THE URBAN COOP

Fall 2010 / Issue 88

Megan Mayhew Bergman

Pay no attention to the soot on the buttercrunch, I told my new assistant.

You wash those, right? she asked.

We were looking at a row of lettuce in Mac’s Urban Garden. I didn’t tell her how often I’d caught my homeless harvesting team urinating near the zucchinis. Saint Charles with his cowboy hat and soiled cargo pants. Tiny Hanson with her high-heeled boots and cut-up snowsuit. The Neil Diamond lookalike in his black belted trench coat.

She didn’t know it, but I had plans for Sam. I wanted her to take over the garden. Truth be told, it didn’t even have to be her; it just had to be someone.

Produce to the people! she’d said in her phone interview, and I was sold.

Sam was now kneeling in front of the budding kale and Swiss chard. Her bangs hung in front of her eyes. She had on an expensive windbreaker and looked at the garden shears with awe. A half-hour into her tutorial and she was already clutching her back.

Two types of people came to Mac’s—those that were hungry, and those that wanted to feel good about themselves. But I’d learned feeling good about yourself could be hard work, backbreaking even.

And that’s tatsoi, I said to Sam. Good with mustard, so tell the boys and girls that free packets of mustard from McDonald’s work just fine if they need to stretch a meal.

I’m late for a therapy appointment, I said. Think you can do some weeding for an hour until I’m back?

My dog Biko sat next to me, protective but calm.

Sam shrugged her shoulders. She seemed unsure about the new job.

I was one month into the worst guilt of my life and, after I explained to Sam the danger of cabbage loopers and flea beetles, I sat down on an overturned bread crate and cried.

 

I didn’t deserve Biko. In fact, I’d thought about it, and I didn’t know anyone good enough for a dog like that. Loyal to the point of self-destruction.

Mac and I had a boat—the Excitecat 810—with a cabin. On weekends, we left the community garden in Raleigh to volunteers and drove to Beaufort, where we anchored and partied with friends. Biko always came along. A Lab mix, he loved the water. He’d pace the length of the boat, bark at passing crafts. His shaggy blond ears crimped in the humidity. His nails scratched the deck when he walked.

Mornings on the boat, I’d make instant coffee, Biko at my feet. We’d climb quietly onto the deck, careful not to wake Mac, and listen to the birds. Biko would sun himself with his chin on my legs until Mac was up. Then we’d motor over to Shackleford Banks to let Biko kick sand, chase gulls. Once we saw two deer swimming past the boat toward land; Biko had tremored with excitement, but stayed by my side, obedient.

Aside from a touch of separation anxiety, Biko was the perfect dog.

Then, one Saturday afternoon, our friends came by in an inflatable dinghy.

Let’s hit the Dockhouse for live music, they said. Climb in.

Room for Biko?  I asked.

I worry about his nails, someone said. We’re drunk, and if the boat sink . . .

The crowded boat burst into laughter. The sky was still blue, but we could see the moon. The water made a soft slapping sound against the side of the dinghy.

He’ll be fine on board our boat, Mac said, handing me a fresh beer. There’s nowhere he can go.

The cool aluminum can between my fingers, the reggae our friends played from a portable radio—these things made me believe in okay, in just fine, in letting go.

We’d never left him alone on the boat, and as the dinghy pulled away, Biko lifted his chin to the sky and whined. Some chord in my chest pulled tight. I looked away.

When we returned that night—singing, smelling of beer and sunburned skin—he was gone.

 

What do you want?  my therapist asked.

A baby, I said. I want a baby.

She folded her manicured hands and nodded. It struck me as a learned nod. I’d once heard that women nod their heads to build rapport—even when they don’t agree.

I’d started therapy after Biko’s accident. My guilt had consumed me. I needed direction. My therapist plumbed me like a well, pulling out fistfuls of trouble, messy tangles of fear and longing.

What prevents you from having a baby?  my therapist asked.

I’m getting old, I said. My partner is old. And if I can’t take care of my dog, I don’t deserve a baby.

Silence the inner critic, she said. How old are you?

Thirty-nine and a half, I said. But my partner is in his fifties. And I think he’s lukewarm on the idea. He’s not trying very hard.

