Harry Jankowski stood under a flowering dogwood tree in the Brandenberg Arboretum. Directly above his head, a raucous collection of jays was feasting on clumps of wine-colored berries scattered among the porcelain petals, while thirty feet away in the trellised rose garden, a middle-aged woman sat on the same bench he had recently abandoned, a familiar, moss green volume with a cracked spine resting on her lap. Bent over slightly at the waist, her lips fluttered in silent accompaniment to the printed text. From his vantage point, the slim, dark-haired woman looked reasonably attractive, but as he drew closer, Harry realized his favorable impression had been premature. She wasn't ugly per se. Rather, it was as though, early on, God had become distracted and wandered away from the wet canvas before completing a meager handful of details. The woman's features were drab, colorless. The unassuming face, an aesthetic work in progress, exuded an unfinished blankness.
"Is this yours?" she asked.
Harry had driven almost halfway home before realizing the tattered anthology of Persian verse, was missing. He stepped closer. "Yes, it's a library book," he noted apologetically. "I must have gotten distracted and - “
"Would you mind terribly if I read through to the poem’s end."
"No, of course not." He sat down beside her. "Which verse were you reading?"
"The Rumi." She lowered her head again. Leaning closer, Harry could just barely make out the final stanza.
The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you;
Don't go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want;
Don't go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth
Across the doorsill where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don't go back to sleep.
The woman finally handed him the book. "What do you think it means?"
Harry ran an index finger thoughtfully over the faded, buckram cloth. "Sleep would seem a metaphor for most people's natural state of mind. Even wide awake, we often miss the ‘secrets’ Rumi hints at." The intoxicating scent of the roses coupled with the woman's perplexing face had catapulted the normally reticent man in an uncharacteristically chatty mood.
"Or the natural beauty we take for granted."
"Yes, I suppose. So few people take an active interest in poetry these days."
"And how would you know such a thing?"
"Here, see for yourself." He opened the slim volume and pointed with a taut index finger at the yellowed slip of paper pasted on the inside of the front cover where, at cockeyed angles, a smattering of dates was stamped in black ink. Prior to Harry checking the book out, the anthology hadn't seen the light of day in six years! Prior to that, it languished in the musty stacks another four. "The book was published in nineteen sixty-seven," Harry noted with morbid humor. "Over the last forty years, only twelve people showed an interest."
The woman looked at her hands, which were slender with pale pink, lacquered nails. "Do you come here often?
"Mostly weekends, when the weather’s decent."
"I'm Dora." She extended a hand. He pressed her fingers gently.
The woman rose and, began moving at a leisurely gait down the flagstone walkway past a profusion of pink blossoms that reeked sweetly like incense. Before she proceeded very far, Dora abruptly returned. "Just for the record, I'm partial to the traditional poets - writers such as Frost, Ferlinghetti, e e cummings, Robert Lowell, Ann Sexton and John Berryman."
"Berryman's Dream Songs are rather obscure,… challenging," Harry noted.
"Yes, I know," Dora agreed. "Much of his later writing is beyond my limited abilities."
Harry missed Dora’s final observation. Rather, he was concerned by the disconcerting fact that the last three writers on Dora's list of personal favorites had met with tragic ends. "Sylvia Plath, the author of the Bell Jar, wrote some interesting free verse."
“I was never a great fan." Dora shook her head vigorously from side to side. “The poet glorified mental illness and was a snake pit of nuttiness.”
The vigorous response set his mind at ease. “Yes, I totally agree!”
On the ride home, Harry glanced at the frayed anthology resting on the passenger seat and grinned foolishly. A senior moment - that's how he understood the miscue when he realized the book was missing. A dumb, addled-brained bit of mental torpor guaranteed to waste gas and time - not that Harry had any special place to go most Saturday afternoons. Since his wife left, his social calendar had atrophied, shriveled away to nothing. Monday through Friday he managed a temporary employment agency; weekends mostly found him treading water, waiting for the workweek to resume.
It was almost two in the afternoon when Harry pulled into the driveway. He tossed a load of laundry in the washer - mostly dress clothes he needed later in the week. Then he swept the kitchen floor, filled the bathtub and even threw some of his ex-wife's lavender-chamomile bubble bath in the steamy water. He didn't usually indulge in such questionable extravagance, but the chance meeting with the woman with the unremarkable, slapdash face had put him in a weird frame of mind.
