A question of attitude, there’s a beginning, a middling and an end…
No gold at the end of the rainbow.
We pulled up to Joe’s Garden Center supply store.
‘Steve, are you coming in? You really should come in so you can help me pick out what you’d like to plant this year, I mean, other than just tomatoes and Zucchini.’ My wife and I were struggling after almost ten years of marriage. It appeared the full reservoir of marital patience and initial enthusiasm so evident at the time of the wedding was reaching a bottoming out.
To further describe this bottoming out I’m referring to here, don’t think of it as trampoline like, rather more like hitting concrete.
On the drive in, we’d gotten a flat and the lug wrench I was using to turn the lug nuts was one of those cheap Chinese knockoffs. The damn thing literally bent! Finally, a state trooper called for some mechanical help. The lug wrench that came with the car had gotten lost. I can almost remember it was on a camping trip up to Michigan, another flat, changed the tire and packed everything up, but hours later I remembered the good German lug wrench laying in the gravel off the side of the road.
Today it was late spring, the day had quickly become hot, much like later summer would be. Humidity was thick today. Glenoaks in the middle of Illinois is a town of farmers, farm equipment suppliers, a branch of the state university, high schools that competed in sports, four gas stations, a new strip mall next to a Cinerama of four theaters. Several competing churches, a busy complex of medical clinics.
The terrain in central Illinois is flat and if you can find some high ground, say up a tall tree, your visibility can go forever, over endless fields of green soy or seven foot tall corn rows.
Coming off the state highway, there is the main strip of the fast-food places, including McDonalds, Burger King, Pizza Hut, Denny’s. These competed for attention by each raising their signs higher and higher so that soon enough, the sky reaching signs were the highest structures in the town. The signs got so high that they prompted some civic-minded, environmentalist university students, not from Glenoaks, to organize against these visually offensive tall signs.
It was soon discovered that the mayor was knee deep in payoffs from the fast-food joints and almost just as quickly, the student organization conveniently vaporized. The McDonalds won the contest. The golden arches were visible from far away on I-55.
To show how forward thinking and progressive the town was, the town leaders had organized the yearly ten-mile run, which not too surprisingly started at the base of the McDonald sign, up Veterans Parkway for a perfect five miles. The half way point was going around the Burger King sign post.
The rumor was that both the Burger King and McDonald’s owned by the town’s most prosperous business owners had paid the mayor’s office dearly for the honor. The ongoing battle on the part of the Burger King arguing that the races start should alternate year to year. It had a certain hard to argue with logic and every year the issue would make the local newspaper.
Some would even have said Glenoaks was a prosperous place.
Others would have said stifling. Culturally. We are talking about the Bible belt at its most extreme. Bed rock was a term one heard often regarding Glenoaks and its surrounds. We were outsiders, clearly so. The town was small enough so that anyone showing up from another place for more than a day was viewed with suspicion.
A combination of questions, including such things: what are these two running from? Are they Christian? Despite our being in Glenoaks now going on three years, people still looked at us as though the last tornado had blown us into town yesterday.
We even tried church, but the congregation never opened up to us. Some locals told us to try the Pentecostal church. We hoped to make a friend or two. We asked why it was called holy rollers, but no one seemed to know. Expecting a sermon of some variety, it turned out to be a cheering and chanting competition amongst the congregation.
At one of the first Sundays we attended I was cajoled into going forward to the front next to the pulpit and the church’s most stolid worshippers surrounded me, all goading me on.
The exercise involved me, the uninitiated, to give my self, my soul, over to God. This act was best expressed on my knees, next to other newbies, by an ever increasing tempo and volume pledging my self to Jesus. The old timers exhorted: ‘Give yourself to Jesus! Son, give yourself to Jesus!’ At one point, as they chanted loudly, they all placed their hands on my shoulders and head as I knelt before the cross.
One said to another in a whispered though hurried and worried tone, ‘the devil has this one Mary Lou, I’m sure of it.’ which only escalated the volume and energy they applied to rid me of Satan.
Being at the mercy of nonstop preaching by members of other churches finally drove me and Emily away from church going.