I’d said to Mac a few months earlier, Wouldn’t it be fun if we had a full house?

You want another dog?  Mac had asked. More chickens?

Mac was a good person, a visionary. He was also fifteen years older than I was. We’d met at a bar in Duck, discussed our love of dogs, open water, and community agriculture. Our relationship was simple. We kept separate bank accounts. We didn’t fight.

Three years ago, Mac and I had driven into Raleigh towing a yellow ’74 Volkswagen Bug behind our pickup truck, Silkie bantam hens roosting in the backseat, two goats hanging their whiskered chins out the windows. Mac had taken a job as a professor of agriculture at the state college. We settled in a historic neighborhood one block from the prison. A year later, Mac got the government grant to build the community vegetable garden on a plot downtown. It was originally his dream, but someone had to manage things while he taught, and that person was me.

I like my simple life, Mac often said. I don’t need anything more than what I’ve got.

In vitro might be a possibility, my therapist said.

Yeah, I thought. A ten-thousand-dollar, pain-in-the-ass possibility.

 

When I returned from my appointment, I found Sam baffled by the tool sign-out sheet and food records.  She tossed her bangs aside as she scanned the clipboard.

Skinny Meatloaf?  she asked. One-Eyed Gloria Gaynor?

When the customers won’t give you a name, we name them after musicians they resemble, I said. There is One-Armed Snoop Dogg, Phil Collins with a Mustache, and so on.

Sam wrinkled her nose and brushed soil from her jeans.

It’s pretty obvious who’s who, I said, and wondered if it was really true.

I don’t know, Sam said, rubbing her lower back.

I felt like she was looking for a way out. Assistants never lasted long at Mac’s. From what I could tell, they liked talking about the job more than working it.

It isn’t meant as a sign of disrespect, I said. It’s just our way of tracking assets.

I signed out a hoe to Neil Diamond. The strawberry patch could use weeding, I told him.

I had to remind myself I was dealing with people, not characters. Our Neil Diamond really looked like Neil Diamond, wily eyebrows, thin lips and all—but there was no swagger in his comb-over. Tiny Hanson told me he had a daughter in town that wouldn’t see him, that he paced her neighborhood on weekends hoping to catch her on the way to her car.

Wife left him long time ago, Tiny said. Girl probably ain’t even his.

I turned to Sam.

By the way, I said, there are brown spiders that scare the bejeezus out of me in the strawberry patch. Jumpers. Wear gloves over there.

This isn’t . . . she said. She stared at her hands and began to clean beneath her nails. Ugh.

Waste of time, I said, hoping I wasn’t scaring her off.

The soil had burrowed into the lines of my hands months ago. When Mac and I went out to a nice dinner, I painted my nails harlot red to hide the black earth.

Sam’s hair was shiny and her skin was smooth. I found myself thinking about Sam’s ripe ovaries. You’d be easy to knock up, I thought. You have all this time.

I wanted to borrow her body for the weekend.

A handful of customers—or as the head of the neighboring condominium homeowner’s association called them, vay-grints—had gathered for work and scattered themselves across the four garden quadrants. Buildings that weren’t quite skyscrapers made shadows over the plants. The bus station spilled over with people on their way to work. Two blocks over, Not Grandmaster Flash played The Love Boat theme on his trumpet, which he often did until he took a break for lunch.

Saint Charles tugged at my sleeve.

I been vomicking again, he said.

I dug into my purse and fished out a roll of Tums. Sam stood next to me, eyes down on the compost.

Don’t eat out of the trash if you don’t have to, I told Charles.

He crushed the tablets with his teeth and sauntered off to tend the kale.

When we got the grant money, this place was covered in cigarette butts, I said to Sam. And now . . .

I made a sweeping gesture with my hand, as if advertising the beauty of the place. Old oaks, their roots knotted and bulging underneath the cement sidewalk, were budding. I had a feeling I would hate the gloved ladies who had planted them a hundred years ago, but that didn’t keep me from thanking them for the shade when the summer started to bear down.

This isn’t what I expected, Sam said.

And then I lied.

It will be if you give it time, I said. Hard work can turn any old dump into a fertile paradise.

