The Unknowableness of Things

by Dave Northrup
It was that rarest of March days, quiet, windless, awaiting the wanton call of Spring. Under a milk glass sky warm air rose gently from the earth, and pale green buds flecked the dark tree branches above Forbes Street.

***

I'd wandered along that street in summers past. Those had been excursions taken by a boy on a bicycle, each year pedaling a little farther east from the safety of my grandmother's house. Beyond the intersection of Schuyler stood East Main Street School, a massive two-story brick structure whose treeless asphalt-paved recess yard was surrounded by high iron pickets. Past the school were closely set clapboard houses with front doors approached by narrow side porches. Then at the corner of Dean Street, Forbes widened a bit. On the north side of the street stood a small Polish grocery run from the ground floor of a house whose entrance fronted the sidewalk. If the summer afternoon were hot enough, and I had the money, I'd brave the garlic-soured air of the shop's interior to buy a popsicle. Standing in the meager shade just outside the doorway I'd quickly chew the flavored ice.

I saw with a child's eyes then, believing myself invisible to adults, and paid no heed to the customers who had to push past me as they entered or left the store. Nearly all were old women, short, rotund; even on the hottest July afternoons their heads were covered by thin white scarves. I remember we called them "bop-chees". I didn't know why. It would be years before I cared to learn that the word was Polish for "grandmother", and how to say it correctly.

Past the grocery Forbes narrowed. On the south side was a block of five row houses whose front yards consisted of concrete that was a continuation of the sidewalk. Each house had an identical green door set next to a large rectangular window. And below each window sat a long wooden box filled with colorful flowers. Across the street from the row houses sat an imposing brick apartment block, each of its three stories fronted by a wide porch. One of the flats on the first floor belonged to Petyr, a DP who'd been in my class at East Main School. I'd been in his apartment only once, let into the large kitchen through the back door so we could dry off after spending a winter afternoon sledding in Urban's lot. What I especially remembered was the brightness of the kitchen, a light so white it seemed almost blue, and a crowd of younger children, Petyr's brothers and sisters, running about. Whether or not his parents were there, I don't recall.    
Next to the apartment house the overhead doors of Redding's Bottling Plant were open to a cavernous shadowy interior from which the hiss of machinery and clanking of glass assaulted my ears. Beyond Redding's the street rose sharply then leveled to a long, gentle incline. The houses on the north side of the street clung to a hill so steep their first floor porches were reached by wooden stairs anchored to the earth. On the opposite side, the walk skirted a sharp drop-off. Below sat the flat roofs of buildings along East Main Street glaring in the summer sun.

Close to its end, the houses and sidewalks disappeared and Forbes Street split in two: to the left was a narrow lane for cars coming off the steep Vrooman Avenue hill; to the right lay a rutted, potholed drive for the infrequent vehicle whose owner was willing to risk his brakes on the precipitous descent to East Main Street. I often stopped at the entrance to that drive, sitting on my bike, one foot propped on the guard rail at the top of the steep ravine that fell away to East Main. In the dappled shade of locust trees and scrub maple seedlings, I'd spy on the back porches of a tenement. I once witnessed a family fight, a father suddenly slapping his daughter, who looked to be about my age, hard across the face before dragging her by the arm into the apartment. The screen door banged shut after them. The sound of the girl's crying floated up to me. I think that was the first time I witnessed the violence in others' lives.

That scene had taken place the previous summer, and during the winter as I'd sat trying to warm myself next to the parlor oil stove that reeked of greasy kerosene, the episode kept coming back to me. The sight and sound of the slap rankled, darkened my memories of the warm breeze and gentle light of life under the trees. I got to thinking that what I'd seen was how complex and mysterious and violent the lives of others could be. Then I started longing for the ignorance of such things that is the child's lot. But I couldn't get that feeling back. I'd gotten older, and the larger world had reared up suddenly before me becoming a maze that I feared I'd have trouble navigating. But I couldn't ignore it, for it both repelled and attracted me. Despite the dangers that lurked out there, I wanted to see how far I could go into the labyrinth.

