A gardening vignette by Steven J. Clark
It was a freak mid-April storm that dumped six-inches of heavy, wet, spring snow in the backyard of my Manti, Utah home. The snow would be gone by mid-morning but the trunk of my beautiful, tall, one-hundred-year-old globe willow tree, the pride of my landscape, was split into three parts all the way to the ground. The fifteen-foot diameter trunk looked like a banana that had a giant finger pushed all the way down the middle.
My plan to mow the lawn this morning for the first time this year was out the window. Now I had to decide what to do with that darn tree.
“I should have brought my machete,” I thought as I fought my way through the jungle of twigs and branches that only last night had been the top of the tree. At last I stood between two of the shattered sections of trunk and looked down.
What? That just can’t be! Who could have put something like that down there? I had to climb down and take a closer look, if for no other reason than to make sure my eyes weren't playing tricks on me.
Hanging onto splintered pieces of trunk and finding precarious moorage in the now exposed roots, I descended until I could reach down and touch the foreign, totally unexpected object. It was a door. Not a familiar upright rectangle like my back door or the door to the bathroom, but a door nonetheless.
It was round and red and finely made with filigrees of gold around a bright, old-fashioned glass knob set squarely in the middle. I lay flat and was clean except for the dirt I’d knocked off the roots on my way down. This was no discarded piece of junk. The door looked shiny and new, as if it had just been painted.
Curiosity got the better of me. Hanging one-handed from a freshly exposed root, I leaned down and grasped the knob firmly. Surely it would be inoperable; frozen with rust and ravaged by time. But the knob rotated freely. Suddenly the heavy door fell open, my hand still firmly gripping the knob. It jerked me away from the slippery hold I had on a root and pulled me completely upside down. With a cry, I tumbled head-first through the door; down and down, around and around through an improbable warm, blue sky, certain that at any moment I would crash into the ground and be no more.
Then I hit a cloud; just a small, white, puffy thing. There were dozens of them around. But instead of falling through and continuing my terrifying descent---I bounced. Then I hit another, and another like a marble making its way through a pinball machine, each one slowing my fall a little.
At last I spotted the ground below. It was a vast undulating field of green grass and flowers that stretched from horizon to horizon. The landscape was punctuated with occasional trees that all looked suspiciously like my globe willow.
I fell from cloud to cloud, lower and lower until the last cloud deposited me with a bump on the ground. I stood up in the chest-high grass and looked around, rubbing my rump as I did. That last cloud hadn't slowed me quite enough.
The air was clean and sweet and invigorating. Birds sang. The field was full of butterflies and I thought I could hear the buzz of honey bees going about their business. Just a few yards in front of me was a wide yellow path, or was it a small road? Where it led I could only guess. I made my way to it, paused and considered my options. I looked in both directions, then turned left and started to walk. Is there a wizard somewhere at the end of this curious yellow gravel road, I wondered?
I walked only a mile or so when I spotted a man walking toward me from over the next hill. He was a tall fellow, wearing a straw hat and coveralls. He carried a pitchfork over one shoulder and a long-handled scythe over the other. He walked with a lively gait. As he approached I could see that he had an engaging smile and strikingly intense dark eyes. “Good day,” he said as he put the pitchfork down and stopped to greet me. He extended his hand. “I’m Lou. Haven’t seen you around here, have I?”
How could I answer that? Surely he wouldn't believe me if I told him how I arrived. So instead of explaining, I merely extended my hand and returned his greeting. “Hi, Lou, I’m Steve. I just dropped in today. I wonder … can you tell me exactly where I’m at?”
“Sure. They call this place Hell.”
“Hell?” I looked at the lush rolling hills covered with impossibly tall, emerald-green grass. The place was festooned with colorful flowers, the fields interrupted only by the sculpted look of the apparently native globe willows. “Surely they could have come up with a better name than that for such a beautiful place!”
“It wasn't me,” Lou responded. “I could have come up with a lot better name. But then, I only work here. I brought you this.” He unshouldered the scythe and pushed the handle toward me.
“You must be mistaken. I’ve never used one of those. I’ve only seen them in pictures. Besides, nobody knows I’m even here. It couldn’t possibly be for me.”
“Says so on the handle,” Lou responded.
