Writings / Fiction

The Hunt for the Big Bluestem

Mary Baxter

They decided to meet at eleven o'clock outside the nursing home. They didn't want to go too early because of the mosquitoes.

He and Suzanne would go without Suzanne's husband, Gerry. Somebody had to stay behind to open the restaurant. Somebody had to work.

Yeah, somebody who doesn't like to exercise much, Suzanne said. She was sitting in the booth beside Gerry and now leaned against him and patted his rather large belly. Alex sat across the table, finishing his dinner.

I don't want to get your hopes up, she said to Alex. I'm not positive it's the Big Bluestem. It could be a European weed, for all I know. It does look like one of those pictures you showed me.

Suzanne had found the stand of prairie grass a week ago while walking along the railway tracks. She mentioned it to Alex when he arrived for his Tuesday dinner at the restaurant because of the indigenous garden he was making. He had started it in the spring after his brother-in-law's wife suggested he find something to do to help pass the time now that 'Reenie was in the nursing home.

Gerry and Suzanne were supportive of the project. They would have been, even if he had decided to take up croquet, motivated by sympathy about Irene and a sense of solidarity that came from all three having Toronto roots and spending their middle age in a left-over town in Ontarioís southwest. Suzanne put her librarian skills to use and came up with a list of books to read and organizations to contact. Gerry, adopting the droll, self-deprecating manner he had honed over years of sitting with fellow journalists in bars, described his one unsuccessful attempt to grow vegetables in downtown Toronto: the bugs had eaten them.

As Suzanne walked Alex to the door, she confirmed eleven oíclock, right? He said, yes. Saturday at eleven.

Suzanne locked the door behind him and flipped the closed sign before returning to the table where Gerry was finishing his wine. She grabbed the wine bottle and poured herself what was left.

Sometimes I feel so badly for him. His wife is too young for that disease. She's lasting too long.

Gerry lit a cigarette and hunched his big frame over the table. It's a heartbreak, he said. I don't know if I could have stood by someone like he does.

Suzanne frowned.

So, what you're saying is, if something happened to me like that, you'd leave?

Gerry laughed. His shoulders shook as he pushed himself against the booth's high back. He raised a beefy arm and hooked it around his wife, pulling her towards him.

That's the conclusion you immediately jump to. That I would be fickle?

No Gerry, it's what you said.

Not at all, he started to respond, intending to tell her giving support wasn't the issue. He would have handled the situation differently. He would have talked about how he felt more, he would have complained more. But Suzanne was pushing out her jaw the way she did when she took offence and was beyond listening to him. So instead he said: Let's not put it to the test. Let's not even think about it.

Surrounded by her husband's large presence and peering out at Seafarrisí empty main drag, Suzanne couldnít think about anything else. Hadnít she been the one to show Gerry what support was after he was pressured into taking the severance package last year? Hadnít she been the one to say sure, Gerry, everyone should follow their dreams so if you want to move to a small town and cook, letís do it. Letís get a restaurant. Itíll be a blast.

She felt Gerry's finger scratch underneath her chin. She turned to look at him. My arm's going to sleep, he said, pulling it from her shoulders and gently pushing her away so he could rub it.

Alex decided he would stop in to see 'Reenie before rather than after the hunt for the Big Bluestem. She was better in the mornings and worse in the afternoons. When she was still living at home there was no telling what she might do when he returned from work: fly at him in a temper or simply sit there motionless and sullen, angry at him for leaving her through the day in the care of others. On the days the dementia ebbed lower, she might insist he sit beside her before getting on with making dinner. For that moment, her disease wasn't the biggest thing in their lives. For that moment, he could picture her as she once was: beautiful and young, her voice firm and energetic.

On Saturday morning, though, she wasnít in good shape. The nursing home staff had strapped her into her wheelchair to prevent her from wandering off (which she was prone to do if left unattended). For the whole time he was there she fidgeted with the belt and spoke restlessly in a low, mumbled voice that was difficult to hear. She was saying something about how she had to do her chores Ė she must have thought she was a teenager again, growing up on her family's farm. She needed him to help her. Could he undo the belt so she could get her chores done? Her father would be so angry with her if she didnít get them done.

He tried to hold her hands, to stop the quiet fumbling but she kept pulling away. He noticed she had spilled some of her breakfast on†her sweatshirt. He took a damp cloth from the bathroom adjoining her room to clean it off but she panicked, tried to push him away and started to shriek so he gave up.

