Garlic

I never saw my son.  That wasn’t the way they did things in those days.  But I know he had blue eyes, because his father did and so do I.   I know about genetics because in my senior year of high school, I wrote a term paper about Gregor Mendel and his peas.  It was the first A-plus I ever got.

My story starts in Gilroy, California, which, in case you haven’t heard, is the Garlic Capital of the World.  Drive through there with your windows rolled down, and I promise you’ll never forget it.

 

Silverskin garlics are the variety you see most often in grocery stores because they keep a long time.  They’re the most popular garlics for braiding because of their smooth, shiny skin and uniform shape. 

One of my best Gilroy memories was of a white-hot day when I was six.  It was during harvest season and on that particular day, instead of helping Mama with her canning, I demanded to work alongside Daddy and “the boys”.  That’s what he called the Mexican men he hired to work in our garlic fields.  For hours, we pulled garlic bulbs, piling them like knuckle bones on the brown shoulders of endless furrows.  We’d come back a little later to gather and haul them off to the curing sheds.  It was miserable work.  I gulped all the musty-tasting water from Daddy’s canteen and my hair and shirt were plastered down, crusty with dried sweat.

After we stopped for lunch, one of the boys, who was probably ten or fifteen years older than Daddy, said something in Spanish and handed me his battered straw hat.

Daddy laughed and told me, “Josie, Rogelio here,  thinks you better put that thing on.  Otherwise, he’s afraid you might explode.”

To make it up to Mama, when I came home filthy, I brought a ratty bouquet of Ox-eye daisies and mustard flowers.

Later after dinner and dishes, Daddy and I sat on the front porch,  watching the sun crawl behind the hills.  Ending the day,  he always called it, as if it couldn’t happen unless we were there to see it.

“I was real proud of you today, Josie,”  he said and blew out a cloud of cherry blend tobacco smoke.  “You didn’t complain once and you didn’t quit.  Hold this for me, will you?”

He passed me the pipe, which had been carved from ivory and some kind of rare dark wood by my grandfather.  I accepted it with both hands, honored to be entrusted with such a sacred thing.

Daddy stood to take off his shirt and hang it on the back of his rocking chair.  I watched the muscles of his arms and chest flex with each movement and felt a kind of smug pride, as if his strength were a reflection on me.  As if somehow I deserved to have a father as strong and good as Superman.

Daddy reclaimed his pipe and after a second, I slipped my tee-shirt over my head and draped it on the back of my chair.

Through the screen door came the theme music from Ozzie and Harriet.  I turned and saw Mama sitting in the Naugahyde recliner.  She wore only her slip, because of the heat, and her skin bulged over the top, pale and puffy as risen bread dough.  In her lap, like a sprawling orange cat, was the lamb’s wool sweater she’d been trying to finish since Christmas.  I looked down at my own flat bare chest and nonexistent hips and made a vow, then and there.  I would never be like Mama.  I would never spend my days canning tomatoes.  I would never knit.  And I would never ever grow breasts.

The staccato click of her knitting needles blended with Ozzie Nelson’s confused whine, the thrum of crickets and the rhythmic creak of Daddy’s rocker.

And all of a sudden a little breeze swept across the fields and dragged the garlic perfume right to our front porch.

Daddy reached for my hand.  “Smell that, Josie! Come on, take a good whiff.”   And he stuck his big nose way up in the air to sniff like he’d never get enough.

Then he made a kind of satisfied growly sound deep in his throat.  “Mmmh! Smells like money!”

That’s the way garlic used to smell to the people who grew it.  I don’t know if it’s like that any more.

More than a decade passed and sure enough, I never did learn to can tomatoes or to knit.  But I know for sure, it wasn’t my talent that caught the judge’s eyes at the Miss Gilroy Pageant.  It takes cleavage to win beauty contests.  And I had it.

 

Purple Stripe garlic is gorgeous,  with bright purple streaks and blotches on both bulb wrappers & clove skins.  Its delicious flavor almost always wins “best baked garlic” taste tests.

 

Just a few weeks later, still flushed with victory and plans for future triumphs, I discovered I was pregnant.

The baby’s father was Gilroy’s first foreign exchange student.  His name was spelled E-e-r-o.  You pronounced it like “arrow,” which seemed kind of significant, in a pointed sort of way.

We hadn’t been on speaking terms since I learned he’d  been two-timing me with Marian, who was, coincidentally, the first runner-up in the Miss Gilroy contest and my ex-best friend.