On those iron-bound winter days I also dreamed of my aunt's garden. When I hadn't been out exploring Forbes Street I'd often spend summer afternoons among the maze of flowering plants-zinnias, foxgloves, snapdragons, poppies-that filled the area before the stonewall at the back of our yard. But my favorite time of year to be back there in the garden was late spring, when the forget-me-nots were in bloom. The robins' egg blue of their blossoms had a depth that bewitched me. They looked like turquoise jewels that had magically appeared from the dark earth. I used them as a sign post to mark the end of winter. They helped to make some sense of the mystery of the world.

***

In the pale light of the March afternoon the illustrations on the seed packets that had come in the mail glowed before my eyes. Blue stars of forget-me-nots; neat little zinnia buttons in yellow, red and magenta; layered pansy petals looking like moth wings of deep purple, yellow and pink. I practiced spreading the packets out, as I imagined I would do before my customers, certain their colors would speak for me, assure me of success.
My first customers were my grandmother and maiden aunt who lived in the flat below.

"I understand someone has flower seeds to sell," my aunt giggled as she opened the backdoor on that Saturday morning letting me into the kitchen that still held winter's damp.

"Yup," I ventured, and said no more. Words might lessen the effect of the brilliant rainbow I carefully laid before my grandmother who sat stoop-shouldered at the table. She rocked back and forth a bit, and scooped up all but one of the packets of forget-me-nots.

"There's a little something extra for your trouble." With a smile she reached up presenting me with a dollar bill for forty cents worth of packets.

"Well, that's it!" grandma exclaimed.

That was a comment I'd come to understand she used when our conversations were at an end, so I turned to look at my aunt, whose smile boded well for further sales.

"Think you'll have any luck out there today?" she asked.

Her question startled me. It cast doubt on the visual power of my wares, and worse, it shifted our relationship in a subtle way, suggesting I'd lost the child's right to definite acclaim. Now it seemed she spoke to me as one adult to another, speculating on the unknowableness of things. I wasn't sure I was ready for the challenge.

"Sure. It's warm enough now, I hope."

"Well, when you get back let me see what you have left. Ok? No use letting your time and effort go to waste."

I gathered up the packets, separating the lone envelope of forget-me-nots from the rest and without turning round strode out of the kitchen into the warmer air.

I crossed Schuyler hill and hurried along the sidewalk next to the schoolyard's low brick wall topped by the iron bars. Beyond the bars and below me lay the lumpy asphalt where I'd once played out the heroic fantasies of recess. The distance from where I stood to the school's windows now seemed only a couple of arm's lengths beyond the pickets.

My footfalls thundered along a porch. The twist bell in the center of the front door let out a low, sullen growl, and when the drab curtains behind the glass remained motionless, I turned the knob again with all my might. This time the low growl built to a clarion call and the curtain shook. The door latch clicked sharply then the squeak of the hinges rose over the dying of the bell and I stepped back, girding for my first customer.
An old woman about my height stood in the doorway looking at me. Her brow was smooth, chalky white with a tracery of bluish veins. Large watery grey eyes gave her a distracted look.

"Uh?" she asked, raising her bony chin toward me.

The word was tentatively uttered, but the nod gave me courage and so I spoke quickly, surprised at the loudness of my voice.

"I'm here selling seeds...flower seeds for the summer. Would you like to buy any?"

She turned walking back into the room. I drew from my pocket a handful of packets, separating out the forget-me-nots, and followed her. When she reached the dining room, she turned to me and I fanned the chosen packets across the tabletop. While she studied what was offered, I looked about at the profusion of framed photographs hung on the walls and arranged across the top of the hulking buffet that dominated the room. In the silence I gazed at single portraits and what looked like gatherings at weddings and picnics. There was even a shot of people standing stiffly and somber-faced around a closed coffin. What held my attention were all the faces, of men and women, boys and girls. I began to wonder what their lives had been like. Many of the photos were faded into smudged tones of sepia and grey. It seemed that soon these remnants of long ago lives would vanish forever. I began to wonder what it had been like to live in that long ago world.

"I see you're looking at all my pictures."

Her voice was loud and brought me back into the room.

"Well, they're all gone now, an' the only living things I got left is my flowers."

I was startled by what seemed the brutal honesty of her words.