Now, as he sat outside the home waiting for Suzanne to arrive, he tried to calm the feelings stirred by the visit. He watched the arrival of others visiting relatives or friends. He nodded at those he knew, mostly people who worked in the cannery where he was the assistant manager.

That's where Suzanne found him. She waved as she approached and he stood up. She could see the strain of the situation in the way he carried himself, shoulders furled and back slightly bent. She saw it too in a certain wariness about his face, as if he were watching her for cues on how to respond.

I hope you havenít been waiting long. She hugged him. How is she today?

Not great. He smiled anyway.

I'm sorry.

He looked away, cleared his throat and changed the subject.

So. You're the leader.

That's right.

She searched for access to the tracks. The less said about Irene the better. Still, she wanted to help, to provide emotional support. Gerry called it her natural orientation to co-dependency. In his books that wasnít as bad as what contemporary culture made it out to be. Look at what weíve done to the idea of caring for another person, he would say. Weíve made it into an emblem of oppression, declared it a symptom of having to cope with a dysfunctional environment. Weíve forgotten such gestures are heroic. They demonstrate what's good about us.

As they set out on the tracks Suzanne imagined rebutting the point, something she rarely did now. Gerry loved an argument and would go to any length to extend the exchange until she was exhausted or so angry and frustrated she had to leave the room. In her imagination, though, Gerry remained mute and attentive while she made her point: You needed clarity of motivation and a selfless cause to be a hero. Maybe we care for someone because if we donít things might change and we fear change. Can we love and fear at the same time? Of course. But that doesnít make us heroes.

You donít believe in heroes! Exclaimed the imagined Gerry, horrified.

It's warm out here.

Alex's voice brought her attention back to her surroundings. She heard the steady percussion of their hiking boots against the railway ties punctuated by the crunch of gravel.

Yes, it is. She stopped and pulled out two water bottles from her knapsack and handed one to Alex. A soybean field stretched to one side of the tracks. On the other was a field occupied by plants with clusters of broad, low-lying leaves.

What are those? She asked.

Alex shaded his eyes, thinking he should have brought a hat or, at the very least, remembered his sunglasses.

Sugar beets. They grow them for a plant in Michigan. At one time, apparently, the beets were the biggest crop around here. But they're bad for the land. That's what the guys who grow them wonít admit to you. Theyíre brutal to get out at harvest. It's like doing a Caesarean section on the earth.

Thatís a bit harsh.

Suzanne took another swig of her water and asked Alex if he was done. He handed her his bottle and she returned both to the knapsack. He volunteered to carry the knapsack for a while but she told him she was fine. They set out again.

I'll never get used to it here. She stepped over a tie. Iím too used to the city. I miss the crowds. The stores, oh the stores. The busy-ness of it. Here itís just so empty. You've adjusted, though. You move like the people here do.

To demonstrate what she meant, she slowed down and took big steps that didn't seem to carry her very far.

You even speak like they do, you know, 'Good day' and then that tortuous silence. There's sometimes I think you'll walk away and leave it at that. You're just like them that way Ė the men I mean; the women are more talkative. You know, I couldn't believe it, at first, when you told me you grew up in Toronto.

Alex laughed. You might see me like that but to the people here I'll always be an outsider because I'm not Seafarris born and bred.

He thought about the dozens of ways people communicated this to him: being puzzled by his humour or engaging in small talk that rarely diverged from the weather. If he didn't understand a reference in a story someone was telling Ė a nickname or a past event Ė there was a slight hesitation before an explanation was offered. Occasionally the only explanation he would receive was one of those patronizing looks implying if he really wanted to know, well, he should have been around back then.

Suzanne tapped him on the arm.

There it is.

They picked up their pace until they reached the stand then left the tracks, skidding down the gravel slope and into the ditch.

The plants were big, bigger than Alex, who was almost six feet. Standing up close, he was impressed not only with their size but also with the seed heads, splayed on a central stem, dimpled and segmented like a turkey's foot.

So what do you think? Are they?

I think so; Alex closed his eyes, trying to remember the photographs in one of his gardening books.

You didn't bring a picture? I can't believe you didn't bring something to check it with.

No, I mean yes. It is.

You're sure?

I'm sure.

Suzanne smiled, pleased she had been right about the plants.

I thought they were. Here, letís celebrate.

She set her knapsack on the gravel slope and pulled out a book of matches and a joint, wrapped in a sandwich bag. She lit the joint and drew the smoke with well-practiced intakes of breath.

Want some?