Looking back, I see there was a kind of crazy logic to the whole thing, since   Marian and I had always done everything together.

Anyway, Eero had already packed up and gone back to Finland.

So I shredded my Miss California application and cried while I considered the options available to pregnant, seventeen-year-old beauty queens. After a couple of days, I went to Mama, who rose to the occasion like she had a steel rod implanted in her spine.

Mama took me to a doctor in Salinas and when the test came back positive, she was the one who told Daddy.

For over a week, he couldn’t even look at me.  Then, at breakfast one morning he put down his paper and said,”Josie, would you please pass me the jam.”

For a minute I thought he was starting to laugh, because I could see his shoulders were shaking, the way they did when he was waiting for everyone else to finally get the punchline.

I slid the jam jar across the table and looked up as Daddy made a terrible bawling sound, like a calf getting branded and laid his head down on the green-checked tablecloth.

Mama stepped away from the sink and stroked his hair.  “Ah, Joe….shh…it’ll be all right.”

“I’m sorry, Mama,” I whispered

She nodded and wiped her nose on her apron.

That night after dinner all three of us sat on the porch until long after the sun had gone.

In the dark, I could see the red glow of Daddy’s pipe come and go with each puff, like a blinking dragon’s eye.

Finally, he was the one who broke the silence.  “Did you love him?”

“Yes,” I said quickly. “Of course.”

But I wondered. Love?  Was that what people called those frantic minutes against the side of the Grange Hall?  Was that what those stains on the back seat of that borrowed Chevy meant?

I know I loved that Eero was from Finland, a place so far away it didn’t seem real.  But, did I love him?  I must have.  How could any girl not adore that handsome, always-smiling boy?  Tall blond Eero with his exotic, faintly accented English.  Eero who brought muscle and breath into my dreams.

 

Creole garlic is related to softneck Silverskin.  They have solid purple cloves and a sweet taste, but you can’t braid them..

 

Daddy cleared his throat and tapped his pipe against the porch railing.  Red sparks shot out like tiny exploding stars.

“Okay, Josie.  What do you think we should do?”

“She can’t keep it,”  Mama said, like they were talking about a stray kitten I’d brought home.

Something stirred inside me – something more delicate than a cabbage butterfly fanning its wings.  It might have been the baby.  Whatever it was,  it took my breath away.

“I think she should put it up for adoption,”  Mama continued. “Give it to someone who needs it. Someone who knows what they’re doing…”

I reached for my mother’s hand but couldn’t find it in the dark.

And so, when I started to show, I wrapped up my crown and mailed it to the Grange Association, along with a note saying how sorry I was that I wouldn’t be available to help with the next contest.

Then Mama and Daddy put me on the Greyhound and sent me to Bakersfield, to stay with Auntie Ethel in her red brick house.

You’d never think to look at them that Mama and Auntie were even related, much less twins.  Mama was short, round and fair.  Her sister was a tall thin brunette with olive skin.

 

Rocamboles are a hardneck variety which cannot be braided.  They have a deeper, more full-bodied flavor than softnecks and their large cloves are easily peeled.  But their loose skins are a disadvantage, causing a shorter storage life than other varieties.  Clove colors range from tan to brown. No other garlic variety forms tight loops of 1 to 3 coils shortly after the stalks appear.

My aunt sold cars at a Ford dealership and liked to brag that she’d been their top salesman five years in a row.  She wore spike heels and the ends of her fingers were stained yellow from Pall Malls.

Auntie Ethel’s cupboards were bare, except for some highball glasses, a few pieces of orange Melmac, and some little cellophane pouches of soy sauce.  She dusted her stove and kept moldy lemons next to the bottle of gin in her fridge.

Although I’m pretty sure she’d had a few flings, my aunt had never come close to marriage and kids.  And unless you counted the goldfish she’d won at a summer carnival and left to simmer on the dashboard of her car, she’d never even owned a pet.

It was clear from the way Auntie Ethel tiptoed around her own house, speaking in whispers and trying to avoid looking directly at my belly, that she didn’t know what to do with me.

Now and then she had passing fits of maternal instinct and brought home weird things for me to eat.  Things like desiccated liver powder, and Korean pickled cabbage.

It was a matter of survival when I volunteered to take over the shopping and cooking. The rest of my time was spent watching TV, reading and sleeping.

