and Mrs. Schmidt. That’s the part I couldn’t understand. Everybody lived in a house with their Mom and Dad except Billy Anderson – but somehow nobody ever asked – Don’t you have a Mom and Dad? It was like that back then. Al Versino was my other friend. He lived two blocks away on Elmwood, a real athlete, great ball player and we went fishing together too. We could ride our bikes about one mile to the Mississippi River and fish from the banks of the levee. Al’s Dad owned the Bike & Sports Shop so he could get anything there for nothing – like his choice of three dozen gloves for baseball, or free fishing tackle. That was really cool. I used to make him laugh. Al laughed all the time. We just horsed around and had fun. But he grew up and married a woman who wasn’t kind to him and they divorced and he came back to St. Louis and took over the Bike shop from a sense of duty I guess. I haven’t seen him in years -- I don’t think he’s happy.”
“Are you happy?” Bathsheba said.
“You don’t mind if I’m talking like this – yeah, I’m happy. Farming didn’t come to me right away, I grew up in town. We had roses and peonies and I mowed the lawn. We had day lilies out by the alley and we had violets and lily of the valley in the shade. I picked flowers for my mother to make her happy. But nothing clicked until I was 16. I began working for Mr. Schaeffer. He lived down the street, near the school. He was a mail man, finished that job at 3 o’clock and then did some landscaping work for people up in Indian Hill where the big houses were. So he hired me to run the lawnmower while he pruned the roses and smoked his pipe. He had coarse grey hair growing out of his ears – it’s funny how you remember stuff like that. But he wouldn’t let me come near the roses. That’s how I got started.”
“Because he wouldn’t let you prune the roses.”
“Yeah, I got stubborn. Someday I’m going to prune the roses myself, I said, and that’s how I got started,” Tom said.
“I was going to marry old man Hulbert before I met you. He’s old and nasty, but he lives right across the road and you put his farm and my farm together and we’ve got the best acres in the valley.”
“You would have been a rich woman. But you have me and I’m not much more than a glorified hired hand.”
“I love you, Tom.”
“It’ll work out.”
“I’m thinking we should use that field for cabbage seed – that field we rent to Hedlin -- do the cabbage seed ourselves from now on. We’d get a fat contract price from the seed company. We could learn it.”
“Bathsheba, honey, it’s amazing you can talk business in the middle of the night.”
“Who are those people walking by? I think I know them, that woman, I’ve seen her in town.”
“It’s the Asparagus Moonlight Brigade. They’re on their way to the Butterfly Ball.”
“Explain that, please.”
“No explanation, but would you like to go?”
“It’s 2 o’clock in the morning.”
“That’s good. We’ll be early. The Butterfly Ball begins at 3 a.m.”
“And does it end?
“It ends before it begins. You save time that way.”
“You’ll love it. ”
“Things can get very complicated.”
“When is it simple? Listen, we’re not angels. The angels live forever. They watch over us and guide us, but they envy us. We have sex and we die. We make love and it changes everything, and the angels watch over us, but they really wish they could be us. I’m not worried about what’s going to happen, but I’m sure glad to be here now,” Tom said.
Outside Bathsheba’s elegant farm house, on Dodge Valley Road now, drifting by in the beginning of silence, the Asparagus Moonlight Brigade strode.
“We’re striding now, which is a little faster than walking, but much smoother than hiking or marching,” Robert explained. ”Onward to the Butterfly Ball.”
“I thought we were going to Fishtown to find about Lisa. There is a plot and a meaning to all this, isn’t there?”
The pea viners had finished the harvest on Hulbert’s field and gone on to Swanson’s place off in the distance. The night sky was starry and clear, and all dark except the night glare of lights from the refinery over by Anacortes. The fields were silent of sleeping frogs. Only the herons stood guard in roadside ditches.
Bathsheba Everdene and Tom Blethen came tumbling down the stairs buttoning their clothes, half asleep and wide wake, on their way to the ball, out the door, across the yard, under the stare of brown-eyed wide-looking cows and sleeping dogs, they fell in behind Robert and Jimmy and Hitch and Aurora Jellybean.
Charlie Krafft, coming up from Seattle on Interstate 5, driving his metallic green Kharman Ghia convertible with the top down, humming songs from Chinatown, bringing a stack of Aleister Crowley’s forbidden books, pulled off the Interstate at the Conway exit, needing only ten miles further to go, across Fir Island, across the North Fork bridge, down only a mile on Dodge Valley Road, on to the dirt track by Staffanson’s farm, and driving slowly past the raspberry field to the cabin where Marty Chamberlain hosted the Butterfly Ball, co-hosted by Leila, the Turkish Terror, adorned in glitter. “Welcome to the Butterfly Ball,” she said.
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