(This is a revised version of the previous story “Potato.”)
The funeral was tomorrow, and Brendan wasn’t working on his eulogy. He was digging for potatoes in the garden.
The work-polished handle of the spade comforted his hands. The smell of damp and freshly turned soil comforted his nose. The steady, rhythmic “chink, chink” of the spade biting into the earth rubbed away the roughness of his thoughts. Everything always became clear if he worked in the garden long enough. It had to. He had been there since morning, and the late fall afternoon tree-shadows were starting to stretch their way across the lawn. For all his work, he had only a single crate-full of potatoes. They were brown potatoes, simple and rough. Like Brendan. Stab ground, foot down, turn over earth. It was an easy motion, and it was hard to keep his thoughts on it. He desperately wanted to avoid letting his thoughts think about anything else. Because if he thought about anything else, he would think about Lynn.
His sister’s daughter Lynn had been staying with him and Mary for two weeks. Her mother Janice had left after a few hurried greetings that bumped into the back of the goodbyes. She had stood on the doorstep, a pale, nervous-looking teenager, bangs down over her eyes. She was wearing a hoodie, hands curled up inside the sleeves as if she was cold. “We’re so glad you could come for a visit!” Mary exclaimed, wrapping her in a warm, full hug while Lynn just stood there. Later that night in the living room, he and Mary had talked about her.
“She’s so cold,” Mary said. “And quiet. And skinny too, for all that. At least we can feed her properly while she’s here.” She looked over at Brendan, waiting for him to speak. It usually took a few sentences of conversational priming before he would say anything. “I don’t know why Janice wanted her to visit so suddenly. How many letters have we had at Christmases over the years? Two? Three? Not even signed. Of course, I didn’t really expect her to write us after she married that welder and ran off to Seattle.” She glanced over at Brendan again, still rocking back and forth in his chair while the clicking of her knitting needles marked the seconds. Finally, he spoke. “Something’s not right. Janice wouldn’t just drop her off like that if everything was alright. It wouldn’t be right to pry into the girl’s life, though. Not when she’s all alone like this. She barely knows us. We’ll just leave her be. Not ignore her, just be there to talk if she wants to.” Mary nodded over the nearly complete baby blanket: it was the only thing to do. Keep on as normal and hope Lynn opened up.
She didn’t open up. She walked around the house the first day, looking for the TV, and went outside, stalking bars with her iPhone. Apart from a few sentences over meals, she was silent. She spent most of her time away from Mary and Brendan, either hunched over her phone in a chair, or staring listlessly out the window at the golden grain-rich hills. Brendan was worried. Most children her age would have been more friendly, even if only from loneliness. At church on Sunday, her lips barely moved over the words of the hymns, as she glanced around to make sure no one was looking at her. She was confused over the communion, and Brendan had to show her what to do: apparently her church at home had given up the practice.
The thoughts came closer. Yesterday. He was at the kitchen window, peeling carrots into a stainless-steel sink. She was going home tomorrow, and Brendan was making a last big farmhouse dinner to see her off. He glanced through the window towards the small pond and the grey dock. Lynn was sitting on the end of the dock, hunched over faced away from the house. She was probably listening to her iPod. He went back to peeling carrots.
He looked out the window again. Why was Lynn swimming in the pond? With all her clothes? She was thrashing around, splashing, too uncontrolled for swimming, it was more like… His legs flooded with adrenaline, and he picked up speed through the kitchen, through the back door, no shoes, deck and dry grass, and the thrashing was weaker already, not as much water splashing, but then he charged into the water moving full speed, and then a lunging, wading rush that churned the water into eddying, spinning whirlpools as he surged and strained forward and then he grabbed one flailing arm. There was no control: she couldn’t grab onto him. Her eyes were rolling back under her wide-open eyelids. He half-carried, half-towed the jerking girl to the bank. Then she stopped jerking.
“Lynn? Lynn!” He slapped her face, rolled her onto her side. The foam from her lips dripped onto the dark, clayey soil. She wasn’t breathing. He saw her arm where the sleeve had come back, and saw a row of needle-marks. He decided to risk it, and turned her onto her back. He grabbed her jaw, pinched her nose, and put his lips to her cold, slimy mouth. There was a sour taste of bile and vomit. He blew hard, then released the pinch and placed his rough hands on her skinny, water-logged chest. He could feel her ribs flex as he pumped one, two, three, four, five, six, plunging like a potato spade, down, down, down. Back to the cold mouth with another lungful of air. He forced his breath into her, harder this time, trying to force his life into her. One, two, three, four, five, six. Breath, and now his tears were falling with the chest compressions. He felt her ribs crack under his weight. One, two, three, snap, five, six. Choke in another breath, give it to her, gasp for life again, this time for sure, one, two, three, four, five, six. She wasn’t dead, of course, because she was young, she had only been in the pond a minute, she was a good kid. One, two, three, four, five, six. One, two. One.
And then death had him with all of its wrongness. He closed her eyes gently with those rough fingers of his, so that she wouldn’t see him cry.
Mary found him that way in the dark, long after the bruised sun had set behind the rolling wheat-fields, rocking back and forth. He was thinking about his sister.
The funeral was tomorrow, and Brendan was digging potatoes up out of the ground, stealing life from the earth. Today he took a potato from the ground, and tomorrow they gave the ground a body. His mind revolted at the comparison, and he snorted with anger at himself. He stabbed at the ground with his spade. His thoughts swirled around him like ash over a burnt field. Janice blamed him. She had arrived the day before, her face grey with grief and anger. Condolences were said, full of phrases, meaning nothing. His feeble words floated over his own grief like water-striders, unable to break the surface. He had endured her silence, and then fled to his garden again. The potato crate was full, and he picked it up, eyes on his own thoughts. He walked and found himself with sudden confusion standing over the pond on the dock. He set the box down slowly, and then straightened. He held a potato in his hand. He stared at its brown solidness, felt its rough, leathery skin. His anger struck, a slow storm over a prairie. He threw the potato at the water. The still mirror shattered into droplets and waves, splashing onto his boots. Ripples echoed over the surface. He threw another, then another, and another, again, one, two, three, four, five, six. They sank to the mud on the bottom, burying themselves under the thick silt, invisible. He stopped just as suddenly as he started. He was breathing hard and his eyebrows were knotted over his grey, wet eyes. He heard a footstep beside him on the dock and turned to meet the sound.
It was Janice. She was crying. Her mascara had run, and her jacket sleeves were pulled up over her hands, her stiff arms folded tightly over her stomach. Dry spasmodic sobs shook her as she fought for control. “It wasn’t you,” she said. “I knew Lynn had a drug problem. I’ve known it for a while now. And I thought, I thought if I could get her away from Seattle, away from those people for a while, it would just go away. I didn’t think…I didn’t mean…” She broke, and Brendan stepped to her, and her arms were suddenly around him. He held her, quiet and still, like someone who won’t let go for a long time. He rocked her back and forth while her tears soaked through his shirt onto his shoulder. Then after a while they went in the house, and the house lights stayed on like a little sun in the night while they talked together. The funeral came, as funerals always do. The grave was dug, and Lynn was sown in the earth, sown like a farmer’s seed. Janice went home the next day, with promises to return. Brendan and Mary watched her grey car pull out of the gravel driveway, and waved as she disappeared around the first curve of the hill. The autumn drifted away into a winter, a good winter, one with reunions and gifts and family, and then the snows ran away with the grey skies and spring came and the pond finally melted. The farm stirred to life, while the tractors turned the cold earth into good fields. Brendan waited patiently for the potatoes to sprout in the garden. There was other work to do. Their time would come.