 

They had found Biko in the last light, disoriented, paddling out to the horizon. At first the fishermen said they could not believe what they saw.

We thought it was a porpoise, one said.

Biko had been dehydrated and confused. He’d snapped when they lifted him into their boat.

Desperate and lonely, he had swum a mile into the open sea.

 

That evening, I returned home from the garden with a headache and a bag of early cucumbers.

I don’t think Sam is going to work out, I said. 

Mac slid his reading glasses down his nose and laid the paper on the kitchen table, a lab table he’d salvaged from an auction sponsored by the school system. I wondered how many earthworms had been butchered in the name of science on the surface where we now ate dinner.

It’s karmic, you know, I’d told Mac. We’ve done this really bad thing with Biko, and now . . .

You’re paranoid, he said, rising to rub my shoulders. And superstitious.

I sat crosslegged on the kitchen floor and scratched Biko’s stomach. His back legs twitched when my nails found a good spot.

Pregnancy test was negative this morning, I said.

I felt my bottom lip begin to quiver.

Don’t cry, Mac said.

He began washing cucumbers. I pressed my face into Biko’s coat.

I wondered who knew me better—my husband, or my dog, who sat up and shoved his nose into the crook of my neck, resting his chin on my collarbone, as if to say there, there, there.

 

At six a.m., Biko touched his cold nose to my shoulder, a leather lead in his mouth. I put overalls over my nightgown and grabbed a cup of feed from the garage.

I kept an urban coop in the backyard stocked with Silkie bantams. The hens were gentle and broody, good mothers who’d go so far as to raise eggs that weren’t their own. An ornamental breed, they produced tiny eggs and paraded around the coop like Solid Gold dancers, their legs ensconced in black feathered pantaloons, heads topped with Afro-shaped tufts.

Biko and I fed the Silkies each morning. We jogged out to their fenced-in coop, crouching down inches away from the gate. The ladies sprinted from their henhouse down the wooden ramp, lunging at the ground in fevered hunger.

The first time I saw a chicken run to food, I was inspired. A full-on sprint, a stride like a gymnast doing a split.

And that’s how you get what you want, I thought. Go all out or give up.

The morning was still cool. I could see the barbed wire atop the tall prison fence a block away. I stretched from side to side, trying to warm up my body. These days I woke feeling stiff, mechanical. Old.

As my hens clucked and the lone rooster postured, I imagined a baby’s lips tugging at my breast. Hot breath on my skin, innocent eyes.

I’m sorry I eat your children before they hatch, I said to the hens.

 

One of the perks, I told Sam later that morning, is that you can take home produce weekly.

I was going for the hard sell.

Tiny Hanson sat on the sidewalk with her feet spread out in front of her. The cuffs of her snowsuit pinched her swollen ankles. There was gum on the bottom of her scuffed leather pumps. Tiny took one off and rubbed her heel. She trailed Sam with suspicious eyes.

I don’t know if I like kale, Sam said.

You learn to love it, I said.

The truth was, every year I reached a point where I couldn’t look at another leaf of kale, another fanned-out collard the size of my face. Hot sauce, garlic, and brown sugar be damned—by the end of the summer I only had eyes for ice cream.

Last September, pounds of kale and chard wilting in the back of my sweltering truck, I sucked down a milkshake at the Dairy Barn, let Biko lick the cup when I was done. I lay down on a picnic table and looked up at the sky, one hand on Biko’s belly.

Waste not, want not, I had lied.

The sound of children laughing, the sight of their ice-creamed faces had made my body cramp with need. I wanted to lay my hands on their chapped faces, comb their soft hair with my fingers.

While Sam weeded, Tiny approached me, shoved her bad breath and broken teeth in my face.

What, she said. I’m not enough help?  You don’t love me no more?

I love you just fine, I said, stepping back. Sam’s just here to learn.

Ain’t no love gone fix me now anyway, Tiny said scratching her neck.

Let me see that, I said, peering at the scaly rash underneath her chin.

I’ll bring calamine lotion Monday, I said. Don’t scratch. You might spread it.

I cupped the back of Tiny’s head.

You’re going to be okay, I said.

