artwork for E.N. Walztoni's short story He Almost Left Her There

He Almost Left Her There
E.N. Walztoni

Paul had tracked the expected growth of his potato crop as if they were in utero, comparing each week to a chart in the agricultural production textbook he purchased at a yard sale that winter. Sometimes, unable to wait until harvest time or trust in the blank surface of the soil, he plunged a hand into the hills of dirt to feel the tubers growing. He moved his fingers through the root filaments slowly so as not to tear them.

It was his first year in a cabin he purchased with money his father left him after a boating accident in the Florida Keys. Paul had spent his life being told what to do, nearly 40 years by then, on factory floors and in grocery warehouses and military bases. He should be alone, he had decided, to make his own decisions and to work on something laid out for him in a way he could understand.

But no one needed him here in the country except for the plants he grew, and he was surprised how this knowledge followed him around. The nights made him suspicious, the wind in the dark, and something about his inability to be heard, that he could do anything he wanted to and not affect one person with it. Sometimes he sat on the porch and watched his crops waving and thought about how they wouldn’t be alive without him.

Though he was alone, Paul always felt watched. The woman he bought the place from, the widow of a long-dead man, had mounted religious icon paintings from the old country to the walls and plastered them in place around their frames. The saints and Mary and Jesus looked down long-faced and angled and yellow, sad in the hollows of their eyes but glowing through their skin. Paul tried to chip Jesus away from over the woodstove with a painter’s knife and a hammer when he first moved in, but the drywall sprang a crack under his hands nearly down to the floor. He was afraid that if he tried to remove anything else he would bring the house down around him.

Paul was never a faithful man, but often looked at the floor when inside to avoid their faces, which were knowing and asked for nothing. He had kept his eyes down when he sliced the seed potatoes for planting. At the house up the road where he bought the textbook, the old woman who took his dollar had told him, My mother always said to plant your taters after Good Friday so the devil can’t get them. Paul had looked up that date and waited for it.

The book was written for those who ordered their potatoes pre-sliced from the seed companies, so he found a video online which showed him the perfect angle to cut around the eyes of the Yukons he had ordered in commercial-sized bags and allowed to sprout in the basement, hoping to save money. They were slick, when split open, and he struggled to hold them.

He hauled buckets of them out to the field rows and tried to imitate with his hands the movement of the planting machinery illustrated by the textbook, plunging each slice into the poor soil facing upward so they could open right to the top of the earth and out of it. Paul had a tractor but no planting attachments for it, only one implement to till the ground and another to pile up dirt. He felt that he should have some instinct towards the right thing to do and would only help himself a little by researching. This was something he had always done, punished himself for not understanding the world enough on his own.

A few weeks later, the textbook told him that he had to cover the buried potatoes with hills of dirt so they would not be burned by the light, but after he spent an hour spent lining up the hilling attachment, the tractor’s engine sputtered out dark smoke and would not turn over.

Paul bit at his mouth and felt pressure straining under his eyes. A heavy wind tossed the trees circling the field. He went inside to look up what the problem might be, feeling his muscles strung up into his shoulders and the weight of his bones resting on each other.

The fact that he did not know how to fix the machine, that he could not understand the things he had to do, that he needed to ask, made him angry at himself. Now nothing else made sense. The potatoes would burn and die because he could not help them. He had brought them into this world but could not get them through it. Paul slammed his book shut on the table. What kind of man are you, he thought.

He circled the kitchen several times with his eyes raised. The icons looked down at him with their mourning grace which he could not respond to, and Paul put his hand over the crack in the drywall and decided it was not load bearing and reached for his hunting knife from the kitchen counter and plunged it under the plaster securing a shepherd to the wall.

He held the painting in place with his other hand, and when the wood finally gave, the knife slipped down and into, but not all the way through, the bone of his thumb. The shepherd remained on the wall, held by the right side of his frame. A flock stood behind him in half-rendered shapes with their eyes long and dark.

* * *

When the landline rang a week later, Paul pulled his arm down across his nose and sat up in bed. Light angled through the blinds onto the gold-leaf halo of a woman on the far wall, he could not be sure who. She was named in an alphabet he could not read. He turned over and picked up the phone. The woman down the road who had sold him the textbook was calling, her last name on the ID.

Hello, he said.

Well, I want to tell you we’re burning some garbage today and don’t call the fire department if you notice the smoke, she said. They already know about it.

OK, he said. OK, sure.

We’re clearing out the chicken house, she said.

He nodded again as if she could see him and as if he remembered. She told him that her father-in-law, who owned the farm, died in his bed last week. He had stuffed things into the coop for many years.

Wow, said Paul. Good luck.

Thank you, she said. She hung up. The phone rang again.

I hate to say this to you, she said, but can you come help us.

OK, sure.

Paul stood up and walked to the kitchen and looked out the window. After he cut his finger, he had tied off the end of his knuckle and driven a long ways to the hospital with the windows up. A woman on the radio talked about an oil refinery which had caught fire. Inside the hospital, the lights looked brighter than any he was used to.

In the week since, he felt something lunging and biting within him. His muscles turned, and he chewed again at the inside of his mouth. He spent the morning hours awkwardly shoveling soil over the potatoes by hand and the afternoons taking painkillers. The doctor had given him a bottle of pills which rattled against each other in his pocket, and he shook them back and forth while looking at the tractor and thinking about calling someone to fix it.

After his neighbor hung up the phone, Paul sat for a moment on the side of his bed and pressed gold stars into his eyeballs with the back knuckles of his healthy hand. He circled the potato field on the way to his truck and swung his arm next to him. The plants had grown tall to his knees and were beginning to die back, as they should now in late summer. Soon they would need him to dig them up. He wished it were winter, and he wanted to see his breath in front of him to know it was there.