It was around this time Emily looked into the university’s art community. An interesting juxtaposition between two utterly different life forms: Art unfurling as perhaps does a new born foal and a still deeply traditional American settlement, though small city might be more fair.
There was no art worth speaking of to be had in Glenoaks unless you consider black velvet art. Elvis was front and center. Also there is an imposing figure of Geronimo over three stories tall made every year during the summer festival out of corncobs. When the fair came to a close, one of the last events included setting Geronimo on fire at sunset. It never failed that citizens commented that Glenoaks’ burning Geronimo was the first of its kind and that the scandalous Burning Man in Nevada was a ripoff of their Geronimo.
So as I hinted at. It turned out that there was an unusual art phenomenon in town. The fact the small university had an art department was because of the huge financial endowment made by the very wealthy widow of the founder of the globally renown seed producer. The Francis Wright Center for the Arts had established solid connections to art organizations around the country. Chicago, along with New York, San Francisco and many others provided the School with the ongoing and latest developments in the difficult world of art.
The art produced by the University sponsored artists group found a growing market in Chicago and other major cities.
Chicago, not four hours’ drive away, was the main magnet. There were those rare cases of art graduates who’d left Glenoaks and gone to Chicago and had more or less done well in that most difficult career choice.
Thanks to the tireless efforts of the Art Centers faculty, a constant flow of top art professors were happy to escape from their big city learning centers for a semester to teach in Glenoaks. The visiting teachers found the escape to Glenoaks relaxing, and they appreciated a taste of that disappearing part of America.
To Mrs. Wright’s credit, Zale Tihooly, the world’s top glass artist, had agreed to set up a permanent shop in a building built only for his use. Master glass workers from around the world came to learn under Tihooly making Glenoaks the most improbable top glass art center.
Emily had always had a place in her heart for art and her desire to enter that world here in Glenoaks was, of course, understandable. It was also an act of desperation. Her desire to find something that would feed her needs.
Soon, though, this added to other elements that were slowly but surely driving us apart. I think Emily found something, a place, its people, the artists, who over time took her in and intellectually raised her sense of self-worth. It wasn’t as a student. Her goal was to enter the growing art community.
She made good friends with a professor named Renatta from Buffalo who was on a constant watch for if I’d say something off color towards women or some other ethnic faux pas. I made it on Renattas list of ones to burn at the stake. Some moron had placed an impossible to remove sticker of a shapely woman on my Volkswagen bumper, I was like those the truckers who put those female chrome figurines on their bumpers. Renatta noticed it and never let the matter go. I get it that Emily’s involvement with this community further caused us to grow apart.
But it wasn’t until Emily met the visitor art professor at the top of his professional game from New York University that it reached the point of no return.
The artist had recently attained an undeniable level of national notoriety in his ground breaking advances from his unique use of dull lighting and structural applications that rose above the flat canvas creating a refreshing 3 dimensional work. His admirers described his art as: ‘awakening, arising and hardening…’
Her late arrivals home started. Her enthusiastic departures in the evenings to take part in various art projects led by the New Yorker.
Then finally the comment a friend of mine made to me, a guy I fished with, that Emily and the handsome, Che look alike, East Coast artist were smooching at Ernie’s, a dimly lit pizza, beer joint popular with the students.
When I confronted her about it, her reaction was one of anger, surprise, hurt and counterattack. ‘So what, now you have someone spying on me? Asshole! Okay, so what of it? What are you going to do about it, Steve?’
She was right. No, I wasn’t spying on her for Christs sakes.
After all, I was a failure. If I’m a failure, there’s something inside me that tells me, ‘you have to man up to that reality and take the shit that comes with that.’
Silences soon filled the space at home. She set up her art studio in the basement and as soon as she’d get home from her accounting job, she’d disappear for hours in her space. No doubt I was much to blame for our distancing. I should have involved myself by encouraging her or complimenting her on her work.
I was just so into myself as if I’d crawled into a cave of low self-esteem and doubt that I failed to see that she was slipping away.
We moved from Omaha for a job here that had unfortunately dried up after we took the big step. I was going to open a restaurant for a steak house chain famous for their massive steaks and their unique fried onion presentation. We’d made the move against the advice of others. The major investor suffered a massive heart attack. Which put the project on permanent hold.