Alex took the joint. It had been a long time since he had indulged. As he held the smoke down in his lungs he became aware of a cracking sound coming from the fields. Grasshoppers. He accepted the joint from her again. It felt like their legs were clicking inside of him. The thought of it made him laugh. Smoke he had been trying to hold down escaped. All of a sudden it seemed like too much of an effort to stand up, so he sat down. Suzanne joined him. They passed the joint back and forth until it was gone, then stared at the big bluestems.

Did you know, he said to Suzanne, they have roots that are twenty feet long?

No.

Her voice sounded raspy. He thought about that for a moment, about its appeal.

Yeah, that's how they survive. But even still. Even still.

He'd lost his thought.

Even still, what?

Even still, he leaned over and rubbed Suzanne's knee. It was one of those things he'd do with 'Reenie.

The European weeds can choke 'em out. That's why they have to do controlled burns. It kills the other weeds but the indigenous plants survive.

What?

There was an anxious tone to Suzanne's voice. He became aware of touching her knee and drew back.

Oh, sorry. I'm sorry.

No, no, it's nothing.

And it was nothing: a harmless pat on the knee.

She rose; so did he. They approached. He repeated how sorry he was. She was still thinking it was nothing, even as they kissed.

They explored under clothes and roved through sensations. The faint citrus smell of Suzanne's grey-brown hair. Alex's gauntness. The hard bumps on Suzanne's areolas. The remarkable softness of Alex's skin beneath his shirt. The more they touched, the more urgent they became.

When they finished, they sat side by side and held hands. The drug was wearing off and Alex became aware of a growing discomfort. He looked at Suzanne and saw how the tiny muscles in her face had tensed. It was as if they were both on the brink of new territory. The thought frightened him. He had no desire to jump into an unknown.

So he told her this: Itís not that Iím not, well, attracted to you. Youíre wonderful. But. We got carried away. It was the dope. Thatís all.

As he spoke, her expression relaxed.

I'm so glad you see it that way, she said. I wasn't sure how to tell you.

They spoke very little on the way back to the road. When they arrived at the nursing home, Alex offered to drive her to the restaurant as she had walked from town. The air in the car was stale and warm and Alex felt the beginnings of a headache. When they arrived at the restaurant and she was just getting ready to go, he grabbed her hand.

Good luck. He meant in her life, with Gerry, with getting what she wanted.

Suzanne looked at the restaurant and felt the guilt. Its arrival had been such a slow and gentle process she hadn't even noticed its presence until now. She pulled her hand away.

I should go.

He watched her walk through the main entrance, then put the car in drive and headed home.

Let it go, Alex, is what 'Reenie used to say when he felt like this. Do you really think when youíre lying on your deathbed this one moment is going to matter all that much?

He hung on to this thought as he steered the car into the garage. He went into the kitchen, knowing he should probably make something to eat Ė it was way past lunch Ė but cracked a beer instead and sat at the table. The house was quiet. It was the heavy time of day, late afternoon.

He went upstairs to rest and must have slept because when he next looked at the clock it was nearly seven.

He foraged in the kitchen for something to eat and found a frozen dinner. As he waited for it to cook, he looked out at the back yard at the slash of loam in the grass where he had decided to put the indigenous garden and at the beds by the fence that contained ĎReenieís perennials, overrun by weeds.

It all seemed so futile: what 'Reenie had planted, what he was trying to develop. He fought the feeling, telling himself that it was a hangover from the afternoon. He would weed 'Reenie's beds, that's what he would do, to get his mind off things. He went outside and started with the closest bed. He worked until the mosquitoes started to bite and he became distracted enough to notice the spreading silence. No more lawn mowers. No more parents calling for children. No more clatter of skateboards. He started to pile the weeds into the wheelbarrow and discovered many of 'Reenieís plants also lay on the grass. It was too dark to replant them. Most wouldn't survive until morning.

Could he do nothing right?

He wanted to kick the wheelbarrow, to pummel its sides, to put a scare in the universe by yelling at it. With his head lowered and his chest heaving like he was preparing to tackle, he stared at the wheelbarrow filled with all of those dying things and thought over and over again, what good will that do? What good will that do?

About The Author

Author

Mary Baxter is a London, Ontario writer and journalist who specializes in agriculture. Recognition for her journalism includes second place in special projects in the 2010 North American Agricultural Journalists awards, the 2009 Canadian Farm Writers Federation gold award for monthly reporting and the 2007 Canadian Association of Journalists award for best magazine story(joint winner). Her poetry has been published in regional publications serving Grey and Bruce Counties and in the former online journal Niederngasse. She holds an Honours B.A. in English from the University of British Columbia and a M.Phil. in Anglo-Irish Literature from Trinity College, University of Dublin.

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