Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Home Turf -- by Elliot Bougis

Tye sat as still as a log in his seat while the other children flapped around him like leaves in the wind. The teacher strode between the aisles, handing out sheets of paper for a quiz. Sunlight glinted off her eyeglasses when she looked at Tye, giving her an eyeless robotic look. “You ready, Terry?” she asked, brightly. Tye smiled back at her eyeless face and nodded. He grabbed the sheet of paper and then yanked his hand away in pain. An eyelash of blood glowed on his fingertip. His teacher appeared not to notice. She walked on. Dumb paper. He and his class had gone to a paper mill last month. Tye remembered with a smile how the lumber outside at one end of the mill was turned into a foul tapioca-like mush inside the mill to become those huge rolls of clean white paper at the other end of the mill. Poor trees. Tye licked the red eyelash away and his pain subsided.

The quiz began. “Use caress correctly in a sentence.” This was a cinch since Tye, as he loved to emphasize, was twelve. He put his hand onto the paper to begin writing, but paused; he heard a faint whisper nearby. The other children were writing silently while the teacher paced. He started to write again, but paused again – a whisper. Then the boy next to him began tearing the corner of his quiz, nervously. With each mindless rip, Tye heard a faint squeak, like a puppy in pain. A girl in front of him finished her quiz. Tye heard a small groan, or a grunt, when she folded her quiz in half. He finished the quiz, but kept hearing whispering and light giggling as he wrote. A boy, anxiously squeezing his crotch with both hands, ran from the back of the room out the door to the bathroom. A cascade of papers fluttered up as he ran by the bulletin board and Tye heard children’s laughter, fading as the papers settled again into dutiful silence.

School ended and Tye walked home with his friends. It was a windy day, as usual, but warm and bright. The trees swayed overhead. With every block, a friend or two would peel from the bunch to go home. Tye pretended to talk and joke with his friends as they all jittered home, but he couldn’t ignore the rustle of trees all around. It reminded him of the time last year when he’d ridden a bus to his grandmother’s in Coudersport, a couple hours north of Johnstown. The people at the bust station were so loud, so hard to ignore. Talking, laughing, cussing, joking. He kept trying to listen to his dad’s last-minute reminders about safety and what numbers to call and how to behave at grandma’s, but he could only hear the voices, so many voices, around him. And now he heard voices everywhere, above, like a city in the trees. (He’d seen such a thing in a National Geographic on top of his parents’ toilet.)

Tye’s house was nearby so he said goodbye and pretended to run home. Actually, he ran to a small forest past his house. There was a tiny, sinuous creek there and Tye always liked to rest his hands on the water’s surface, like Alice, about to enter another world, upside down and crazy and deadly, through a mirror. The forest was cool, its soft floor dark. Shafts of amber light stabbed through the pines as they swayed. The forest floor glittered like hot coals beneath Tye. He looked up. He heard the voices. He raised his eyebrows faintly, expectantly, beneath his light brown bangs. The voices droned on as if Tye didn’t even exist. He felt like he was at one of his parents’ parties. The adults chattered and laughed, juggling wine and crackers and handshakes, while Tye slowly weaved between them. It was an adults’ party with boring adult conversations; Tye had no place there.

Suddenly, a palmful of sunlight caressed his face. He smiled, blinking into the light, straining his ears to understand the voices. They didn’t sound as imperious as before. They seemed to speak more slowly now, as if aware Tye was listening. It was a beautiful forest; Tye had a place here.

* * *

91st and Moncrief Blvd. 5:16 PM. Tye heard the bus snorting and creaking its way toward him. He grimaced as he blinked into the hazy merciless sunlight to make sure it was his bus. “125th and Lamont Ave.” Right on time. He boarded the bus and was immediately devoured by the orgy of sweaty impatience. Most people were talking, like New Yorkers, talking, talking, talking – but others sat quietly, with tight fists, sweaty throats, bobbing eyelids, fidgeting lips.

When Tye was 20, and (“No, mom…”) still hadn’t enrolled at Greensboro Community College, and (“Yes, mom…”) was still working at Ned’s record shop, his dad died. His older brother had moved to Bangor a few years earlier to work as a private air-courier. Tye lived for two months in that quiet house but eventually gave up trying to comfort his mom during her nightly sessions of quiet weeping. He caught a Greyhound in March and had been in New York for almost a decade. He now worked at a print and copy shop.