Of course, we’d made the move, which for us was a onetime toss of the dice. In Omaha, a combination of helping my dad as he slowly died at the bottom of a bottle and several other poor decisions ran us dry financially. I’d worked at the same steak house chain in Omaha for several years and was noticed by the regional supervisor, who put my name in as manager material for a future store.
Emily ran a beauty supplies store, which had its good run for some years, but then went belly up. For several years, she moved from one job to another, mostly working as a cashier.
The old people have a saying about the dimming shine on the apple. Happens, the life and energy of a marriage just wanes. We see it everywhere. Like that old song ‘the thrill is gone…’ We had grown apart, we were just coasting along, flying with failing engines just above the deadly, rocky plain looking for a smooth place to crash. There was another song which came to mind and I sang it to her after a nasty fight, yelling, her crying, so hopeless, was that Lynn Anderson country tune: ‘I never promised you a rose garden’. She smiled at that and it lifted my heart.
Glancing over at her, I caught the single tear rolling down her left cheek.
The garden was one of those activities that still promised a shared activity. A potentially happy activity. But now even happy had dried up.
‘Oh, I’m not that crazy about doing the garden, Emily.’ The flat tire on the way into town just sort of broke the last straw, as tiny as that was. But it was all so symbolic by now.
I followed her into the garden store.
For the last two years, I worked in a factory. Emily was looking for and finding relief from my constant bouts of being down and self-imposed misery by joining the artist’s university community. The group was an entire social world, hermetic and difficult to get into. As time went by, even her wardrobe took on a bohemian like appearance, as was typical of the university art scene. Meanwhile, I sank deeper and deeper into self-pity and despair.
She’d revived her love for acrylic painting and pastels work. For the sake of bringing in some much income she completed an associate’s certificate in accounting. Now she held down a job doing the books for a local agricultural equipment company. Of course, being a woman, she got paid less than her men fellow workers, even though she did most of their work. It was a time, in the early seventies, where women were still at the very bottom of what was fair.
There was a collective feeling of being at the mercy of a shitty system. Just think: middle Illinois, early seventies, men ruled everything, the farm country whose values hailed all the way back pre civil war. The ‘good ol’ boys’ was at its peak in the late sixties and early seventies. These were the days when these old ‘institutions’ were provoked all the more as they were being challenged by the hip youth all over the nation. In many cases only making things worse until they got better.
She worked for pennies and had to put up with her sleazy, shit mouthed fellow workers. She’d been asked out many times. Endured the sexual slurs and stinky insinuations whispered just within earshot, so typical of the times.
It still is, but nothing like back in those days.
Sure, my heart went out to her. It had always been my wish and hope that she could have the life where she could do as she wished. The art involvement helped to a great degree. It was in that open field of bizarre creativity that a rich irony took form. I was sure she had found someone far more interesting than the sulking, melancholic mess I’d become.
This was confirmed by the appearance of the NYU guy.
Back in Omaha, an ill-fated attempt at having a child absorbed part of our small savings. They weren’t really sure if it was me or Emily. We couldn’t have kids. Over a short period, this seemed to drive Emily into a funk hard to describe, and one she refused to bring out into the light. The artists accepted her, and she happily became a part of them, which further distanced the two of us.
I had failed. Though I wasn’t one to run to the bottle or drugs, my dark demeanor was enough to drag any attempt at domestic harmony down into a dark rut.
Gardening had become one of those things done, almost as if on some sort of remote control. It was also one of those few remaining things she and I could do together and feel, at least for a short while, that life was, if not a bowl of cherries, at least something we could do. Gardening had a shelf life…
Not long after moving to Glenoaks we were in a hopeful frame of mind and I bought a small boat, a jon boat for fishing out at Phantom Lake ten miles away. It was fun for a while, but as soon as they declared the job dead in the water, we had to sell the small boat and its fifteen horse Mercury. The money went for groceries.
This time of year, the start of the season was when Joe’s Garden Center was at its busiest. Being that spring was near its end and the time to plant in central Illinois was upon us. Of course there are various plants that do better planted earlier or later than others.
