If I can leave this world with any bit of wisdom, anything to impart to future generations in need of a maxim to guide them through their confounding lives, it would be this: “Never marry your landlord’s daughter.” I’ve been a successful grocer, though not a standout on the now-crowded boulevard of bodegas and small markets that have grown in this modest neighborhood in the past few years. I’m a father, though with one son incommunicado and the other a fugitive after killing his brother, I cannot claim any great knowledge in parenting. I’m a husband, but that’s where much of my troubles began. She’s the pleasure and pain of my existence, and even though she thinks she’s smarter than me (and perhaps she is), she still doesn’t know what makes me tick. Or how furious I was with her for defying her father. It nearly cost us everything.
I remember being exhausted early one morning after a night of strange dreams, one in which I was buried up to my neck in dirt and suctioned, like an obstinate cork, from the dusty ground. My life, to that point, had been in limbo, and I had only recently moved into my pleasant homestead. I was a caretaker of sorts, with a run of the estate and the irresistible offer of living off the land in exchange for some landscaping, weeding, and keeping the harvest in check. The place was like paradise—an abundance of fruit trees and flowering plants, a river–and since I had all the privacy in the world, I could walk around in the altogether and not be concerned about offending or alarming anyone. I must admit, I rather enjoyed being so unencumbered. I had the run of the joint, with just one caveat: not to touch the apple orchard, something to do with an agrarian experiment. My landlord rattled on about it in that sanctimonious tone he gets, but my mind wandered, as it was apt to do. I took it in stride (back then I couldn’t tell you the difference between a Winesap and a Honeycrisp; you’d have to ask my wife, whose knowledge of apples is only exceeded by her research as a herpetologist) and stuck to pruning leaves and raking up fallen fruit. Anyway, I had plenty to fill my belly and please my tongue.
My landlord, an elusive but cantankerous sort, checked in on me now and again, and during one of our exchanges, expressed that he wanted to increase the value of his property by adding some livestock and “exotic animals.” It struck me as odd but I welcomed the idea of having living, breathing company, even with fur, feathers, and scales. My landlord asked if I wouldn’t mind tending the animals along with my garden duties, and frankly, I welcomed the prospect of diversifying my tasks. My mind would grow restless in the languid afternoons and the sound of the animals rustling, playing, and singing their bestial songs provided hours of entertainment. I’m no Tarzan, but I gave them all names (“Morty,” “Otis,” “Homer,” “Shirley”) and this made the whole experience a bit more personal and amusing. One fateful day, after another peculiar dream (I was lying in an operating theater in a fog and became aware of a great pain in my side), my landlord called with the news that his daughter would be joining me as an “intern” to help take care of the place. I admit I was taken aback—then resentful. I had the garden in tiptop shape. The animals were watered and fed on a regular basis; the apples were large and plump, and glistened in the sun untouched. What was he trying to tell me? Who needed this?
Looking back on it, I’d do it all over again. Would I have had a choice? I know my husband likes to blame me for everything—financial hardships, our children’s failures (though it’s still too difficult to talk about), my father’s controlling manner, my love of reptiles—and he still thinks that he could have gone it alone. Hah! There were weeds in those perfect fields of his, a touch of mange on some of those beasts. He had clearly been sitting in the sun too long. But make one gentle suggestion about moving this bush here or cross-pollinating the plants over there, and he’d grow sullen and silent.
I admit he was a looker when we were first introduced. It doesn’t hurt to be a caretaker and have spare time to run and romp and build up those abs (though to this day he still insists he was a “landscaper,” as if he’d planted everything from scratch, propagated new plants, did the math on genomes and generational varieties. “It was the precursor to my life as a grocer,” he would later admonish me in tense moments, “the grocery that paid for your graduate studies in those wretched vipers and serpents!”).
I was a bit concerned about his dreams—a disturbing subterranean vortex of anguish; he seemed perfectly sane but somewhat distracted. He was passive, for certain. He also seemed to resent my presence, but I expected that. Men need to feel they are in control. I was in a dream-world myself, more concerned with my father’s approval than with my own growing desire to study reptiles. “Not a good career choice for a girl” he would say in that stern voice of his. What then? I had few friends and even though we were more than solvent, I felt an emptiness growing inside of me. I hate to admit it, but in a very palpable way, my life began in that damn garden. It wasn’t glamorous, and I wasn’t a fashion plate. He was inconvenienced by my presence, no doubt, but I am morally certain that the tension made us both more productive—his leisure took on more determined proportions and I was able to wander, take soil samples, and inspect the flora and fauna (and I thought it cute of him to name all the animals—perhaps he had a sensitive side, after all). He did have an aversion to snakes, which I found less endearing.