The baby was born on my birthday,  August first.  As soon as my water broke, Auntie put me in the car and started for the hospital.  By the time we arrived, I already had a good start on atoning for my sins.  The last clear thing I remember before they slapped me in stirrups and put me to sleep is an unlit cigarette, bent and dangling from Auntie’s lips.  That, I foolishly thought, was that.

So I was back in Gilroy for the start of my senior year.  Rumors had grown like mustard weeds and I could tell by the whispers and stares, as I passed alone through the crowded halls of the high school,  that everyone knew how Josie Wallace had spent her summer vacation.

The evidence was there all right, as clear as a scarlet “A.”  Anyone in the locker room during 5th period P.E. could see that the former Miss Gilroy had stretch marks.

After the first day, I moved like a ghost from classroom to classroom, forcing myself not to hear or see anyone else.  I never raised my hand even if I knew the answers, and during lunchtime, I hid in a bathroom stall.

At home, I withdrew into the solitude of my pink-and-white bedroom.  Books were my companions.  I checked out everything I could find by Thomas Hardy and Herman Hesse,  drawn in by the alienation of the characters, I suppose.

My parents closed around me like a cocoon.  Without ever explaining why, Daddy drove me to and from school every day in his old green pick-up, which meant I didn’t have to endure the twice-a-day forty-minute bus ride.

Of all the people who deserted me that year, Marian was the one I truly missed.  We’d been closer than sisters all our lives.  In kindergarten we’d insisted to everyone that we were twins, even though she was tall and dark and I was a stubby blonde.

In some indefinable way, even after Eero came between us, I continued to believe for a long time in the twinship of our souls.

I think that’s why it was such a jolt when I saw her picture in the newspaper, wearing the Miss Gilroy crown and sash.

Automatically, I picked up the phone and dialed her number.

Marian answered after the first ring, almost as if she’d been expecting me.

“Hello?” she said, her voice an echo of my own, sounded strange and familiar at the same time.  For a second, I couldn’t remember why I’d called.

‘Congratulations’ was what I meant to say,  but what came out was, “Be careful.”    I wanted to say something else.  I wanted to ask if she still thought about Eero.  But I lost my nerve and hung up.  She probably didn’t even know it was me.  To this day, I worry that Marian might have mistaken those words for a threat.  And sometimes I wonder, in a world so full of danger, was there some particular thing I wanted to warn her about?  We never spoke again.

Fall crawled past.  Auntie Ethel visited us at Thanksgiving. “You’ve lost a lot of weight, Josie,” she said.

I rejoiced at her words.  And while Mama stitched new seams, tightening my clothes over the four day vacation, I had fantasies of light passing through my body.

At Christmas, Auntie Ethel took one look at me and breathed, “Holy Christ!” and she wasn’t talking about Baby Jesus.  She grabbed my arm, pushed me toward her car and drove me out to the Frosty Freeze for a milkshake.

Auntie smoked and made smalltalk while I licked my lips and pretended to drink.

After a few minutes she said, “How is it?”

“Mmmh… good.”

Auntie ground out her cigarette and said, “Josie, I want you to drink every last drop.”

“I’m going to,” I said.  After that, I gulped the milkshake down so fast my temples throbbed.

“Thanks, Auntie.  That was delicious.”  I showed her the empty container and opened my door. “Be right back.”

“Going to the little girl’s room?”

“Yup.”

“Don’t be long.  I want to stop at Sprouse Reitz and pick up some wrapping paper on the way home.”

I locked the bathroom stall and leaned over the toilet. It was so easy by then  I didn’t even have to stick my finger down my throat.

When I got back to the car, Auntie handed me another milkshake. “One for the road,” she said. “Vanilla.”

Auntie sent a holiday snapshot a few days after she returned to Bakersfield.  At first, I couldn’t recognize the bony little gnome wedged between my parents on the couch.  But I understood very clearly the aching fear on their faces.   Seeing myself in that  picture probably saved my life.

***

Sometimes trouble comes like a flash flood.  Fast and horrible, without any warning.  That’s how it was with Daddy.  He got sick right after my graduation.  I know he would have liked to have been home, in his own bed with Mama there next to him, but he never got well enough to leave the hospital.  He was gone by the end of summer.  Cancer of the pancreas.  Fast.  Horrible.

Mama fell apart.  We slid past each other, trading places.  She became the ghost and I became the one with the steel in my spine.  I ate for the two of us.  It was me that made all the arrangements for the funeral. Daddy was cremated and  I had vague thoughts about scattering his ashes over the fields during the next plowing.  But then, before I’d even begun to sort through his clothes, a string of agri-biz vultures started showing up in their shiny air-conditioned Cadillacs, asking if we’d given any thought to selling out.