Once the meager harvest begins, and it varies from vegetable to vegetable, sort of spreading it out over a manageable time period became a fun thing that lasted until the end of summer.
The plant store staff are happy to offer their experienced advice on what to plant, when, and how. Gone are the days that to plant a veggie garden (especially in central Illinois) requires any sort of special skill set. One barely needs to have a green thumb!
Mostly, it’s your willingness to water the garden in the dry spells and to weed. Never stop weeding, weeding, and more weeding.
The quantities of tomatoes and the irrepressible zucchinis harvested are mind-boggling. Before long, you will fill grocery bag after bag of these two notorious growers. Green peppers are another that just seem to take to that rich, black, Illinois soil. There is an almost endless list of veggies you can try. Once again, ask your friendly garden store staff which veggies do best in your part of the country.
Cauliflower, radishes, carrots, rhubarb (of course this one will come up every year if the root system isn’t pulled out at the end of the growth season). Mushrooms is one I’ve never ventured an attempt to grow. I’ve never succeeded at potatoes. There are several salad greens you can grow too.
Frankly, there are far more experienced growers than myself and they successfully plant a variety of things I can’t even recognize. Such as edible flowers, (off a vine), radishes, which just laugh at my efforts.
I’m told by better gardeners that the state’s rich soil is some of the best in the country. The locals like to say that one could literally stand at the edge of his deck or open porch with a hand full of seeds, toss them out onto that fresh tilled black soil and forget about them. Two weeks later, go out and see all the fresh growth.
Of course, were you to do it that way, there’d be no order and no way to really care for what you’ve planted.
You choose to do it right.
Best thing is to plan out carefully, neat rows and keep everything labeled. The tomatoes, of course, need no labeling as today one buys them already started. All you do is carefully stick them into the ground, being sure to place the small conical wire plant supporters around each plant. If you don’t, your plants will be pulled over onto the dirt because of the weight of the huge tomatoes that will soon grow.
Another piece of good advice is to make sure you have a handful of people that you can give your harvested veggies to. Sure, you’ll want the lions’ share for yourself, but you’ll soon discover you wind up giving away far more than you could ever hope to consume yourself.
‘But why Emily? Jesus. We can work this out. We can make more of an effort, don’t you think? Don’t you want to?’ Tears flowed from my eyes.
The end of summer nears, the leaves took on bright colors. The garden gave us a great harvest.
Outside, the yellow, red and brown fall leaves were mostly off the trees, the strong wind was blowing once neatly piled bunches into a leafy mess all over the yard. The tree branches, leafless, were like boney fingers reaching out to grasp anything they could. The sky had that fall overcast pall. Far above, another group of Canada Geese were honking, giving notice of their southern journey.
Winter was coming. Our brown lab puppy, Clem, was rolling around in the leaves, digging enthusiastically into the piles, then reappearing, his beautiful face expectant, ears cocked, as if waiting for a magic hand to further shift the leaves.
There were small, bright yellow leaves that stood out on their own. I always forgot what they were called. ‘Aspen Steve. They’re Aspen. You always forget.’ She smiled and slowly handed me a smoking mug of hot chocolate. Careful, it’s hot,’ she’d floated two marshmallows on top. She was watching me. Her pretty blue eyes held a mix of concern, perhaps pity, maybe even a restlessness.
Mr. NYU had invited Emily to New York, the son of a bitch.
‘I’m sorry Steve…’ she mumbled something unintelligible to me. Perhaps I chose to not hear.
Now looking out our bay windows onto the part of the lawn that held our now mostly dead and dried garden. Summer had been bountiful with our veggie harvest. The mud room still held bags full of tomatoes and zucchinis, some rotting. The wind blew and the old house we rented creaked and moaned as though lamenting the coming endless freeze.
‘Do you want to take the veggies to the community kitchen?’ Emily asked.
‘Sure,’ I said.
Already a longing for a better time…
‘I’ll be setting up the blind down there at Johannsen’s swamp pretty soon. They say there’ll be lots of ducks this season…’ A loud groan caused by the wind.
‘What did you say, Steve?’
‘Oh hell, nothing…’