A Long Row to Hoe, by Meriwether O'Connor


Old Mr. Wor­thing­ton showed up at half past ten when he shoul­da ough­ta been there at ten sharp. Miss Can­dle­man was ready for him with a cup of cof­fee, hers. She walked out, pleas­ant as pie. Hi, Mr. Wor­thing­ton. Good to see you. He smiled despite him­self as she had nice eyes when she looked at him up close like that. I was just get­ting some cof­fee, she leaned it toward him a quar­ter of an inch just enough for him to take infer­ence that it was his and begin reach­ing toward her. It's real­ly good on a morn­ing like this. Real­ly peps me right awake. She pulled it back quick­ly and took a nice, warm drink.

He strug­gled to stay bal­anced as his sur­prise and then shock and grad­u­al­ly shame made it hard for him to adjust back on kil­ter. Had she done that a pur­pose? He didn't fall on his face, quite, but there were a few moments of his elbows bal­anc­ing as he both pulled back and then tried to avoid look­ing like he had just pulled back, which as far as bal­ance went, was the real prob­lem. If the pen­delum swings both ways, you're fine. If you try to stop it half way, you're in for quite a rever­ber­a­tion in your old bones. Or so he found.

She playpret­tied up a nice smile for him. You're not tired, though, I'm sure you're wide awake. Prob­a­bly be up since dawn, right? She smiled enourag­ing­ly for him to agree with her and he did even though it wasn't true. She had a way of doing that to him. Of pulling words or ges­tures from him that weren't his own. She had a lot of potions up her sleeve, that one.

He gri­maced and began, I'm gonna cut the front first and then go round back and do the gar­den, wad­dya think about that? Too much today for me to cut both. I can do the back tomor­row if that's okay with you. That way the flower bed'll be ready for you this after­noon when you get back from the nursery.

She frowned. Oh, I was hop­ing you could do both lawns at once. It's bet­ter that way. Makes more sense. She peered at him unsure­ly. You know, John'll be over tomor­row to deliv­er the paper. Maybe I can just ask him. I don't want to put you out.

His mouth formed a round O of aston­ish­ment and then fear prick­led along his shoul­ders and hair­line. As much as he hat­ed her, he hat­ed an emp­ty ice­box more.

I…oh. Uh. Well, I guess I could. But then what'll you do with your plants when you get back? I thought I was com­ing spe­cial­ly today so to get the bed ready for when you get back? He looked puzzled.

Oh, well, that. I'm not doing that any­more. That's old hat. I'll be here play­ing domi­nos with the girls. We'll be hav­ing lemon­ade. She grinned in the way that was an offer from a reg­u­lar per­son but not from her. From her it meant watch­ing him all day boil in her yard and then embarass­ing­ly ask­ing for the bath­room one sin­gle time in front of all her club­women. And then going back out­side with a plas­tic cup of water to fish in his truck for a lit­tle spot of drink, some orange juice and some jerky. He kept some stashed in the glove­box for in case.

He sud­den­ly felt as if he had actu­al­ly been up since the crack of dawn with the birds. So you don't want me to pre­pare your beds? He couldn't shake the puz­zle­ment and kept at it like a dog with fleas. Sure to scratch a hole in the thought if he just kept scratch­ing it enough.

I just said it. Don't you remem­ber? You're here to do the lawns only. He took back a step at the "only". Okay, then. How about if I come back in the morn­ing and get them all done by ten? Before the heat of the day starts. It's already pret­ty warm. He dug in his pock­et for his keys.

No, the girls will be here. I need the lawns done. Pron­to. A thought crept into his head that what she need­ed was him doing the lawns while her club­women were here. She need­ed him strug­gling in the heat like a fat, white grub…bait for her fish. His heat­stroke was their con­ver­sa­tion fod­der over lady snacks like pinafortes.

I…are you sure? I was hop­ing I could come back and get it done ear­ly. I can come ear­li­er if you want, get it all done by nine. I just didn't wan­na wake the neigh­bors too ear­ly. I'm not wor­ried about the neigh­bors. I'm wor­ried about our agree­ment. She was get­ting angry and lit­tle spit drops formed at the side of her mouth and her eyes went from laven­der to black then back again.

Okay. Well…so you feel you got your money's worth, how about I go on and do the front lawn now and come back and do the back in the morn­ing, first thing? Or, I could come and do it tonight about sev­en. That might work. He looked up expec­tant­ly at the woman, like a pup who real­ly has just not learned his les­son about pee­ing on the car­pet but didn't yet know.