Twenty minutes later when the buzzer in the basement sounded, he switched the damp clothes over to the dryer, went back up stairs and gingerly climbed into the tub. Only now did Harry grasp why he left the arboretum without the book. Since early spring, when the weather finally became warm enough to visit the park with any regularity, he had begun studying the deciduous trees. There were numerous maples - the Norway, silver, sugar, mountain and diminutive box elder, as well as the striped or moosewood varieties. Maples shared certain unique characteristics - sweetish watery sap and long leafstalks. Almost all had palmately veined, fan-lobed leaves. Harry learned all this from the informative plaques that dotted the landscape.
Even with trees as common as the birch, things got dicey. Harry could easily identify the ever-present American or paper birch. But then there were the black, gray and yellow birches and, of course, the American hornbean, also known as musclewood, ironwood or blue beech. They all fell under the same generic species, betulaceae, sharing simple, alternate, stipulate leaves, which were generally thin and often doubly serrate with fruity catkins and a one seeded nutlet. He had gone off on a walking tour to take one last look at the trees before heading home and forgotten the book.
With his big toe, Harry flicked the hot water on and waited as the soothing warmth crawled from the front of the tub to the rear. He slid down in the sudsy water, the perfumed bubbles tickling his ears. What were the odds of meeting a fellow poetry enthusiast in the Brandenberg Arboretum on a late summer afternoon? During their marriage, on the rare occasion when his ex-wife, Ruthy, reach for reading material, she favored the National Inquirer or Reader’s Digest. The busty blonde Harry had fallen hard for some twenty-five years earlier was a dolt, the woman's fleshy loveliness little more than a paper-thin mask. Three years earlier in the throes of a hormonally-induced midlife crisis, Ruthy ran off and left him. Now she was somebody else's well-endowed dolt.
The summer his wife flew the coop, the couple had signed up for a tour of the Holy Land through a local church group. Rather than forfeit the deposit and air fare, Harry went alone. He visited Jerusalem then toured the Upper Galilee before heading down through the Negev Desert into the southern Sinai to visit the Monastery of Saint Catherine. Saint Catherine, the tour guide explained, lived in Alexandria during the persecution of the Christians under the reign of Maximus. When she converted to Christianity, the Romans tortured and finally killed her in 307 A.D., cutting off her head as a gruesome admonition to her Christian zealots.
The Sinai was barren, a dried-up, godforsaken wilderness infested with poisonous snakes and wild camels. A short distance from the monastery stood a huge outcropping of reddish rocks, what was thought to be the original site where Moses witnessed the burning bush. The reddish-brown hills strewn with huge boulders, the thousand year-old, stucco Monastery was thrown together from brick, mortar and whatever raw materials lay readily at hand.
Initially, Harry found the landscape otherworldly, apocalyptic; it was hideous, an affront to everything civilized. But then his eye was drawn back for a second look, and an intrinsic harmony emerged from the desolation. He noticed a small cluster of fir trees off to the right of the main gate and how the stunted mountains directly behind the monastery heaved up toward an unbounded sky.
Harry returned home chastened. The barren, blistering wilderness of the southern Sinai mirrored his inner spiritual wretchedness. Some nights he sat in his condo contemplating the desert’s message. At the Monastery of Saint Catherine Harry grasped that he was not just growing older. Men in their late twenties grow older, more mature and settled. In their thirties and forties their hair falls out or goes gray; they develop a glut of yuppie ailments - tennis elbow, carpal tunnel syndrome, trick knees, spinal subluxations, acid reflux and hemorrhoids. No, that wasn't it either. Harry wasn't easing into middle age, because he already plateaued a decade earlier. Now he was just plain growing old. It's why he made weekly pilgrimages to the secular shrine that was the Brandenberg Arboretum, where he meandered among the greenery like some fetishistic obsessive-compulsive, reading the plaques, memorizing the genus, species and identifying characteristics. While other men in similar quandaries prowled the VIP room at the Foxy Lady lounge or downloaded soft porn from the internet, Harry Jankowski staked his purse on botany.
This middle-aged poetry lover - would she return or was Dora’s appearance in the park a fleeting aberration? Five minutes after meeting her, Harry no longer noticed the drab exterior. No, that wasn't terribly accurate. It was more like viewing sepia tones in an old-fashioned print. The murky, monochromatic reddish brown shadings exuded a distinctive warmth seldom attained from modern, digital photography. But once you got past the initial shock, Dora wasn't terribly unattractive. Unlike Ruthy’s flamboyant charms, in its ragged simplicity, Dora’s rudimentary features hid nothing.
