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Sweet Smelling Flowers, Puppies, and Watermelons
“Vir-gil, get in here!” His mother’s voice screeched across the farm yard. She always called him by his first name, a name he hated. He liked to be called “Bix.” Some folks called him “Lil’ Bix” since his father had been “Big Bix.” Virgil Langley Bixby was the full name he had been tagged with when he was born. The “Langley” came from his paternal grandmother’s side of the family. Now, there was a nice lady, but she had passed some years ago. She hadn’t been anything like his maternal grandmother and mother. They were, well…he decided not to go there right now. Instead he trudged up to the house to see what his mother wanted this time.
Two weeks ago, his mother had broken her right leg in a fall down the basement stairs. An accident everyone said. For a long time, she’d had Bix running her errands and doing things around the farm, but now it was even worse. She’d lean on that cane of hers and holler for him to come no matter what he might be doing.
‘What do you want, Ma?” Virgil stood just inside the kitchen door waiting to hear whatever was on his mother’s mind. “We need to get that garden in before it rains. You’re going to have to do it; I can’t be hobbling out there with this dang cast on my leg. The seeds are in that big cabinet in the garden shed. You’ll need to get a felt tip pen to mark the stakes, so we’ll know what’s planted where. Write plain. None of your scribbling. The shovel for planting should be leaning against that west wall of the shed. Now you need to get to it.” She turned her back to Bix and hobbled out of the kitchen. Just as she got to the dining room doorway, she hollered back, “Don’t plant those seeds too deep, now.”
Bix stood there for a moment thinking, but he didn’t say a word. What was the point? It would only lead to yelling and screaming; and he didn’t want another one of his headaches. He had a lot of headaches, ever since he was a boy.
He was a man now standing a little over six feet tall, weighing about 190 pounds, not fat by any means. At twenty-six years of age, he should have been on his own with his own family, working a job in town, or doing something other than living with his mother on the farm. But Bix was “slow.” That’s what the town people said. He knew; he heard what they said behind his back. For the most part, folks let Bix be. It was the wisest thing to do.
Being big like he was, Bix didn’t always know his own strength. There were several times he’d gotten into fights with bullies whose teasing had provoked him. Each time, it took three men to pull Bix off the kid else he would most likely have killed him. Bix never started the fight, so nothing was ever done about it. No one ever got in Bix’ face twice.
But on this sunny day in April, Bix wasn’t in town. He was on the farm putting in a garden for his mother and thinking while he poked the seeds in the ground.
When Bix was younger, his mother would beat him when he didn’t get things right. He knew she was ashamed of him and his slowness; he’d heard her tell Aunt Lou one day in the kitchen. “Lou, I don’t know how I got saddled with such a stupid kid. Virgil doesn’t even try to learn. It’s embarrassing, Lou. That’s what it is.” Those words had brought tears to Bix’ eyes. His own mother thought he was stupid.
His dad, “Big Bix,” had left the family shortly after Bix was born. Bix always figured it was because his father didn’t want to be around the stupid kid either.
So, here was Bix grown, still living with his mother, doing whatever she told him to do as best he could. He was tired of it. Every day he heard, “Vir-gil!” Do this, do that. Never one thank you or “you did well.” His mother did fix his meals but that was because she was cooking for herself anyway. She never asked him what he would like to have to eat. “This doesn’t seem right,” Bix thought, wiping the sweat from his face with a big handkerchief he kept in his back pocket.
Bix planted until it got dark, and he could no longer see to cover the little seeds with earth. He put away the remaining seed and the shovel then headed to the house hoping to get some supper while at the same time dreading to have to face his mother. Maybe she would be lying down and have left his food on the table. He could hope.
But like every evening, there she was in the kitchen already eating. “Your food’s on the stove,” she said not even looking up at him or asking him how the planting was going. He knew to go wash his hands before eating; she’d told him often enough even when he was already headed towards the wash basin.