"I'll take these ones," she said and held her choices up for me to count. She drew from her apron pocket a man's large leather purse, carefully unfolded it, rummaging about inside until she found the fifty cents.

"You ain't got no forget-me-nots, huh? I always liked forget-me-nots, but looks like you ain't got none of those," the old woman declared, and looked down, her thin lips set in a grimace of disappointment.

"Uh, no. I sold those already," I lied, clutching the last packet of the blue flowers in my pocket.

She raised her head and looked directly at me, blinking rapidly. Her eyes came clear, losing their watery, unfocused look.

"Well, you gonna get anymore? Cause I'd buy 'em from you if you did."
The voice was loud, demanding, the words pushed at me, driving me back a step.

"I don't know," I said, "I'll have to see. If I can, I'll be back. Maybe in a week."

I pocketed the money and stepped back further onto the porch. She held the door ajar staring at me.

" If you got them, I'll buy 'em."

Then her voice sank to a whisper and nodding at me she offered confidentially, "I always liked forget-me-nots."

I felt a warm blush rising along my throat and turning moved farther down the porch toward the street. My footsteps did not sound nearly as loud as when I'd arrived.

"Ok. If I can, I'll come back," I called over my shoulder then hurried away along the sidewalk.

As the distance between the old woman and me grew, I thrust a hand into my pocket and felt the bulk of the coins and folded dollar. At the corner of Dean Street I decided to turn and walk up the steep incline, remembering that at the top, Dean veered to the right and leveled off into a wooded lane flanked by small houses. Surely there'd be customers who'd want flower seeds up there. But when I got to the top I found myself wandering along a narrow road where the skeletons of wild looking trees grew right to the edge of the cracked asphalt. Ahead the lane turned and looked like it went all the way up to Cork Hill, a neighborhood I'd heard about, but had never been to. Retracing my steps, I found Forbes Street again.
                                              
In the distance stood the neat row houses, solid and prosperous looking in the quiet air. I walked up to the first door and glanced at the flower box filled nearly to the top with dark earth that looked as though it had been freshly turned in preparation for planting. When I pressed the button a buzzer sounded just inside the door, but there came only silence in reply. I pressed again, longer this time. The buzzer's rasp rattled the door-frame, and seemed to shake the outer wall. I waited then moved along the fissured concrete to the next door. Finding no response there, I went to the third and then the fourth, but those doors remained closed to me as well.  At the last door the plastic button turned to powder under my thumb, and I glanced at the cracked, unpainted sill of the large window warped away from the outer wall. I stepped back and looked around at the deserted neighborhood. Beyond the lowered doors of Redding's plant lay the steep rise of Forbes Street, its emptiness barring my way.

I glanced across the street at Petyr's apartment. Behind the railing of the front porch the windows caught the meager rays of the late afternoon sun, glinting a welcome in gold and orange. Quickly I walked around to the back and stood at the curtained glass of the kitchen door. From inside I heard a woman's voice singing what sounded like a lullaby. I rapped at the glass. The edge of the curtain was pushed aside, a thick hand quickly wiped the fog from the inside of the pane, and dark eyes looked out at me.

"I'm selling seeds," I called loudly.

The curtain closed, the door latched clicked and I was let into the kitchen where I stood looking at the round face of a short plump woman whose brown hair, streaked with grey, was pulled sharply back from her smooth forehead into a greasy-looking bun. On one hip rode a white haired toddler naked to the waist. The air, moist, thick with the odors of cooked cabbage and laundry, settled over me.  I unbuttoned my coat before taking the seed packets from my pocket.

"I'm selling seeds," I repeated.

The toddler reached over and grabbed my sleeve.

"These are all annuals," I offered, and was met with a blank stare, so I added helpfully, "I know Petyr. I've been here before, a couple of years ago in the wintertime, and now I'm selling flower seeds in the neighborhood."

The mother and her child remained silent, both looking down at the brightly colored packets in my hands.

"Petyr?" she finally asked, her round chin dipped a bit as if nodding approval while a smile played about her ruddy lips.

