2004-10-11 - 4:29 p.m.
When I was seven, a single stalk of corn grew up in my back yard.
Years before environmentalism reared its planet saving head; years before I knew what post consumer waste was; and years before I became the plague of the diner table, tormenting my parents with the grisly details of animals killed by the means of anal electrocution to ensure no harm came to their high-priced pelts; years before any of that, my father had started a compost heap in the back yard.
I’m not sure it was a tree hugging impulse that led him to keep the banana peels out of the trash, as the compost heap was never referred to as such. It was really just the pile of crap just behind the trees that marked the end of our back yard. Living on the precipice of the woods carries such pleasures. With an eerie grin, my father happily skipped down the stairs to the porch, carrying the wasted shrapnel of out Sunday dinners. We had a garbage disposal powerful enough to sound like Timpani Percussion played by Animal from the Muppets, but off to the woods we went. What glee he found to hucking food scraps into the ever-widening pile of gooey muck, I shall never know.
He seemed to take pleasure in every element of our back yard, though. His war to keep the squirrels out of the bird feeder has raged for nearly twenty years. The death toll is still low, but it’s dreadfully obvious that the grey hairs wiggling out of his temple bear the signature of the fluffy-tailed varmints. By contrast, he seemed giddy while fencing a small, coiled snake with a pair of clippers, while my mother screamed at him from a safe distance. Asking about the strange circular clumps of mushrooms that seemed to emerge overnight, he told me, matter of factly.
“It’s the aliens, John. When they take off the exhaust from their spaceship gets into the ground, and boom! Mushrooms.”
“But why are the aliens coming to our backyard?”
“They need to use the bathroom.”
After explaining that they came late in the evening, I spent the next seven days like they were Christmas Eve, fighting to stay awake and catch the visitors popping a squat on our toilet. My resolve always failed and I finally fell asleep, only to have him tell me the next morning.
“You just missed them. You know, I don’t think they washed their hands.”
My mother finally convinced him to end the torture, but to this day he will still insist that we be careful around the alien mushrooms.
But their visits were monthly, if that. The trips to the bog of eternal trash were nightly. Slowly, once I came of age, the duty fell on my shoulders; carrying out all the non-recoverable shreds that would not, at least, be subject to a long and lonely existence at the back of our refrigerator, never to be heard from again until blue and pinched for spring cleaning.
Considering the daily deposit, it shouldn’t have surprised me that something would emerge from the bouillabaisse, and yet, walking back with an armful of artichoke, I stood in awe, as among the brown stew, one single stalk of corn stood tall.
With a tiny ear only three inches long, and still green, my six-year-old eyes regarded the scene as a small miracle. The stem seemed no thicker than a drinking straw, but it managed to stand straight up, as if it was being yanked skyward by some unseen force. I stood there a minute, before dashing back into the house, looking over my shoulder to see if it had somehow been a mirage.
Pulling the back door closed behind me, I was already telling the story with the usual amount of random detail that seems to exemplify the stories of six-year-olds. My parents nodded along with the story, until my Dad’s eyes finally stopped on my arm and hung there.
“Why are you still carrying the artichokes?”
I tended to our corn crop on a daily basis, even going so far as to water it from time to time, despite the fact that it stood in ground that was moist all year round. I pictured it growing ripe and being thrown it into another Sunday dinner, for some reason over thrown by the idea of getting food that wasn’t plastic wrapped.
My mistake lay in showing off the freak in nature to anyone and everyone who wandered within a four-foot radius of me. My cousins all wandered in before we were to go out and see my town’s Bicentennial parade, so I immediately started the tour of the backyard, knowing exactly where to begin.
“Wow, that’s cool.”
Without a thought, he walked into the primordial soup bubbling up in our backyard, right beside my single ear of corn. Without a thought, his hand went out and snapped it in two.
“That’s awesome. It’s like baby corn.”
My world crumbled.
After screaming the adolescent equivalent of “You Fucking Shithead,” I locked myself in my room, and cried while my cousin tried to apologize for his innocent mistake. I missed the parade as I searched the pit for my one stalk of corn, but it was gone. The next day, I sat in despair not only for my golden meal, but for the parade that passed by without me on the sidewalk. Curled in a blanket I watched Loony Tunes, hoping some satanic abuse of a coyote could wrench me from my all encompasing anguish.
I hadn't thought about that for years upon years, until the Columus Day Parade marched loudly outside my window.
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