After drying his hands, he prepared his plate of pork chops, collard greens, and boiled potatoes carefully not taking as much as he really wanted because he didn’t want to hear her complain about how much he was costing to feed. He sat down and ate in silence. At least there was silence on his part.
His mother talked while she was eating not realizing or caring what a disgusting sight it was. “Now, tomorrow, you need to get right out there first thing and finish that planting. I know you didn’t get it all done today; you’re just too slow. It’s supposed to rain the weekend, so it’s got to be done before then. I’m going to go watch television when I finish eating. You hurry up and eat and wash the dishes.” She struggled to stand. Using her cane, she went into the living room without another word. Bix closed his eyes a moment as if he could make his mother go away by not looking. He was getting a headache.
Bix’ mother never let him take medicine for his headaches; she didn’t believe he had them. She never believed anything he said. One thing Bix knew he wasn’t and that was a liar. He knew lying was wrong. But what good did it do to tell the truth if no one believed you? He rubbed his forehead more from the pressure in his mind than because of physical pain.
He normally never thought much about the future not knowing any other life but what he had. But on this April moonlit night, he did. And he just couldn’t see himself going on living like this, always feeling stupid and alone and having to hear his mother’s voice calling him. “Vir-gil! Get in here!” Her voice broke the silence once more.
“This damn fool television! Virgil! See if you can fix that antenna. I want to watch my program without all those stupid lines.”
Virgil didn’t move. He just stood looking at her while her lips moved. He heard her and yet he didn’t hear. It was a new sensation.
“Vir-gil! What’s wrong with you, Boy? Go out there and get up on that roof and fix that antenna. Didn’t you hear me?” Her face was turning red with anger, but still Bix did not move. He just looked at her and sort of cocked his head like the old Cocker Spaniel he used to have would do when he talked to the dog. He thought it made the dog hear better, but he still wasn’t taking in his mothers words only her attitude.
“You gotten hard of hearing as well as stupid, Boy!” She raised her cane to get up out of her chair, and Bix knew that if she got to where he was, she would hit him with the cane. He felt within himself something new and different that had never been there before; he wasn’t going to take it anymore. He grabbed a cushion from the old couch and approached his mother with it held in both of his hands.
His mother’s look of anger changed to one of realization of what was about to take place. Bix saw the terror in her eyes and was glad. It was about time the tables were turned. He placed the cushion on her face and pushed down with only half his strength. It was no effort for him to smother the sounds of her cries for help. When she had stopped struggling; he replaced the cushion where he had found it, turned, and walked slowly out of the room and went through the front door.
Bix stood there on the porch looking at the stars. They seemed brighter than they ever had before; the night air fresher. He breathed in deeply and felt cool night air enter his lungs. He realized his headache was gone. He felt good, really good for the first time in as long as he could remember.
Without panic or fear, he turned towards the garden shed and got the shovel. He headed to the garden and began to dig and when his chore was done, he went back into the house and picked up his mother’s still body along with her cane and took her to the grave he had created in the soft, cultivated ground. Bix didn’t simply drop her into the hole, but carefully laid her down with respect she’d never earned and did not deserve. He stood there a moment as if in prayer and then began to cover his mother’s body with the dark soil. His task completed, he went back to the garden shed and gathered some of the watermelon seeds he had not yet had time to plant. Over the spot where his mother lay, he dropped those seeds and packed them lightly into the ground. The moon over him shone down, and he thought it a blessing that he could see clearly to make his way back to the house.
When Bix awoke the next morning, he sat up and listened. He heard silence except for the birds singing outside his window. He sat there awhile longer enjoying what he heard – nothing remotely like screaming and yelling. It was good; it was all good.
He’d watched his mother prepare breakfast so many times although she had never let him help. He was much too stupid for that, she had told him. But he knew he could do it, and he proceeded to make himself a fine breakfast of eggs, bacon, toast, and milk. The food tasted so good, and he didn’t burn or spill one thing.
