What Washes Ashore | Exchanging an old friend for a lime tree and a Buddha. | By R.E. Faro
Change is a constant I have come to understand, if not accept, but this is too much. After 20-some years of living next door, Rita is shipping out to Santa Barbara. According to a cycle that plugs in once a decade, a backflow of money surges northward from Silicon Valley and house prices float toward the heights of the Transamerica Pyramid. Fifteen years ago it was Gussie who was washed out to sea or more accurately, inland to Pleasanton.
Now, Rita is cashing in.
Santa Barbara. If it were Borneo or Iceland, I might understand. Well, I do understand. Her mother died, and she inherited a double-wide on a hill with a view of the Pacific. She won’t have to worry about money again. She will be cozy and comfortable. I should not begrudge her that but it seems that a life sailing under the tri-color of resistance, nonconformity, and rapture is about to settle into the tepid bath of Santa Barbara.
Her living room is a warren of boxes. This would be the part I hate most if I didn’t hate all parts equally. She calls to ask if I want her copy of Moby-Dick. How about the lime tree? Her vinyl collection? No and no and no.
Maybe the lime tree. The limes have added zest to many a gin and tonic. The tree is wondrously fertile and sits in a huge terra-cotta pot that she paid a fortune for at Smith and Hawken when they were going out of business. The pot was a trigger that started a surprising garden renaissance, prior to which her garden could be characterized in one word: redwood. Thanks to Hector’s strong back, sharp loppers, and willingness to scamper, a sunny patio with a raised bed materialized. Now you can nibble arugula from a semi-recumbent position.
This was the Hector who provided more or less the same service, and other services, I suspect, to Vikki. I warned Rita when I recommended him that Hector has a tendency toward excessive control, and over time plants in his care veer into geometry. I need not have been concerned. Even Hector could not pull off that feat in Rita’s selva. But he did open the canopy so that the lime tree gets enough sun to squeeze out a few fruit.
The phone rings. “Hector is here with a dolly, and he can bring over the lime tree but he needs a hand. Are you available?”
No and no and no, I mutter as I go out the back door. Where will we put it? I don’t have a good idea.
Hector has gotten the lip of the dolly under the pot, but it needs to be tipped into the cradle. My job is to tilt it while Hector leans back and braces the dolly. It seems impossible and would be impossible if someone besides me informed Hector. He doesn’t listen to me. We lift, shift, pry, and pray until the whale breaches and settles into the cradle. I won’t bother mentioning the uneven walkway, the five or maybe six steps and the soggy lawn as we waddle toward the gate which turns out be too narrow to get the tree through. Without a moment’s hesitation Hector lifts the gate and its frame up and out and sets it aside. Hector knows the lay of the land. I hope it will be that simple getting the gate back to where it functions in its customary good-enough fashion. Good-enough fences make good-enough neighbors.
I can tell this is testing the limits of even Hector’s muscular forearms. Bumping over the flagstone walkway and up the steps to the lawn, I picture the crash, lime tree shipwrecked on the path amid jagged mountains of terra-cotta. I picture my foot crushed and my next six months walking like Captain Ahab. Then I wonder if I’m messing up my shoulder, though I’m doing only a tenth of the lifting. But Hector is not a hero for nothing. The pot is given one last heave-ho and is safely upon my weed incubator of a lawn. Now it’s just a question of rolling it to a spot where it doesn’t look like it was just plopped there, somewhere it was meant to be. I activate my aesthetic positioning device.
Recalculating . . . recalculating . . . Maybe another day.
“Here are some blueberries,” Rita says, handing them to me at the back door. “I don’t want them to spoil while I’m away.”
“How long will you be gone?”
“Just a week. Then I’ll be back to finish packing. I’m starting to wonder if my niece Samantha is going to meet me at the airport. She keeps texting me and I call her back, but she doesn’t answer her phone. She never answers her phone. It took me five minutes to text call me after I inadvertently sent at least three texts of complete gibberish, so I’m not sure she even saw it. I’m sure she’s thinking, what is the problem with that old bag?” Rita is laughing, despite her anxiety. Letting go of your life apparently gives you a kind of buoyancy. “Samantha calls my phone a ‘phart-phone’ as in old you-know-whats. ‘With a p-h,’ she says. She doesn’t understand that for me getting this phone was a brave leap into the modern world. I don’t have the spring for another. Or more to the point, the desire. My phone, poor thing, is just a phone. It’s annoying enough without having it glued to my extremity.”
“This is a weird thing to say,” I offer, accepting the blueberries, “but you know what all the pods and pads make me think of? How in certain cultures 10 years ago you didn’t see women in burqas but now you do? In the same way 10 years ago you saw maybe one guy on a laptop down at the cafe. Now every table is a workspace, it’s a damn study hall.”
