Blackberry hunters to follow. Photo credit: daisies Flickr CC-BY-2.0

Center of the Universe (40)

Robert Duncan
Aug 8, 2017 · 5 min read

Breaking news from Berry Trail, where nothing is actually broken. I’m not sure why this dispatch is all lower case. It started out as a note to myself and kept going, fast as I could type on an iPad Mini teetering on one knee. And when I saw the result — typographically — I just liked it that way. Poem-ish, if you will.

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blackberry season

i saw a man fall on the path today. berry trail, back of the house, a mere high-dive distance above the deck where, even in weather that’s not this heavenly, i like to work more than anywhere in the world. universe.

he was an old man, older even than me, by 10, 15 years. a white man, pinkish actually, with neat white hair, neat khaki shorts and a red checked shortsleeve shirt, ironed or permapress. he carried a hedge clipper and a red metallic gift bag. i don’t know if he was trying to climb a few steps off the path, up the hill, to clip some blackberries where yesterday morning i’d seen a deer rapturously munching. or maybe, after clipping blackberries elsewhere, he was on his way to further fairfax galaxies. or headed home, via the berry trail shortcut, and hit the dirt part, a rough, narrowed track of roots, rocks and dust — no country for older men — and a rut wrenched him to the ground. but i’ll bet that a minute earlier he’d been around the wreden side of the house, scrutinizing the extravagantly overgrown fraction of a lot that straddles our semi-underground stream. if you can reach without falling into the crevasse — what we call the pit — there’s a ton of blackberries to be had. but in a bumper year like this, ripe fruit hanging over the guardrail into the street, it’s a snap, and wreden turns into a berry picker jamboree.

sometimes, i’m ashamed to say, it makes me resentful — especially when i look out the living room window and some gray-bald ponytailer in indian-patterned pants, is turning his gray goatee purple, conspicuously sampling the bounty and then unabashedly hauling away a big bucket. the world is his collective farm. but unlikely as it may seem, that funky pit actually belongs to us, private property, thrown in when we purchased the house and adjoining lot because it’s not only unusable, but generally unreachable — worthless from a capitalist perspective.

still, i never have harvested the blackberries and never would. for starters, i’m afraid of what might be mixed in. a dozen years ago, overcome by new homeowner ambition, i took my own hedge clipper to the jungle surging over our wall — the one that retains berry trail from sliding down on us — and got a crazy dose of poison oak, with blistered forearms oozing through three layers of bandage and a terminal itch-mania tamed only by multiple steroid injections.

so that’s one thing.

other thing is, i’m grouchy. And — though i reside, proudly, happily and, herein, volubly, in a hippie town — grouchy-plus when it comes to hippies. the show-offy ones, some of them (because i certainly don’t object to george, in tie-dye and waist-length silver locks). the sanctimonious ones. that’s it: it’s not the hippies, it’s the sanctimony. almost worse than the national know-nothingism that has of late been its equal and opposite reaction.

almost.

i can see a bunch of ripe blackberries hanging over the retaining wall right now, trying to tempt me. i used to enjoy blackberries—in season, did so almost every morning. but as i got older, before i got my wisdom teeth out, i found the little seeds liked to get painfully lodged. And it meant much unseemly fussing with my fingernail in the way-back of my mouth because i hate to floss and don’t really understand it. i also fear there might be something wrong with berries that don’t come from a store. i know that’s irrational. but so is blackberry season. all god’s critters going cuckoo. deer who can barely be bothered to look up at the approach of predators. humans springing from screeching cars, leaving motors running, doors open, to grab suddenly spied roadside handfuls. it’s the rutting season of fruit. or fruit-eaters.

i wouldn’t even put it past reverend kang to be out picking blackberries in blackberry season, but that’s a different story.

roni drifts out from painting pictures of other plants in her studio, and i tell her i saw a blackberry hunter fall. she reminds me that when we lived across dominga from caitlin, sare and terence — pale, slightly spooky kids, roughly our kids’ age, who nonetheless joined in all the dominga ave rituals, from open-house birthdays to all-hands halloween — their english dad floated plans to take them back to the uk mid-july for a month, and sare, sarah, oldest and spookiest, calculated the blackberries would ripen while they were away, which upset her, in a spooky, half-english way.

i debated whether i should ask the old man if he was ok, but decided that, if he’d seen me on the deck, reading knaussgaard, the norwegian mega-memoirist, and pausing periodically — unduly influenced, no doubt — to write some more, that it would compound the embarrassment, turn it from secret shame to public, forgotten misstep to searing humiliation. so i didn’t. but then, as he struggled to get up, fighting to balance the angles of the hill, the inconsistency of the path’s surface and his fading muscle-tone, which required the leverage of gravity to overcome a situation like this, i thought again. he had that animal fear in his face, skin stretched, eyes stretched, pupils fixed, panic beyond exclamation (is this it?), mixed with resignation (c’est la vie…?). But eventually (all this took maybe 20 seconds) he slid on his khaki ass a few inches down the hill, pushed up off the ground with the help of momentum, regained his footing — never relinquishing the clippers (or, as i’d worried, stabbing himself), nor overturning the gift bag (full of berries, I guessed) — and continued down the path in a half-crablike half-crouch that at first I assumed was him still unfolding from the fall, but after watching the last hunchy steps before he disappeared into the jungle i wasn’t sure. i told myself he was ok — ok enough — ambulatory, after a fashion, and headed into the flat, semi-paved, safe section of the trail, en route home with a wild-caught prize, gift-bagged already, for his white-haired wife or the daughter he’d come to live with since his white-haired wife had passed. and what was i supposed to do anyway?

forget it, jake. it’s blackberry season.

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Robert Duncan

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Writer, journalist, musician, recovering rock critic. Ex-Creem. Co-founder Duncan/Channon. Author of 4 books, including The Noise. Novel-in-progress: Loudmouth.