* * *

Paul drove down the road with one hand and drummed his aching fingers on his knee, making himself do it and trying not to bite at his mouth from the hurt. Gonna cry? he asked himself in his family voice. Lucinda, his neighbor’s name was. Her husband sat at the end of the driveway in a plastic lawn chair waiting for Paul to arrive. The shadow of their faded red mailbox crossed his knees.

Harry, he introduced himself, and stood up to face Paul. You just park down here. We’re leaving the driveway clear for the dumpster.

Paul nodded and backed his truck over the grass by the side of the road. The gully there ran deep with brown water. He saw flakes of dirt spinning in its current. It had rained too much that summer.

Harry waved him up towards their house and they walked a ways past it to the long white chicken house. Garbage bags and carpet fabric and a pair of chair legs pressed against the square-paned windows, nearly covered by sweet pea vines that reached almost up to the gutters. Lucinda stood in the left-hand doorway, pulling out blankets.

What are you burning if you’ve got the dumpster? Paul asked, scratching behind his ear.

He felt tense being around people again and did not know what they wanted. Some part of him trembled at the thought that they did need him and that he couldn’t help. Lucinda had a heaving, watery, personal way about her that made him uncomfortable. Her short gray hair swung back and forth at the base of her neck, and Paul’s eyes felt tight as they did when he was angry.

Won’t all fit in there, Lucinda said, passing a broken chair to Harry.

Paul nodded. How can I help you.

We just need someone to keep an eye on the fire while we’re working, she said.

Oh, he said, having thought that she called him for labor they found too hard. He wondered if she had looked at his hand and changed her mind, and he clenched the muscles in his arm.

I’ll take you over there, Harry told him.

Paul stood and watched the fire, his eyes watering from the heat. He put his bandaged hand in his pocket and the other on his shoulder. The garbage pile was damp and mildewed and burned patchily. Beyond the hill the hayfields lay out soft and limp.

He bit at his mouth again. He thought about his potatoes. He thought about walking through the fire and emerging clean on the other side. The smoke hung close to the ground. Harry and Lucinda angered him in their peace and assurance. His father had been that way, too, never needing anything or asking for it. Paul had thought moving out here would make him be like them.

Found this in there, Harry said from behind. He lowered the wheelbarrow to the ground and held out an icon to Paul, the small face of a girl and a rose unfolding behind her. Look familiar? Harry was smiling.

No, Paul said.

Harry looked at him sideways and tossed the icon at Paul’s feet as he picked up the wheelbarrow handles. Paul knew he and Lucinda must have known the woman who owned his cabin before and seen her rooms and the way she cemented them. Paul did not know why he had lied, why he did the things he did. This feeling had driven him out to the cabin in the first place.

Harry grunted as he pitched a broken bedside table onto the fire. Paul hated it when people made noises like that. The portrait at his feet had sunk into the long grass. An old invoice drifted from the wheelbarrow and covered her face.

Why aren’t you keeping any of this? Paul asked.

It’s just too much, Harry said. We can’t deal with it all.

Harry wheeled his way back to the chicken coop. Paul’s arms tightened up and shook him. The fire made his eyes burn and its smell pooled in his nose. He picked up the icon with his bandaged hand. This picture was smaller than most of the ones on his walls. Her face had that keening look on it, not a look of want but of someone who had passed beyond needing anything, someone who would watch and weep for what she already knew.

He imagined how his seed potatoes were rotting in the ground now as the new ones grew from them. At harvest time they would burst under the force of his hands, which they never could have grown up without. The field brightened and faded and lit up again from clouds passing before the sun.

Harry, he yelled. Harry.

He’s inside, Lucinda yelled back.

Paul walked towards her where she crouched on her hands and knees in the chicken house, pulling on a rolled carpet pinned down by garbage.

Did they know each other? he asked from the doorway, holding up the icon and jerking his head in the direction of the cabin. She looked over her shoulder at him.

Well, sure. They were good friends. Real good friends.

Why don’t you want this? Paul asked her. He felt urgent about the question.

There’s just too much to keep, Lucinda said. She turned and panted like an afterthought, yanking the rug free from the bags atop it and rocking back on her heels.

They don’t need anything, Paul thought in fear. Not me, not even their friends, nothing, nothing. He took a dusty breath in and felt the space that it filled.

Paul lowered the icon and looked at it. It was dusty, scabbed with dirt and a water stain. He wandered out of the doorway and back to the fire as if they really needed him to watch it, as if they couldn’t live without him, saying nothing back to Lucinda. She was not waiting for him to speak, anyway, Paul thought, though he heard the spit-tack sound of her mouth opening with a word as he turned, though he was holding the picture tightly against himself now with his pained hand. The pill he had taken in the truck gave his life a loosened quality, the ends of things slipping around unwoven in the heat. Before him, the fire sputtered across its dry kindling, leaving the dark places to burn away slowly.

E.N. Walztoni’s Comments

I started to think about this story during my first potato harvest. Often I start to write from a single line that develops in my mind, which this time was, “Paul cut his thumb off when the potatoes in the ground were the size of jellybeans.” The farm I worked on was well outside of the city where I lived, and I spent a lot of that season thinking about the different ways people grow used to living and relating to each other in rural life. Particularly, I was curious about how difficult it can be to express one’s needs to other people, or to understand having them. I sorted through some of my questions about the unspoken things underlying human relationships through this story while continuing to harvest potatoes every week. I’m still working on it, although those first potatoes are now long gone.

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Frigg: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 60 | Fall/Winter 2022