And if he had no true curiosity, why should I quell mine? How can one make discoveries without making trespasses? He was sawing wood in his sleep and I was enjoying the sinuous pulse of a small snake gently wrapping my arm as I inspected the largest tree in the orchard. The snake’s pink tongue darted in and out of its mouth in an endearing rhythm, and it hissed (am I projecting this?) as if to catch my attention. I was mesmerized by its glittering skin and grace. It slithered from my arm up to a lower branch. The apples on this particular tree (“Northern Spy?” “Staymen?” in those days I knew little about them) were robust, smooth, and fit in the hand with a pleasurable heft. One looked as if it were hanging by a thread, and my touching it made it come loose. In the immediate distance, my husband snored and rocked gently in the breeze. We were two, young, healthy people. I had a naughty thought and brought the apple over to him.
“Hey,” I whispered into his ear, “want to taste something good?” His mouth moved slightly and he mumbled. I bit into the apple (tarter than I had hoped, but juicy) and drizzled some of the juice onto his lips. He smiled and I bit off a tiny piece and placed it in his mouth, which he swallowed. He couldn’t recount the broad smile that curved his lips before he bolted upright to accuse me. “Are you crazy, woman?” I remember him saying. Then he stormed off toward the river, leaving me alone with my bitten apple and my snake.
Even today, when business is slow and he watches the rain as customers head toward the newer grocers up the block or toward the river, he mutters about the garden under his breath. What he doesn’t say, doesn’t seem to remember, is that when I found him later that day by the water’s edge, pacing and cursing, and when he turned to look at me, there was no going back. We embraced and melted into one another and I had the odd sensation that I was home for the first time.
Well, she got me good while I was asleep. It wasn’t uncommon for me to take afternoon naps. Fresh air has a way of tiring you. My landlord made fewer and fewer calls, and everything seemed under control. She seemed so content with inspecting her plants, collecting specimens, babbling on about her theories of cross-pollination. I grew weary and yet also desirous. I found it easier to watch her mouth than listen to what came spilling out of it. I paid little attention to her forays into the orchard, and after a morning of checking the animals and giving a once-over to the garden, I relaxed in the breeze in my hammock. I was in a blissful, dreamless state. Until her voice wavered into my consciousness. I was suddenly puckish, and when I felt something on my tongue, I relished it. But it didn’t go down the right pipe and I felt a choking sensation. She may have told you otherwise, but I shot out of the hammock and ran to the river to get a drink of water. She was mocking me—an apple in one hand and the snake in the other. Did she think this was funny? When my coughing died down, a bolt of panic went through me. What would my landlord say to all of this? I had just splashed my face with water when I saw her reflection beside me. I was filled with anger and an energy I couldn’t contain. And an urge to pull her down on the ground, which I did. It was the beginning of the end.
My father wasn’t pleased, to say the least. And truth be told, I was preoccupied with other things. My husband managed to stand up to Dad when it was discovered a few days after our tryst that the orchard had been picked through. Dad protested loudly that we were selfish and spoiled—he wanted the orchard pristine and untouched–was that too much to ask? Anyway, we had both made up our minds by then that we needed more land. Wanderlust took hold of us (I think I can safely speak for us both) and frankly, I needed a change of scenery. Who needs money when you have love? I managed to pack the snake in a box with my notes. It would come in handy later for my research, and amuse the kids as I toiled with my dissertation.
It was probably time to move on, but we had it good—really good. I never had to worry about inventory, weather conditions, rotten fruit, cooking the books. Those first steps away from the garden smarted. But I suppose the risk of nostalgia is that it makes the past a rosier place.
Like I said, that woman is the pleasure and pain of my existence. Once she makes up her mind, run for your life. If she didn’t abide by her father, what made me think she would listen to me? It became a moot point. To this day, with all we’ve been through, she gives me that look of hers and I forget my name—the way I wish I could forget my landlord’s voice the day he threw us off his property.
And they say the rest is history–