Everybody in Gilroy knew Mama and I couldn’t manage that farm by ourselves.  For a day or two I considered the possibility of hiring a foreman, but I couldn’t get used to the idea of somebody else out there working the furrows with “the boys.”

When I asked Mama what she wanted to do, her hands fluttered and she stared at the ivy wallpaper. “I don’t know,” she said. “You decide Josie.”

I bought a little time by shaving off one corner of the farm and selling it to a neighbor to cover a tax lien.  Another portion went to pay the hospital bills and funeral expenses.  But I think Daddy would have been happy that I saved the biggest piece for Rogelio and his sons.

Then Mama and I took his ashes and moved to Bakersfield to live with Auntie Ethel.

Mama drifted into a kind of “stop” mode.  It was just little things at first.  Like, she stopped brushing her hair.  Then she stopped getting dressed.  When we noticed she seemed to have stopped bathing, Auntie muttered something about getting her “looked at.”  But, it wasn’t until Mama tried to step in front of a bus, that we finally took her to see a doctor.

He gave her some pills that made her eyes glitter.  And slowly she started going through the motions of living again.  She planted a little vegetable garden just outside the kitchen door where the lawn met the walkway.  When it looked like Mama was back on track, I signed up for a few classes at the junior college.

 

Turban garlic is heavily striped, with plump cloves,  light, glossy pink to brown in color. Not only does it taste delicious, but the flower stalks make perfect 270 degree curls with their bulb capsules bobbing in the wind like birds in flight.  These plants are pretty enough to be used as ornamentals  and the tops are sometimes added to floral arrangements.

 

Gradually we settled into a routine.  Mama gardened and cooked and did laundry.    Auntie sold cars and told us silly stories about her customers, all through dinner.   I went to school, studied, cleaned the house and helped with the books at the dealership.

 

 

 

Then one evening we knew something was up when Auntie Ethel got home from work hours later than usual.

From the giggly way she said, “I have an announcement to make,” I half expected her to tell us she’d finally met Mr. Right.

“Girls, you’re looking at the new owner of the WorldWide Travel Agency in downtown Bakersfield.  So, what do you think of them apples? ”

“Very cool, Auntie.”

“Just terrific,  Ethel,” Mama nodded.  “But how will you pay for it?”

Auntie gave Mama a scornful look. “I do have a bank account, Irene.  You may be the beauty,  but I got all the brains.”

The remark caught me by surprise, triggering a nose shoot that splattered my shoes with 7-Up.  When I thought of my aunt, the word that came to mind was not brainy, it was “ditzy.”  And the idea of a beautiful woman hiding under my mother’s camouflage of frowzy aprons and middle-age spread seemed ridiculous.

Auntie’s business did so well, she decided to treat herself to a long vacation in Paris.   She’d offered to take me and Mama with her, but Mama wouldn’t leave her garden.  And I couldn’t leave Mama.  Auntie sent us dozens of postcards, mentioning   Moroccan men so often we started to wonder if she’d gotten off at the wrong stop.

 

Porcelain garlic has satiny white bulb wrappers and cloves as big as Brazil nuts. Their flavor is phenomenal, rivaling that of Rocamboles.  Because of their smooth, tight bulb wrappers, they have a longer shelf life.  

While she was away,  I worked at the travel agency.  Mama bought a rototiller and chewed up most of the lawn to expand her garden.  She also took a carpentry class and fell in love with power tools.   I supplied some of the muscle to help build her first big project; an ornate domed gazebo in the middle of  the garden.  This was not  some delicate Victorian structure.  It was made with six-inch beams and I was amazed that she was capable of thinking on such a massive scale.  As spring warmed into summer, we finished it and sat out there in the evening, listening to the crickets and watching the moonflowers unfurl.  Every day had a comfortable measured sameness to it.  Our lives were like a field lying fallow, waiting for the rumble of a new season.  And then Auntie returned.  I wanted to take her and Mama out to celebrate, but Auntie wanted to order a pizza instead.

So that’s what we did.  Mama put a Frank Sinatra record on the turntable and sang along, while I helped Auntie fixed gin and tonics.

By the time the poor pug-nosed pizza delivery boy showed up, we were all lurching around the living room singing “Fly Me to the Moon.”  Auntie flirted with him and asked if he liked to travel.  Mama kept poking me with her elbow, and asking in an audible whisper, “Isn’t he cute?”