The following week it rained both Saturday and Sunday. Harry went to the movies. Afterwards, he visited his mother in the nursing home, where he told her a funny story about his job at the temp agency. A sixty-five year old woman came in looking for work. Anything would do. She was hard up, desperate for cash, which was a bad sign. Harry ran a BCI criminal check. A week later, the report came back. The applicant was a child molester with multiple criminal offenses over the past twenty years.
"Boys or girls?"
"Geez, that's pretty creepy!" His mother was sitting in a wheelchair in the solarium nursing a container of jiggly, greenish Jell-O.
"Needless to say," Harry returned, tongue in cheek, "the pervert didn't get the job."
"What'd she look like?"
Harry thought a moment. "Barbara Bush."
"That's even weirder!"
An irritatingly shrill alarm sounded several doors down. A patient, who was supposed to stay put, was trying to get out of his chair or bed. A nurse's aide hurried past the open doorway to settle the troublesome individual and quiet the monitoring device. "How come Ruthy don't come?"
"We're divorced. Three years now. I told you last time."
Mrs. Jankowski digested the newly acquire information. After a while she pushed her wrinkled lips out in an exaggerated pout like a goldfish sucking water. "I wonder if she still makes that revolting fish face when she gets overwrought and don’t know what to say."
Harry began to chuckle lightly. "Yeah, that used to drive me nuts, too?" He wondered if the new spouse found the mannerism unsettling. The fifty-year-old woman was silly on multiple levels. And yet, Harry had thought ‘fish-face’ Ruthy stunning, a perfect ten when they had met thirty years ago. Now, even his demented mother in the nursing home made fun of her goofy mannerisms. No, nothing was ever what it appeared to be at face value. As if on cue, Mrs. Jankowski made the puckering fish face again and began sucking oxygen. Not to be outdone, Harry pushed his mouth forward and wiggled his lips from side to side.
The following Saturday, Harry returned to the arboretum. The weather was humid but not oppressively so for mid-July. Twenty minutes after settling in Dora arrived. She wore a blue chintz dress with a matching scarf tied up in her hair. The woman was clutching a small paperback. "Are you familiar with the poet, Robert Hayden?" Harry shook his head. She sat down on the bench next to him, opened the book to a page that had been flagged with a slip of paper.
Sundays too my father got up early
And put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,…
The poem was a dazzling tour de force describing a blue collar laborer who rose early every Sunday throughout the frigid winter to light a cast-iron stove and shine his son's shoes before traipsing off to church. It was a brief piece– three stanzas, a total of fourteen meager lines – resembling an epic novel in that the reader could visualize the man's devotion, his humble dignity. When Harry finally lay the book aside, Dora asked, "Who is Robert Hayden?"
"I told you I'm not familiar with his poetry."
"Yes, but take a guess," the woman pressed, "based on this short poem."
"That's tough," Harry hedged. The language was simple enough but too precise not to be the work of a highly disciplined academic type - perhaps, an imagists or confessional poet from the early sixties. "No, I haven't a clue."
Her limpid eyes were transfixed on the opaque maze of summer foliage just beyond the rose garden. "Hayden was a black man, an Afro-American born into poverty. He grew up in a Detroit foster home where he was sickly,... physically and emotionally abused." A wistful yearning washed over her face. "From such ugliness and heartache, pure beauty - how do you explain such things?"
"I don't really know," Harry replied.
From such ugliness and heartache, pure beauty… Harry was eight years old. The family lived on Providence's East Side. His mother gave him a quarter to buy a balsa wood airplane at the local 7-Eleven. The boy gently nudged the delicate, papery wings through the fuselage then inserted the tail section. With care, the toy might last a hundred throws, and even if the fragile wings cracked along the grain, which they inevitably always did, Harry could bind them back together with masking tape or a few drops of Elmer's glue and manage the better part of a week before begging his cash-strapped mother for another quarter.
But on only the third throw, the plane got caught on a gusty updraft of air, depositing his prize possession on the second-story porch of a three-decker tenement. What to do? Little Harry was despondent. A perfectly good balsa wood glider without a single blemish, crack or nick irretrievably gone astray. Forever lost! Ascending the front stoop, the boy found the door ajar. He plodded up the smelly stairs to the second floor landing and knocked. A fat black woman about the same age as his mother cracked opened the door but only as far as the metal security chain would allow. The careworn face was puffy with sagging jowls. She wore a tattered bathrobe and a jumble of pink rollers ranged across her frowzy, graying hair. "Yeah, what you want?"
"My balsa airplane flew up to your deck, and I was wondering - "
"Who… what?" Now the tone was belligerent.
