THE GREATEST OUTWARD blessings cannot afford enjoyment to a mind ruffled and uneasy within itself. A fit of ill humour will spoil the finest entertainment, and is as real a torment as the most painful disease. Another unavoidable consequence of ill temper is the dislike and aversion of all who are witness to it, and, perhaps, the deep and lasting resentment of those, who suffer from its effects. . . .
Hester Chapone ~ Letters on the Improvement of the Mind 1773
a short story that appears in the collection Acorn's Card
THURSDAY, WHICH HAD BEGUN without much promise, had somehow become one of those rare golden days, so few in a spring filled with wind and rain. J and I both were suffering from a flu that wouldn’t heal itself despite acupuncture, herbs, and over the counter remedies. We sat on a bench in our garden enjoying the sun with a resigned calmness, the way older people often do. Not that we would admit to being “older people” even though Medicare now paid my doctor bills. We were tired from having just carried all the hanging baskets, and heavy potted plants, back outside. It was the sixth time this May that a frost advisory had caused us to pack all the expensive annuals in the house overnight. Two actual frosts had made us feel our efforts were worthwhile, but the four false alarms had just left us feeling frustrated. All this even though my wife had not planted anything until after May 15, the official last day for frost in our area.
The discussion we were having was whether or not to buy a new bench for the sunny spot we were presently enjoying, one with a back, so that we would not have to sit hunkered forward as we were now doing. The bench we were on actually came with the picnic table, a sturdy oak set, which I had bought when I first moved to this house nearly forty years ago. It was still in good, if rough, condition, despite having stood outside all year long during this period. Only two of the four benches now served the picnic table, which this summer, according to my wife’s whim, was now residing on the deck. The other two benches had been assigned to random spots in the garden, places more or less designated by where our cats preferred to sit during the day.
Our conversation was suddenly interrupted by a flutter of wings off to our right. A big bird broke from the tall grass of the meadow, attempted flight, made a U-turn about six feet in the air, landed, and then scurried off down the path. Startled, we got up and gave chase.
“I hope it hasn’t got one of the cats!” my wife exclaimed.
“It looked too big to be a hawk . . . and a hawk would have just taken off, not turned around and ran along the ground.”
A few yards down the path, which I had mowed only three days ago, the trail turned. It was apparent that the bird had not gone that way, but plunged off into the brush. We were considering what to do when the boy cat appeared, to be followed quickly by the two girls. Everyone was safe; no one had been carried away. We could go back to sitting in the sun.
I pondered what it must have been like to be an early settler and watch helplessly as your children were dragged off by Indians. Such an event could possibly have happened on this very spot. Knowing a bit of the history of this area, however, I considered it was probably more likely it would have been some of General Sullivan’s men dragging off young Indian girls.
We sat back down on the bench, not saying anything. I kept looking off to my right in the direction the large bird had disappeared. Then the corner of my eye caught something white in the sky. I looked up. Was it a UFO? I turned around as whatever it was, was now passing overhead.
“Look! Jeanne . . . It’s a UFO!”
“Up there,” I said pointing.
Her eyes followed my fingertip. “It’s only a plastic bag,” she announced.
I focused my tired eyes. My wife was right. It was a plastic shopping bag, the kind we weren’t supposed to use anymore because they didn’t decompose for two million years. But how did it get to the altitude it was at? I watched it move across the sky. The translucent white bag appeared quite magical lofting along on a fickle breeze. It was going down. No, it was climbing again, heading right for the tall pine tree in front of our house. The house was two stories high and the tree stood twice again that much.
In the silence of the afternoon I could hear the bag rustling, like a small bird flapping its wings. It was close to the top of the tree now. I turned to look at my wife to see if she was watching it. When I turned back the flying thing was gone.
“Where did it go?”
“There, it hit the tree. See. It’s on that limb, about three feet from the top.”
I saw it fluttering on a branch; envisioning it hanging there, where it was, stuck for ever. Unlike the dozens of bags, foam containers, pizza boxes, and soda cans I regularly picked off the front yard, I could not imagine how I was going to claim this prize.
“It’s started to slip down,” my wife said excitedly.
“Where is it?”
“There, three more branches lower.”
The bag had indeed begun its descent. I watched it slowly drop from branch to branch, wondering how gravity could have any effect on such an ethereal object.
It had become stuck on a branch.
We waited, knowing there was nothing we could do. Three turkey vultures circled noiselessly overhead, and then glided down into the quarry at the edge of the meadow. I wondered what carcass, of some poor unfortunate forest creature, lay there waiting to be devoured, thankful that it was not one of our cats.
“I guess we’ll just have to leave the bag there,” I said.
“Wait, I can feel the wind picking up,” my wife observed.