I looked and saw a small nameplate at the bottom near where the blade attached. I picked the tool up and looked closer. Sure enough, the nameplate said, ‘Steven Jack Clark, son of Jack and Norine Clark.’ It had a date. The date was today.
“This can’t be,” I sputtered. I tried to give the scythe back to the man but he refused to take it. As he backed away a little he seemed to grow taller. His skin took on a distinct reddish sheen. It was only then that I noticed the horns growing through his straw hat.
In no time, the man was transformed into the full-blown incarnation of the devil himself. “Lou? Lou?” I shouted. “What’s happening?” Then the full implications of the name hit me. ‘Lucifer!’ The creature looked down on me and smiled. “I see you’re getting the message,” he said.
“Okay, I may be dead and you may be the devil,” I said as I backed away, but, this can’t be Hell. Where’s all the fire and brimstone and stuff.” I gestured to the lush, verdant landscape all around us. “This looks more like Heaven.”
“You won’t be saying that for long,” the Devil said with an ominous glint in his eye.
With a deep, evil laugh he said, “Because it’s your turn to cut the grass!”
I dimly heard my name called out. “Steve … Steve.” Someone was shaking my shoulder. As I swam back to consciousness, I awoke to my wife bending over me as she rudely, roughly shook me awake. “Steven Clark, get off that couch and get your butt outside. You promised you’d cut the grass today.”
As I groggily sat up trying to collect my wits, I had to look twice just to be sure she didn't have red skin, horns and a tail.
The One-Armed Artist
I only caught a glimpse of her out of the corner of my eye, almost hidden as she was amongst the crush of anonymous New Yorkers scurrying about their business just off Times Square. But the glimpse was enough to arrest my purposeful walk to work. I tried to get a better view.
She was young, slight, and beautiful. She sat on a low concrete wall, her paints and brushes on one side, and her ‘donations’ box close by on the other. Small paintings exhibited on easels she'd arranged in a semi-circle behind her showed her prowess. She used no easel for her current work. The rectangular canvass lay flat on her lap as she hunched over and deftly made her last delicate finishing touches to the portrait with a wispy number-two fan brush.
Her model was a child; nine or ten, scruffy, unkempt, tossel-haired with holey jeans and holey sneakers. He wore a dirty polo shirt that had not seen the inside of a washing machine in far too long. Undoubtedly her subject was one of the many street urchins that plied Times Square looking for a hand-out or opportune moment to pilfer something, then scoot away through the crowd so fast it was impossible for adults to catch them.
The likeness of the boy was uncanny. Her painting caught not just the look, but the spirit of the child. In the canvass one could see the mischievousness, feel the nervous energy, and sense the impulse on the part of the observer to both hug and spank this kid at the same time.
She applied the final stroke then took the picture from her lap, held it up and examined it carefully. It was only then that I noticed what I'd not seen before. She had only one arm.
Apparently satisfied, she turned and placed the painting on the last easel behind her. Then she reached into her purse and slipped the boy a five-dollar bill.
The urchin promptly scurried away, his new-found riches clutched in his hand. I didn’t get away so easily. I bought the remarkable painting for fifty-dollars. As I carefully carried the still damp treasure to my office building not far away, I contemplated the challenges of living with only one arm. How did she button her pants? Could she ride a bicycle? How could she change a baby’s diaper or put on a band-aid? How did she lather her washcloth in the shower? All were things I could do so simply, But for her? My admiration for the young woman grew.
I turned to go inside , resolved to use the handicapped young woman as my inspiration for the day. As I reached to open the door the painting was suddenly snatched from my grasp. “Hey” I shouted, looking around. I spotted the back of a tossel-haired kid with holey jeans and holey sneakers and a dirty polo shirt rapidly disappearing down the crowded sidewalk.
“Come back here you little jerk,” I shouted after him. My impulse was to give chase, but I quickly recognized the futility. He was already gone.
I calmed down by the time I reached my desk. The more I thought about it, the more I hoped that that unfortunate little man would realize what a treasure he carried. The woman had captured his essence on that canvas. She made him as lifelike as he actually was, perhaps more so.
Then I smiled. I hope he keeps it. Maybe, just maybe he will look at that picture and know that today an artist saw him not as just another throw-away waif prowling the underbelly of New York, but as the charming, mischievous, smart, good-looking little boy he really was, as seen through the eyes of the one-armed artist.