110th and Chester Ave. Two minutes behind. Most of the people had exited the bus by now. Tye saw the Suds Laundr-O-Mat and pulled the cable for his stop. The brakes moaned obediently and Tye joined the post-coital trickle off the bus. The bus spewed a black exhaust cloud as it drove away. Tye waved the grimy smoke away from a nearby row of geraniums. “Sorry, fellas,” he said. His apartment building was a block south. It towered on the skyline like a gigantic domino: dark maroon walls checkered with luminescent oval windows.

A block south, he unlocked the heavy white door into the stairwell. Three Filipino women were chatting by a water fountain. Tye got his mail, nodded stiffly to the women, who ignored him, and headed up the stairs. He lived alone in a surprisingly large loft on the fourth floor with surprisingly loud neighbors on the fifth. A rare silence filled their apartment as he walked up the stairs. They must be on tour again. He walked, sliding his fingers over the jagged grooves their amps had left on the stairwell walls. A small orange cat scurried through his legs down the stairs.

The air became heavier and warmer with every step. The usual fragrance, of dusty bark and freshly cut grass, oozed from his room. The hallway was dark, but he slid his key into the door flawlessly, two years of daily practice. The lock clicked open. Tye removed his key and nudged the door open with his palm. The setting sun shone its last, defiant rays through his apartment windows. The living room glowed like a foggy sea of emeralds. He inhaled, slowly. If he breathed too fast at first, his throat would tighten and he would cough, and blink, and cough. The smell of chlorophyll and moist soil was as pungent as vodka after a day in the city.

Tye laid his keys and wallet by a swordfern perched on a nightstand and said hello. He stroked the fern’s pert stalks. “Well, of course it’s good to be home,” Tye chirped. He reached up and tapped the bottom of a horseshoe geranium’s pot hanging from the ceiling. “Have a nice day?” Tye asked. He flipped the light switch on and waded through the mob of plants around him. The sun threw dull maroon bricks of light on the plants. A throng of tendrils, leaves and stems bowed toward the windows like entranced worshippers. “Hello again, my tall friend,” Tye said as he knelt by a fragrant dracaena. He poked a finger into the dracaena’s soil. “Thirsty today, I see,” Tye said, with a surprised frown. Broad, machete-like leaves on stumpy branches stretched upright from the dracaena’s thick stalk, like leafy PVC elbows on a cardboard baseball bat.

He entered the kitchen where a massive watering can sat atop the refrigerator. The sills of his two kitchen windows were studded with bottle after bottle of Miracle Gro. Seed packets were scattered on the counter, in the cupboards, behind appliances. Old, cracked green starter pots were stacked thirty high in three columns in the corner. Little mounds of dirt and white Styrofoam pellets peppered the floor and dinner table. Tye felt woozy. He sat. His brow was sweating. It always took some time to get used to how these plants, like baby birds, sucked away his carbon dioxide and left him swimming in an intoxicating sauna of oxygen. He blinked and smiled. It was good to be home, surrounded by turf and pots and seeds. He had a place here.

Most of them were mumbling as usual. Many probably didn’t even realize he was home yet. They became more and more animated as he filled the watering can, which hummed smoothly from a baritone to an alto as the water rose. He hoisted the can from the basin and walked back into the living room. Watering took well over two hours, but it was a great time for them all to catch up. Besides, he needed something to clear his mind of the incessant mechanical whine of the copy machines and binding rotors at work.

A violet cineraria stared at him as he watered, its white eyes agog with thirst. Tye was feeling frisky so he spritzed his golden lace cactus a few times. He stroked the spider-webbed oval leaves of his fittonia before watering it. The zebra plant sapling he’d planted last month whimpered for water, but the order could not be broken. “Yes … yeah, I’ll be right there,” Tye cooed. He laid a hand gently on an aloe plant and moved on.

* * *

Tye set the empty watering can in the sink. Dinner was over. He had enjoyed a glass of water, a peanut butter sandwich and two unpeeled carrots between waterings. He entered his bedroom with another glass of water. He slid his shoes under his low narrow bed, tossed his mail onto his bulgy down pillow, and plopped back onto his bed, ready to fall asleep.

But then he heard her tender sighs. He shook his groggy head. She sighed: she was growing, stretching, about to blossom, about to open herself to him fully. Tye rolled onto his chest and propped his chin on his hands to behold her: maroon, almost black, in the aquamarine street light. She sighed again and Tye crawled toward her quietly. “Hello, my sweet,” he whispered, resting his chin on the windowsill where she sat. He stroked her silky petals with the back of his fingers and pressed lightly on her thorns with his thumb, exhaling heavily to bathe her lovingly in carbon dioxide. “Thirsty?” he asked as tenderly as possible. He nodded and filled his mouth with water. He nuzzled his nose against her virgin bud of wrapped petals and let the water dribble through his lips into her yawning, lush, black soil. She sighed and he grinned. “Good night, dear,” Tye whispered.