After he washed the breakfast dishes, he knew he needed to sit and think. He needed to know what to do today since he did not have his mother to tell him. Over the past couple of years, his mother had sent him on all of her errands, even to the bank to withdraw money from her Social Security check. So, he thought that is what he would do: go into town and get some money. He’d need money to buy food and pay the utility bills. She’d had him do that, too, when she’d sent him to town. He knew what to do.
Bix’ week went on in peace and quiet. He completed the Spring planting, paid the bills, and put in provisions for his meals. In the evenings, he would watch a little television and then sit outside and look at the stars and wonder how many there were. He knew he could not count them. And then he would go to sleep and dream of lovely things – sweet smelling flowers, puppies, and good food to eat. He awoke every morning refreshed.
Over the next several months, Bix lived life as it came each day. He tended the garden making sure it was watered and weeds were hoed. He went to town when necessary and kept all the bills paid. A few people would ask about his mother, how she was doing and such. They really didn’t care; it was just something to say in passing. Bix answered, “She’s doing fine.” That’s what he’d always said before. It wasn’t really a lie he figured.
Bix watched as the garden began to produce: yellow squash, corn, zucchini, several varieties of peas, okra, tomatoes, and watermelons. He would have quite a harvest, but he didn’t know how to can like his mother did each year. So he had to sit and think about this for awhile.
It wasn’t hard thinking. His mother never thought he could do it on his own, but he could. He had found out he could think and then do what he had thought and things would turn out okay. He wasn’t that stupid after all! This new concept struck him like lightning! He – Virgil Langley Bixby – wasn’t as stupid as his mother thought. It had been his mother who was stupid, he decided, never understanding what he was capable of.
Bix made a plan. He’d buy a puppy; he’d always wanted another dog after the old Cocker Spaniel died. His mother always said no more dogs. And he’d sell the vegetables in town at the farmer’s market and tell the people his mother had pain in her hands and didn’t want to do the canning any more. He knew he shouldn’t lie, but it seemed right this time. Then he would buy flower seeds to plant. His mother said flowers were a waste of time and money since you couldn’t eat them.
When Bix got his next harvest from the garden, he took it into town in the old car his mother let him drive. He went to the farmer’s market and did as he had said he was going to do. He sold all of the vegetables in only a few hours and bought some flower seeds from a neighboring booth. His crops were healthier looking than those of the other vendors. The watermelons were huge and red and sweet. Everyone said so when they took a sample, the best they’d ever eaten.
Bix began the drive home. On the edge of town, he noticed a pick up truck parked beside the road. “Free puppies” a sign said. He smiled. He knew what he was meant to do and pulled off the road and got out of the car. He approached the man who was leaning against the fender of the truck. “What kind of puppies do you have?” It really didn’t matter; he knew he was going to get one. “These are guaranteed mixed breeds,” the man said with a laugh. Bix didn’t know what that meant, but he replied, “Good, that’s just what I’m looking for. I’ll take one.”
He took his new puppy home and gave the pup some leftover stew and a bowl of water. The puppy gobbled up the food and lapped the water, giving Bix a loving look when he was finished. “What’s your name, little puppy?” Bix would have to think about that. He finally decided on, “Mike.” It was an easy name to remember, and the puppy seemed to like it.
The days and weeks and months passed into years with Bix and Mike living happily on the farm growing vegetables and flowers. Bix always expected that someone, some time would make serious inquiry about his mother; but no one did. No one missed her, not even him.
One day when he and Mike were in town doing some shopping, he overheard a conversation amongst some of the town’s people. “You know that Bixby boy. We always thought he was stupid and slow, but look how he takes care of his mother and that farm. Never a complaint. And he grows the best watermelon in these parts. He’s gotta’ be pretty smart.” Bix smiled. They now knew what he had already figured out.
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