“I get the idea. Cy-berqa. The tent is the content. Only the eyes are free.”
“Exactly. My sister told me of a study showing how spending so much time in front of a screen develops the sight function of the brain to the detriment of other senses. She said she went to a picnic in a park in Seattle and every kid at the table was looking at his device, not one was playing in the trees. Who are these kids going to grow up to be?”
“What worries me most,” Rita adds, “is how I got to be such an old phart with a p-h. Acid reflux. Once upon a time I was absolutely convinced that I would not become a crankypants moaning about the music, the morals, the general going-to-hell state of youth. Weren’t you?” Now Rita’s laugh rocks her backward. “Truly,” she says, regaining control, “I don’t let that stuff bother me. There’s plenty of life to be lived in the real world. And always will be. Nature holds the trump cards.”
Rita, in arranging a farewell lunch at one of the restaurants downtown, sends out an email to her 72 closest friends.
How’s Friday the 14th? Tutus (black) would be appropriate since this could be my swan song (sob! sob!)
Receiving it arouses incredulity. What I thought would be an interminable process is happening fast.
Almost every invitee shows up, and we are scattered among tables on the patio at the restaurant. The swan song is pre-empted by a parliament of lesser fowls. There are toasts to the old gal but they are private hoistings. There are no communal howls, no defenestrations, and no sentimental speeches. It is undoubtedly the way Rita planned it.
Everybody but Hector gulps down margaritas. Hector belongs to one of those La Luz del Mundo churches and steers clear of wicked margaritas. I steer clear of counting.
The sunshine is particularly sparkly when we finally emerge from the restaurant. I hand Hector the keys to my pickup. He, Rita, and I arrived together but Rita has gone off with Francine.
“I found an old toy train,” he says as the pickup climbs the hill toward home, “in one of the boxes in the attic. Rita said put it away for you. You might want it.”
I think for a moment that I’m going to burst into alcoholic tears. Rita showed me this train many years ago, and I expressed a desire to have it that can only be described as juvenile. Thankfully, the urge to puddle passes, quickly followed by another stray thought that after Rita leaves I will hire Hector to revamp my own garden. Create a perfect place for the lime tree.
Hector and I are lying on the floor, heads almost touching, putting a railroad bridge together when Rita walks in. The tracks are an infinity loop.
“You boys found something to play with,” she says, not sarcastically but with a great guffaw. I will miss that laugh. “Did you get it to run?”
“Too much corrosion,” Hector says. “I think it needs new parts.”
“I could say the same,” Rita says, and settles onto the couch. “That was fun, wasn’t it? You sure put away the margaritas, pal.”
“Thanks for keeping track. Who will do it when you’re gone?”
“Maybe Hector. Hector, will you keep track of him?”
“No problem.” He holds up a section of the train track. “I keep track.”
“Now I want you boys to pick up your toys and put them back in
the box and take the box to your house. There’s work to be done here. Also, while I think of it, there’s one more thing you might want.”
“I’m sure I don’t.”
“That Buddha you gave me. Not permanently. I want it back after I get settled. I just don’t have any place for it right now. And no space in the rental.”
The Buddha has been sitting in the detritus of the redwood tree so long I forgot his existence. I shipped him from Bali a dozen years ago, and in no time he was presiding with an air of permanence complementary to the redwood’s.
“Only if you promise you’ll retrieve him and you’re not just saying you will.”
The limestone base of the statue is corroded, but this corrosion, unlike the train’s, is not unwelcome. It adds venerability. Old phart.
The margaritas have strengthened my back as they weakened my judgment. I pick up the statue. Heavier than he looks.
“Let me take that,” Hector the hero leaps forward.
“No, no, I can do it.”
“I don’t think I’ll watch this,” Rita says.
And it’s true, I can do it. I make my unsteady progress through the new gate over the flagstones, onto the deck but now that I have gotten this far, I have lost the port of call. I sit Buddha down, perhaps a bit roughly because his head falls off, a clean decapitation, like Anne Boleyn’s. How did that happen? I didn’t bump him; I treated him like a baby.
“Oh no,” I shout loud enough that both Rita and Hector come into my garden to see what the problem is.
Rita laughs. “This is taking nonattachment to new lengths.”
“I can fix him,” Hector says. “You won’t be able to tell.”
I lug the torso of Buddha to the lime tree, and put the head next to his knee.
A toy train. A lime tree. A decapitated Buddha. Oh, yes, and a 1930 edition of Moby-Dick illustrated by Rockwell Kent. These are the things washed ashore.
Still no sign of Ishmael.