He returned to his bed, once again without brushing his teeth or showering, and just managed to flip through his mail. No, I don’t need twelve books for one dollar. No, I don’t need a lower APR. No, I don’t – wait. It was a letter from the National Environmentalist Resource and Values Syndicate. Tye had been an active member of NERVS for three years and an even more devoted environmentalist for over a decade. He had marched in countless eco-friendly rallies. And though he never told anyone, he had also once stuck beer bottles under the tires of an Exxon tanker as it refueled in Buffalo. In the last couple of years he had submitted numerous proposals to NERVS’s newsletter, Green, about fostering better “plant-human dialogue.” The latest issue of Green had arrived only days before, so he wondered why he was getting this unexpected letter. He tore the envelope open and read: the planners of the upcoming Earth Day rally in Washington, D.C. were very interested in his message of “ecological dialogue,” so much so that they wanted him to speak at the rally in early-May. They needed a number of sidelight speakers to fill the five or ten minute gaps between their headline speakers. Tye smiled, rolled over and placed the letter on his shoes. “Now’s our big chance,” Tye said as he beamed at her. He slept.

* * *

The next day, Tye wrote a letter to the Earth Day planners agreeing to speak. In the coming weeks, he drafted his speech. Soon enough it was mid-May and he was riding to D.C. in a packed Greyhound bus. A supple pothos plant he’d cultivated for over a year was in his lap, trembling in time with the bus. “No, no, don’t be nervous,” he whispered every now and then.

He made his way to the Mall about noon and then was herded into a line with the other filler speakers beside the stage. For an hour or two he heard the speakers and watched the crowd. “Multinational corruption ... ecological rape ... global industrial-pollution complex ... Western chauvinism ... anthrocentirsm ... human specism…” the speakers yelled. The crowd answered by clapping and swaying and punching the air and lying down on blankets and sipping frosty Starbucks mocha frappes. The speaker before Tye slammed his hand on the podium, which set his dreadlocks flying and the speakers squealing with feedback. A toad-faced man in a brown tee shirt shoved Tye forward. He hurried up the stairs, the pothos dangling in his right hand by a tripod of aluminum wires and hook. The crowd swayed and clapped, a malcontent sea of hemp, beads, Birkenstocks and Patagonia jackets.

Tye began to speak, swallowed hard, started to speak again. “My name is Terry Helverson. I’ve been invited to speak about what I think is a very neglected aspect of the eco movement. I think … I think the best thing we can do, before staging any rallies or pushing any bills in Congress” – he caught his breath as the hemp swayed and Birkenstocks creaked – “is to listen to our green friends.” The crowd cheered and punched the air and waved their frappes like lighters. “So,” Tye continued, feeling buoyed by their applause, “let us listen.” He had spoken for one minute. He raised the pothos to the bouquet of microphones and smiled. The cheers diminished, the hemp stopped swaying, frappes melted in limp hands. Occasionally, Tye nodded vigorously. The pothos’s tendrils jiggled with his every supportive nod.

At some point, he noticed the silence and then suddenly felt the toad-faced man jabbing him in the ribs, hustling him offstage. “Unbelievable,” the toad man growled. “Take you and your green friend and stop wasting Earth Day’s money.” Tye heard the next speaker and watched the crowd revive. He had no place here.

* * *

It was a dreary bus ride home. While Tye was in the bathroom, a little blond boy had jumped on his pothos as he was scrambling over the seats. It’s pot cracked. Moist black dirt covered Tye’s seat.

The following Monday was a busy day at work. Tye was exhausted as he climbed aboard the 125th and Lamont bus home. He coughed to clear his lungs of Xerox toner and new paper dust. He didn’t say a word to the choked geraniums at his bus stop. He entered his domino home and climbed the stairs. Bass beats and a snare drum exploded from his neighbors’ loft above. He entered his loft. The verdant warmth and the setting sun brought tears to his eyes. The sun greeted him every day, as impartially and as warmly as his plants. He thought of the three secretive Filipino women from months ago in the lobby. The sun did not use him, he realized, and neither did plants. He thought of the toad-faced man in D.C. He breathed in deeply, quickly, about to weep; he coughed on the tropical air. Tye took his time with watering that night. He had a place here. Seeds. Roots. Turf. Home.

Proably one of my creepiest but most personally enjoyable stories.

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