THE HOLE STORY
“Hey, Pete!” Fred called over the backyard fence.
“Whatcha need, Fred? Man! That is one humungous hole. You dig that?”
“Sure as shootin’. Took all night. She’s a beauty, ain’t she?
“Can’t say’s I ever seen one quite like it. What’s it fer, anyway?”
“Anniversary present. I figure a couple o’ tarps an’ some water, an' Gladys’ll have the best swimmin’ pool in the whole neighborhood.”
“That so? What’s she think of it?”
“She was right here all night givin’ me di-rections. Ask her. Hey, Gladys! … Gladys? Uh, Pete? You see any o’ them dirt piles movin’?”
I was sitting in the far corner of the Winter Garden, surrounded by stone and cold trees, when I re-read this opening sentence: “Dear Catalpa, it’s twelve below out, and I’ve got dead flowers on my kitchen table.”
So opens Ars Botanica, a memoir by Tim Taranto revolving around a series of letters addressed to his unborn, aborted daughter. Like other masterful writers, Taranto establishes an entire roadmap for the story ahead in the first sentence: the opening line addresses “Catalpa,” the botanical name for the daughter he would have had, then goes on to paint a picture of season, death, domestic life, and nature. Reading these words, sitting in such a beautiful space, I felt a synchronicity. This book encountered me in a time of need and stuck in a way I hope it will for many other readers. In his words, Taranto captures all the contradictive beauty of the nature and life he describes: Ars Botanica is structured but eclectic, brutal, beautiful, gut-wrenchingly sad, and brimming with hope.
Though Botanica is written primarily as a series of letters, the memoir also features chapters, poetry, and flash-sections, which function essentially as field notes. These subsections of the book are titled with a plant, fossil, or artifact and paired with its Latin origin name. This style is refreshing, and lends itself to an overall tone of curiosity and discovery. Ars Botanica (“botanical art” in Latin) makes an interesting statement in its structure alone: for an art like botany, where plants are studied in a consistent attempt to classify, define, and categorize them, we sure do have a hard time keeping nature in order. What are plants if not symbols of life? Taranto’s narrator writes in an effort to maintain some sort of control over his life after the loss of his daughter and her mother- who withdrew from her relationship with Taranto post-abortion- to make sense of his grief, and yet the beauty of this work comes through its defiance of categorization.
Brutality and beauty burst out of these scattered and unexpected moments. Taranto’s language is flowery in that it is vivid, but his voice is concise and honest. He tells the story of his life with his girlfriend, essentially a ghost story told about a lost mother to his dead daughter, but even as he describes how the relationship fell apart, he expresses tenderness and intimacy just like any story of how two lovers met. “Like every good thing I possibly see,” Taranto writes, “I’ll see it once for her, and another time for me.” And the reader sees what he sees, too. Through nature, weather, and the passage of time, he charts the course of a marriage not in law but in experience and love. So much of his life is almost there: a girlfriend who is almost a wife, a corpse who is almost a daughter. What works here, and avoids being preachy or sentimental, is that Taranto’s profound thoughts are born of quiet, human moments. After her procedure, Taranto’s girlfriend asks him to pick her up and hold her. He writes to Catalpa, “I can’t be sure that I am not, at this moment, still holding her.”
Yes, Botanica’s premise alone is genuinely tragic and sad. But to ignore this work in light of this fact is a disservice to Taranto as well as to whoever may read it: Taranto’s depiction of grief and suffering does not wallow. He states his experience as fact and moves on, which is often more emotionally resonant than beating a reader over the head with sadness. Early on, a doctor friend of his says to him, “What a gift you have to feel so deeply, and what a burden, too.” Even in his weakest moments, he writes of seeing blooming flowers, or cactuses surviving in the harshest conditions. He inspires the question: how different are we from plants, really? We’re all trying to survive.
Taranto’s writing is born of suffering, but is about surviving and thriving in a beautiful world. He seeks to find beauty in even the most tragic moments, to find acceptance in all parts of the world, including and especially those finite ones we cannot control. Ars Botanica is lyrical, emotional, and honest: an excellent memoir. Through his honesty about pain, Taranto’s work becomes universally relatable. I finished the book in that same cold garden, genuinely touched by the “sense that maybe time was more than a measure of decay,” and that Ars Botanica is more than just ruminations on plants, but on the resilient nature of life and love.
Ars Botanica will be released June 19th, 2017 by Chicago indie-publisher Curbside Splendor.
available from amazon.com
His employment at the Corporation having reached its breaking point, Myles Dunning arrived at work in a starched white shirt, yellow power tie, propeller beanie, bronco-buster pajama bottoms, and fluffy bunny slippers. I’ll show them, he thought, striding, briefcase in hand, past the tittering secretaries toward his office.
For the first hour of his day, Myles sat quietly at his desk reading an obscure pamphlet on astral projection. At ten o’ clock he was summoned to the conference room for his presentation to the board of directors. He could not recall what he was supposed to present, but this did not concern him.
