If the World Gives You Lemons, Make Lemonade;
If It Gives You Onions, Peel 'em an' Cry for a While
by Tom Sheehan
It's no skin off my nose; When goodness gets laced with effusive sweetness, it often loses its taste. I've seen it so many times in my small corner of the world and it was the kick-start of this story.
That phrase, or the whole tone of it, had been running through my mind for much of the morning while I was on my knees at garden chores, and I spotted the older and elegant runner approaching my house again, but this time on my side of the street. In his manner, and certainly in his persistence for more than ten years, I had seen him in his highly erect though stiffest stride, going through our small town of Saugus, all on this easterly side of Route 1 as it runs north out of Boston. Too, I had been making my own walks about town since retirement, my figure eights as I called them, looping through town since retirement, each single loop worth about 8 miles, thus 16 miles in all for the full circuit.
I'd never encountered him out and about on our rounds in all the years, only seeing him pass my home as I worked the front garden, him elusive, shadowy at first, mere apparition, being so thin.
But the differences mounted with each sight, my mind taking turns wondering about his personality as much as his statured self, there being somehow an almost physical essence in both extremes, solid evidence to satisfy the curious; oh, at times it was nearly touching the man at the root of his soul; that's close enough for stars if you think hard about the differences. What drive, I wondered with wide compass, made him run? What gear did he shift into? What part of his soul bolstered the decision?
My own healthful ambles traced roads I had known for almost a lifetime, where I saw faces I recognized for half my life, where new faces so recently met put their names into place, where new construction or remodeling or paint jobs sparked an old road or corner, inserting comfortable character changes never admitting me to loss.
I came to realize an unseen engine drives the unseen soul, hunger selecting the target, pulling it or shoving it onward.
Those thoughts took me into fleeting arguments. Such great secrets keep to themselves more than secrets of physical history, archeology even in the excitement of grand discovery, or hearing that medical science might find a cure for shingles or Lyme disease at laboratories half a world apart, in different lands, different cultures, announced in different languages nearly at the same moment, like echoes of fireworks or cannons at long distances depending on the emplaced power charge.
Measurements, however feeble, started to form an elastic opinion, however too early, too unjust. In truth I knew little else about the half walker/half runner who so often, I figured, must pass my house on his rounds. It's a cinch I never saw him each time because my cycle at garden work had no regular hours, only needs of the day, the weeds, the weather, the ground animals loose at this end of the river where my house sits just above it near the First Iron Works in America's reconstruction site into a National Park.
And here came the man again, the long years' worth of him, thin as a spike, a dip to one shoulder, a small hitch in his gait, wearing an older type undershirt with no sleeves and no shoulders but a proud and fancy "H" on the left side as if marking his heart's location. At first I thought he was a Harvard man, or Hebron Academy or a Hofstra alumnus and still on the run. Down deep I did not think he was a Hank or a Heck or Hog or even a Hughie. Each undershirt he wore carried the slightly elegant "H," each one slightly different in one manner or another, as if a seamstress sewed them on demand; most likely his wife, I thought, for the first sure pronouncement, the lone embroiderist.
I also tried to consider him as being a Hubert or a Howard or a Harold and went so far as to remember an old teacher from the dim past who demanded his friends call him no nickname but the name his father gave him, Hethrington (a dim failure of identification if you'd agree.) None of these fit worth a whistle.
This "H" spoke for the very first time, with a Dylan Thomas sort-of-voice swelling up from such a thin frame, its tone thick and smack full of crags, dales, fells, gaels, glens. It was resonant and durable despite his not so cavernous chest. I could not remember how many times I had dropped a CD into place and heard that voice in its particular brilliance carve the scene, "Do not go gentle into that good night."
"Please excuse my interruption," he said, in a formal introduction of a sort, "but for years I have watched you and your garden grow."
A wide smile of satisfaction crossed his face as if he had practiced the words at length, memorized them, appreciating his own humor and hoping I did the same, "And without fail for all those years they have been excellent. Your flowers are beautiful, every year, every kind, no matter what name they share, so much so that I have driven my wife past here many, many times over those years to allow her to see them. She is enthralled too."
"H" took no shortcuts in his speech, making me think of a phrase --- "cutting to the chase."
"By gosh, ... " I said, with space and time allowed for his name to be entered in the blank, as if asking it to be added without my saying so, like "cutting to the chase" says.
I was in a mood swing; there could have been music. As a duo we deserved it, strangers in sync.
"Reginald," he replied. "She calls me Reggie. Her name is Adelaide. I call her nothing but Adelaide or Sweetheart. She loves your flowers, your arrangements, your success with the variety of them." His whole face, the thinness of it, was lit up like a klieg light, filling his eyes with a high blue, making his lips curve in a mirthful and minor pleasure. He'd be an ace in front of a class at any level, and all the students would heed his words. That truth sank deep into my understanding.