Between hiccups, I kept saying, “Yeah,” because I didn’t want to hurt his feelings.

After he made his escape, we devoured the pizza and Auntie fixed another round of gin and tonics.  I told them they had to listen to a Rolling Stones album before I’d play any more Sinatra, but I never got around to changing it, and we drifted out to the back yard with our drinks while old Frank just kept warbling to himself.

Auntie kicked off her shoes and hiked her dress up to her thighs, as if the gathering shadows might produce a tan.

“Ending the day,” Mama sighed, and picked some cheese off her blouse.

“That’s what Daddy used to call it.  On the porch …remember?”

“Oh… I miss that pipe,” Mama said. “What’d you do with it, Josie?”

“It’s around… somewhere. Why?”

“I wanna smell it, that’s why.”

“You want to smell the pipe?”

“Smoking, damn it. I wanna smell somebody smoking it.”  Mama’s sorrow oozed between her words, like fresh mortar between bricks.

“Go on, Josie,” Auntie Ethel said. “Go on and get it.  I’ll smoke it for her.”

I went to my room and got the urn out of the top of my closet.  During the move from Gilroy, the ashes had sifted into the bowl of the pipe.  They weren’t ashes like you’d get from a fireplace.  They were more like sand and grit with a few bigger fragments.  I tapped the pipe on the rim of the urn and wiped the outside with the hem of my blouse.

It took me a couple of minutes to find the shoebox that held Daddy’s last book of matches and his pouch of tobacco.  I was almost hoping Mama had given up and gone to bed. But she was still out there,  with her chin on her knees, staring up at the stars and singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

“OK, here,” I said, handing the stuff to my aunt. “Think maybe I’ll hit the hay.”

“Stay,” Mama said. “Please? Just a few minutes.”

“All right. Fine.” I plopped down next to her and she slid her arm around my shoulder.

Auntie Ethel filled the pipe like she’d been doing it all her life.  I watched her narrow fine-featured face lit by the match as she held it over the bowl while her lips made a smacking sound against the stem.

I closed my eyes when the first whiff of cherry-scented smoke floated past and it did almost seem like he was there.

“Joe,” Mama whispered and leaned against me.

A tear slid down my cheek.  I don’t know if it was hers or mine.  After a while I said, “It’s gone out…” and reached to take the pipe.

Auntie Ethel pushed my hand away. “I’m not finished.”

“Would have been twenty-five years,” Mama snuffled. “Next month. Silver…”

Auntie grabbed my shoulder to support herself and got to her feet, swaying. “You’re not the only one who loved him. Don’t ever forget that, Irene.”

The meaning of her words hit me like a splash of icy water and I was suddenly sober.

We watched Auntie wobble across the yard and disappear into the house.  A cloud oozed past the moon., leaving us in the dark.

“Why didn’t you tell me she was in love with him?”

“I didn’t know,” Mama said.  “Not for sure.  Until now.”

“But Daddy?  He didn’t—“

“Stop.  He was a good man.  That’s what you should remember.”  Mama stood and kissed the top of my head.

***

In the fall,  we planted six varieties of garlic;  Rocambole, Porcelain, Purple Stripe, Creole, Silverskin, and Turban.  And there we finally put Daddy to rest.   

All these years later, we’re still together, a house full of women.  Mama teaches an adult ed class she calls Power Tools for Little Women with Big Ideas and another one called The Tao of Garlic.   Auntie’s travel agency is dying on the vine but she still leads a guided tour to Paris every spring.  She’s offered me a trip anywhere I want to go.  I think of Finland sometimes, but I’ll never go because the Finland I dream about doesn’t really exist.   I work in obstetrics at St Luke’s, where there’s a dwindling stream of frightened little girls, who imagine their problems will vanish when the pain stops.  I try to do for them what no one did for me.  I hold their hands and breathe with them, singing them through the last seconds of their own childhood.

About Linda Stewart-Oaten

Linda Stewart-Oaten’s fiction and non-fiction have appeared in Kalliope, Eureka Literary Magazine, Barbaric Yawp, The Sun, The Chattahoochee Review, CollectedStories.com, the Santa Barbara Independent, Prime Number, Yellow Medicine Review and elsewhere. She’s a member of the Wiyot Tribe, Table Bluff Reservation in Northern California but lives in Santa Barbara, where she’s working on a novel. More information may be found on her website: http://lindastewart-oaten.com
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