Sam came up to us. She had dirt on her forehead and a million questions behind her eyes.

How do we feed everyone? Sam asked. You can’t eat an uncooked potato.

Tiny sauntered off, muttering, And who’s the prized whore now?

You don’t have to worry about potatoes until June, I said. But there’s a stack of black stockpots in the shed. Start a fire in the pit, put the grate down, and boil the potatoes. The boys and girls will bring their own ketchup packets, duck sauce, salt. Smashed peas aren’t bad for flavor.

A fire?  Sam said.

The tomatoes are what you have to worry about now—they go fast, I said. The boys and girls won’t riot, but they get grabby. No one but Tiny really likes turnips—you can leave those in a grocery bag for her.

I don’t think I can do this, Sam said.

Just stay on until Monday, I said. Please. Mac and I are out on the boat this weekend. Managing the garden’s not as hard as it sounds—just different.

Sam rubbed the back of her neck and raised her eyebrows.

I need this weekend, I pleaded.

She fiddled with the Velcro on the outside of her glove.

Maybe you could be a surrogate mother, I thought, looking at Sam’s healthy hair and strong legs.

I think I’d be better off doing advocacy work, Sam said.

When the sun is setting and you’ve got ten or so customers sitting crosslegged on the sidewalk, quiet as can be with their mouths full, you’ll see, I said. They’ll drift away, and you’ll find yourself alone in the garden, kale to your knees, feeling good. I always sit for a moment in the center, a handful of strawberries in my lap, and watch the sun disappear.

I don’t want to be here alone, Sam said.

Tiny will help you, I said. Tiny always helps.

Sam was quiet.

I’ll pay you under the table, I said. Whatever it takes.

 

I came home to pack for the boat trip. I groped for my travel toothbrush in a drawer full of ovulation indicators—plastic wands that could divine when I was most fertile. Also stuffed in the bathroom drawer: my digital basal thermometer and ovulation calendar.

Biko was on his back in our bed, rooting through the pillows, dirt from his nails falling into the sheets. I didn’t care. I’d let him do anything. Lick my cereal bowl, chase the chickens. I would atone forever.

I thumbed through old clothes, clothes I thought I should give to Tiny. Frayed sweatshirts, grass-stained shorts.

Mac and I promised we’d stay out of the customers’ personal lives, but I had made exceptions. Recently, I’d purchased bedroom slippers for Tiny so she could rest her feet at night. I slipped anti-inflammatories and Tums to Saint Charles to soothe his stomach.

Without realizing it, Mac’s Urban Garden had become more mine than his. These days, I might not know myself without it. My therapist said I had a garden full of orphans.

I spied my negative pregnancy test in the trash can.

Piss on it, I said.

 

Driving to Beaufort, Mac pointed out his family farm, the old farmhouse now a hay barn for someone’s heifers.

There are pieces of me everywhere Down East, he said. An uncle here, a cousin there. Most with no teeth to speak of.

All the reason to make more pieces, I said. Better pieces.

Sam called as Mac and I were settling in on the boat. Mac whisked two bags of groceries into the galley. I figured he was disappearing on purpose. Somehow, garden business had become my business.

Jesus Christ, Sam said, panting into the phone. Saint Charles took a disproportionate share of collards. Phil Collins with a Mustache is selling our zucchini flowers for a profit at the farmers’ market on Blount Street.

That’s okay, I said. I wish Phil had asked, but we don’t use the flowers.

Not Grandmaster Flash bit into an onion like an apple, Sam said. Tiny tied prayer flags into the pea fencing.

Not all bad, I said.

But that’s not the worst, Sam said. This morning, Our Neil Diamond pulled his penis out and danced around the cantaloupe patch screaming, Impotent melons! Impotent melons!

What’s important, I said, is that you keep the shears and the hoe close to you, and cultivate a sense of authority.

I quit, she said.

 

The day animal control returned Biko to us, Mac and I had driven home to Raleigh. Biko was limp with exhaustion and had just come off intravenous fluids. He thumped his tail once or twice upon seeing us.

Mac and I could hardly speak to each other. Our guilt was sickening.

I did not say it, but I blamed Mac. He was too easygoing. He did not play worst-case scenario. Next time, I would listen to my gut.