She brushed her hands togeth­er wip­ing dust out of thin air if there was such a thing. That's fine. That's fine. Okay, then let's not wor­ry about it. I'll just ask John when he comes tomor­row with the paper. I'm sure he can get it done in a heartbeat.

He paused, unsure what to say next. I… He thought about the new teeth he was ready to put on lay­away at the den­tist and the way he missed crack­ing peanuts with beer in the evenings. He paused longer this time. Search­ing for peanut eat­ing words that would make this job he'd had for three years of Wednes­days not die from one ten minute con­ver­sa­tion in the sum­mer heat.

Hold your hors­es, now! I can get 'em both done. Now, just gimme a minute. I need to go back and get all the tools I'll need. I didn't bring the edger as I didn't think I was gonna need it.

That's fine. Then, take your time. She grinned and waved her hands at her lawn. Take your time. She said it three times. Oh, and look for chig­gers in that right hand cor­ner. I think I saw a cir­cle form­ing. There's some med­i­cine in the garage.

He felt his own chig­gers ris­ing under his skin bit­ing him quickred­hot as she trot­ted back inside tap-tap-tap then stopped to speak again. Oh, and don't for­get the girls are com­ing. So, don't park in front. Park on the side, if you can. Back by the pipes. I think you can squeeze in there if you try. I know Bob always could.

He hat­ed to, but he had to call out to her. Can you go on and pay me half up front? I won't be able to get back and forth on the gas I have now. I'll be stuck long about Red­mond street the way things are looking.

Sure, she smiled bright­ly and brought him the cash, the first time she was sweet all day and meant it. See you when you get back.

He went and got the edger and strug­gled it into the pick up and got the gas and avoid­ed the cof­fee pot inside by the reg­is­ter. Espe­cial­ly because he was now only work­ing for a par­tial day's pay as work trucks were gas guz­zlers by def­i­n­i­tion. A body has to make a cer­tain lev­el of income to have a job where you could afford to buy a fuel effi­cient car.

By the time he got back, the sun was leech­ing the liv­ing day­lights out of him every step he took. His eyes drained sweat and his lips were white. He pulled the edger out while he still had the pow­er to do so. He

brought his gal­lon plas­tic jug to her hose and filled it. He drank half and then poured the rest over him­self. He filled it again. This time, he had no room left for water and not in a good way. He sloshed inside like a fish tank on a free­way. Bile came to meet his tongue in the back fo his mouth. Oh, gosh.

He pulled him­self togeth­er and began to work one blade at a time. By the time he got the front done, the ladies had arrived. They smiled and waved, those that knew him. The oth­ers walked stiffly past him unsure whether to say hel­lo or not. He tried not to look up to make it eas­i­er on everyone.

He went to the shade for a moment and sucked the salt off some peanuts he had in his extra coat in the car from last week. It worked. He felt like him­self again. He felt around for some more and sucked and sucked and sucked until his heart and his brain and some­thing else that had no name was on track again.

He began walk­ing to the back lawn as she came out in a huff. I thought you'd be back here work­ing by now. Oh, I was just get­ting some water. The heat. I need­ed some water. Why was he lying about such a sim­ple thing? But some­how, she made the very truth a lie and vice ver­sa. Some dev­il in her jumped into him and did the hooli­gan shuf­fle. He just couldn't help it.

You know, maybe I shouldn't have offered to pay you up front if you don't feel you can fin­ish today. She sighed a very tired sigh. Come back tomor­row if you need to fin­ish up.

But, wait! You didn't pay me up front. You paid me half. For the gas.

Oh, is that what you remem­ber? She smiled her sad smile. She kept one just for old men like him, sim­ple-sim­ple-sim­ple old men. My grand­fa­ther got like that, too. Espe­cial­ly in the sun. Here, she took his arm, let me get you in the shade and you can sit down. We're hav­ing sand­wich­es. She grinned and gave him half a hug and waved at the ladies through the win­dow as they watched her walk him out of the sun and into her nicest chair by the tree. The one she saved up for and that had the nice non-mildew cush­ions and flow­ers from many countries.

Sit here, I'll be back with some lemon­ade. And maybe a sand­wich. We're hav­ing pinafortes. Sounds like you'd like one.

He was silent. His tongue was dry and sore and the sun had baked his will until it was crispy lit­tle strips of noth­ing. They fell to the ground next to him snap­ping in the dust of the day. He was emp­ty and wait­ed for food, wait­ed for water, wait­ed for his blood sug­ar to rise, for his body to appor­tion its ratio of salt and water and potas­si­um appro­pri­ate­ly. He wait­ed most­ly for her bright voice to com­fort him again on such a long, hot day. An angel in the desert if there was one.