"My toy airplane - it landed on your deck."
Releasing the chain, the woman threw the door wide open. Harry could hear a baby fretting in another room. The congested child coughed - once, twice then let out a mournful, sputtering wail. The apartment smelled of exotic vegetables - spices and seasonings that were both comforting and disconcerting all at the same time. From another room a man's voice barked in a gravelly voice, "Who the hell's that? What they want?"
"Wait here." The woman disappeared and returned a moment later with Harry's airplane perched between a nubby thumb and forefinger. Then she smiled the most beautiful fat-black-woman-with-an-awful-life smile that the boy had ever seen. "Here, kid. Have a swell day." She slammed the door shut. Harry stood there foolishly holding the glider cupped in his palms. He wanted to thank the morbidly obese woman, give her a kiss and a hug, nurse her tubercular child back to health and make her psychotic husband speak to her in soothing tones. Instead he went three blocks down to an open field where he could fly his plane without fear of a similar mishap.
Dora was sitting on the bench with her long-fingered hands splayed across her lap. Except for pearl earrings, she wore no jewelry or makeup. The Hayden poem had surely triggered the bizarre flashback. Harry thought he might like to tell Dora about the kind-hearted black lady but certainly not today. "You're not married."
"My husband suffered a stroke and passed away a year ago this October," she replied in a flat tone.
"Was it a good marriage?"
"No, not particularly. And you?"
Harry told Dora about his ex-wife. "I don't think she's terribly pleased with the new arrangement, but she walked out on the marriage so I feel no obligation to help her sort out her latest fiasco." "About a year ago," he added almost as an afterthought, "on a whim, I started learning about the various plants and trees here in the park." Pivoting a half turn, he pointed at a flaming mass of foliage closer to the entrance. "That black tupelo is one of the more flamboyant offerings. In the fall you can find shadings of yellow, orange, bright red and purple all on the same branch." Rising to his feet, he led her over to take a closer look. Reaching out, Harry placed his hand against the trunk. "The distinctive bark resembles alligator hide."
“How interesting!” Extending her hand, Dora stroked the textured wood. "And you learned all this from the plaques."
He took several steps back and pointed into the upper branches of the slender, fifty-foot tree. "Notice anything?"
"Lots of noisy birds."
"Those fruity clumps scattered among the leaves are berries. The tree is an important food source for both local and migratory birds." Harry rubbed his chin and, lowering his eyes, stared absently at his fuddy-duddy, wing-tipped shoes. "Would you like to get together some time?"
"A date?" Her features brightened. "That would be nice."
"Are you doing anything later tonight?"
When Dora was gone, Harry followed his weekly ritual, making a walking tour of the grounds, while carrying on an interior monologue with his leafy acquaintances. Yes, over there by the trash barrel was a scattering of quaking aspens with their twenty-five foot spread of noisy greenery. Sometimes he confused them with American beech. The late-blooming Magnolia directly behind with its greenish-yellow flowers was a bit easier to spot.
Dora lingered another half hour after Harry screwed up the courage to ask her out. The woman confided that she played second-chair flute in the Wheaton College wind ensemble. A Fourth of July concert was scheduled. They were doing Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain as well as excerpts from a Tchaikovsky symphony. Harry, for his part, told her several funny stories about a senior-league, slow-pitch softball team he recently joined, where the ballplayers were forty and up. Most of his teammates had non-life-threatening disabilities of one sort or another – a torn rotator cuff, inguinal hernia, pulled hamstring, asthma, emphysema, knee replacement - which made for some interesting athletic buffoonery.
The Eastern Redbud off to the right was a no-brainer. The riot of plum-colored leaves was a dead giveaway. And the mountain ash to the left of an outcropping of granite ledge had already lost its showy, spring flowers in favor of a thick crop of orangey-red fruit clusters. Harry remembered how the previous November the leaves looked like they had been dipped in yellow ink. Further down the twisty path, a tulip poplar was nestled between an eastern hemlock and diminutive chokeberry.
Harry wasn't so deluded as to imagine that he was in love with a woman he had only recently met. What were the prospects of sex on the first date? Probably not. Harry didn't doubt for one second that Dora would prove a passionate lover; the woman was too clever and kind-hearted not to be. But physical intimacy was a minor concern. Deeper emotions eventually set down roots, like old-growth timber, over a broad expanse of time. In the end, God or whatever animist power governed the universe ultimately got it right. Now Harry had to go home and decide on a nice restaurant and what to wear.
Over by the linden tree…
Publication Date: 11-09-2010
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