I had held Biko in the backseat of the car as we drove down the pine-lined highway. I had spooned his tired back, rubbed his ears. I massaged the muscles I felt would be tired after his big swim. My fingers ached from planting, but I did not stop stroking Biko. My heart was subterraneous, a root crop, damp, hiding from the sun in shame.

 

Sometimes, I attended Quaker Meetings with Mac at the local Quaker nursing home where his mother kept a room. The meeting house had a sign. It said: Practice Radical Honesty.

Once, his mother had leaned over to me and said, into the silence, My breast hurts.

It could be that simple, I thought to myself on the boat. I could tell Mac how much I want a baby. I could tell him that I don’t think he’s trying, that we can do more.

I hung up the phone from my conversation with Sam and went to find Mac on the deck. Biko trailed me.

Mac sat next to the motor with his feet in the water. He smoked a cigar and looked satisfied with life. It had taken me years to find comfort in his silence.

Sam quit, I said. And I want a baby. I’m willing to do anything. Things that cost money.

Mac nodded his head and blew smoke toward the clouds.

I peeled off my T-shirt and jumped into the water. Biko followed.

I closed my eyes and felt the water rush over my head. If Mac left me, I could take up agility training with Biko. We could walk the halls of hospitals. We could corral geese at airports. We could find a sperm donor.

But what if it was me that didn’t work? What if I was rusted inside, imperfect, past my prime?  Cursed?

Biko and I paddled around the boat in circles, sun on our noses. I let him swim to me, felt his claws on my arms and chest. I didn’t mind the welts, not now. I inhaled the smell of his wet fur. In a moment, we would both be tired enough for land.

Stay with me, I said to him, and I will make it up to you. Again and again.

Treading water, I turned to look at the fading sun. There was something appealing about an uninterrupted horizon.

One of the fisherman who had found Biko said to the newspaper: The poor dog had salt on his face from the sea water. He was so tired.

I imagined Biko swimming out into the open water. Sometimes, you didn’t know what you were after, I thought. Maybe there was a speck on the horizon, and you followed it, hoping for the best.

I pictured Sam leaving the garden, knocking off her boots before driving away in her luxury hybrid. Tiny would sleep there, watch out for things until I was back. She’d shoo Phil away from the early cucumbers, keep Saint Charles from eating too much fruit. I never asked, but I knew Tiny would do it anyway.

Tiny with her tired feet and cavernous mouth. Tiny with her varicose veins and dirty snowsuit. Tiny discarded by her family. Tiny with her whispered threats and kind actions.

Mac helped Biko and me back onto the boat. I kissed his forehead and went to shower. As I stood underneath the sliver of water, I panicked. I needed to know that Biko was safe. I ran out onto the boat deck, towel half-heartedly tucked between my breasts. Biko and Mac were napping on the bow, a bottle of beer in Mac’s hand.

Trust me, Mac said, both eyes closed, fingers tangled in Biko’s ears. Just trust me.

He removed my towel with one hand, led me to the cabin with the other.

 

Sex was always better on the boat. There were no neighbors to speak of, no gardens to weed, just time to kill.

After making love, Mac peeled himself off of me and offered me a towel.

I shook my head.

Biko put one paw on the side of the bed.

Do you ever get tired of begging?  I asked Biko, though I was happy to have what he wanted.

Mac left the room to make two drinks.

No rocks for me, I said.   

Ice on the boat was made from frozen sea water. To me, it filled bourbon with the taste of crustaceans, shells, salt, soft-bodied mollusks, air, water—the building blocks of living things.

Raise your hips, I’d read, to let gravity help the sperm make its way to your eggs. I gripped my hip bones and thrust my pelvis into the air.

Just days before, Tiny had lifted up her shirt and showed me her sagging breasts, the jagged white stretch marks surrounding her areolas.

My babies done sucked me dry and moved on, she’d said.

I put my legs up on the wall to hold all my chances inside. My greatly diminished, ugly chances. The boat rocked with Mac’s shifting weight. Biko paced the stairway, keeping one eye on me and one eye on Mac.

Use me all you want, I said to my unborn children. There is nothing I won’t give you.