And so we waited some more. We sat on our bench, not facing the garden any longer, but rather the house, or more accurately, the tall pine that towered over the house. This was the tree we had watered and fed three years ago when there was a drought and its needles began to fall off and we feared it was going to die.
“I haven’t seen any other bags flying about . . . have you?”
“No, it’s strange. I’ve never seen any plastic bags in the air around here. I can’t imagine where it came from.”
“Remember when we drove by the landfill in Seneca Falls . . . there were plastic bags everywhere.”
“Hundreds of them blown against the chain link fence.”
“Where did it go?”
“Look you can’t see it anymore.”
“It must be behind the house. . . .”
Abandoning our bench we ran down the driveway. There was the bag, hanging on a branch about even with a second story window, but still out of our reach.
“Get a pole. . . .” my wife urged.
“We don’t have anything that long. . . .”
Realizing that our afternoon was already almost gone, wasted I suppose; we stood there, breathless waiting for the white plastic thing to descend.
The bag began to flap violently, as if trying to break free, as if trying to climb back out of this bad situation it had fallen into. Then, almost as if it were aware that this was its endgame, the bag stopped fluttering, hung for the briefest moment, and dropped to the ground. I ran to pick it up.
“Don’t touch it!” my wife shouted.
“You don’t know where it’s been. . . .”
J reminded me we were both suffering from a flu that never seemed to go away. Rumor had linked this flu to the handles on the carts at a popular grocery store. Friends of ours were even spotted wearing disposable surgical gloves as they navigated their carts up and down the aisles. My wife had diverted her grocery shopping to the co-op until rumor cleared the maligned cart handles. The bag lay on its side, boldly displaying a “thank you for shopping with us” text and the logo of the suspect grocery chain.
“Get a stick. . . .”
I bent down and picked up a stick. If there is anything that is easy to find in a yard filled with trees, it’s a stick. Inserting my short piece of fallen oak branch through the handles, I cautiously picked up the white plastic bag.
“I’ll put it in the garbage can in the garage.”
“Don’t touch it with your hands. . . .”
The bag hung down limp from my stick, like the battle flag of some defeated regiment. I started down the driveway. A slight breeze draped my neck. The bag began to flap. Suddenly it filled with air. It was a balloon; or perhaps a mimic of itself when it was once full of groceries. It was clearly struggling to break free. But its gyrations had only caused it to become more firmly entangled around my stick. I stopped and looked up at the sky.
“What are you doing?” my wife asked.
“It wants to fly some more . . . I’m going to set it free.”
“Are you crazy? Plastic bags like that can cause all kinds of problems. Little birds get tangled up in them, and then they die.”
She was right, as usual. I dropped the bag down on the gravel and stomped on it with my foot, driving out the air. It just lay there, looking rather lifeless now. I scooped it back up with my stick and took it into the garage. Lifting the lid off with my free hand, I plunged the bag into the garbage can.
Perhaps the bag was surprised to find others of his kind in this confined, and foul smelling, space; not flyers like him, but workers, fat and confidently tied with bread wrappers, holding that detritus determined unfit for the compost pile. They were the last cadre of a vanishing breed. We were not supposed to use plastic bags anymore. Soon they would even stop making them, such a nuisance they had become.
The flying bag would tell them of his journey, of the freedom of the skies, of the things he had seen; unaware that tonight their container would be put to stand alongside the road, and tomorrow, when the first light of a new day was just beginning, the garbage truck would come, and they would be gone. Well not gone to nothing. Those who were flyers might have one more chance, but the rest would have to wait another two million years.
ACORN’S CARD is a novella and two accompanying short stories. In the title novella an AWOL soldier returns to the downstairs after thirty-three years of hiding in his mother’s attic to find the old woman dead. But what should he do with her body? He can’t just call an undertaker—he is supposed to have died years ago. And how will he provide for himself, as his mother has left little money in the house?
By chance a pre-approved credit card application arrives in the mail. John Acorn fills it out and a card is issued to him. Now he can buy whatever he wants, with no thought of how he will pay when the statement comes. He decides to buy a used hearse and drive his mother to the cemetery and bury her. But first John will take his mother on a ride, during which he finds the world considerably changed from what he remembered it to be. Meanwhile, the hearse has a plan of its own. You will be surprised by the ending of this strange and fascinating story.
In the first of the short stories a Polish immigrant plumber bribes a policeman into not giving him a traffic ticket with a loaf of bread. While in the other a plastic garbage bag, that has been mistaken for a UFO, flies around the sky looking for a new beginning.
Poleskie’s plots are masterfully conceived, and totally original. He is a skillful writer with a brilliant sense of the language, at times probing, yet glorious and magical, much in the manner of Bruno Schulz and Witold Gombrowicz. If you prefer your reading a bit out of the ordinary, and still understand what a metaphor is, Acorn’s Card is an excellent choice.
~Book Blogs, December 2011
* * *