“I’m a great admirer of Thomas Pynchon,” he began, as the board members, billionaire CEO included, stared at his outfit in disbelief. “Consequently, I would like to christen all my associates with Pynchonesque monikers.” Facing the man seated at his left, the distinguished corporate attorney Braden Quillington, he said, “Henceforth, you shall be called Geronimo Sangfroid.” He continued in this fashion, conferring upon these august gentlemen such names as Blip Nerdstrom, Basillio Cumquat, and, for the CEO himself, not only a name, but a title: Lee Muria, New-Age Twit.
No one addressed Myles directly, but someone whispered, “He’s gone mad.” The CEO was considering a compassionate intervention, but noticed that Myles’s genitalia were visible through the aperture of his pajama bottoms. Disgusted, he called security at once.
Although Myles did not resist, the burleys treated him roughly, holding his arms in a vice grip as they descended the elevator, then frog-marching him out the front entrance. With a flourish (one of them actually shouted, “Heave ho!”), they lobbed him face-first onto the busy sidewalk.
Myles picked up his briefcase, retrieved his propeller beanie, straightened his tie, and reflected upon his good fortune. He was free at last! But at precisely that moment a trio of skinheads came around the corner, their fists clenching and unclenching, eager to pummel some character whose general disposition seemed inimical to the standards and practices of the Aryan Brotherhood.
And so began a new adventure in the curious life of Myles Dunning…
One thing I really hate about OS updates is I’ve usually just become comfortable with the organization of the current program when the development geeks shoot their new masterpiece into my laptop without an “excuse me” or “by-your-leave” … and omit any warnings. I appreciate them treating me with the respect due a fellow cyber-geek, but their good opinion is misplaced. That P&S makes it online once a week is often due to dumb luck.
With that disclaimer out of the way, I’ll continue.
It happened again last week. All of a sudden, my touchpad refused to work. Well, I’m not a complete novice. I simply put batteries in my wireless mouse and fired it up. It worked—for less than 24 hours.
“Oh, #$%$&*!!” I said. “It’s dead.” It was a reasonable diagnosis since I bought “Old Trusty” when HP still came loaded with Vista. In technology terms, that’s eons ago.
As it happens, this demise occurred on a Wednesday night. Thursday is when a new edition of P&S usually ping-pongs into the ether. So, Thursday morning found me at my local office supply store buying a new laptop. No real choice in my requirement and price range (which makes shopping much faster).
After an abortive attempt by the in-store techs to set up my new computer and transfer my files from my external hard drive, I returned home with my refunded set-up fee and spent the next 8 hours setting up my new laptop and publishing P&S.
Oh! Did I tell you I couldn’t decrypt my saved files (yes, they were there) or execute the downloaded drivers for my ancient printer?
Saturday morning, my brilliant young cyber-tech arrived. He had everything in place and running in an hour. Then he turned to the electronic corpse. Within two minutes he had it humming along as if it hadn’t just breathed its last.
The problem? Somehow, I’d managed to click “tablet mode” in the Action Center window that pops out of the right side of the screen. It seems that “tablet mode” is only for touchscreen machines.
So now I have two working laptops, and we all know what “tablet mode” does. My tech definitely earned the previously refunded set-up fee.
And he and my husband went out to the yard and played with their drones.
The moral to this tale of woe? Call your tech first--and don't click things you know nothing about.
To all the moms out there, hope you know how much you're appreciated and loved.
A Mother’s Days
For Mother’s Day, of course I’m late--
It will ever be my fate.
To do for others, I must wait
‘til ev’ryone else is out the gate.
For family I work and slave
while pennies I try hard to save.
In crises I am always brave.
It does no good for me to cave
in when things get really rough.
I have to show the kids I’m tough
so they will never call my bluff
when I declare, “That’s enough!”
But, when I sit among my brood
whose faces are with love imbued
and stomachs full of our good food,
it puts me in a mellow mood.
It’s worth the pain, it’s worth the fight
to see the kids tucked safe night.
I’m hoping that a sim’lar sight
will someday be their guiding light.
I learned something this week. There is such a thing as a turkey plucker.
That's right. And they were, indeed, well respected in the poultry industry. And their jobs were put in jeopardy by mechanization. Sal (Jon Krampner's carpool buddy) put forth a premise for a story (see The Saga of the Turkey Plucker) that intrigued me enough to go looking online for more information. Although Sal never completely formulated or wrote his story, he indirectly taught me something.
With the accessability of the Internet, there's no reason not to take a moment out from reading a piece of fiction and look up a reference therein. It only takes a moment, and it enriches the reader's understanding of the author's work.
Thank you, Sal. And thank you, Jon, for piquing my curiosity. I appreciate the opportunity to learn about something I barely knew existed.
Traditional turkey plucker.
All photos courtesy of Google Images. - N.K.