She took one look at him and she knew. Knew from the three fad­ed spots on his pants and the vacant look in his eyes and the hair grow­ing in gray on his dark arms. She knew from the way he looked with­out food and the way he sat there unable to fetch it for him­self when he was most in need of it.

Oh, and don't wor­ry about the lunch break, Mr. Wor­thing­ton. I won't dock you. If you can get here tomor­row before sev­en, you can help John fin­ish up the back. Then we'll be even. She tralala'd her way inside, fresh and ready for her sec­ond cup of cof­fee of the day.

The women looked up from their domi­nos as she walked in. What's going on out there? He feel­ing sick? Oh, just the heat of the day, she said. You know how men are. Always want to fin­ish what they start­ed. I

told him…well let's give him a few of our sand­wich­es and pinafortes as well. That ought to help bring him round.

And it did. it did.

He became our Mr. Wor­thing­ton again, him­self but also not. Grad­u­al­ly he put aside his plan of lay­away teeth and began watch­ing The Price Is Right in the morn­ings, not car­ing too much about the time of day. He found his house­shoes more com­fort­ing than his work boots and stopped wash­ing the win­dows on his truck. By three months time, he had grown into his old age, just fine.

When his nephew came to vis­it as he did in the fall, he said, You haven't dri­ven this thing in ages. The battery's dead. Oh, yeah. I guess it is. You can have it. I don't need it anymore.

And, he wouldn't. No longer will­ing to ven­ture out into the heat of the day with the hye­nas wait­ing by the water­ing hole, he stayed safe at home with the antelopes and the marmelots in the nice tall grass of his car­pet­ed home and his ice tea with a lit­tle too much liquor and some pound­cake he'd found on sale at the dol­lar store.

He began to carve armies of lit­tle wood­en men from match­sticks and set them up to work in the cac­tus gar­den he had on his cof­fee table. See here, he said, Get this done by Sat­ur­day or else and the match­stick men sighed and wished they could obey. They even wished for lit­tle pick axes so they could work hard­er or at least some shov­els so they could get some rows start­ed along­side the cac­tus for what­ev­er else Mr. Wor­thing­ton might want to plant. He saw it in their faces. He did. He did.

Out of pity, then, he put them in with the devil's ivy to work since it was a lit­tle moister in there. It was a cool­er envi­ron­ment to be sure. They did appre­ci­ate the change of tem­per­a­ture and the mod­er­at­ing cool­ness. Their skin was not as clam­my as before and they felt a breeze in their lit­tle match­stick men beards from the fan he put near­by. Once he set it too high on the back of their necks and they all thought with one great thought that a tor­na­do must have been up.

Then, grad­u­al­ly he got tired of their yap­ping and no good com­plain­ing about dawn to dusk and their lit­tle match­stick men sto­ries about wood­en nick­els and tall fear­ful tales about ter­mites and wood­bor­ing bum­ble bees and he sim­ply put the lid on the ter­rar­i­um. Their voic­es were qui­eter then and they began to grow pale with­out the fan.

The moisure was not good for their lungs but the devil's ivy pros­pered in the mist and twirled its way around their feet, par­a­lyz­ing them unin­ten­tion­al­ly with its great growth spurts.

And then, lit­tle by lit­tle, the lit­tle match­stick men's feet rot­ted off from the wet dirt and they tot­tered over, one more each day until at last, he and Bob Bark­er were the only ones still stand­ing upright. And, then there were no more con­tes­tants, of any sort, human or wood­en, in sight. And, the price, the price. The price for old Mr. Wor­thing­ton, was final­ly right.


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2 Responses to A Long Row to Hoe, by Meriwether O'Connor

  1. Martha Vining says:

    Hey Meri­wether,
    Where are you at? Your sto­ries are great, do you ever do sign­ings or work­shops in west­ern North Car­oli­na? What's next from you? Best regards

  2. Meriwether O'Connor says:

    Love your site, Rusty :). Tick­led you cot­toned to old Mr. Wor­thing­ton enough to use him on FC and C. 

    Hap­py Nation­al Short Sto­ry Month! We offer free sto­ries on Dial-A-Sto­ry (207−945−0098) from Joe Potato's Real Life Recipes: Tall Tales And Short Sto­ries dur­ing May to cel­e­brate. Also, we love mes­sages, so feel free to tell us a tale back. Fact or fic­tion, leave us your own yarn after the beep ;).


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