"That's right. I know Petyr, but I haven't been in his class for a while. Anyway, I've got these flower seeds to sell. Maybe you'd like these. We call these pansies and these here are zinnias. They're nice and colorful. And these," I added as I slowly drew the last packet from my pocket, "look how beautiful the blue ones are. We call them forget-me-nots."

"Flowers."

"That's right," I said smiling and nodding.

"I have," she began, and stopped. I waited. Her face flushed and brow wrinkled with the effort to find the words.

"I have, how you say, now no money."

Her voice was low, guttural, yet full of the pulse of life that seemed to fill the kitchen, and my heart, with encouragement.

"Oh, that's ok'" I said quickly. "I can come back again when you do. I could come back next weekend, next Saturday. Yes?"

"Yes, yes," she said slowly, nodding, and broke into a grin that showed crows feet around her eyes and deeper lines about her lips.

"Now no money," she repeated.

***

The wind drove a frantic dance of sun and shadow making Forbes Street alive with the anticipation that had built in my heart since the previous Saturday. Through the iron pickets surrounding East Main School I saw a mob of children running madly about the recess yard. As I walked, several vehicles passed in the street, the last one screeching to a stop behind a parked car to let oncoming traffic pass. I approached the old woman's house and saw the glass of the front door dark in the shadows at the end of her porch. The place seemed dead, closed against the busy life of the street. I stood fingering the packets of seeds in my pocket. She was just an old woman, and I felt angry at her.  Her photographs and the words she had used to talk about forget-me-nots were ignorant and low class. How could she have let her life come to that? I walked quickly on.

The front of the Polish grocery was crowded with customers, men as well as women, giving way to one another as they entered and left the store. Sweet's Ice truck was at the curb, the grinder on its back end producing a roaring clatter as it devoured chunks of ice held over the chute by a darkly clad man manipulating a pick and tongs. I decided to keep to the opposite side of the street and moved on. In front of the row houses, a swarm of children busied themselves drawing on the sidewalk with pieces of chalk. Not wanting to draw attention to myself, I turned from them and walked toward the path that led to Petyr's backdoor.

My knock went unanswered. The curtain that had covered the door glass had been pushed aside and so I stood there peering into the empty kitchen. Along the far wall was a large white sink, to the left an open doorway looked like it gave onto a brighter room. Above the sink, shelving rose to the ceiling, and each time the sun broke through the clouds the edges of stacked plates and pots and pans glittered in the light. To the right on the wide windowsills many small cups held whitish, willowy seedlings. I rapped again, this time in a sharp lengthy staccato. The woman's shadow appeared in the doorway near the sink, and then I saw her moving quickly toward me. Unsmiling, she undid the latch and opened the door. This time the kitchen was cool, and devoid of odor. I took a deep breadth of the empty air and began.

"I came back," I said. "With the seeds. I was here last Saturday, remember? You said you'd have the money this week."

"No, no, no. No money now, no money," she said without hesitation.

A child's cry suddenly erupted from somewhere beyond the kitchen. Petyr's mother frowned and raised one hand, palm outward, toward me. With the other she pushed the door shut, then pulled the curtain closed. The latch clicked sharply and I turned away. Through Forbes Street's jumble of light and sound I made my way home.

"Did you sell all your seeds?"

The voice came high, strident, breaking through the singsong echo of "no money now, no money" repeating in my ears. I had come round the corner of the house to find my aunt standing erect in the bright sun against the stone wall at the back of the yard. Her thick-gloved hands held a trowel and small rake. At her feet lay a low mound that shone like wet earth, but was a lighter brown color mottled with darker clumps. The rancid odor of fresh manure stole upon me, and I backed toward the steps to the porch.

"Yeah. Most of them. I'm headed upstairs right now."

"Well, leave what you didn't sell by the backdoor and stop down later so's I can give you your money. I've got to get this manure spread. It needs plenty of time to rot before the end of May."

I didn't reply. Holding my breath I drew the packets from my pocket, tossing all of them including the forget-me-nots before the door, then hurried up the stairs.
Dave Northrup's fiction is set exclusively in the eastern Mohawk Valley of upstate New York and often deals with characters coming of age in a region that in the course of the twentieth century has suffered the economic and social upheaval characteristic of the American South during the 1800's.

© 2016, Dave Northrup