Elvis Costello became my therapist after Peter died. As long as he was alive, dying slowly in our bedroom of an invasive cancer, I was fine. We had met twenty-two years earlier in a bar in downtown Philadelphia and had never been apart since then. Mr. and Mrs. Weinstein. Now, I’m the widow Weinstein. My love breathed his last on a snowy December day. The funeral parlor picked up his body – not my husband, but his body – in a long green station wagon. They simply rolled him up in the lavender striped sheet, covering his face with his long handsome nose and soft lips, and it was over. A life. Reduced to dust like the Bible says.
After we finished sitting Shiva, I began to feel a vast emptiness in my belly whenever I was home alone. This abyss could not be filled with food. I was not hungry. In fact I was losing weight. That didn’t bother me. What did I have to live for? I was a retired school teacher. No one needed me now. Certainly I was not going to kill myself, but I needed to figure out how to tame my empty soul, which seemed to mirror the death of my beloved, in an attempt to stay with him.
One day I got in the car to deliver some of his ashes to Brittany, his daughter by his first wife. I punched on the radio station, the first time I could bear the sound of music.
“Peace, Love and Understanding” by Elvis Costello boomed through the speakers.
As I walk on through this wicked world,
Searching for light in the darkness of insanity,
I ask myself, Is all hope lost?
Is there only pain, and hatred, and misery?
My mood quickened. I became elated. And stayed that way as long as the song was on.
“Oh my God!” I cried. “Peter! I will get over you.”
“What’s so funny about peace, love and understanding?” boomed Elvis in his oversize black glasses.
With the urn in the front seat, I drove over to Barnes and Noble and bought the album. I played it in the car as his ashes bounced along in tune with the music.
Elvis Costello had saved me. With my hand on the urn, I whispered,
“Peter, I love you so. And I shall go on with my life.”
Dear Supermarket Check Out Boy -
I am sorry your cousin has Acute Myelogenus Leukemia and that it will probably kill him. That sounds awful. But, mostly, I'm sorry for the way I snapped at you for tossing my apples down the conveyer belt as you were telling me your cousin has cancer.
Fruit can be really expensive. Especially the Honeycrisp apples that we prefer – they are so round and big and full of sugar. These are no waxy tasteless Red Delicious: those tough-skinned road-side gas station apples waiting forgotten next to dust-covered Slim Jims. You probably don't know this but the Honeycrisp was selectively bred, a cultivar of juice and tartness. It is the ideal apple for eating raw. I took my time selecting four perfect apples, perfectly cross-bred and shipped to your store without any bruises. I could smell the sweetness through the pale pink and yellow-streaked skin. But, they were not on sale like the Granny Smith and when I saw you so carelessly toss them, I felt helpless.
My husband says it is my smile, too open and eager that attracts so many strangers to tell me random facts about their lives. I was not smiling at you but giving you only the briefest of basic kindness. I was affording you a respect. An acknowledgment that for the next several moments, we would be engaged in a job together: you, weighing my purchase and me, paying the levy.
Maybe to you, working at the cash register, it feels like an act of friendship to tell every woman that comes through the express aisle about the advanced state of your cousin's degenerative cancer. But, that is not friendliness. For me, it feels like an act of aggression. An aggression so small, it often slips by unnoticed. It is an unintended discrimination. It is a casual degradation.
You chose me because I am a woman and you wanted comfort or attention. I just wanted apples. Aggressive friendliness is not totally unlike a cancer, I suppose. I hope you consider that and the fragility of the apples going forward.
Yours in friendship,
Mrs. Gwynneth Black
My son is in-between sizes – his shrinking clothes park their hems a couple inches shy of ankle and wrist. The ambitious ones require parental roll-up and make him look smaller than he is, though he is proud when we say, “You’re really growing,” or “You look taller!” Because, don’t we all like to feel we’re getting somewhere? Like we’re moving on up?
My garden is in-between seasons. The plants look ready for Halloween. Black and wet, limp here, jagged there, bound to collapse. Meanwhile, underneath the soil, their next life sleeps hard so in a few months they can push through and up, confident and pure.
My son is like a plant’s bulb, latent biology waiting to explode from the gritty dark - unaware of its power. In-between dirt and air, invisible and beautiful, nothing and color.
What is likely true is we are all, always, in-between something: jobs, relationships, haircuts, homes, personalities, our desired weight and what our scale says. Dental appointments, head colds, cups of coffee, and dreams. In-between meals, sexual urges, bills due, the car we have and the one coveted. The load of laundry we haven’t put away and the next one. Point A and point B. In-between a rock and a life.
Residents of the In-Between, that’s what we must be to get from here to there, to make it from now to then.
I will watch my boy change, always change. Sometimes bridging the In-Between effortlessly like a giant skipping over a creek. Sometimes spending ages in transition – the glacier on its way to a bay. Meanwhile, I will be that force in-between a breeze and a wind, hoping he will feel the push but not know it’s me.
N.K. Wagner is executive editor and publisher of Page & Spine.