I stepped back in, reconnected. "I was about to say, Reginald, that I'll send you home with some clippings she can keep in water in a vase. I'll put them in a can you can carry home."
"Adelaide will love that, will love them." The smile was rich and authentic again. He was as honest as an old log wearing its way to infinity. Not only was that noticed by me, but the aura carried itself as broad as a headline or an announcement to the world at large. Some people hide within themselves; some people don't even know what disguise means.
I asked, pointing to the H on his thin shirt. "What does the H stand for? Harvard? Hobart? Hofstra? Hebron? Holy Cross? Hampshire? Hampton? Hanover? I can't think of any more at the moment." I had run out of breath and out of Hs. (Of course, on my end my aitches sounded like Boston Aitches, lately landed on Charlestown docks.)
He blushed a redness that showed on his shoulders, on his neck, rose up on his face in a slow but thorough ascension. "You, for your goodness, will be the only person other than Adelaide and myself who will ever know. It really is personal, but she will not mind my telling you. She does admire your flowers, your garden, the art and energy you put to them." The last part sounded as though she via her husband had blessed my work and my garden in their privacies.
I suddenly realized that he was drawing in his breath, filling that small but obviously crystal clear chest of his, to tell me something, to make it resonate, memorable. In a proud voice he said, "The H stands for Hers. (His smile was proud.) She made it on her own choice, this claim. We are a lucky couple yet in love, alone, in a small house, happy as we can be. But I am no gardener and she is undoubtedly a stitcher and sewer of excellent degree. I mostly can walk about town on my journeys while she does her work and when I come home she insists I have to tell her about the whole trip, each trip, each time, the whole mcgillicuddy."
Again, he smiled at that slight off-beat intrusion. "I tell her about each person that draws my interest, such as you. You've been a goodly topic many times in our home, in our rooms." There was not a scent of caprice about him or in his words. It was a cinch, nothing like him had walked on my side of the street ... ever. I was nodding and he was receptive.
And the comfort of idioms was reaching for me, by the handfuls, my pockets were full to the brim, a comfort zone at hand.
We two strangers, newly met, managed to cement in such a quick moment a full appreciation of a third party who obviously knew some things about me, and I began to learn more about her than the one biggest secret of all.
Reginald went off as happy as could be, with the brightest of my red roses tall in a can. Three days later I spied him coming along the way. I had been on a visit to see a cousin with a garden like mine in Belmont at the foot of a reservoir. I was still hard at memorizing its beauty and neatness.
On my front steps sat a small pot of pink geraniums waiting for Her. "Take that home to Adelaide, Reggie. She might like them." With that said, I knew the shiver of a new idea and had to burst it out lest I lose it for good. "Why don't I come over to your house, wherever you live, and set up your own garden for Adelaide. Yours and hers but we'll give it her name and fill it with potential varieties that touch her liking, spread it as far as allowable. I'm game for it. It's in the cards."
I went on a silent spree, my mind flooded. The old idioms rushed up from history, from my old reading, from my favorite characters tumbling back to me from their wherevers at the moment. In between two entities I found myself: the spell of idioms tricked me into memories, keen judgments apt as laws unto their own being. a quick language of laws and outcomes, judgments and destinies. I could not make Reggie and Adelaide talk that lingo, but the rush came on me, making them my people, becoming us, me, the palavers:
"It's all downhill from here. Every time I think I see the light at the end of the tunnel, it turns out to be the headlight of a train coming the other way. He's as sharp as a bread knife, and twice as crumby. A fool and his gold are soon parted. Go ahead, it's your nickel. He chased her until she caught him. He always got in the last word with his wife; when she said, "Shut up," he said, "Yes, dear." If you look under enough rocks, you'll find a snake. They go together like ham and eggs. Empty hands make the most noise. Why is it that we get so soon old and so late smart?"
But Reggie, with the fashionable H, had made the decision for me, "had cut to the chase," ... Now that would make a dent in the day, offered up from another soul. We'd be alone at our choice. That's really in the cards.
We had some great garden parties and Adelaide was the star. When Reginald was struck by a drunken driver and died, she came several times a week for months on end. Out of the blue, one day, she proposed that we get married. "Let's do it, right and tight."
It's been almost a year now, no mistake in it, and I think she's started to embroider another letter in the alphabet. It looks like a B. It's not for Boston College or Boston University or Bowdoin or Brown or Bentley, you can bet your bottom dollar on it. Two to one it's for Bart, which is short for Bartholomew, for which there's really no getting away from, not in this short term we call life.